Archive for January, 2011


Understanding your garbage

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As you know from many situations which I have described ( even if I cannot explain them), the indigenous people inhabiting our little lobe of Venice have their own way of doing things.  The most mundane things, I mean — not things which are exceptionally demanding intellectually or morally. Not things which require Deep Thought, or Serious Reflection, or even sneaking a peek at the answers at the end of the chapter.  Things which I, in my own small way, consider obvious, seem to present impossible complications to a certain sort of person here.

I never see these people, of course, but they leave their unavoidable traces. Or their dogs leave the traces for them.  All over.

Here are a few brief examples of the cultural development of some individuals here — either whole clans of them, or only a few who are at it 20 hours a day.

Consider (briefly) dog poop.  There are responsible owners who responsibly retrieve it and place it in a little plastic bag and tie a very tight knot, just the way they’re supposed to.

Then they drop the bag on the ground and walk away. These abandoned little bags can sit around for days, waiting for some garbageman to consider them garbage. But hey. You’re supposed to clean up after your canine? Done and done.

Some dog-owners defend this practice by pointing out that there are no containers in which to deposit these daily objects.  I’m not defending them, but this is true.  So it means that the municipal garbage-and-trash-collecting system is to blame for unpleasant trash?

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

The absence of garbage cans requires you to be resourceful with your trash. What fascinates me here is the fact that the person didn't empty the bottle before abandoning it to its fate.

Not at all!  There’s a reason why you can’t find a single trash bin between the vaporetto stop at San Pietro di Castello and the Ponte de la Veneta Marina all the way at the end of via Garibaldi, a distance of 3,031 feet (924 meters), or more than half a mile.

The reason is that the trash bins were removed because the specimens of citizens we’re examining here were using the bins for their bags of kitchen/domestic/ personal garbage here, which is totally against the law. And also kind of crazy.

Why this is crazy is because residents pay a tax for trash removal based on the dimensions of their dwelling and the number of people living there. They have to pay it whether or not they ever put out so much as a beer can to be taken away.  So what could possibly be the point of carrying your garbage somewhere outside, probably under cover of darkness, maybe even in the rain or snow flurries or blasts of the simoom, to leave it somewhere else?

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

Balancing your trash has a sort of elegance -- no crass dropping of it to the ground. Here one is counting on there being no wind.

Forget the bins, whether they exist or not. This species of person leaves their bag of garbage (this is important, but you can skip ahead if you want) anywhere and everywhere the spirit moves them.  Like on a step halfway (halfway!)  up a bridge on a Saturday afternoon, where they know it will rest until Monday morning.  Or putting it outside their door at night (also forbidden) when acqua alta is due to come ashore and float the bag around the neighborhood for a while.

The knowing, the seeing, the caring about it, all this shorts out their mental circuits faster than you can blow a fusebox.

Up until a few decades ago, many Venetians tended to throw their trash into the canals and let the tide deal with it.  That was the simplest method of all, because all you had to remember was gravity. Every so often you can still hear an anonymous, furtive splash.

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

Since I've been here, the city's trash-removal department has been reorganized (or at least re-named) four times. The names of the three previous editions are clearly punched on this succession of dumpsters: VESTA, AMIU, AMAV. The current organization is called VERITAS. Evidently truth is not in the wine, but in its discarded bottles and cartons and so on.

But sometimes they make me laugh.

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

It says: "Only paper and cartons. Tuesday and Friday. Give it to the garbage-collector or leave it beside the door of your habitation between 6 and 8 in the morning. Respect the environment and your city."

This morning we went to pick up a batch of the free paper bags the city provides to contain paper to be recycled (pickup Tuesday and Friday). Paper bags to contain paper. Retain this thought, tricky as it may be.

The same little distribution point also gives out labels to stick onto the plastic bag into which you have stuffed items made of glass, metal, or plastic (pickup Wednesday and Saturday).

The labels say (in Italian, obviously): GLASS PLASTIC CANS.  Not  heroic hexameters, not any sentence by William Faulkner.  Just that.

“But there are people who take the paper bags,” the man giving out the bags and labels this morning told me, “and put the labels on them.”

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

This is a typical bag with the necessary label of its contents: "VETRO PLASTICA LATTINE." Not even any verbs to conjugate.

When we, and a few others waiting their turn, stopped laughing, I thought it over.

Italy, at 98.9 percent, ranks as 47th on the literacy scale of 180 countries, so I’m assuming that reading isn’t an obstacle. So that’s out.

It’s true that you could easily put glass, plastic and cans into a paper bag for disposal.  But that’s like the people who throw out their paper to be recycled by stuffing it into a plastic bag.

It’s two ideas that are mismatched socks: Each one fine by itself, but they don’t belong together.  And while you can close your eyes and pretend you’re not wearing socks of different colors, there’s no way you can pretend that plastic in a paper bag makes any kind of recycling sense.

But as an example of an overwhelming sense of inertia, it’s excellent.

1x1.trans Understanding your garbage

Speaking of inertia, though, it's not only the residents who are afflicted. Our garbageman seems to be sent out each day without the necessary equipment beyond a broom. Or he's got anemia, or chronic fatigue syndrome. This pile of sweepings stayed outside our house, just like this, for four days.

