Archive for December, 2009
Technically speaking, the holidays aren’t over yet; the long trajectory of festivities ends here on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, which I will tell you about in another post. But the end is in sight.
Here we hopscotch through December from saint to saint: St. Nicholas (Dec. 6), St. Lucy (Dec. 13), Christmas, St. Stephen (Dec. 26, known as Boxing Day in the Anglo world) and now today, St. Sylvester, or New Year’s Eve. Though the first two only get noticed by people who bear those names (or in the case of Lucy, have eye problems), the last three get more attention. At first it seems odd to refer to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestro,” but you get used to it.
New Year’s Eve and/or Day are referred to as Capodanno, or “head” — or perhaps “boss” — “of the year.”
Christmas as we observe it is a fairly recent invention, developed (if not created outright) by people who want to sell things for the benefit of people who have extra money. Christmas cards and/or trees, Tiny Tim, Rudolph, even Santa would be undecipherable to our forebears, at least if they’re Venetian.
Like many events here, Christmas and New Year are the offspring of prosperity, and people of Lino’s vintage notice the difference. Not that they were more pious, though perhaps they were, but because for a long time the vicissitudes of life (such as two world wars) limited the common perception of what the holiday could entail. They stuck to the basics, and these did not include presents.
“What presents?” Lino snorted. “Who had presents?” Christmas Eve? An ordinary night like any other. Christmas Day? You went to the special mass at 9:00 AM, then the entire family — and in those days that easily reached double digits — squeezed around the table and feasted on food that was at least slightly out of the ordinary. Tortellini (handmade by his mother and sisters) in slow-simmered meat broth was often the star. In the evening, roast veal and polenta, traditions we continue except for the “handmade” part. Lots of family racket, but pretty low on novelties, frivolities, or anything that required batteries or assembly.
Panettone? “It didn’t exist,” Lino stated. “It’s an invention that came after the war,” like so many things. His sisters might have made a “fugassa,” or focaccia — a simple raised cake full of butter and eggs. He doesn’t remember.
He does remember one particular Christmas Eve, somewhere in the late Sixties or early Seventies. (Obviously his childhood was long gone.) He was sitting at dinner that evening at home when they began to hear ships’ whistles blowing. A lot. Finally he said, “Let’s go out and see what’s going on.”
They walked out to the Zattere and there, in the Giudecca Canal, was a tugboat shining its spotlight on the mast of another tug which was almost completely underwater. The light was to aid in the rescue attempt (fruitless) and also to warn other boats to keep clear.
There are two theories about the accident. Either the tug was towing a ship and the tension on the towline slackened somehow, causing the ship to run into the tug, or somehow the tension wasn’t kept steady and a sudden jerk of the line caused the tug to capsize. In any case, by Christmas morning the two victims still hadn’t been recovered.
As for New Year’s, Eve and Day, they passed virtually unremarked by anyone. At a certain point in history the midnight moment began to be marked by all the ships in the port of Venice blowing their horns (that must have sounded totally great). Fireworks? Special dinners out? Champagne? They got here tomorrow, as the saying goes. People had plain old dinner and went to bed. Me, I’d be just as glad to return to that approach; I hate having to pretend to celebrate, especially when I have no clue as to what, exactly, we’re supposed to be celebrating.
For those who might want to imagine a festive New Year’s Eve dinner in Venice, too bad you’re missing out on what Arrigo Cipriani is laying on at Harry’s Bar. The newspaper was reporting on the general markdowns being offered by restaurants around the city even on this special meal, and made a point of noting that even Harry’s was giving a discount. This year the repast is costing a mere 500 euros [$716.66} per mouth, as opposed to last year’s 1000. Very high into the yikes zone even if the economy hadn’t burned up on re-entry.
For that little fistful of euros, diners will engulf champagne, caviar, truffle ravioli, tournedos, and the “dessert of the house,” which at that price ought to be garnished with whipped flakes of gold. I assume it won’t be Floating Island.
