Archive for Venetian Curiosities
It’s a glorious spring morning, the sun is coruscating and the breeze is cool and the world is clean and happy. Naturally I’d have to be going to a funeral.
By now I’ve gone to plenty of funerals, but they’ve always been people that Lino knew, whether I had made their acquaintance or not. I’ve been here long enough now to go to funerals of my own.
Her full name was Countess Alma Lippi-Boncambi Messe di Casalpetraia. I called her Signora Alma and had long since forgotten that she was a countess. At the point I came to know her she was in her late 80s, and had accumulated enough physical problems that she needed a live-in, full-time caretaker: my friend and matron of honor, Anzhelika.
A few years ago she finally had to be installed in a long-term-care hospital (or whatever they’re called; it could have been a nursing home except that it seemed like a hospital to me). At that point Anzhelika had already planned a six-week trip home to Ukraine and was urgently seeking a temporary substitute to tend Alma from 10-12:30 and 3:30-6:30 every day except Sunday afternoon. I volunteered, and this became an annual engagement. Last year I did this from January to August (time reduced to the afternoon only).
By then, of course, Signora Alma was loaded with what Italians call acciacchi (ah-CHAH-kee) — which literally means “afflictions,” but which usually refers to everything from a chronic cough to a bum knee, a bruised rib, extreme bunions, osteoporosis, cataracts, and so on. In short, physical deterioration which is assumed not to be fatal in itself but which degrades your life in various ways. I won’t list her assorted acciachi here because I don’t think any one of them carried her away, it was all of them together. And besides, her extraordinary forceful character pushed her acciacchi up against the wall, where she told them to sit still and be quiet, except when she wanted to be pampered and coddled and there-there’d.
She was born in Trieste, the only child of older parents who were extremely unhappily married, slept in separate bedrooms and rarely spoke to each other. Her mother was jealous, suspicious, and domineering, and also psychopathically possessive. She accompanied her daughter to school every day till Alma entered the University of Padova, but there she merely waited at home for her, watching the clock.
Alma’s salvation was her brain. By the time she was 13 she was already tutoring students in Latin, and making good money. She earned her doctorate degree in literature at the age of 22. She made a career of private instruction in Latin and Greek, following her own particular method which was clear, rigorous, and effective, as her former students attest. They also attest to her total lack of tolerance for ignorance, verbal clumsiness, mental blundering, uncertainty, approximation, and any intellectual or personal trait that wasn’t first-class.
I know this because I was in her cross-hairs every day. My mistakes in grammar would exasperate and even enrage her; I would come home exhausted from what amounted to private tutoring by a Marine drill sergeant. She forbade me to speak in Venetian; it had to be the language of the divine Dante, or nothing. She couldn’t believe I couldn’t get rid of my American accent — I guess she thought it was either laziness or stupidity on my part, but she didn’t comment often, thank God. Though there was the time she was feeling poorly, and I asked if she’d like for me to read to her. ”Per carita’!” she blurted, which in this case meant something like “Heaven forfend!” That stung.
My duties weren’t merely to keep her company. Her left arm was essentially useless at this point, so in the early days I bathed her eyes with boric acid, and wrangled her dentures — taking them out, scrubbing them, gluing them back in her mouth — and feeding her when she was laid up with one of her spells. It took years to learn how to put her glasses on JUST RIGHT.
But gradually we created a friendship. She loved to talk about books, music and travel, and the hospital didn’t contain anybody who knew or cared about any of it. I even made her quirks work for me. If I wanted to rouse her from one of her occasional afternoon torpors, I’d deliberately make some grammatical error and she’d leap to life, eyes aflame, like an old warhorse who had suddenly heard the distant trumpet call. It was fabulous — it never failed. But unfortunately I made plenty of inadvertent mistakes and not a single one ever got a pass. When the last grim shades of senility close my brain down forever, the last thing flickering in there will be the words “lo scialle” — the shawl. I screwed that up often enough to drive her one day to shout it at me. That was an exciting and effective moment.
One of her greatest passions was for the classic Italian novel, “I Promessi Sposi,” by Alessandro Manzoni. She nagged me for most of one year’s stint to read it. It wasn’t a request, or a suggestion, it was an order. I finally started the book just to get her to quit hounding me. After the first page, I was hooked. And we had finally found a real connection.
