Archive for February, 2010
One of the great things about staying pretty much in one neighborhood is that as I walk around doing the eternal mundane little things of life — which are just as mundane here as anywhere else, I’m sorry to say — I sometimes have the sensation of being carried along on a gentle current of badinage. Sometimes it’s complaining, sometimes not, but the art of quip and banter has been honed here to a comfortable edge that doesn’t draw blood. It depends on your tone of voice.
It’s a skill you’d expect to find developed in any small area where people have known each other for a long time (convent, factory, school, office, etc.) and can’t really avoid each other.
This morning we went into the pharmacy; someone was there to get something for a strained muscle. After some conversation about this item or that, he decided, paid, and turned to leave. “I don’t know,” grumbled the client/patient, somewhat loudly, “it seems like I’ve got just one pain after another.”
Filippo the pharmacist has undoubtedly heard this far too many times. “Pains are like money,” he bounced back: “The more you’ve got, the more you keep.” Was that comforting, or did laughing just make the person feel better? I wonder if they teach you these witticisms in pharmacy school. I hope not. I’d rather think he made it up.
We moved on to the butcher shop, where the ever-smiling Marcello was doing his usual micro-surgery on shapeless masses of meat. It’s kind of hypnotic to watch him work, using just the right knife of just the right length and shape and sharpness, deftly stripping away strata of fat and dislodging inappropriate pieces of bone.
He smiled at us. “By now the knife can do it all by itself,” he said, smiling at our fascination.
“Well, you need hands that know what they’re doing,” Lino remarked.
“Sure,” Marcello replied. “But after 50 years, it’s like there are little eyes on the point of the knife.” A self-guiding butcher knife; a knifebot. I like it.
Then there are plays on words. I realize this may be hopelessly hard to explain, but I heard it just yesterday, and not for the first time — a minor quip that was probably funny the first ten times or so, back in 1329. You might need to have already had a few to find it amusing anymore. Here goes:
“La porta” means “the door.” “La” also means “she,” or “you” addressed to a female. “Porta” can also mean “bring” or “carry.”
So on the vaporetto, it is happening more and more often that someone entering or leaving doesn’t shut the sliding door. In the winter, this is rude and also kind of dumb (is it not obvious that these doors aren’t automatic?? Does the freezing wind somehow not touch that person?). These will be the same people — or their relatives — who, when we are suffocating with heat and humidity in the depths of July, will make a point of closing the door.
But it’s winter, and the door’s open, and sometimes a person (Venetian) near the door will just get up and close it. Or sometimes an exasperated passenger will call out to the offending party: “La porta!” (The door!)
To which someone else (Venetian), feeling frivolous, might respond: “Un litro!” (A liter). Saying this has instantly shifted the scene from a frigid, real vaporetto to a warm and stuffy imaginary osteria, where the men clustered around a table playing cards would be very likely utter the same exclamation, but in this case “A liter” means “Bring us a liter of wine.”
Maybe I’ve crushed the humor, but thought I’d give it a try. I think it’s funny.
Then there was the other morning. I was standing in line at the cash register at the little super-low-price supermarket wedged back into a corner of the campo behind and beyond us, a remote locale not far from the geographical frontier past which there are only sea monsters, just before you drop off the edge of the world.
The man in front of me, a grizzled, generic sort of retired working-class dude, had put his few items on the conveyor belt and the young man at the cash register had picked up one of them, a small plastic bottle of honey. I tuned in at the moment when the cashier had decided (I don’t know why) that he needed to explain how the nozzle-top worked. Perhaps the man had inquired, though he didn’t look like the type that would even have noticed it had a nozzle. Or cared.
“So you just take off the top, like this,” the cashier was saying, “and turn it over, and squeeze, and out comes just however much you need,”
“Oh this isn’t for me,” the man replied. God forbid anyone should think he had degenerated to the point of eating honey. “This stuff is for my wife.”
“So you don’t eat anything calling for honey in the morning?” the cashier confirmed in a friendly way.
“God no,” the man said. “I have a mortadella sandwich and a glass of red wine.”
This makes me smile. First, because it’s kind of a distinctive breakfast concept (I’m guessing it would be the “Canal-Dredger’s Special” on the coffeehouse menu). And second, because it sounded normal. Not good, not healthy, not to be recommended under any circumstances – but totally normal. Not only do I know that this is absolutely what he would have been expected to have in the morning (mortadella, being probably the cheapest cold cut you can get, sometimes goes by the nickname of the “plasterer’s prosciutto”). I don’t even see anything … how can I put this … wrong with it. I mean, I wouldn’t have it — but I wouldn’t not have it, either.
