Archive for November, 2011
While the rest of you were lolling amid the wreckage of flightless birds and tangled NFL teams last Thursday, we went for the mollusks. I suppose we could have gone fishing, but considering that the tide was going to be unusually low at a convenient time of day, plus the fact that a few calm, cool, golden days of St. Martin’s Summer had briefly wandered back to the lagoon, probably by mistake, it seemed to fly in the face of Providence not to take a boat and go clamming.
I refer to “we,” in the sense that an anesthetist might refer to “our” brain operation. Lino does the hunting and gathering of the submerged morsels, and I help him by rowing there and back and keeping quiet. I have dug clams in my life, so I know it’s possible. I also know that I do not have the (A) knack (B) patience (C) desire (D) interest in this endeavor. Perhaps if I were to actually find a clam occasionally, all of the above would increase, even if only a little.
He jams his finger into the sediment where there are NO SIGNS of bivalve habitation, and comes up with one after another. I jam my finger into the sediment where there are NUMEROUS signs, and come up with nothing or — worse — a little castanet full of mud where the clam used to be. This is the clam’s way of wreaking revenge, even though he wasn’t eaten by us but by some passing marine creature such as a sea snail. But if you can be fooled by the shut clamshell, you will happily claim it and throw it into the skillet with the others, where it will duly open up and distribute sandy mud all over its companions. Not a lot of sand. Just enough. So not wishing to risk being the agent of this unpleasant eventuality, I tend to sit in the boat and watch and breathe and listen. And take pictures, or read. Sometimes I even think, if there’s any time left over.
Rowing out in the lagoon when the weather is chilly (or cold, or very cold), but calm and sunny, is almost the best thing ever. The traffic has been slashed to the bone, the light is delicate yet rich, with shifting nuances that overlap in alluring combinations that set themselves on fire in celestial sunsets.
Watching the tide drop is also a beautiful and mysterious thing. Of course you can’t see it drop any more than you can see a leaf changing color, but you can notice it in phases and it’s a pleasant reminder of things that are bigger and even more important than you — I mean me.
Reverence for truth compels me to add, though, that the soundtrack isn’t nearly as seductive as the scene itself. I said there was less traffic — I didn’t say there was no traffic, because since the advent of the motor (or at least since the advent of me), I can tell you that there is no day or night, no season or location, in which you will find silence in the lagoon. There is always — I need to repeat that — always the sound of a motor coming from somewhere.
Trying to imagine the lagoon without the sound of motors — and believe me, I do try to imagine it, on a regular basis — is like trying to imagine the Garden of Eden, or being Angelina Jolie, or even inventing some stupid little app that makes you five million dollars in six months. That is, your brain can’t do it. Because no matter how divine may be the velvety midnight sky, how nacreous the dawn, how resplendent the vault of heaven seared by the flaming rays of sunset, there will always be motor noise. Small, but steady and grinding, like a dentist’s drill, or deep and ponderous, or silly and busy and self-important. It’s the aural equivalent of the vandalage inflicted by The Society for Putting Broken Bedsteads into Ponds identified by Flanders and Swann. Only not so funny.
Back to clams. Lino was happy, I was happy, the clams — well, I try not to think about their mood. They were put in the lagoon to be consumed, not to write bi-lingual dictionaries or form a sacred harp choir. Apologies to any Catholic vegetarian readers, but I have to say that clams make a beautiful death. And broth.
Today, as every year, I indulge in a little orgy of nostalgia for the Thanksgiving traditions, customs, and eccentricities of my native heath. I miss all of it, even the tyranny of the turkey — I know they say we can eat anything we want, probably even tofu or tilapia, but rejecting turkey seems to me to be asking for trouble.
