Archive for September, 2009
As I understand it, Dalmatia no longer exists as an entity under that name (though the dogs haven’t had to change their passports to read “Croatian”). But there are still many Italian-speaking people in the world who refer to themselves as “Dalmati” (DAL-mah-tee.) The reason for this is pretty complex, but I’ll give you the basic outline here.
Venice dominated most of the eastern coast of the Adriatic for about eight centuries. After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Dalmatia was subject to a succession of landlords, and by December, 1944, all of what had been termed Dalmatia ever since it was a Roman province was under the control of Tito. The struggle between Tito’s Communist/Slavic partisans and the Italians living in an area carved out as the Governate of Dalmatia, combined with the actions of the Italian army in the region, led to a program of reprisals by the Communists against the Dalmatian-Italians which was indistinguishable from ethnic cleansing. Most of the Italians who survived, fled by any conceivable means — some 350,000 of them — many to Italy, but not only.
(Let me note that the Dalmatian identity still exists for some ethnic Croats as a way of distinguishing themselves from other Croats for several reasons, and also because they have a distinct cultural identity that is the result of the Italian contact as opposed to the Austro-Hungarian contact in the northeast.)
And so a group was formed, the Association of the Dalmatians in the World, under the flag of Dalmatia, language, and unfathomable store of historic culture and personal memories. (This is one of some 30 Dalmatian heritage/cultural/ political groups in Italy alone). This group has a huge reunion every year, and this year it was held at Trieste from September 14-20, AND, the faithful gondolone of our rowing club, the Canottieri Diadora, was invited to participate in the festivities. So off we all went to Trieste for a beautiful weekend which involved listening to speeches, a concert (did you know that Franz von Suppe’ was Dalmatian? Remember that the next time you hear “The Light Cavalry Overture”), eating, drinking, some walking around, and about a half-hour of rowing. It was great.
Were we invited because we — by which I mean mainly the “San Marco,” our 8-oar gondola — are so amazingly beautiful? But naturally, mon capitaine. But our beauty in the eyes of the Dalmati consisted primarily in the fact that we were already linked with them in history and in name.
Our club, the Circolo Canottieri Diadora, was founded in 1898 in Zara (now Zadar, Croatia), and after the appalling events alluded to above the club essentially disappeared. But a number of “exiles,” as they sometimes term themselves, decided to re-establish the club in 1962 on the Lido in Venice. (One of our more senior members was born in Fiume, now Rijeka, Croatia.)
Trivia du jour: One of our honorary members is fashion designer Ottavio Missoni, born in Dubrovnik. True fact.
So at 11:30 on Sunday morning, we rowed in a stately way across the Bacino of San Giusto on the waterfront of Trieste, heading toward the waterfront where a crowd had gathered and a band was playing famous Triestine songs, such as “The Bell of San Giusto.”
Seated in the bow of the gondolone was Franco Luxardo, president of the association and also “Mayor of Zara in Exile,” and Carlo Zohar, one of the men who re-established the Diadora in 1962.
When we reached the embankment, we performed the traditional oar-raising salute, the alzaremi, and they went ashore. Our two guests of honor were beside themselves; in fact, many people were deeply moved. We had been billed as the “gondolone from Zara,” but that was a bit of poetic license — actually, it would have been excellent to have arrived by sea, rowing from Zara. It wouldn’t have been that much of a big deal — it’s 205 kilometers, and we can make around 9 km/h, so that would be….22 hours. I think we should have done it.
The Carabinieri — like the firemen — are always on hand whenever something hideous has occurred. Wrecks, suicides, etc. are always dealt with by this remarkable corps; think of them as the Police Who Must be Obeyed. (Not like all the other police around, or at least so it seems.) The Carabinieri are serious, get-it-done officers, and never mind all the jokes at their expense. (Example: Why do carabinieri always go on patrol in pairs? Because one is the one who knows how to read, and the other is the one who knows how to write. Ba-dum.) Let me add, before anyone else does, that they are a serious military entity on serious military duty in several places in the world, such as Iraq.
But let’s imagine — actually, you don’t need to imagine it, because it happened a few days ago — that you are a couple who has just arrived, as per months-in-the-planning, to get married at the Villa Giustinian Morosini in Mirano, a lovely 18th-century villa in a smallish settlement along the Brenta river between Venice and Padova. Friends — check. Family — check. Ring, flowers, photographer, check. Celebrant? Celebrant? Official marryer-type person? Hello?
The minutes tick by, and while I suppose somebody might have ventured a jest about at least the bride being on time, the mood could not have been what I would call festive. The groom especially was not amused. Because while it appears that in a civil ceremony you don’t get to choose your celebrant, you know there’s supposed to be somebody standing in front of you asking you a batch of questions and then signing some papers.
