Archive for December, 2010
On Christmas Eve, Luca Zaia, president of the Veneto, received a visit — not by the Spirits of Christmas, but by four hooded men who broke into his country house looking for money. (He wasn’t there.) They pretty much trashed the house looking for a safe to steal; when they finally found it, it was empty. No happy ending for Mr. Zaia, at least not yet, and probably not for the four men, whenever the carabinieri succeed in interpreting the film from the security video cameras.
On the same day, thieves also broke into at least five other houses in the same area, and plenty of other places, I assume, and stole things. But all robberies are not created equal. Even I have to admit that, if not on a moral level, at least on a curious-human level, the theft of a Picasso from a palace is somewhat more interesting than the theft of some money and a few high-tech electronics from a suburban villa. And the fact that this misfortune struck an Important Person obviously deserves a few columns.
A few columns? For two days we’ve been served whole roasted articles about this event, as if it had never happened before, or that it somehow was worse for him than for the suburban villa-dwellers.
He, bless his shellshocked little heart, has given vent to some extreme emotions and opinions which, while you can understand them, lead you to wonder why he never had or expressed them in other cases in which he was not personally involved.
In fact, he was quoted yesterday as saying (and this looks great in a headline): “He who steals is like he who kills.”
Excuse me? Is he not clear on the essential nature of death? Because the Veneto is full of people every day — alas — who literally are killed, get buried or cremated, and leave behind suffering families and huge holes in their hearts and lives which can never be filled. There is a reason why the death penalty is considered justifiable for punishing murderers, but not thieves.
Mr. Zaia has had a fine time fulminating about robbery and retribution (which would make a great title for a novel, by the way. Where is Dostoyevsky when we need him? Oh sorry — he died of a lung hemorrhage, and not from having a couple of delinquents steal his cufflinks) — as I say, Mr. Zaia has given himself over to ranting, throwing out platitudes such as “Zero tolerance!” and “Fist of iron!” Now that it’s happened to him, thievery suddenly matters?
Correct answer: Mais oui, mon capitaine. Being a politician, no experience can be left unexploited for political gain, and being on the extreme right of the political spectrum, he would naturally be calling down brimstone on criminals of every sort.
Not that I’m defending criminals, but committing crimes is what they do and you should make some reasonable effort to prevent it rather than declaring jihad after it happens. When I lived in New York, I experienced break-ins in two different apartments. In the second, they carried off jewelry and a large load of recent wedding presents, and a whole set of family silver. (In case you think I didn’t know how to protect my stuff, in the second instance the thieves had obtained the keys.)
So Mr. Zaia has a large, beautiful, obviously expensive house in a fairly isolated position in the country, which clearly was empty on Christmas Eve. The security system consisted of video cameras. What do you think could possibly happen? He claims that the Code of Country Life has always meant trust in one’s neighbors, peaceful coexistence, leaving the keys in the car, whatever.
He didn’t consider the possibility that some passersby might not be neighbors, and may not have been informed of the Code. So now he’s mad.
Me, I’d be embarrassed for people to discover I was so naive. But as I say, if you’re a politician, you tend not to say “How stupid could I be?” That would set a Dangerous Precedent.
So what we’ve heard for two days is the sound of the doors of the horseless barn being closed. It is, as always, a very silly — regrettable, but silly — sound.
I left you with images of raw fish and a gnomic reference to the Christmas Forcola (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin). I think you deserve to see how they came out.
Here the holiday season breaks down roughly into three categories: Food, Religion, and Santa. (I include “presents” under “Santa,” unless you’re giving somebody gold, frankincense, and/or myrrh.) I can’t think of any component which wouldn’t fit in at least one of those columns.
My impression is that the adults respond to the first, children to the third, and somewhere in there religion jostles to find a place, as if it were stuck inside a vaporetto churning toward December 25 and can’t manage to get off at the right stop because everybody is blocking the aisle with their strollers, shopping carts, enormous bags, and equally enormous selves. Yes, it’s a project here, as in many places, to feel that Christmas is anything other than a big blobby holiday everybody loves or hates for their own reasons.
This is not to say that people don’t acknowledge any religious aspect of the day — they do. By the admission of many, it’s one of the few times a year that they pass through the church doors. And virtually every church boasts its own Nativity scene, many of which are appealingly homemade. I don’t know if the big mega-shopping centers on the mainland display the Nativity in any form other than in a box with a price tag — I have never gone over there before the holidays and I don’t feel like risking what remains of my equilibrium by trying it.
But if I’ve never gone, why do I assume it’s bedlam? Two words which apply to life on the mainland: Kids and cars.
Here is our order of march for the festive three days (yes, we get a bonus, thanks to St. Stephen).
Buy groceries/send cards/clean and decorate hovel. Seeing that we have no space for anything larger than a paper clip, we skip the tree. I drape some festoons around the heavy forcola made for rowing in the stern of a balotina. I call it the Christmas Forcola and I really like it. And after all, it was a tree once.
