Archive for October, 2010


Venetian fish-feed

Posted by: | Comments (4)

For much of the year, you will almost certainly see people fishing right under the lee of the most beautiful city in the world.  From Sant’ Elena to San Marco, plus other assorted spots along or in the lagoon, they’re out with a couple of poles and a whole batch of free time.  Just now there are more than usual because we are in the period of the  fraima [frah-EE-ma], when most of the fish are heading out to sea.

1x1.trans Venetian fish feed

Depending on the time of year — obviously — these tenacious anglers might be hoping for seppie, or gilthead or sea bass or even grey mullet.  Or whatever The Supreme Fish Deity decides to send swimming past their hooks, old boots and lost gloves excluded.

You can also expect to see people out in their boats, anchored where the tide is going to give them the biggest assist.  Sometimes this perfect fishing spot will be just about in the center of the trajectory of cruise ships or large ferries heading to or from Greece.  The captains blow their klaxons in a huffy sort of way.  The fishermen are all deaf.

The subject of fish and the lagoon is one that I’m going to expand on some other time — probably many times.  Meanwhile, though, I just want to alert you to the fact that there is a dedicated chunk of the male population — they’re always men, though sometimes the guys in the boats bring their wives, if the weather’s nice — who see the lagoon as a place where they might find something delectable to eat, or at least find some of their friends.

By “friends” I mean people they know.  Fishermen have no friends; even if a person they’ve known since childhood, maybe even a relative, asks how’s the fishing, they’ll never say it’s good. They get all vague and crafty. Or if he’s obviously lugging home a miraculous catch, he’ll never say where he was.  This is true everywhere on earth, and no less so here.

Two of my best moments so far involving fishing (as opposed to fish itself) relate to how Lino sees it. Briefly put, he doesn’t believe that anyone born after about 1960 — my ballpark date — knows anything about the lagoon or its inhabitants.  I’m thinking he’s probably right.

1x1.trans Venetian fish feed

I'm staying where the tide is best for me, and the big ships can just work around me. Or stay home. Or sink.

An example: We passed a young man one late summer night on the Lido — it was dark, but not terribly late — standing with his pole on the vaporetto dock, staring into the water, waiting.  “He’s never going to catch anything,” Lino stated without even pausing.  Why is that?  “Because he’s trying to catch seppie, and that’s the wrong kind of gear.  Also, the tide is going out.  And they’re not in season right now.”

Second example: We have secretly adopted a man who spends a noticeable portion of his day at the vaporetto dock by the Giardini.  The first time I noticed him, I was getting off the boat, and Lino was standing there a few discreet steps behind him, watching.  They were both, in their own ways, engrossed.

“What’s he catching?” I asked in a whisper.

“Nothing,” Lino replied as we walked away.  “He’s giving donations (opera di beneficienza, or charity).”  Excuse me?

“He’s been there for hours, rolling little balls of a grated cheese/breadcrumb mash, putting them on his hook and then  waiting for his pole to twitch. After a little while he pulls it up, and the hook is empty.  Even in an aquarium, fish don’t get fed this much.”

So what’s going wrong?  Well, first of all, the guy is attaching the bait in such a way that it comes loose a few seconds after it goes under. The foodball just floats away, probably into the mouth of a big smiling fish. The man is up there imagining his hook as an enormous fatal concealed weapon, and the fish are seeing it as a fabulous food delivery system which requires no effort whatsoever on their part.  They’re just down there floating around with their jaws open, saying “God, I haven’t eaten this much since Vernon’s bar mitzvah.”

The second thing that’s going wrong is that the guy hasn’t figured out any of this.  He just keeps doing it.  Lino can’t believe anybody over the age of two could be so persistent — so hopeful, so convinced — at something so futile.  But the evidence is before us.

I look at it this way: The man is happy.  The wife is happy because he’s out there and not sitting around the house or the bar.  And of course the fish are happy. Happy fish, that’s what we want. Happy and bloated.

1x1.trans Venetian fish feed

You can catch a mormora (striped sea bream) in the lagoon, but it's not likely you'd get all these. I just throw this in to give you an idea of the sort of thing the men might be dreaming of as they stare at the water.

Categories : Food, Venetian-ness, Water
Comments (4)

Racing’s wrong turn

Posted by: | Comments (3)

I’m willing to believe that not everyone may be as mesmerized by the problems swamping the world of Venetian rowing racing as I seem to be. So, barring some sensational or truly revolutionary turn of events in the aftermath of the recent unpleasantness in the last two races, this might be my last post on the matter for a while.  I said “might.”

