Archive for December, 2011


Christmas spirit

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This splendid relief carving surmounts the main entrance to the church of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph) in Castello. There are two especially good things here: First, Saint Joseph is, as always, in the background -- even on a church dedicated to him. He must have been a remarkable person. Second, the three shepherds are as accurate as artist Giulio dal Moro (early 1500's) could make them. The first one, kneeling, not only has a small barrel attached to his belt (brandy?), but his upraised right hand is holding sheep-shears.

Venice at Christmas — it sounds as if the entire city ought to be refulgent with gleaming and sparkling, as if every fragment of its shattered splendor should come together and shine in an unearthly and glorious way.

Yes, it does seem that it ought to be that way.

Instead, scattered efforts at decoration all around the city make bright flickers, some bigger, some smaller, that don’t come together in any coherent way. Venice is littered with Nativity scenes, in paintings, in sculpture, not to mention other aspects of the Christmas story — the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, and even the Massacre of the Innocents –yet the general attitude toward Christmas is not excessively devout.  It remains essentially a domestic holiday and I suppose that ought to translate, if depicted accurately today, into scenes of Mary in the kitchen wrestling with something heavy in the oven while Baby Jesus is busy trying to teach the cat how to swim, or of them looking desperately, not for a room at the inn, but for a place to park at the mall. Meaning no disrespect.

Punctually on December 1, the Christmas mailbox gets installed outside the tobacco/lottery/toy shop.

Little old people, as everywhere, are being wrangled into some extended-family configuration; and the children are, I think, essentially like children everywhere — eyes and spirits fixed, not on the Star, but on the imminent deluge of presents. And not brought by kings or wise men, but laid on by squadrons of adoring relatives, even in times like these.

Perhaps there are gala balls being held in palaces, but my sense is that anybody with a palace is probably already at Cortina.

Still, the framework remains the same, at least in our little hovel: Christmas Eve means risotto of go’ and roasted eel, the ripping open of the presents, midnight mass, the singing of “You Descend from Heaven,”  and slicing the panettone at midnight and popping the prosecco.

Christmas Day means the big mass at San Marco, some fabulous meaty lunch, then either sleeping on the sofa or visiting relatives, then more eating, and more sleeping.

The day after Christmas — the feast of Santo Stefano — is another holiday.  More gorging on food, this time with all of Lino’s family.

One quaint aspect of this holiday is that there are no newspapers for two days because the journalists and editors and printers don’t work  on Christmas Eve and Christmas. This is an antiquated practice that is even more exotic than bearing in the boar’s-head and drinking wassail.  Newspapers in the rest of the world come out as usual, but here, for some reason (and I do not believe it’s because the entire category wants to spend two whole days in church) the newspaper-producers just don’t work on Christmas.

To which I say: Who notices or cares?  The broadcast journalists are working as usual, and the news continues to flow to us in an unbroken stream via the television and the Internet.  But somehow print journalists feel themselves to be special, which, I presume, is fostered and sustained by the unions.  And then they complain that readership is falling.

But this is normal.

This homemade Nativity scene was created by the family on Sant' Erasmo where we go to buy our vegetables. Who says there were no apples and squash in the stable?

What is going to be abnormal this year for the holidays is: Minimal garbage collection.  Of any sort, whether recyclable (there’s a weekly schedule for the different types of material) or otherwise (clam shells, coffee grounds, orange peels, fishbones, half-eaten cupcakes, wine bottles, etc.).  And this will last for two days: Christmas Day, and Santo Stefano.

Two days with no garbage collection — this is a startling innovation in the festal folkways, especially in a city which purports to be world-class, or somewhere near it, and during a period which could be described as garbage-intensive.

The Gazzettino conveys the explanation given by the garbage company, which is nothing more than an arm of the city government with a different name: The garbage collectors are all going to be too busy keeping the streets clean to have time also to collect the bags which are daily left outside the doors of houses and shops.

The very best part is that, given this fact, the garbage company respectfully requests the good citizens to refrain from putting their bags of refuse outside for two days.  So the streets can be neat and tidy. And the interiors of the houses and stores can become kitchen middens.