The first year I did this, Lino regarded it as a possibly ominous sign of an incurable urge Americans are known to have to come up with impulsive, unorthodox, possibly unnecessary, vaguely embarrassing stunts. These are generically called americanate (ah-mer-i-cahn-AH-teh). Americanate of any sort fly in the face of The Way We’ve Always Done It and are sure to draw more ridicule than appreciation. Even if you commit one of these acts in the privacy of your own home, your Italian consort will still feel that the Natural Order of Things has been disagreeably disturbed. I learned early on that they’re not worth it. But the Christmas Forcola stays.
Christmas Eve: Big dinner. It is always based on fish, and more precisely, in the manner of Venetian families since the Bronze Age, the menu is this:
Antipasto — anything you like and can afford, which in our case rules out baccala’ in most forms but does allow space for smoked herring, anchovies, and some Ukrainian caviar we were given.
First course: Risotto of go‘. You may remember we scored a small trap for snaring these lagoon fish, but we’ve also fished for them by looking for their lairs and then inserting an arm (Lino’s arm, I’ll admit) down into it till the fish is grasped. For years the go’ was one of the many humble and abundant fish on which families relied, and was consequently very cheap. In that era, sea bass and bream were elite creatures which cost three times what you’d pay for go’. Now the situation is reversed: Thanks to fish farms, bass and bream are sold at fire-sale prices (7 euros a kilo, or $5 per pound), and go’ now costs 18 euros a kilo ($12 a pound). Lino can’t get over it.
Anyway, risotto of go’ is a profoundly Venetian dish, so profound that you hardly ever find it on restaurant menus. The memory of this comestible has almost disappeared under the onslaught of Norwegian salmon and French turbot.
Second course: Roasted eel. You could also simmer your pieces of eel in tomato sauce, but throwing chunks of this creature on the griddle and then opening all the windows to let out the smoke from its burning fat is part of Christmas. It is extremely delectable and I have come to count on it as part of the holiday tastefest.
And I realize how blessed we are to be able to eat it, considering that Lino remembers there were people, when he was a lad (and for centuries before, probably), who were so poor that they would go to the fish market on Christmas Eve and ask the vendors for the offal — the heads and innards of the eels — to have something to make their risotto with. I did not make that up and neither did he.
Yes, you can have bass or bream or canned tuna or whatever else you might prefer. But eel is the Ur-fish for Christmas Eve. Just for the record.
Then we eat some pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which is the perfect antidote to the fish taste lingering in your mouth. (Actually, we eat its humbler cousin, a cheese called grana padano. Sorry, but it’s just as good.)
Then some radicchio from Treviso, either chopped as a salad or grilled on the stove. The bitterness perfectly offsets the cheese flavor lingering in your mouth.
Yes, it’s all been figured out and would be very hard to improve on, in my view.
Then there’s a free-for-all involving nuts, fruit, and nougat (soft? hard? with almonds? peanuts? it’s up to you). And if you like — and I certainly do — a few spoonfuls of mostarda, which comes in various styles but which is essentially applesauce that has been debauched by the sharpest mustard imaginable, studded with pieces of candied, flaming-flavored fruit. If you remember Red-Hots, you only have to imagine them as nuggets of fruit.
This, and opening the presents, gets you to the verge of midnight, and it’s off to mass. They tend not to do pageants, but there is a smattering of Christmas songs which tag the event as festive. You wouldn’t know it by the songs themselves; if you hadn’t been informed that it’s Christmas, the music would lead you to suppose that the ritual was something between Ash Wednesday and the Day of the Dead.
I will resist the temptation to express my views on how the glorious traditions of music have deteriorated in the old Belpaese; I’ll just say not to expect to be hearing soaring cantatas or any of the sublime compositions with which the great masters, many of them Italian, blessed the world. If you think of church music here nowadays, at least at the parish level, you must imagine peeling plaster set to two guitars and a piano played by someone who hasn’t yet taken his second lesson.
The congregation does sing “Adeste Fidelis” and “Silent Night,” but in the most lugubrious way possible. If it were any more lugubrious, the singing would come to a complete stop. There is also a special Christmas song (undoubtedly there are more, but it’s the only one I hear around here) called “Tu scendi dalle stelle“ (You came down from the stars) which in its sincerity and simplicity could really squeeze your heart. Unfortunately, this too is sung as a dirge. Happily, I have found a version which gives much more of a sense of the beauty of this little carol; the translation isn’t very good but it’s better than nothing. Meanwhile, though, I think the music will have the desired effect.
You get home past 1:00 AM but don’t think you’re headed straight to bed: First you have to eat some slabs of panettone and drink some prosecco.
Eating and drinking: What an original idea; it’s only been two hours since we hauled ourselves up from the table.
Then it’s off to bed, so we can sleep until it’s time to get up on Christmas morning. Which means going to mass (again), but this time at the basilica of San Marco, followed by MORE FOOD.
Christmas lunch! Tortellini in broth, an elixir made yesterday by simmering beef and chicken and a couple of hefty beef bones along with onion, celery and carrot. It’s going to be heavenly, I can tell just by looking at it.
