Archive for July, 2011

Would you like to know how to say “So big your mind vaporizes in front of it” in Turkish?

Answer: “Bogazici.”

In English it’s “Bosphorus,” which is actually Greek, but whatever you want to call it, you’ll say it standing at attention.

And we were out there on July 17, four of us from Venice and four Turkish men, in two gondolas, rowing across it.

Even from space the Bosphorus looks impressive, especially that little dog-leg to the left up there. That must be highly entertaining to the captains and pilots aboard the 55,000-some vessels that transit each year.

So what’s so big about it?  In normal human terms, the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation isn’t all that big. It’s about 31 km/17 nautical miles long and its maximum width is 3,329 meters/1.7 nautical miles and its minimum width is a mere 704 meters/.38 nautical miles. But unless you need to pilot a tanker of liquefied natural gas or something, these numbers don’t tell you its true dimensions.

When you row out onto it in a four-oar gondola, the whole concept of size suddenly multiplies in every direction.  I knew there were currents and vortexes and so on, though Lino in the stern knew how to deal with them so I, rowing in the bow, didn’t pay much attention.  But I didn’t know then that the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south flow toward each other with differing densities, which forms an underwater river in the Bosphorus which, if it were on the surface, would be the sixth largest river (in volume, I presume) on earth.

It’s probably better I didn’t know that.

The Rumelihisari fortress was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1451-52. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is also named for him ("Fatih" means "Conqueror"). We were out there, smaller than any boat shown here, rowing back and forth in front of it, focusing on not being conquered by the waves. Photo: Sagredo

Carbing up before our first expedition onto the Bosphorus. The boats are waiting for us five minutes away, but we seem to be in no hurry.

What I did feel was not only the mass of water under us, I felt the mass of history bearing down on this strip of sea which by now is so heavy there ought to be a black hole there instead of mere water. It’s not every day I get to row around in front of a Turkish fortress built in 1451 to enable the Ottoman assault which conquered Constantinople in 1453.

And just for the record, Lino told me later than when we rowed out there, he had a lump in his throat, for the very same reasons I was listening to my brain spinning its wheels saying “I cannot believe I’m out here doing this.”  The fact that he could get emotional is a great thing — and that he could be dealing with the throat-lump while also keeping track of the vortexes is even better.

Gondolas on the Bosphorus — how weird is that? Despite the fact that, somewhere back in history, there were plenty of boats our size being rowed all around here, we were thrillingly tiny.  Under the soaring Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge the passing ocean-going tugboat and the double-decker tourist boats and the random tanker, all of which seemed to have three-million-horsepower motors and created waves the size of Quonset huts, made rowing a fairly unusual thing to be doing out here.  Possibly the people aboard the aforementioned craft thought so too, though I’m not sure we even showed up on their radar. Certainly the tourists were excited to see us, waving and snapping pictures, though only God knows what they were thinking as we passed.  They certainly weren’t thinking about the massive wake they were leaving behind them.                                                                                                                                                              

This is the Bosphorus at its peerless best. We are toiling toward the Bosphorus Bridge, the second of only two across the strait. The finish line was almost in sight (imagine applauding hordes to the right of the frame). Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

So we were there just to be weird?  Mais non, mon capitaine. Thanks to the collaboration of His Excellency Gianpaolo Scarante, the Italian Ambassador to Turkey, we were invited to be the opening number in the spectacle of the Bosphorus Cross Continental, an annual event organized by the Turkish Olympic Committee, the only swimming event in the world which involves two continents.

Some 1,200 swimmers plunge into the water like penguins off an ice floe from a dock on the Asian shore of Istanbul and swim to the European side, a distance of some 6 km/3.8 miles, with the bonus of having to turn around and do the last stretch against the current.

But Venetian boats in Istanbul?  Of course there were plenty here when it was Byzantium, and plenty even after it became Constantinople.  But given much of the history between Venice and Turkey, it was a very cool thing to be there all together — two Venetians and two Turks per boat — with absolutely no ulterior motive, like buying, selling, or slaying.

This map shows the path the swimmers follow. We started below the bridge at the top, at the little protuberance on the Asian shore called Kandilli, and finished somewhat above the next, a distance of about three kilometers/1.8 miles. It turned out to be not quite as easy as that might sound -- heat, breeze, and a gondola that seemed to weigh about as much as the USS New Hampshire made this little adventure a real calorie-incinerator.