Despite my stated aversion to compulsory celebration, I have to say that I spent the most unforgettable New Year’s Eve of my life here in Venice. (You may say “Well sure — most beautiful city in the world,” etc. etc. That is a comment which does not take into account how repellent mass events can be in a city this small, especially when the mass is mainly composed of atrociously drunk people who think they’re having fun. Smashing glass bottles is almost as entertaining as setting off firecrackers. It would appear.)
It was the fateful passage between millennia, the last night of 1999 and first morning of 2000. We had dinner at home with two friends, Sarah from Washington and Caroline from London, then we bundled up and climbed into Lino’s little wooden topetta.
They sat in the center, while we rowed to the Bacino of San Marco. There was a surprising number of boats out (it wasn’t especially cold), but I guess it was that millennium aspect that drew them. As it drew us, because it’s the only time we’ve ever done this.
The fireworks began their aerial onslaught; I thought it was great to be right under them till I discovered that falling bits of blazing incendiary material are essentially little bombs. Moving down-range, we counted down to midnight, then we popped the bubbly — a large bottle of Veuve Clicquot, which Lino kept referring to as “French spumante,” no matter how many times I tried to straighten him out. I wish I could remember what kind soul had given it to us.
But this far I could have anticipated much of this. Being on the water at night is always special, ditto fireworks and friends. But I hadn’t anticipated what came next.
We were done with the toasting and the pyrotechnics. Time to go home. But we didn’t take the shortest route — Lino headed us toward the Piazza San Marco where the mobs were in full cry. Lights! Action! Barf and pee! Scream and hurl hard breakable things! Fling firecrackers and see if you can really damage something!
We rowed slowly past the Piazza and up the rio de la Canonica, past the Doge’s Palace, slipping apprehensively under the Ponte de la Paglia which was jammed with people who might have thought it would be fun to throw something (bottles, garbage, themselves) down into our boat.
As the sound of rioting faded behind us, we threaded our way along the network of dark, empty canals; the canals became darker and quieter as we moved deeper into the city. We glided between looming, slumbering palaces, and the only sound was the delicate Plff. Plff. of our oars and the barely perceptible melody of the water slipping under the boat. The silence seemed like something alive, like whatever remains inside a huge bell that’s still vibrating even when the tone has disappeared.
Venice seemed like an entirely different place, a shadow city hidden within the blare and clang of day. It was as if the city was lifting a veil as we passed, letting us discern, however faintly, the power and the grandeur that are concealed in a place that when the sun comes up is reduced to postcard cutouts. It was an elegant, seductive sort of gesture — if an entity so magnificent could evince anything so intimate. I could feel the veils being lowered, one by one, behind us. Nobody spoke.
We came out into the Grand Canal, back to lights and noise and now. Much as I may hate the touristic mayhem, even on ordinary days, I’m not quite as upset by it as I once was, because I know that Venice has managed to elude our grasp. I won’t say that she’s waiting to come out again — we probably make that impossible.
It’s enough for me to know she’s still in there.
The big present everybody got this year was acqua alta. It seems to have been reported fairly extensively in the world at large — not that people elsewhere don’t have enough drama of their own to keep up with — but there appears to be enough inherent drama, or diversion, in the phenomenon to attract attention.
And they’re predicting more for today, New Year’s Eve, and also Day. Happily, these tides will peak at a decent hour, between 9:00 and 10:00 AM, so we can get some sleep. Thoughtful of them.
We spent most of Christmas Eve night listening, not for the reindeer hooves on the roof, but for the wind to veer around from the southeast to anywhere else it felt like going (or coming). But the forecasts (regular weather as well as high-water categories), which we consulted about every ten minutes, were implacable: There was going to be a strong scirocco (shih-RAWK-oh), and that meant that we were essentially destined to have “water on the ground,” as the Venetians call it in its more modest form.
The scirocco’s force pushes against the lagoon and prevents (or severely slows, but I’m going with prevents) the tide from going out in its normal way and even exacerbates the subsequent normal rising tide. The weather report specifies the direction and strength of the wind, but all we need to do is open the front door and listen: A strong scirocco causes heavy surf which in turn make a low, smooth roar, something like a distant jet preparing to taxi for take-off. And we can easily hear it, out there toward the left, where the Lido’s slim line of beach is doing what it can to keep the Adriatic where it belongs.