But before I leave this theme in my wake as I sail on to other strange (or not strange) yet wonderful aspects of life here, I’d like to add one more element to the “1812 Overture” which the subject here has become.  And that is the provocative analysis of the Big Picture recently given by veteran Venetian journalist Silvio Testa.

1x1.trans Racings wrong turn

An exciting finish to the young men's race at Sant' Erasmo. One hopes that if they can be accustomed to the reality of rules early enough, later extreme behavior might be avoided. This is more likely to be where they start practicing being furbo. The same is true for the women, by the way.

Testa’s viewpoint on racing could be summarized as “May the best man win.” Or perhaps, “Every man for himself.”  In any case, this radical philosophy of racing does not, for once, involve judges, panels, appeals, fines, and all the other juridical paraphernalia which has wrapped itself around the neck of this activity and is threatening to drag it to the bottom.  Au contraire.

In his opinion, in the process of imposing (and imperfectly enforcing) more and more rules, the more acrimonious, bitter, and vicious the races have become — almost as if the rules had fostered the very situations they were meant to prevent.  In fact, he thinks that the whole effort to turn Venetian racing into a sport has taken it far down the wrong path. Therefore, as Giuseppe Verdi once remarked, “Let us return to the old way; it would be progress.”

Testa puts it this way:

“In 1981 I was reporting on the race at Murano.  Bruno ‘Strigheta’ was in the lead, closely followed by Franco ‘Crea,” so closely that the prow of Crea’s gondola was almost running over Strigheta’s oar. Finally Crea passed him and pulled ahead, and Strigheta finished second.

“‘Now’ – I thought — ‘there’s going to be a huge quarrel.’  But Bruno didn’t even open his mouth.  When I asked him why, his answer couldn’t have been clearer: ‘He was more furbo than I was.'” (“FOOR-bo” is a mix of sneaky, clever, slick, and cagey.)

“When I asked Crea about it, he replied, ‘I did what my uncle Italo taught me: Don’t ever take the lead at Murano; instead, hang onto a tight second place until you’ve worn him out.” (Literally, “cut his legs out from under him.”)

“The race was beautiful, the spectators applauded, and at the end the rowers all shook each other’s hands.”

If this had happened in the past few years (and memory reveals that it or something like it has), the anger pervading the world of racers and their fans would probably have forced Bruno and/or Franco to change his name and enter the Witness Protection Program.
1x1.trans Racings wrong turn

The poppieri (men who row astern) gather round to draw lots for their position at the starting line. This could be one of the few moments overseen by judges which has never been criticized. Ten numbered billiard balls in a bag -- it's pretty hard to see how a judge could mess that up.

Testa continues: “All this [recent conflict] is the fruit of a 30-year effort on the part of the city to turn the races into a ‘sport,’ which it isn’t. Venetian racing has its roots in the Middle Ages, and [all these rules] are similar to what it would be like if the Palio of Siena, where the jockeys are all whipping each other, were to be conducted according to the rules of Ascot.

“For centuries the races have been carried forward only by their participants; today there are 45 articles in the regulations.  But Venetian racing isn’t like crew, or English-style racing, where the boats are kept in lanes. Here it’s an open ‘field’ and contact is — or could be — part of the game.

“If the racers expected that, they’d be watching out and would be prepared to defend themselves, without appealing to judges who are apt to make mistakes because the line between cunning and error is so slight that it practically doesn’t exist.

“The great racers of the past were like this and the winner wasn’t only the strongest, but the more astute, the more heartless, the best.  There were no recriminations, except maybe to yourself.

“The future commissioner the racers have requested to calm the world of racing would do well to keep that in mind.”

I certainly hope that the future commissioner, if such a person should materialize, will be able to do something useful.  Meanwhile, winter is coming on, the season is over, the racers have reclaimed for personal enjoyment at least a few of the endless hours they spend training, and I am anticipating that, as so often happens after an exhilarating crisis of any sort here, oblivion will tiptoe into the room and pull the covers gently up under the collective chin and tiptoe out again, leaving only the soft sound of communal snoring broken by the occasional muttered oath.

Comments (3)

The following message is brought to you by me, your common sense.  Have you not heard my voice recently?  I’ve missed you too.

It was about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, October 3 (the date is unimportant, because events of this sort occur all year long — but the factors of Sunday and Afternoon are significant because they are synonymous with “lots of people in a limited space not paying attention”).

