Archive for October, 2009


Day of the Dead

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November 1st and 2nd pack a one-two punch here, though the first is a holiday and the second isn’t (every year I struggle to remember that because it seems wrong to me).   (I think they should both be holidays.)

1x1.trans Day of the Dead

My most recently discovered saint: St. John of Nepomuk, here adorning the prow of the 14-oar gondola of the club Voga Veneta Mestre. He is a national saint of the Czech Republic, and protector of gondoliers and anyone in danger of drowning. He was martyred on March 20, 1393 by being thrown into the Vltava River in Prague.

November 1 is All Saints Day — shortened here to “i santi” (“the saints”).   There is no special way of observing this feast, other than going to church which for some people is asking too much.   I know men who will proudly tell you that they haven’t been to church (or put on  a tie) since their wedding day.   Strangulation seems to be the theme.

1x1.trans Day of the Dead

The cemetery island, San Michele in Isola, is in the upper right corner, just on the way to Murano.

November 2 is All Souls Day — shortened here to “i morti” (“the dead”).   This is a day (even if it isn’t a holiday) which Venetians observe with more attention.   The vaporetto to the island of San Michele, the cemetery island, is free.   In the not-so-old days, within Lino’s memory, a bridge on boats was constructed for the day from the Fondamente Nove to the island (a distance visibly shorter than the Giudecca Canal, whose bridge for the feast of the Redentore was also on boats).   Many people make a point, at least once a year,  of visiting their relatives’ graves, tombs, loculi, and if you’re ever going to go, this is the day.   The florists on the Fondamente Nove make some real money.

1x1.trans Day of the Dead

The "bateon" for the dead was in use till the Seventies. It was black, of course, decorated with gold. In fact, there were several of them, kept in a canal by the church of the Madonna dell'Orto. If one must die, this is a superb way to make your exit. A new initiative is being launched to build a new one and put it back into service. Public contributions will be welcome.

I’ll write more about death in Venice some other time — it’s an interesting subject about which there is plenty to say, partly because of the age of the population.   Funeral homes are probably one of the few businesses here that  are immune to  the global economic situation.

The traditions still associated with this feast-day naturally have mostly to do with food.   For about a week before November 2, the pastry-shops and cafes put on sale little bags of what appear to be  roundish colored  styrofoam blobs, like lumpy cherries, colored white, pink, or brown.   These are called “fave” (FAH-veh) and come in either the small (Trieste) form or the larger (Venice) form.   It’s inexplicable to me but the Triestine are everywhere.   Seeking a sack of Venetian fave will cost you some time and effort.

There are differing recipes, but the one I picked  had only three ingredients: powdered pinoli nuts, sugar, and egg white, baked for an hour at low temperature.   For the record, I tried making them yesterday and while the simplicity of the recipe was part of its appeal, I can confirm that if you halve the recipe,  you’d better make an effort to halve the egg white.   They were a spectacular failure.  

However, from one of my favorite Venetian cookbooks, A Tola co i Nostri Veci by Mariu’ Salvatori de Zuliani, comes a recipe that makes more sense.  

First of all, he makes the point quite firmly that coloring the fave is a newfangled fad; the classic Venetian version is always plain white.   Remember that if you want to be a purist.      

Venetian Fave for All Souls Day (November 2)

1x1.trans Day of the Dead

These are typical small bags of fave, of the Trieste style. They are priced by the "etto," or 100 grams. Here the merchant has cleverly offered two sizes of bag: One etto for 3 euros, and a two-etto bag for 6 euros. It's like trying to understand a pun in a foreign language -- I just don't get it.

200 gr almonds, 300 gr sugar, 125 gr flour, pinch of ground cinnamon, 20 gr butter, 2 whole eggs, lemon zest.

Leave the “peel” on the almonds and pound them in a mortar with the sugar, then sift.   Add the flour, a pinch of cinnamon, butter, eggs, and the lemon zest and mix well with your hands.  

Divide the mixture into blobs the size of walnuts, arranging them in lines on a baking sheet that’s been buttered and floured.   Press each one lightly with your  finger to flatten it slightly — the purpose is to make them resemble as much as possible the normal amaretto cookie.

Bake at “moderate heat” he says; I’ll take that to mean 150.   He doesn’t say how long, either (I love the old-fashioned way of writing recipes).  

Of course you have already been thinking, “But a fava is  a kind of bean.”   This is true.   So why call these “beans” and why this particular composition, and why on the Day of the Dead?

The rituals associated with death are so ancient there’s a point where explanations fail, but  offering food to the gods on certain occasions, especially death, goes back to when people were cooking on stones.   In the Mediterranean a great deal of attention was paid to the cult of the Parche (as they were called in Rome), or Fates,  who were the  goddesses of destiny.   (The Greeks also had them under the name of Moirai.)   Nona spun the thread of an individual’s life, Decima measured its length, and Morta was the one who cut the thread.   Hence they were revered as, among other things, the goddesses of death.

