Archive for August, 2009

Aug
22

Kids coming out of the woodwork

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I love the fact that this neighborhood is running over with  children, like some cosmic bathtub.  

If your mom does force you to go shopping with her first thing in the morning, at least you can make it easy on yourself by hitching a ride.

If your mom forces you to go shopping with her first thing in the morning, at least you can make it easy on yourself by hitching a ride.

Contrary to the Italian national average birthrate, which at 1.37 per woman is almost the lowest in the European Union (only Spain and Greece are lower), here in the heart of darkest Castello offspring are definitely not produced in fractions.   I suppose they are seen  as — well, I’m not sure what.   Necessary?   Fun?   Inevitable?   Normal?   Probably all of these, and more.

In the morning, all is effervescence and charm; the little urchins are full of high spirits as they set off to conquer the world.   Toward afternoon, though, the scene turns darker.   Something happens to  those shining little angels, tousled, chirping, frolicking, laughing in twinkly little voices, beings that can make you want to have a dozen just because they are the concentrated essence of happy-to-be-alive-on-Earth-with-youness.

As 5:00 PM slinks toward you, Things Change.   It is the Hour of the Crying Child.   You hear crying in the distance, or even nearby, as the little people begin to troop homeward, often goaded by their intolerant and domineering older siblings.   (Yes, they have siblings here.   It’s great.)  

On St. Martin's Day (November 11,) kids dress up and come out in droves, banging pots and buckets and demanding candy or money from the neighbors.  The afternoon turns into something of a controlled riot.

On St. Martin's Day (November 11,) kids dress up and come out in droves, banging pots and buckets and demanding candy or money from the neighbors. The afternoon turns into something of a controlled riot.

 The crying, or screaming, or incoherent baby-vulture-like screeching, gets closer and closer, and as it approaches it also gets louder and more grating.   Often it is lubricated with  angry, exhausted, exasperated, helpless tears, the kind the kid can’t turn off even as they overwhelm him or her.     The kind that gets ratcheted up with each attempt, increasingly harsh, by its adults to bring the hysteria to a halt.

A little boy was crying like this the other day as he and his entourage passed along the fondamenta across the canal from us.     It was a sound somewhere between a shriek and a whine, more temper than pain, and was definitely under his complete control.   It was that “I’m going to punish you till you snap” noise that you know he can keep up for hours, if need be, that stops being about anything other than itself.  

I was heading over the bridge toward him, to do some errands.     Two American girls crossed the bridge, coming toward me.   As they passed, I heard one say to the other, “I’m never having kids.”

I went down the other side.   Standing at the bottom of the bridge were three little old ladies — they’re always in three, like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth.   As I passed, I heard one say to the others, in Venetian, “We always had a smile on our faces.   Always.”   Of course she was referring to the Golden Age, when she was the little boy’s age and life was hard but happy and people were simple and honest and children were perfect.  

Kids can claim virtually any part of the street for themselves; if they had a flag they could declare their own independent republic.  Which would be ruled by dictators, thousands of them.

Kids can claim virtually any part of the street for themselves; if they had a flag they could declare their own independent republic. Which would be ruled by dictators, thousands of them.

Yeah, right.   Everybody was ready with a comment, no matter how irrational.   I choked off the temptation to turn around and shout at all of them, “You’re lucky your mother isn’t here now!”  

Late yesterday afternoon I was headed toward via Garibaldi at the Moment of the Swarming Children (when they all obey some primal signal and come out to, well, swarm), a festive interlude which briefly precedes the Hour of the Crying Child.

As I was walking along the fondamenta, I saw a little blonde girl, maybe four years old,  standing at the railing looking into the water of the canal.   Her mother and a couple of her female friends were standing near her but involved in hashing over  whatever needed to be hashed.   Meanwhile, the girl was transfixed, staring down.

As I passed by, curious to glimpse what she was looking at, her  older brother went over to her.   He might have been seven.   She looked up at him and I heard her say two words: “E’ morto.”   It’s dead.   A pensive little voice stating a simple little fact.  

img_0801-kids-2-comp

It was a pigeon, floating in the water.   I had a strange rustic impulse to say “Great!   One less!   That leaves only about ten billion to go.”    But I didn’t.   First, I try not to invite myself into other people’s lives, especially if I don’t know them (though via Garibaldi grants a lot of leeway for spontaneous badinage even among strangers).  

