Archive for August, 2011


Afa will make you do anything

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The last two weeks of August here contain some of the most predictable events ever found on earth, right up there on the list next to sunrise and the last Saturday at WalMart before school starts.

Our predictable events in this period are the preparations for the Venice Film Festival (this year August 31 to September 10), which involve what always look like amazingly late and chaotic preparations of the main theatre known as the Palacinema and its environs, plus truckloads of complaints and accusations of waste and inefficiency from everybody except the organizers.  There are also preparations for the Regata Storica, whose five days of eliminations conclude tomorrow, which proceed in a more organized way.  This may be because they are, in fact, better organized, or only because they entail fewer people and matter less to the world at large, by which I mean there’s less money involved.

But these are events which you can ignore if you’re not particularly interested. What nobody can ignore is the afa.

If you can make out any land at all on the horizon, that would be the rest of the world. Or maybe it's a mirage.

The afa currently sucking the life out of the lagoon and its denizens also qualifies as an annual event  and you don’t even have to go to it.  It comes to you.  “The afa came down like a wolf on the fold,” as Lord Byron didn’t say, and its cohorts, if it had any, are definitely not gleaming in purple and gold. They’re not gleaming at all, theyre practically naked and most of them are neck deep in the exhausted tepid water of the Adriatic.

In fact, a morning view of either the sea or the lagoon gives the impression that these bodies of water are not made of water at all, but of glycerine, heavy and smooth, a colorless liquid that barely has the strength to form even the tiniest wave.

I know how it feels.  When the alarm sounds in the shapeless sodden dawn, the term “primordial ooze” comes to mind, by which I don’t mean the world, I mean me. It isn’t a good feeling to be either primordial or oozy and to be both is depressing even if I  know that evolution will eventually bring me the opposable thumb and the sextant and the sonnets of Shakespeare.

Looking toward Venice, the most beautiful city in the world, if you can make it out.

A Saharan front is pressing down on the Veneto region and also much of the rest of the old Belpaese, and it’s the longest and hottest heatwave around here for the last 20 years.  Good for beach tourism, I suppose, though not good for other activities like farming.

One Bosnian truckdriver was completely unimpressed by all this.  He stopped in a supermarket parking lot at Crocetta del Montello near Treviso yesterday, and all that sunshine immediately made him think of catching some of those rays.

This may not have been precisely the form of the truck in question, but it still doesn't say "beach" to me.

So he climbed up onto the roof of his cab, I suppose on some kind of towel to avoid completely crisping, with a supply of drinks at hand.  Voila!  His own little beach!

Then he took off all his clothes and stretched out.  Evidently Bosnian truckers hate those bathing-suit lines as much as anybody.

A cashier in the supermarket saw the naked man tanning himself  up there and called the Carabinieri.  End of tan.

I don’t know if Venice has ever experienced a monsoon, but I can tell you we’re all waiting for one.

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What he did on his summer vacation

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The reason for the unusually long time since my last post is the inverse correlation between the current heatwave (still increasing) and my capacity to think and/or act upon my thoughts (still decreasing).

Of course it’s summer so of course it’s hot.  What does everyone expect?  The Siberian front that usually moves through here in January? Everybody complains about that too.

And I recognize that longer and more intense heatwaves have been tormenting people in many other parts of the world.  But I don’t use my brain there and I haven’t been using what’s left of it here lately either.

For about a week now the daytime temperature has gone near, and now will be going past, 96 degrees F/36 C.  With searing sun which not even the most foolhardy cloud has dared to veil.  The “perceived heat” will be over 100.  It’s like living in Pascagoula with palazzos.

But heat doesn’t seem to prevent people from doing all sorts of unusual things, so I thought I’d share one of the more eccentric or anyway less horrifying recent summer events (by “less horrifying” I mean episodes not involving drug overdoses, marital homicide/suicides, fatal hit-and-run accidents, and so forth). Many of those have a highly ironic nature which might lead you to consider them humorous, but I’m going to avoid them.

The best of the batch is being accomplished by a certain Ivano De Marchi, 65 years old, who lives in Marcon (just 14 miles/22 km from Venice).  He has been driving around the Veneto in his convertible BMW with a coffin jammed into the passenger seat.

Here is a video of a sighting on the A4 highway near the Vicenza Ovest exit.

For those who don’t see the video, here’s the link:

I’ll simplify his explanation: It’s a pilgrimage.  Not any ordinary one, but a “protest pilgrimage” to punish the mayor.

