One of the many wonderful things about spring is that nobody can start it or stop it. That’s why the earliest signs are always the most eloquent. Here’s a glimpse of the past few days, in more or less chronological order:
The fish are returning to the lagoon from their winter spent wherever they go, and one of the first to arrive are the seppie, complete with ink. This was clearly not the destination this seppia had been imagining on his way up the Adriatic.
Another day, another victim. More black drops from an indignant seppia. The seppie are coming into the lagoon to spawn. Just after the feast of the Redentore (third Sunday in July) — feast days are still a standard measure of time here –the eggs hatch, and everybody’s out along the fondamente fishing for the baby seppie. Around about the Feast of the Dead (“i morti,” Nov. 2), the “fraima” commences, which is the annual migration of the fish out of the lagoon and back to sea. However, a few tend to linger, and in late December there comes the first really cold day of the winter. I’ve experienced it several times; the moment seems to favor St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26. When the cold hits, it’s very likely that some seppie who’ve stayed behind (squatting in somebody’s summer home?) drift to the surface. I think they’re stunned by the cold, but I don’t know that for a fact. I do know that if you can stand the cold water, you can even catch them with your hands. They move pretty slowly.
I grew up in Ithaca, New York, where it snows from October to April (more or less). At a certain imperceptible signal the city is swathed in forsythia, and being young I took it totally for granted and didn’t firmly grasp how thrilling it was. Now that I live in a city not known for any particular flower, I watch this corner every spring for this burst of glory. It’s not nostalgia, exactly. I’d love this even if I’d grown up in Rochester (lilacs).
This plum tree — specifically “baracocoli” — is a little behind the blooming curve. Its cousin near the Giardini vaporetto stop is already finished with flowering.
There’s an old saying — which probably means that only old people say it now: “Quando la rosa mete spin, xe bon el go’ e el passarin.” When the rose puts forth its thorns, the go’ and the passarin are good. The two lagoon fish — gobies and European flounder (Gobius ophiocephalus Pallas and Platichthys flesus) — are in season, or starting to be. This rosebush is already on its way to producing amazing flowers, and the fish are also going to be excellent.
Peach blossoms from Sicily. Not Venetian but I’ve only ever seen them here so I’m adding them to the local squadron of spring.
Fish, check. Flowers, check. And of course the tourists also begin to hatch, bloom, reproduce, whatever the right word might be. Do they also come here to spawn? Are these early visitors the ones responsible for the millions we see in the summer?
I know it’s a free country, but I can never understand why they’re HERE. There’s virtually nothing in this neighborhood to lure a tourist with its siren song. When the Biennale is open, they inevitably spill over into the rest of the area. But now? Are they lost?
Easter is imminent, and as predictably as the seppie or the much-sung swallows of Capistrano, the window of Mascari becomes an orgy of chocolate eggs. You see this and you cannot deny that all is right, if not with the world, at least with this window.
For the past few days there have been extremely low tides, June being the second period in the year (after January) in which this phenomenon occurs. All this area would normally be covered with water, to some depth, however modest. While it doesn’t surprise me anymore, I still feel strangely happy to see the underpinnings of the lagoon as such close quarters.
We rowed along the edge of this exposed prairie. I noticed a yellow motorboat sitting definitively on the ground; its owner, somewhere nearby, was obviously counting on having plenty of time to dig clams before the tide came to float his boat away.
As you see.
Next Sunday Venetians will go to the polls to vote in a runoff election for the new mayor. Yes, a year has passed since the Good Ship Venice ran aground and was put under a temporary administrator who managed to get her off the rocks and pump the bilge, but who had no power to plot the new course.
Whichever of the two candidates wins will then proceed to dive — a graceful swan? armstand back 3 somersault 2 1/2 twist tuck? — into a mar dilacrime, or “sea of tears,” as they put it here. To continue the liquidy metaphor, our brains have been soaked in campaign promises, which, now that I think of it, would be a good way to learn some basic Italian. The phrases are so simple, and so repetitive.