But I couldn’t do it.   Something in her voice had struck me.   It wasn’t that she was sad, or repulsed, or anything you could identify with a single word, or even several words.   She was standing there doing her best to grasp the fact that something which had been alive wasn’t alive anymore, and wasn’t ever going to be alive again.   She made me feel strangely respectful.

I am sure that if I had said anything — anything at all — I would have made it worse.   I think her brother sensed the same thing, because as long as I was in earshot, I didn’t hear him say one thing.   They just stood there, looking down, waiting for their mother to stop talking.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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Aug
20

Gondoliers gone wild

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Not only have gondolas changed fairly radically in the few hundred years since this image was made, but so have the gondoliers.  Boatmen have always gotten into arguments; under the Venetian Republic there was even a special code of laws designed specifically to adjudicate boat-borne conflicts. Maybe we should bring them back.

Not only have gondolas changed fairly radically in the few hundred years since this image was made, but so have the gondoliers. Boatmen have always gotten into arguments; under the Venetian Republic there was even a special code of laws designed specifically to adjudicate boat-borne conflicts. Maybe we should bring them back.

Last Friday an unfortunate event occurred which not only did not shed honor on the worshipful order of gondoliers, it did way, way the opposite, and then some.  

The two gondoliers involved have not only been suspended for five days till the jury decides whether to suspend them for three months (“You are so grounded!!”), but three sopping American tourists have been hauled out of the canal, and I think most of their personal effects have been recovered by the fire department divers.

For all its elegance, complexity, and historic value, in some ways the gondola is just another working boat in a city where most of the work involves a boat somewhere.  Just like the blue cargo barge and the green garbage truck, the black gondola is here to make a living.  What the passenger brings to the experience is kind of up to him or her.

For all its elegance, complexity, and historic value, in some ways the gondola is just another working boat in a city where most of the work involves a boat somewhere. Just like the blue cargo barge and the green garbage truck, the black gondola is here to make a living. What the passenger brings to the experience is kind of up to him or her.

In the early afternoon of the aforementioned Friday, two gondoliers based at the stazio near Piazzale Roma came to blows.   I have to say that having heard their location,  what followed  didn’t come as a total surprise, seeing as the gondoliers here generally are not of the type you can imagine drinking tea with their pinkies extended.   It is also fairly evident that  conflict between the two men  had already been on a low boil for some time now.

Gondolier A was boarding three Americans for a gondola ride.     To do this, the gondolier ties his boats to some slim pilings next to a wooden platform with descending steps, and helps the passengers aboard.  

Gondolier B approached and, seeing that the embarkation point was occupied and that the people were taking too long (in his opinion) to get aboard, was seized by a fury that impelled him to leap off his boat without even tying it up, and head straight for Gondolier A.   The enraged bellowing, threats, imprecations, etc. that flew between the both of them did not need subtitles or any other form of translation; the Americans, seeing an ugly fight approaching, got scared and all stood up together to get off the boat  immediately.

Sudden simultaneous movements, which  involve weight as well as motion, especially all concentrated on the lower starboard side of a flat-bottomed gondola, are Not Good.      The tourists know that now, because suddenly all three were in the drink and one was at least momentarily sort of stuck under the capsized gondola.   This is Extremely Not Good.

Happily, at that moment a motor launch was passing, carrying some firemen back to the firehouse.   Firemen here are almost always involved in nautical rescues, so they got right to it.   People saved, boat righted, sunken objects (including a video camera) eventually retrieved.   Gondolier A gets to washing and drying the boat, and peace — or the opposite of rage, anyway — descends.  

Needless to say, the Ente Gondola (the gondoliers’  organization) is now taking steps, which will be determined after all the meetings have  concluded.  

An isolated incident between two men who haven’t had their rabies shots?   Not quite, it seems.   Because the scene now shifts to Sunday morning (two days later), at the Rialto area.    

A batch of us had rowed over from the Lido, as we like to do on Sunday mornings, and had tied up our eight-oar gondola to the platform at the Erbaria, an open sort of small square facing the Grand Canal.

Being a popular tourist area, the Rialto is a place where some  gondoliers tie up to await potential clients.   Even to entice passersby to become clients.   But not today.   Enticement was not in the air.