Traffic is blocked for four hours to smooth the stage for the mob of Australian-crawlers (and the small pod of dolphins we saw arcing around the finish line).  If delivery of your new plasma TV is held up, maybe you could blame it on this.  In any case, we also benefited handsomely from this blockade, benefited, that is, until about ten minutes from the finish line, when two double-decker tourist boats carrying the swimmers upstream passed by.  The swimmers waved at our brilliant strangeness and beauty but didn’t notice the wake. Our gondola stolidly took the three or four walls of water head-on — womp, womp, womp — but it isn’t good for the boat and it really slowed us down.  When you’re panting to reach the finish line, hot and sweaty, being slowed down is intensely annoying. Still, compared to the gymkhana of yesterday, with waves from everywhere, it wasn’t so bad.

Lino’s and I, with Ata and Samet on the red-and-green gondola, finished second.  I don’t say we lost, nor do I say the blue gondola won, because the boats were totally mismatched in several technical but telling details.  Also, it wasn’t supposed to be a genuine race; Ata and Samet, and Burak and Mehmet, had only tried Venetian rowing twice in their lives, on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. It’s just that the desire to see no one in front of them overcame the sporting good sense of our adversaries.  I didn’t care if they came in first.  I did care that they did it by five or six boat-lengths.

Say what you will, I do not consider this a scene of effulgent sportsmanship. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

So what could be next?  I’d be perfectly happy if we were to be able to do this again next year. Otherwise, unless we find a way to tackle the Bering Strait, or maybe the Strait of Malacca, I’m going to leave this experience in lonely splendor at the top of a list of one, labeled “If this doesn’t astound you, you must be completely missing your astound-o-meter.”


The wave may be gone but the effect lingers briefly. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey

(L to r): Erla Zwingle, Lino Farnea, Ata Sukuroglu, Samet Baki Uctepe of the red/green gondola. Burak Dilsiz, Mehmet Gokhun Karagoz, Cesare Peris, Dino Righetto of the blue gondola; H.E. Gianpaolo Scarante, Italian Ambassador to Turkey. We had no idea that at this very moment, the winner of the swimming competition had just reached the finish line -- and a Turk, as it happened -- an 18-year-old named Hasan Emre Musluoglu. And the Olympic Committee organizers did not give the tiniest sign of interrupting our little moment of glory until all the prizes were given and the snaps taken. There are extreme sports, and sometimes there is extreme sportsmanship, not to mention world-class class. I'm going to have to start learning Turkish. Courtesy Olympic Committee of Turkey.

A more informal lineup: The two crews before our first session.



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Turkey: Going once, going twice…

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I have been very lax in updating our assorted adventures in assorted boats, and I apologize, but adventuring does take so much time and energy.

But I promise to give you a full account sometime next week — not long after our return from our next adventure.

Hint: Both adventures involve going to Turkey with two gondolas.  And rowing them there, obviously.  With four Turkish men (not so obviously, but the world is an amazing place and anyway, the Turks had just as many galleys as Venice did, in the old days, which by itself means they also had rowers, even if a lot of them were Christian slaves.  Sorry, but there it is).

Both adventures require a huge shout-out to His Excellency Gianpaolo Scarante, the Italian Ambassador to Turkey, and his wife, Barbara, who raises the concept of “indefatigable” beyond any known scale of measurement. They are the reason we’re there, so I want to do my very best.

In late May, we went to a city named Eskesehir, which I discovered is a very important place indeed, not least for its being the homeland of meerschaum. (I’d never given much thought to meerschaum mines, but they’re all around that part of Turkey.)  We rowed our two gondolas on the Porsuk river in a pair of races with the Turkish rowers.

In Eskesehir, the first race mixed the crews, as you can immediately detect here. The second race pitted a Venetian crew against a Turkish crew. A good time was had by all.

Now we’re headed to Istanbul, to row our gondolas across the Bosphorus.  (I love saying that — it’s like saying “I’ll walk across the parking lot to the dry cleaner.”)  We’ll be gone till the 19th; the event itself is on July 17, and is part of a very large and important amateur open-water swimming race called the “Bosphorus Cross-Continental Competition.” The swimmers start from the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus and finish on the European side.  So will we, but an hour earlier.

We’re due to form up, as we did in May, with two Turks and two Venetians per boat (I’m operating under a Venetian alias, as you know), and race 2000 meters across the mythical strait between Kuleli and Kurucesme.  I’m acting as if I know what that means; even though I’ve located them on the map, the scope of all this still hasn’t really reached me.

