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pitching in

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“Tarring the Boat,” 1873, by Edouard Manet (Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA).  Lino was born in time to see this seemingly simple procedure before it went the way of the dodo.  One man gripped a large handful of blazing reeds, and the second man spread the scalding tar by means of a stick which was tightly wrapped at the end with pieces of sheepskin.  The burning reeds kept the pitch at a higher and therefore more spreadable temperature as Man 2 laboriously applied it to the boat’s hull.  I have seen a gondola-builder use these burning reeds, passing them slowly across the hull to gradually remove the varnish; he told me that the lagoon reeds emitted a flame that was more humid than that of many other potential tools, and was thus less traumatic to the boat.  You see?  People don’t use a technique just because there isn’t any other — there is almost always a reason.

Here is a new warp (or weft) to the fabric of life in LinoLand, otherwise known as the place where he has known just about everybody still left in Venice.  Or in this case, not still left.

The case in point: A death notice we came across for a certain Gastone Nardo.  Strangely, this is someone I also knew (a little, and very late. Like, I met him twice.)  He was the gondola-maker at the Squero San Trovaso when I came to Venice, and I was invited to a boat-launching there one freezing February day.  That’s the most I can say about him on my own account.  But of course Lino knows more.

“Well,” Lino said, “he wasn’t always a squerariol (boatbuilder) He came from a family of pegoloti.”  “Pegola” is Venetian for “pitch,” not as in baseballs but as in scorching hot tar, which was the immemorial way to water- and shipworm-proof boats until the middle of the last century.  Knowing how to handle, and apply, boiling pitch to the hull of a boat is probably not something you’d learn as a weekend hobby; it was certainly an important craft.  But you can understand that a pegoloto was several hundred rungs below squerariol, so I admire him intensely for having undertaken to learn how to build gondolas.  Working your way up from chopping lettuce at Quiznos to chef at the Restaurant Le Meurice is one thing, but it isn’t much easier working up from a searing cauldron of pine-derived hydrocarbons to constructing one of the great boats of the world. But he did it.

A friend walks past a recent harvest of reeds by the lagoon of Caorle. They were also useful, not to say ideal, for many uses other than boat-scorching, often woven together in various ways by fishermen and sailors to form latticework known as “grisiole” in Venetian.

But just because nobody uses pitch anymore doesn’t mean it has left Venice altogether — it lives on in a very common daily phrase which is almost as useful as the stuff itself.  It’s a verb, actually: “impegolar” (im-pegh-o-YAR), to metaphorically cover with pitch, to cleverly entrap somebody in a way that a tiptoeing saber-toothed tiger at La Brea would perfectly understand.

I’ve never heard it used by someone admitting to having committed this act on someone else — it’s always been the person who has been deviously empitched who will say it.  Life in Venice, and anywhere else, still offers far too many opportunities to use this expression. Generous, well-meaning, let-there-be-peace-and-let-it-begin-with-me people are fated to walk right into somebody’s loaded tarbrush.

A perfect example of this phenomenon happened to Lino years ago at the hands of his late brother-in-law, Sergio; they were two guys who have rarely, if ever, been known to block out a cry for help.  Sergio, especially, was famed across campi and campielli as one of the best-natured men ever to walk the earth, so of course he was exploited.  But he didn’t go alone.

One day he agreed to help some neighbor carry “a table and four chairs” downstairs and transport them to an apartment on what was virtually the street next door.  Keep “four chairs” and “street next door” firmly in mind.

A boat was needed.  Lino had a small boat.  Would Lino help him fulfill this modest and glowing-with-goodness little project?  Of course Lino would.

And of course Lino and Sergio found themselves “impegolai” in a gigantic moving project that lasted two whole days, schlepping chairs, tables, huge plants in massive clay pots, a divan, credenza, and all the kitchen furnishings including the stove down four, or maybe it was five, flights of stairs. Moving Day! Meanwhile, the beneficiary of this effort, the man of the house, lay peacefully sleeping in bed, and they were even cautioned to work quietly so as not to disturb him.  Naturally this apartment was on the top floor of the building.