This is only moderately annoying to us, but for families with children, it’s inconceivable.  I can tell you right now, sitting here with my eyes closed, that the streets are going to be FULL of bags of garbage.  Or maybe there will be a mass reversion to the Old Way, which involves a big splash.

To review: We are requested to not clutter the streets because the trash-teams are going to be busy keeping the streets clean.  But if we’re not putting out trash, why do the streets need to be cleaned? It’s like the definition of chutzpah: First you kill your parents, then you plead for clemency from the court because you’re an orphan.

I tell you, sometimes life in the most beautiful in the world makes my head hurt.

But let us return to the reason for the season, as they say.  Here is a small assortment of glimpses of Venice preparing for Christmas.  But of course, the most beautiful scenes of all are arranged and decorated and illuminated where you’ll never see them: In each person’s heart.  Compared to which glass angels and marzipan cake and all the strings of lights ever plugged in are as nothing.

Out on the eastern edge of Venice, the furthest bit of inhabited land, someone has chosen to put up a lighted little sleigh with one reindeer.

I'm still mystified by whatever is hanging on the fence below the sleigh, but it does seem merry and bright. Could it be an illuminated poinsettia?













The boathouse of the Generali insurance company's rowing club always has a Nativity scene of some sort. This year they made it float on the canal -- beautiful and evocative, though the waves from the endlessly passing motorboats during the day make it toss like a ship in a storm.

An enterprising bakery and pastry shop hollowed out a chocolate panettone and put in little figurines of Mary, Joseph and Jesus made of marzipan.

They also added a small light to represent the star. But if marzipan can be made to resemble real fruit and fish and so on, why did they make the Holy Family look as if it were carved out of soap? Lino says they already did plenty to make it look like this, and I should just zip it.


One of the innumerable variations on the Christmas cake. However they decorate it, the sentiment is always happily the same.

The Nativity scene in a hut in via Garibaldi has all the necessary components, down to the empty manger. In a startling flash of logic, the Baby Jesus isn't installed until Christmas Day.


The glow of Christmas on via Garibaldi, silently and majestically and completely upstaged by the moon. And to all a good night.




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Venice, starring me

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The makeup artist's bag contained the day's call sheet, which listed everything in the world.

Every person who has come here in the last hundred years — and there have been a lot — has almost certainly said that the city looks like a stage set. This realization comes immediately after noticing there are canals instead of streets.

And if they haven’t said it, they’ve thought it.

Attention: You are now entering the film sector, in which you can't or must do everything as per the list: Entrance forbidden to unauthorized people; Danger: 380 volts; Danger; Forbidden to smoke or use open flame; Danger of falling; Material falling from above (as opposed to from below); High-tension electric cables; Machinery in movement. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Venice makes the most of its stage-setness by offering itself as the location for at least a few segments of plenty of movies.  Since I’ve been here I’ve come across bits underway of “The Italian Job,” “Casino Royale,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Casanova,” “The Tourist,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and a French feature named “Les Enfants du Siecle.”  There may have been more.  This is yet another way in which Venice resembles New York, including the fact that Venetians acknowledge all the fuss only in relation to how much inconvenience it causes them personally.

Evidently there are enough incentives to induce film companies to work here to offset the logistic challenges imposed by canals, tiny streets, lots of bridges, and skillions of people. I myself would hate to have to organize a film shoot — it’s hard enough organizing an ordinary day.

It's a great day for the barge people hired to haul the equipment.

The latest movie to have cluttered the streets and canals with equipment and crew is called “Effie,” a biopic about the life of Effie Ruskin.  It stars Dakota Fanning, a large number of non-Hollywood luminaries such as Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi, and an Italian god in human form named Riccardo Scamarcio.

We were there as part of a group of members of Arzana‘, an association (of which Lino is a founding member) dedicated to the conservation of old Venetian boats of every sort.  Whenever a film needs boats, the boats also need rowers, so anybody who applied and was chosen by the film company got a chance to participate in film-making for at least a day.

Lino and I went to the office, filled out the forms, got our portraits snapped, and waited to be called.  He went three times, and I went twice.

So I urge you to see this film (it will be out in June 2012), because if nothing else interests you, you could peer in the darkness at the screen trying to discern a feminine figure in fusty nineteenth-century garb rowing a boat who could be me.  I’m merely a human in human form, but I had a fantastic time as an extra.

