Archive for January, 2010
Quick review so far: Who or what does motondoso hurt? You’re going to say “Buildings and sidewalks.” It’s obvious.
Buildings are what people care about — logical, since no buildings, no Venice. Some Venetians have told me that they don’t believe anything will be done to resolve motondoso till an entire building collapses, a notion that once seemed idiotic until I came to realize that it could happen. A building collapsing, I mean, not that it would lead to any meaningful action, though one can always dream.
So perhaps some structure really will have to be sacrificed, like an unblemished white heifer, for the benefit of the tribe. The idea has a romantic, mythic quality to it that’s almost appealing.
You could also say “People,” about which I haven’t said much, if anything, and you’d be right again. The most obvious hazard that waves present is the risk of capsizing; every so often you read about some tourists in gondolas who have gone into the drink. There was even a traghetto (gondola ferry that crosses the Grand Canal) that got blindsided by an anomalous wave and the whole cargo of passengers went overboard. I seem to recall that a small child got caught beneath the overturned boat, but one of the gondoliers pulled him out in time. Some years ago an American woman drowned. Fun.
Erosion caused by the waves continually sucking soil out from under and between stones means the stones collapse, but sometimes a person collapses with them. It happened to a woman walking along near the Giardini one day — she put her foot on a stone, it gave way, and faster than you can say “Doge Obelerio Antenoreo” she fell into a hole higher than she was. Nobody in the neighborhood was surprised; they’d been sending complaints to the city for months to no avail.
Then there was the child playing on a stretch of greensward at Sacca Fisola facing the Giudecca Canal when a hole suddenly opened up beneath him. If a man with quick reflexes hadn’t grabbed him, the child would long since have gone out to sea. Events such as these — and may they be few — no longer inspire surprise.
But what if you weren’t a human? This question may not often cross your mind, but Venice looks radically different to its other fauna, and not a few flora, as well. And waves are not their friend.
What really makes Venice so special is its lagoon, which covers 212 square miles. Without the lagoon and its concomitant canals, Venice would merely be a batch of really old buildings — beautiful or not, depending on your taste — which could just as well be sitting on the outskirts of Enid, Oklahoma.
I will be expatiating on the lagoon on another occasion. (A Venetian word, by the way: laguna). The witness (that would be me) is instructed (by me) to stick to the topic at hand, which is waves.
The Venetian lagoon is a silent but intimate partner in Venice’s fate. Not only are the waves undermining the foundations of the city, they are scouring away the foundations of the lagoon. And while damage to buildings is certainly important, there is arguably even more damage being done to its waters. And they’re going to be a lot harder to fix than a palace.
So if you haven’t got time to watch what waves can do to buildings, you should take a look at what they do to the lagoon — specifically to the barene (bah-RAY-neh), the marshy, squidgy islets strewn about out there. Venice was built on 118 of them.
Barene are the building blocks of the lagoon. They form 20 percent of its total area, and are crucial to everything in it: microorganisms, plants, animals, birds, fish and, till not so long ago, also people.
Let’s say you have less than no interest in ecosystems and their inhabitants, at least the inhabitants smaller than humans. Barene, along with their myriad meandering capillary channels, are perfect for slowing down the speed and force of the incoming tide. They act as a built-in assortment of natural barriers which, if they could remain where they were, would already be limiting the force and the quantity of acqua alta in good old Venice.
But over the past 60 years, half of the lagoon’s barene have been lopped away by waves. The World Wildlife Fund estimated, several years ago, that at the current rate of erosion (erosion caused by motondoso), in 50 years there would be no more barene left.
Why do we care? Even if all we’re really interested in is buildings, we care because as the barene diminish, the tide can reach the city faster and ever more aggressively. The natural brakes, so to speak, are being taken out.
And we also care because, as I have probably said before, whatever a wave can do to a batch of mud it can and will eventually do to bricks and marble.
Part 5: Solutions?
(I discovered too late that my previous version needed some weeding at the end. This has been cleaned up. Apologies.)