When you can look at something and grasp it as being both weird and normal, you’ve been wherever you are for too long. If I were a police officer they’d long since have rotated me out, sent me somewhere on the dark side of Sardinia. But here I am.
You thought Carnival was over with the sprinkling of the ashes on penitential hairdos? Not quite.
Carnival doesn’t slink away under cover of darkness when the marangon, the basso profundo bell in the campanile of San Marco, tolls midnight on Martedi Grasso. Two things have to happen for it to really be over — in my opinion, that is. Two things which are more predictable than the swallows returning to Capistrano.
The first is the pulling apart and hauling away of the traveling amusement park (what they generically call a “Luna Park” here) which has been gracing the Riva dei Sette Martiri since — I believe — early December.
These people (as in much of the world) are almost exclusively families which have dedicated many generations to the setting up, operating, pulling down, and rolling on to the next location of their ride or concession stand.
After three months, I’m going to miss the smell of the hot-doughnut-frying-oil and the screeching of the children. It was fun strolling along the waterfront late every afternoon to mingle and kibitz. And I am convinced that as long as there is at least one small child walking home carrying a small plastic bag containing water and a goldfish, the world will not come to an end.
Anyway, the men start work early on Ash Wednesday morning, and by Thursday morning the funfair is gone. The only sign they’ve ever been here are the patches of new cement filling the holes in the pavement where their big rigs (or something) went astray.
Speaking of itinerant carnies, I went to the small town of Bergantino a few years ago when I was working on a story about the Po River (National Geographic, May, 2002). This former farming town has, since the Twenties and much more since the Sixties, become dedicated to the design, construction, and (eventually) operation of carnival rides — merry-go-rounds, bumper cars, etc. Despite the town’s modest size — it’s really just a village of some 2,000 people, when they’re all there, I mean, and not out on the road — they’ve carved away a heavy slice of this international industry for Italy. One of the major markets for their inventions is the USA.
Well, wherever they’ve gone, I’m already missing them.
The second element of the end of Carnival is the orgy of articles, editorials, and letters in the Gazzettino reviewing, celebrating, and vilifying the festivities just concluded. I can tell you without even having opened the paper that there will have been too many people for this fragile city to support; that the managing of this predictable overload will have shown inexcusable organizational flaws and failures to resolve the most elementary large-event necessities (toilets, in a word); that the money taken in doesn’t justify the stress and expense to the city; that it will have lacked originality and creative genius, and that for the residents and shopkeepers of Campo Santa Margherita, the ten days just concluded have been nothing less than at least six of the nine rings of hell.
And every year, the apex of all the claims and counter-claims: That this event would be (or ought to have been, or next year definitely will be) the “Carnival of the Venetians.” I saw Venetians having a fine time carnivalizing in their own modest way in various neighborhoods of the city, but not in the Piazza San Marco. I’d have given you a cash prize if you’d found any Venetians besides Lino in the Piazza San Marco.
So when this wish to involve Venetians is mentioned, as if it were obviously a good thing, I ask myself if the speaker believes that a “Carnival of the Venetians” would have the slightest probability of pouring the millions of euros into the municipal strongboxes that all those tourists do. After all, Venetians don’t spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, fancy masks, or whatever else makes Carnival matter. So frankly, what would be the point of spending money to organize a ten-day carnival for the few remaining locals? Just wondering.
Let’s go to the videotape (so to speak). Here is a smattering of the Gazzettino’s overview of Carnival 2010, as published yesterday:
The organizers claim that 150,000 people came the first Sunday; 250,000 the second Sunday (let that sink in…) and 40,000 on Martedi Grasso. Altogether, they say a total of 800,000 people came to Venice during Carnival. Perhaps not much compared to Rio, but for a city that covers a mere three square miles, not bad.
They estimate that each visitor spent 50 euros, for an exciting total income of 40 million euros. Not sure where this number came from; a professor of the Economics of Tourism at the University of Venice says that the “bite and run” day-trippers spend an average of 30 euros each day, while the more solid tourist spends 150. In any case, let’s not quibble over a million more or a million less. Restaurants and hotels certainly made money, not to mention the ACTV and their spectacularly expensive vaporetto tickets.
One new comment is by the businesspeople (especiallythose of restaurants and cafes) in the Piazza San Marco — they don’t want a maxi-stage there anymore. I’m not sure why, but I imagine it’s because it takes up too much space which needs to be available for them to put out their tables and chairs.
I could go on, but it’s probably not that interesting. These few days following Carnival are mainly spent in a sort of emotional and mental scrubbing and disinfecting.
The summary is fairly concise. Apart from numbers, claims, and counter-claims as to success or failure, as one reporter wrote, “Now the Venetians can give a deep sigh of relief and put their hands on their foreheads and say, “‘Once again we’ve lived through it.’”