The young gondolier kneeling on the stern  wiping down his boat with a chamois cloth suddenly started to roar at a passing tourist who had stopped to make some snaps of  him at work.   “I’m not paid to be photographed,”  the gondolier yelled, using plenty of vulgar phraseology and making some threatening motions that implied he might be ready to come ashore to demonstrate how much he meant it.  

The tourist fled.   We stood there, aghast.   Lino was outraged.

“The gondola and the tourist are  a gondolier’s bread,” he said.   “If there’s one thing a gondolier depends on, it’s tourists.   This shows that not only is he  incredibly rude, he’s even willing to shoot himself in the foot.”

Say what you will, it's hard to think that this gondolier is feeling very much in tune with the romance and glamour the public might imagine was his lot. It can be a very demanding way to make a living, as you can surmise by imagining the frame of mind of a gondolier like this one, preparing his boat for a cold and possibly not very profitable day -- here, on New Year's Day at 9:00 AM.

Say what you will, it's hard to think that this gondolier is feeling very much in tune with the romance and glamour the public might imagine was his lot. It can be a very demanding way to make a living, as you can surmise by imagining the frame of mind of a gondolier like this one, preparing his boat for a cold and possibly not very profitable day -- here, on New Year's Day at 9:00 AM.

Lino wasn’t shouting or gesticulating but I think he was angrier than the gondolier.   Because the gondolier was merely responding to some random neural firing somewhere in the limbic system of his brain, whereas Lino felt offended as a Venetian on behalf not only of the gondoliers who aren’t insane, but the image of the city as a whole.   It’s painful to him to think that people go away with an idea of his city as a place where you take your life (and your wallet) in your hands.

Let’s see if these two events turn out to have been merely some bizarre coincidence and we can all go back to sleep.   Otherwise, I don’t know whether it makes more sense to approach a gondolier wearing a life vest or a bullet-proof jacket.

Categories : Boatworld, Problems, Tourism
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Aug
13

Watermarks: The sign of “C”

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It may be that your eye is not drawn wallward as you stroll along the canals of Venice when the tide is low.

Perhaps you don’t find the mats of squishy green clinging to the building foundations very appealing.   Perhaps you don’t wish to notice how many small life forms are scurrying around, unhindered by that pesky water.   Perhaps there is a general sort of sliminess that reminds you uncomfortably of just how biological the Venetian environment is, and how little the lagoon cares about posing for you and your  romantic photographs.

But let’s say those things don’t bother you; let’s say you’re curious to find out what’s beneath the waterline, or almost.   If you look carefully, you may very well see this:

img_1928-comune-marino-comp

This incised capital C with the line beneath it is called the “Comune Marino” (hence the “C”), which roughly means “average sea.”   Or perhaps “sea average.”     This one, as it happens, is in the canal just outside our little hovel.  

Water level measurements were formalized in Venice in 1440 when the Water Authority (Magistrato alle Acque) began to measure the upper level of wet algae on canal embankments by carving the letter “C,” which indicated the normal high-tide level.   Water fosters certain kinds of algae which flourish in an “intertidal zone”, which is alternately wet and dry,  and the line of algae corresponds to the level of water.   Obviously.

So “Comune Marino” refers to the line created by the algae, a line which clearly  indicates the upper limit of the tide.

Good to know, but why?   Because   there are many situations in which an engineer would want to know where the average upper limit would be — if he was planning to build a bridge nearby, for example, or even an entire building.

So far, so general.   Keep in mind, though,  that in each place the “C” is  a marker of the average sea level in that canal at that point.   Its height only matters in relation  to what’s next to it — the water level will be “high” (or low) compared to a building foundation or embankment.   If the “C” appears to be going down (or the algae to be going up, like elevators in a French farce)  it might indicate that the building is subsiding, or even that the canal is silting up and becoming shallower.    Factors such as these  all bear some influence on where the average sea level will be in that place and whether you find it  innocuous or annoying.

A look at the mark when the tide is out. This illustrates the difficulty of answering the frequent question, "How deep are the canals?" As in, when the tide is high, or when it's low?

A look at the mark when the tide is out. This illustrates the difficulty of answering the frequent question, "How deep are the canals?" As in, when the tide is high, or when it's low?

