Archive for June, 2011


Galleons: video clip

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For technical reasons I regret, especially because I forgot about them, the YouTube clip which looks splendid on my dazzling official full-color blog page does not carry over in the version of my posts which come via e-mail to my faithful subscribers.

Excuse me, I have to scream.

So let me try this: If you click on this link, perhaps you will see all the guts and glunder that went on here Sunday afternoon.

Here goes:

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Galleons can break your heart

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I recently promised, somewhat insincerely, to report on how the race of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics came out last Sunday.  Insincere, because even though I have seen it here and, via television, elsewhere, I’ve always had the impression that it was a race that interested only the people taking part. I certainly wasn’t picking up any tremors of curiosity from that part of me that wonders about everything.

The Italian naval jack (flown at the bow of all Italian military vessels) shows the symbols of the four ancient maritime republics. (Clockwise from top left) Venice, Genova, Pisa, Amalfi.

And the galleons, arranged here in corresponding order.

But we did watch most of it, standing on a mid-course bridge, and about one minute into the 8-minute, 2000-meter contest we had the winner all picked out (the team from Pisa, which has won the last two races, though Amalfi was rowing as if each man had a dagger clenched in his jaws). Although rowing backwards has little appeal for me personally, I had to admire the teams, composed in large part of Italian champions loaded with national, European, and even World titles. For them, this wasn’t some picturesque little jaunt, it was a real race.

Since we were too far away to see the finish, and we were staring straight into the late-afternoon sun, we went home.

Guess what?  Those last five minutes have now made history. Not only did Amalfi launch a dazzling sprint that carried them across the finish line 3/100ths of a second faster than Pisa, an hour later the judges decided that three of the four competitors had to be disqualified for technical errors.

This made Venice, the obvious loser trailing for the entire race, the only possible winner.

So the judges and mayors of the four contending cities had a big meeting, while outside some of the fans were so near to starting a small riot that the police and the Carabinieri had to be called in to settle things down. Meanwhile the live-TV commentators trolled the exhausted, baffled and emotional racers for remarks.  Everybody was waiting.

The verdict: The race was annulled.  For the first time in the 56 years of this competition, there was no winner.  It never happened.  We were never there.  You were just imagining it.

“Venice can’t win this way,” said mayor Giorgio Orsoni in the best sporting tradition, even though it’s a bitter bite, as they say here, when the home team loses, especially when the home team has won more of these races (30) than its three competitors put together.

So what went wrong?  I will resist giving you all the details but simply say that Pisa and Amalfi, battling it out in the lead, were guilty of wandering off the legal playing field, while Genova skipped a buoy it was supposed to pass in a certain way. Naturally there were reasons for these infractions which the teams struggled to justify, to no avail. Many people, even ashore, complained about the negative effect the fireboat’s wake was undoubtedly having on the two nearest boats.

So no medals, no glory, nothing but boatloads of grief for everybody, especially Amalfi, which was deservedly proud of its spectacular last-minute push to victory.  Or so it thought.

Here is the race, as seen live on national television.  I don’t think it’s necessary to know Italian to understand what’s going on. You merely need to have a working knowledge of brilliance, struggle, and crushing disappointment.

And that aroma you may have noticed? It’s the fragrance of revenge wafting from Amalfi, which is the host city for next year’s race.

Trivia:  The race was proposed in 1949 by the president of the Tourism organization of Pisa.  The fact that it wasn’t invented by an athletic group for its competitive value, but as a neat reason to dress up a shorebound contingent of costumed extras, seems a little odd.  But tourists like costumes, and the sporting people can just ignore them.

The four boats were designed by the late, legendary Giovanni Giuponi (in Venice), and built by a Venetian shipyard, originally in wood, later in fiberglass.

The bow of each  boat carries a stylized figurehead representing each city’s totem animal (as I think of them): The winged lion of San Marco for Venice, a dragon for Genova, an eagle for Pisa, and a winged horse for Amalfi.

The boat/team colors are:  Green for Venice, white for Genova, red for Pisa, blue for Amalfi.

The boats cannot weigh less than 760 kilos (1,675.5 pounds).

The first race was held on July 1,1956, in Pisa.  Logical, seeing as it was their idea.

The positions at the starting line are drawn by lot, which is the only fair way to deal with the factor of tide, current, or any other acqueous factor which would clearly help some boats while hindering others. Every city’s stretch of water for this race presents particular little problems which the coaches and coxes make every effort to recognize. As it happens, Pisa, which had the lead for almost the whole race, was rowing in the worst position.  Hats off, oars up, wave your flag or handkerchief, because they deserve it.