I do know that the fact that this is the first year of gondola participation, with Turkish rowers, has created no little enthusiasm — they are planning to install GPS’s on the gondolas so the race can be broadcast live on national Turkish television.

So there will be silence in BlogWorld here until I get back. Probably followed by a tremendous racket.

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Venice meets New York

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It wasn’t the newspaper, it was the “I see you but I do not respond” glance that cried “New York” to me. Then he asked/told me not to take any more pictures, which is pure Venice. Not because people are rude, but because in a small town which millions of people visit every year primarily — it seems — to take pictures, sometimes a line has to be drawn.

Whenever I find myself with some Venetian for the first time, and for whatever reason I mention that I used to live in New York, the person almost always seems slightly startled, then makes some remark along the lines of “Boy, Venice must seem really small/different/strange/minuscule/quarklike” to you.

At first glance, it might in fact seem that the fabled Large Malus domestica (pop. 8,175,133 and growing) would have nothing at all in common with the equally fabled Most Serene Republic (at the moment down to 60,052 and shrinking).

On the other hand, this glance, from the doorkeeper at the Porta della Carta of the Doge’s Palace, says “I see you, but you look just like everybody else until you say or do something that requires me to react.” This would be Venetian, where one of the major energy-saving tactics is not merely turning off the lights in empty rooms, but not responding until you actually have to. Otherwise you’ll never make it to closing time.

But I have always felt right at home here, because — as I tell the person, startling her or him even more — there is an amazing number of ways in which Venice and New York appear to be like those twins that get separated five minutes after birth and years later turn up to have both married women named Clotilde on the same day and have vacation cabins on Lake Muskoka.

Speaking of twins, I’ve never quite understood that whole business of twinning cities. Not because I don’t grasp that both partners desire thereby to undertake commercial adventures together, but because the partnerships often seem so odd.

The other places are frequently the same grade of innocuous as the one you’re entering, which makes sense, I suppose.  I mean, you’d never see “Toad Suck/Beijing.” Naturally there are exceptions to what seems like an obvious rule; Rome/Paris makes sense, but Rome/Multan, Pakistan is a bit more obscure. Or there are less glamorous but equally curious combinations (Seattle/Tashkent), on down to the level of Torviscosa/Champ-sur-Drac. Well, as long as they’re happy.

Venice has formally twinned itself with 15 cities; the link is fairly clear with St. Petersburg (seaport cities with canals), though the link with Islamabad is a bit harder to discern. It might have been clever (only to me, of course) to have twinned Venice with every town named Venice, or which bills itself as “the Venice of” wherever it is.

There are 19 “Venice of the North”s, and a remarkable amount of  so-called “Venice of the such-and-such” strewn around the world at other compass points:  South (Johannesburg; Tawi-Tawi island), East (Alappuzha, India; Bangkok; Melaka River, Malaysia), China (Wuzhen), and so on. There are four American towns named Venice, one each in Florida, California, Illinois, Utah. (Venetia, Pennsylvania, doesn’t count, though I give it special points for historical interest.) Surprisingly, there are many more towns in the US named Verona.

These are not the Sharks or the Jets, though there may well be a girl named Maria in the group. They’re just teenagers on their way to school and as such could basically fit in anywhere.


Back to the Ur-Venice and its resemblance to New York. I’ve made a little hobby of collecting points of similarity, as I come across them, and in no particular order, here are some of the most obvious examples:

* They are both seaport cities.

* They are (or have been) economic colossi. The wealth of Venice was something inconceivable today, unless we’re thinking of that tiny top percentage of people who own everything. Not long ago an Indian tycoon staged his daughter’s wedding here; it went on for three days and cost, it was reported, something like 10 million euros ($14 million).  He would have fit right in with the Pisanis and Corners (and Rockefellers and Carnegies.)

* They both have a long history of many coexisting (more or less happily) ethnic communities.

* Housing/real estate is a major issue, both regarding cost (exorbitant) and space (cramped). In either city you can as safely launch a conversation with a stranger on the problems of housing as you can on the weather.

* They are both populated by complainers; not the ordinary type, but those special inhabitants who belong to the category in which, according to the famous quip about New Yorkers, “Everybody mutinies but nobody deserts.”

“Dez (heart) Ruez I love you for all of my life.” The sentiment is universal and, regrettably, so is the urge to express it in a form that’s really, really hard to remove. I have no doubt that they have long since broken up, married other people, and gotten divorced by now. But it is a sign of normal life in cities large and small, watery or not.