Back in 1988, De Marchi paid a lot of his own money and time and energy to create a motocross track, presumably near his hometown and presumably something he intended for his own enjoyment.  I don’t know how much money or time you need to construct a motocross track but I know it’s not something you just throw away, like the 20 million dollars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spent for that chateau in France.

Anyway, he spent the money, then the mayor razed the track and cut it up into parcels, presumably for houses (there was no mention of a miniature golf course or firing range).

So now, 23 years later, revenge.  According to De Marchi, the Virgin Mary came to him in a dream and told him to undertake 1000 pilgrimages with a coffin to 1000 churches, after which time presumably the ex-mayor will be ready for his box.  That’s the assumption De Marchi is going on.

Of course the police have stopped him (no word on whether the bishop has sent out his own squad).  They gave him the breath-test and the drug test and he was just fine.  “Then they made me open the coffin, which obviously was empty” — actually, not so obvious to even a moderately alert policeman.  “After that they told me to be careful, and they let me go,” he concludes.

“Of course I”m careful: The coffin has got its seatbelt fastened.”

If we are given any updates on the fulfillment of his vow, especially the expected outcome, I’ll certainly let you know.  As it is, while the rest of us are being steamed like asparagus out here, he is out there breezing along with his coffin and his retaliation to keep him company.  I have no idea if he has a time frame for this quest — even if he were able to visit ten churches a day, he’d be at this for at least three months.  It’s not going to be quite so much fun when the winter rains move in.

But for now, he’s happy.  At the least, he’s not stuck in miles of traffic coming home from vacation, like all those really dumb people.



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As I’ve often remarked, one of the things I love about being here is the faithful return of certain events — moments — throughout the year.  Of course there are events everywhere upon which one may confidently depend — tax deadline day comes to mind — but I’m talking about here.

One occurrence which is so predictable that I don’t even have read the paper, much less even wake up, to recognize it is the double-edged event known as THE EXODUS.

Trieste is only 7 km/4 miles from the Croatian border. From then on, time and distance take on new meanings.

No, it has no Biblical overtones, unless one is thinking of the famous Plagues. In fact, now that I think about it, this could possibly be a worthy candidate to join the frogs and the flies that afflicted Pharaoh.  But since we’re living in a democracy, this little plague afflicts everybody going on vacation. And everybody goes in August.

So the first weekend of August inevitably sees an outbound migration  of massive proportions clogging the highways — The Exodus.  On the last weekend of August, there is the equally appalling Return Exodus.

This is what Croatia looks like from the Italian side of the border. You can be sitting and looking at this for quite a while. But of course, you're not seeing this, you're seeing what it represents: Fabulous beaches, great food, maybe even no people.

We could call it the Plague of Traffic.  Or, if you’re sitting on the highway in a monster backup, the Plague of Everybody Else on Earth.  And the only thing that changes from one year to the next is the length — from unbearable to inconceivable — of the backups at the Italian borders and Alpine tunnels.  Last Saturday the backup at the border dividing Slovenia from Croatia reached about 40 km/25 miles.  Ah yes, Croatia: Gorgeous! Near! Irresistible! Cheap! Also: Small! Mountainous! Not Many Roads!

This Exodus traffic is funny to people who aren’t there, like me, and to people who are funny wherever they are, like Lino Toffolo.

Lino Toffolo is an actor/standup comic  from Murano who writes a column every Sunday in the Gazzettino.  He’s usually right on top of the main subject of the day, which last Sunday was The Exodus.

Here is what he wrote (translated by me):

Instead of facing the usual five kilometers of tailback [in Italian, merely “tail”] to go to Jesolo, why don’t we go to Croatia or Dalmatia or along down there, where there are bound to be fewer people?

Perfect idea!  Let’s go!  40 kilometers of continuous tailback!  Basically, when the last person gets there he just turns around because his vacation is over.

Every year, right on schedule, other than the drama of the “checking the stomach on the beach I swear I’m never eating again” is the  one — unsolvable — of “where to go” and above all, “when to leave.”

The imagination is unchained!  At night, at dawn, at mealtimes like telephone calls [local people scribbling ads often say “call at mealtimes”].  Every so often somebody has the idea of the “intelligent departure,” which they reveal only to their friends who — as with all true secrets — they pass along to one friend at a time, even on Facebook.

The result: Everybody is stuck in the backup, everybody is complaining.

Grandpa Tony thinks that the laborers working on the highway are tourists who just got bored sitting still and figure this way they can at least be doing something…. Sometimes you can watch plants growing.  

