Archive for July, 2010

Jul
15

Afa: get to know it

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I was going to write about something else but it’s just too hot.   Every summer we get a heatwave around about now, but I’m not sure I remember one quite this heavy.   Or long-lasting.  

We’ve been having temperatures up around 100 degrees F. (39 degrees C) during the day, slightly less at night, for at least a week.   Yesterday the weather report indicated that it was hotter here than in New York.   I can tell you without consulting anybody but myself that it’s hotter than the hinges of hell.

Looking toward Murano at 8:30 this morning.

Looking toward Murano at 8:30 this morning.

In addition to simple heat, there is the element called “afa,” which means sweltering, sultry, breathless heat, the kind of mugginess that makes you feel like an old sponge that has been left in a dark damp corner next to things that smell.

There are only two places I can think of where this weather would be even more intolerable. One would be anywhere along the Po River plain, where the fields  stretch for  long, desperate distances with no shade.   Where there is shade, among the poplar plantations lining the river, there is no oxygen.   Whatever is taking the place of oxygen does not move, because the world has stopped.

Looking toward the Lido at the lagoon inlet of San Nicolo'.  The heron is happy, but herons don't sweat.

Looking toward the Lido at the lagoon inlet of San Nicolo'. The egret is happy, but egrets don't sweat.

The other place where the heat is torment is the mountains.   Mountains are  made to be cool, at least at night.   If I had to endure this kind of heat at  4,000 feet, I’d have to think long and carefully about my revenge.

Clamming takes your mind off the fact that you're suffocating.

Clamming takes your mind off the fact that you're suffocating.

We’ve gotten through it so far by going out in the lagoon in a small mascareta, to a place where there is virtually always a breeze.   And enough water to immerse myself for ten hours or so.   Other people go to the beach on the Lido.   Other people go shopping at the small supermarket off Campo Ruga, where the air-conditioning is set to cryogenic depths.   We go clamming.   More fun, for us.   Probably not so much for the clams.

I’m off to bed now, planning to dream of the freezers at the Tyson chicken-processing plant.   Do not wake me.

Categories : Boatworld, Nature, Water
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Jul
13

Crimes of passion

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Things  are heating up here in an alarming manner, and I’m not referring to the Saharan heatwave that is currently sweeping the old Bel Paese and suffocating everybody’s capacity to think.

I’m referring to two  recent spectacular homicides with distressing similarities, the kind one hears that judges in Provence excuse because of the effect of the mistral.   Here, I’m not sure that the weather is considered an accomplice or not.   But the girls are still dead.

These two  tragedies demonstrate  the most effective way to  resolve your pain when your girlfriend breaks up with you.   Not a new approach, but it works:   You kill her, then yourself.  

Both of these recent calamities happened on the mainland (sorry, no romantic canals into which to throw the body), but just a few miles inland, and the Gazzettino has  been providing the details for days, even though virtually every element is pretty much out of the handbook.  

Roberta Vanin (left) and her body being removed from Bio-Vit, her store.

Roberta Vanin (left) and her body being removed from Bio-Vita, her store.

Spinea is  a small town in the Province of Venice about 10 miles from the Piazza San Marco, hitherto famous (I guess) for being the hometown of Federica Pellegrini, an Olympic  swimming medalist.   Spinea is like numberless other small towns on the mainland near Venice; what were once little villages stuck in the middle of fields of corn or wheat differentiated only by the belltower of their parish church, and now are larger settlements surrounded by roads, highways, and shopping centers, differentiated by nothing, not even their love-deranged inhabitants.   I’ve been there several times to visit some  of Lino’s relatives.

Now Spinea is stuck in my mind as the home of  a certain Andrea Donaglio, a 47-year-old professor of chemistry,  who was in love  and lived with Roberta Vanin, 43; they even owned and operated a health-food store.

Anyway, she broke up with him, moved out, found a new boyfriend.   He began to stalk her.   He kept phoning her.   He threatened her with a knife.     (And then people start with the “We never imagined he could do such a thing.”   Makes no sense in Italian, either.)   She felt sorry for him.   Her friends and family told her to get a restraining order against him.   She didn’t.

So July 7, we pay our one euro for the Gazzettino to read the lead story: “He massacred his ex with 20 stab wounds.”   (Later accounts raised it to 40, then to 60; it appears he used two knives, perhaps because the first one broke.   Oy.)   Then he tried to kill himself with a couple of stabs to the stomach, but he’s recovering.   Physically, I mean.

