Archive for Venetian-ness


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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Washing, bleaching, and aging

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1x1.trans Washing, bleaching, and aging

Sun that’s strong enough to make shadows this black is sun that is drying your clothes like a blowtorch.

As everyone knows by now, laundry, over time, has become a minor obsession with me.

I’m not alone; to judge by the number of tourists who stop daily to snap photos of lines of drying clothes, hanging out your garments has become as quaint as hand-grinding your cornmeal.

Drying clothes, though, requires only a cord, a handful of clothespins, and sun and breeze.  Or sun or breeze.  Or lots of time and hope.  One memorable day I hung out an excellent collection of raiment, and we went for a long walk.  It rained.  (Bad.)  It stopped.  (Good.)  This happened three times before we got home.  This sort of day will make you appreciate the sun more than eight days on the beach in Curacao.

The washing of said garb, however, is an entirely different matter.  Since I’ve been on Earth, there have always been washing machines of some sort.  But Lino, and anybody else born before, say, 1950, recalls otherwise.  If you’re a woman, you recall it vividly.

How do I know this?  Thank you for asking.

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And if you can add wind to the sun, you’ve got the perfect menu for clothes which may or may not be totally clean, but they WILL be dry. Only in a place that is humid much of the year can you come to appreciate the glorious sensation of truly dry clothes.

One morning, my phone rang.  It was one of my dearest elderly friends, and she was asking for help.  Not for herself, but for her equally elderly cousin, L.G, 84 years old, who, in the middle of their morning walk to the supermarket, began to feel seriously faint.

My friend called the ambulance, and waited with L.G., of course.  But she couldn’t manage also to accompany her cousin to the hospital, because she herself didn’t have any strength to spare. When you’re over 85 and have constant pain in most of your joints, especially your right knee, you have to ration your energy, and she had already used up her allotment for the day.  Would I be willing to run to the hospital, intercept L.G. when she was delivered to the Emergency Room, and see her through whatever had to be seen through?  There is only one answer to that question, and that’s the answer I gave.

We were at the hospital seven hours, which isn’t important to this story; most Emergency Rooms take a leisurely approach to people whose life is not in imminent danger (perhaps not recognizing that the accumulated tedium can be deleterious to your health).  So I spent the day on my feet, standing next to her in her wheelchair and strolling along with her to whatever X-rays or other tests had to be made.  No food for either one of us all day, because I knew if I were to wander away even for 20 seconds, the doctor who hadn’t been born yet when we signed in would suddenly appear and take her someplace I would never find her again.

All of this is preamble.

We were chatting away (she had begun to feel less faint rather quickly).  She was telling me about her other assorted physical problems.

“And my wrist really hurts,” she told me, holding up her right arm.  “It hurts so much I can hardly move it.”

“What happened?” I asked, imagining a fall, or her running into the furniture in the middle of the night.

“It happened when I was wringing out the sheets.”

Excuse me?

“I had washed the sheets and I was wringing them out.”  Obvious?  Not in the third millennium.

I stared at her. I once mopped up all the water in the bottom of Lino’s boat using a terrycloth hand-towel from my hotel, and I can tell you that after about an hour, wringing out sodden cotton begins to hurt. It has never been my fate to have to hand-wash a sheet, but I can imagine it.

What I couldn’t imagine was an 84-year-old woman doing it.  But she does.

She grew up washing sheets by hand; it’s not as if she had been forced to start doing it when she turned 70.  This has always been normal, and while she’s perfectly aware that the washing machine has been invented, she doesn’t see any need for it.

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If I had to wash this sheet by hand, I swear I’d never use it. I’d leave it in its coruscating splendor and go sleep on newspapers and sawdust.

When she was discharged, I accompanied her back to her apartment, where I got a look at how this particular lady lives. I don’t say that her situation is typical, but I wouldn’t say it’s unique, either.

First, the climb to her apartment is up two flights of stairs which are as steep as the ratlines on a square-rigger.  She does this every day, though when she goes to the mountains she has to ask her neighbor to help her horse her suitcase down (and up) the stairs.

On the other hand, she has lived in this apartment her entire life; she was born here.  So she’s had time to get used to the degree of ascent involved. I can tell you that if it were a mountain trail, plenty of people would just turn around and go back to the lodge.

The apartment itself reminded me of my grandfather’s house, primarily because the furniture was old, and although in reasonable condition, it showed every sign of having been left to fend for itself.  If something wasn’t broken — I mean totally broken and useless — it would be there forever.  A little break, or nick, or crack, doesn’t count as damage. Everything was old, and seemed to be tinted with the same general, faded-all-over earth-tone from the distant days when the concept of color scheme was simpler, or perhaps hadn’t been invented yet.  The whole apartment smelled kind of tired.

