Archive for January, 2012
Venice used to be famous for cats, but they have somehow relinquished their mythic stature. When I came to Venice back in 1804, there were still scattered outposts where old ladies would leave food for the stray cats, near makeshift little huts. Now the only place I can be sure of seeing a feline is either roaming the cloister at the city hospital, or on or near a few windowsills in the neighborhood. The once-abundant freelancing cats have been rounded up and stowed in a pound on the Lido.
Instead of cats, there are dogs.
When Lino was a lad, families were still large and didn’t have extra food to waste on a dog just to play with. The only dogs who were given room and board had to work for it, like retrievers or hounds. No need for a guard dog, that’s what grandmothers are for. Or, as Lino put it, “What was there for a dog to guard? Most people didn’t even have tears to cry with.”
Nor was there extra money to spend on trips to the vet, not to mention the wardrobe. Now not only are there dogs everywhere, many of them dress better than I do, though they tend to belong to people (often, but not always, women) who confuse them with human children. I once saw a woman on the vaporetto, holding her dog on her lap, cradling it like a baby. No, the dog wasn’t sick. I can’t remember if it was wearing a bonnet.
I amuse myself by tracking the changing fashions in the world of Fido and Rex (though here people tend to like the name Bobi). Like other fashions, it’s hard to discover a reason for it, but evidently either you can get tired of a dog faster than your nose-ring or skateboard, or you just really need to be like everybody else. Or you didn’t care about your dog in the first place.
First, there were Afghan hounds. It seems strange now, but this is true. Then all of a sudden everybody had boxers. They traded these in for beagles. Then came a rash of Jack Russell terriers. Now that I think of it, it’s been a while since I saw a beagle — they used to be everywhere. And the Jack Russells are mysteriously fading away too.
Now we have a mixed bag, with a few of the above (not the Afghans, those are long gone), joined by a few French bulldogs, an English bulldog, a couple of Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, a batch of Shih Tzus, assorted terriers, and a smattering of spaniels of various sorts. There are also plenty of mutts, I’m glad to note. They never go out of style.
There is an organization which seeks homes for abandoned dogs, and their notices taped on municipal surfaces are very touching and very repetitive. There is a photo of the dog, of course, with its name and a paragraph describing its sad past — and some of these dogs have been through torture — and a description of the dog and its character. This is the repetitive part. You’d be amazed how many dogs are “sweet.” Hulking, tiny, old, blind, their primary trait is sweetness. This is wonderful, especially if true, but it does make all these animals sound like animated stuffed toys. If you want to sell an apartment in Venice, the crucial word is “luminoso” (full of light). If you want to donate a dog, you’ve got to call it sweet. I realize that “cranky, demanding, and incontinent” won’t inspire many offers, but still.
This passion for dogs is far from being some new aberration, at least according to centuries of Venetian art. It’s pretty clear that the patricians have always been dog-crazy. Look at any number of Venetian paintings, even at random, and you’ll see that where two or more are gathered together, there will be at least one dog.
When I go to a museum or church or palace here, I don’t admire the brushwork or the color scheme, I play Find the Dog. It’s a very satisfying game because you know there is at least one, and often more. It’s like a treasure hunt.
Someone might tell me that the dogs are there in their purely symbolic capacity, like other animals in European art such as peacocks or bees. Dogs, as we all know, typically represent fidelity, obedience, protection, courage and vigilance. All excellent traits which would be valued here, as anywhere. Scholarly sources don’t mention its symbolizing sweetness but they are obviously not well informed.
But by the way most dogs are depicted, they don’t seem symbolic at all. Most of them have got more personality than many of the people around them — just like now.
What started me on all these ruminations is the fact that, for however much the dog might be adored here, it remains the quintessential insult-figure. “I cani di ta morti” (your beloved deceased family members are dogs) is absolutely the worst thing you can say to a person here, so bad that you don’t say it unless you intend to make that person your enemy forever.