"Death of Romeo and Juliet," by John Millais (1848).  Even in iambic pentameter, the onlookers say pretty much the things they say today: "What a waste."

"Death of Romeo and Juliet," by John Everett Millais (1848). Even in iambic pentameter, the onlookers say pretty much the things they say today: "What a waste."

So if this catastrophe is the pebble thrown into the pool,  we now experience the ripples of the subsequent stories which go into all sorts of aspects of the situation from all sorts of points of view.   There is  the story about how the scene of the murder is now a sort of shrine, covered with flowers and notes and stuffed animals, then the story about the funeral and how many people were there — a thousand, anyway,   because everybody knew them.     The story about her as told by her friends, how wonderful she was.   The story about him as told by his friends (or relatives) about how desperate and unhappy he was.

The one really unusual part of this whole horrible tale is the fact that Roberta’s parents declared that they forgave Andrea.   This is as amazing here as anywhere else, and  I want us all to stop and reflect on that for a moment.  

Fabio Riccati and Eleonora Noventa.

Fabio Riccati and Eleonora Noventa.

A mere four days later, while all this was still boiling through the newspapers, another man decided to punish his girlfriend for leaving him.   (I thought romances were supposed to end in September.)   This happened at 9 in the morning on July 11  in a very small town, Asseggiano, a mere mile and a half from Spinea.

Fabio Riccati, 30 years old,  had found the first girlfriend of his life, and they’d been seeing each other for six months or so.   Eleanora Noventa, an only child, was evidently one of the sunniest and loveliest girls ever.   Unfortunately, she was only 16.   Maybe a tad young to have started up with him, but not too young to have realized she had to break it off.   On Saturday she gave him the bad news and whatever little presents he had bestowed on her.

On Sunday morning, Fabio waited for her out on the street, expecting her to pass by on her bicycle.   She stopped.   They exchanged some comments.   He pulled out a Magnum .357 and shot her three times, the last shot to the head.   Then he shot himself in the heart.    

I want to live somewhere where nothing ever happens.   Nothing.   Ever.   And I never liked Romeo and Juliet, either.

Categories : Events
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Jul
08

Racing through Murano

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Murano is just ten minutes from Venice, but it's a whole other world.  And not just because of all the glass, either.

Murano is just ten minutes from Venice, but it's a whole other world. And not just because of all the glass, either.

If you’ve ever  been to  Murano, one of the world’s great glass-making centers, you will know that it’s impossible to race through it.   You will be exhausted, but not because you’ve been going so fast; au contraire, you will have been plodding along at the pace of those debilitated galley slaves in Ben-Hur, going in and out of  so many shops  you’ll think they’ve been breeding in dark corners when you’re not looking.    The five islands that make up Murano, of which you will probably only visit two, cover  barely one square mile, and the Yellow Pages list 61 shops.   I think there must be more.

Anyway, you will not have been racing.   Unless it’s the first Sunday in July, in which you can come to Murano to watch other people race, and believe me, they’re going to be more tired in less time than you and your whole family after an entire day.

A glimpse of the leaders last year, heading from out in the lagoon into the Grand Canal of Murano and the home stretch.

A glimpse of the leaders last year, heading from out in the lagoon into the Grand Canal of Murano and the home stretch.

The regata of Murano is really three regatas, each involving solo rowers, which calls not only for stamina but  for skill.   The races are for  young men on pupparinos, women on pupparinos, and grown men on gondolas.   It’s always hot, and there is always wind, and sometimes, like a few years ago, there can be sudden thunderstorms with pouring rain.   But the race must go on.

Only about ten more minutes to go, and unless something extraordinary happens, at this point the positions aren't likely to change much.  But they don't slack off, all the same.

Only about ten more minutes to go, and unless something extraordinary happens, at this point the positions aren't likely to change much. But they don't slack off, all the same.

The city of Venice organizes nine regatas a year, plus the Regata Storica.   Each race is designed for a particular type of boat and number of rowers, and each is held in a different part of the lagoon, which means that the conditions and course  present their own particular quirks.   These changing venues also means that some are easier to watch from the shore than others, and the one at Murano is especially exciting not only because you can see both the start and the finish, but because there are good vantage-points along the fondamentas, and even a big cast-iron bridge from which to get a spectacular view of the finish.

The women on pupparinos are about 60 seconds from the finish line and it looks like the pink boat may still have a chance to overtake the white (2009).

The women on pupparinos are about 60 seconds from the finish line and it looks like the pink boat may still have a chance to overtake the white (2009).