When we went downstairs in the morning for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine, she would ask me how far I’d gotten, and we’d talk about the characters and what they were up to. Then I’d start asking her to explain certain words to me. I could have used the dictionary, but she was better, because she understood the nuances of words that nobody uses anymore, and could explain them with clarity and with pleasure. I was happy because I was learning so much, and she was happy because she was teaching again. And we were both crazy about this book. When I’d leave in the evening, she’d sometimes say, “Wait till you see what happens next.” It was better than TV.
We did watch a lot of TV in her room in the winter afternoons; she liked police crime programs, most of them German, dubbed in Italian. She liked documentaries, and she loathed cooking programs. In the summer, we spent most of our time outside in the garden. We’d sit under the trees and play infinite rounds of scopa, an Italian card game, and smoke cigarettes. Neither one of us inhaled; it was just something she liked to do. It was like we were teenagers, pretending. In the winter, when she was stuck inside, we’d quit.
Unfortunately for me, she had begun to forget a lot of particulars that would have interested me about her life. But sometimes she’d startle me with a gem.
Knowing that she had grown up in Trieste, I asked her casually one day — grasping for a topic — if she could hear the bells of San Giusto from her house. There is a famous song called “La Campana di San Giusto.” For those who don’t see the clip below, here’s the link: http://youtu.be/MmPGTB7igLs
“No,” she replied; “I could hear the firing squads.”
Excuse me? ”I would lie in bed in the early morning and listen to the firing squads.” I counted backward. The Fascist dictatorship took power in 1925, when she was four years old. A little girl could easily have heard the sound of organized reprisals in the dawn. Gad.
Then there was the episode of the laurel wreath. When she graduated from the University of Padova, she was awarded a genuine laurel wreath according to the custom in the Veneto and Friuli. Naturally she was very proud of this, and hung it on the wall in the living room, carefully wrapped in its original cellophane. Time passed. Sometimes she’d glance at it and think, “Strange….my wreath seems to be thinning out somehow.” By the time there were almost no leaves left on it, she asked her mother if she knew what might be happening.
“You’ve been eating them,” her mother replied. ”In the beans.”
What could be simpler? Every time her mother cooked some fagioli, she’d take the necessary laurel leaves from her daughter’s hard-won victory crown and toss them in the pot. I did mention that her mother was borderline.
Alma married late, had no children, and was widowed early. She lived in Perugia with her husband till he died at her feet of a heart attack, at which point she returned to Venice — or rather, the Lido. She began to fall too often; there were the bedrails, the canes, the walker, the wheelchair, the emergency room, the nursing home, the end.
If I get to meet her in heaven, we’re going to sit in the shade and she’ll beat me at scopa because she always draws the king, drat her. And we’ll talk about what a sleazebag Don Abbondio was, and I’m going to show her I can finally say gli.
Ciao Alma…and you answered me, I love you very much.
You had a very eventful life.
You were born in Trieste. In ’42 the degree in literature at Padova at only 22 years old.
Then Venice, the teaching, the care of your parents, and when you were left alone, the trips, many trips.
To reach another level you moved to Perugia, and you met Carlo, the companion you had always longed for, but after only a few years you were left alone again.
You came back to the Lido, and again many trips, with me and your friends.
After the last trip, to China, on your return you said, “That was the last one.”
Then the Third, and the Fourth Age, and unfortunately the nursing home.
You were a severe teacher; your students, when they grew up, came to appreciate your efforts.
And Angelica, who helped you with affection and dedication, an angel who came from Ukraine.
And then…. then you surrendered.
Ciao Alma….I love you so much too.
Bon voyage (“buon viaggio”).
It’s sheer coincidence that what I want to say about offspring comes right after my little cadenza on nuptials. Though I suppose it’s preferable to my having done them in reverse. I’m so old-fashioned.
So now we’ve come to the subject of “Children: birthing of.” Midwives were the norm here up until the Forties, anyway. My husband was born in 1938, at home, with the aid of a midwife.
Midwife, in Italian, is levatrice. But in Venetian, it’s “comare” (co-MAH-reh), which I deconstruct as “co-mother,” which is pretty nice. (For the record, it also means matron-of-honor and official female wedding witness.)