And all of this cargo had to carried into the new apartment, naturally, including the bed which was available after the man of the house had awakened (not because of any random noise by the trio of movers), and gone out to do something else, thoughtfully getting out of their way.

From Point A to Point B in Lino’s little boat. The inconvenience of the water route is matched only by the inconvenience there would have been by land. In this case, Lino and Sergio had some help from Bruno, but Bruno was about the size of Willie Shoemaker, so I’m not sure how much he could carry per trip. Still, help is never to be sneered at.

Do not think that finding yourself impegola‘ once means it will never happen again, because  the trick is that these projects always start small (“four chairs”).  So one time the parish asked Sergio if he’d carry away “a few packages” of old newspapers to be recycled.  Yes, even in those long-ago days paper was usefully disposed of at a macero (a pulping mill) in Campo San Silvestro where a trendy little bar-cafe is now lounging around.  Boat needed, with Lino, though only for half of the project.

In this case the cargo — mountains of newspapers — was merely to be unloaded at Lino’s family’s waterside storeroom. Sergio figured out how to get them to the pulping place on his own. Maybe Lino told him that his boat couldn’t take it anymore.

By now I don’t have to say that the “few packages” turned out to be towers of stacked newspapers requiring many roundtrips.  But these things never happen on a boring Saturday afternoon when you literally have nothing to do.  In this case, it was the Saturday of the Redentore, which sort of a summertime version of Christmas Eve, if you want some comparison between the importance of what you’re doing and what the family expects you to be doing.

So instead of preparing his boat for the evening’s festivities (eating, drinking, hanging out with other boat-borne friends, watching fireworks), Lino was rowing his boat around half of Venice again and again to help out Sergio because Sergio said he’d help out the parish.  Why that particular day and not the following Monday?  Because otherwise it would have been convenient, and if you find yourself impegola‘ it’s precisely  because the activity involved cannot be postponed and it must be at the least convenient moment and because only you can accomplish it.

To be fair, Sergio’s Redentore was also twisted out of shape, because that’s the world that people with hearts of gold inhabit.  Beautiful, true, but  completely tacky with pitch.

A few steps from the Arsenal is the “First Sidestreet of the Pitch.” Must have smelled amazing. Everybody with headaches all day and insomnia by night.  Perhaps not much different from the people living next to the pulping mill.

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Just looking around some more

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One of the best things about Venice is how, the minute you walk outside, you are surrounded by curious and beautiful and surprising and amusing things.  It used to be that most people would notice at least some of them; now that 98 percent of humans spend all their time staring at or listening to electronic devices, I suppose most of the aforementioned curious, etc. things could just move away and live somewhere else, like Turkmenistan, and nobody would notice.  “Hey! Where’d Venice go?  I was just checking my email/Twitter feed/Facebook quagmire/WhatsApp” (by the way, nothing is app), and the city’s just gone.”  Of course, for the same reason they probably wouldn’t notice in Turkmenistan that a World Heritage Site d/b/a “the most beautiful city in the world” had suddenly sprung up in their midst.

But I still wander around looking at things, and here are a few I came across recently:

A highly superior dog exploiting his master’s feet on the 5.1 vaporetto.

You thought he couldn’t be any cooler? How about this?

And speaking of vaporettos, I don’t know if the doll gets a special rate, but she certainly has been given a great seat. I’m not sure I’d have had the liver, as they say here, to ask to sit there.

I finally noticed, after years of passing the church of San Trovaso, that above the door to the belltower a guardian being was long ago installed to ward off evil spirits.  He’s not the only one in Venice, but he does have a certain charisma.

However, if I were an evil spirit this face would more probably cause me to ask “Do you feel like talking about it?”

There are many other canines to be found around Venice, in a variety of breeds and material. If this pooch is supposed to be scaring away evil spirits, he’s got a funny way of doing it. Maybe he plans on wagging and licking them to death.