We usually saute a turkey breast and get on with the day. I long ago learned that you cannot duplicate foreign customs with any degree of satisfaction — in fact, trying only makes it worse — so I don’t try. But turkey breast is my propitiatory offering to whatever needs to be propitiated. It’s better than decapitating a live rooster buried in the wheatfield. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Just because Italy doesn’t have Pilgrim Fathers and Ben Franklin and the Gettysburg Address and so on doesn’t mean that the countryfolk here have no harvest traditions. Au contraire — the country is suffocating with them, as a brief little research has revealed. Venice doesn’t share any of these practices, having devoted all of its forces of gratitude to the Madonna della Salute. But I’m in the harvest mood, so I decided to range afield.
The primary divergence from American customs seem to be that grain, not the bird, has traditionally been the hero of the end-of-cultivation-season celebration, and the majority of these festivals take place toward the end of the summer. Schedule your harvest festival to coincide with the harvest itself? What an idea.
The symbolism, as explained by the author of the website “Luce di strega,” works this way:
The Spirit of the grain is rooted in the pagan traditions of the cycle of fertility, birth and rebirth; the myths of Demetra and Persephone, Ceres and Proserpina, vividly illustrate this reality. Vegetation dies at the end of the summer, returning to the earth from which it will be reborn the next spring. That is, if you perform the correct actions pleasing to the Spirit of the grain.
This Spirit was transposed to a sacrificial animal, to improve the chances of pleasing it; this animal was traditionally a bird (rooster, turkey, quail) which lives and hides in the fields, especially in the shocks of harvested grain. The last phase of the harvest would become a sort of race among the farmers to be the first to finish, nabbing a luckless bird, thereby obtaining an appropriate creature to kill as an offering to the Spirit of the grain. Note: The sacrifice has to be an animal because it contains blood, the crucial element in the magic of fertility rituals.
“In some parts of Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Picardy,” writes James George Frazer in “The Golden Bough,” “the harvesters put a live rooster in the grain which is to be harvested last, and they hunt and catch him and bury him up to his neck and decapitate him with the scythe or sickle.”
If this practice should seem extreme, consider that killing a fowl was seen to be better than killing the person who had scythed the last stalks of wheat, which was the original idea.
Have I just completely ruined your enjoyment of your turkey? Perhaps you could regard its position on your table as something a little less drastic — maybe as a sort of propitiation of the Spirit of Black Friday. In any case, there is a definite link, in mythological terms, between the annual ingathering and a cooked (anyway, killed) bird.
Wandering around the web and YouTube reveals an impressive number of harvest festivals in the countryside and mountains of Italy, out where some connection with agriculture can still be found, though the festivals by now, however deeply felt they may be, seem to have shifted their focus to propitiating the Spirit of Tourism. Which, by the way, never dies, so it never has to be reborn. No blood, just offer money.
Here is a snippet of the famous harvest festival in Foglianise, a small town in the region of Campania about 50 km (30 miles) northeast of Naples. It is held on August 16, which not only coincides with the end of the harvest (at least in the olden days), but is the feast day of San Rocco, patron saint of plague victims. Seeing that he responded to the villagers’ pleas for deliverance from a disastrous pestilence in the 1600’s — yes, it was everywhere — the people of Foglianise have made a special point of honoring him on his day.
The traditional procession involves the predictable dancing, costumes, and music, but the most fantastic element is the series of all sorts of buildings and monuments made of twisted straw, drawn along on carts. The Corn Palace is essentially the same thing, except that it was built to attract settlers, not to invoke fertility. I think. And, of course, it doesn’t move. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1203SadCYs
I’m not going to go into the symbolism of the cornucopia, but it’s pretty complicated too. It doesn’t involve death, however.
Happy Thanksgiving, whatever you decide to do. Or eat.
Yesterday one of the most important days in the Venetian (hence in my) calendar came around again: the annual feast of La Madonna della Salute, Our Lady of Health.
Health is one of those things, like air or the ability to speak your mother tongue, that you don’t give much thought to till it’s been impaired. Or removed.
In a city that has the highest median age of any city in Italy, health is a subject that’s right up there on the short list of things to really worry about, several places ahead of acqua alta and even a close second to tourism. Considering that the city government is currently debating (or not — I can’t keep track) whether to close the hospital here and send everybody who needs help to the big hospital on the mainland (pause for screams of rage and disbelief), health is clearly a big issue.
