Archive for July, 2010
Preposterous, ludicrous, and any other “ous”ly things that come to mind can happen all year long. But either the summer seems to produce more of them, like tomatoes and zucchini, or we’re more in the mood to read about them.
Here are some tidbits from the recent past, as reported by the faithful Gazzettino:
“THE FAMILY JEWELS IN THE BADANTE’S CAKE”
(Note: A “badante” is a paid caretaker, usually living with a little old person in need of assistance. They are mostly women, and mostly from Eastern European countries, not that that matters particularly to this or any other story).
“They wanted a piece of cake and instead they found a treasure. Too bad the treasure was already theirs and the cake was destined for somebody else. This is the grotesque misadventure of two residents of Castello, a mother and daughter, in what was supposed to be an ordinary domestic afternoon.
The culprit was a 50-year-old Polish woman who has been living in the district for some years….
“She seemed like a good person [said the daughter]; she stayed with my mother all day, sometimes she even spent the night. I trusted her completely from the very first; she did the shopping and cooking, and would take my mother out for walks.”
But one day the badante asked for money to buy the ingredients for two apple-cakes she wanted to make — one for the family, and one to send to her own people back in Poland. And so the cakes were made, and one was sent off to Poland.
The following afternoon — the badante’s day off — the mother and daughter decided to taste the cake…..which turned out to be fairly difficult to cut. “It seemed like cement,” said the daughter.
Then the discovery: In place of the apples, the cake was full of her mother’s jewelry, necklaces and rings of gold. “There was even my baptism necklace.”
The other cake had been sent to Poland by mistake.
It was an exquisite plan — the only thing lacking was execution. After all, there were only two cakes — it’s not as if there were hundreds to keep track of, like M&Ms. Anyway, that was the scene: What a lovely cake, let’s have tea and a large piece. The daughter takes the knife and cuts into it. Crunch. (Crunch?) And out come her mother’s 18-karat bibelots. Like party favors, only, you know, not. Not at all. I’m not sure how you say “D’oh!” in Polish, but the badante is probably going to be saying it for quite a while. If not to herself, to her folks back home who cut into their cake, imagining all the things they were going to buy with the money arriving via Betty Crocker, and who came up with nothing but jam and chopped walnuts.
I’m not sure which scene I’d rather have witnessed: The cutting of the wrong cake (either one), or the unsuspecting badante’s return home that evening. Not to mention the phone call from her family.
“A TOOTH IN HER LUNGS MAKES HER SUFFER FOR 24 YEARS”
“Instead of swallowing it, which would have been simpler, luck would have it that the little girl unconsciously inhaled her milk-tooth molar, which had come loose, at the age, presumably, of 10 or 11. She didn’t realize [that she had done this], but soon afterward began to complain of a pain in her lungs. It would come and go, more or less frequently, more or less intensely, up until a few days ago. Today the little girl is a 34-year-old woman, married and the mother of two children. And by chance the other day, the pain having returned, she had a bronchioscopy and the cause was discovered: a milk tooth. An intervention at the hospital at Dolo [16 miles from Venice], one good cough, and out came the tooth which had caused so much pain for so long.”
What makes me wonder about this woman isn’t that she inhaled her tooth — I suppose it could happen to anyone. What I can’t grasp is that she lived 24 years without investigating further. Did she think everybody has a pain in their lung? Did she never wonder about it at all? Or does it take that long to get an appointment at the radiologist? And if one of her children had a pain in his/her lung, would she have just said “Suck it up” (sorry) and leave it at that? I couldn’t put up with 24 years of anything, if I didn’t know what it was. Evidently curiosity went to Dolo to die.
“130 CITATIONS FOR TWO BARRELS”
There is a very cool restaurant in the Campiello del Remer, not far from the Rialto Bridge. It’s called Taverna Campiello del Remer and I can remember when this campo was pretty desolate. So I was glad to see that improvements began to be made a few years ago by unseen hands. The main accomplishment was the fixing-up of a brick vaulted former warehouse (it would appear to have been) to become this congenial little eatery. But there is no joy in the Campiello del Remer, because the police won’t stop giving the restaurant owner summonses.