Good thing I’m relegated to the background, though, because while the long skirts made me feel swell, the bonnet and slicked-back hair, all perfectly accurate, made me look like a Victorian cross between the Witch of Endor and Baba Yaga.  If I’d been born in Effie’s time they’d have killed me in my cradle.

Lino didn’t come out much better.  What with him and his cloth cap, high collar and muttonchop whiskers, and me with my shawl and apron and hat, we looked like a pair of Dickensian hobbits.

This is a view of the confusion on land.

And a view of the confusion on the water on an ordinary working morning. The outliers stopped traffic at the crucial moments, otherwise the canal went back to being everybody's waterway. Four regular gondolas, one member of the Querini rowing club out for a spin, somebody in a motorboat. The boat with the camera crew is hugging the left wall; the actors in the gondola are hugging the right.

I had two days on duty.  Most of the first day was spent watching the six hours or so of activity involved in shooting two minutes of film.  We stood in the sun and ate loads of the free sandwiches the help was carrying around and watched an amazing amount of activity which seemed to happen without anyone telling anyone else what to do.  Then we went inside and ate lunch.

At 3:00 Lino and I went to be dressed and titivated.  When that was done, we climbed into a small mascareta and took up our positions on a stretch of small canal.  By now it was 6:00 PM and getting dark, but lights were blazing everywhere.

There was a camera on a crane, a camera on a boat, and this one, braced atop a bridge.

Our task, once the cameras started rolling, was to row very slowly along a snippet of canal only about 200 feet long (67 meters), which we accomplished in about a minute and a half.  Also being rowed along the canal, in one or the other direction, was a battella and two gondolas, both replicas of the 17th-century version.  One of the gondolas carried Effie and her husband, John Ruskin.  By the look of things they were not happy.  “There was,” as Dorothy Parker once wrote, “a silence with things going on in it.”

We repeated this slow row many times.  I felt fine, except for my feet, which aren’t used to wearing shoes with heels (my costume included thin-soled mid-heel boots they’d given me to wear, even though nobody, not even me, ever saw my feet). The air wasn’t especially cold — thankfully, there was no wind — and God knows I wasn’t hungry.

At 10:00 PM it was quitting time.  We changed our clothes in record time (the costume crew standing by to help), the makeup girl took off my hat and ripped out the 3,491 bobby pins which she had rammed into my skull to anchor my hairpiece, and we ran downstairs to the boats. Now we had to really row, to get them all back to the boathouse and tied up for the night.

Rowing at night is bewitching.  There is almost no traffic, so you can actually hear the water murmuring under your boat; the distances and proportions are mysteriously transformed, and the combined effect is impossible to resist. There we were, sliding along the black glistening water flanked by prodigious palaces, virtually alone (I ignored the lone vaporetto), in a universe created by giants. And it belonged only to us. I’m not going to pretend these things don’t affect me, even after all this time. “My God,” I thought, “I’m rowing up the Grand Canal.”

Lino isn’t impervious to this allure, either; he said practically the same thing, and he’s been doing this all his life.  Because there is no way to resist the sorcery of this city at night.

During the day, the city just lies there and dispenses, in a bored sort of way, a steady supply of small doses of beauty and splendor, just enough to make people want to take lots of pictures.  But at night, she hurls caution and hauteur aside and utterly swamps you in a deluge of grandeur and seduction.

It was getting on toward midnight, but we didn’t want it ever to end.

Two days later, we were out in force on the Grand Canal doing a modified isn’t-the-city-busy sort of rowing around.  It was sunny and warm, which is pleasant but sort of inane, and we got almost no food.  You see how demanding I’m getting to be?  And we didn’t row all that much, either.

We finished before sundown and the boats were back in their stalls before dark. No magic this time.  But just as they say you can get so accustomed to chocolate that it just doesn’t do anything for you anymore, the same must be true of rowing at night.  If we did it all the time, I suppose it would become boring.

I’m ready for the next film, whatever it might be.  They can call me anytime — and I don’t care if they make me look like a mutant psychopathic canal-dredger.

A view of the stage, so to speak: that strip of canal heading down toward San Marco. The actors are in a gondola near the next bridge, where the motorboat with the camera is idling, transmitting images to the screen on the shore.