If the teams have been here for a week, studying the course, you might well wonder how the coxes of three boats could have made the mistakes they did.  Lino’s explanation: They were of course looking for the best little thread of extra current to help them, and didn’t pay attention.  Or thought nobody would notice, which is my theory.






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The Vogalonga cometh

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That sound you may have thought was silence from out here was actually the sound of me putting my shoulder to the titanic wheel, so to speak, of the registration work for the annual event known as the Vogalonga, or “long row.”

This year it will be held on this coming Sunday, June 12. It has never been held this late in the year (May has been its preferred month), and I’ll explain the reason for this in a moment.

Just like people, each of these oar-driven marathons for the past 36 years is different, yet each one is the same.  Thousands of rowers in all sorts of boats proceeding around a 30-km (18-mile) course betwixt the islands of the northern lagoon.

Every year there are more of them rowing in single kayaks, and far too many of them get in the way and do things that do not demonstrate a profound experience either of boats and a tidal lagoon, by which I mean they don’t seem to realize there is a tide working harder than even they are — against them, with them, or a blend of both.  Their not taking the tide into account conduces to many little surprises for them.  Any nearby Venetians, knowing this, have already come up with Plan B to avoid getting involved in their assorted miscalculations.

The start is always impressive, though this image doesn't give anything near the sense of mass migration you feel at the waterline.

Back to the registration work: It goes on for two weeks, and today and tomorrow, being the last days (and being the weekend) will be spectacularly chaotic at the office, as thousands of just-arrived, already-happy-and-excited rowers appear to claim their pectoral with the registration number, and the T-shirts allotted to them.  There is often much debate among them about what size Ingrid or Francois is going to need, while masses of waiting rowers pile up behind them.

In the early days — last week — I’d take a Medium (or whatever) out of its plastic bag to demonstrate what it looked like (leading to more debate…..). But those days are gone.  If somebody asks me now for two Large, I just give them to him/her.  If they want to exchange them they have to go to the back of the line and wait their turn.  It’s either me doing that, or fifty impatient rowers deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Briefly, the reason why we will be rowing for hours in mid-June (which translates as “probably scorchingly hot”) is because this year it’s Venice’s turn to host an annual event which rotates among the four participating cities of Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Genoa.

It’s called the Palio of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics, and it’s rowed on eight-oar boats, something like life-saving boats, called “galleons.”  In case you’re wondering what Pisa is doing in the lineup, Pisa was an important port city before the harbor silted up and they built that tower and batches of city on top of it. They’ve been digging up sunken Roman ships in town for years now.

Fine, I hear you say, but how does this concern the Vogalonga?  Because the organizing committee of the Palio thought it would be cool to hold their race on the afternoon of the Vogalonga, seeing as there would already be so many  boats in the water (us).  The rowers could just stay in the water and watch the race and provide a lot of nautical garnish to the spectacle.

I will have to let you know how that fantasy works out, because from my own experience, I can say that the last thing anybody feels like doing at the end of possibly five hours in a boat is to stay in the boat, even to watch the World Cup.  Your primary thoughts at the end are for food, shade, a shower, and a chaise longue, if not a bed in a room with the blinds pulled down.

You have no secondary thoughts.  If you did, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be to stay in or near the water and watch a race that starts at 6:00 PM.

But what, as I often ask myself, do I know? I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Back to the registration work.  There are two questions many people can’t resist asking when they sign up.  One is “How many boats are there?”  I don’t know and I don’t really try to know.  I’m just slinging T-shirts.  And besides, does it matter?  Have they organized an office pool on who bets closest to the correct number?  They’re here, so whether there are 2,893 or 5,001 boats can’t make any real difference.  Perhaps I’m wrong.

Second baffling question: “What’s the weather going to be?”  If any forecast, even for six hours from now, turned out to be correct, it would be amazing. Instead of replying, “You believe forecasts?” I have always tended to say, “All I can tell you is that whatever the weather is for you, it’s going to be the same for everybody else.”

This year I’m trying something different.  When they ask me, I just say “Beautiful. It’s going to be beautiful.” I’ll either be right or wrong, just like any other forecaster.

I experienced an amusing variation this year: I brought the Vogalonga cell phone home last night and left it on while I recharged it.  Two calls came in at 11:40 PM. I was sound asleep.

I didn’t even answer them, I just turned the phone off and tried to get back to reclaim that dream they so rudely interrupted.

Checking the numbers this morning, I see that one call was from an area near Rome, the other from Munich.  When I got up at 5:00, I was extremely tempted to call them back.  But the satisfaction would only have been momentary, so I let it go.

I may not be helpfully demonstrating T-shirt sizes anymore, but at least I haven’t descended to the level of vendetta.