The nub of the problem is that commercial enterprises which occupy public space (think cafe tables on the sidewalk), have to pay a special tax. The space they are allowed to occupy is measured out and a record of these dimensions is kept in one of the city offices.
Emilio Farinon and Angela Cook, owners of the joint, put two big old wooden barrels (closed at both ends) outside the entrance. These barrels were intended to be useful as little tables where people could put their drinks and their ashtrays, much better than putting this stuff all over the ancient marble wellhead in the courtyard.
But somebody in the Campiello del Remer objects to the casks and has decided they must be removed because they are occupying public space illegally. (It’s really heartwarming to find that there is someone who takes the letter of the law so seriously around here. I wonder what they do for fun?). And so this person has taken to calling the police to come write out summonses for the alleged violation. This has happened 130 times in one year.
But not so fast, says Giorgio Suppiej, the owners’ lawyer. This is persecution, and a baseless one, because the square inches of soil upon which the hogsheads are sitting isn’t public, but private. So the summonses have no validity.
To demonstrate this fact, Suppiej has shown the Comune as well as the Court the Napoleonic Cadastre, the first ever to document the property limits of every building in the city. Suppiej then compared it to the subsequent version, and finally the one that is current today. “In all of the maps,” he says, “the space, which is under a staircase, is shown as private.
“Furthermore, the Comune can’t say the space is public; we previously asked the Comune to grant the plateatico [authorization to use public space], a request which was rejected because the space is under a staircase, a rejection which was suspect because other spaces beneath a sottoportico [passageway under a house] have been granted the plateatico, and anyway, this isn’t a sottoportico, but a sottoscala [under a staircase].”
A city councilor, Renato Boraso, has added his booming notes to the chorus, and asked the mayor to justify what Boraso regards as the “excessive zeal” of the municipal police. [Didn’t know they were prone to attacks of zeal, much less excessive ones. This is heartening indeed.]
“One hundred thirty citations isn’t something to underestimate,” he says. “…It’s time to put an end to this persecution — we’ve reached administrative insanity and I’m going to ask for all the documentation and then send it to the Accounting office. The city is going to have to justify all the hours which the police have spent on pursuing the complaint of a private citizen who evidently knows somebody at City Hall, distracting them from their public duties.
“Furthermore, it appears to me that the night that those vandals tried to set fire to Marino, the old derelict, the police were in the office writing out their usual photocopied report on this.” I like this, not only because it shows the vivid contrast in importance between an attempt on someone’s life and a bureaucratic technicality, but because it implies that there were only two police on duty that night in the entire city. But I mustn’t get distracted.
Ernesto Pancin, head of the merchants’ association, also sees some anomalies in this conflict. “I believe that businessmen ought to be rewarded, not punished, for their tenacity. In the case of the Campiello del Remer, before a business was established there, there were only drug addicts. I can guarantee that there are other cases which are flagrantly illegal but which inexplicably go unpunished.”
The Battle of the Barrels may, with all this publicity, have reached a turning point. Perhaps the anonymous protester will turn to pursuits of more evident public value, though I doubt it because this vendetta doesn’t have any significance to anyone but him or her. But if they’re still in the mood for persecution, I have a little list of offenses here that he or she could start on tomorrow. I could help.
I went to the airport one morning two weeks ago, and there I discovered that there is a dark side to cruising. The only thing surprising about that is that I was surprised.
Going home from vacation is never very much fun, but it would seem that Marco Polo airport was designed to get you accustomed really fast to the fact that the fun is seriously over.
As I have often mentioned — sorry if I’m becoming repetitive, maybe I should set some of this material to music and we could all join in on the chorus — Venice has become a mega-major passenger port.
Cruise traffic in the last ten years has quadrupled. Expressed in bodies, that comes to 1,420,980 in 2009, which represented a 16.9 per cent increase over the previous year. Venice is now the fourth busiest port in Europe, and the first in the Mediterranean.
The first ship on the dance card this year was the Costa “Deliziosa,” which arrived on January 30 (I don’t know from where — maybe there’s a cruise-ship launching platform somewhere around Queen Maud Land). The last one scheduled this year is the MSC “Magnifica,” which will depart on December 27. The word “season” has taken on new meaning: It’s every month of the year except January.