“People” as in two American tourists.

“Not paying attention” as in “had 2,400 euros ($3,347.28) in cash and eight credit cards stolen.”

A moment of respectful silence would be appropriate here.

1x1.trans Watch your back, and your front, and your sides

I'm just guessing that their money is not what this family is thinking about right now. I wouldn't have the least idea where to start digging for it, but I'm not a professional.

The reason I want to relate this event to you is not because I assume you’re going to travel with all that cargo, nor is it because it is so unusual. The only thing that makes this story worth telling is not that it happened, but the electrifying amounts involved.

Pickpocketing is by far the most common crime here in the most beautiful city in the world.  There could be as many as 200 events a day in high season, usually accomplished not by gypsies with babies who are easy to identify, but by professionals you will never see but who are all too well-known to the police.  They even have nicknames.

So, back to October 3. The vaporetto #2 was trundling along the Grand Canal and was coming up to the Accademia stop, an important node where there are typically many, many people getting on and off the waterbuses.

1x1.trans Watch your back, and your front, and your sides

This is a vaporetto on a mere Thursday afternoon, one stop before "Accademia." It's a beautiful sight to the purloiners.

The vaporetto was, as usual, crammed with people, most of whom are usually thinking about lots of other things (whether they’ll make their train, where to find a bathroom, what to have for dinner, how to get their kid to stop yelling) than the people around them.  This is perfect for thieves.  In this case, a youngish Rumanian couple.

According to the report in the Gazzettino, they lifted the wallets of the two Americans smoothly and quickly (two crucial elements of the craft), but not sufficiently secretly, because the deed was observed by a few passengers, including — this is a nice bit — an American policeman.

As soon as the vaporetto tied up to the bus-stop dock, the Rumanians fled, but the alarm had already been given, people were running after them, the police were alerted, they sent two boats, and all these people plus two employees (I don’t know what sort) of the transport company managed to nab the crooks.

Seeing that only minutes had passed, the swag was still warm, and was returned in its entirety to its rightful owners.

One wallet contained  three credit cards and 1,300 euros ($1,813.11) in cash; the other contained five credit cards and 1,140 euros ($1,589.96) in cash.

1x1.trans Watch your back, and your front, and your sides

Of course you would feel safer if the streets all looked like this. But what fun would that be?

So now my questions shift from the dark imponderables of the life and mind of a pickpocket, to the more vivid imponderables of the two extremely lucky victims.  My questions are perhaps also yours: Why would anybody be carrying that much cash?  Especially if they’ve got five pounds of credit cards?  Or do people with that much money not need to think?

Here’s another thing I wish I knew: Do pickpockets have any idea of how much plunder any particular pocket or bag is likely to hold? I realize that heavy gold jewelry and fistfuls of shopping bags from Ferragamo and Fendi might be pretty good clues.  But most of the tourists I see out there are not the Ferragamo/Fendi sort, nor are they bedecked with any accessories more noticeable than a backpack, water bottle, map(s), hats, and anything else needed for a trek across the Empty Quarter.  Or do all those tireless Fagins now recognize this get-up as the perfect disguise for people carrying hundreds and hundreds of crisp crackling banknotes?

If I knew any thieves, I’m sure they could explain.  But  meanwhile I’m left with the urgent desire to flip the switch on a large, blinking, neon WARNING sign for you that says:

Do not carry anything with you out of your hotel room that you would really miss if it suddenly  were to be gone.

And don’t think just because you’re not in the Piazza San Marco with a batch of mass tourists that you can’t get stung.  A friend of mine from Chicago who travels a lot was visiting and we went to the weekly market on the Lido, a large assemblage of vans selling everything from fresh fruit to buttons to wine-making equipment.  Hardly a touristic site, but there were — yes — large numbers of people crammed into small spaces thinking about something else. And her wallet was stolen. (What?  She’s no tourist, she’s with me!). So we spent one of her two days here dealing with reports to the carabinieri and phone calls home to work out a cash transfer.  Fun.

And don’t think you’re sneakier and smarter and more alert than they are.

And don’t think that there are somehow “safe” zones, the way certain stores are for lost children.  A German tourist guide had her wallet stolen while she was with a group.  In the basilica of San Marco. (There it is again: Lots of people not paying attention.)