The start may have been impressive, but it's the return that really gets you. Too many boats in the Cannaregio Canal, most of whom want to get ahead of you in very little space. There is usually a certain amount of shouting at this point.



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Rialto Market encounter

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As you see, I am now back on track, back on the horse, back in thought and word and deed.  Fixing things up on Planet Blog took somewhat longer than I anticipated, but this only confirmed Zwingle’s Fifth Law, which states: “Everything takes longer than you think it will.”

Life continued all the same, of course, and here is a bit of it.

I was at the Rialto Market yesterday morning, standing at the stall of our favorite fruit and vegetable vendor.  We always go to him because he’s from Sant’ Erasmo, and because he has the most luxuriant fronds of rosemary ever seen, among other things.

The produce is always first-rate here; the customers, not always quite so much. The departing woman is not the lady of the story. Taking her picture would probably have made her try to kill me.

In this case, I was interested in buying some cherries, which are now in season, as you know.

There were two women ahead of me; one was in the process of  buying whatever she needed and another was waiting her turn.  It is the second woman who I discovered had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, approximately eight seconds after she was born.

Of course, if I hadn’t said anything to her, none of the following would have happened.  But I occasionally allow myself some small intervention which is intended to be helpful.  (“Helpful,” I realize, is in the eye of the helpee. I always keep in mind C.S. Lewis’s observation: “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others — you can tell the others by their hunted expression.” But sometimes I decide to risk it.)

Also, may I note,  the person I speak to has almost always thanked me. Sometimes sincerely, maybe sometimes not, but in any case, has attempted to reply with some degree of politeness.

The aforementioned second woman, while waiting her turn, was testing the smallish tomatoes she wanted to buy.  Which means touching and somewhat squeezing them.  This is absolutely not the thing to do here.

I realize that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy a fruit or vegetable that you haven’t examined yourself for ripeness (bananas and artichokes excluded), but in Venice the notion that Lord knows how many people  have touched an object which another person may eventually buy, take home, and eat is utterly horrifying.  At the supermarket, they even provide plastic gloves for anyone intending to touch a botanical object for any reason.

I’ve gotten used to this.  One thing that helped me was hearing Lino’s occasional heat-seeking-missile comment to a person using their bare hands in public.  (And considering the catastrophe underway in Europe involving a hitherto unknown and potentially fatal strain of E. coli, you can see why it might matter.)

This lady was touching the tomatoes. Even though I have seen Venetian battleaxes also doing this, I assumed that she was a tourist.  It’s not hard to see tourists at the market.  When they’re not getting in your way taking pictures while you’re trying to do your shopping, they’re often touching things, and the vendors who correct them aren’t always the most genteel.

I considered saying nothing as long as she was keeping the tomatoes she picked up.  It was when she put one back that I spoke up.

“Do you speak English?” I asked in my most polite way.

She turned and glared at me.  “Yes,” she said in a strong German accent. (Note: this is not anything against Germans.  She could have had any accent — even Venetian — and the point of the encounter would have been the same.)

“Well,” I said, “it’s not the custom here to touch the produce.”

She didn’t hesitate for an instant, nor did she turn down the voltage on the glare.

“Maybe in your country,” she snapped, “but here we are in Italy.”  “Your country” meant that she may have noticed my undoubtedly noticeable American accent, but even if she didn’t, I was wearing a T-shirt with a few words written in English. Still, whatever country I might come from did nothing to invalidate my remark about what goes on here in Italy.

This stopped me for a second.  While I always welcome new information, being told I was in Italy wasn’t something I’d been expecting to hear.  And in any case (my mind suddenly going into “Dive!  Dive!” mode), the fact that she also was a foreigner made me wonder what kind of sense her remark could possibly have made.  Even if touching the merchandise were the custom in her native land, here, as she said, we are in Italy.

Having interpreted her geographical observation as an invitation to get lost, I persevered.

“I’ve lived here for twenty years,” I replied, to correct her impression than I might be some random passerby just off the plane.

She didn’t pause.  “So have I,” she retorted.

“So,” I said, “that means that you know you’re not supposed to do it, but you’re doing it anyway.”

“That’s right.”



She paid for the tomatoes and departed, leaving me with several thoughts which were struggling to resist  being sucked down into the mental whirlpool she had created.

She’s a foreigner who resents being mistaken for a tourist, even though she was acting like one.  She also has a sublime sense of entitlement that living here (I’m taking her word for this) permits her to do whatever she wants.  Just like a tourist.

I believe the compulsion to do what you know is wrong could be termed “original sin.”  Too bad I didn’t know how to say that in German. Shifting from the tangible to the spiritual could really have livened up my morning.



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