But until last Sunday, I hadn’t really given any thought to what these numbers might portend, not so much to the ships as to the airport.
After all, passengers mostly arrive by air. I’ve often seen the young women who serve as cruise-passenger wranglers waiting in the Arrivals area at Marco Polo airport, holding up their signs for Princess or Costa or whatever the cruise line might be, to help them gather their arriving clients, each of whom appears to bring about ten metric tons of luggage. The common idea about cruises is that people go on them in order to eat constantly, like blue whales (daily requirement: about 1.5 million calories). But when I look at their bags, I think their main plan must be to pass the time changing clothes.
Anyway, it’s obvious that extraordinary machinery has been developed to keep these ships and their passengers and their supplies coming in and going out, doing a turnaround in the space of a day, for 11 months a year.
It doesn’t appear, however, that the same efficiency has been devoted to the airport phase of the experience. Because when six or seven cruise ships come into Venice on a Sunday morning to finish their dreamy voyages, most of those people head for the airport. Where the party is definitively over.
Venice airport is the third busiest in Italy, preceded only by Rome and Milan. This makes the airport people very proud, as well it should. But while their annual numbers might be impressive on the page, they’re not nearly as impressive as the struggle all those thousands of people have to make in order to leave Venice in something like a four-hour window of time. Certainly there are early flights where the density of humans is less — the first departs at 6:35 AM. But no cruise company in the world would put its passengers on the airport bus at 4:30 AM, unless it were docking in Murmansk.
So as I say, I went to the airport on a Sunday morning to meet some friends who had disembarked from their cruise and were flying out that night. When I slid off the escalator on the Departures level, what greeted me was an appalling combination of the last day at summer camp (when all the kids are milling around being picked up by parents) and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West featuring Annie Oakley.
That morning there were 20 flights scheduled between 9:50 AM and 12:15 PM; that’s one every six minutes. And three of those flights were to major US destinations, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York. I mention that only because I presume that one flight to Atlanta involves more passengers than three flights to Palermo.
When I think back on the previous facility 15 years ago (a nostalgic reminder of the Oneida County airport at Utica, New York in 1968), the shiny new version is something of an improvement. But one has to ask oneself (I’ll stand in for “one,” in this scene), what they were thinking when they designed an airport that has more space for the planes than for the people.
Take the check-in area on the Departures level. It is beautifully long, but ludicrously narrow. There are 60 check-in counters, and the designer(s) evidently assumed that each check-in counter would serve a line of no more than 25 calm, lucid, well-organized passengers with no luggage or children. Then they left just a smidge of space at the end of the line so that people could get through who needed to go somewhere else — another counter, or the newsstand or the bar.
But wait. It turns out there are more than 25 people who need to line up at each counter, so they begin to clump together. And hold on — we actually need lots and lots of space for the people who are walking from here to there because many of them got here the necessary two (or more) hours before departure but whose flight isn’t open for check-in yet. So they wander (mill around, actually) or they sit, if they can find a place among the very designy but not very numerous seats.
Let’s talk about other things people need besides enough space to stand in a check-in line, or to sit and check their tickets and yell at their kids and or maybe take a snooze.
People need to go the bathroom. There are two obvious bathrooms on the Departures level and one hidden away down a hallway. I don’t know about the men’s room (men don’t care, anyway), but each ladies’ room has two (2) toilets. That makes four stalls for women on a floor that is pullulating with hundreds and hundreds of people. There are two ladies’ rooms on the Arrivals floor, too, so make that another four stalls on the ground level. Eight stalls — I mean ten, if you count the hidden facility — for women in an airport that operates an average of 80 flights a day, or an average of one every 12 minutes. (There must be a handicapped-accessible bathroom somewhere, it just doesn’t come to mind.)
Lest you think I am unreasonably obsessed with physiological needs (like, say, space to move around in and yes, to relieve oneself), I have some data from Robert Davis, an architect friend of mine. He writes: “We have a rule of thumb for theaters which is ’30 seats per seat.’ … So a 600-seat facility should have 20 fixtures, evenly divided male/female.”