Among the many things that hadn’t been changed since she was a girl was the kitchen sink.  It is a rectangular slab of granite, with a shallow rectangular hollow in the center, and I’ve been told that a sink like this could be sold for its weight in almost any currency you choose. I’ve seen another like this — even bigger — in the kitchen of a palace, installed next to another amazing artifact: A fireplace remaining from the days when you cooked in cauldrons over the flames. (More about that in a moment.) But the palace residents were not aged widows living on a pension.  Au extremely contraire.

Back to L.G. This granite receptacle is where she washes everything — dishes, sheets, herself. She doesn’t have a shower or a bathtub.  She doesn’t have a hot-water heater, either. If you want water, it’s cold.  She does have heat, though, and she has a toilet, in a tiny cubicle about two inches larger than the appliance itself.

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Someone actually made this sign. That person never had to do the laundry, he was so busy being funny.

I wondered silently whether this arrangement was the result of habit, or parsimony, or sloth. You can make a case for all of these factors. But the truth is otherwise.

The reason, I was informed by a reliable source, is that she isn’t sharp enough to understand how to operate it.

Faced with the challenge of attempting to operate a washing machine, and almost certainly failing, a wet sheet is just simpler, even if it does have to be washed and wrung out using nothing but her own ten little toothpick-sized fingers.  Just like she has always done.

The history of washing machines (by which I mean the mechanical invention, not the woman herself), begins in 1851. Many improvements in the design rapidly followed.  I realize that not everyone could afford one, but buying a washing machine wasn’t as unusual as, say, buying a flying saucer.  Anyone in Venice who had the means to get one did not hesitate.

This alacrity was inspired by the fact that virtually everyone washed everything by hand until the end of World War II, and often beyond.  Lino and his older sister (born in 1929) have educated me on how Wash Day proceeded at their house.

They had running water in their second-floor apartment, and a sink.  But their mother, like many Venetians, was still cooking over a wood fire in a fireplace, just like Little House on the Canal.  “There was a chain that hung down,” Lino said; “the cooking pot was attached to it, and that’s how my mother cooked.”

Wood fires make ashes.  Ashes plus boiling water make lye, or in Venetian, “lissia” (YEE-see-ah).  Lye makes soap.

Lino’s father made their soap from the aforementioned lye and the fat and bones that had been saved from whatever meat they had eaten.  He boiled it all, as Lino remembers, in a big pot in the kitchen and then poured it into a wooden container, where it dried and could be cut into pieces.

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The advertisers tried to make doing the laundry look like more fun than dancing the maypole, but I don’t believe any woman was taken in.

When it was wash-day, your clothes or other fabric items such as tablecloths went into a big wooden tub, and you got to work with a washboard. The washboard in a Venetian family had two uses.

First, to scrub clothes (over time, the scrubbing could begin to wear out the fabric, to the point of producing holes.  Hence “bucato” as the general word for “laundry” — it means “holed.”)

The second use was a kickboard to help children learn to swim.  Generations of Venetian babies, up to and including Lino, clung to mom’s washboard as they thrashed their way around the water — usually out in the lagoon, but a nearby canal was just as good, and more convenient, too.  That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

But lissia also makes bleach.  As Lino’s sister explained it, they would carefully layer the items to be bleached into the wooden washtub, and cover them with a cloth.  Then they would pour the lissia into the tub and leave it all to soak for a while. “Your clothes came out perfectly white,” she said, and smiled, remembering how her mother would look at the result with a sort of bedrock satisfaction.

You can understand her smile if you know that Lino’s father drove a steam train, fueled by coal, of course, on the Venice-Trento line.  He came home in the evening black all over. That’s not the inspiration of the phrase “ashes to ashes,” but wood-ash seems to have been the perfect weapon against coal dust.

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Now this would truly be a white to be proud of. Maybe you have to sell your soul to the devil to get your clothes this white.

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I don’t know who she is, but I’d bet anything she made lissia at home when she was a girl.

Lissia was such a common element of life that, like so many common elements, it became a very useful term to express all kinds of situations, and some of these expressions are still used.

Far lissia” (to make lissia), to really clean right down to the ground.  You could also say this if you’ve eaten up everything in the house (as we would say “really cleaned out”).

Perder el lissia e ‘l saon” (pehr-dehr el EE-see-ha ehl sah-OHN — to lose the lye and the soap). It means you’ve totally wasted effort and money and have nothing to show for it all.