This is how the scene appears in Movie World.


Dakota Fanning and the rest of the actors got a break to come in and warm up.


Riccardo Scamarcio gets a touch-up, which I'd never have guessed he needed anywhere.


This is the scene that required a hundred takes, I don't know why: Dakota Fanning as Effie Ruskin decides on a carefree impulse to try rowing herself.


And for some reason Scamarcio makes the same attempt.


The Grand Canal shortly after dawn, as we row our old boats to the day's shoot. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as at midnight, the canal still looks amazing. I'm giving you this view because you'd probably never see the Grand Canal so empty (it was a holiday). I wouldn't have either, if I hadn't had to get up and go to work.



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The unexpected is always expected

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Each day in each week in the so-called most beautiful city in the world often feels like a loaded coal cart which I am pulling along a rusty track.  Instead of coal, however, which hasn’t been burned here for quite a few decades, my daily cart, so to speak, is loaded with the same detritus of which life is composed pretty much everywhere: appointments, shopping, cleaning, public transportation challenges, all enlivened by the occasional strike which makes the usual inconveniences even more complex and invigorating.

Still, I’d rather be here than in Fargo or Yazoo City.

While I’m hauling the daily freight, though, there is a steady supply of tiny events throughout the day, running on a sort of parallel track, which form their own little train of entertainment.  I’ve finished with this metaphor now.

For example: Last Sunday morning I was walking across a nearby small campo which I was surprised to see embellished by an unusual arrangement of objects.  It wasn’t a relic of the recently-closed Biennale (though it made a lot more sense than many of  the putative works of art I’d seen).  It was a token of the vox populi, or rather, the vox of one person, crying in the wilderness, a person who had suddenly snapped.

Little blue plastic bags and a strip of white paper. If you recognize the bags, you can guess what the paper's for. Spontaneous denunciations show up on walls and doors, decrying some behavior which has become intolerable. But this is the first time I've seen a sign on the ground.







The bags -- by now a neighborhood staple, though they're not always blue -- contain dog poop. If you think this is gross, you should know there are still plenty of people who deny that their dog ever eliminates. But this person has had enough: "Disgusting pigs," the writer begins: "Pick up your dogs' poop. Uncouth pigs."






Another voice recently made itself heard on the neighborhood notice-board at the Giardini vaporetto stop.  This board, like all of them, is entirely improvised, a sort of stationary town crier which serves an obviously useful purpose, despite the fact that it is pretty much illegal.

Augusto Salvadori, the previous sub-mayor for tourism, as well as the self-appointed arbiter of decorum, civic uplift and general improvement of tone, made a stab at abolishing these little outposts by threatening to fine anybody who dared to tape or glue their humble advertisement on any public surface. Seeing that these notices always carry a phone number, this threat could have been scary, except that the snarling tiger had no fangs or claws, otherwise known as the power of enforcement.  So the notices continue to bloom and, in my view, continue to serve a useful purpose. I happened to find a good, inexpensive seamstress this way, and I’ve also got the number of a computer geek stashed somewhere, which I took down off a strip of paper near the San Pietro vaporetto stop. So I’m glad they’re still there, even if they are ugly.

But the other day I came across a notice advertising a room for rent. This in itself isn’t noteworthy; since the city is awash in budget-restricted residents of every sort, from students to Eastern European women working as caretakers, accommodations are always eagerly sought — more eagerly sought than offered, may I say.

But this particular notice, on second reading, carried an unpleasantly different connotation.

It said:  “Fifty-year-old will share with a girl or working woman an apartment which is sunny, near the Santa Marta vaporetto stop, a single bed in a small room available.  The house is composed of an eat-in kitchen, small living room and two rooms of which one is occupied.  Contact Francesco (followed by his cell phone number).”

I spent a lively five minutes telling Lino what I thought of a man offering his extra room explicitly to a female, and no nitpicking about age.  My reaction could be summed up in one word:  “Swine.”

Today, to my surprise, I came across the same skeezy announcement taped up at the vaporetto stop by the hospital.  Why was I surprised?  He must have put these up all over town.  What struck me was that someone had written on it my very own thought: “Porco.”  Pig. It made me feel a bond with someone I’ll never know. Maybe there are people all over the city who have thought, or written, this opinion.  We should form a club.

