Archive for June, 2009


The Corfu caper

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corfu-ionian-sea-map2Our week in Corfu (known to the Greeks as Kerkyra) with the club’s gondolone (8-oar gondola) was interesting, entertaining, diverting — I pause before applying the word “fun,” though it was certainly much more fun than a slap across the belly with a wet fish.

Venice ruled Corfu -- the door, hinge, and key to the Adriatic -- from 1501 to 1797, and held it against three Ottoman sieges.

Venice ruled Corfu -- the door, hinge, and key to the Adriatic -- from 1501 to 1797, and held it against three Ottoman sieges. Corfu was the only part of Greece which never fell under Turkish domination.

I’m using generic terms, though,  because it was sort of a generic experience.   We’ve been to Greece with the boat for other events, so I have some means of comparison.  

The basic outline was to load the boat onto a truck (the truck travels on the ferry with us); we departed  at 2:00 PM and arrived in Corfu  at 1:30 PM the next day.  

Then we unloaded the boat and rowed it to its base camp in a small marina under the flank of the Old Fortress.  

Getting ready to go to work.

Getting ready to go to work.

The marina had a good bar, too, with excellent lemonade.   These things matter.

The occasion for all this was a long weekend labeled “Italian Days,” a collection of  cross-cultural events more or less arranged around the finish of the Brindisi-Corfu yacht race.   It was as good a reason as any to choose the second weekend of June.

Apart from the yachts, the program  concentrated on  the many links binding Venice and Corfu over the centuries — a bond which was

A plaque on an external wall of the New Fortress records in Latin that the work of fortification was completed in 1728 by Marco Antonio Diedo and Giorgio Grimani, under Doge Alvise III Mocenigo.  The winged lion of San Marco naturally seals the declaration.

A plaque on an external wall of the New Fortress records in Latin that the work of fortification was completed in 1728 by Marco Antonio Diedo and Giorgio Grimani, under Doge Alvise III Mocenigo. The winged lion of San Marco makes it official.

maintained  for the almost 500 years in which Venice essentially owned the island.   A few links that weren’t acknowledged much were the commercial, political, and military ones, which only left Links Lite such as literature and art.  (By “commercial link” I mean  things like the fact that most of the 3 million olive trees on  the island were planted by the Venetians, whose interest obviously was not landscape gardening but the olives and their oil.)  There were also lectures and concerts and exhibitions and so on.    

A relief carving of the town and Old Fortress (at the time, the Only Fortress) of Corfu, affixed to the facade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice.  It is one of six depictions of places at which Adm. Antonio Barbaro served the Republic.  If you look at the lower left corner, you see the faint outline of a small harbor containing a large galley.  This is where we kept the gondolone at night; no galleys, but many smallish sailboats.

A relief carving of the town and Old Fortress (at the time, the Only Fortress) of Corfu, affixed to the facade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice. It is one of six depictions of places at which Adm. Antonio Barbaro served the Republic. In the lower left corner is the faint outline of an L-shaped breakwater which created a small harbor (helpfully demonstrated by the outline of the galley). Now used by a local boating club, this harbor is where we stowed the boat at night.

There was also an official press conference in the mayor’s office, with the usual speeches and exchanges of shiny official dust-gatherers.
(L to r) H.E. Giampaolo Scarante, Italian Ambassador to Greece, the mayor of Corfu, and the President of the City Council of Venice.

(L to r) H.E. Giampaolo Scarante, Italian Ambassador to Greece, the mayor of Corfu, and the President of the City Council of Venice.


(L to r, foreground) Two procurators of the Venetian Republic, whose red tunic indicates they are of the Lower Chamber; a Capitan da mar, the general admiral in time of war, distinguished by his inverted-cone hat; the doge, also distinguished by his headwear, called the "corno"; another procurator. (L to r, second row) Two fanti da mar, members of an infantry regiment assigned to ships of the Venetian navy. All costumes are accurate for the first half of the 1500s.

The scene was completed by  a contingent of “figuranti,”  or historic-costume/re-enactors from the “Serenisimo Tribunal de l’Inquisithion,” the Venice chapter of an organization known as CERS, the Consortium of European Re-enactment Societies.   Among the  various characters represented with great accuracy  is, naturally, a doge.   The doge in this group  is a great guy, he’s a retired fire chief.   Bedecked in all his regalia, he has a way of appearing both imposing and ingratiating, not an easy trick and something I doubt any real doge ever tried.  

Our boat was probably the most Venetian element of all, especially considering how much pounding she’s taken and how little maintenance she’s ever been given.   Being pounded and neglected being two of the primary aspects of Venice today, I mean.

Our job was to be at the prescribed place at the prescribed hours to offer free boat rides to anybody who wanted to be rowed in a gondola (even a big one) for a few minutes.  