This is occasionally modified to “ti ta morti,” which I think means that you have left a small window open for future reconciliation. Or at least haven’t branded yourself as irredeemably vulgar.
You can substitute “porceli” (pigs) for dogs, which is the only way you can make the insult worse.
You don’t have to say it to the person, you can also merely say it about the person. “Why did your boss make you work last Sunday?” “Because she’s got morti cani.” If the situation warrants it but I don’t want to utter the death blow, I soften it by merely referring to the person and his or her behavior as having or being M.C. In any form, it’s such a useful expression that I wish there were a corresponding phrase in English, but I haven’t found it, or managed to invent it, yet.
I will have to pursue further research on the subject of insults because I am under the impression that the main force of the phrase doesn’t come from the dogs, but the fact that the insult is aimed at your family. In Rome, the corresponding vilification is “i mortacci tua” — again, an imprecation against your dead relatives.
Your typical insulting Anglo-Saxon doesn’t tend to invoke either death (unless it’s yours) or your relatives (unless it’s your mama). Therefore death and your family status appear to carry a freight of meaning here which must come from some extremely deep Mediterranean source. Perhaps the Phoenicians devised it, along with the alphabet.
I sometimes wonder what dogs say about each other. “Your dead relatives are humans,” probably.
Stay on the safe side and don’t ever refer to dogs or people in the same sentence. Especially not if you observe how much the animal and its owner resemble each other.
The catastrophe of the Costa Concordia two weeks ago today has been a good thing in at least one (sorry, I mean only one) way: It has given a turbo-boost to the local opposition to allowing big cruise ships to slide past the Piazza San Marco like floating Alps.
By now, images of these behemoths and Venice have become as trite as Venice and acqua alta.
There was murmuring before, but the death of a ship and some of its people has created a good deal of commotion, not only in Venice but also at the national level, concerning the desirability of allowing these ships to come here. Needless to say, the political parties have all hoisted their shields and battle-axes and are ready for combat. And, as usual, the trumpet sounding the charge tends to drown out any other sound.
I’d like to review the main points, though I have to warn you that this subject, like most other subjects here, has become a mass of insanely knotted statistics and semi-statistics and facts and semi-facts interpreted in 11,552 different ways, according to who is speaking and, ergo. what they want. Debates of the pros and cons of heavy cruise ship traffic in the world’s most beautiful city and environs are so loaded with emotion that it has become virtually impossible to hear what anybody’s really saying, though the various viewpoints are fairly simple to summarize.
Pro: There is only one item in the “pro” column on the proverbial yellow legal pad, and that’s “Money.” Venice has done everything possible to attract and keep cruise business. In 2000, only 200 ships visited Venice, and it is now the Number One cruising homeport in the Mediterranean, and the third in Europe. With the shrinking of the income from the Casino, the starving city budget is being kept alive primarily by this new touristic medium.
Don’t be distracted by the number of companies whose ships come to Venice (43), or how many ships visited last year (654) or the number of transits they made of the Bacino of San Marco (1,308) — I’d have thought there were more — or the number of passengers last year (2,248,453), even though all these numbers are pretty impressive (fancy way of saying “huge and scary”).
The only number that matters to the city, and the only factor which virtually guarantees that cruising will continue to be crucial here, is the money the city earns from it: 300 million euros (US$390,246,000) last year.
If you want to object to cruising in or around Venice, you need to come up with a suggestion for some other activity that will make that kind of money. Or, preferably, even more. Feel free to get back to me on this.
The two main items in the “con” column concern the environmental damage wrought by the floating Alps.
Erosion caused by waves (there are no waves) and/or by the suction of the motors. This suction is real: I can attest that the motors of these ships perform a phenomenal sucking/pushing action, very much like what happens to the mouthwash when you rinse your mouth. I have seen with these very eyes the waters surging in and then surging out as a ship passes, even if it passes at a distance. It’s hard to think that this could be unimportant. As we know from the humbler but more destructive daily motondoso, water going into a fissure in a foundation pulls something with it — soil, mainly — when it comes out. This eventually creates empty spaces under buildings and sidewalks.