Categories : Problems
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Venice in January

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Days — and I suppose nights — can become as routine (fancy way of saying “monotonous”) here in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world as they can in Tick Bite, North Carolina, or wherever the daily round has worn a groove into your Day Planner, however gorgeous the surroundings may be.

I love January here for many reasons, and one of the big ones is that nobody else seems to.  Which is to say that almost all the tourists are dormant somewhere, with the kids in school and the budget busted by Christmas and Crisis, and dark coming on early and so on.

Exhibit A:  The #1 vaporetto on the Grand Canal last Friday morning. In a month or so, Carnival will be here, and if you can find a way to force yourself into the crush on every vehicle in the city then I admire your spinal cord, or your love of your fellow man, or your skill with a flooring chisel or Irish shovel, or whatever.  I would gladly supply a photograph of this inescapable fact of life here, but I never use the vaporettos during Carnival, except maybe at dawn.

And not long after that, the Tourist Season will be declared open, and the vaporettos will become troop transports loaded with brigades of touristic infantry loaded with all their battle gear — suitcases, duffel bags, backpacks, strollers, children and dogs. If there were a way for them to bring their pet guppy to Venice, people would do that too.

So this scene, which may look to you like just a lot of plastic seats, is a Thing of Beauty because those seats are empty.  This vision is so rare and wonderful that it’s almost worth getting on the #1 to go nowhere for no reason just so you can savor it, like a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, but for a lot less money.

1x1.trans Venice in January

This is what the #1 looks like at 11:00 AM in January, coming up to the Rialto stop, one of the busiest points in the city. There will always be shopping carts, but seeing only two is remarkable. And not seeing strollers loaded like hopper cars hauling iron ore, and ponderous rolling suitcases, and monstrous backpacks, is simply amazing. Plus the fact that everyone in this vaporetto, as far as I can make out, is Venetian.

This time of year doesn’t call to mind mere metaphors involving food and drink.  The real thing is at hand.

Last Saturday I was in a big supermarket on the Lido and came upon this heavenly vision of something wonderful about Carnival, the quintessential Carnival pastry. You can get the same items in pastry shops, naturally, for more money, naturally, but the important thing is, they’re here.  The galani have returned, like the migrating monarch butterflies landing in Milwaukee.

1x1.trans Venice in January

Crostoli. It's not a trick of the lighting that makes them look so good. They are so good.

As you see, there is freedom of expression in naming this delicacy, whether baked or fried.  “Galani,” “crostoli,” (CROSS-toh-lee) and “chiacchiere” (KYAK-er-eh) all translate as “irresistible and addictive slices of fat and sugar.” Historically, you are allowed to begin eating these any time after Epiphany, right up to Ash Wednesday.  Some culturally degraded but economically advanced vendors continue to sell them during Lent, but they must be related to the C.D. but E.A. vendors who sell Carnival masks and hats all year long. There is something odd about seeing teenagers wearing big plush multi-colored harlequin hats in August, but hey.  It’s no odder than seeing people selling them. Venice must be the city where selling was invented.

As for the galani, I resist buying them.  But it’s entirely possible that I will give in at some point and spend an afternoon making a batch of these crunchy morsels.  I did it last year for the first time and boy, was that a mistake. We ate them all in two days.  True, I could make just half a batch, but that seems unpleasantly intelligent.  Why eat only three pieces of something that’s bad for you?

1x1.trans Venice in January

This version is being sold as "leaves of KAMUT," a relative newcomer to the grain bin which is the commercial name of khorasan wheat. This ancient variety is supposedly richer-tasting and infinitely better for you than more usual wheat. I don't know quite what the point would be in using a healthy ingredient in an item like this, but I'm certainly willing to try it.

Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

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More crostoli.

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And more.

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Let's throw powdered sugar on them. That ought to obliterate any remaining traces of nutrition.

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Can't decide? Buy them all.

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Or wait for me to make some, she said modestly.

Categories : Food, Tourism
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Fogging up

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We’ve been having fog of various densities and persistence over the past – I’d have to check, it seems like a month or so.  Or year.  A long time, anyway.  And the predictions are for more.

“How romantic,” I hear you thinking.  And I agree.  Fog can be hauntingly lovely here, all drifting shapes and softening colors and the complete evaporation of the horizon.

1x1.trans Fogging up

What you can't make out in this picture, along with most of via Garibaldi, are two special fog components: A tenacious southwest wind to sharpen the vapor's edge on your skin, and the many different sizes of drops which fall against your face as you walk.

But if you need to move beyond the visual and into the practical, fog can be a pain in the gizzard. Acqua alta may get all the emotional publicity, but I can tell you that acqua from above, in the form of atmospheric condensation, can be just as inconvenient. I suppose nobody makes the same sort of fuss about it because fog doesn’t come into your house.  Or shop.

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The vaporetto stop. Not a very promising panorama.

Example: Yesterday morning I was forced to abandon my plan to go to Torcello to meet somebody for an interview (assuming I do, or do not, succeed in re-scheduling said meeting, I will explain who, what and why in another post).

