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You want me to go where??

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1x1.trans You want me to go where??

A view of the island of San Michele, with the sculpture placed just right. Going my way? (photo:

One day in 2007 a bronze sculpture suddenly appeared in the water between the Fondamente Nove and the island of San Michele.

It represents two men standing in a boat, one of them pointing somewhere important.

If there had been an announcement about this innovation, I missed it, because I was compelled to try to figure out what it was all by myself.

I failed; in fact, I didn’t even come close.  My main theory was that it was Saint Francis with one of his disciples.  Logic!  Because it is said — or even known — that in 1220 the “Poverello,” returning from the Fifth Crusade, stopped in the Lagoon and founded a hermitage on the little island now known as San Francesco del Deserto.

I was slightly troubled by the consideration that if the armless man in bronze were St. Francis, why wasn’t his companion pointing to the island he adopted — or toward Venice, at least?  The statue is pointing more toward Murano, but that makes no sense, even if it is something from the Biennale, whose components are not supposed to make sense.

Then I thought it might be some representation of Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”:  “Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land, / “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” / In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon.”  Mounting wave: check.  Plenty of those.  It’s a start.

But now I know the truth, and it’s more troubling than ignorance.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that truth can be that way.

This pair of metallic men floating in what appears to be a pistachio shell is a creation of a Russian artist, Georgy Frangulyan, and it is known as “Dante’s Barque.”

Excuse me?

In the early 1300′s, a Florentine pharmacist and poet named Dante Alighieri took a trip to Hell — not the Piazza San Marco at noon on a summer Sunday, but the other Hell — in the company of the ghost of Virgil, the famous Roman poet, who acted as guide and fixer. They also went to Purgatory and Paradise, and he wrote the trip up in “The Divine Comedy.”

I knew all that a long time ago, but I never imagined that the creation installed in the Venetian lagoon depicted an interlude in the allegorical travels of the Supreme Poet and the author of the Aeneid — specifically, their preparation to be rowed across the Acheron, a boiling river of damned souls.  Many congratulations to all.

1x1.trans You want me to go where??

Now that I think of it, they could also just be two tourists crossing the Grand Canal on the gondola traghetto. That’s pretty much a boiling river by now. (Flickr)

There’s just one thing.  Who came up with the idea that it would be cool to position a big statue showing two men heading for Hell pointing at the cemetery?

It was bad enough when the city’s funeral launches, which carry the coffins to the graveyard, had a big sticker on the stern bearing the name of the city’s garbage collection service.  Thank God they finally stopped that.

But this isn’t much better.  It isn’t any better.  I realize we live in an era which has been deformed by irony and mockery, but that’s no excuse.

If I had to accompany my mother’s body to the cemetery, I would never want to know that those two characters are Dante and Virgil.  You could tell me they’re George and Gracie; you could tell me they’re Crick and Watson; you could tell me they’re two of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

But I’d appreciate your just leaving Dante out of it.

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Fishing for compliments

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1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

The other day G. hauled home an estimated  10 kilos (22 pounds) of gilthead bream, and an interloper which Lino immediately spied.

Our upstairs neighbor, G.S., now retired, finally has all the time he wants to go fishing.  I understand that this is the dream of many men, and he is living it to the full.

He sits in his boat on some expanse of water — naturally he will never tell us where, and Lino, a fisherman himself, will never ask.  He sets up three fishing rods, and with what appears to be superhuman talent always brings home something.  Often, many somethings.  Which he sometimes shares with us.