Though midwives are no longer common, an old quip hangs on in occasional usage today: “Xe nato a lugio per no pagar la comare” (zeh nahto a LOO-joe pair no pa-gahr ya co-MAH-reh). It literally means “He was born in July so as not to pay the midwife.” It’s one of many affectionate ways to describe a boy or man who could be called a rascal, scamp, rapscallion, etc. What the connection could possibly be between July and the midwife and her accounts payable isn’t clear at all. Even Lino can’t tell me. In general, I suppose it’s meant to show how the individual from the very first moment revealed himself to be more than usually scampish.
Speaking of paying the midwife, or not, I always laugh when I listen to a particular riff (thanks to YouTube) which was broadcast and recorded in 1973 by a then-famous, now-forgotten comic named Angelo Cecchelin (check-eh-YEEN). This hilarious sketch is called “Una Questione Ereditaria” (A Question of Inheritance), in which he plays the part of a man who has been summoned to a judge’s office, he knows not why, but is already on the defensive for fear that he’s going to get trapped into having to pay somebody money. The fact that he is from Trieste, accent and all, stresses the stereotype of people from the Northeast, especially Friuli, of being spectacularly stingy. I digress.
It starts off like this (translated by me):
Cecchelin: Giuseppe Sante fu Giuseppe fu Anna fu nata Paoli. (The old-fashioned way of giving one’s provenance via the parents’ names.)
Q: I mean where and when were you born!
A: I was born in Trieste on October 23 1894 in Via delle Zudecche number 19 fifth floor door number 24 on Wednesday morning it was raining cats and dogs and the midwife still has to be paid.
Back under the Venetian Republic, though, these women were not Hogarthian hags with hairy warts using God knows what as instruments and God had no idea what as medication. In those days, being a midwife was a real profession. I love any discovery of how forward-thinking the old Venetians were.
Here is what Giuseppe Tassini says in his peerless book, “Curiosita’ Veneziane” (translated by me):
“One finds that in 1689, on September 26, the Magistrate of Health established certain norms for the women who wanted to practice the profession of midwife.
“First of all, he ordered that they had to be able to read, and that they take as their text a book entitled ‘On the Midwife“; that they had to produce a document to certify that for two years they had attended anatomical demonstrations relating to their art, and another to certify that they had spent two years of practical experience with an approved midwife; and finally that they had to undergo an examination which was conducted by the Protomedico in the presence of the Priors of the College of Physicians, and also two distinguished midwives, each of which could add her own questions to those of the Protomedico…
“In the field of obstetrics, the surgeon Giovanni Menini particularly distinguished himself, and he had built, at his own expense, an obstetric chamber so well-supplied and correct that the Venetian Senate acquired it for public use, calling Menini in 1773 to teach obstetrics not only to the women who wanted to be midwives, but also to surgeons. From that time on, surgeons began to attend women in childbirth, something which had previously happened only rarely, and with unhappy results.”
And now a fragment of memory comes fluttering across my mind: Some years ago, I read in the paper that the parish priest of Pellestrina — or maybe it was San Pietro in Volta — anyway, a village down along the lagoon edge toward Chioggia — made a radical suggestion. He remarked that everybody was accustomed to a bell ringing to announce a death. I’ve heard this bell too — it’s dark and lugubrious and yes, you can ask for whom it is tolling, because plenty of people always know.
But what this priest suggested was that they also ring the bells to announce a birth. I think it was a brilliant idea, and certainly the bells would have been cheerier than the funeral tolling. Louder, in any case. At the least loud enough to drown out the sound of the newborn’s shrieking and wailing, possibly caused by the ringing of the bells.
In any case, bring on the kids!
I was coming home the other evening from the Lido on the #1 vaporetto.
Sound simple? Not then, or any other evening in the summer. Because it was in that period — late afternoon/early evening — when every sort of human in every sort of combination leaves the beach and, like me, heads hearth-ward. Strollers! Mothers! Dogs! Coolers and bags! Kids of all species! Old people scattered along the lower strata, babies strewn along the upper layers of a mass of people which I’m pretty sure exceeds the posted maximum passenger number, or tonnage. Whichever is higher.