For Lino as a lad, and for mostly everyone else, Christmas was food. “Who knew anything about presents?” he recalled rhetorically. “We hardly had a tree, either. At Christmas you ate — you ate things you didn’t have at any other time of year.” His mother made the pasta herself, and then the tortellini. Then came hunks of the boiled meat. In the evening, veal roast with polenta. Lest you imagine his Christmas as something Dickensian, he knew people — they lived upstairs — who didn’t have meat, period. I know some elderly Venetians who recall that the crowning moment of any holiday meal was chicken.
We will be preparing something radically different for Christmas evening (but not so radical as to qualify as an americanata): Roast pork with fennel seeds. Oddly enough, this unusual recipe got the official stamp of “Well, let’s give it a try” approval. This decision was pushed over the top by my enthusiasm for roast pork, which I think he may never have tasted. I hope my memories have not deceived me, as they so often do.
But it’s not over: The next day is the feast of Santo Stefano, a national holiday not unlike Boxing Day in England. There are no rules about the menu, but it’s not composed of leftovers. Generally, assorted configurations of relatives get together for this too. Hours and hours spent sitting at a table; even if you eat just one bite (well fine, two bites) of what’s offered, you will go home feeling like one of those inflatable punching clowns.
Back in the Great Days, the celebration of the feast of Santo Stefano was remarkable, even for Venice. When the body — the entire body, not just a tidbit — of Christianity’s first martyr was brought to Venice from Constantinople in 1009 AD, it was placed beneath the high altar of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. (Yes, there is a church of Santo Stefano, but it was built later and by then, everyone was used to the relics being elsewhere.)
The story goes that the people rushed to implore doge Ottone Orseolo to go venerate this relic on the feast of Santo Stefano, and to require their descendants to do likewise every year. He obliged, and this event became a national holiday (of the nation of Venice, obviously).
In fact, the ducal visit became two: One on Christmas night, and one on the following morning. The reason for this has not been revealed to me, but I can report that the nocturnal visit (the one time in the year that the doge was allowed to leave the Doge’s Palace at night) became an event that was spectacular, even for Venice.
In her classic work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane, Giustina Renier-Michiel outlines this moment (translated by me):
As soon as the Christmas mass was ended in San Marco, it was already getting dark. The doge boarded his magnificent barge [note: not the Bucintoro, but a slightly smaller craft known as a peatona], accompanied by his counselors, the Heads of the Quarantie [several bodies including the Supreme Court and the Mint], and other administrators, as well as the 41 men who had elected him doge.
He was preceded by boats carrying lights…and followed by innumerable small boats of every type, also supplied with lights, all together they covered the space between San Marco and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. This area was illuminated also on the right and left by certain floating lamps called ludri, made of rope impregnated with pitch, which made a brilliant effect visible from far away, and whose reflections on the water produced a magical effect.
When His Serenity disembarked, he passed under an elegant covered gallery which had been specially constructed, all the way to the church door. On this occasion…the Dalmatian troops were lined up, gorgeously dressed, with the banner unfurled, the military band playing…
The doge was received at the church door by the Abbot; they exchanged greetings and entered the church together.
In the meantime, the Venetian noblewomen were disembarking from their gondolas, all of them dressed in black dresses with long trains, and their heads, necks, bosoms and ears were all adorned with precious jewels, their faces veiled with the most delicate black lace. Then they too entered the already crowded church.
Then of course the whole thing was repeated as everyone left the church and returned to Venice.
I can tell you that the holidays will not be resembling much of that — though I think I can dig out a fragment of a precious jewel somewhere. But it will be very close to that in my spirit, and I hope in yours also.
It snowed yesterday, which was about time, considering that the rest of Europe and even large parts of Italy have already had far more than their share.
I realize thousands, maybe millions, of people would be happier never to see snow again; Italy in the past two days has been overwhelmed by the white stuff and its icy relatives, which have blocked trains, closed airports, inflicted autostrada catastrophes involving heavy tractor trailers (one monster rig went sideways on one of the main north-south superhighways, not only preventing motorists from moving forward but also making it impossible for the snowplows to get through), and stranded travelers everywhere who finally were put up overnight in assorted improvised shelters because they couldn’t move in any direction and the temperature was sinking steadily below freezing.
Still, even if vehicles in my world aren’t hindered much by snow, walking presents its own hazards. Traversing the space between two points here will inevitably require crossing a bridge. The bridges do not get shoveled and salted in a timely fashion, and the edge of each step of each bridge was helpfully bordered by some long-ago brilliant engineer with a strip of cream-colored Istrian stone (to resist wear? to clearly demarcate where the step ends?), and when this stone freezes it becomes one of the most treacherous substances on earth. Little old people dragging their wheeled shopping carts put many of their 206 bones at risk on the way home. And by the way, I too could slip and fall.
But I don’t care. Snow here is as magical as anywhere else, and watching little kids discover the myriad wonders of making and launching snowballs just makes it even better. The laughter, the occasional scream, a couple of gamboling dogs who can’t resist barking,the air which when the sun comes out is absolutely fizzy: I’ll take this as a great Christmas scene any day over ten shopping malls playing freeze-dried carols.
Sorry for all you holiday travelers, but I hope it snows again. And again.