First, he passes our kitchen window, which is usually open except in the depths of winter.  He may call a friendly greeting, or Lino may already have heard him tying up his boat.  So G. will pause, and Lino will indulge in what seems to me to be lots of time discussing the day’s conditions, catch, and other occult particulars of the angler’s art.  Lino never fished with a rod (he prefers the leister, or what I simply call a “trident” even though it has many more than three prongs).  But he knows as much as anyone about the lagoon environment and the customs of its finny fauna. So they confer for as long as they feel like it, then G. goes around the corner and upstairs.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

For quite a while, he would sometimes reappear (three flights of stairs, twice — what a guy) and plop a plastic bag of some of his fish onto the windowsill. And not just any fish.  Gilthead bream (orata, or Sparus aurata), sea bass, seppie, and assorted companions who made the wrong decision by thinking “Gosh, if the bream bit, it must be good. I think I’ll try it.”

He would briefly and modestly accept our praise and thanks.  Like anyone who does something really well, he considers most compliments to be mere statements of the obvious. I once complimented the wife of a trattoria-owner in our old neighborhood on her fried meatballs.  “They’re the best meatballs in Venice,” I said, thinking I’d give her pleasure. “I know,” she replied.  And that was it.  Once I recovered from the sensation of having missed a step going down the stairs, I realized that she couldn’t honestly have said anything else.  If she didn’t know how good they were, who would?

Back to G.

Matters have taken a new turn. He comes home, he passes the window, he shows Lino the catch, they talk, he goes upstairs.  Normal.  But the other evening, after a few minutes, we heard him call.  Then a plastic bag tied to a string mysteriously appeared, descending from above, framed in the doorway.

People still sometimes let down baskets to pull up whatever they need (everybody’s got flights of stairs), and more than sometimes they let down their bags of garbage and leave them hanging on a long cord for the garbage collector to retrieve.  (Except they won’t be doing that tomorrow, because the garbage people are going to be on strike.  Gad.)

I suppose if we lived on the third floor and he on the ground, he’d call for us to let down a basket, bag, tray, some kind of receptacle, and we’d pull up the fish, sometimes still thrashing. His generosity means that we now eat fabulous fish at least once a week.  But it’s beginning to be hard to keep up with him.  When somebody gives you eight or ten bream, which is one of the most valued fish in the Venetian culinary repertoire, you feel joy and gratitude and bursts of self-congratulatory health.  But you can’t eat eight or ten at one go, and the freezer is beginning to murmur in a discontented sort of way, probably beginning to consider staging a mutiny of the bounty.

But we have put our hand to the plow, as the Good Book hath it, and, as advised, we are not looking back.  If fresh fish is to be our fate, we will just keep on accepting it.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

The magical bag silently appears, containing the interloper.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

A cagnoleto (Mustelus mustelus, or palombo, in Italian, or common smooth-hound in English). It’s a modest little shark and once you have eviscerated it — you’ll want to throw all that away immediately, the smell is pretty strong — and skinned it, which is another major project, the flesh when boiled makes a delectable broth, and the fish itself has a very delicate flavor. They can also be fried, or grilled, and I’ve just discovered an interesting recipe for cooking them in a tomato/anchovy sauce.  It’s not unusual to see these in the fish market, but in restaurants they usually appear, if ever, as part of fish soup.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

Some days earlier, this was his gift: three bream, a long slim suro, and a brownish pesce persico, normally a freshwater fish but which not infrequently wanders out of a river and into the lagoon.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

The suro (Trachurus trachurus, or European horse mackerel) has the most enchanting colors, so subtle as to defeat my little camera. As you can see, they’re less fatty than the usual mackerel.

1x1.trans Fishing for compliments

The pesce persico (Tinca tinca, or tench) doesn’t loom particularly large in Venetian cooking — it doesn’t loom large, period — but anything that’s in the lagoon is fair game. And as you see, the lagoon is crammed with fish.

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Diabolic pot-making

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1x1.trans Diabolic pot making

Perhaps the reason all those pots have no lids is because the kids took them to “batter San Martin” and forgot to bring them back. Or maybe not.

As I have noted in various other circumstances, the following is one of my most favorite expressions, and I’m sorry to say that nearly every day something happens to illustrate its profound truth.