A study done by Worcester Polytechnic Institute on the hydrodynamic effect of big ships found this: “As cruise ships pass smaller canals along the St. Mark’s Basin and Giudecca Canal, they displace and accelerate the surrounding body of water, essentially pulling water from the smaller canals. This caused a noticeable increase in canal speed and a drop in the water levels. A total of five velocity tests were completed resulting in a 57.4% increase in canal speed, and two canal height tests were completed which showed an average water level drop of 11 c (4.3 inches). The observations suggest that the root cause for these accelerations can be explained by the Bernoulli Effect: the colossal geometry of cruise ships creates fast currents and low pressure areas around the moving vessels.”
Particulate Matter, the form of air pollution made up of tiny bits of stuff from combustion exhaust. Nobody made an issue of this when Venice was a real industrial center, and nobody brought it up when the Industrial Zone on the shoreline was going full blast. Nobody made an issue of it, Lino points out, when everybody — everybody — heated their homes or cooked using wood or coal. “You didn’t need to smoke anything,” he said — “smoke was everywhere.” But particulate matter from the ships is intolerable.
Four days after the Concordia ran aground, Corrado Clini, the new Minister for the Environment, came to Venice for a day. He was shown a number of things (MoSE was not on the list, which I can understand, because nothing can be done about it now), but the subject on everybody’s mind was the big ships.
He offered the following opinion: “Common sense suggests that if the principle value to care for is our natural patrimony, the fundamental resource for our tourism, we must avoid that it be put at risk.” You can’t argue with that.
He continued: “The traffic of these ‘floating apartment buildings’ in the Bacino of San Marco, with a notable impact, are without utility for the environment and for tourism.” If he is seeking utility for tourism, all he has to do is look at the municipal balance sheet. However, “without utility for the environment” is hard to refute.
Luca Zaia, the President of the Veneto Region, who was on hand, remarked that “The big ships in Venice are dangerous and certainly a problem to resolve. I have to admit that to see these colossi at San Marco is, to say the least, horrifying.” I myself have to admit that it’s odd that he only became horrified after the Concordia ran aground; the ships have been passing for years.
Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, contributed these observations: “The subject of the big ships is an open one. With the Port Authority we have begun to reflect on a rapid solution which will satisfy the touristic system as well as the economic one.” Rapid solutions are not easy to come up with, because every player wants his concerns to come first. Nor would a rapid solution instill much confidence. If complex, well-reasoned solutions haven’t been found yet, why would a rapid one be any easier to devise, much less implement?
Sandro Trevisanato, president of VTP, which runs the port, stated that the big ships are the least polluting form of tourism, adding that the buses, the big launches, and cars create much more pollution than the big ships. (For the record, I’d like to say that this is the most intelligent comment so far.) He points out that emissions are one of the arguments used by those who want to ban the cruise ships from the lagoon, far beyond the aesthetic question. It’s a question of taste,” says Trevisanato. “In a few seconds the ships have passed and disappear.” Seconds? Has he never stood on the embankment on a summer Sunday evening to watch the March of the Pachyderms as they depart? Even one ship, by my estimate, takes at least 45 minutes to pass from Tronchetto to Sant’ Elena. And there could easily be seven of them, virtually nose to tail.
In any case, everybody directly involved in cruise tourism agrees that pollution must be kept at “level zero.” How to do that isn’t explained.
As for the possibility — remote, all agree — that something could go wrong with the motors, or that the ship for some other reason would suddenly become ungovernable, and that the force of inertia would impel it to ram bow-first into the Piazza San Marco or some other bit of Venice, Trevisanato says that the port is one of the most secure in the world, as the ships are protected from the effect of wind and waves, and the ships pass at a reasonable (I put that in) distance from the shores. Hard to say what is “reasonable” when the Giudecca Canal is only 320 meters (1000 feet) wide, or less. But you will have noticed that referring to wind and waves prevented him from discussing the consequences of a big ship going adrift in the Bacino of San Marco.