Here’s my quick scorecard:

The plus side:

  • The trip on the overnight  Minoan Lines  ferry from Venice to Corfu.     Leaving Venice on a ship — in fact, going anywhere on a ship — is the best.   It was fun the first time because it was strange and new; it was fun the seventh time because it was familiar.  
  • Hanging out with my friends, a very eccentric bunch with curious bits of personality flapping around like untied shoelaces.   In the un-eccentric contingent  I place His Excellency Giampaolo Scarante, the  Italian Ambassador to Greece,  and his effervescent wife, Barbara, who are two total mensches and our guardian angels.   It’s due to them that we are invited to join these frolics.
  • Being in Greece.   It’s never bad.   It’s impossible for it to be bad.   Greece, however touristic it may have become, never disappoints me.   On the contrary.
  • The sun.   I love the sun and this is one sun that means what it says.   You walk out the front door and you feel like you’ve just been thrown face-down on a skillet.   I like this for short periods; then what I really like is sitting in the shade sipping a frappe, or iced coffee.   The cafe  offered us little ice-cream bonbons, too, which was a novelty — perfect in the heat, but only if you ate them within 18 seconds of their arrival.   Which was not a problem for me.
  • The food.   I love Greek food, though some of my Venetian cohorts reserved judgment (mostly) because many of them are unapologetic food fascists who think the only fodder worth ingesting is Italian.
  • The rowing, what little of it we ever eventually got to do.   The wind in the afternoon made the return to base camp extremely diverting, not to mention the waves from the many passing ferries and hovercraft.
  • Seeing the Venetian fortresses, the Old and the New.   Both are stupendous constructions, which resist admiring adjectives as  effectively as  every missile the Turks hurled at them in three failed sieges.  
    The Old Fortress, on the site of a Byzantine fort, was built, enlarged, and re-fortified from the 13th to the 16th centuries.  It now provides offices and other space for the city archives, and the University of the Ionian.

    The Old Fortress, on the site of a Byzantine fort, was built, enlarged, and re-fortified between the 13th and 16th centuries. It now provides office and other space for various departments of the city government, as well as for the University of the Ionian.

     We had to pass through the Old Fortress four times a day and it just got more amazing each time, not to mention rounding the very point of the peninsula  where the fort looms in order to get to our rendezvous point.   If nothing else, looking at the fort from whatever distance or perspective made you realize in a visceral way how important Corfu was to the Venetian Republic, and how seriously the Venetians intended that the island should not fall into Ottoman hands, which would have been the End of Everything.   And they succeeded.   I know they were bandits but they really got the job done.

    The crew, having clocked out, leaves the Old Fortress.

    The crew, having clocked out, leaves the Old Fortress.

The minus side:

  • Lack of customers.   Unfortunately, the heat, lack of publicity, and disastrous location of our boat worked against the hoped-for mass of passengers.     The few that wandered past were more or less like stragglers from the Retreat from Caporetto.
  • Our hours, which were 10-1 and 5-8.   Looks good on paper, but not so good when you’re tied up next to an esplanade that qualifies as the  concrete equivalent of the Nefud Desert, the one Lawrence of Arabia had to cross at night, otherwise they’d all have died.   8-10 AM would have been perfect, as far as the climate is concerned, because the early morning is heavenly, but no Greek (or tourist) in his right, or even totally deranged, mind, would ever be up at that hour.   So our window of opportunity was really from 10-10:15.     Of course we  were good soldiers and waited, till even we couldn’t take it anymore.   Ditto the afternoon.   After about 6:30 a person can begin to imagine going out on the water, but by then we had lost whatever desire to perform that we might have had, and any potential passengers were thinking of showers, drinks and dinner.
  • In the organizers’  defense, however, I can’t think of any other embarkation point that would have been even slightly feasible.   So there you are.

    Lino thinking Corfiote thoughts.

    Lino thinking Corfiote thoughts, in the center of the Sun's Anvil. The Old Fortress makes a nice touch.

  • Dinner.   Not the food, which was fine,  organized in restaurants which had set out long tables for our contingent, the figuranti, the assorted politicos and their assorted consorts who had tagged along, etc. etc.     The problem was the hour, which was usually toward 10 PM, which meant finishing toward 1:00 AM.   This is a stretch of time which God intended for sleeping, not eating.   Or if eating, not to be followed immediately by sleeping, which some of us were on the verge of even as our jaws continued to grind.   Hard on the old internals.

But now we’re back, and I’m sorry it didn’t last longer.   Of course I would do it all again tomorrow.

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Happy couples

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This is just one of my random musings; they usually come when I’m doing hard labor, of which there is plenty every day.