Mi sugaro’ sta lissia” (Mee soo-gah-ROH sta EE-see-ah — I’ll dry out this lye).  You’d say this when you mean to really settle an issue or deal with a problem once and for all.

Co e done fa pan e lissia, i omeni scampa via” (coe eh doe-neh fa pahn eh EE-see-ah, ee OH-men-ee scampa vee-ah –When the women make bread or lye, the men get the heck out of there).  Centuries of domestic conflict-resolution are contained in this phrase, which I think must have been coined by a man.  Making really good bread, and making lye, were two strenuous tasks that would inevitably exhaust the wife.  And an exhausted wife, as all husbands discover, is a dangerous person to be around.  Flee!

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On the island of Burano, housewives can still rig up their temporary clotheslines the way women did in Venice a century ago. I like this method. It’s simple, cheap, and efficient.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

The color: Easy to discern without being objectionable. The size: Adequate. The clarity: As glass. The provenance: Mother Unknown. Father, too.

Everyone has been so busy recently dealing with the nizioleti and washing and bleaching and ironing them, so to speak, that there hasn’t been much time to worry about anything else.

But now that we’re looking at the walls, we can see that something is going on that’s almost as disconcerting as the rewriting of the bedsheets.

It has to do with the yellow signs attached to assorted walls around the city whose arrows indicate the right direction to take in order to reach the major points of interest: San Marco, Rialto, Accademia, and a few other points near and far. There aren’t enough of these signs, and they’re not always positioned at the really necessary spot, though admittedly the intentions are good. But that isn’t the problem.

Unlike the nizioleti, which were in danger of being un-Venetianized, their yellow cousins represent a bureaucratic convolution which is much knottier than whether to use double or single consonants.  And these yellow cousins don’t even have a cute nickname, unless you want to call them “mystery” (giallo, in Italian — the same word as yellow).

The problem is that they too need therapy — to be repaired, cleaned up, made uniform throughout the city, and generally titivated.  But they have no parents, no guardian, no adult supervision.  Nobody is responsible for them.  Nobody even knows who put them up, or when.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

When you think of it, there are millions of intersections in the world where a choice would be useful, and even desirable. Here it mainly looks funny. (Photo: Bill Marsano)

This more than usual strangeness came to light when a merchant wrote to the city to complain about another merchant who had made a little personal project of blacking out the words on certain normal signs, and installing a new yellow sign — example: “Per Rialto” — with an arrow pointing in the direction of his shop. This had been going on for six years, which I think demonstrates an amazing forbearance on the part of his competitors.

There’s a saying which describes this kind of behavior: “The devil makes the pots, but he doesn’t make their lids.”  Which is to say that something skulduggerous might very well succeed up to a certain point, but it cannot remain concealed forever.  You may be cooking along at a great rate on some sketchy project, but it will boil over, dry up and burn, catch fire, develop botulinum toxin, or otherwise eventually be discovered.

However, when the annoyed merchant wrote to ask the city to intervene to correct this delinquency, the city did not reply with the traditional comment no ghe xe schei.

Instead, the particular department (Urban Maintenance) informed him that “The Department of Public Works doesn’t install the yellow signs, and they don’t conform to the current regulations.  In all of the Historic Center a signage indicating the most usual touristic routes are the object of continuous variations and tampering. It is impossible to determine the pre-existence, provenance, or eventual proprietors of these signs.

“Whatever intervention,” the reply continued, “requested by citizens or commercial operators for maintenance, cleaning up, renovation, or new installation, can only be made after a decision shared by the assessori (councilors) of Public Works, Commerce, Tourism, and Productive Activity” (the same thing as commerce, but different).

To sum up:  We don’t know whose they are, but they’re not legal. We don’t know who put them there, but you can’t touch them. These are deep waters, Watson.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

Sometimes there are so many they essentially cancel each other out in the typical tourist’s overloaded brain. Here we have four, one being also in Hebrew. (Photo: Bill Marsano).

But Alessandro Maggioni, the assessore of Public Works, wanted to clarify the situation. ”All of the public signage belongs to the administration, that’s a certainty,” he said, showing admirable pluck.  “If there is damage, the Public Works substitutes the individual signs, but it’s true that to touch their indications we have to have the approval of the relevant department, that is, Tourism, and I know that for a while now they’ve been proceeding with a project of reorganization of the old signage of the city.”

After the epic adventure with the nizioleti, I am waiting with my follicles tingling to see what this might turn out to mean.

Meanwhile, follow the arrows with more than your usual caution.  That, or just don’t buy anything along the way.