The city’s Tide Center was predicting that the maximum height, at 4:30 AM, Christmas Morning, would be 150 cm [59 inches, or almost five feet] above average sea level. I will explain the intricacies of these measurements and their meaning in the real world on another occasion, though let me just note here that Venice does not sit precisely at sea level, but at various heights above it, so these numbers are not immediately as dramatic as they sound.
As the Tide Center explains on its website, “97 percent of the city is at about 100 cm above the average sea level. This means that the amount of water that could invade the city is always well below the maximum number predicted. For example, an exceptional tide of 140 cm corresponds in reality to about 60 cm [23 inches] in the lowest points of the city (Piazza San Marco).”
I don’t know how high our domicile happens to sit above the average sea level, but we knew that at 150 cm there would be water coming over our top step and into our house. It’s just a little hovel, true, but it’s not a boat, unfortunately — not that you want water coming into your boat, either. Venice is an excellent place in which to discover the meaning of “time and tide wait for no man.” You can slow an avalanche pretty much as easily as you can slow the tide.
We knew our tidal limit because we had water in the house once before. Yes, that was one memorable moment. On December 1, 2008, we stood there at our doorstep and watched the water slip under our door — and more to the point, under the temporary barrier we had paid 400 euros for. But it wouldn’t have made any difference because only God and, perhaps, the architect has any idea what’s under our dwelling because water began to enter through a fissure in the kitchen wall, and then up from an ungrouted joint between the slabs of stone paving between the bedroom and the hallway. I can tell you that if the tide wants to come up through your floor you better just let it.
By the way, nothing was damaged, and when the tide turned about an hour and a half later, we got out our brooms and just swept it out to sea. Then I had to wash the floor with fresh water, but it needed it anyway. (I waxed it too — I was feeling like celebrating.) Then we put all the stuff that had been thrown onto the bed back under the bed, and life went on. No death, no damage, and as I say, the floor was clean. But you can’t count on high water being so relatively minor every time, and you really don’t want water, salt or otherwise, under your refrigerator and washing machine.
So at 2:00 AM on Christmas Eve (that is, Christmas morning) we got up and began preparing for the onslaught. No wailing, no hysterical vows to the Virgin; we just began to move whatever we could to higher ground (the bathroom) or on the bed. Last year, unbelieving to the last moment, we left everything where it was, which meant that Lino accomplished what ought to be an Olympic sport — the pulling-out-stuff-and-throwing-it-all-on-bed event — in mere seconds.
Then we took out candles and flashlights. I frittered away a little time sweeping and dusting, since I was going to have to do it anyway. We stared out the front door at the water. We listened.
But we were spared. Lino, whose instincts have been honed by an entire lifetime in boats in the lagoon, sensed when the reprieve was arriving — he could tell that the tide had slowed (“gotten tired,” as they put it) at about 3:30. The tide, in fact, did begin to turn then, earlier than predicted, and lower (143 cm) than predicted. The roar of the wind was diminishing. Christmas morning was beginning to look better than we’d supposed.
Turns out that this event was the fourth highest tide since the city began to record them. It also turns out — for real weather geeks — that one reason it occurred was not so much the force of the scirocco but the fact that it was constant for quite a while. In any case, nothing you can do about that; whatever the wind is doing, you just have to go along with it.
But I have to repeat what I always repeat when high tide makes the news: Nobody dies. Nothing gets especially damaged (I put in “especially” so somebody won’t say “Well what about my bookcase?”). The shopowners had to spend the night keeping vigil in their shops, which earned a few lines in the general coverage, but I say: So? We were up too and we don’t have anything we’re planning to sell. Water damage, whether it’s genuine or just labeled as such, is a great way for merchants to get rid of stock that isn’t moving anyway. I did not make that up.
Another point to consider: Whenever the news reports refer to the city being “under water,” or “flooded,” or however they term it, they never say how much of the city, nor do they say to what depth (it isn’t uniform; does one inch count as “flooded”?). Anyway, in the case of an exceptional high water, such as our Christmas Eve marvel, 56 percent of the city has water on the ground. Sound bad? Let’s do this: “44 percent of the city did not have water.” I suddenly feel better. Why don’t the newspapers ever do that? Rhetorical question.
