Archive for Venetian-ness


Farewell Bruno

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1x1.trans Farewell Bruno

The gondola bearing the casket from the church of San Zaccaria to the Lido was rowed by retired gondolier Vittorio Orio — known for his dedication to the New York firemen — and Franco Dei Rossi “Strigheta,” son of the deceased’s lifelong friend “Gigio, as well as Giampaolo d’Este and Ivo Redolfi Tezzat. The boat to the right is a 10-oar gondola belonging to the Francescana rowing club.  The picture would have been better if I hadn’t snapped it from a moving vaporetto. The daily traffic stops for no man.

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I’ve been noticing all sorts of interesting things around the city over the past few days, and while I regret to imply that a funeral qualifies as “interesting,” I will state that often the deceased is extremely interesting and makes me sorry I never knew him or her, and often never even heard of them until the dread news was published.

A case in point is Bruno Fusato Signoretti.

The “interesting thing” was his funeral cortege this morning, which didn’t completely surprise me when I saw it from the #1 vaporetto.  I had only heard of him two days ago, when his obituary in the Gazzettino alerted me to the human behind a name with which I was familiar in exactly one way: Glass.  That is, I knew that the name Signoretti was an important one on Murano, and that this company, or person, had begun (like many commercial ventures here) to sponsor some of the racers of the major Venetian regatas.

But there was much more to say about him, which I have learned now that he’s gone.

I have mashed up a few biographies, one written by Tullio Cardona in the Gazzettino, and the other by Maurizio Crovato  on the website  Here goes:

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Bruno Signoretti (La Nuova Venezia).

Gondoliers and Murano are in mourning.  On October 5, Bruno Fusato “Signoretti” passed away in his house on the Lido.  He was 74 years old, and had been fighting a difficult disease since last March.

Fusato began working as a gondolier, son of a centuries-long tradition; his family was noted among gondoliers since 1600.  In more recent times, his grandfather Vincenzo, nicknamed “Cencio,” was chosen by Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia for his excursions in the lagoon in 1907, and when Cencio got married, the Prince sent him a silver coffee service and 1000 lire.  (The new gondola he was able to order cost 300 lire, to give some idea of the magnitude of this gift.)

Bruno’s father Luigi was the gondolier of Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II.

When young Bruno began his career as a gondolier, he was known for being able to make six “murane” a day (roundtrips in his gondola from San Zaccaria to Murano).  He became the substitute gondolier for Albino Dei Rossi, the legendary Venetian-rowing champion known as “Gigio Strigheta,” filling in while Gigio was training for the races.  “Thanks to this young man,” Strigheta quipped, “when I’m not working, I make twice as much.”

What with his love for the gondola, and for the regatas, and for his city, Bruno began to diversify. He retired from gondoliering and began to organize tourist traffic to Murano.  Then he opened stores in London, and finally, in 1986, he acquired an abandoned glass furnace on Murano and established an important center for glassmakers and designers.

He also lived a kind of parallel career of philanthropy and benefaction.  As Crovato states, he always kept the “old gondolier” in him.  There was not one racer, not one aged gondolier, alone and forgotten, who didn’t receive help from him in moments of need.

In 1991 he dusted off the abandoned tradition of the “disnar” (dinner) of the competitors before the Regata Storica.  He sponsored difficult art restorations, and when La Fenice opera house went up in flames in 1996, he was a founding member of the reconstruction fund-raising initiative, and its first private contributor.

After September 11, 2001, he created the idea of the “Baptism of Venetian-ness” (battesimo di venezianita’).  I can’t tell you how it worked, but it raised funds for the firemen of New York.

His last joy, as they put it, was the victory of Giampaolo d’Este and Ivo Redolfi Tezzat of the Regata Storica 2014, a team which he had sponsored.

In remembering him, Tezzat gave Signoretti the baptism of gold, at least in Venetian terms:

“What he said, he did.”

