Archive for June, 2011


St. Peter’s weather report

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I knew two days ago what the weather was going to be last night.  I knew it without checking the barometer, or the online weather forecast, or the newspaper.  In fact, I knew it a year ago.

All I have to do is check the calendar.

June 29 is the Feast of St. Peter, as you know. And as everyone else knows — at least around here — that means there will be thunder. Probably rain. Possibly even hail, but that’s not so common.

Someone unknown to me has undoubtedly long since figured out why this is.  All I know is that St. Peter likes thunder. They tell frightened children he’s cleaning the wine barrels.  As  time goes on there probably won’t be any children left who know what a wine barrel looks like, but I suppose St. Peter could be cleaning barrels full of discounted, slightly damaged designer handbags.

What St. Peter also oversees is one of the best festivals in Venice.  Maybe anywhere.  The festa of San Piero de Casteo, held on the greensward in front of the eponymous church (for centuries the cathedral of Venice), is a great moment in the neighborhood year.  It’s five evenings of fun, frolic, and food, and dogs and kids and free gondola rides and also loud music that goes on far into the night. (St. Peter cleaning the Bose amplifiers?)

The proceeds, the fruit of phenomenal labor by squadrons of scouts and parishioners, some of whom in other places might have been expected to be doing nothing more strenuous than changing channels, are donated to all sorts of charitable causes.

The first people come with some semblance of tranquility and control. It doesn't last long.

Last night, being Wednesday, and the first night, the crowd was reasonably small, which meant you could still see grass and bits of walkway. The big event was the performance of  “I Rusteghi,” one of the many famous Venetian comedies by the extremely famous and important Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793).  A live performance of a certified classic — and for free. You can’t get that every day.

We wandered over there last night to get in the mood for the next few days; we (or at least I) needed to start strengthening my mental muscles to confront Friday and Saturday night, the peak moments of this event.

One of life's great mysteries: That it's more interesting to look at the person sitting next to you on a screen than it is to just turn to look at him or her for real.

It’s not so much the blasting music, which we can hear from our little hovel 293 meters/962 feet away, because eventually the band packs up and goes home.

It’s the enthusiastic shouting of overexcited people walking home, all of them funneling down the street which is just outside our bedroom window. It’s like having 2,000 people yelling good-night for an hour standing right in front of the bed.

We shut the windows and turn the fan on “high.”  The only other solution would be to go to the mountains every night.

Still, if for some reason this didn’t occur, I’d be sorry.  It would be like not having thunder or lightning or hail.  It would be wrong.

And yes, it did rain last night, but only some time after midnight so as not to spoil the party.  St. Peter thinks of everything.


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Ciao Capitano

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The other afternoon, as I was lolling on the embankment of our rowing club lightly toasting my skin and reflecting on how monotonous the sound of the surf was, surf caused by the incessant passing of every conceivable type of motorized boat, I noticed something unusual.

All I had was my cell phone, so the quality of this picture is regrettable. The wreath is evidently gifted with total protective coloration (they ordered a wreath the color of bricks and busted-up pilings?). It is sitting on the edge of the water at the point closest to the viewer, just to the left of the big chunk of concrete. What a place to run aground.

Just a few yards away is a mass of  rocks, sand, bricks and other detritus which over time have created a small sort of beach, and on it there was something alive. Well, it had been alive, in the sense that its flowers were only slowly fading.  But while it’s not all that strange to find a vaporetto route sign (the kind they hang on the side of the boat to list the stops) floating in the lagoon, I’d never seen a funeral wreath before.

Naturally, the vision of a floating funeral wreath inspired a backwash of mournful thoughts, loaded with other bits of detritus from all those somber poems and short stories they make you read in school. But then I became curious.

Why would a wreath be floating in the lagoon? It should have been removed from the casket and left at the cemetery.  Did it fly off the hearse (naturally, a motorboat) on its way to eternity?  Did a person or persons deliberately cast it upon the waves, in an uncharacteristically romantic gesture to the recently departed?  These wreaths cost real money.  Who would have spent all that for a wreath that was going to have a shorter life than the funeral leftovers?