January is a first-class month here (I’ll let you know if I think of one that isn’t).
- Nothing against gray. Gray can also be beautiful here, often more beautiful than blue.
I say this for two reasons. First, the end of the month — or more or less starting now — is composed of the so-called “giorni della merla,” or days of the blackbird. Specifically, the female blackbird, which isn’t black at all, but never mind, and who is commonly believed to be busy building her nest right now for her imminent new brood. This is the only intimation, however remote, of the eventual coming warmth.
- Gray actually has a lot of points in its favor.
This designation isn’t limited to Venice; our little interlude goes by the same name all over Italy. This brief span of days — specifically the last three of the month — are famous for being really cold; in fact, they used to be fairly dependably the coldest of the winter. Perhaps they’re not as cold now as they may once have been (though they’re plenty cold just the same), but if we didn’t get a sudden drop in temperature in late January I would be extremely upset. Just so you know.
Those more inclined toward literature than ecology may recall that this frigid period strikes just about on St. Agnes’ Eve, or January 20. John Keats’s eponymous poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” sets the mood:
“St. Agnes Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was! / The owl for all his feathers was a-cold; / The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass / And silent was the flock in woolly fold: / Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told / His rosary…” And so on. Odd that I can still remember that from high school.
- Unless you don’t like humidity, in which case gray is not your color.
So “days of the blackbird” is just a more attractive way of saying “cold snap,” though at the moment we’re in more of a gray snap. Between fog, snow sputters, and generally heavy overcast, the only light on the horizon is the dimly perceptible gleam of Carnival — a gleam not caused by the sun so much as by merchants’ smiles glinting off loose change.
The second reason I love January leads me to ask: Have you ever wondered where all the water of the acqua alta goes when the tide turns? There is a phenomenon which is particularly Venetian and again, I notice, dedicated to a female figure. In these few weeks, when the water gets let out of the lagoon it reveals the “seche de la marantega barola” (SEKK-eh deh la mah-RAN-tega ba-RO-la), or the exposed mudbanks of the shriveled old hag. The Befana, they mean, even though she went home two weeks ago.
I suppose they could have called them the seche of St. Agnes, but it just isn’t the same. From what I gather, it would have to have been rendered as the “exposed mudbanks of the young virgin martyr.” Not bad, but still.
The lagoon is particularly beautiful in two ways when the year begins. First, with real cold, the water becomes utterly pellucid. Peering down from the bridge over our canal, I can easily make out all sorts of debris in perfect detail, down to the number on a lost license plate settling into the mud. Out in the lagoon, the water has an amazing Caribbean/Greek island transparency.
Second, and just as beautiful as the water, is what you see when the water goes away. The “seche de la barola” are startling prairies of luxuriant emerald algae emerging from the shallows, replacing the usual water with verdant swathes worthy of Nebraska.
I love this, not only because it’s so strange (the first time, anyway), but because it shows in one of countless ways how alive the lagoon is. As the late-January twilight briefly weaves itself into the fading sky with soft skeins of mist, the tide silently turns and this extravagant greensward begins to imperceptibly sink beneath the water again. Imperceptible to me, perhaps, but not to the feeding waterbirds tiptoeing delicately among the soggy tussocks, seeking one last little morsel.
In the city, you may notice that the boats are very low at their moorings. One year I even saw boats sitting on bare mud along the shores of the Grand Canal. That was exciting. It was like being in Fowey, or one of those other little ports in Cornwall where the tide leaves fleets of pleasure boats sprawled yards and yards from the water’s edge.
- Oddly, this low tide happened at dawn in June a few years ago, rather than dusk in January. But you get the idea.
The seche de la barola are well-known to the municipal tide office, which publishes the daily tide predictions on its website and also in the Gazzettino. One symptom of how the tides have gone haywire in general this winter isn’t so much (to my mind) the high water, though that makes such entertaining pictures. It was how the anticipated low tides refused to go low. They just refused. You can see it here:
- The lower line indicates the previously forecast high and low tide levels. The upper line traces what is really happening. Quite a difference. And this went on for days.