El diavolo fa e tece ma no i coverci (el dee-AH-volo fa eh TEH-cheh ma no ee co-VER-chee).  The Devil makes the pots, but he doesn’t make the lids.  Sooner or later, the flaws in whatever fantastic and usually highly sketchy project or idea you’re involved in are going to be discovered.  The jig will be up.

Small-, medium- and big-time criminals are astonishingly prone to cook their schemes in lidless pots.  Perhaps nobody has explained the importance of keeping them thoroughly sealed, like a pressure-cooker.  Perhaps they don’t believe the Devil would ever play a dirty trick on them, seeing that they’re so busy at it themselves. Here are some recent illustrations of how this works.

The bicycle-racing champion.  With apologies to Sir Walter Scott, I have to ask: Breathes there a man (or woman) with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, “I’m going to call in sick today and go get my hair highlighted”?  If such there be, he is not Marshal Roberto Ambrosi of the Air Force, because instead of asking for sick leave and then going to the salon, or the Casino, or some other place of amusement, he decided to enter the World Championship of Mountain Biking.

So far, so possibly anonymous.  Except that he won the race and the gold medal, and the published image of him crossing the finish line with arms upraised all combine to make one heck of a kitchen utensil to leave uncovered, because he had requested eight days of sick leave which he spent training, and not lying on the sofa consuming hot liquids and taking his temperature.

Sick leave is usually linked to some ailment, as I understand it, so the bike training is awkward.  The court in Verona, which has jurisdiction, maintains that either an ailment didn’t exist, or wasn’t sufficiently severe to warrant sick leave. If he indeed was ailing, and if it netted him a gold medal in a fairly strenuous sport, we’d all like to know how to catch whatever it is.

His defense maintains that he never claimed to have an ailment.  Seeing that this ought to be a point which would be phenomenally simple to determine — look at the request form, which somebody must have signed? — there must be something more going on here.  His lawyer attempts to gain ground by also pointing out that the race was held on a Sunday (time off, by definition), though I myself see no link between eight misidentified days of leave and whatever the accused did on Sunday. It all makes nit for the legal experts to pick.

I should mention that the race was held last year, so I’d give Marshal Ambrosi five extra points for succeeding in not being discovered for a fairly long time.  Points which I am compelled to withdraw for the fact that any of this ever happened in the first place.

The get-in-line thieves:  Three men go out to rob a bar in Martellago, just up the road (this is not the beginning of a joke.  Or maybe it is).  It’s 4:00 AM, which as we all know is the perfect time for robbing bars.  This trio had demonstrated this fact on a number of other occasions. So it was understandable that they were a little peevish when, just as two of them were cutting open the security shutters on the door, some other guys showed up.

1x1.trans Diabolic pot making

Maybe pots without lids seem more efficient somehow. There’s less to wash, that’s true.

The third thief, who had been stationed as a lookout for the police, was quick to cut them short. “Hey,” he snapped — “We got here first.”  Beat it, in other words, leave us in peace and go rob some other bar.

Except that the “other guys” were Carabinieri in plainclothes.  The three bandits figured this out as the handcuffs snapped around their wrists.  Good going, lookout!  We need to take you with us again!

This would be a too-perfect example of another of my favorite sayings: No xe da portarte a rubar (no zeh dah por-TAR-teh ah roo-BAR). Roughly: “You’re not someone I’d take with me to steal something.”  This phrase is useful for any moment in which a person spontaneously does or says something which ruins whatever project you had going in another direction. For example: Your boss calls you at home and your wife answers and says, “Oh, he’s not home right now.  He’s out all day training on his mountain bike for the world championship.”  The husband would be justified in telling her that she’s just the perfect person to take along for the heist.

Or how about this, a true story from Lino’s past as an airplane mechanic at Marco Polo airport.  He was working aboard a plane with a group of guys and they decided to kick back and take a break.  So they picked one man and told him to stand at the doorway of the plane and tell them if the boss was coming.  The boss does indeed come; he walks up the steps and asks the lookout, “What are you doing?”  And the lookout says, “I’m standing here watching to see if you’re coming so I can tell the guys inside.”  Not made up.