But let us return to the health at hand. This feast was established in 1630 in thanksgiving for the Madonna’s response to the desperate plea of the city of Venice for deliverance from arguably the worst plague in its history, though the pestilence of 1574 was also noticeably catastrophic.
If anyone (such as me) has ever tried to imagine what an epidemic of plague might entail, a few passages from “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni might help. They certainly provide a way to grasp the magnitude of this festa (not to mention the votive church, which took 50 years to build).
The plague of 1630 exterminated much of northern Italy, and drawing on contemporary documents, Manzoni describes the plague in Milan. I presume that it was much the same in Venice, where 80,000 Venetians died, including the doge, though here the carts obviously were replaced by boats.
…sickness and deaths began rapidly to multiply…with the unusual accompaniments of spasms, palpitation, lethargy, delirium, and those fatal symptoms, livid spots and sores; and these deaths were, for the most part, rapid, violent, and not unfrequently sudden, without any previous tokens of illness….
All the doorways into the streets were kept shut from either suspicion or alarm, except those which were left open because deserted or invaded; others nailed up and sealed outside, on account of the sick or dead who lay within; others marked with a cross drawn with coal, as an intimation to the monatti [men who removed the bodies] that there were dead to be carried away….
Everywhere were rags and corrupted bandages, infected straw, or clothes, or sheets, thrown from the windows; sometimes bodies, which had suddenly fallen dead in the streets, and were left there till a cart happened to pass by and pick them up, or shaken from off the carts themselves, or even thrown from the windows….
And while corpses, scattered here and there, or lying in heaps…made the city like one immense sepulchre, a still more appalling symptom, a more intense deformity, was their mutual animosity, their licentiousness, and their extravagant suspicion…not only did they mistrust a friend, a guest; but those names which are the bonds of human affection, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, were words of terror, and dreadful and infamous to tell! the domestic board, the nuptial bed, were dreaded as lurking-places, as receptacles of poison…
Men of the highest rank might be seen without cape or cloak, at that time a most essential part of any gentleman’s dress; priests without cassocks, friars without cowls; in short, all kinds of dress were dispensed with which could contract anything by fluttering about…And besides this carefulness to go about as trussed up and confined as possible, their persons were neglected and disorderly; the beards of such as were accustomed to wear them grown much longer, and suffered to grow by those who had formerly kept them shaven; their hair, too, long and undressed, not only from the neglect which usually attends long depression but because suspicion had been attached to barbers…
The greater number carried in one hand a stick, some even a pistol, as a threatening warning to anyone who should attempt to approach them stealthily; and in the other, perfumed pastils, or little balls of metal or wood, perforated and filled with sponges steeped in aromatic vinegar, which they applied from time to time, as they went along, to their noses, or held there continually.
Some carried a small vial hung around their neck, containing a little quick-silver, persuaded that this possessed the virtue of absorbing and arresting every pestilential effluvia; this they were very careful to renew from time to time…
Even friends, when they met in the streets alive, saluted each other at a distance, with silent and hasty signs. Every one, as he walked along, had enough to do to avoid the filthy and deadly stumbling-blocks with which the ground was strewn, and in some places even encumbered. Every one tried to keep the middle of the road, for fear of some other obstacle, some other more fatal weight, which might fall from the windows…
…the sick… were wandering about as if stupefied; and not a few were absolutely beside themselves: one would eagerly be relating his fancies to a miserable creature laboring under the malady; another would be actually raving; while a third appeared with a smiling countenance, as if assisting at some gay spectacle.