In a city where words outnumber deeds by an impressive margin, this is a statement whose brevity conceals a universe of meaning.

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Racers are now permitted to wear a sponsor’s badge, and Signoretti’s name was on several champions’ backs — here, Ivo Redolfi Tezzat at the regata of Redentore 2014. Notice the addition of the link with the firemen of New York — “per non dimenticare” — to not forget.

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Last glimpse of the two gondolas rowing toward the Lido, and his final resting place.


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Hardly working

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1x1.trans Hardly working

This morning I came across a stuffed bear that couldn’t make it to work. He couldn’t make it to play, either.  A compassionate woman removed him a few minutes later, lifting him from the small sodden concavity in the stone where he lay. Either she took him to the clinic, or to the park.

Here’s some news on sick leave in Italy: There’s a lot of it, especially on Monday.

Today is Monday, as it happens, which is why I bring this up.

A recent statistical analysis reveals that more than 30 percent of workers in the public sector have availed themselves of a doctor who will certify that they aren’t able to come to work that day, the day being Monday, as I mentioned, or what they might prefer to call Sunday 2.0.

In Calabria, the numbers collected for 2012 showed an average number of 34.6 sick days; “average,” of course, means that some people took even more.  This number doesn’t specifically say that that month was made up exclusively of Mondays, but we can suppose that at least ten of them were.

Whether this indicates that the environment at the toe of the Italian “boot” is extremely unhealthy, or that there are so many wonderful things to do there that a mere weekend isn’t enough to enjoy even a few of them, I am not qualified to say.

I do have some theories, but will leave you to your own conjectures.

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You might assume that the world-famous Riace bronzes would have a hard time getting a doctor’s note excusing them from war, or the Olympic Games, or anything else they had to do on Monday. But Riace is in Calabria.


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The Zen of ice cream?

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1x1.trans The Zen of ice cream?

“The search for something permanent is one of the deepest of the instincts leading men to philosophy.” (Bertrand Russell)

Walking along my favorite leafy arbor — otherwise known as viale Garibaldi — one recent afternoon, I glanced at one of the benches.

Something was sitting on it, and it wasn’t a human, though a human had evidently passed that way only recently.

It was a stately cone crowned with chocolate gelato, chastely wrapped in a white paper napkin, and stuck between the slats like a creamy little moa from Easter Island, but much more fragile. While it’s true that the seething elements of time and tide will eventually reduce everything to nothing, this delicacy had a head start on almost all of us.

As I gazed at it, still musing, I heard the softest little thnk.

There had been no heroic struggle.  When the meltage reached the perfect point of intersection with gravity, divided by its own weight and volume and the distribution of same (I’m losing track of my geometry here), the brave, if brief, little monument succumbed.  And I continued on my way.

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Something had given way. Was it the cone? The napkin? A physicist or a mystic could probably tell me, but as I know neither, I can only gaze upon this ruin with wonder and regret. Wonder, especially, that someone would throw away a perfectly good ice cream cone, and chocolate, at that.

Ten minutes later, I returned.  The bench was still occupied, but not by the cone and its liquefying burden.

The cone was gone.  A man was sitting on the bench, talking to a woman standing in front of him.  He didn’t seem concerned about sticky drying ice cream, because there was no sign of it.  Apparently only I knew it had ever been there.

Let me review:  A gelato-topped cone is placed on a bench by an unseen person, for unfathomable reasons (unfathomable because there are two garbage cans within a few steps of the bench).  The cone collapses.  A man sits on the bench by the now unseen cone.

Which was real, the unseen man or the unseen cone?  And while I’m thinking about it, is ice cream essentially more transitory than the man?

Let me think.

The frozen milk awaits

Heat and heft combine a kiss

Life essence disperses.

More on the meaning of life around here when I find the time.


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You can say that again

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1x1.trans You can say that again

Another day of expressing yourself draws to a close.