The absence of the expected official quickly passed “annoying” and was on a straight trajectory toward “insane.” Minutes were ticking by with no sign of anybody prepared to marry these two crazy kids. And the kids were getting crazier.
So the groom calls the Carabinieri. I love this guy! Because while I suppose that if he had been feeling slightly less tense, he might have called the firemen (my celebrant is stuck up a tree and I can’t get married), he knew that the Carabinieri are implacable. They are both civil and military police, and Lino has told me that the humblest carabiniere outranks a four-star general and an admiral of the fleet.
The Carabinieri take this seriously as any other official infraction, immediately contacting the vice-mayor to ask what’s going on. (I’m thinking about how amused he was to get a call from the Carabinieri.) He doesn’t know what’s going on, but he checks the list of who’s on duty that day as the mayor’s representative. It turns out that it’s a town councilor named Luigi Coro’, and the problem isn’t him, it’s the person who was on duty the day before.
Because while the bride and groom have been tapping their toes, and their watches, Mr. Coro’ has been wildly searching the municipal offices for the “wedding packet” which contains all the necessary documents, and the official register, and the tricolor sash (red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag) which he has to drape across his chest to signify his official status as representative of the government of Italy. No packet, no wedding.
So why can’t he find it? (I imagine him emptying wastebaskets, checking the refrigerator.) Because the person who was on duty the day before forgot to tell anybody where he put it. I know — let that sink in for a minute. “Oh, just put it down anywhere…” And then, as I say, he forgot to notify anyone. Just…. forgot. Quittin’ time!
Meanwhile, the vice-mayor himself has arrived — the Carabinieri do tend to get your attention — to try to keep everyone calm and the tarps on the lifeboats, and ready to step in as celebrant if Mr. Coro’ doesn’t manage to show up. (The vice-mayor can do it without any of the accessories, evidently, or can produce his own, or something.)
Forty-five minutes after the appointed time, which must have seemed much longer, Mr. Coro’ shows up with all his accessories, and the ceremony proceeds. The vows are exchanged, the deed is done, and the two lovebirds can finally get on with the rest of their lives, starting with the reception and continuing on to the honeymoon and having kids and grandkids and trial separations and hip replacements and so on.
The town government was very nice about it. They not only sent the couple a telegram, they also gave them a 50% discount on the use of the room.
I’d like to think that the Carabinieri got some kind of acknowledgment — maybe even a thank-you — though probably they don’t expect it. “Just all in a day’s work, sir.”
Or maybe one of them caught the bouquet. The one who knows how to read.
My earlier post about Race Day as a whole didn’t say anything about what I was doing while the world was ending for some of the racers.
I can tell you what I wasn’t doing: Screaming my lungs out for the Vignottini, which would have been ridiculous considering that they were already five car-lengths in the lead. No danger of anything rear-ending them last Sunday if they’d come to a sudden stop. I felt cheated, somehow. I fully intended to be screaming. Never mind. Life will probably provide another opportunity for screamage.
What the Storica means for us at the club — and it’s more or less like this every year except this year it was even better than usual — is the following:
Saturday morning: Whoever is free comes to titivate their boat. There was a small chain gang working on the caorlina, and an even smaller one (including me) working on the gondolone. We had to sandpaper and polish all the brass, including the big ornamental ferri of the prow and the bow. Lino and Lucio worked at nailing and screwing down various bits that had gone adrift over the months, and then there was varnishing the whole thing. She is now a dazzling vision of delight, and will remain so for, oh, maybe a month. It depends on the weather how fast the brass will lose its luster.
At 2:00 we dressed in our club best — blue and white tank top and white skirt (women), white pants for the men. Lino was dressed in his judge’s outfit, as he was on duty for two of the four races.
We rowed across the lagoon with some breeze but not too much. We crossed the Bacino of San Marco (waves, as always, but not as bad as usual because the traffic is limited this afternoon) and dropped Lino near San Marco, where he went to join the rest of his merry band of judges at the Tourism Office (regata division).
We rowed around the Bacino for a little while until it was time for the corteo, or boat procession, to form up. There is no real Italian way to express the concept of “forming up,” as the concept doesn’t exist. I’m not sure there is even anything close that you could compare it to, in order to explain to someone here what it might involve, or why it might matter. They’d just give you that “Well you’re perfectly welcome to try it if you want to but don’t get me involved” look.
Each boat has a number on its bow which indicates its order in the lineup. The number’s only discernible use is to help the speaker on the reviewing stand (the “Machina,” MAH-keen-ah) to identify the particular organization the boat belongs to as it drifts past. That part actually works pretty well.
