Archive for Nature
I must go down to the blog again, to the lonely blog and the sky…..
More time has passed than I intended between my last post and this, though as usual many of the reasons had to do with putting down slave revolts in the technological departments of my life. (Apologies to anyone offended by the word “slave.”) My computer seized up. The espresso machine has had a nervous breakdown. Transferring my cell phone number from one company to another was an adventure within an adventure. My cloud backup service has gone into a semi-permanent stall. My photos stopped uploading to Flickr. We’re still waiting for the boiler-repair company to come repair the repair of April 16. The kitchen clock died.
But all this is no more preposterous or tiresome than what’s been going on all around the most-beautiful-booby-hatch in the world. The past two weeks have seen the return of many well-worn themes. If they were music, they would be familiar tunes — perhaps transposed into another key, or performed by different instruments, or converted from pieces usually played on a lone kazoo into swelling symphonic creations. But the same tunes, nevertheless. They practically qualify as folk songs.
The ACTV is always prime territory for the absurd.
An annoying number of the turnstiles keep breaking at the docks on the Lido, causing commuters to miss their boats to work. Sebastiano Costalonga, a city councilor who has made squaring away the ACTV part of his mission on earth, has pointed out that there are seven turnstiles at a typical London Underground stop, through which millions of people pass each day, while on the Lido there are 48 turnstiles, through which, on a really big day, perhaps 20,000 people will pass.
The ferryboats connecting the Lido to the rest of the world continue to fall apart and be taken out of service for repairs (one boat has been in the shop for nearly a year. Are they plating it with rhodium?).
The personnel of the ticket booths went on strike for two days, April 30 and May 1, when storm surges of tourists were naturally expected to overwhelm the city, which meant that tickets were sold only by the individual on each vaporetto who ties up the boat at each stop. You can imagine how many he/she managed to sell. Or even tried to sell.
The company is 17 million euros in the red, but the ACTV drivers are the highest-paid in the entire Veneto region. The ACTV is like the Energizer Bunny — it just keeps going.
Then there are the Illegal Vendors: Whatever they’re selling, they’re everywhere, and there are more of them every day.
First (and still) were the West Africans, who sell counterfeit designer handbags from bedsheets spread on the pavement. While this squad continues to proliferate, it has been joined by Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan vendors of gimcracks such as fluorescent darts which gleam when flung skyward and balls of gelatinous rubber which flatten when hurled to the ground, then re-form themselves before your eyes.
A sub-division of these ethnic entities has taken over the wandering sale of long-stemmed red roses, which used to be offered mainly from table to table in restaurants, but which are now available all day long in the Piazza San Marco, and environs. Illegal corn for the pigeons: After years of struggle, the city finally convinced the vendors with their little trolleys in the Piazza to switch from grain to gewgaws — this being the only effective way to limit, or even reduce, the plague of feathered rats which had passed the 100,000 mark and was still growing. So now corn is being sold surreptitiously by the handful from the pockets of the red-rose vendors. Still, on April 25, a blitz by the police in the Piazza San Marco netted plenty of swag abandoned by the fleeing vendors, leading off with 1,408 roses. The day before that, the police got hold of 22 kilos (48 pounds) of illegal corn.
But these are temporary events. Stashes of illegal pigeon-corn have been found hidden in the garbage around San Marco. Intermittent reports of these discoveries and confiscations, whether of goods or of people, imply progress, but they would be the intermittent reports of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. Uncollected fines have reached some three million euros; one illegal rose seller was reported to have laughed and shown some employees of a shop near Rialto his collection of tickets — five so far, one of them for 5,000 euros. ”Stupid police,” he said, “I don’t have anything and I’m not paying anything.”
The complaints of exasperated merchants and citizens have finally caused the city to increase surveillance by putting officers on patrol, from police in plainclothes to carabinieri in full battle gear. But only on the weekend! Still, there was plenty to do: Twenty-eight illegal vendors spread across the Bridge of the Scalzi were nabbed with their bags and sunglasses and camera mini-tripods! (I know from personal examination that the bridge is 40 steps on each side, so that comes to one vendor every 3 steps. But somehow it must be hard to see, because citizen outcry was needed in order to focus the city fathers’ eyes on it.)
Sometimes there are violent altercations between vendors, based on subtleties of territory and rights thereto — though the concept of someone claiming the right to something illegal is kind of special. Many are often without papers, so they’re already in tricky territory where the concept of rights is concerned. One recent nabbee, from Senegal, was discovered to already have been sentenced to five months in prison, by the court of Florence.