It’s the old idea of imagining what certain historical personages would do or say if they found themselves thrown together at, say, some cocktail party in a trendy loft in the meatpacking district.    The kind of gathering where you realize you know absolutely no one but the host, who has long since disappeared in the scrum.

So I was washing the dishes when suddenly Copernicus came into my mind.   He seemed lonely.   I cast around for somebody  who  could keep him company till at least the next tray of canapes came past, and I thought, Baby June.   Already this party is looking up.

So I needed more.    George Burns is staring out the  window — odd, I know, even I have trouble picturing him standing still — so I sent him Marie Curie.   There.   He’ll make her smile, which I think she probably hasn’t done since she fainted from hunger in her freezing little garret as a student in Paris.   And she’ll give  him  a leg up on something really important about the subatomic  world, which you have to admit is a subject that has always been lacking in his shows.  

So we  throw out a batch of models and a few publicists and screenwriters and street artists to make space for some more happy couples.   I think Nikola Tesla and Edith Wharton would be smokin’.     I know he would be pretty far out along the edge of the envelope for her, the edge of the flap that cuts your tongue,  but I believe that she could talk with anybody.   That’s what real sophistication and real manners means and real intelligence means.   I have no doubt that by the end of the evening he’d be thinking how smart she was and a little less about his own scintillating brain.

Then I got to imagining Enrico Dandolo and Mary Anderson (you know, the woman who invented the windshield wiper).   He was one of the most pragmatic people ever born, and I think   he’d have liked her.   Or at least understood her.   I’m serious.   Because I don’t think many people understood him, either.  

Joan of Arc and George Clooney.

Ernest Hemingway and Marian Anderson.

Captain James Cook and Wilma Rudolph.  

Margaret Sanger and Hereward the Wake.

Vitale Bramani and St. Hilda of Whitby.

None of these really working for you?   Okay, how about this:

Martha Stewart and Stalin.    

Back to work.

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The Vogalonga bites back

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Every year since 1975, the organizing committee picks a Sunday in spring and announces the date of the next edition of the Vogalonga, or “long row.”   When we heard it was going to be May 31 this year, the first thing most of us thought was “Saharan sun-scorch.”   None of us thought “Arctic gale winds,” at least not until we looked out the window that morning.


The poster from 2002.

The poster from 2002.

What it is:    

  •  A 30-km (18 miles) course around the islands of the northern lagoon, beginning and starting in the bacino of San Marco, open to any boat propelled by oars.vademecum
  • A chance for people to get down and party, before and after, and occasionally also during.

What it isn’t:

  • A race.   It starts at 9:00 AM with a blast from the cannon on the island of San Giorgio and a glorious ringing of major church bells.   It ends when you return to your base camp, wherever you’ve organized it.   The reviewing stand at the mouth of the Grand Canal, where your diploma of participation and medal get thrown into your boat, closes at 2:30.   But as far as anybody’s concerned, you can get home long after lights-out.
  • A protest against anything.   A foundation-myth has  been created over the years, for reasons having more to do with local politics than anything else,  that this amateur non-competitive marathon is a protest against the “motondoso,” the infamous wave damage which is destroying the city.      Motondoso is a fatal phenomenon which  Venetians call the “cancer of Venice” and deserves, more than to be protested against, to be  resolved once and for all.    

The reason it makes no sense to promote this event as a protest is because:

  • Each year of the past 35, the motondoso has increased exponentially.   If a once-a-year Sunday morning mega-row is supposed to convey serious dissension, something isn’t working.
  • By now, the number of participating Venetians has shrunk from 99.9% of the total rowers to about 20%.   Or, of some 1,600 boats, only around 300 were Venetian; the rest come from everywhere else — the US, Canada, Russia, Australia, all of Europe, even the Comoro Islands.    
  • The Venetians already know everything they need to know about motondoso, including the futility of protesting it, either with oars or guns (though guns haven’t yet been tried.   Hm…).    
  • The non-Venetians also have no power to affect anything that happens in Venice, except perhaps  the quantity or quality of the  garbage they may or may not leave behind.   Other than that, it’s pretty clear that if the city government  can plug its ears and sing LA-LA-LA-LA when  its voting citizens  speak up, it’s not going to change everything when a batch  of  Hungarians or Poles or Kiwis  or Comorians lodges a complaint.   Which they wouldn’t anyway, because unless some feral taxi should capsize them, they’re probably not going to be too bothered about waves, because motorboats are forbidden along the course.   So the rowers have very little chance to  experience the glories of motondoso in any case.

One other thing: I’ve  experienced a few protests over time, events involving mounted policemen and tear gas and so on.   I don’t remember there being people laughing and  waving to their friends and taking each other’s pictures and drinking beer.    Call it  whatever you like; the Vogalonga is essentially  one big  party, and two large objects like parties and protests  just can’t occupy the same space.   So much for the protest theory.  