I went to discuss all this with Lino, and when he came over to investigate, we saw that the waves had pulled the wreath away from its temporary resting-place and had drawn it seaward, right into the center of the straps attached to the crane which puts our boats into the water.

Seeing it there inspired a small, ancillary rush of half-baked melancholy thoughts. But curiosity won out.

We took the boathook and pulled the dedicatory ribbon around to where we could read it.  It said: “CIAO CAPITANO.”  Goodbye, Captain.

I’ll spare you my next batch of thoughts (gone down with the ship? Lost at sea?).  Lino had a better theory.

Just a few days ago, a man named Anacleto Marella died. His funeral was held on June 20 (Saturday) at the church of San Francesco della Vigna, roughly just around the corner from our club. So this must have been borne by the tide from there.

Marella had been employed for years as one of the many “captains” of the ACTV, the public transport company — a vaporetto driver, in other words.

But don’t imagine that they all get wreaths, floating or otherwise.

Some investigation has revealed that Capt. Marella was hugely famous, an extraordinary person who had been deeply involved for decades in the struggle to help the handicapped. Specfically, those suffering from muscular dystrophy. And he was one of the driving forces, along with Dr. Diego Fontanari and Mrs. Luciana Sullam, in the founding of the local chapter of the UILDM, the Unione Italiana lotta alla Distrofia Muscolare (Italian Union in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy).

According to the story published in the newsletter of the association, back in 1966 or so, Marella noticed that every day at a certain time, a young man with muscular dystrophy boarded, with tremendous effort, his vaporetto.  Struck by the man’s tenacity and courage, he began to urge the bus company (as I think of it) to improve its accessibility to the handicapped, particularly by creating specific spaces designed for wheelchairs. This was revolutionary work, especially when you consider the cost of retrofitting all those vehicles.  Did I mention that the transport company is public?  That means it was born to say “We can’t afford it.”  But Marella seems to have been born, as his grandson once remarked, with “Duracell batteries.”

He didn’t stop with the vaporettos.  He organized a medical conference on neuromuscular diseases.  He raised funds by participating in telethons.  He accompanied groups of tourists with MS in tours around the city, not to mention on trips out in the lagoon.

He even convinced the 66 other vaporetto drivers to donate part of every paycheck to the UILDM.  In fact, they still do. I want you to stop and think about that for a minute.  Yes, it is unbelievable.  But there it is.

I think roses are absolutely beautiful for a wreath, and not all that common, either. At least not for a man.

Small digression: When I first came here, and for years, the vaporettos all displayed several discreet but noticeable square stickers with a design of a person in a wheelchair, with a small note encouraging the public to remember the UILDM and its mission. I used to wonder, “Why MS? If the public transport company is publicizing one disease, why not all of them?” Now I know the answer.  Because Anacleto Marella asked them to, and it was nobody could say no to him.

“My father’s enthusiasm and tenacity overwhelmed everybody,” his son, Giovanni, remembered.  “He involved entire families in his initiatives. Nobody could stop him.”

Yes, he was left fatherless as a boy, and had to start working early to support his family.  Yes, he was a wounded veteran of World War II. But these experiences don’t inevitably make pioneers, much less heroes, nor do they guarantee any skill in navigating the immense sea of bureaucracy and lethargy. As far as I can tell, he had no relatives with any physical disabilities.  What he clearly had was a large heart, a clear mind, and a spectacularly hard head.

He would have been 94 on July 1.  Ciao, Capitano.  If you had ever wanted to round Cape Horn with your vaporetto, I’ll bet you could have gotten everybody to sign up.





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Vogalonga photo op

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In my last post on the Vogalonga (though I suppose it would be more accurate to say that this is my last) I acknowledged the lack of any photographic evidence of our excellent — and rapid — circuit of the northern lagoon.

As I had hoped, a kind soul did in fact take some pictures of us, and that kind soul knew some friends of ours, who sent them along. Perhaps there are more such souls out there, but I don’t know them or their friends.  So here’s a big shout-out to the club Voga Fortuna Berlin, and Sandra, who chose to work the camera rather than the oar.

