Archive for Venetian-ness
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The bedsheets, as you recall, are known as nizioleti here, and are the characteristic street signs with their often-exotic names in the Venetian language.
But hidden within them was a problem which nobody had ever noticed — nobody except Tiziana Agostini, the Assessore (person officially responsible) for Place Names.
The nizioleti are in Venetian, but she thought they should be in Italian. Time to move on, leave that quaint little old past behind, step up the game. Was she ever surprised last December when she discovered that the Venetians were massively opposed to this cultural non-improvement. A citizens’ group quickly formed to stop the madness and promote the repairing and repainting of the good old names that were already in place and doing just fine as they were, thanks so much.
Citizens’ groups here can’t count on accomplishing much beyond letting their dudgeon be known, but in this case the response came from everywhere, it seemed, and it was unanimous: We want the old names back. Don’t fix the names. Leave the names the hell alone.
And the outcry seems to have worked.
Ms. Agostini came out from under her desk when the bombardment stopped, and has been meeting with the core citizens’ group with the intention of reviewing and correcting the situation. Fancy way of saying “Put the words back where they belong.”
Meanwhile, the Gazzettino has undertaken a poll of its readers. Every day for about a week (the last day will be March 16), the same list of names is published in the paper, and the reader can indicate his/her preference by ticking the appropriate box. Then one merely has to cut out the little survey form, and take it to one of the drop-off stations. Happily, one of them is right here in via Garibaldi, though I would have gone all the way to the train station if that were my only option.
Naturally I’ve been ticking all the boxes on the right every day, and will keep on doing so till the end.
Then we’ll see if it ever made any difference.