A bit of worldly wisdom in a shop window, expressed perfectly in Venetian: “When I talk, they don’t listen. When they listen, they don’t understand.  When they understand, they forget.”

And while we’re on the subject of understanding, there is something so complicated about three dimensions in a small space that it defeats people’s comprehension. This image needs no further comment from me, though I had several ready at the time.  When you and many other people need to disembark, they have to squeeze through the backpacks here like hot pig iron through rollers.  (One point, though, to the man on the right for color-coordinating his pack and jacket.  Point deducted for the vileness of the color.)

Two stuffed toy rats in a training potty. The world is a great and imponderable place and Venice is doing its best to keep up.


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These ladies evidently don’t just “run into” each other — they look like these canal-side confabs are just the latest episodes in an endless series. “Game of Mops and Grandchildren,” perhaps?  They could well have been in adjoining bassinets in the hospital — it wouldn’t surprise me. People here are linked for life.

This morning we were walking home under the trees lining viale Garibaldi and, as more or less usual, we ran into someone Lino knows; a small, trim, grey-haired man with a pleasant smile and the most benevolent eyes.  We have encountered him at various moments over the years here and there, and he never changes, except I think he’s lost a little weight.

“Ciao, Federico,” Lino said, giving him several warm pats on the cheek, as if he were a little boy.  These pats are valid for anybody, at any age, and it’s almost unheard-of for someone to consider them strange, much less objectionable.  Children grow up being patted and I, for one, am glad to see there’s no expiration date. In this case Lino has a lifetime pass, because they’ve known each other forever.  In fact, they used to work together.

So, they exchange a few random comments about nothing, the sort of conversation that has no calories, sugar, sodium, trans-fats, and only the tiniest amount of carbohydrates, just to keep it going.

Lino made some remark about the atrocious condition of the world, and this was Federico’s opening: “Why do we not do what God tells us to do?” he asked, which is an excellent question.  “You could read your Bible sometime,” he continued amiably.  “It’s free.”

This suggestion didn’t surprise Lino or me — in fact, I was waiting for it, and so was Lino. Lino likes to needle him because Federico is a Jehovah’s Witness, and this morning he was even accompanied by a tall young man who just listened.

“Is this your apprentice?”, or “assistant,” or “disciple,” or “trainee,” or whatever Lino asked, even though it was obvious.  They were both wearing neckties, an object which is so rarely seen in this neighborhood as to be almost an archaeological artifact, but is an admirable part of the uniform.  I think they’d go without shoes before they’d leave off the necktie.

After a few more brief sallies — how old are you now (72) and where do you live (Giudecca), we all resumed our paths, we toward home, Federico toward whatever fields cried out for cultivation.  So to speak.

“Ah, Federico,” Lino said affectionately.  “He and his mother used to live in Cannaregio, but in the acqua alta of 1966 they lost everything.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses helped them out, and so here he is, this is what he does.”  I make a mental note that he would have been 21 at the time, an age when a major good deed coupled with some urgent explanations can have an effect. Not judging, just saying.

“So he keeps at it,” Lino continued, who is always a bit bemused by the man’s constancy and imperturbability, though if you’re not constant and imperturbable you’ll never make it as a proselytizer.  Just ask Saint Paul.

Anyway, “He’ll be out ringing doorbells, any time — Christmas Day, New Year’s morning at 9:00 AM.”  Lino stops to mimic a sleep-addled man going to a window and shouting down, “What?  Who?”  A pause to indicate Federico’s inaudible salutation.

“Just wait a minute,” the sleep-addled man says, then Lino mimics upending a full container out the window.

“He got everything — people would pour buckets of water on him.  Even chamberpots full of piss.”

Excuse me?

“Ha!  Just ask him about Murano that time.”  Which I won’t.  But I note that while Saint Paul was beaten and stoned, the record doesn’t show that that little joke was ever played on him, though it probably totally was.

“How do you know him?”