An analysis of the displacement of the “algal belt” also  gives engineers some idea of the long-term trend of apparent rising of the sea level.   This is a subject that is far too great for this little post, but I merely note that the algae is playing its part in informing the world about the state of Venice.

Don’t be too quick, though,  to think that just because there’s some algae above the “C” that the city is sinking inexorably into the lagoon.   The algae has its own growing period (late winter to early autumn) and if the average high-tide level should rise one year, for one or many of several reasons, the line of algae will also rise.   If it should go down the next year, there will be less algae at the previous level.     Exceptional peaks in the high-tide level may cause temporary new growth, but it won’t necessarily survive the sunshine and dryness that returns when the tide level goes down.

Algae growth is also influenced by whether its location is on a sunny or shady side of the building, or whether the stone or brick it’s inhabiting is particularly porous.  

Field observations have shown that the fluctuation in the height of the “algal front” is no more than 2 cm (7/10ths of an inch).

So all is well?   Not really.   One factor  the Venetian engineers of 1440 didn’t have to deal with was “motondoso”  — that’s a polite way of saying “water constantly splattering from the waves caused by motorboats.”  

I’ll be devoting plenty of attention to  motondoso on a future page, but I recommend that you draw conclusions very carefully about water level based solely on the line of algae.   It’s highly likely that whatever spot you’re looking at is getting drenched by waves day and night, encouraging algae in an extravagant way, something that wasn’t happening back when they were busy carving “C’s” all over town.

The constant and extreme "motondoso" in the Giudecca Canal has created the perfect environment for algae on what used to be considered dry land.  Do not ever step on this kind of algae, it's more slippery than a slice of raw bacon.

The constant and extreme "motondoso" in the Giudecca Canal has created the perfect environment for algae on what used to be considered dry land, so its presence here doesn't tell you anything useful about average sea level. Do not ever step on this kind of algae, it's more slippery than a slice of raw bacon.

The Daily Trivia:   Regular measurements with instruments began in the 1870s.   In  2004, mean sea level was found to be 25 cm (9 inches) higher than it was  in 1897.   Yet all water-level measurements continue to be based on the mean sea level in 1897.  

We like to cling to the old ways here.   Or something.

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Aug
12

Welcome to the neighborhood

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Via Garibaldi used to be a canal, which you can tell by the white stone border on each side.  It contains everything needful for human life, including two pharmacies.  The fact that they both stay in business tells me something about the neighborhood but I'm not sure what.

Via Garibaldi used to be a canal, which you can tell by the white stone border on each side. It contains everything needful for human life, including two pharmacies. The fact that they both stay in business tells me something about the neighborhood but I'm not sure what.

If someone in Venice were to ask me where I live, the generic answer would be “Castello,” which is the name of the sestiere, or one of the six neighborhoods into which Venice is divided.   But that’s just a little too generic, considering that Castello is fairly large and has several hundred little subsets with all sorts of variations ranging from the sublime to the moderately mystifying.

The more precise answer is “Via Garibaldi.”   We don’t actually live right there — we’re down beyond the end of it.   But it’s an answer which  represents not only geographical coordinates and a zip code, but  an entire biosphere of its own with its own history and climate and fauna, a zone  which to Venetians of other sestieri still connotes verging on the exotic, even vaguely hazardous.

Carnival means the street is clogged with kids, the only difference from every day is that they're in costume.  Otherwise, it's just craziness as usual.

Carnival means the street is clogged with kids, the only difference from every other day being that they're in costume. Otherwise, it's just chaos as usual.

Once, when we were living in Dorsoduro, we overheard a mother snapping at her kid: “Stop shouting!   You sound just like somebody from Castello!”     And when we moved away — to Castello, of all places — Lino could hardly believe how far down in the world he had come.   To his relatives, he might as well have gone to Tasmania.   In fact, Tasmania would have made some sense.   But Castello?  

