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Look me in the eyes

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1x1.trans Look me in the eyes

Muhamed Pozhari (La Nuova Venezia, no credit line given).

The year has started with a spontaneous act of courage which has heartened many people, especially those whose default opinion of humanity is not lovely at all.

It was December 31 — New Year’s Eve, around 3:00 PM.  Muhamed Pozhari, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Kosovo who kept body and soul connected by day work as a mason, was pushing a handtruck loaded with bags of cement from Piazzale Roma to Rialto.

As he began to horse the heavy load over the bridge spanning the rio dei Tolentini, he heard cries.  A man, soon identified as Maurizio Boscolo, 63, had fallen in the canal.  Theories were contradictory but it seems that he slipped while attempting to recover his 20-euro banknote which had somehow wafted into the water. Boscolo was (understandably) flailing around, with few or no results. It didn’t look good.

According to reports, various passersby stopped passing by and stood there, looking. I can understand the stopping; I can’t understand the standing there. (One report says that at least one person began to take photographs, but I have completely shut my mind to that, especially if it’s true.)

“I was crossing the bridge when I saw the man who had slipped and fallen in the water,” Pozhari later recounted.  “He was looking me in the eyes, desperate. Everybody was standing there looking and I felt like I had to do something. I jumped in to save him.

“The water was very low and he was sinking in the mud.  I tried to pull him up but in doing that I was also sinking in the mud.  Then two people came to help.”

Muddy, freezing, soaking wet, the two men were hauled ashore.  Pozhari no longer had his cell phone or his ID or his money, because he hadn’t stopped to take them out of his pockets before plunging in. Boscolo, however, no longer had his 20 euros or, not long afterwards, his life.

The excitement was now divided between the victim and the savior.  Some people offered Pozhari money, which he refused.  Staff at the nearby Hotel Papadopoli asked him to come in and have a hot shower, but he refused because he didn’t want to have to start answering awkward questions about his identity and all. However, an architect whose studio was nearby, Pozhari later related, induced him to come inside, where he accepted a shower and a change of clothes, and some pocket money.

Then Pozhari went home, back to the mainland where he was staying with friends. I suppose he intended to just disappear again into his under-the-radar world, complete with post-trauma insomnia, except that that night he began to feel ill. Freezing temperatures and possible mouthfuls of canal water and, I imagine, also emotional stress, were having their effect.  So he went to the Emergency Room, where he was kept overnight in observation.  He must have been feeling seriously bad, considering how eager he had been hours before to avoid awkward questions, the kind of questions they also ask on hospital intake forms.

When he eventually learned that the man he’d tried to save had died, he began to cry. In any case, he hadn’t been able to sleep “for two nights,” he said. “But if I hadn’t tried to do something, I’d never sleep again.”

1x1.trans Look me in the eyes

Not meaning to trivialize tragedy, but you would be amazed at how many tourists slip on the steps in front of the Palazzo Ducale and get fished out by the gondoliers. Not made up. This kid isn’t looking for anything, but the temptation to move closer to the water seems to be irresistible.  My advice: Just don’t.

Now the story takes a happy turn.  He’s been in Italy for five years; three years ago he applied for an immigrant permit (permesso di soggiorno) as a political refugee.  His request was denied, and he was marked for expulsion, but he decided to stay anyway, which explains his need to remain invisible to people in uniform.

But now, in the space of not even two weeks, his application for a permesso for “humanitarian reasons” has been granted. Furthermore, a friend and fellow Kosovaro has stated he’s ready to give him a full-time job and stand as guarantor for him in any way that might be necessary.

Many studies have been conducted to analyze heroic actions, why one person will jump into the water fully clothed to rescue someone while another stops to take a picture. But one thing strikes me: Pozhari’s comment that the victim was looking him in the eyes.

I once read of a German fighter pilot during World War II who shot down a number of British planes in an aerial battle, and seriously damaged another.  As the German approached to deliver the fatal blow, the two pilots locked eyes.  The German flew away.

An article in Scientific American entitled “How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person” (by Sander van der Linden, May 3, 2011) explains that “Humans (and other animals) have a dedicated neural architecture for detecting facial features, including the presence of eyes. This built-in system, also known as “gaze detection,” served as an important evolutionary tool …. What’s interesting is that this system largely involves brain areas that are not under voluntary control. Experiments have shown that people are unable to inhibit responses to gaze even when instructed to.