Daily life in the Nation of Venice is made up of occurrences that aren’t uncommon in other latitudes: Unplanned events, things going screwy, people acting weird, having to spend twice as much time as expected doing something simple, and generally starting out with one scheme and ending the day with a mishmash of improvised solutions or brilliant ideas that worked once but will never work again.

Naturally these days do not pass without comment, and Venetians have inevitably devised innumerable expressions to convey the nuances of the aforementioned daily life, as well as the emotions which its many happenstances cause to spring forth in the Venetian bosom.  Not that the emotions themselves are so nuanced.  Au contraire.

Many of these expressions are used so commonly that they now come to me spontaneously, and I struggle to recall what American expressions might correspond.  Not that I try very hard — the Venetian versions are so perfect for Venice that I just stick with them.  They’re not all profound, and certainly they aren’t all unique.  But a normal day in this abnormal city keeps emotions simmering, and the nearness of you, of them, of everybody, makes the urge to put them into words irresistible.  At least I’ve never noticed anybody resisting that urge.

One of the great things about using a common saying, rather than blurting out what you really feel or think, is that clichés, truisms, proverbs, make it socially acceptable to say something which, if you expressed it impulsively in your own original heartfelt way, would create worlds of grief and embarrassment for you.  Sincerity?  Highly overrated.  But thanks to these aphorisms you can say what you think without endangering the social equilibrium.

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No matter how glamorous the boat — here, the “disdotona” of the Querini rowing club — a coffin is still just that. Odd how death turns out to be such a useful concept for expressing things about life.

“Morte” — death — is a highly versatile word.  You’d be surprised how often it can turn up in the most banal situations.

Vedemo de che morte che morimo (veh-DEH-mo de keh MOR-teh keh mo-REE-mo):  “Let’s see by what death we’re going to die.”  Cheerful, no?  I said it only a while ago, and I meant it.  However, death itself isn’t intended in this remark, but it usefully conveys a foreboding of a probably unpleasant experience you can’t get out of.

In my case, we were on our way to the mainland to help some friends move an unspecified number of heavy, cumbersome, dirty objects for an unspecified length of time, on a searingly hot afternoon in a location which was almost certainly going to be infested with mosquitoes.  (The instinctive American version of my emotions would have been “What was I thinking?”).

My saying the above conveyed that I assumed it was going to be a terrible experience but that I was going to do it anyway.  (Note: There were no mosquitoes.)  You can vary the intensity of this expression; it can be almost jaunty, depending on circumstances, but will always communicate at least some element of apprehension, or at least unwillingness.

Gaver la morte con qualchedun” (gah-VEHR ya MOR-teh con kwal-keh-DOON).  “To have the death with someone.”  The American expression “Have it in for someone” serves the same purpose but doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch.

You would say this about someone you really hated.  Naturally there is a word for “hate,” but to call in “death” amps up your hostility to a complete, total, 100 per cent direness, an aversion which has no chinks or cracks through which second thoughts, forgiveness, or extenuating circumstances might enter. It’s a feeling that’s going to last forever.  Unless the other person does something amazing to rectify whatever it was that went wrong, which can happen.

Esser la morte de qualcossa.”  (ESS-er ly MORE-te deh kahl-KOSS-ah).  “To be the death of something.”   In this case, “death” is a positive thing.  And it almost always is related to food, the quintessential positive thing in life.

Let’s say that a certain item is more or less good prepared in various ways.  But if there is one way in which a particular ingredient has reached its reason for being, that would be its “death.”

For example, you might really like seppie in their ink with polenta, and you’d be happy to eat seppie in their ink with pasta.  But if you think that risotto is the best way on earth to eat seppie and ink, you’d say that risotto was their “morte.”  A normal person might just comment, “Well, I think seppie risotto is best of all.”  But if you are convinced that seppie were born to die in a plate of rice, you’d say “Risotto xe i so morte.”