“We worked together at the Aeronavali.  Me, Conte, the other guys, we’d all rag him all the time.”  And what work did he do?

“He was the uomo di fatica,” the man of toil and exhaustion, the menial drudge which every company has, the guy whose job is the heavy lifting, shlepping, the hewer of wood and drawer of water.

Which means that Federico long ago made his peace with his modest place in the world, in and out of Kingdom Hall, and as we walked off I found myself dwelling more than usual on his embarrassingly simple question.  Why don’t we do what God says?  (That’s a rhetorical question, so hold off on the comments.  I know the answer.)

They probably grew up with the bear, as well.

While we’re on the subject of ex-colleagues from the Aeronavali, a while back we were hanging around the Arsenale vaporetto stop (I can’t remember why).  It was early evening and the light and the air were calming down.  A very nicely dressed older couple got off and were walking towards us.  They appeared to be going to some sort of party, or special gathering.  “Ciao, Marco” (not his real name). “Ciao, Lino.”

And that was…..? “That was Marco.  He started as an apprentice at the Aeronavali the same day I did,” Lino recalled. By the number of colleagues he keeps running into, it would seem there had been thousands.

“We were working on T-6 Harvard planes” — of course Lino would remember that; I throw it in for any aviation fans who might be reading.  He likes to set the scene and I respect that.

After a few years of this, Marco began to go to night school.  “He was studying to become a surveyor.  We all knew this, and we knew he would sometimes go off somewhere to study during working hours.  Maybe everybody knew it, anyway, somebody might come looking for him and we’d be all ‘Gosh, I don’t know, he was here a minute ago, any of you guys seen Marco?’…..”

Eventually he went to take his final exams, but cleverly went to an institute somewhere in Italy’s Deep South, where the grading was known to be much — make that MUCH — easier.  He passed.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Sebastiano Venier and the lion of the Republic he defended so brilliantly. I’ve seen two humans in line at the supermarket strike almost these exact poses and expressions, even though they may be the best friends ever.  And not have wings and swords.

He registered at the University of Venice to take courses leading to a degree in business administration.  Armed with that diploma, he returned to the Aeronavali as the amministratore delegato, or chief executive. Eventually he married a woman who owned some factory, Lino says, and he became director of the factory.  I’m supposing that was the lady who accompanied him.

“I remember the day I gave my notice,” Lino recalled.  “Marco said to me, ‘Come up to my office a minute.’  And we talked about my reasons for leaving, and then he opened his desk drawer and took out a small pin shaped like a swallow.  That was the emblem of the Aeronavali, and it was made of gold.  One day I lost it, somewhere out on the street.  You have no idea how sorry I am not to have it anymore.”

I must have five or six single earrings, their mates lost forever, which annoys the hoo out of me.  But that doesn’t make me anywhere near as sorry as he is.

Tomorrow, no telling what unforeseen encounter awaits.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes, as we know. Too bad they aren’t as easy to adjust as this tailor’s mannequin.



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Hey! Where’d everybody go?

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While some people have been working themselves up about the mobs of tourists in Venice (tourists in Venice?  I’m shocked!  Shocked!) our little lobe of the city has quietly tiptoed away, its denizens going to the mountains, Hammerfest, Saskatoon, the Tuvan Grasslands, anywhere but here where they can enjoy a little peace and quiet and — I hope — not to have become tourists in turn, if you take my meaning.

Between Ferragosto (August 15, as you know) and the onslaught of the Film Festival is this small sliver of time which is like a deep, peaceful breath. Even though the heat continues to enervate us, night and day —

If, for some reason, you lost your mind and decided to come to Venice in August, your main survival tool is liquids.  Lots of them, as you see.

— there is an atmosphere of restfulness along via Garibaldi which is almost like vacation in itself.  And that is because many of the shops are closed. Temporary inconvenience to the few remaining inhabitants is more than mitigated by the tranquillity, and besides, it’s not as if ALL the fruit-and-vegetable sellers are gone, and yes, there is one butcher left who can slice you some pork chops.  In any case, we now have the mastodontic Coop supermarket to take up the slack (open every day from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, if you can believe it), manned by staff which does not always look happy to be helping, which I can understand even though they do have air-conditioning.