We were there this year rowing “San Marco,” the club’s 8-oar gondola.   And I’m pretty sure that like everyone else out there when the starting cannon fired at 9:00 AM, we were all thinking, in our various ways, “ohgodohgodohgod.”  

Lino admitted when it was all over that he’d had the tiniest hint of a second thought as we started out, but he’s done all 34 and he was determined to make it through the 35th.   There aren’t many left who can make that claim, and he was going to do it unless, you know, sheer survival were to become an issue.   Not too bad, when  you consider that within the space of five months, he’s had a new hip and a pacemaker installed.   And that two of the boys aboard had rowed only twice.   Ever.

A tremendous wind was blowing, the implacable northeastern blast called the bora, and there were gusts up to 50 miles an hour.   Also, the tide was going out,  which meant that naturally everyone had to row against it, too.   Wind and tide.   And it was cold.   I’m telling you.  





 It took us seven hours to finish what normally would have taken four (well, five), but at least we didn’t run into anybody or anything, like channel-marker pilings, though we came close a few times, and we didn’t capsize, which is more than some 30 other boats could claim.   The assistance teams stationed around the course had to call for reinforcements to pull people and assorted hulls and oars out of the water.

But we did it,  due  mainly to Lino, not only because of his strength but even more because of his experience and savvy (“You don’t row with your arms,” he says, “you row with your brain.”   The proof of this was seeing the consequences to rowers who didn’t think of how to find some way to make their life out there at least slightly easier, looking for positions that would be more sheltered from the wind, or where the tide would be less strong).

But even with his experience and grit, we, like everybody else out there, had to put everything into it.   The wind just never let up, though occasionally it would hurl itself against the right side of the boat, which would slew to the right, so I had to exert a sudden powerful counterstroke  to keep the boat from slewing around to the right, usually in front of an onrushing cavalcade of hapless rowers.   Lino, astern,  exerted his own counterstroke whenever the wind shifted to the left side of the boat.   the same when the wind shifted.   The others just kept rowing along, like the slaves below decks in Ben-Hur.

But we all had confidence in him, which was the real secret to it all.   I can say that because another boat from our club turned back.   It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it physically; they had no confidence.    Mental, not muscles.   I want you to remember that —  it’s another of those crucial Life Lessons you pick up in a boat.   I have quite a list by now.

Just one of the events at the turn into the Cannaregio Canal.  Photo by Karol Sibielak.

Just one of the events at the turn into the Cannaregio Canal. Photo by Karol Sibielak.

About those capsized boats.   Some accounts make it sound as if the entire course was like the Spanish Armada being blown around England.   In fact, the accidents were pretty much limited to  a particular category in a particular location:

  • Low slim sculls of various-size crews.   Not really built for the high seas, as it were; not especially capable of having the last word in an argument with waves.
  • The entrance to the Cannaregio Canal, where the rowers enter Venice and head into the Grand Canal and down to the finish line.
  • This was the most hazardous place for sculls because it was full of large, heavy, following waves caused by the particular behavior of the tides at that point.   And because….
  • Many rowers didn’t calculate for the rebound of the waves from the nearby embankment.   They might have managed to surf along atop one set of inbound waves, but couldn’t deal with the busted-up remains of the same waves coming back at them.
And to think he'd almost done the entire course.  I hate that.  Photo by Karol Sibielak.

And to think he’d almost done the entire course. I hate that. Photo by Karol Sibielak.

Knowledgeable, or cautious, rowers tended to swing wide before positioning themselves for entry into the canal, thereby avoiding the worst.

I’m explaining all this because you never know when it might be useful to know this.

I took several aspirin and was in bed before 9:00 that night.   My last thought was wondering which parts of my body were going to hurt the most the next morning.

Surprisingly, very few.   Almost none, really, except for a lovely pair of screaming matched trapezius muscles.   And my hands, which felt like lobster claws.    Gripping an oar, exerting about a thousand pounds-force per square inch on a stick of wood for much of seven hours, has quite an effect on the old mitts.   All those years of piano lessons?   No more hope of Rachmaninoff for me.

What really astonishes me is my capacity to remember events like this with something like pleasure.   Must be hormones or something, the euphoria of survival.   The traps have stopped crying, the hands are back at the keyboard, and I’d say I’m almost ready to do it all again.   Like so many things in Erlaworld, it makes no sense.

(Below: In the Cannaregio Canal.   We’re smiling because the end is in sight, and because finally we’re going with the tide.   I’m the waver wearing the red baseball cap.   I have no recollection who I’m waving at.)

vogalonga-928 VOGALONGA USE


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