So on to the next tide, I say, and pull out your cameras. But I think somebody should make it illegal to bring your boat into the Piazza San Marco, and doubly illegal to float around so people can snap your picture. The tide comes in, the tide goes out, all it leaves is some muddy slime
and bits of garbage tangled up in clumps of eelgrass and busted bits of reeds floating in from the barene, the marshy wetlands. This has been going on since the ocean was invented. If you really can’t stand it, go live somewhere more tranquil — say, Haiti in hurricane season, or Bangladesh when the typhoons come through. Or even certain parts of Tuscany the past few days, where some rivers have had nervous breakdowns under the unusually torrential rain. It’s just a suggestion.
So I’m going to stick with wishing everyone happy holidays. I’ll be back with more bulletins.
The following was not written by me, nor is it set in Venice; it was written by a friend whose gifts far outstrip the recognition they have received. And because this small but perfect jewel has become part of my own personal Christmas tradition, I am giving it to you here. Happy Holidays to all.
by George S. Nammack
It was after 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve and I was 12 and wearing my first long trousers. I never had been permitted to attend midnight mass, but I knew that 10:30 was the latest one could be sure of seating at St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway [NY]. After that, you hurried across the dark schoolyard to claim a folding seat in the Lyceum, actually the school’s auditorium, where you would participate in what was perceived to be a somehow second-cabin rite known as The Overflow Mass.
Mother had made her traditional pronouncement that those who chose to go to midnight services were in a state of less rectitude and grace than were those clear-eyed parishioners who led their scrubbed and shining families to the front pews on Christmas morning. My father, splendid in the swallowtail coat that he wore as well to medical society meetings, paced before the fire. He lectured and charmed in favor of the late mass and, finally, prevailed.
It was five minutes before midnight when we were shown to our seats. Mr. Phelan, a huge detective who looked like the legendary John L. Sullivan and was certainly the heavyweight champion of Far Rockaway, was ushering. He smiled at my father and leaned in to speak. “Gee, Doc, you’re just under the wire. Sorry about the seats.”
“That’s all right, Eddie,” my father said. “Even the kings were late.”
The altar was centered on the stage, its snowy linens seeming to move in the dancing candlelight. On a raised platform of red and green two-by-fours, James O’Brien, known as far away as West Hempstead for his rendition of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” was playing “Silent Night” on the small organ. Jockey-size and florid of complexion, he was blessed with a golden tenor.
At four minutes past 12, the popular veteran priest, Father Shine, commenced the celebration of midnight mass. Following communion and the Special Christmas Collection — “I trust we’ll have a lovely soft collection…I don’t want to be hearing any silver!” — Mr. O’Brien launched into his showstopper, Adolph Adam’s beautiful “O Holy Night.”
We sang along, but softly, because it was Mr. O’Brien’s moment. As he reached the somewhat imperative line about falling on your knees, the back door of the Lyceum opened to admit a javelin of frigid wind and, right behind it, Mr. Mitt Gaffney, who lived in an unheated bungalow near the beach and on handouts from saloon keepers, the kitchen ladies at the hospital and the limited largesse of Long Island Rail Road commuters, many of whom had been his classmates in better days.
He stood there for a moment, listening to Mr. O’Brien and filling the already close atmosphere with the unmistakable aroma of cheap muscatel. Mr. Phelan’s neck was turning purple as he looked at Mitt Gaffney’s head. It was covered with a drooping red Santa Claus cap, the peak of which terminated in a once-white pom-pom that fell across the left shoulder of his stained Army overcoat like a medal awarded for congenital innocence.
Mr. Phelan whispered as only a 300-pound man can when he needs to make a point but doesn’t want to disturb the world at large. He said, “Mother of God, Mitt, you’re late and mass is nearly over, and you got a helluva bun on and take off that damned hat in church!”