To give you an idea of what I mean by “low,” here are some numbers on the seche a year ago.
Istituzione Centro Previsioni e Segnalazioni Maree
Minimi di marea <-50 cm Punta della Salute â€“ anno 2009
Estremali <-50 cm
Minus 59 centimeters is 23 inches below the median sea level. Just so you know.
So come visit sometime in January, and see what the Befana left behind. She’ll be back next year to do it all over again.
You can have your first robin of spring — yesterday I detected the very first signs of Carnival .
The official Carnival celebrations this year will be running from February 6 to 16. Does ten days sound like not very many? Unless you’re a hotel owner, or a street cleaner in need of overtime, they’re more than enough, because each day will be filled with many, many tourists. In the sense that the Serengeti migration involves many, many wildebeest.
But in our little corner of the city, the signs are more appealing:
The first sprinkles of colored paper, thrown at random by small-to-smallish children. They haven’t even put on their costumes yet; for them, it’s enough to have a bag of confetti and an adult who is looking somewhere else.
And pastry!! Specifically, frittelle (free-TELL-eh) or, in Venetian, fritole (FREE-to-eh), and galani (gah-LAH-nee).
Our neighborhood pastry-shop (above) makes what I used to think were the best galani in the universe (if you will disregard their lavish use of powdered sugar, which is wrong). That was until I tried making them myself.
For the cost of a few fundamental ingredients and a couple of hours, you have a high probability, as a scientist would say, of producing something like this:
Fritole are another matter. As something to eat, they are less thrilling than galani (they trade the crunch factor for the dense-and-spongy factor), and as something to make, they’re even more work, though real Venetian housewives will deny it. I make no comment, I only observe that these women have had decades of a head start on me.
Fritole involve yeast, and substantial quantities of hot oil, neither of which appeals to me — speaking as the maker, I mean, not the consumer.
Classic Venetian fritole contain bits of raisins and/or candied fruit, are covered in normal (again, not powdered) sugar, and are both crunchy and soft, in just the right proportions. I can’t tell you what those are — you’ll know them when you taste them.
Venetian fritole are becoming so rare that shops will put up a sign announcing they have them. Evidently the same impulse (culinary, commercial, cultural) which has turned the simple Christmas fugassa into a panettone that’s become a cross between a pinata and a myocardial infarction has also struck this classic Carnival treat.
Now you get fritole filled with thick cream or zabaglione, and covered with powdered sugar. These are, as the Good Book puts it, an abomination and a hissing. But they sell, and I’m not sure what the Good Book has to say about that.
As a bonus, I mention the unheralded but modestly good castagnole (kas-tan-YOLE-eh), which are essentially doughnut holes. They’re much easier to fix than fritole, if the recipes I found can be believed, and they are also approved (by me) for Carnival authenticity.
Here are the essential recipes, taken from my own culinary good book, my trusty “Cento Antiche Ricette di Cucina Veneziana” (One Hundred Ancient Recipes of Venetian Cooking):
Ingredients: 1/2 kilo (1 pound) flour, 2 eggs, 30 grams (1 oz) butter, 10 grams (1/3 oz) “vanilla’d sugar” (zucchero vanigliato) or a few drops of vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, and a small glass of rum or other liqueur. Oil for frying (peanut is good; I use sunflower. They say you can also use lard. I’ll stand back.)
Mix all ingredients (your hands are the only effective option), divide the dough into portions about the size of a baseball (or bocce ball, if you wish).
Roll out on a floured surface with a rolling pin till the dough is about as thick as a sheet of paper. I’m serious about this. I know it’s a lot of work — the dough becomes more elastic and resistant to being rolled the more you keep at it — but if you fudge on this part you’ll never get the result you want. The first time I made these I stopped rolling when the dough was the thickness of carton, and they were a spectacular disaster. So just make up your mind to it.
Cut the PAPER-THIN sheet of dough into strips that are somewhere between a square and a rectangle, no longer than the span of your hand. (“One Hundred Recipes” says to tie each into a knot, but I’ve never seen them like this.) I say cut them into whatever shape you want as long as it’s not too big.