But all the surprises aren’t so rank.  There was a beautiful little bonus on the other side of the bridge as we left early this morning: A boat piled with fish.

Maybe you don’t care about fish, but any sign that somebody has gone out in the lagoon and come back with something finny is a great thing.  It used to be as normal as learning how to swim by hanging onto your mother’s washboard in the canal (not made up).  Now people go buy salmon and lobster at the fishmarket.  You’ve heard this rant before.

They were grey mullet, which I’ve caught myself; sometimes an especially exuberant one jumps into the boat.  But this was quite a haul, and there must have been at least 50 of these creatures all tangled up in a heap of net, against which most of them were still fighting, except for their brothers who had long since suffocated underneath everything.

Even the trash collector stopped to inspect the catch and discuss its finer points with Lino.

The few people who were out at 7:00 stopped, or at least slowed, to have a look.  As a sign of the continuing deterioration of culture here, one woman asked if they were sea bass – this, in a neighborhood where people once knew their fish better than the multiplication table.

Another young woman’s sole remark was, “I wouldn’t take them if you gave them to me.”  This is guaranteed to hit one of Lino’s most exposed nerves.  “She grew up eating LOBSTER,’  he hissed sarcastically to me. People used to thank God on their knees for food, not to mention fresh fish; the idea that you could reject such bounty really fries his ganglia.

A little girl walked by on her way to school, with her little brother.  She paused to look at this mound of goodness, then stretched out her closed umbrella and pushed the tip gently against the cheek of one fish.  Then she turned to walk away.  Her little brother thought it was funny.  “What if the fish ate your umbrella?” he asked her, laughing.  Maybe he had imagined the fish suddenly rearing up, like Jaws, swallowing her and her umbrella whole, never to be seen again. She didn’t reply.

If you pay attention, you will always see something beautiful.  Perhaps you don’t think that beauty could qualify as unexpected here, but there are so many different kinds, at so many different moments, that some of them are bound to surprise you.  Like the mountains at sunrise.

No more need be said.



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Racing Saint Barbara

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Last Saturday I went to watch one of my favorite Venetian rowing races: The regata of Santa Barbara, an annual contest on six-oar caorlinas organized by the discharged sailors’ association in honor of Saint Barbara, patron saint of seamen and, by extension, of the Navy.

The only hint at 10:00 AM that something unusual might be imminent was the lone red buoy, fixed in front of the Arsenal to mark the finish line.

For every Regata Storica, there must be ten races held every month here (I’m making this number up — maybe it’s more), winter or summer, by rowing clubs, gondoliers, and assorted groups of every sort.  And don’t think that just because there isn’t any prize money that these races aren’t fought to the finish.

Technically, Saint Barbara’s day is December 4, but Saturday was more convenient for everybody and no doubt the good saint took it in stride. After all, her bones supposedly lay in a cupboard somewhere on Murano for about 400 years, so she’s fully aware of the prevailing attitude toward time here.

The crew of each boat was composed of four gondoliers who had done their (formerly compulsive) military service in the Navy, plus one boy from the Scuola Navale Militare F. Morosini, where Lino teaches rowing. For the first time in 15 years, there was also one fireman.

A statue of Saint Barbara is often found at the entrance to mines -- here in a lead mine at Pian dei Resinelli in Lombardy.

The firemen weren’t there to quell any spontaneous combustion; Saint Barbara is their patron saint too.  Generally speaking, she is assigned to watch over anyone who is dealing — intentionally or not — with things that go “boom.” If there are explosives, fire, or lightning involved, or the threat of sudden, violent, incendiary death, she is your go-to saint, and specifically protects sailors, firemen, artillerymen, miners, sappers, road-builders, geologists, mountaineers, petroleum workers, and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation ordnancemen.  Also bell-ringers and architects — maybe there’s a link to high towers with no lightning rod.  This list is not exhaustive, by the way, I just decided to stop.

Trivia alert:  A powder-magazine or other storage area containing explosives is often referred to as the “santabarbara.”