Washing one’s brain has one good thing about it — it might remove the mental stains splattered by the politicians in the course of what they consider a typical day. An example: Giancarlo Galan, former governor of the Veneto Region, has spent much of the past year on house arrest for taking bribes and other forms of corruption, jail time served in his luxurious villa on the mainland. Does he feel remorse? Certainly he would feel it if he thought he’d done anything wrong. But as he doesn’t, he’s ready to return to Parliament as soon as his stint is finished. Yes: Convicted felons get to go back to work for the government.
My only defense is to run away. I flee to the lagoon and I make no apology. Technically, the season is still spring, but the sun wants to get going on summer right away and has made an excellent start. Temperatures in the low nineties (F) or low thirties (C). Hot, by any scale. Breeze. No clouds. Dream weather for going to the beach or — my personal favorite, as everyone knows — drying laundry.
It’s also ideal weather for fleeing. Here are some things I’ve noticed over the past week or so.
Low tide makes hunting for canestrelli, or scallops (Aequipecten opercularis) relatively easy, even though they are extremely well camouflaged by a shell color which totally mimics the sandy bottom. Lino managed a tidy little haul, which he proceeded to bread and fry the same evening. Delectable.
An inch of water is enough to keep the eelgrass moving in one direction with the tide, like tresses. And a few denizens appear on the surface, like this tiny crab. Crabs are a good sign; where there are crabs, there will also be plenty of fish who nosh on them. When you pull in a net, it’s normal to see some half-gnawed crabs. and if you go fishing for eels, soft-shell crabs (“moeche”) are the perfect bait.
Unhappily, this female moeca is now defunct, awaiting either some adventurous nosher or mere disintegration.
We pulled our boat onto the dryish grassland to investigate what appear to be megaliths (or miniliths) from the Evora complex, but which we knew were exposed fan mussels (Pinna nobilis).
A good example; they burrow in the sediment and open their shells slightly to consume whatever food might drift by.
What really intrigued me, though, were the several mounds of spongy material here and there. Lino knew immediately that they were the eggs of sea snails (“garusoli,” or “noni”). And this mound was far from dormant. Most of the creatures were showing some signs of life, and one was atop the mound, evidently laying more.
As you may perhaps see here.
There’s even a fan mussel nearby. I don’t see that it can be much use, but maybe it’s waiting to eat something. Nature, red in tooth and shell.
The rising tide approaches, beginning to submerge all these wonders.
And has begun to lift our boat. Time to continue on our trip to Sant’ Erasmo to buy vegetables and check the progress of the season ashore.
For one brief interlude, the tamarisks, artichokes and poppies were all in bloom.
Although tamarisks produce what may be among the least interesting flowers, they do have their own strange appeal. Especially when they begin to dry up and blow away, covering the nearby water with pale beige mats of old blossom.
This is a small tree producing the even smaller plum known locally as “suchete.” For reasons I can’t explain, the Venetian word for zucchine is also “suchete.” Be careful when you’re looking up recipes.
A chicken and her chicks. What could be more springlike than this?
This is not a cretinata tree, it’s one of the most amazing wisterias in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria. I wait for it all year.
“Cretinate” (kreh-tee-NAH-teh) are actions or statements perpetrated by one or more cretins — a far too useful term in these parts, and one I’m sorry doesn’t exist in English.
But maybe it’s not that there are so many cretins here. Maybe there are lots of highly intelligent, profoundly sensitive, extremely kind and rich people who just happen to say cretinous things. If so, there are still too many of them.
A few days ago we heard the latest of an infinite string of fantasies stated as facts by Paolo Costa, the president of the Venice Port Authority. He gives every sign of being a born believer in the inherent importance and value of Mastodontic Projects, as they put it here, because he has spent the last few years pushing ferociously for approval for the excavation of the Contorta Canal to bring the big cruise ships to the Maritime Zone by way of the lagoon, and not by the Giudecca Canal.