Let me take you on a brief perambulation of via Garibaldi, rejoicing in the “closed for vacation” (ferie) signs on the windows and doors.  It’s as if the supposedly avaricious and insatiable merchants had all suddenly said, “Nah, we don’t care.  We should stay here sweltering just on the chance that SOMEBODY might wander in, even by mistake?”  Because most of their regular customers are also far away.  I’m only here because I have to be, but I get to enjoy this moment and they don’t.

You’ll have to go somewhere else until August 21 to buy laundry detergent, lipstick, rubber kitchen gloves, or a bucket and mop — the everything-store is shut. You should have thought about needing that shampoo or scouring powder sooner.

Now is not the moment to be caught without underwear or dish towels or handkerchiefs. The dry-goods ladies aren’t coming back till the 28th.

No shoes, even on sale (“saldi”) until the 21st.

Anything in the optical line, from high-class sunglasses to replacing a screw to a bottle of contact-lens wetting solution is unobtainable until the 21st.  Still, he’s only taking a week.  That seems very, very short to me.  I could wait for the lens-wiping cloth a little longer.

Just as soon as you got used to the fact that this hair salon was open only in from 8:30 – 12:30 in July and August, they go and close altogether.  Still, they only took four days off, which I think is extremely strange and unreasonably short, and I, personally, would not have advised it.

But we are evidently expected to walk around with our heads wrapped in scarves because, as you see, the OTHER salon (yes, there are two) has also elected to go relax everything up to and including their hair, somewhere else.

The toys-and-school-supplies-and-paper-goods store is giving itself three weeks off. Once school starts again they’ll have more than plenty to do.  If you need an eraser or some lead for your mechanical pencil, too bad.

The butcher has put the prosciutto away, and if you’re pining to make fegato alla veneziana you’ll just have to wait. Eat some clams or some scrambled eggs meanwhile, or trek down the street to Alberto the butcher, who is hanging tough.  Better yet, have some gelato.  That’s one type of shop that couldn’t possibly close in the summer.

Well, that settles that. You absolutely cannot have any problem either with your computer or your cell phone until Gianni gets back. There is no Plan B. The mere sight of this sign makes me cower.

Want to play the lottery or buy some smokes? You’ll have to go back up the street to the other two places that will provide you with these vital services because the mother and her eccentric son in this emporium are somewhere else.  They have helpfully given two alternate shops, but I can’t understand why they didn’t list the one two minutes down from the top of via Garibaldi.  Perhaps they’re involved in a feud.  It happens.

The indefatigable Fabio at the Trattoria alla Rampa is off Work A (feeding people) but only in order to exhaust himself doing Work B, otherwise known as “maintenance.” He knows what it’s going to be like when the Film Festival starts and he’s going to be ready — to be precise, on September 4.

Some shops don’t need signs. Everybody knows this is a pastry shop, and everybody knows that pastry shops pretty much close for some time in August. The reason: Cream just doesn’t have the same appeal at room temperature as it does frozen and sitting in a cone. Everything is hard to work with in the heat, from chocolate to your business partner.

The faithful and doomed-to-be-photographed-forever fruit and vegetable boat. Massimo and Luca used to clear away all the boxes and crates when they went on vacation, and the sight of the bare deck was a strange and memorable moment in the waning summer days. But as you see, they just said the heck with it. Yes, there are two other produce sellers on the street, but I can tell you that they are nowhere near the same quality. So we soldier on…

…but not particularly encouraged by the ominous note at the bottom: “To reopen on 25 August. Maybe.”

Giorgio’s boat might as well have a sign on it because when he’s in Venice he goes out fishing virtually every single day, barring typhoons of either the meteorological or domestic type. To see the boat tied up in broad daylight is to know that the world has stopped.






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