We had number 11 and were probably two-thirds of the way back when the thing got going. You ask why we were so far back? Because the corteo wranglers had given absolutely no signal of any kind to indicate the imminent departure of said corteo. Evidently order isn’t foremost on their list of concerns either.
So we rowed in a slow and stately way up the Grand Canal (sometimes I surprise myself, at how normal doing something like that has come to be — then I suddenly snap to and think, Holy Crap! This is incredible!). The first regatas that might correspond somewhat to the current “regata storica” were arguably the series of races organized in January 1315 by doge Giovanni Soranzo. (In the 19th century it was called the “regata reale,” or royal regata). The corteo was added to the program much, much later, to evoke the arrival in Venice in 1489 of Caterina Cornaro, a Venetian noblewoman who was briefly also queen of Cyprus. It’s as good an excuse as any to add just that much more glamour — or glitter or marabou or whatever looks good — to the event.
At certain points along the route we perform an alzaremi, or oar-raising, the classic Venetian waterborne ceremonial salute which looks thrilling. Too bad it’s been done to death by now. Lino thinks it should be limited to very few and very important moments, and I agree. But on this occasion, there are clumps of people all along the way who yell “alzaremi” at every boat just so they can snap a picture. It’s just one of the many, many ways in which a person here begins to be made to feel like a walk-on in somebody else’s entertainment.
But the sun is shining, there is music playing over lots of loudspeakers, people are leaning out of palace windows everywhere taking it all in, and it’s all just too splendid for words.
Then we turn around — I remember when we used to go as far as the train station, but every year people tend to break ranks and turn around sooner. There are some reasons for this, one of which, I think, has to do with resisting the idea of being compelled to perform for other people’s entertainment. That’s my theory. At least I resist that idea.
So we find a good place to park, as close to the finish line near the San Toma’ vaporetto stop as we can manage (on the shady, not the sunny side), and we tie up the boat. We pull out the vittles — cookies, tiny pizzas, peanuts, squares of homemade cake, fruit, etc. — and beverages, which are wine, water, and fruit juice. Very important, beverages. The heat can trick you and the one thing you don’t want to be in a boat is thirsty.
There’s another thing you don’t want to be in a boat, and we bring a small bucket for that. Nobody has ever had to use it.
This event used to have a dramatically different aspect. For decades, Lino would come early in the afternoon in his own little boat — as most people did — find a good place to tie up, and then eat and drink all afternoon, sharing with his neighbors, clambering over boats to go visit friends, and so on — much like the Redentore, but with races instead of fireworks.
In those days, the corteo consisted only of the bissone, or fancy ceremonial barges, and a long procession of black gondolas carrying every authority figure within reach — mayor, councilors, presidents of things, even the President of Italy on occasion. Then came the year when the Italian Prime Minister, Amintore Fanfani, had the misfortune of being rowed up the Grand Canal to the jeering shouts of a doggerel rhyme that works very well in Venetian (Fanfani! Fanfani! Ti ga i morti cani!). This is one of the absolutely worst insults in the Venetian universe and it basically means that your deceased relatives are dogs. I don’t think you have to speak Venetian to understand that it’s not your day.
This happened about 1976, as Lino recalls. Not long thereafter, the political party in power shifted to the Communist party and that sort of thing wasn’t tolerated at all. To make sure it didn’t happen by mistake, they just stopped sending their authority figures.
At the same time, after the first Vogalonga in 1975, there was a boom in new boat clubs, so the corteo began to be generally populated by boats like ours. civilians from rowing clubs who may also be tempted to shout rude things at each other, but it doesn’t make any difference when they do it. Since I’ve been here I’ve never seen a gondola with an official or notable aboard — just tourists, or paid costumed walk-ons.
Furthermore, for most of the “Storica”‘s history there was only one race: The gondolini. The races for women, boys, and men on the caorlinas were added gradually over the same mid-Seventies period. If you had to do triage and get rid of any races, I can tell you the only one they’d try to save would be the gondolini. Although the other ones are very nice.
The most serious change in the past 20, or even 15, years is the steady decline in spectator boats. As I mentioned, Lino could climb over boats from hither to farther than yon all afternoon, but each year fewer Venetians come in boats to witness what was once one of their central events of the year. Even I have noticed the diminution of number of boats watching. There are many reasons for this but one of the primary ones is that the regata, on the whole, has been reshaped for tourists, either on land or watching TV, and therefore (for reasons I’ll spare you) it’s less interesting to be a participant. And the increase in motorboats has fatally weakened what was once a common language and connection with boats that are rowed.