Many, if not most, people who visit Venice think of the city of palaces and monuments, and maybe also some trendy boutiques and clever little galleries.     Our part of Venice is a gristly precinct beyond and behind the Arsenal.   The Arsenal was the shipyard where Venice’s fleets were built, the foundation on which Venetian power — economic, military, political — rested.   It’s thanks to the Arsenal that all those palaces and monuments exist, so Castello doesn’t have to apologize to anyone if it has chosen to remain in its primordial state.   During Venice’s Great Days there were as many as 10,000 people working in the Arsenal, and their dwellings and relatives surrounding it constituted what amounted to a company town.   Although very few, if any, locals still work in the Arsenal, I’m  convinced there are people here who still haven’t discovered fire.

A member opens the clubhouse of the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Caulkers, a flourishing remnant of the old Arsenal days when the workers had only each other to turn to for help.

A member opens the clubhouse of the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Caulkers, a flourishing remnant of the old Arsenal days when the workers had only each other to turn to for help.

If Venice isn’t a place for everybody, Castello is even less so.   And Via Garibaldi is the axis of a Hogarthian world where the men’s bodies swarm with tattoos; where men and women alike use hand-hewn phrases which can’t be translated and shouldn’t be repeated, and their rampant children have two basic ways of communicating: Yelling and crying.   They’re a lot like London’s East Enders (denizens of another once-great seaport enclave) — tough, practical, unromantic yet sentimental homebodies to whom family and neighborhood are the universe, where grown men call each other “love” and women call each other “girls.”   It’s not that they don’t know there’s a world out there, they just don’t find it all that interesting.  

I love Venice in a complicated way that I don’t understand very well.   In the midst of the obvious  beauty and grandeur and all, the city is also  composed of  so many  aspects which verge on ugliness but which, strangely,  also have their own sort of allure.   Nelson Algren once wrote that “It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and lesser towers … but you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too.”   You discover this in unexpected moments and glimpses, where she doesn’t mind you seeing her without her girdle: no excuses, no apologies.  

The “alleys” would be out here, with the ingenious, illegal,  improvised sewer outflows, and the “What, me worry?” deposits of dog poop and the hand-lettered signs vilifying the anonymous neighbor who has left his bag of garbage under your window, and the mismatched lifelong friends in the bar  shouting at each other — the one who’s right and the one who’s wrong — about something that happened years ago.   In fact, they’re both right.   Or wrong.

What happens is this: People put out plastic bags of garbage long before the collection is due to begin.  Sometimes they do this on a Saturday afternoon, which means the bags will sit there till Monday morning.  This time frame gives the seagulls plenty of time to bust open the bags and scavenge.  Now the pigeons have started to take up the habit.  Everyone knows this, including the people who put out their bags, bags which would be collected from their very own doorstep,  but which they prefer to bring secretly to this anonymous corner.  It's so stupid it's almost beautiful.

What happens is this: Some people put out plastic bags of garbage long before the collection is due to begin. Sometimes they do this on a Saturday afternoon, which means the bags will sit there till Monday morning, thereby giving the seagulls plenty of time to bust open the bags and scavenge. Now the pigeons have started to take up the habit as well. Everyone knows this, including the people who put out their bags, bags which would be collected from their very own doorstep, but which they prefer to bring secretly to this anonymous corner. It's so stupid it's almost beautiful.

This is not nostalgie de la boue; many things about life down here in the bilges range from infuriating to only slightly flinch-worthy.   Then there are the aspects you can’t easily categorize — say, the septic tank somewhere on the other side of  our canal which for far too long desperately needed pumping out.   When we had company for dinner I used to pray that the wind wouldn’t shift.   They say you can get used to anything, but I’m here to tell you: Not that.  

I was walking down the via Garibaldi one early evening; there was a middle-aged Venetian couple coming toward me.  

There had been a few airplane crashes that month: One in the sea just outside Palermo, another that hit near Athens, now one in Venezuela somewhere.

Anyway, I reach earshot just as the woman is saying to her husband, “Not me.   I’ll never go on an airplane.   Forget it.”

He says, “What about a ship?”

“Not even a ship.   I’m staying home, I’m not going anywhere.   If I die, I’m going to die right here in Via Garibaldi.”   (Wait a minute — “If” you die?).    

That’s what the true voice of a neighborhood sounds like — especially this one.   Via Garibaldi to the bitter end.  

I’m with her.

You'll always run into somebody to talk to -- or about -- on Via Garibaldi.

You'll always run into somebody to talk to -- or about -- on Via Garibaldi.

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Categories : History, Venetian-ness
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