Or take gray mullet.  Lino states “Rosto xe i so morte.”  You can fix them them any way you want, but he says that being grilled is their (correct, ideal, perfect) death.  Think “destiny.”  It sounds a little less drastic, but means the same thing.

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Any boat event — here, the launch of a new mascareta — calls for at least 400 salame or mortadella sandwiches, beverages, potato chips, and when things are really going well (as in this case) a bottomless vat of pasta e fagioli.

Ghe gera per cani e porchi, or Ghe gera per santi e paoli.  (Geh JEH-ra pehr CAH-nee eh POR-kee… pehr SAN-tee eh PAO-lee). “There was enough for dogs and pigs,” or “There was enough for saints and Pauls,” specifically Saint Paul.  I cannot discover any reason why Paul would have been singled out for special mention.  I’ve often heard the former, but only the other day did Lino come up with “saints and Pauls.”

They both mean the same thing: Abundance.  Food and drink beyond any measurement that could be considered prudent or rational.  It is a positive thing to say — it doesn’t imply waste, it implies generosity, hospitality, all you could ever deem necessary or acceptable in putting on a picnic or a wedding reception or a committee banquet.  (If you use it to describe what was available on your cruise, it only implies that you got what you paid for.)

But you wouldn’t say this, however complimentary it may be, to the provider himself.  You wouldn’t go up to the bride’s father and say “Wow, great party — there’s enough here for dogs and pigs.”  You would describe the festivities thus to your friends the next day in answer to the question, “How was it?”  If you say this, you’ve said it all, whether or not you go on to say there was Iranian caviar and Peach Melba and truffle risotto and millions of little salame sandwiches.

Multiplying a single saint (1: Paul, Unit: each) into a plural is an old-fashioned custom from the early 20th century; Lino says that his father, and many other Venetians, would make plurals out of names (not unlike the similar habit they have in Philadelphia of pluralizing nouns: “She writes for National Geographics,” for instance).

An example: In the old days Lino says it was normal to hear someone refer to the island, not as San Giorgio in Alga, but as San Zorzi in Alga (pronounced AH-eh-gah). Or, instead of Sant’ Angelo delle Polvere, it was “San Anzeli de le Polvere.”  A linguist or etymologist would understand this shift.  But people said it anyway, without wondering why.

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Lino brought me roses for my birthday. Three, of course.

Uno no xe da dar, Do no xe da tor, Tre xe d’amor, Quatro da mato, e Cinque d’inamorato.  “One isn’t to give, two aren’t to take, three are for love, four are from a crazy person, and five are from someone who’s in love.”  A curious bit of doggerel which defines the significance of the number of roses which a man might give to a lady.

It isn’t something you’d say every day, but this morning at the supermarket I was surprised to discover that Lino isn’t the only person left who still knows it.

The cashier had finished with me, and had just begun with the man behind me.  She saw that he had only three bottles of mineral water.  “Tre d’amor,” she quipped, to no one in particular, as she moved them down the belt, and on she went, ringing it up. It was great — it was like discovering I knew the secret password.

The numbers stop at five.  Perhaps more than five roses are too expensive to consider.  Anyway, if the number of roses were to continue past being in love, we’d be facing, say, Six is for your first fight, Seven is for getting lost because you wouldn’t stop to ask directions, Eight is for that vacation with the in-laws, Nine is for having gone to the soccer match with your buddies on your anniversary, and Ten is for having forgotten to close the car windows at the carwash. Or whatever the Venetian equivalent might be.

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This is a strope bush/tree, a species which loves humid environments. How convenient for the ingenious Venetians.

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Need to tie or bind up something? Just break off the right-length twig and strip away its leaves…

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As you see, this flexible little sprig can be bent and tightened and knotted. Not shown: The intermediate step of placing the twig, or preferably many of them, in a basin of water, to soften even more before using. The twig in its natural state still has a little too much spring in it to be reliable.

Stringer le strope (STRIN-jer eh STRO-peh).  Essentially it means to tighten your belt — drastic economizing.  I don’t know what they say in the rest of Italy, but in Venice this expression still does the job.