The city council dusted off a year-old proposal to issue residence permits (permesso di soggiorno) with points, like a driver’s license. It didn’t pass, for various reasons, some of which verged on silly: “What are supposed to do,” asked one councilor — “expel the women caretakers because they get a fine for illegal parking?” But another summed up what everybody has long since recognized: “Even the police can’t manage to do much if there isn’t collaboration from the local politicians. The message which has been sent out is that here there isn’t the kind of determination there might be in other cities because of a misunderstood sense of solidarity.” (Translation: We feel sorry for the poor foreigners.)
Speaking of illegal vendors, the mendicants from Rome who dress up as Roman centurions and pose for pictures near the Colosseum attempted to set themselves up here. Some of you might wonder at the congruence of fake Roman soldiers with fake swords and breastplates in Venice, but the tourist-guide association didn’t need to wonder. It managed to drive them decisively out of the city in a matter of a few days. Instead of police and carabinieri, why don’t we just pay the tourist-guide association something extra to clear out the illegal vendors of everything? Or better yet, send them roses?
As Roberto Gervaso noted in his satirical column in the Gazzettino not long ago, “Our generals manage to lose even the wars they’re not fighting.”
The only antidote I know to all this is to go places and do things which only give pleasure. And there are plenty of them, in spite of all the weirdity. All you have to do is pull the plug on that part of your brain that concerns other human beings. Here are some views of what we’ve done or seen that have made the past few days more than usually pleasant.
The diluvian spring seems to finally have wrung itself out and today we had sun. We’ve had intermittent sun recently but it didn’t give the impression that it was sincere.
But suddenly, the sun was out. Therefore the laundry was out — I mean, out rejoicing, not out wailing and repenting, and begging to be let back in, as it has been for quite a while. Small but delectable milestone today: Bringing in the laundry and smelling that sun-and-fresh-air aroma in its folds for the first time in 2013. (Someone will tell me it’s nothing more than the detergent I’m inhaling, but they would be wrong.)
And more to the truly cosmic point, the seppie are out. ”Out” in the way that a solar flare could be called “out.” A few years ago there were only one or two forlorn little seppie in the entire lagoon, and there were scarcely any to be had in the market, not even for ready money. It was a veritable drought of seppie. Now we’re making up for lost time.
The past few days have seen what must be an underwater stampede of the little nimnods, swarming in from the Adriatic to spawn, because out on the water that stretches from San Nicolo’ on the Lido up the wide canal that goes to Murano there has been a daily conglomeration of boats the like of which I’ve never seen, boats full of men fishing for seppie. I have it on several good authorities that virtually every boat has been going home with something like ten kilos (20 pounds) of cuttlefish.
Then there are the insatiable seagulls, who are out there with the rest of the city, looking for chow. You’ll see the gulls pulling their prey to some nearby surface in order to pierce the seppia’s body sufficiently with their beak to allow the extraction of the very hard-to-chew inner bone. These pale-white ovals of various sizes can frequently be seen floating in the canals, and out in the lagoon, the marine version of the ox-bones flung aside by Viking gorgers.
For the many boatless anglers, there’s plenty of room along the fondamente to strew murder and mayhem in the depths. It’s a virtual chorus line of men and children with fishing rods and buckets, and the stones are wildly bespattered with black stains, the parting shots from the truculent creatures unwilling to admit defeat, but whose sac of ink is impotent against the hooks and nets. Of course, they themselves make no effort to resist the lure of whatever’s on the end of the hook, so no use crying afterward. Lino once attracted scores of seppie merely by snagging a piece of white plastic onto his hook and pulling it through the water. They thought it was a seppia, and they were coming to eat it too. Little cannibals.
So spring doesn’t just mean peach blossoms and the dawn trilling of the blackbirds. This year, at least, it means hecatombs of eight-armed mollusks (technically, that’s what they are). I’ll be kind of glad when it’s over. It’s like the tulip craze or something, and only God knows who’s going to eat them all. Nobody can consume everything that’s being hauled out of the water these days, and eventually all the freezers are going to be full.
Just one more thing to worry about.
Starts at my house, among other places. I’m going to climb the mountain with a group of women for charity, departing next Sunday. I’ll be gone two weeks and hope to have some interesting — though non-Venice-related, obviously — things to relate when I return.
But that’s not why I started this post. I want to share what has inspired this adventure and my participation. Yes, this is an appeal, and no, I have no way of checking to see what you do. But I’ve put my heart and gizzard into preparing for this effort, and have already started working on editing the book. So I hope you’ll join in, even at a distance, where you certainly are warmer, more comfortable, and not enjoying any symptoms of altitude sickness, about which I have already read far more than is probably good for me.
I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.
That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.
First, the frog would be freed.
Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.
Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant. And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open. He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want. And a trampoline. And a pony.
While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting. More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.
An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.
Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed. In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.
Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.
I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them. For one thing, they’re everywhere. For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.
Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them. They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.
There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.
In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens. He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals. It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours. It’s very comforting.
For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.
And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us. You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.
Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta. If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too. Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.