Apart from whether or not this would be a smart move for Venice and its economy (read: keep the port working at full speed), the canal itself has been recognized by an array of environmentalists and even politicians as being enormously damaging to the lagoon ecosystem. (May I note, once again, that the lagoon is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fact which apparently is difficult to remember, seeing how casually everybody goes rampaging around doing whatever they want, though if harm were done to the city to the degree that it’s done to the lagoon, the world outcry would resemble several sonic booms).
Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.
I’m coming to the cretinata, uttered by Mr. Costa. He has uttered many since the subject of banning the big ships has been current. The reason he utters them is because it appears to be his heart’s desire to be involved in a Mastodontic Project, seeing as he missed out on the riches lavished on everyone involved in the last one, which is MOSE.
Actually, I don’t know that he missed out. Perhaps he got his share that time around, and is determined to have a reprise.
Whatever the case may be, no Crusader ever made a vow that could match the vow he seems to have made to himself to get that @#*$%! canal dug.
So where’s the cretinata? Here it is:
“The Contorta Canal is the only intervention which can save the lagoon and the jobs of the cruise business.”
First, it can’t be the “only” intervention” that could be effective. There are a number of alternatives which are struggling to be considered, pushing frantically against the inert bulk of the Contorta proposal. To be accurate, it is the only intervention which has the active interest and support of Mr. Costa, and he is applying pressure for its approval by every means known to humans. After all, sheer dogged perseverance finally got the MOSE project approved, although it took 30 years. So it ought to work just as well for this project. That seems to be the approach he’s taking.
In my opinion, saying that something or someone is the “only” one of its kind, when that just happens to be the thing the speaker wants, is a statement more often made by young, distraught children than mature, responsible adults. It sounds fishy to me.
Second, I have never heard anyone except Mr. Costa hazard the statement that the excavation of the new canal would “save the lagoon” (though he doesn’t say from what). I totally understand his desire to keep the port humming, but his opportunistic addition of saying the canal will “save the lagoon” is like telling a woman “By the way, you’re beautiful” when you’ve just asked her to lend you $500.
Many Venetians have long been aware that the lagoon needs saving (from the voracious motondoso, from devastating illegal clam digging, and from the incessant erosion exacerbated by the Petroleum Canal — another Mastodontic Project!). I didn’t realize that digging a new canal would be a positive step in any direction except more erosion and more environmental degradation.
Since Mr. Costa has never made anything resembling an environmentalist statement, I have to assume that “saving the lagoon” is Costaspeak for “doing what I want.”
Here endeth the first cretinata.
I’ve never discovered lilac trees in Venice, which makes me all the more grateful to see these at the Rialto for the few days they’re on sale.
Interlude: I used to know a little boy who, at the age of about 2 1/2, had already grasped that saying that he wanted something didn’t inspire the desired response from his mother. So he cleverly switched to saying “I need it.” That little boy did not grow up to become the President of the Port Authority; perhaps he was a cousin.
These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.
On to the next cretinata, which comes from the Princess Bianca di Savoia Aosta, quoted in “An Insider’s Guide to Venice” in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.
I admit that statements from people whose names start with Princess (or Defender of the Faith, or Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great) get attention.
Having a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean that you know things, but it does mean that your statements will probably be taken as true. Such as the Princess’s following remark:
“VENETIAN MOPED // Brussa IS Boat. Rent a “topa,” a zippy four-meter boat, at Brussa, to go for a relaxing and fun spin through the canals before heading out into the lagoon. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds—locals use the topas like mopeds.”
Words such as “zippy” and “spin” give the impression that the canals, like the city itself, are here mainly for entertainment and diversion, just one big amusement park with peeling palaces. They don’t give any hint of the reality — that the canals are narrow, crowded, and full of boats doing real work which take up space and aren’t especially accommodating to high-spirited gilded youths out for a little run about town before drinks at the Cipriani, or wherever.