To return to our trio: The fact that the investigators then went to the culprits’ homes and recovered all sorts of stolen stuff from other jobs is just the proverbial cherry on the cake, as they say here.

What will live in history is the blinding flash of brilliance of the indignant lookout invoking “honor among thieves” –  First come, first served.  Don’t jump the line.  Take a number. –  to the Carabinieri.

The jealous, potentially flammable, ex-husband.  This anecdote will not inspire mirth (I hope), though it certainly made me move my lips in a smile-like way as I paused to dwell on the inscrutable workings of Providence.

One evening not long ago, here in the most beautiful city in the world, a Romanian man was out stalking his wife.  She had endured far too much abuse, from physical attacks to the loss of all their money due to his gambling addiction, and in 2011 they separated, then reconciled. They left the children with the grandparents in Romania and came to Italy to start over.  Before long, the only operative word for them was “over.”

She left him, and moved from Padova to an undisclosed address in Venice.  She got a job as a waitress at a bar-disco called Il Piccolo Teatro in Campo San Lorenzo.

1x1.trans Diabolic pot making

It might be a good idea to keep an extra lid with you at all times. You never know.

But none of this spelled “Forget her, she never wants to breathe the same air as you” to the rejected husband. He began to cultivate the conviction that she was having an affair with her boss, and also that her boss was making her work as a prostitute.  Having not had much success with the stalker’s usual barrage of phone calls, messages, and threats, he found out where she worked (I never understand how stalkers discover these details), and decided to settle the matter in person.

He filled a bottle with gasoline, took the train from Padova to Venice, and waited near the entrance to the bar for her to show up for work.  Which she did, shortly before opening time at 10:30 PM, along with her boss and another employee.

The ex-husband then splattered gasoline over her, her boss, and himself, cried “You’re going to burn with me,” and took out a lighter. Screams and confused phrases ensued, during which time he would flick the lighter on, then close it.

Now we get to the good part.  It just so happened that at that very moment the chief of police, Vincenzo Roca, was walking home, close enough to the scene to smell the gasoline and hear the hysterical screams of the woman.  He instantly intervened, managed to convince the man to give him the lighter, then called the mobile squad to come take him away.

The police chief lives in the palatial police headquarters which are literally just across the canal from Campo San Lorenzo ((cue Inscrutable Providence!).  What are the odds of all this?  Set aside the amazing fact that it was the chief himself who witnessed the scene in time to avoid horror — what sort of deranged ex-husband decides to try to kill his wife directly in front of the police station?

During the two hours of interrogation which followed, he maintained that he never intended to kill anyone, that his wild scenario was merely to get his wife’s attention and, having accomplished that, to convince her to quit working and come back to him.  If I were soaked with gasoline, the only thing a lighter-wielding man could convince me of would be that he is criminally insane.  But that’s just me.

He is now in prison, accused of attempted homicide, and for stalking.  The judge for the preliminary hearing wasn’t convinced that he needed to be kept locked up for the first count (you don’t think he would try again?  Really?), but did leave him in the clink for the stalking.  Whatever works.

Gold stars to police chief Roca!  And kudos also to Inscrutable Providence, whose message to the man by now must be extremely scrutable: (A) Do not attack anyone in front of the police station, (B) Do not attack anyone, period, and (C) Go somewhere far away and start your life over.  Ideally in a magical realm where all the pots have lids.

1x1.trans Diabolic pot making

This model is undoubtedly the best investment you can make, when you get to simmering your future. Not just a lid — the Ur-lid.

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The missing YouTube clip

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Yet again, my blog as it arrives via e-mail omitted the YouTube clip  of the obstacle course which I worked so hard to find.

At some point I will inquire as to how to avoid this glitch.

Meanwhile, here is the link:

Apologies to all.

1x1.trans The missing YouTube clip
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