Regatas (a Venetian word, by the way), have been an important feature of Venetian festivities since the Venetians crawled out of the primordial ooze;  sometimes they were part of a religious celebration, or part of the myriad spectacles staged for the amusement of visiting potentates, but they were one-time events.

Luisella Schiavon -- from Murano, as it happens -- has a clear shot at first place at this point.  She won last year, and this year, too.  Being tall, as well as talented, makes a difference.

Luisella Schiavon -- from Murano, as it happens -- has a clear shot at first place at this point. She won last year, and this year, too. Being tall, as well as talented, makes a difference.

But  in 1869, the regata at Murano was established as a  regular annual event and not for any prince or pope but to entertain — yes — tourists.   And whether or not tourists can look up for a few minutes from the heaps of glass necklaces and picture frames and flower vases, this race is arguably the most important occasion for a Venetian racer to show what he, or she, has really got.   I can tell you that the man who wins the gondola race is universally regarded as having won something akin to Wimbledon, or maybe the  Ironman Triathlon, or the Tour de France.   Maybe all of them.

Here’s what it takes to win: Strength, stamina, skill, luck, and extreme and ruthless cunning.   It also helps if you’re tall.   It’s a physics thing; short rowers have a hard time keeping up with taller ones, though sometimes a short person has pulled it off, especially if he or she (I’m thinking of a she) is lavishly gifted with the aforementioned luck and cunning.   Or just cunning.

My two most vivid memories of this race are from one of the earliest ones I ever attended, and the one from last Sunday.   Both, oddly, involve a certain racer named Roberto Busetto.

Roberto Busetto last Sunday, crossing the finish line in third place just ahead of the yellow gondola.  Victory is sweet, at least until you black out.

Roberto Busetto last Sunday, crossing the finish line in third place just ahead of the yellow gondola. Victory is sweet, at least until you black out.

Mr. Busetto is strong — he looks like Mr. Clean, and he has biceps that make you think of whole prosciuttos.   He is also  experienced, and very determined (I’m not sure that he’s made it up to “ruthless”), but if anything ever upsets him during the race — even if it may not have prevented him from finishing really well — he can be counted on to show up for his prize yelling about it.   In fact, there will always be something that’s wrong, and he goes all Raging Bull at the judges, at some fellow racer, at some onlooker, at anyone or anything that might have created even the tinest problem for him.   Or who looks like they don’t care.   It’s never easy to understand, in the midst of his tirade, what actually went wrong.   But you know he’s mad.

Okay, Mr. Clean, let's just check those vital signs again.

Okay, Mr. Clean, let's just check those vital signs again.

The first time I saw Busetto at full throttle, he had barely crossed the finish line when he started ranting.   It had something to do with what he claimed was some sneaky, illegal  thing that another racer, Franco Dei Rossi, had inflicted on him, thereby preventing him from finishing better.

The confusion of boats immediately following the race doesn't usually include the ambulance.  Last year it was just the usual suspects.

The confusion of boats immediately following the race doesn't usually include the ambulance. Last year it was just the usual suspects.

But it wasn’t his tantrum that stunned me, though I didn’t know at that point that tantrums are  his normal means of expression, the way some people can’t help starting every sentence with “Well” or “You know.”   It was the fact that under this deluge of outrage, Dei Rossi was sobbing as he mounted the judges’ stand to be awarded his prize.   A grown man, one of the greatest (in my view) racers of his generation, son of one of the greatest racers in history, was standing there weeping uncontrollably.   It was so astonishing and distressing that I know I didn’t imagine it, and I’m not exaggerating, either.   I’m glad I didn’t have a camera with me, I wouldn’t be able to bear looking at the pictures.   It really left a mark on me.

So we come to last Sunday.   It’s Busetto again.   He  has been racing for at least 20 years, maybe more, but he had only a very brief peak, and that was quite some while ago.   In fact, I’d have to stop and do some research to determine when was the last time he won a pennant.   I think the Beatles may still have been together.   (Just kidding;   it was in 2000.)

But this year, he finished third.   Which means he won the green pennant, which means that after a ten-year drought he had managed to pull himself back into the ranks of the demi-gods.  Pennants are awarded to the first four finishers, and they really matter to the racers, almost as much as the cash prize.

This is what normal collapsing looks like -- here, Sebastiano Della Toffola has just finished his first race with the big guys.  Franco Dei Rossi, a certified, gold-plated Big Guy, looks on with something that looks like comprehension.