Second, “locals” do not use the topas like mopeds. “Locals” have their own boats, usually, or have friends with boats. Topas are for special jobs or projects — most often like work — which usually do not involve either zipping or spinning.
Third, apart from being awkward and difficult to perform, zipping and spinning would be a challenge to do without breaking the speed limits, which are now being more strenuously enforced since the new traffic regulations went into effect. The only boats I can think of whose zipping or spinning is overlooked are the fireboats and the ambulances.
“Like mopeds” implies speed, agility, and quantity, like the swarms in Rome and Florence. There is no craft here which could be compared in any way to a moped. Not one.
Which leads me to conclude that the princess either doesn’t know what a topa is, or what a moped is. It would be like me saying “Lapps use reindeer-sleds like mopeds,” or “Somalis use camels like mopeds” or “New Zealanders use dolphins like mopeds.”
For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.
But I’m being too serious, it’s one of my major defects. So let me offer a more effervescent cretinata, perpetrated by two incredibly clever employees of the ACTV who went fishing on company time.
Connoisseurs of lagoony creatures know that this is seppia (cuttlefish) season. Even if you don’t happen to be a connoisseur, all you have to do to realize the season is on is either go to the Rialto to see what’s on sale, or wander along your fondamenta-of-choice in the morning or evening (or night) to peruse the men who are standing there with their fishing rods and nets and ink-stained buckets. The Zattere, the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Fondamente Nove, and even scabrous old Tronchetto are all excellent places to snag some seppie.
Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else, like work.
I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it’s better to give in to it off the clock.
On the evening between Tuesday and Wednesday, two employees of the ACTV were on duty at Tronchetto in the area dedicated to the ferryboat from the Lido, and one of their tasks was to keep an eye on things in general and to make sure that nobody was doing anything near the landing-stage that could create problems for the ferry.
It would appear that these two zealots decided that seppia-fishing on the nearby fondamenta was likely to create problems for the ferry (actually, for their own fishing plans), so they wasted no time in banishing the fishermen from the fondamenta.
Shortly thereafter, the banished fishermen, watching from a nearby fondamenta, noticed the two zealots pulling out their own tackle and beginning their own great seppia-hunt from the now-liberated good spot.
This was unwise.
The banished and extremely annoyed fishermen proceeded to phone the Provincial Police, who are responsible, among other things, for checking fishing licenses. Before long a patrol-boat appeared, and the officers showed as much zeal in the execution of their duty as the two ACTV bullies had done in theirs.
The officers took away their traps, their fishing lines, and their seppie. The officers also searched their cars, and fined them for fishing without a license.
The officers then reported the incident to their employers, who were probably less concerned about the fines than they were about the fact that their two trusty agents had been amusing themselves in an off-duty sort of way when they were, technically speaking, very much on duty.
Moral: Don’t antagonize seppia-fishermen? That’s a good one. Another good one would be: Don’t behave like a cretin.
It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra. Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.
In spite of all this tomfoolery, spring is proceeding in its appointed course, and I am loving every aspect of it.
The trees are fully-leaved, as of about ten minutes ago, and the greenery still looks as fresh as salad. Trees are blooming according to plan: the white-flowered plums have come and gone, followed by forsythia and cherry and double-cherry, and now the wisteria is slowly being transformed from purple blossoms into green fronds. Random flufflets of cream-colored spores float away from the poplars, and the redbud (called “Judas-tree” here) is making up in color what it lacks in size.
A few days ago I smelled cut grass for the first time this year. It’s a moment that’s almost as enchanting as hearing the blackbirds at dawn. And today I got a bonus: Someone had cut a stretch of herbage which contained chives (here called “sultan’s beard,” or “friar’s beard), and the fragile oniony scent was wafting faintly away. It will be gone by now.
This is one of those perfectly poised moments, when the air is still cool but you can feel the sun’s warmth (if the wind isn’t blowing). At any time of the day the streets are full of people dressed for every possible temperature: There are couples in T-shirts and even tank tops and shorts, and at the same time there are people in trim down jackets or woolen coats. Those with bare arms don’t seem to be cold, and those wrapped in feathers don’t seem to be hot. It’s extraordinary.