Lay them, a few strips at a time, in the extremely-hot-but-not-boiling oil. Watch them turn brown. (No need to turn them.) Remove quickly — they are born with an innate desire to burn and turn black — and put on paper towels.
Sprinkle with sugar. If you want to use powdered sugar, go ahead. You’re the one who’ll be eating them, and I won’t be there to check up on you.
Unfortunately, as fabulous as these are when they’re just made, they stay almost as good for days. So don’t feel you must consume them all at one go. Then again, it’s Carnival, so the rules have been disabled. Live it up.
Ingredients: yeast, flour, raisins, pine nuts, candied lemon, one or two small glasses of some liqueur. Cooking oil (or lard).
I’m sorry I can’t be more precise; “One Hundred Recipes” sometimes falls back on the old-fashioned “you’ll know it when you see it” approach to quantities.
Dissolve the yeast in a little warm water with a little flour in a wooden bowl and place it near a source of warmth.
When it begins to rise, add the raisins, pine nuts, and liqueur. Mix “forcefully,” they say.
Add more flour, but make sure the mixture remains semi-liquid.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and put it back in the warm spot till the yeast has completely risen. (“You’ll know it when you see it.”)
Take soup-spoon-sized portions of the dough and drop in the hot oil. They say boiling oil — you’re on your own here.
Cook till done (ditto). Sprinkle with sugar.
Ingredients: 300 grams (10 oz) flour, 60 grams (2 oz) sugar, 50 grams (1 1/2 oz) butter, 2 eggs, 1 envelope of yeast (no quantity of contents given, hm…), two soup-spoons of rum or grappa, a pinch of salt, grated rind of one lemon or orange, Alchermes, powdered sugar, oil for frying.
Mix all the ingredients except the powdered sugar, oil, and Alchermes.
Let the dough “rest” for half an hour.
Make little balls (size of golf balls) of the dough and fry in the oil for about 15 minutes.
Take out and place on paper towels. While they’re still hot, pour a few drops of the Alchermes on each and sprinkle with the powdered sugar.
This is a bonus for all of you who want to go the distance, and to have something unusual (and probably delectable — I haven’t tried this. Yet.) in the house. It sounds good enough to rate being included in almost every recipe I can think of: pot roast, lasagne, creamed chipped beef on toast, Waldorf salad…
I am making a moderately educated guess that it’s pronounced Al-ker-MESS.
350 grams (12 oz) grain alcohol, 350 grams (12 oz) sugar, 500 grams (17 oz) water, 5 grams (1/10 oz) stick cinnamon, 1 gram (a pinch, I’d say) each of cloves,cardamom, and vanilla, 60 grams(2 oz) rosewater (the cooking, not the cosmetic, variety) and 4 grams (a few drops) carmine, otherwise known as Red Dye E 120.
My source gives no procedure at this point, so I’m going to suppose that you mix it all together, pour it into a container which closes tightly, put it somewhere dark, and don’t take it out for a while. Perhaps a long while.
Interesting historical note: You will already have assumed that this potion has Arabic roots because of the first syllable “al.” It’s a concoction once popular in Southern Italy and Sicily (where there was a notable Arab influence). It was customarily given to children to calm them whenever they were stricken with fear, profoundly shocked, moderately upset, slightly annoyed… Actually, I believe it was mainly administered in extreme situations, which in a region subject to earthquakes and eruptions aren’t completely theoretical.
If I were a southern Italian child, though, I’d make a point of evincing drastic distress every once in a while just to be able to taste this elixir. I imagine that life as a southern Italian child could be rife with possibilities to evince distress even without extreme natural events. Sunday lunch with the relatives comes to mind.
More on Carnival along the way.
The dynamics of waves aren’t so hard to understand — anybody who’s ever gone to the beach remembers the thump of the wave that has just arrived. (Am I the only person who’s ever noticed how much that sound resembles the slamming of the car doors as your family arrives for a visit?).