This is what normal collapsing looks like -- here, Sebastiano Della Toffola has just finished his first race with the big guys. Franco Dei Rossi, a certified, gold-plated Big Guy, looks on with something that looks like comprehension.

Finishing third is pretty great, but about two seconds after crossing the finish line, he collapsed.   First he sort of let himself fall down backwards on the stern of the boat, which isn’t so strange except that  it’s usually the younger men who want to show how completely wrung out they are.   It’s like  when they throw their oar in the water (rage, joy, some other intense emotion — looks very dramatic, till you realize how dumb it is).

An excellent example of what incredible-victory collapsing looks like.  Last year, like this year, first place went to Igor Vignotto.  On the orange gondola both years.  You may laugh, but this is how superstitions are born.

An excellent example of what incredible-victory collapsing looks like. Last year, like this year, first place went to Igor Vignotto. On the orange gondola both times. You may laugh, but this is how superstitions are born.

But then my friend Anzhelika said, “He’s too white.”   Then I noticed that his boat had drifted slaunchwise across the canal, blocking the arrival of the last gondolas.   Then there was some commotion, then the sound of the water ambulance arriving at full speed.

Much pouring of cool water on his head, much checking of his blood pressure.   He tore himself away long enough to come pick up his pennant, annoyed (of course), though not yelling, because everybody was fussing over him.   He likes attention, but nobody with arms like prosciuttos wants it to be because he fell apart.

But some things in life are bigger than prosciuttos, and rowing under the searing sun for 40 minutes at full blast if you’re not in astronaut-type physical condition is asking for it.   “It” being an ambulance and a blood-pressure cuff, and lots of people suddenly looking at you like you’re some kind of invalid.

You know it’s serious when Roberto Busetto isn’t yelling.

Franco Dei Rossi in a more typical post-race moment: Smiling because he's won another pennant.  In this case, a blue one for fourth place.  Not at all bad in a field of nine, for a man who's drifting up on 50 years old.

Franco Dei Rossi (2009) in a more typical post-race moment: Smiling because he's won another pennant. In this case, a blue one for fourth place. Not at all bad in a field of nine, for a man who's drifting up on 60 years old.

This year's first and second-place finishers.  Igor Vignotto on the left (red pennant) and Rudi Vignotto (white pennant).  They were adversaries, but only sort of; not only are they cousins, but they have rowed together for years.

This year's first and second-place finishers. Igor Vignotto on the left (red pennant) and Rudi Vignotto (white pennant). They were adversaries, but only sort of; not only are they cousins, but they have rowed together their entire lives.

The fourth-place pennant, clutched by a sweat-soaked Ivo Redolfi Tezzat.  This is an especially nice design, with the rooster, the emblem of Murano, in the upper corner.  If you've won this, though, you really don't care whether it's a rooster or an Andean condor.

The fourth-place pennant, clutched by a sweat-soaked Ivo Redolfi Tezzat. This is an especially nice design, with the rooster, the emblem of Murano, in the upper corner. If you've won this, though, you really don't care if it's a rooster or a wall-eyed vireo.

Then we all followed the scent of the scorching sausage and ribs to the local festa.  This little girl out with her grandmother has the most astonishing pre-Raphaelite face.  I just can't stand the thought of her walking around with a cell phone and tattoos.  Must be getting old.

Then we all followed the scent of the scorching sausage and ribs to the local festa. This little girl out with her grandmother has the most astonishing pre-Raphaelite face. I just can't stand the thought of her growing up and walking around with a cell phone and tattoos and mutilated hair. Must be getting old.

Interested in the races?  The ribs?  The music?  The thunderstorm about to break the sky into a billion sharp wet pieces?  Not really.  That's what these parties are really all about.  The food and music are just ruses.

Interested in the races? The ribs? The music? The thunderstorm about to shatter the sky into a billion sharp wet pieces? Not really. Here is an excellent demonstration of what these parties are for. The food and music are just ruses.

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The period around St. Peter’s feast day (June 29) is notable for two things beside the annual bacchanale at the church, as described in my last post.

The littlest ones are St. Peter's pears.  They'll only be around for a brief time and that's why I like them, even if they have almost no flavor at all.

The littlest ones are St. Peter's pears. They'll only be around for a short time and that's why I like them, even if they have almost no flavor at all.

The two notable things are:  “St. Peter’s pears,” which I haven’t been able to identify in any other way (maybe they’re here so briefly that Linneaus was never quick enough to nab them with a name), and thunderstorms.   Everyone expects thunderstorms in this period (we’re still waiting, oddly enough, though this year the weather has been very strange; last week it snowed in the mountains.   Maybe St. Peter is trying something new with water).  