It became known (I always wonder exactly how) that the Parche especially like fava beans.   There are undoubtedly reasons for this — I’m guessing spring and fertility, that seems to be what motivates many divinities.   So since real fava beans are impossible to get this time of year, or have been — I suppose nowadays you could fly them in from Zanskar — these little nubbins were invented to symbolize them.   Sweetness, I seem to recall, was also an important element of some funerary offerings; often  honey was used, which also embodied a raft of symbolic meanings.

These fave don’t really have a flavor, unless you count sheer, unadulterated, industrial-strength sweetness as flavor.    They’re pleasant enough in the mouth, but as they go down they sort of close up your throat behind them.   After two and a half you won’t want any more till next year, and you’ll be vaguely sorry you ate that extra half.

Next year I’m going to try Zuliani’s version,  and I hope the Fates will be kinder to me in the kitchen, if nowhere else.

1x1.trans Day of the Dead

Another treat that shows up in late autumn (not associated with life, death, or whatever is in between) is "cotognata." It is essentially quince jelly, hardened in a mold. Zuliani says that it once was common in houses all over the Veneto, where it was a popular snack for children. He also mentions that some Venetians would turbo-charge the recipe by boiling the quinces in wine instead of water, then adding a touch of vanilla. He says this recipe has fallen into disuse. I'd be willing to try to bring it back.

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One of the great things about learning the language of your location — or in my case, two languages, Italian and Venetian — is not that you will finally be  able to explain to a local what the difference is between metaphysics and epistemology.   Useful and entertaining though that might be.  

1x1.trans Overheard: Saint Anthony, the Queen of England and Cartolina

I can never understand how people who see each other every day can have so much to talk about.

No, it’s to catch so many fleeting remarks that you hear people making in all kinds of unexpected or unlikely places.   Quips, execrations, assorted badinage, comments that are like little flakes falling from the facade of what we regard as normality.

Yesterday morning  I was in the church of S. Francesco di Paola in via Garibaldi.   There were eight people there for the 9:00 mass; the usual smattering of nuns from the nearby convent, and a couple of other women, and a man or two.   One of the men is someone who seems always to come to this service.  

He is old but not ancient; neglected but not repellent; in his own little world, but not actually crazy.   His hair is ragged and he always sits by himself, and he is always the first in line to take communion.   In fact, he’s first before there is a line.   This is obviously his self-appointed right and privilege.   He makes sure he’s already in position before the priest has even finished the prayer of consecration.

As the faithful were leaving in peace, obeying the canonical and very precise command at the end of every mass, I noticed one nun pausing in front of a new statue of Saint Anthony of Padua.   It was about her height, actually, or maybe slightly shorter, and  he was holding the Christ Child in the crook of his left arm and a lily in his right hand, as always.

So she’s standing there looking at it, maybe wondering where it came from or why it’s there now, or whether it needs dusting,  or maybe just thinking about the saint.   Or not thinking at all.

Seeing her, the old guy abruptly changes course and walks toward her.  

“It doesn’t look anything like him,” he announces.   “St. Anthony had a very sharp, aquiline nose.”   He sounds as certain as if he’d been his brother.   The nun just looks at him.  

“He didn’t look like this– he had a very aquiline nose,” he repeated.

She said nothing.     He paused, then  wandered off and that was that.     I too walked away, but  fighting the urge to stop him and say, “You actually knew him?   Wow….”  

What he said may have been completely true, though I’m not sure we can trust most of the  depictions of  St. Anthony, even those made in his own lifetime before he was even close to becoming a saint.    

But let’s say it’s true.   Let’s say the statue doesn’t look anything like St. Anthony.   So what?    Devotional images aren’t supposed to help the police identify you, like  photos on driver’s licenses.   Is some man with a tonsure and a habit (not to mention carrying  a lily and the Baby Jesus) likely to be walking around via Garibaldi claiming to be Saint Anthony?  

Answer:   Not likely.   At least in this neighborhood; saints are pretty thin on the ground.   Though he might be mistaken for a relatively harmless tourist, or somebody left over from Carnival.

But now we know — or think we know — that Saint Anthony had a very aquiline nose.   I’ll be on the lookout.

1x1.trans Overheard: Saint Anthony, the Queen of England and Cartolina

One of the great things about Venice is running into your friends on the street.

Then there was the family waiting for a relative or maybe  just a friend  at the vaporetto stop at the Giardini, all set for some outing.   The ladies were past middle age but full of energy, their hair ferociously sprayed, and their men were hanging around the periphery while the women batted little comments back and forth.

As I walked toward the dock, I heard one woman say firmly  to the others, “She looks just exactly like the Queen of England.   All she’s missing is the tiara.   Wait and see.”   This was a statement, not an opinion.

“There she is — finally!   Helloooo,” the woman spotted the lady, then turned back to her friends.   “You see?   Look at her hair.   Even the way she walks.   She could be the Queen of England, am I right?”  