From being a crucial element of daily life for everyone, rowing has become a sort of boutique activity whose appeal is probably stronger as a picturesque curiosity to non-Venetians than to most locals, especially the younger ones.
Back to us. So we spend the afternoon hanging around watching the races and screaming if we should feel the need to for whoever our favorite racer(s) might be — and there have been times I have screamed so hard that I probably blew out some synapses, mine as well as the people nearest to me. I know the racers can’t hear me, but I also know they would notice if my voice weren’t in there somewhere. I know this. It’s a mystic racing thing.
As soon as the gondolini have crossed the finish line, everybody starts to leave. Instantly. Imagine everybody after the game trying to get out of the stadium parking lot at the same time. Lots of motors (not everybody who comes rows here anymore, unfortunately), and lots of motor-revving and choking exhaust fumes from these lovers of the oar.
Now comes almost the best part of all, which is the row back to the club. This takes about an hour because we’re not in a hurry; the sun is setting — it’s after 7:00 PM now — and the lagoon is calm and everyone is feeling happy and relaxed and it’s just one of the loveliest rowing interludes in the entire year.
We always stop, not far from the club, to open a bottle of wine (okay, two) and just sit and savor the moment out in the water all by ourselves. This year it was even sweeter than usual. The caorlina was not far behind us, and so we waited and then we tied the two boats together and just let the day and the moment and the sunset and the calm seep all the way through us.
The moon, enormous and shining and orange, rose slowly above the treetops on the Lido. It was so beautiful it verged on the preposterous; Italians say that something like this, the final perfect touch, is the “cherry on the cake.” It was actually the moon on the cake. I’m sticking with that, at least I know what I mean.
The corteo is very nice, of course. But it’s something thousands of people (80,000 this year, by police estimates) can see, and anything that imitates something that once was genuine can hardly compare with something that is completely genuine right now. The corteo was a sort of imitation, but this was really ours. There were very, very few people who saw the lagoon as we did in the twilight with evening breath drifting around us and the moon’s radiance blooming out of the sky.
It all belonged to us and it needed no spectators or commentators. What a beautiful thing that is in this world, and how rare.
I was working at my desk at home here that afternoon around 3:30, I suppose, when the phone rang.
It was my friend Cristina, who was living with her husband and twins not too far away. “Have you heard what’s happening?” she asked. Not having a television, my obvious answer was no. “Some plane has flown into the World Trade Center. It’s on TV now.”
I immediately ran over to her house, trying to think of what she had said and what it could possibly mean. Then we sat on the sofa and watched the second plane and everything after that live on TV. I was crying. The children, who were maybe only five or six years old, wandered in and out.
That evening, Mario d’Elia, one of Venice’s more eccentric lawyers and fringe political personalities, went to the Piazza San Marco and raised an improvised flagpole with an American flag in the center of the space of the three large permanent ones in front of the basilica of San Marco.
Shortly thereafter, an assortment of local and regional politicians gathered on a temporary platform to express their thoughts and emotions — primarily solidarity — in front of a growing crowd, even though many passing tourists couldn’t understand what was being said. The alacrity and sincerity of the moment was something I found very touching.
Afterward, Lino and I went to see Patricia Michaels, a Native American friend of ours from Taos Pueblo (New Mexico) who had been living in Venice for two years. Her daughter Margeaux was four years old, I suppose, and greeted us looking very solemn and unusually subdued. “Somebody dropped a bomb on our village,” she announced. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.
September 1, 2002: The Regata Storica. As usual, boats were milling around the Bacino of San Marco before the corteo preceding the races. The most remarkable one was a caorlina rowed by six of the Venice firemen. (Historical note: In the days — centuries — before motorboats took over the world, the firemen always responded to a call aboard their caorlina, which had the pump set up in the center.) It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this boat.
September 11, 2006: To mark the fifth anniversary of the attack, a special mass was celebrated in the basilica of La Madonna della Salute (Our Lady of Health); a delegation of firemen was present, along with representatives of most of the armed forces — Army, Navy, Carabinieri, and so forth.
As we left the church, we saw a gondola in the Grand Canal just in front of us, specially decorated for the occasion, rowed by gondolier Vittorio Orio and a colleague and escorted by one of the fireboats. Orio is full of interesting initiatives, and he did the same thing (without fireboats) the following year, as well.
Lino often tells me how similar Venetians and Americans are. I take this as a compliment, but he states it as a fact.
Many Venetians were especially outraged and sympathetic. Except for one young woman at our rowing club, who when she was told the news (not by me) responded: “So?”
She’s not with us anymore; maybe she returned to her home planet in some other galaxy, where there is no air or water.