It’s not as if the city goes into mourning when Carnival is over (the merchants are too busy with their calculators to feel sad), but if you had gone out with me for a walk this morning, you wouldn’t just feel that something was missing (like, say 100,000 people). You would have the distinct sensation that you were at the bedside of a patient whose fever had finally broken and was sleeping peacfully.
A tranquillity comes over the city that is nothing less than miraculous. All that’s left to do is to clean the room and change the sweat-drenched sheets. So to speak. (I do hear some desultory sweeping going on outside.) And now we can see the simple, austere, monochromatic 40 days of Lent stretching before us.
Here’s what I won’t miss: The mighty force of the touristic masses being sucked into the city’s gullet as if through some colossal straw. The wall of humanity blocking entire streets, a good number of which had to be organized as strictly one-way. The incessant rumble of the launches hauling and re-hauling loads of countless people from the mainland to San Marco, not to mention the choking poison of their engines’ exhaust as they idle by the Fondamenta degli Schiavoni waiting for the next batch.
Here’s what I will miss: The neighborhood in full frivolity, the kids of all sizes in all sorts of costumes, their entourages of relatives, doting or beleaguered as they may be. And — you know what I’m going to say — the fritole and galani.
Food seems to be the standard by which every human experience is measured here, and now we’re supposed to get serious. The list of (technically) forbidden goodies for the next month and ten days is well known and can be fairly detailed. But I narrow the “forbidden” list to two items: Fat and sugar, which means no more fritole or galani (sob). And you are expected (technically) to pretty much give up on meat, at least on Ash Wednesday and Fridays.
In this officially Catholic country where hardly anybody (it is said) goes to church anymore, today the butcher shops are closed. You’re supposed to eat fish. Or nothing, I suppose — maybe you get extra points for fasting, which wouldn’t hurt anybody after the gorge-fest we’ve been through.
We stopped by Marcello the butcher yesterday, looking for a cheap steak to eat before the culinary window slams shut on our fingers. He was busy doing brain surgery on a batch of chicken breasts so we watched his deft slittings and peelings and trimming while waiting our turn. Now that I think of it, it’s not so much brain surgery as couture tailoring.
Lino said, “I’ve always loved watching butchers work on meat. It’s a real art.”
“All the work that artisans used to do were arts,” Marcello replied. ”I used to love watching the baker making bread. He could twist and tie and arrange it in all sorts of shapes. You don’t see that anymore — now it’s all stamped out by some kind of form. I’d stand there for hours to watch him.”
“You going to be closed tomorrow?” Lino asked, not having noticed the handwritten sign in the window saying “Closed Tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Marcello. “It used to be that on Ash Wednesday all the butchers would be closed. The butchers, and the salumieri [butchers who work only with pork], and the pastry-makers. Those were the only ones to close, and we still respect that.”
No need to have mentioned the pastry-makers: it’s obvious. They are the CENTCOM of fat and sugar. They also must be worn out by now.
Even if nowadays anybody can go to the supermarket on Ash Wednesday and buy chops and ground beef and veal brains and so on, it wouldn’t really be in the spirit of the day. We’re hanging tough with vegetables, mostly. So healthy, so spiritually fortifying.
While we’re thinking of food, have you ever noticed that fasting, instead of clearing the mental decks for you to contemplate matters of the soul, usually has the opposite effect? That’s something to meditate on when you run out of repentance.
Meanwhile, we ate seppie in their ink tonight with polenta made the old-fashioned way (40 minutes of constant stirring). The seppie were so fresh that they practically smiled at us from their plastic bag — Nardo the fisherman had struck again, and we scored his last two. Technically the menu was well within the Ash Wednesday rules, but we totally violated their spirit — it was outrageously good.
I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to repent of that too.
I’m writing this on Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) but I feel the hot breath of Lent on my neck. People with suitcases heading toward the train station and airport have been filling the vaporettos since this morning, even as the tourist launches continue to haul their loads of fun-seekers from Punta Sabbioni (where their big buses don’t have to pay any fees) back and forth across the Bacino of San Marco to the Piazza San Marco.
We went to the Piazza this afternoon to watch the official presentation of the Maria who won first prize, blue ribbon, grand cru, or whatever they give her. It was boring. What was more amusing were some of the costumes, as well as the massive lion of San Marco, complete with requisite book under upraised paw, made entirely of plant material — fruit, vegetables, leaves and fronds and huge lashings of imagination.
Then we were back in via Garibaldi for the free fritole and galani that local restaurateur and personality Lucio Bisutto arranged for some local club to give out. That old saying, “Build it and they will come”? Here, it’s “Put free food on a table and they will come.” The little old ladies are always the first; they’re like circling buzzards who can sense dying prey.