Naturally I looked.   But I have to say that it was a bit of a stretch.   If we start referring to every late middle-aged, short,  heavily upholstered woman  with neatly curled short white hair, whose skirt falls  just below her knee, as  the Queen of  England, we’re going to be spending all day curtsying.

And there was the other morning, as I left the house early and there was almost nobody on the street yet.   The sun was just getting itself up and out the door, the air was cool, the world looked ready for business.

As I crossed the bridge to the fondamenta on the other side, “Cartolina” was walking by from his home way over in the Quintavalle neighborhood toward via Garibaldi.  

“Cartolina” means “postcard” (somebody surely knows his real name, but that’s the only way Lino knows him and can’t tell me why he got this nickname) is a small, chunky, old man who is just a bubble off plumb but still full of energy, some of which he expends on what I call his little litany as he walks along, a sotto voce recital of  how bad he feels  and how old he is, directed at nobody in particular.    It’s a pretty limited repertoire, usually assorted murmurings to himself and anybody in earshot:  “Aiuto.   Aiutami mamma.   Aiuto.   Povero vecio.   Aiuto.”   (Help.   Help me mama.   Help.   Poor old guy.   Help.)

1x1.trans Overheard: Saint Anthony, the Queen of England and Cartolina

Evidently there's no more to be said, at least not at the moment.

I would never belittle his pain, which might be serious, for all I know.   Lino told me that he used to work as a porter at the Bacino Orseolo near the Piazza San Marco, on call from any nearby hotel or office which needed somebody to shlep luggage or anything else heavy and cumbersome by means of an equally  heavy handtruck, undoubtedly over many bridges.   Years of that will mark you, but not many people orchestrate their own chorus of sympathy and then sing it themselves.

So the other morning he passes me on the bridge and I hear this:   “Aiuto.   Aiuto.   Go 120 anni.   No, 106.   Go sbaglia’.”   (Help.   Help.   I’m 120 years old.   No, 106.   I made a mistake.).  

Then there was the morning (he seems to be a matutinal creature — I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him after 11:00 AM) we were having the first real fog of the fall.   He was coming out of the bread bakery with a small sack, muttering: “Aiuto.   Mamma mia.   Ancuo magno pan e caligo.”   (Help. Mamma mia.   Today I’m eating bread and fog.)  

This morning, I saw him coming as I was heading toward the Quintavalle bridge.   He began in the classic way: “Mamma mia.   Aiuto.   Aiuto.”   Then he said, “Vogio ‘na bela casseta.   Vado via.   So stufo.”   (Mamma mia.   Help.   Help.    I want  a really beautiful casket.   I’m out of here.   I’m fed up.)

I love this guy!   Not only can he make a joke about how bad he feels, he’ll make it to himself.   Or to however many personalities are living in there.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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Dolphins play ball

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This has nothing to do with Venice but  everything to do with smiling, which one needs to do early and often here.   Just like voting in Boston.

For the record, I have seen dolphins in the Ionian Sea, just down the road from Venice, and there have been reports of them out in the Adriatic, where I gather they have become rare. Rumors of one in the lagoon have not been confirmed, at least not by me. In any case, this little divertimento was filmed in Cardigan Bay, Wales.

Categories : Nature, Water
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Gondolier smackdown: the score

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Some while back, I recounted the unpleasantness between two gondoliers near Piazzale Roma on August 14 which resulted in the just-boarded passengers of one combatant (the defender) being overturned into the drink.   One detail of this encounter that has only now been reported is that not only did the aggressor gondolier — they’re never named, which is tiresome — yell horrible things at the defender, he got to the point of physically attacking him and attempting to hold his head underwater.   If you should ever dream of trying to become a gondolier, this is not a skill you’ll be tested on.  

1x1.trans Gondolier smackdown: the score

Gondoliering is essentially a job, like anything else.

Now, for anyone who might have been wondering how the story finally ended, the case has just  been adjudicated by the Ente Gondola, the governing body of the gondoliers,  and the sentence doesn’t involve courses in anger management or hours and hours of community service.   Unfortunately.

The nameless defender has been given a two-day suspension.   The published accounts of this kerfuffle never described how he responded to the attack but evidently he didn’t just stand there and take it.   So, two days.  

His nameless aggressor, however,  has been suspended for six months,  beginning November 1.   This means he won’t be working at Christmas, New Year’s, Carnival, or  Easter.

Don’t start taking up a collection just yet, though, and you don’t need to picture him shivering at home, wondering how to make a pound of pasta last a month.   Because he, like all gondoliers, undoubtedly has a substitute.   And when the gondolier isn’t working, the substitute takes over (hence the word “substitute….”).   And the gondolier, wherever he is (skiing at Cortina,  snorkeling in the Red Sea, whatever), gets to keep 3/4 of the money the substitute makes.   So this outcome  is basically a great thing for the substitute — six months of work!!! — and a type of paid vacation for the gondolier.  


1x1.trans Gondolier smackdown: the score
Categories : Boatworld, Tourism
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