* Everybody notices each other and plenty of things about each other, though it may not seem so.  The minute you step into the subway train, everybody will have evaluated you in a hundred instant ways, starting with your potential for being dangerous and ending (perhaps) with your choice of shoes.  I thought I was invisible here in the early days, which Lino thought was hilarious.  I’d only been here a week when he said, “Everybody already knows everything about you.”  I let that slide, till one day I ran into one of the few people I knew, who lived far away on the Giudecca.  “I saw you rowing in the caorlina last Saturday afternoon,” he told me.  It seemed like a friendly remark, except that having been seen by somebody I hadn’t seen at all gave me a tiny shudder.  And made me realize that nobody is invisible here, and never has been.

* Pride: New Yorkers refer to themselves as living in “The City”; no need for further identification.  With many more centuries of experience at this, Venetians by now don’t even do that.  It’s so obvious that being Venetian is the best that there is no need to mention it.

I realized this the day I struck up a conversation in Rimini with a couple who said they were from Venice.  I asked the normal follow-up question: “Oh? Where do you live?” (As in: Cannaregio, Campo  Ruga, near the Accademia, etc.)  A split second of hesitation, and the wife answered, “We live in Castelfranco Veneto.” Castelfranco Veneto is a small town (pop. 33,707) 40 miles/64 km from Venice.

Here’s the thing: I knew they didn’t live in Venice by the faintly self-satisfied way in which they had said it.  People in Venice don’t say it that way, just as New Yorkers don’t brag about living in New York.  If you live there, you already know you’re in the best place in the world; there’s no need to rivet exclamation points all around it.

* They’re not for everybody. This is the strongest link of all between the two cities.  Living in either city is a vocation, a calling, a challenge, a Zen conundrum. Living here, as in New York, requires a complex combination of skills (physical, emotional, intellectual) and predilections (history, humor, remembering the names of people’s children) that frankly don’t suit everybody.

Guys like Queequeg here are one of the main forces that keep Venice going. I’m sure he has a brother or a cousin in New York, with or without tattoos and tank top.  Attitude is the tie that binds.

“It’s great to visit, but I could never live here,” almost everybody says about New York. I’ve almost never heard it said of Venice, though it’s not unusual to hear someone say “It must be so wonderful to live here.”  Tourists have been so brainwashed by publicity and postcards that they don’t believe it’s real and don’t even want it to be. And they’re here for so short a time, they don’t usually have the chance to be disillusioned, unless something bad happens.

That, probably, is one of the main mileposts at which Venice and New York diverge.  Things go wrong in New York (barring homicide, etc.) and visitors regard it as either inevitable or picturesque, the stuff of stories forever.  If something goes wrong here, people get mad, as if they’d been baited-and-switched.

No bait here.

These friends could easily be standing on a corner in New York, except that here they’re probably not talking about the point spread, but what to have for lunch.

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Intimate in Venice

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I hope nobody has told him people are expecting to spend an intimate evening with him. He'd be in for a shock.

There’s not much I can say about the poster on the trash can near the “Giardini” vaporetto stop.

Of course that’s not true.  I could say all sorts of things, but there are two main observations that it inspires, which is why I’m mentioning it.

First: Once again, as at the festa the other night, it’s written in English.  I guess they don’t believe any non-English-speaking Italians/Venetians/miscellaneous foreigners are going to be interested. Or they don’t want non-English-speaking I/V/mfs coming to this event, even if they did happen to be interested.

Or maybe it’s in English because there’s not enough space on the poster for “nan yon aswe entim ak ekselans nan” or “ng isang kilalang-kilala na gabi na may ang quintessential” or even একটি বিশুদ্ধ সঙ্গে অন্তরঙ্গ সন্ধ্যায়.”

Second: It’s not that it promotes a mere concert.

It’s going to be “an intimate evening” with James Taylor in the Piazza San Marco, a event which, on the intimacy scale, certainly beats the stuffing out of Bobby Short at the Carlyle, Sally Bowles at the Kit Kat Klub, or Noel Coward anywhere.

The Piazza San Marco cannot in any way be made to look, sound, or feel intimate, any more than can Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania, which it resembles more than you might think.  Go Nittany Lions.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the next time you want to savor an intimate evening with your personal heartthrob, you should plan a candlelight dinner in the Piazza San Marco.  If the racetrack at Belmont isn’t available, I mean.

Sweet Baby James is going to have to work some kind of magic to keep this intimate. Or even quintessential.



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