It rained and fogged.  This is typical.  There have been times in the past 15 years when the sun beamed down on victors and vanquished alike but usually there’s water. Perhaps this is a helpful gesture from the saint, who abhors fire.

Getting the boats --not to mention the rowers -- ready, in the canal that leads to the Arsenal.

There were all the usual components:  Competitors who have known each other since before they were born, the benediction of the boats, the traditional pennants for the first four boats to cross the finish line, and other prizes offered by sponsors (Pasta Zara sent everyone home with a neat box containing two kilos of pasta), bottles of wine, even small trophies of Murano glass, presumably not in memory of Saint Barbara’s sojourn on the island.

There were assorted dignitaries, including an admiral, some of whom gave impromptu speeches into a microphone which could have used a dash of nitroglycerine to wake it up. Nobody listens anyway. The speeches were, also according to tradition, too long, too rambling, and often more than a little bit too self-congratulatory.  I will not name names but I know who they were.

The prizes were given, the photos were snapped, then everybody headed for the buffet.  As I have often mentioned, “Every psalm ends with the Gloria,” as they say here, and every event ends with food and drink.

And tradition requires — or maybe Saint Barbara requires, she being an extremely practical saint, it seems to me — that there should be pasta e fagioli. Not only at this race, but at 98 percent of amateur races here. Pasta and beans are hot, filling, delicious, hugely good for you and  can be made in massive batches reasonably far in advance.  Trivia alert:  Beans such as the borlotti used around here contain more protein than red meat, though I don’t think anybody cares.

So carry your bottle of Beano and dig in. Or plan to spend the rest of the day outdoors, in the fresh air.  For a gondolier, that’s obviously no problem. They often go back for seconds.

The boats head out onto the playing field, so to speak. These guys look like the ones to beat. Too bad they finished 8th -- next to last.

The boats line up to be blessed by Padre Manuel Paganuzzi, the chaplain at the Scuola Navale, and the rowers respond with the traditional salute, or "alzaremi." The man in the bow of the pink boat is cheating by not reversing his oar. Saint Barbara punished him: they finished dead last.

And they’re off! The starting line was down toward the Lido, even with the Giardini (Biennale) vaporetto stop, and they race to the Bacino of San Marco, go around one of the permanent buoys for ships and race down toward the Arsenal. Not very long, but there’s enough distance for strategy and maneuvering.

There are people ashore, like Lino, who can distinguish all the boat colors even in the fog. Then there are those like me.

Rounding the buoy — two of them, actually. On the left is the permanent black-and-grey float, plus an orange one as well, to prevent the rowers to cut cross-lots on the return and possibly run into boats that hadn’t yet rounded the buoy.

Thundering toward home. We can finally distinguish the outcome: Yellow, blue, white, and red will get the appropriate pennants.  The rest are battling it out  anyway.  Never give up the ship.

Crossing the finish line, each crew is expected to repeat the "alzaremi." As you can see, this tradition appears to be degenerating toward the "optional" category.


The judges take a minute to make sure they got the order of finish right.

Everybody immediately starts to remove all their stuff -- only the shell of the boat will go back to the city boathouse.

This young man – I’m assuming he practices yoga when he’s not rowing --is removing the platform on which he was standing. Each rower has one, but they belong to the boat. He's probably going to remove the wooden strips he had nailed to its underside.

The boats are stripped and all the speeches are finally over . On to the prize-giving, the perfect moment for the rain to start.

Third-year cadet Luca Merola displays his first-place red pennant, the perfect gift for today, his 18th birthday.

We eat! There’s enough pasta e fagioli to feed three battleships. The plastic bowls are also part of the tradition; weakened by the scalding heat of the contents and the weight of the jumbo portion, they sag dangerously and you burn your hands trying to hold them. It would depress me if this, for some reason, were not to happen.












I would be calling this the Ship of Fools if somebody else hadn't already come up with the phrase. In this minuscule motorboat we have: five of the six rowers of the red boat, who finished fourth (note rolled-up pennant), five oars, the paioli, or floorboards of the caorlina, a case of wine, and the corrugated fiberglass used to protect the boat from the rain. I'd say they're ready to head for the Bay of Biscay, if they don't encounter any waves. And if nobody breathes.

And the event ends as it began: fog, silence, and space. It's as if nothing had ever happened.

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