You could say “Gavemo da stringer le strope” (we’ve got to tighten the strope), or “Gavemo streto le strope” (we’ve tightened the strope).  Given that for the past eight years all we’ve heard is how there isn’t any money in the city, those municipal strope must be worn to mere threads by now.  Not to mention ours.

“Strope” are twigs of the Salix viminalis which have been soaked to become flexible, thereby serving, among other things, as natural cords for tying up things such as vine branches, bunches of flowers, or to make baskets, fish-traps, and so on.  I believe that the correct term for these natural twist-ties is “withy.” The twigs also are used to make wicker-work objects.  (“Wicker” in Italian is “vimini,” as per the scientific name.)

Bushes which could grow even to the size of small trees are found along the edges of canals and islands in the lagoon, and were just another of the innumerable useful things which the old Venetians harvested and used.  Everybody knew what strope were.  And most of those also knew what it meant to tighten them, either literally or figuratively.

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Betony, or “betonica” (photo: Aroche, Wikipedia).

Ti xe come parsemolo (tee zeh coh-meh par-SEH-mo-lo) or Ti xe pezio de la betonega (de ya beh-TON-eh-gah).  “You’re like parsley,” or “You’re worse than betony.”  What?  The first is easy: Lazy or unscrupulous or unimaginative cooks are prone to cover a dish with chopped parsley when they are aware that it needs a little help but they can’t be bothered to figure out what.

Parsley, like many things, does not improve in quality along with the quantity.  In fact, the more parsley on your plate, the more suspicious you should become. There are people who  throw parsley on everything, like there are people who find a word they like and just keep using it.  We had a neighbor when I was little who called everything “cunning.”  That would have been like parsley.

Therefore, to compare a person to parsley is not to comment on his/her nutritional or aesthetic qualities, but merely to say that the person is ubiquitous.  We used to see a certain man around town in so many different places and situations Lino nicknamed him “Parsemolo.”  It was years before we found out what his real name was.

Betony, another plant (Stachys officinalis), is now lost to everyday medicinal use — its first use was to defend a person from sorcery, but soon demonstrated more helpful daily qualities, especially as a diuretic, but which apparently could also deal with everything from gout to gallstones to drunkenness to dog bites.  Although nobody cultivates it around here, as far as I know, the expression lives on.

The Dizionario del Dialetto Veneziano (the touchstone of all Venetian words) says that this plant was once extensively cultivated in Venice, and that the usual phrase was “esser cognossuo come la betonega” — to be as well-known as betony.

The first time I heard somebody refer to betony, they were referring to Lino.  He was “worse than betony” because he seemed to know everybody we ran across.  They weren’t far wrong; a few days ago we were on a bus coming back from the mountains, and a lady got on at Strigno, a wide spot in the road about 130 km (80 miles) from Venice.  As she climbed aboard, Lino murmured to me, “We were in nursery school together.”

It isn’t totally strange that a Venetian would be found up in the Sugana valley in the summer; thousands of Venetians have headed that way since forever, spending at least part of August in a cooler clime.  But of all the Venetians to climb aboard at a truly insignificant place, it does strike me as noteworthy that Lino knew her.

But it just keeps happening.  He opened the Gazzettino this morning and saw a little article in which don F. B., a parish priest in a small town on the mainland, was quoted.  There was a picture of a conventional silver-haired priest with a one-size-fits-all expression.

“We were kids together,” Lino said.  “His family lived where Giamberto lives” (that is to say, near Campo San Vio).  Not enough information?  How about this:  “One of his brothers died when he (the brother) was very young.  Their mother ran a casin (brothel).”

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These are the round-breadstick bussolai.

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And these are the sweet-cookie bussolai. They’re both good.