Here we are returning to the club to get our numbered bib. If you ask where are all the hordes of rowers waiting for the starting cannon to fire, I can tell you they're behind us. Where most of them stayed all morning. The crew this year was a sort of mixed fishfry. (L to r): Sandro Graffi, his 12-year-old son Davide, 14-year-old Filippo Novello, Antonio Borgo, me, and Mike O'Toole, a/k/a/ "Otolini," master and commander of Gondola Getaway in Long Beach, California. Lino is sitting on his starboard side, as navigator and co-pilot, though he rarely intervened.

And our return, down the incredibly spacious Cannaregio Canal. Somewhere around Murano we reshuffled the squad: Antonio is now in the bow and Sandro is at #4. Lino has moved from the stern to sit in the bow, which was undoubtedly more comfortable but which reversed his view of the proceedings. What you can't hear, unfortunately, is all of us saying some variation on "Holy Sacrament, I can't believe how few people are here. I'm never going back to the old way."


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Considering how well my personal Vogalonga went this year (along with my six boatmates), it’s taken me this much time to find anything to say about it other than that.

Also, I have no photographs whatsoever of us, for one reason which explains both these little paragraphs. We didn’t start in the Bacino of San Marco.

A glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco on or about the start this year, which we didn't see. This image is even more beautiful for that very reason. (Thanks to the unnamed photographer who took this picture, which I found on the web.)

The tradition in any boat I’ve been in that includes Lino (all but one — the first year — of the 16 editions I’ve joined) is that we start in the Bacino of San Marco when the cannon fires and all the bells ring.  It’s thrilling and I love this moment, which is all too brief because we then commence rowing, along with a mass of boats surrounding us like migrating krill.

This means that while we have the chance to savor the richness of the moment — boats, cannon, bells — the krill create many well-known problems along the way. Such as at what I think of as the “death corner,” the first turn at the point of Sant’ Elena, where any number of non-Venetian rowers suddenly discover some problem which they hadn’t planned on facing — such as a tricky current, or some boats around them also having problems, or, I don’t know, existential lack of nerve, like cragfast climbers.  You can expect to see at least one capsized vessel here, and a batch of confusion from the mass of boats trying to avoid it.

Then there are the snaky curves along the flank of Sant’ Erasmo, also excellent territory for making miscalculations of available space, relative speeds, and wind direction and force.

Then, of course, there is the every-year-more-difficult (I meant to say “ghastly” but changed my mind) passage into and through the Cannaregio Canal, where inexperience, fatigue, and lack of common sense create packs of boats like Arctic ice.

This year we didn’t have any of that — I mean, ANY of that — for one surprising reason.  We forgot our boat’s number, without which the boat can’t be checked at various points along the way and hence acknowledged as officially doing the course.

So when the cannon/bells/confusion began at 9:00 AM, we were back at the boat club behind Sant’ Elena digging the numbered bib out of Lino’s locker.

Which meant that we joined the scrum after the “death corner,” and — this was unexpected — in some way near the head of the herd.  Please note that this does not mean we started early, as some unsporting people tend to do.  We slipped into the traffic stream at 9:10, roughly the same time it would have been for us at that point even if we’d started in the usual place.

The result of all this being that not only did we cover the entire course in record time without even breaking a sweat (three hours — unheard of), we were able to do it in unearthly tranquillity.  Yes, there were other boats, but noticeably fewer at that stage.  We slithered along Sant’ Erasmo as if there wasn’t anybody else around, and we entered the Cannaregio Canal (over which I always see an invisible sign saying “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”) as if it were a normal day, only better: The reasonable number of boats ahead of us were proceeding in a reasonable way at a reasonable speed and behaving, well, reasonably.  I had never imagined I could see such a thing.

The only flaw in the ointment, as a friend of mine used to say, was that we were also ahead of the photographers.  We missed the departure, which is always good for spectacular pictures, and we missed the mass return, ditto.

So unless some unknown photographer makes him- or herself known, I’m just going to have to keep my memories dusted and polished, because there isn’t anything else I have to show for this event.

It was so wonderful that I’m already trying to think of ways to convince the crew to leave before 9:00 next year.  If all goes well, I’ll be able soon to report that we finished the course before the others had even started it.

Crazy?  Unsporting?  Simply wrong? Yes indeed.  But now the rot has set in.

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