I’m not saying that I think that Pozhari wouldn’t have leaped if Boscolo’s eyes had been closed. After all, it wasn’t the eyes that conveyed the information that he was in danger of drowning — anybody could see that.  But they did convey desperation, and Pozhari couldn’t not respond.

So in a strange way, now that I think about it, Boscolo saved Pozhari.


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Something about George

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1x1.trans Something about George

This is not a scene from George Clooney’s wedding; nothing against him, but here the flotilla and ship of state were appropriate for a city marrying a sea. (“Departure of the Bucentaur Toward the Venice Lido on Ascension Day, 1770,” by Francesco Guardi).

Venice has had its share of noteworthy visitors over the past millennium or so — popes, kings, emperors, and so forth.  The usual cast of characters in your usual empire.

This weekend we had George Clooney and his bride, Amal Alamuddin, whose four-day wedding festival was quite the talk of the town. Not all happy talk, but that’s normal for here.

By now my trusty readers must be able to imagine the range of comments.

On the positive side:  She’s gorgeous, she’s brilliant, her clothes are amazing.  And may I add my own personal drama, my inability to decide which I would rather have, given the choice: Her 7-carat diamond ring, or her hair.  I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to have both.

On the negative side: The lavish partying will not have much effect on the local economy (read: Expensive outsiders hired); blocking areas off for security (from whom?) such as the Rialto and even a stretch edging the Grand Canal, will create inconvenience for the indigenous people; all the glamour will not specially improve the image of Venice in the eyes of the world, considering the depressing degradation that continues unabated.  The roiling maelstrom of waves caused by the journalist-bearing taxis and assorted motorboats accompanying the espoused pair and their A-list guests created more than the usual madness in the Grand Canal, inspiring yells of anger from gondoliers.

Several people interviewed by the Gazzettino have essentially said “Who cares?”  More specifically, one woman opined, “He’s got a big villa on Lake Como.  Why couldn’t he go there?”

Many of these remarks go to show, once again, that Venetians are phenomenally hard to impress.  But what would be the opposite extreme (assuming that an event of this magnitude could go to an opposite extreme)?

1x1.trans Something about George

This is what the “other extreme” might have looked like. (“A View of a Wedding at a Church in the Venetian Lagoon,” by Giuseppe Bernardino Bison.)

Let’s imagine for a moment that they had decided to get married in Eek, Alaska or Bland, Missouri.  In such a case, I think the whole town would have been totally agog, what with housewives bringing homemade coconut cakes to their hotel and draping big streamers and banners over the main street, like on Homecoming Weekend: “WELCOME GEORGE AND AMAL,” and there would be a parade like on the Fourth of July, with baton-twirlers and the big fire truck.  And fireworks.  And the local paper — say, the Bat Cave, North Carolina “Bat Biz” — would publish a long article, as they used to do in the old days, describing every dish eaten and every frock worn and every wedding present bestowed.  We’ll have to wait for People magazine to do that for us.

A few details have sneaked out (despite all the vaunted vows of complete silence).

For example:  They (he, she, their wedding planner, whoever) didn’t like the furniture in their five-room nuptial chamber at the Aman Canal Grande hotel.  Too modern.  So they had it changed.  Out with what was there, which was put into a temporary storage tent, and in with a batch of antiques.  I have NO DOUBT that their taste is better than the decorators’.  I’m just saying.  They didn’t complain about the Tiepolo fresco on the ceiling, fortunately.  Maybe they didn’t notice it.

Also:  The palace on the street behind the hotel was finally undergoing repairs, hence was covered with scaffolding.  Ugly!  So they paid to have it removed and, I presume, put back when the party was over.

1x1.trans Something about George

I suppose the party at the Aman Canal Grande was something along these lines, without the dogs and dwarves  (“Wedding Feast at Cana,” by Bartolomeo Litterini).

But on the whole, for Venice this is just one more in an infinite procession of fancy guests and inconceivably lavish entertainments. In the Venetian Republic, when high-class people came for long visits, staying for weeks like relatives in the antebellum South, the city literally spared no expense.