Assuming that airport design is not radically different from theater design (some people spend more time in airports than they do in theaters, after all), if you have 600 people in the airport you would need ten stalls for the women. So we see that the Venice airport is already in a bathroom deficit situation. Because let’s assume there are more than 600 people in the airport at a given time, a pretty safe assumption based on the evidence of the other morning. The people keep swarming in, but there are still only eight stalls. Just deal with it.
At the other end of the alimentary canal, there are two (2) bar/sandwich counters (one upstairs with no seating and one downstairs with some tables), and one multi-station buffet with very little space to move around in with your tray, and a batch of cramped tables and extremely little space for your luggage, assuming you’re snacking before checking in, or you feel like doing something other than wander and look for a place to sit. The line for this facility stretches out to collide with the lines of people checking in at counters 59 and 60.
I have to say, pretty slim pickings for passengers at an airport which claims to be ready to handle 15 million passengers a year. Especially considering that it is currently handling only about 8 million.
I’m not saying Venice’s aerodrome has to be like Frankfurt or Amsterdam airports, though I wouldn’t mind. All I’m saying is that while everyone has been working night and day to increase cruise traffic, it doesn’t appear that anyone has been attending to how they will be accommodated (I mean wrangled) on the day they leave. So far, Skytrax has not awarded any stars at all to Venice airport. I wonder what that means.
So what advice could I give someone leaving their dream cruise and flying out of Venice airport in the summer? Bring a book. Your own food. A folding chair. A portable toilet. Think of it as camping, in the middle of Times Square. You’ll be fine.
This past weekend we reached the summer’s festive culmination, the Feast of the Redeemer. But this year the routine was slightly different: No boat, no fireworks. Sounds like heresy, I know. It is heresy. I might as well just call it a club cookout and forget all the historical/traditional frippery.
Things have changed because now we’re in a different rowing club, and in a different place altogether in our minds and spirits. And while we could certainly take a boat and load it up with the usual bovoleti, watermelon, sarde in saor, pasta e fagioli, and all the other traditional noshes to get you from sundown to the fireworks, we just don’t feel like it.
One main reason we — and several other old Venetians I asked at random — don’t feel like going in a boat anymore is because of all the other boats. It’s one thing to be crushed amid swarming hordes of people ashore, it’s quite another to find yourself in the dark with thousands of large motorboats operated by people who are drunk and who don’t know how to drive. Obviously, this was not a problem when Lino and his cohort were growing up. It’s pretty hard to hurt anybody with a wooden rowing boat, at least not to the degree a big boat powered by 90 or 140 or more horses.
In fact — not to cast a pall over what I intend to be a jaunty little post — two young women who were aboard a motorboat zooming back to Chioggia after the fireworks have not yet made it home. Because the boat ran into a piling at high speed — just about every motorboat leaving Venice was going from fast to pretty fast to crazy fast — and one woman hit her head against the other woman’s head. The first woman lingered about a day, and is now in heaven. The other woman, who had snagged a ride home with them just on an impulse, is in the hospital recovering from various fractures. As for the driver/owner/ friends who were aboard, I don’t know what state they’re in, but two of the boys/men/whatever have fled. I tell you this only to indicate that I am not inventing notions about how dangerous it is out there. What surprises me is that disaster struck so few. Not much comfort to the families of all involved.
So Friday morning (Saturday night being the high point), Lino and I went to the club to help clean the mussels. A vast feast — probably more Rabelaisian than Lucullan — was planned, and our contribution was to do some of the prep work. Little did I know what ten tons of extremely wild mussels will do to your hands.
Forget how they look, in their just-scraped-off-the-pilings dishabille. They’re ghastly, I agree. Even I gave some serious thought to striking mussels off my must-eat list for, like, forever. But the ones we took home, all clean and shiny, were absolutely delectable. So you know, don’t judge a mussel by its encrustations.
After spending hours pulling and scraping off plant and all sorts of other matter, not to mention rending them from each other one by one, my hands felt as if I’d been pulling nettles. Three days later, a few fingers were still a little red and swollen. Now I understand why one of the men put on rubber gloves. I live, I learn.