“But — it is obligatory for us to do this?”  “No!  That’s exactly why we’re doing it!  If it were obligatory, we’d all stay home!”  

And the Croatians?  Where do they go?  Italy? Gorgeous!  Near! Irresistible! Expensive!

This is a glimpse of the Croatian coast. Worth the voyage, as the Michelin Guide might put it.


This is the Italian coast in Puglia.




Italy. The only difference I can see that might make it worthwhile to sit in a car for hours to get to one instead of the other would be that Croatia is currently a hot destination, while Puglia has always just been there.







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Summer has so many regrettable aspects — heat, mosquitoes, tourists — but there is one aspect I always look forward to and that’s the special sort of dementia that overcomes people during this brief but intense — and hot — time of year.

I don’t know if the heat is to blame.  Maybe these things also happen when the ice and chilblains move in and they just don’t get reported.

But here is what happened two days ago in Rome.  I’m sorry it didn’t happen in Venice, though of course it could have.  But I can’t let that detail stop me from telling about it.

An unnamed 37-year-old man was out on via Giorgio Morandi in the outlying area of the Eternal City called Prenestino.  A quick check reveals that — according to someone — this used to be known as a Bad Neighborhood but by now that reputation is no longer deserved.  Singer Claudio Baglione grew up here, if that helps you get a fix on its zeitgeist.  Anyway,I’m  just trying to provide a little context.

Back to the story.

Lana Marks makes only one "Cleopatra" bag a year. I'm just guessing that this is not the bag -- or the woman, speaking of Helen Mirren -- involved in this bizarre episode.

This unnamed man, walking along the via Giorgio Morandi, saw a woman, also walking along.  She had a handbag.  He wanted it.  So he grabbed it.

This was not an entirely spontaneous act on his part (though heat and perhaps mosquitoes might have degraded his decision-making capacity) because as soon as he had the handbag he ran away.  Not just anywhere, but to his getaway car where he had installed two accomplices. (Why two?  Did he need a spare in case one broke down?)

Did I mention breakdowns?  He leaped in the car, they gave it the gas (or benzina or gasolio or whatever they fed it) and prepared to zoom away.

But there was no zoomage.  After a couple of yards, the car just sort of putt-putted to a stop.  (Pause for the sound of shrieks and head-punching:  “You were supposed to put gas in the car!”  “I thought YOU were supposed to!”  “I told YOU to do it!” etc. etc.).  Anyway, the car is now stopped very, very close to the scene of the crime, and it’s not moving anymore.

So the handbag-snatcher realizes it’s he who’s going to have to move.  Rapidly. And immediately. He leaps out of the car and begins to run.

However, these precious seconds, spent in going essentially nowhere, have given the passersby a chance to focus on him.  So he’s running, but now other people are also running: After him.

This is bad.  They’re gaining on him.  Must take cover.

So he runs into a pharmacy.

"La Reunion" pharmacy in Havana looks like it could have hidden our man, for at least a while. But I'm assuming that the pharmacy in Rome, including its proprietors, weren't anything like this.

This could work, I suppose — he could stand there pretending to buy aspirin, or a truss, or some nicotine-replacement product.  But standing in a small enclosed space that has only one door is not the best idea.

And here’s another bad idea: He was still holding onto the handbag.

Now let us turn to a recent study conducted at the University of Cambridge on the human brain.  The researchers, led by neurobiologist Simon Laughlin, have concluded that the human brain has reached the limits of its intelligence — actually, the limits of its energy-capacity relative to its also limited space, kind of like our little hovel — and therefore can’t evolve any further.

It gets better: There’s no reason why it shouldn’t start losing intelligence, retreating under the inexorable pressure of everything involved in life on earth from playing “I Wanna Be The Guy” to getting your toddler to stop asking “Why.”

I wouldn’t have placed our 27-year-old failed Roman bag-snatcher in the “Our brains are too evolved to develop any further” category. But he’d make a superb candidate as an example for the “Our brains are evolving backwards toward the primordial alphabet soup” hypothesis.

They could do a study on him!  First question: Is there anything in this room that reminds you of a lady’s handbag?

Somebody's brain. If it were of our aspiring thief, the left hotspot would be signifying "Grab that woman's bag!" The one in the middle is signaling "Flee! Abscond! Serpentine!" And the big one on the right is flashing "Bag? What bag? I don't see any bag. Oh this? It's my lunch. I always carry my liverwurst sandwich in a diamond-rimmed bag."





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