…two horses, which, stretching their necks and pawing with their hooves, could with difficulty make their way; and drawn by these a cart full of dead bodies, and after that another, and another, and another; and on each hand monatti walking by the side of the horses hastening them on with whips, blows, and curses. These corpses were for the most part naked, while some were miserably enveloped in tattered sheets, and were heaped up and twined together, almost like a nest of snakes unfolding themselves….at every trifling obstacle, at every jolt, these fatal groups were seen quivering and falling into horrible confusion, heads dangling down, women’s long tresses disheveled…
Not wishing to spoil the party, I think it’s not a bad idea to acknowledge at least briefly that the day was fixed to express gratitude (or desire) for heavenly intervention in matters of life and death, and not primarily so we could buy balloons of Nemo and Spiderman and eat cotton candy and slabs of deep-fried dough slathered with chocolate.
The weather was perfect, by which I mean cold, raw, damp, foggy, and breezy. I’ve been to the basilica of the Salute to offer my candle on days when it was sunny and the temperature in the sixties, and I can tell you that it just feels wrong. This isn’t a happy holiday, it’s a solemn, penitential, I-really-mean-this kind of day, even though there are plenty of balloons and highly sugared and fat-laden treats being sold from stalls behind the church. It’s probably years before Venetian kids grasp the fact that the day isn’t dedicated to Our Lady of Fat and Sugar. Amazing, now that I think of it, that she should be honored as the guardian of health with this payload of calories. They ought to depict her — no disrespect intended — holding an insulin syringe.
Back to the weather: The worse it is, the happier are the Ladies who Mink. I’ve remarked before that this city is an unrepentant recidivist on the animal-skin subject. (I don’t count shearling in this category.) One winter evening I counted 11 mink coats on the vaporetto going home. Someone I know told me about a little old lady on the Lido who was packing her steamer trunks for a holiday in the Dolomites with four peltish coats. This was the minimum a woman could rationally consider bringing; no telling what your friends would think if they should see you in the same old fur, day after day.
Therefore Lino refers to this legendary day as the feast of Our Lady of the Fur Coat. And laughs on the rare days when it turns out to be, as I mentioned, sunny and warm, because wearing their fur coat to the basilica is more important to these ladies than offering a candle for their husband, or maybe even for themselves. We enjoy imagining them hanging tough in the heat, wrapped in mink, wearing terrycloth headbands, like sweating tennis players.
Yesterday, though, I only saw one fur-like garment, and I am dead certain it was fake. This does not bode well, but I’m not sure for what.
This minuscule bulletin is for anyone who might think that the most troublesome water in Venice is in the canals.
Actually, it’s in the air.
After about ten days of rain and mist, in varying proportions, with random interludes of damp, persistent wind, my sinuses feel like the average compressed-air can. Just think — if I could breathe, I could blast the dust out of my computer all by myself.
Who — I hear you ask — cares?
I mention it because it leads us to an infinitesimal aspect of life in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world. Laundry. The fate of wet laundry in what amounts to a World Heritage Site aquarium.
Two nights ago, I slipped between clean sheets which I had wishfully thought were dry, but discovered had retained the subtlest possible essence of humidity, just enough to make me feel like a very old loggerhead sea turtle lying on the wet sand waiting to lay my eggs. I snapped. It was time to launch the death rays.
So I washed several hundred pounds of garments and towels and other heavy stuff, jammed it into the rolling suitcase, and hauled it to the laundromat on the Lido, where four big dryers were waiting for me.
Actually, only three were waiting, because someone had gotten there before me. I sorted my raiment into them, dropped in the coins and hit the highest temperature possible. I think it was close to “incinerate.” At one euro ($1.37) for ten minutes, it wasn’t exactly a deal, but this was no time to haggle.
In the hour I was there, three other people came in, lugging various huge containers of damp laundry.
Apparently everybody had had the same idea.
After three sessions, I took out the heaviest item, a waffle-weave cotton blanket. It was hot and totally dry, exquisitely dry, irresistibly dry. I could barely resist the temptation to put it back for another ten minutes just to imagine myself becoming one with the transcendent dryness of it. If you had offered me a box of Teuscher truffles — or even white truffles from Alba — at that moment, or maybe six 0.03-carat rubies, I couldn’t have concentrated long enough to decide.
It was like an oasis in the desert, only backwards.
When I left, it had started to rain again.