Like many plans — Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, say, or New Coke — it looked perfect on paper. Take the #52 vaporetto at 8:10 to the Fondamente Nove, change to the LN line at 8:40, change to the Torcello line at 9:35, and faster than you can recite the Gettysburg Address, I’d be there. Actually, you’d have to recite it 36 times; door to door requires an hour and a half, but I don’t mind.  It’s a beautiful trip, assuming you can see where you’re going.

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There's a church over there with a big bell tower. Trust me.

But once again, I discovered — standing there without a Plan B — that the real problem isn’t the fog itself, but the way the ACTV, the transport company, deals with it.  The ACTV seems to have wandered beyond a reasonable concern for public safety and into the realm of phobia: “An irrational, intense, and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things, animals, or people.”  I don’t think the ACTV has a fear of animals. Otherwise, fog fits the phobic bill. The solution? According to the dictionary, “The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared stimulus.”  In this case, fog.

But the ACTV exists to be outdoors. Much as it might wish the case to be otherwise, it can’t function anywhere else.  And more to the point, by now almost all the boats have radar.  Yet it seems that the the more radar the company installs, the less willing the company is to trust it.

May I note that there were a good number of people out rowing in the fog yesterday morning, on their way to a boating event at Rialto.   I myself have been out rowing in the lagoon with a compass, as has Lino, as have plenty of people.  Lino rowed home one time in a fog so thick he couldn’t see the bow of his boat.  Just to give you some idea of what is, in fact, feasible.

1x1.trans Fogging up

The board continued to display the vaporetto numbers and their expected arrival times. I stood there and watched the times change as no vehicles passed. When Venice finally sinks beneath the waves, all that will be visible above the surface will be the angel atop the belltower of San Marco, and a board on which the vaporetto departure times will continue to advance.

In yesterday’s case, all the vaporettos were, as usual, re-routed up and down the Grand Canal, even those — like the one I wanted — which normally circumnavigate the city’s perimeter.  If I’d known in time that the fog was that thick out in the lagoon (as it wasn’t, outside our hovel), I wouldn’t have walked all the way over to the vaporetto stop at San Pietro di Castello.  Because once I realized that the boat wasn’t coming, it was too late to activate the most reasonable solution: Walking to the Fondamente Nove to get the boat to Burano.  Although there again, even if service were maintained to the outer reaches of the lagoon, it would almost certainly have been on a limited schedule. Like, say, once an hour.

Pause for the sound of the perfect plan drifting out to sea, and the first stifled shriek of the day.

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Fog does show the spiderwebs to their best advantage. There is that.

I can’t understand several things. If the boats have radar, why does it not inspire confidence in its operators? And more to the point, if the vaporetto captains can manage to navigate along the shoreline and up the Grand Canal, with or without radar, why could they not, by the same token, circumnavigate the city?  The route outside takes them just as close to the shoreline as it does inside — in other words, whichever route they take, they’re not exactly out on the high seas, but within eyeshot of any palaces or pilings or any other landmark that they need to keep track of.

Once again, my sense of logic has run aground in a falling tide on the mudbanks of municipal management.

But one last question: If the city (and by extension, its transport company) is so willing to confront a temporary meteorological situation (fog) with the attitude, “Suck it up, people,” why has it not been willing to confront another temporary meteorological situation (acqua alta) with the same panache?

Answers do suggest themselves, but they are cynical answers, composed of bitter little thoughts about human nature.  Best to leave them unexpressed.

1x1.trans Fogging up

If you've ever wondered what "It is what it is" might look like, this is an excellent illustration. All those women have long since accepted the fact that their laundry is going to be wetter by noon than it was when they hung it out.

Note to people flying, not floating, yesterday. I’m sorry if your flight was delayed.  I realize that flying in fog is stupid and dangerous. But slowly driving a boat in fog, hugging the shoreline, isn’t.

1x1.trans Fogging up

But as I say, if you don't have to drive or fly in it, the fog does have a certain fascination.

Categories : Boatworld, Nature, Problems, Water
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Venice goes postal

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To be fair, it’s not just Venice: It’s all of Italy.

Brace yourselves, because I’ve got some news.  At the post office today I noticed a sign giving the new postage rates.

To mail a postcard — not your novel, not the story of your life — a measly little postcard, from Italy to the U S and A now costs 1 euro and 60 cents.

Not only is that double the previous rate (already high, in my opinion), it is the equivalent of $2.08.

Two dollars and eight cents for one (1) stamp to mail one (1) postcard.

The woman at the window told me that it wasn’t Italy that shot the rates into outer space, it was My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.  I have no idea how these things work, but I do know what it feels like to knock your elbow against the edge of the door, and this is like that.

What I hear now is the sound of text messages and e-mails flying around the stratosphere bringing greetings from your Italian vacation to Aunt Bertha, your twin sister, your niece, your dog.  What I also hear is the sound of postcards not being sold, and stamps not being sold, at least to Americans.

You had to know, and better now than later.  Now you can plan to spend the money you would have paid for stamps and postcards on something else.  Like buying a house.  Or a horse.

1x1.trans Venice goes postal
Categories : Tourism
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