St. Peter's fish (John Dory) by TK MacGillivray

St. Peter's fish (John Dory) by William MacGillivray.

For the record, there is also a fish, not necessarily associated with the feast day, which is  commonly called “St. Peter’s fish” (Zeus faber), known in English as “John Dory,”  who wasn’t a saint as far as I can discover.   This fish has a particularly gobsmacked expression which doesn’t resemble any saint I could ever respect, but maybe everybody in the Dory family has that look, not to mention the underbite.

June weather coming in: Roll out the barrel.

June weather coming in: Roll out the barrel.

Back to the storms.   Around here, the ones that crash down around us in this period  have long since been associated with  the Big Fisherman; well-meaning adults reassure their little people that the scary thunder is nothing more than the sound of  St. Peter cleaning the wine barrels.  

But there is one folk-tale, recounted by Espedita Grandesso in her exceptional book on Venetian expressions (Prima de parlar, tasi, Edizioni Helvetia) that puts the blame squarely on his mother.   As told in Venetian it has an irresistible back-porch-stringing-beans atmosphere, as if the speaker  were talking about a fractious family known to everybody in the neighborhood.   I’ll do what I can  to render it  here.

ST. PETER’S MOTHER

Well, St. Peter’s mother was so nasty and so nasty that when she died, even though her son was such a honking big deal as a saint, he had to send her to hell.  

When she got to hell, she got up to so many shenanigans, busting everybody’s fishing lines [polite euphemism for “balls”] and complaining and whining and calling her son at all hours of the day and night, that the saint went to Jesus Christ to tell him He had to let his mom into  heaven.

“Can’t,” said Jesus, “she’s just too bad.”

Saint Peter wasn’t very happy because,  when you get down to it, she was his mother, and the Lord was so sorry to see this that he told  him, “Well, you know, Pete, if, maybe, she were to have done at least one good deed…”

Peter was quiet for a while, because his mother, as far as good deeds were concerned, had never done one in her entire life.   Then he remembered that, one time, his mother gave an onion to a little old man who was begging.

“Okay,” said the Lord, to make a long story short, “take this onion that’s got a few little roots still on it, and, if you can manage it, pull her up here with this onion.”

T-shirt design for the festa of San Piero in 2008. No onion, no roots, no mom. He looks so happy.

T-shirt design for the festa of San Piero in 2008. No onion, no roots, no mom. He looks so happy.

Peter went to the mouth of hell and said to her, “Mom, grab onto the roots of this onion and I’ll pull you up here.”

“Onion roots?   You nitwit!   How do you think they’re going to support me?”

“Don’t worry about that, just grab on.”

The old lady, grumbling, grabbed onto the roots of the onion and she started to rise off the ground, but she didn’t make it  as far as  the mouth of hell because a batch of other souls, who wanted to get out of hell too, grabbed onto her skirt and  her ankles.  

St. Peter’s mother started to go crazy, screaming “Get  out of here, you disgusting damned souls, the onion’s for me, it’s mine,  and my son is St. Peter!!!”    [This is undoubtedly one of the best moments for the person who is telling this story to imitate the meanest, crankiest woman in the neighborhood.]

Onion roots do not inspire as much confidence as, say, a steel cable.

Onion roots do not inspire as much confidence as, say, a steel cable.

Seeing that the souls were still hanging on, she started to kick them to try to get rid of them.

At that point, the onion roots  tore off, and St. Peter was left holding the onion while the old lady fell back down into the very center of the flames.

“What the heck have you done, mom?” St. Peter said.   “All you had to do was have a tiny bit of charity and you’d have made it out and so would all those other souls.   Now you’ve got to stay in hell forever.”   [Pause for  cheers from the kids who must all be imagining whichever of their relatives–obnoxious big sister? busybody aunt?–would most deserve this doom.]  

BUT [the kids suddenly stop cheering], being that not even the Devil himself could stand to have  this hellion among the damned souls, and also, well, it wasn’t exactly decent that the mother of  St. Peter,  he who carries the Keys to the Kingdom, would have to stay in hell, the old shrew got pulled out and stuck in a corner and given the task of washing the barrels of heaven before the season of new wine.

Wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi winery, Napa Valley, presumably not washed by St. Peter's mother.  (Photograph: Sanjay Acharya).

Wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi winery, Napa Valley, presumably not washed by St. Peter's mother. (Photograph: Sanjay Acharya).

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