We don’t really notice what the thump does to the sand because an infinite series of them has already created the sand. It’s not a bad idea, though, to recall that the sand was once a hefty piece of mountain.
What isn’t so obvious, and maybe is even less obviously disturbing, is the hissing sound the wave makes as it departs. It is caused by a force called “risucchio,” (ree-SOOK-yo) which literally means “re-sucking,” though I suppose “undertow” is close enough for Anglophones. And it’s the force that tears asunder what was once clearly put together by God, man, or whatever’s in between.
Even natural waves caused by the wind, aided and abetted by the retreating tide, will do some of this work of demolition. But then there are the big public boats — and I’m thinking specifically of waterbuses. They come in several versions here, but the highest number are the vaporettos.
The vaporetto is a specific type of boat, and the public-transport company, which goes by its acronym ACTV, operates 52 of them. Sometimes called “battello,” the vaporetto has a regularly scheduled cousin correctly called a “motoscafo,” though it gets called “vaporetto” too for convenience. It sits lower in the water and carries fewer people, though you might not believe it if you try to get on one at rush hour.
At this moment, the ACTV website informs us that the company operates “about 152” waterborne vehicles. (“About”? You mean you don’t know?) They break it down thus: 52 vaporettos, 55 motoscafos, 10 “single agent motoscafos,” which I can’t interpret for you just now, 16 bigger vaporettos that travel the lagoon (“vaporetti foranei”), 9 motonavi, and 8 ferryboats.
Naturally all of these vehicles cause waves, but what compounds the effect is the undertow they create when they stop at one of the 100 or so bus stops (city and lagoon) to drop and pick up passengers.
It’s pretty simple. Here is an illustration of what happens every time one of these craft comes and goes:
On September 15, 1881, the first vaporetto (“Regina Margherita”) began regular service in the Grand Canal. The imminent arrival of this creation caused tremendous distress and revolt among the gondoliers, who foresaw their doom. Their turmoil is the focus of a marvelous film, “Canal Grande” (1943), starring several then-well-known Venetian actors, such as Cesco Baseggio, plus a number of real gondoliers. Too bad it’s all in Italian.
The first vaporetto was soon followed by a fleet of eight, run by a French company, the “Compagnie des bateaux Omnibus.” Nothing against that noble nation, I merely note that Napoleon Bonaparte, who conquered and devastated Venice in 1797, was also French.
In 1890 the Societa’ Veneta Lagunare began service between Venice and assorted lagoon locations. And so it has gone.
Lino remembers when there were still very few vaporetto stops in the Grand Canal; they were at San Marco, Accademia, San Toma’, Rialto, the railway station, and probably Piazzale Roma, though he won’t swear to it. In what was still a flourishing local culture, the Venetians could find almost everything needed for daily life in their own little neighborhoods.
There are now 17 stops on the Grand Canal. They were not installed as something useful to the residents, as noted above, but for the transport of tourists. Shops have begun to close (I don’t lay this fact at the feet of the wave-and-sucking-causing public transport), so as the population has dropped, and the number of tourists has risen, the locals have had to range further afield to find forage, so to speak, and at the same time have had to use public transport which is usually overstuffed with tourists and their luggage. During Carnival, most Venetians do their utmost to stay the hell at home.
The city recognizes that there aren’t enough vaporettos most of the year; during the summer (and Carnival) extra routes and supplementary vehicles are laid on. But eventually some crisis point will be reached where the number of bodies requiring to be moved and the available space in which to do it will collide. To use a term which nobody in the navigation business wants to hear.
Zwingle’s Fifth Law states that “You can get used to anything.” You may quibble, but I can attest that you can definitely get used to this roiling and churning and sucking of many waters. This isn’t good, but neither can you travel all day in a constant state of rage and anguish.
You can give yourself an interlude of relief by going for a little stroll. Ignoring the roaring of motors and the shattering of waves, you can really relax in the city which is extolled for having no cars. I think people who say that must merely mean “no traffic.”