Before the ACTV added extra lines and runs, this experience was like the fall of Saigon. Now it’s only like being in a one-ring circus that has been turned upside down and had a big graduated compression stocking pulled over it.
As usual, I headed for a corner near the exit on the shoreward side and held still. As the people swarmed aboard, I noticed a small group of ladies of the proverbial Certain Age. I think there were four of them. They were all well-dressed in a sporty sort of way, and their low-key way of talking didn’t give any hint as to where they might be headed. At that time of day, women of a C.A. are usually detailed to haul home their hot, over-tired grandchildren.
About halfway between the Lido and the first stop, Sant’ Elena, I suddenly realized that the girl next to me had given way in a dead faint. She didn’t fall — she seemed to have spread herself gently along the floor parallel to the gate. But there she was, long, broad and very still.
But I was slow to catch on. The corps of LidoLadies had already seen everything, and gone into action. One of them held the girl’s legs up in the air; one of them patted her cheeks; one of them pulled out a small, cold bottle of water and held it against her face; one of them somehow got a cookie into her mouth (I saw the jaws working, so that was good). The girl came to just as one of them was asking the mob at large if anybody had a piece of candy. A young mother managed to find a non-sugarfree gumdrop, fruit flavor.
By the time we pulled up at Sant’ Elena, the girl was on her feet, smiling, extending her thanks, requesting pardon, emptying a square packet of sugar into her mouth, and so forth. She got off and went home.
I’ll tell you what: It’s not the victim that left an impression on me. It’s the astounding Lafayette Escadrille of middle-aged women (dames whose greatest concern normally appears whether to drink their spritz with Aperol or Campari) who Saved the Day. I’m guessing they weren’t heading for the weekly mah-jongg game after all, but a meeting of the Sodality of the Retired Emergency Volunteers of Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk.
Some people — and I would have been one of them — might have thought of calling an ambulance, or a doctor-in-the-house, or the firemen, or the Red Cross. Not anymore. I’m seriously considering tacking a little card to my chest that says “In case of emergency, call those four Ladies from the Lido and just stand back.”
After a certain amount of time, one gets the feeling (“one” means me) that nothing ever gets done around here. But lately, one would be wrong.
The gas and water lines need to be fixed, replaced, spayed, embalmed — something important, anyway. I glimpsed the hole in one wet degraded portion of a water pipe just unearthed — no telling how many gallons of the precious liquid had been lost forever (or on whose monthly bill the loss was charged).
This means, as everywhere in the world, they tear up everything and then have to put it all back when they’re done. Each phase is loud and dirty. Here, the work is all at the artisan level — no big fancy machines that make lots of noise. But that’s fine, because the men laboring on this task make enough noise all by themselves.
I don’t mean the assorted incessant clinkings and clunkings of heavy iron objects copied from tools excavated in Etruscan mining settlements. Chisels on stone, hammers on nails. This goes on all day but you can get used to it. At least it’s not drills. I’ve been through that too.
No, it’s the euphonious tones of the workmen themselves. They are louder and more insistent than the noise of their implements. You can hear them as they arrive for work, getting closer and closer, walking down the street and over the bridge already shouting at each other. And you can really hear them right outside your window as you try to think of other things, like what to have for lunch or why, if God is good, there is evil in the world.
They may be deaf. Even if they are, that doesn’t stop them. The comments are truncated, and inane, but almost always loud, and enlivened by unimaginative swearing and boring blasphemy. I can understand enough of it by now to be annoyed. I hate the blasphemy but I hate the inanity even more. I want to ask them why this is desirable, or (God forbid) necessary, but then I remember they’re making 40,000 times more money while talking than I am while listening.
Besides, I already know the answer. Instead of the missing motors, it’s their mouths that provide the energy necessary for their work. No shouting and blaspheming? The worksite suddenly freezes, men standing with half-raised utensils, staring at nothing.
If we were to put duct tape over their mouths, the world would stop. Or the repairs to the gas and water lines would stop, thereby prolonging the already prolonged project.
So if we have to endure bellowing and blathering in order to enable replacing that leaky pipe and re-cement those snaggled paving stones, I guess that’s the tradeoff. It would be nice if they’d work faster, but then again, it could be centuries since those pipes got a checkup.
I mean the submerged ones, not the ones in their throats.