“Go easy, Eddie, easy,” smiled Mitt, removing his droll topping and stuffing it into a pocket. “We’re not in church, we’re at The Overflow and I just overflowed in for a peek.”
Mr. Phelan said, “I’ll give you a peek and more, Mitt, if you don’t shut up and behave yourself. Now hush!”
The latecomer managed to balance himself behind the last row. As the last lingering note rose in the accepted direction of Paradise, Mitt Gaffney stepped into the main aisle and acknowledged Mr. O’Brien’s tour de force. “Bravo, Jimmy! Bravo! You sounded just like an angel! Honest, kiddo, an angel! A real angel!”
Mitt was teetering from side to side, applauding his friend, his enormous freckled hands crashing into each other. Mr. O’Brien stood and stared through his rimless glasses at this display of uninvited support. His expression was akin to the kind you see at the zoo, when a child sees a rhinoceros for the first time. I believed he was about to faint.
The stunned faithful turned as one to fix the speaker with glares, and Mr. Phelan was puffing back from the front of the auditorium. My father reached out and gently but firmly navigated Mr. Mitt Gaffney into the only empty seat in our row.
The glares gave way to head-shaking, then to snickers, which built to a great wave of relieving laughter. My father put a protective arm around the old Army overcoat and told its frail occupant to be quiet.
Father Shine took a deep breath and spoke. His brogue was as soft as rain on pebbles, and his large blue eyes seemed to hold all of the light. “All right, then, settle down all of you.
“Given the fact that I found his somewhat-demonstrative approbation a bit unusual, given the fact that in these parts we’re not given to applauding the sacred music, I must say that I wholeheartedly concurred with Mr. Gaffney’s apreciation of Mr. O’Brien’s divinely inspired performance. You did sound just like an angel, Jimmy. And Mitt, if you’re to clap and bellow again in church — and you’re in church, Lyceum or not — I’ll have Mr. Phelan cart you off to the hoosegow. Now then, the mass is ended. Go in peace. God bless you all, and drive safely.”
On the way home, my mother said that the interruption was disgraceful, but my father said that things don’t happen unless they’re supposed to and that Mr. Mitt Gaffney had brought a unique gift to midnight mass. Not only that, but he had caused everyone to open it and share it right there at The Overflow, and pity those over at the main church who missed out.
Later, in bed, I thought about the red Santa cap and its almost-white pom-pom, and Mr. O’Brien’s facial expression, and Father Shine’s forgiving eyes, and my father. I gazed out into the starry night and wondered if Mr. O’Brien would sing one day as an angel in Heaven and if Mr Mitt Gaffney would be there to applaud him, and I thought that their chances were pretty good.
When I was first living in Venice, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, cell phones were just beginning to catch on. It seems strange — insane — to think of it now, but there were still few enough to justify making passing comments such as “Buy! Buy!” when someone ostentatiously walked by, talking into this little gimcrack.
Now, of course, we can’t even metabolize simple sugars without them.
One night, in those distant years, we were walking home along the Fondamenta San Basegio. All at once we were startled to hear a woman’s voice suddenly, very loud, right behind us.
“Cominciate a mangiare,” she stated firmly, striding past us. “Fra due minuti saro’ a casa.” [“You all start eating, I’ll be home in two minutes.”] She turned down the Calle de l’Avogaria and was gone.
We went left, over the bridge.
“Wow,” I said. “Good thing she had the cell phone. What would have happened if we were still back in the old days, when people couldn’t phone to say they were almost home?”
“The family would have starved,” Lino answered immediately. “There they are, all sitting around the table, with their knives and forks ready. But Mom isn’t home! What should we do? Should we wait? Should we start? Where is she? What’s gone wrong?”
He was in full sail now. “The police will finally break in, but it will be too late for most of them. The grandfather will already be dead, because he’s the weakest. He couldn’t hold out. The little boy will be barely alive, but that’s only because he was sneaking bits of pasta on the side. The rest of the family will be strewn about the table, unconscious.
“‘What happened?’ the police will cry.
“‘We couldn’t start eating,’ somebody will gasp out, barely able to talk. ‘Mom wasn’t home yet.’
“Thank God she had the phone.”