Which means that we are approaching one of the tiniest hinges of the season: The moment when everyone ceases to move from the shady to the sunny side of the street, and begins to move from the sunny to the shady side.
When that happens, I declare summer officially open for business.
Down jackets and sunscreen. We’ve got weather that everybody can love.
Spring can be so exhausting. He’s probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.
In case you might wonder why the Austrians filled in this canal, I was told by a knowledgeable source that they built stables in what is now the Giardini, and created this modest stretch of street in order to be able to promenade on horseback, performing a miniature version of the promenades in the Bois de Boulogne or the Vienna Prater. Which is why the bridge at the end of the street is a simple arch, without steps.
The horse- (and stroller- and shopping-cart- and skateboard-) friendly bridge.
A few days ago a powerful storm passed through, strewing rain and wind everywhere (though it stopped short of throwing hail, I’m glad to say, nor did any tiles go frisbeeing off roofs — my own ballpark-way of measuring the ratio between windspeed and danger).
But I forgot about trees. We discovered the following morning that these can also be useful, potentially life-threatening, indicators of wind.
The viale Garibaldi (not to be confused with via Garibaldi) is the shady length of filled-in canal which stretches 785 feet (239 m) from the aforementioned street to the Giardini vaporetto stop. During the summer its enclosing rows of lime trees provide the most heavenly shade, and there is always some breeze. The benches, especially during the heat of the day, are almost always occupied by people who are either eating or sleeping, which leads Lino to refer to this space as either the refectory or the dormitory.
A view of the church of San Giuseppe di Castello (in background), by Antonio Canaletto. The church in the foreground was torn down as part of Napoleon’s Let’s-Make-Venice-More-Beautiful campaign, houses built in its place, the canal in the foreground filled in, and limetrees planted along its borders. In other words, this view is painted from the perspective of a person standing on what was to become the viale Garibaldi. (www.canalettogallery.org)
We weren’t surprised to discover that a tree had been blown down, but I was surprised to see what damage it had wrought. Lime trees bless us briefly with the most heavenly perfume each spring when the flowers bloom, but evidently their root system is not adapted to the conditions here. By “conditions” I don’t mean the possibility of wind, which exists everywhere, but the likelihood of wet and shallow subsoil. Even if it doesn’t rain for weeks and the leaves all turn brown, I am convinced that the aforementioned former canal (which continues to flow through a large pipe beneath the gravel) maintains some level of moisture which disturbs the balance between horizontal and vertical. If I’d ever studied physics, I’d know what to call this. I suppose “topheavy” will have to do meanwhile.
Lime trees, or linden, have carried sacred significance for millennia for Slavs, Germans, and Greeks. I respect the leaves’ purported healing properties also. But I have learned that while it’s a great thing to wander among them at blossomtime, you’d better keep away when the wind rises.
Keeping as close to houses as you can manage, in case any rooftiles decide to join the party.
The firemen had quickly gotten to work removing this fallen giant, which must have been spectacular blocking the entire road. Happily, the spectacle of damage to humans or houses was nowhere to be seen.
I don’t normally think of the tops of trees as being especially dangerous, but clearly the weight of the tree was enough to smash the frail wooden fence, and not-so-frail stone bench. That was impressive.
For anyone who wanted to read this tree’s palm according to the rings, this was the perfect chance. However, the plant’s life story now has no future to predict, except for what happens next…
Off to the mulching mill of Valhalla on Monday.
Later that same day, toward evening, busted-up tree was to be found, in all its leafy glory, a few steps from our hovel. Were they the same bits, moved to a better pick-up point? Different bits? Different tree? Suddenly dissected trees seemed to be everywhere. Till even later that evening, when we returned from elsewhere and it was all gone. Perhaps taken somewhere for constructing leafy bowers for Phyllida or the Faerie Queene.