When Henry III, King of France and Poland, visited Venice for a week in 1574, some noteworthy events included his attendance at the chanting of the Te Deum on the Lido (I presume at the church of S. Nicolo’, which is the only thing that was there), passing under a triumphal arch designed by Palladio and decorated by Tintoretto and Veronese.  Then there was the state banquet, held in the Doge’s Palace in the monster Great Council Room; not only were all the ladies garbed in white and draped with spectacular jewels — the tablecloth, flatware, plates, and bread were all fashioned entirely of sugar.  The table was decorated with elaborate sculptures of two lions, a queen on horseback between two tigers, David and San Marco, surrounded by kings, popes, animals, plants and fruits, also made completely of sugar.

Speaking of guests, Venice hosted, among others, Carlo Gonzaga in 1609, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1628,  Maximilian of Bavaria in 1684, the Duke of Brunswick in 1685, Frederick IV of Denmark in 1708, Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony in 1740, the Duke of York in 1767, the Emperor Joseph II in 1769 and 1775. Pope Pius VI arrived in 1782 and Gustav III of Sweden in 1784.  To read the schedule of festivities and what was built from the ground up to entertain Prince Paul Petrovich, the son of Catherine the Great and his wife in January, 1782, is to stagger belief.

You’d have to replace a lot of furniture to come up to the level Venice used to consider normal on these occasions.

So while I invoke for the happy couple “good wishes and male children” (auguri e figli maschi), as the saying goes, I appreciate a general grudging resistance here to make too much of the just-concluded joining in holy — actually, civil — matrimony.

Because, as Ernest Hemingway summed it up in 1950:

“She used to be Queen of the Seas, and the people are very tough and they give less of a good God-damn about things than almost anybody you’ll ever meet.  It’s a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite.”

1x1.trans Something about George

These are not George and Amal. I don’t know who they are, but I saw them on Sunday morning with no entourage and only one photographer, and I have absolutely no doubt that they were just as happy as the famous couple in the palace hotel just behind them.

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And the two crazy kids who got married the week before on Burano were also just as happy as our world-class stars. The sign over the door says it all: “Oggi Sposi” — today newlyweds.


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September 11 again

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I have nothing new to add to what I’ve already written, but I want to say that the indefatigable Vittorio Orio rowed his gondola today (with a partner), to keep alive the memory of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

Someday I’ll have a long talk with him to discover why he feels such an attachment to New York — specifically, to the firemen of New York — and more about this always moving gesture which he has made every year since 2002.

He focuses on the firemen for his own reasons, but is fully aware of everyone else who was there.  Meanwhile, it’s enough to know that he remembers.

1x1.trans September 11 again

Vittorio Orio on the stern of his gondola, rowing with a partner across the Bacino of San Marco.  Note fireman’s helmet atop the coffin.

1x1.trans September 11 again

We all know that life, in some way, must go on. This glimpse of the morning’s activity in the Bacino of San Marco is just one of countless possible illustrations. But Vittorio Orio is totally undeterred by this, which I think must be one really impressive illustration of what “remember” means.


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Updating the Uncrating

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1x1.trans Updating the Uncrating

By now the hard candies made of glass have surpassed cliche’. But now a whimsical glassmaker has begun to produce chocolates. I want them all…

First, apologies to those who subscribe; the link to a YouTube clip did not come through in the e-mail version.  (I keep forgetting about that, because it makes no sense….).

Here it is.  Background music for the New Year:

News from the Western Front, where all was not quiet on the night of Saint Sylvester (Dec. 31).  The Gazzettino this morning gave some details.

At 10:30 PM the Liberty Bridge to the mainland was closed because there was no more room to park (38 buses and 1,500 cars were stashed at Tronchetto, 750 in the Comunale garage and 450 in the San Marco garage, both at Piazzale Roma).

Police estimated there were 80,000 people partying in and around the Piazza San Marco. Despite regulations requiring plastic bottles for your chosen beverage, there was plenty of broken glass around, which wounded 39 people.  One person fell in the water, but not from the Piazza San Marco.

Astonishing, but the vaporettos and buses were sufficient and efficient.  (As my old choir leader used to say when we did what he wanted, “Now you’re in trouble — now I know you can do it.”)

So much for the turn of the year.  I’m facing forward now.


1x1.trans Updating the Uncrating
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