Chi ga santoli ga bussolai.  (kee gah SAN-to-ee gah boo-so-YAH-ee).  “He who has santoli has bussolai.” A “santolo” is like a godparent, but in a wider sense is someone who is perfectly positioned, with the perfect amount of power, to be the perfect person to help you do something important that you couldn’t manage to do yourself.  A person who could find a job for your son would be a major santolo.  Further, a santolo would be someone available to you, but perhaps not available to your friends at the bar.  If you turn out to have a santolo who can help you resolve some difficulty, you automatically acquire an aura of special potency which you cannot — or won’t — share with anyone else.

So what are bussolai?  Technically speaking, the word comes from “bussola,” or compass. They are circular baked goods which can either be crunchy dried bread (like a round breadstick), or softer and flatter and sweeter, essentially a heavy cookie laden with butter and eggs and sugar.  The former is a specialty of Chioggia, or the islands, and the latter is a specialty of Burano (even though today the commercial bussolai are made on the mainland in Jesolo).

The overall meaning is: If you’ve got a protector, you’ll have food.

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This was little M’s first day at the beach in his life, and everything — sand, sun, water — made for a perfect moment to  snanarar.

Snanarar (znah-nah-RAR).  To futz around in a happy aimless way.  I’ve heard it used almost exclusively aimed at children.  (The adult version for any harmless incoherent activity is “tatarar via” (tah-tah-rar VEE-ah). You’d take your toddler to the beach to let him/her snanarar in the water, though you can snanarar doing enjoyable, meaningless things in other places.  Perhaps “pottering about” might be a rough equivalent.

I can’t find it in Boerio, but Lino’s assertion that its root is “anatra,” or duck, sounds good to me.  Ducks splashing and plotzing around with their webbed feet expresses at least a little of the delicious sense of formless pleasure doing whatever it is you enjoy.  I don’t mean needlepoint or ceramics; I think there has to be some element of frittering away the time in the process.  Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but every time I hear Lino say it about something it makes me smile.

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If lion were inclined to squaquarar about somebody, he might look like this.

Squaquarar (skwah-kwah-RAR).  Another word obviously derived from ducks, but less benevolent than snanarar. In this case, the quacking would be from the mouth of somebody talking behind your back, saying unpleasant or untrue things.  Gossiping, spreading tales, speaking disparagingly in a particularly thoughtless and unscrupulous  way.  I heard it for the first time not long ago when Lino said, “Well I’m not going to say anything about this to (name here), because he’ll just go and squaquarar around.”

It’s not surprising there are so many words in Venetian for the numberless ways in which people can talk about each other.  Venice is, as I’ve often said, essentially a small town in Ohio, where you see the same people many times a day, and propinquity inevitably creates some instinctive interest in their history, their character, their behavior, their clothes, their dogs, their children, how they behave in church, whether they even go to church, and so on.

Today I saw the woman who hangs out for hours at the bar/cafe with her two hysterical tiny dogs; she was walking down the fondamenta without the dogs.  And I thought, “How strange — I’ve never seen her without the dogs before.  Are they sick?  Did somebody kill them?  Were they arrested?  I never thought she could spend 20 minutes without the little vermin shrieking at her feet.  Have they been impounded?”  By the time she was out of sight I was still wondering about all this.  That’s what propinquity does to your brain.

If you see little bunches of women, or even bunches of men, standing around on the street or on the bridges and talking, obliviously blocking your way, I can promise you they are not talking about the Milan stock market or the melting polar ice caps or the latest Bruce Willis movie.  They’re talking about themselves, or their family, or your family, or retired people they used to work with, and they may well be squaquararing about them.  You’d never squaquarar about somebody you didn’t know.  What would be the point?

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“Piova e sol, le muneghe va in amor.” “Rain and sun, the nuns are falling in love.” I have no idea where this came from, and it doesn’t seem to have any hidden meaning.  Maybe the saying is intended to convey improbability, but I wouldn’t say one is much more unlikely than another. I may be wrong.


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Categories : Venetian-ness
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