That’ll show everybody you’re not to be trifled with.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

And then there are the locals — presumably shopkeepers — who rebel against being treated as information centers, and put up their own signs.  (I noticed this as I sat waiting in the hair salon.) These are extremely helpful, but after a few big rains begin to lose their luster, or fall off. I have also seen names and arrows applied to walls with spray paint, which is more durable, but the words can be hard to make out amid the other graffiti. And so it goes. Citizens try to resolve problems on their own but the fact that they have been driven to do so makes the city look — what’s the word I’m looking for? — silly.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade

The stage is ready, all we need are the people.

1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade

Voila’ — people.  Jammed into the refreshment corner, but they did listen to the speeches first.

The votes are in, but they’re still being counted.  So far, though, the number of ballots on the spelling of the nizioleti has exceeded 1,500.  And they are unanimous in favor of bringing back the old spelling, the old words, the old way, period.

This information was imparted by Tiziano Graziottin, from the Gazzettino, to a happy gathering last Sunday on a cold, rainy morning in the Fish Market at the Rialto.  I was interested to see maybe 50-70 people show up — perhaps more might have come if the weather had cooperated — and I was even more interested to see that only two people from the boating world (besides Lino and me) were there.

Why is this interesting?  First, because I hardly ever see people in groups who are not of the boating ilk. Second, because for the past several years, the president of the Coordinating Committee of the Rowing Clubs, a certain Giovanni Giusto, has made it his own highly emotional, high-volume mantra that Venetian rowing is one of the last holdouts –perhaps the last holdout — of true venezianita‘, or Venetian-ness.

If that’s the case, I would have assumed (Zwingle’s Fifth Law: Never Assume) that boating people would have showed up in a solid, even if small, block of solidarity.  But no.  Let’s say that the weather prevented coming by oar — which it did — people who cared could have come by foot, just like us.

But the boating world was not to be seen.  That particular piece of Venetian culture and heritage is apparently floating around sealed inside its own bubble, and the other piece of V.C. and H., i.e., the nizioleti, is doing likewise.  In a city this small, it seems bizarre that there should be no contact between these two tracks carrying the same train.

As I looked around, I tried to guess from which quadrant these people emerged.  The universities?  The art world?  The music world? The world of linguistics?  The world of free snacks? I could only be sure about the last.

1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade

The new group is a fusion of two Facebook groups dedicated to the above-named elements of Venice’s corporeal being. Joining forces seems like a great thing. Next, I think they should make enough shirts so anybody who joins (me, for example) could get one. Or at least have the chance to buy one. So far, these are only for the staff. So fine: Make me staff!

1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade

The general sentiment of the occasion — of the project, mission, crusade — was expressed in Venetian on the sign shown above.  Translation by me:

How many centuries of history are in this nizioleto,

Names of streets, written in dialect,

Squares, little squares, parishes and streets,

From the Bridge of the Beret-Makers to the Bridge of the Breasts,

But these names weren’t given by chance,

But according to strict criteria.

Each street we walk along reminds us of some fact (deed),

And, why not, even an ugly crime,

The Riva of Biasio, the Rio Tera’ of the Assassins,

As reported by the great Tassini …

To say nothing of the ancient trades,

Like the milk-seller or the barrel-maker,

Walk around the city with your head held high,

Every nizioleto is a truth.

And beware anybody who touches them

Or writes them in Italian,

Because we’ll bite their hand.

Poor nizioleti, old and worn,

And to fix them, there’s never any money.

The purpose of the festa wasn’t only to report on the voting, but also to promote (in a very soft way), the new organization known as “Masegni e Nizioleti.”  (The masegni are the old trachyte paving stones, which have been endangered for the past several years by replacement by blocks of some other substance.  I think it’s a kind of stone, but once it’s on the ground, it looks to the street the same way Italianized words look on the nizioleti: Strange, out of place, and uninvited). The sheets and the stones groups decided to join forces and it appears, at least in the honeymoon stage, to be a happy marriage.

I pulled out 10 euros and signed on as a member of Masegni and Nizioleti. I have no idea how far the group is going to get, but I do know that on May 25, squads will be organized to clean graffiti off the walls.  I will take a break from whinging, put on my rubber gloves, pick up my bucket and brush, or sponge, or broom, and get to work, EVEN THOUGH I know that a week later graffiti will reappear.

More about the masegni themselves in my next; they are a story in themselves (as are we all).  But this is enough for one day.  Steady the Buffs!  Tote that bedsheet! All hands to the pumps, and see you on the barricades.  Bring refreshments.

1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade

And there are a good number of nizioleti whose primary problem isn’t spelling — it’s having letters at all.  Gad.


1x1.trans The little bedsheet party, and a new crusade
Categories : Problems, Venetian-ness
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