Still, if you were to have your wallet lifted while you’re on a vaporetto, you’d actually be in pretty good shape.  Because as soon as you notify the mariner (who ties the boat to the dock at each stop) or the driver, he will stop the boat right there in the middle of the water and call the police.  If that had been possible in the case of the two Americans, it would have saved a whole lot of running like crazy.

So let me suggest this, even though I do not want you to come here thinking you’re putting yourself at some appalling risk.  Just imagine that your wallet gets stolen in Venice.  Then think about what you would be thinking about when you realize it’s gone.  You’d be thinking about what you should or shouldn’t have done.  So before you go out the door, do or don’t do that.

Now get out there and have a great time.

Categories : Problems, Tourism
Comments (5)

Regata Storica, update du jour

Posted by: | Comments (0)

When last seen, Venetian rowing champions Giampaolo D’Este and his partner, Ivo Redolfi Tezzat, had delivered a document, at the start of the Regata di Burano on September 19, to the mayor and other appropriate officials.

The document protested their having been disqualified halfway through the Regata Storica for infractions of the regulations — including the ephemeral rules of “sportsmanship” — and called for the immediate removal of all the judges and the various committees who administer the realm of racing here.

1x1.trans Regata Storica, update du jour

Goodbye, cruel world. D'Este and Tezzat at Burano prepare to deliver their lightning bolt.

According to the offended parties, and their frenzied fans, something has clearly become so rotten in the entire organization of the races that the only solution is to tear out all the weeds, along with whatever healthy plants (they see none)  may also happen to be in the garden, and start over. Presumably replanting  the entire garden (to continue the metaphor)  with people who are entirely, consistently, unassailably objective.  The theory seems to be that anyone answering to this description will be sure to uphold justice, fair play, honesty, rectitude, and to act in their favor.  If you know any such people, send their names along.

Their fans have also helped to keep the fire stoked under this cauldron of rage, and the latest contribution, by a so-far anonymous partisan, is the publication on YouTube of parts of some 11 minutes from the first half of the race on the  official video of the race, complete with the sound track of the judges’ voices and caustic play-by-play comments printed (in Italian) by someone who makes it clear he is part of the D’Este-Tezzat column.

This video is made from the first judges’ boat during the race, and considering that it’s the property of the city, those who made it are more than a little irritated that it is now out on the web even if technically city property is also public property.  In any case, things like this don’t help the general situation.

I do not contribute any comments on anything that was done or not done in the race.  I may already have written that I am not taking sides; I don’t care who won.  And yes, I am certainly on the side of  justice and fair play. I am merely trying to give as complete a picture of the situation as I can.

The latest developments from the turmoil following the aforementioned dramatic denunciation have been two-fold.

First: Not only have D’Este and Tezzat not received any redress for past judicial misdeeds, they now have been formally disqualified from the next two races (the Regata di Mestre and the Regata de la Sensa), which obviously are in next year’s season. Of the seven races open to men of their caliber, this leaves them only five.  This is a heavy sentence indeed; usually the Commission has to forbid only one race  to make its point.

Naturally this decision has only shown, yet again, the treachery and incompetence of the entire system in the eyes of the plaintiffs.  No more documents have been issued so far from the samizdat of the affronted duo.

The Commission has also disallowed the payment to them of the usual “indemnity for training”; in the Burano race it was 198.50 euros ($276.84). Admittedly it is a token sort of payment, a small addition to the equally modest purse allotted to each racer according to his order of finish.  But this payment is contingent on the rowers participating in the race, so giving them the indemnity would make no sense at all.

Second: Two of the six men comprising the Technical Commission have resigned.  For the record, they are Umberto Sichero and Osvaldo Zucchetta. If a third member, most likely a former champion named Bepi Fongher, follows suit (it is always unclear how his statements and actions are going to match up, though they often don’t come close to each other), the committee will terminate and the Comune will be able to start over (the Comune appoints four members, and the Racers’ Association chooses the other two). So losing half the committee would provide enough of an opening in what appears to be a severely bombarded and weakened wall of credibility and competence to allow some heretofore unfeasible innovations to enter the system.

What next? D’Este-Tezzat have announced that they are giving up racing. Only time will show whether they’re serious, or whether this is just another of those fervent vows racers tend to make under stress, like seamen in a typhoon.

1x1.trans Regata Storica, update du jour

One of many ex-votos promised by sailors in danger. Being saved is nice – fulfilling your vow to publicly thank the Virgin Mary for intervening for you is even nicer. (Museo Storico Navale)

1x1.trans Regata Storica, update du jour
Comments (0)