A certain number of men got to cooking. There were great things to eat but there was also fifty times more than anyone could ever consume. Fried shrimp and deep-fried fresh zucchini and sarde in saor, the aforementioned mussels, grilled pork ribs and sausage and lamb chops and fresh tomatoes out of the garden in the back, and — I begin to lose the thread here — there was also something I’d never even heard of, much less tasted: deep-fried sage leaves. You can have your fried zucchini blossoms, I’m going to take the sage any chance I get.
After that the sheer quantity began to press down on my brain — I know I ate many more things, but I can’t remember what. At a certain point one of the wives pulled out a homemade frozen dessert called zuccotto. The recipe I looked up here makes it sound elegant, but what we ate were pieces that seemed to have been hacked off the Ur-zuccotto with a dull cleaver. And of course there was watermelon, which is utterly non-negotiable. You can skip a whole batch of things, but yes, there will be watermelon.
We watched the fireworks from afar, enjoying the highest ones and intuiting the lower ones by the shimmering glow through the treetops. It was more comfortable than sitting in a boat right under them, but much less exciting. I don’t see the point in fireworks if the’re not going to be exciting. You might as well watch them on TV, or through the wrong end of a telescope, and wear earmuffs.
After the fireworks – or as they put it, “pyrotechnic display” — the countless motorboats began to stream homeward. The paper estimated that some 110,000 people came to party, but didn’t hazard a guess as to how many boats. There were so many they were tying up to public lighting stanchions, not at all a good idea.
We all sat there, sticky with watermelon juice, watching the migration. It was like the wildebeest at high speed, with big roaring mechanical voices, each with a little red light gleaming from its left flank.
Next day: The races. Now they were exciting. Lots of wind, lots of tension, lots of — unfortunately — waves. Something is going to have to be done, the racers can hardly row anymore. But that’s a subject for another day.
For those who are interested in a few more statistics, the spectacle (fireworks, etc.) cost about 100,000 euros. Doesn’t sound like much, I know — actually, I had the impression that the show was shorter than some other years.
Last night we had an especially delectable dinner, focusing (as often happens) on fish.
Sometimes we buy them, sometimes we catch them, and sometimes they thrust themselves upon us.
As in this case: “Orate” (gilthead sea bream) are highly prized around Venetian restaurants, and are vigorously cultivated in the various lagoon fish-farms. We bought these two specimens from our neighborhood fisherman a few hours after he snagged them.
The other little guy, the slender one at the right edge of the plate, is a cefalo (“siegolo” — SYEH-go-yo — in Venetian), or gray mullet. Very delicious, but very snobbed these days by restaurants who prefer to offer the very trendy orata, at preposterous prices.
A few hours before the picture above was taken, our little siegolo had been swimming blithely along, zipping through the water thinking whatever busy ichtheous thoughts oppress teenagers of the Mugilidae family.
Suddenly, he felt like leaping. This happens to mullet of all sizes, I don’t know why, but it strikes usually in the morning, sometimes in the dead of night. You can be rowing along and they’ll just bounce out of the water as if there were a trampoline down there somewhere. And it is not at all unusual for them to land, not with a splash, but a thud, as they hit the bottom of our boat.
The first time this ever happened to me, we were rowing in a four-oar sandolo at midnight back from Sant’ Erasmo all the way to the Lido. Summer nights are luminous in the lagoon and back then there weren’t quite so many motorboats tearing around all night, or at least not enough to drown out the pensive voice of a nightingale that came out of the dark woods as we rowed along the canal between the two islands called the Vignole, or the lovely, solitary note — just one — of the owl they call a soeta. It was magical.
Suddenly there was a thump in the bottom of the boat, and it kept thumping. In the dark I thought it was a bottle or something similar that had fallen over in the midst of our various voyaging detritus. But no — it was a fish. A big, strong mullet, who evidently had rejoiced as a strong man to run a race to see just how high out of the water he could hurl himself. He found out how high, but he hadn’t calculated on the landing. Fish don’t get to go home again any more than people do, at least not those who launch themselves anywhere near us. His future was pretty simple at this point: The skillet and a slather of extravirgin olive oil.
Anyway, sorry as I am to see a mullet’s morning, or evening, ruined by being taken prisoner and then executed, I know we appreciate him more than a lot of people do. Maybe more than his friends and family do. (Do fish have friends?)