Someone reminded him that in 2004 the ship “Mona Lisa” ran aground in the fog in the Bacino of San Marco. His reply: “Exactly: and nothing happened.” This is true; the ship was on its way after a mere hour, undoubtedly thanks to the help of the rising tide. But the “Mona Lisa” is 201 meters (609 feet) long by 26 meters (85 feet) beam, and a gross tonnage of 28,891; not exactly a floating Alp.
The Concordia was 292 meters (958 feet) x 35.5 meters (116 feet); gross tonnage 112,000.
In any case, saying “Nothing happened” isn’t very helpful. It brings to mind the famous exchange in a Ring Lardner story: “‘Daddy, are we lost?’ ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”
And the mayor’s statement that a “rapid solution” is in the works isn’t very reassuring, even if it were true. Solutions have been debated for years.
Proposed solutions so far:
Building an “offshore port” in the Adriatic where the floating Alps would tie up, and offload passengers (and luggage) into launches which would bring them to Venice. Objections: Cost, feasibility, and the obvious pollution, primarily motondoso, which would be caused by thousands of launches trundling to and fro all day. I can add the element of potential danger to people, if not to Venice, of boarding and traveling in a launch when the bora is blowing.
Make the Bacino and the Giudecca Canal a one-way street. Tourists get to snap the Piazza San Marco either coming or going, but not both. This has the advantage of not depriving them totally of this scenic opportunity, while cutting in half the number of transits. A tour operator told me that it isn’t uncommon for a potential cruise customer to ask if the ship passes in front of the Piazza San Marco. If the answer is no, it’s an immediate deal-breaker.
But this new system would require deepening a heretofore unimportant natural channel known as the Canal of Sant’ Angelo in order to create a sort of bypass. Enter the lagoon at the inlet at Malamocco, steam up the shoreline via the Petroleum Canal, then turn right in the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, which neatly brings the behemoth to Tronchetto. The ship would depart via the Giudecca Canal, so the passengers could all snap their photos.
Or, the ship would enter, as it does now, by the inlet at San Nicolo’, steam past San Marco (snap snap snap) to Tronchetto, then depart down the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, Petroleum Canal, and out into the Adriatic at Malamocco.
What’s extremely wrong with this idea — in my opinion, as well as many environmentalists — is that deepening the Canal of Sant’ Angelo would be a reprise of the digging of the Petroleum Canal, a deed which many have long since recognized as a disaster for the lagoon. A channel as straight as an airport runway and deep enough for cargo ships and tankers behaves like the average water faucet, concentrating and accelerating the force of the water passing through it. Many environmental groups date the beginning of the deterioration of the lagoon ecosystem from the creation of the Petroleum Canal. Among other things, it is estimated that this canal is responsible for the loss of one million cubic meters of sediment every year. We don’t have to care, but the myriad creatures and plants which depend on the sediment certainly do.
Digging another deep channel will almost certainly cause the same phenomenon, thereby multiplying the damage. Just what we need, when you add in the same effect caused by the deepening of the three lagoon inlets for the installation of the MoSE floodgates.
So the bypass canal, which looks so good on paper, would be yet another blow to an ecosystem which UNESCO, along with the city of Venice, designated as a World Heritage Site. Now that I think of it, the only group that hasn’t weighed in yet on this is UNESCO. Maybe they’re thinking.
Last idea: Forget Tronchetto. Move the whole passenger port over to the shoreline at Marghera. Docks already exist, or could be created, so logistically the idea has a lot in its favor. Except that Marghera is part of the dying Industrial Zone, with all the aesthetic appeal of a dying Industrial Zone. It’s like selling a cruise from Venice that actually starts in the Port of Newark or Liverpool. Intending no offense.
Speaking of the force of inertia, debates, meetings, commissions, studies (oh good, we can always use more of those) and assorted pronouncements will undoubtedly continue. I can make that claim because when the “Mona Lisa” ran aground in 2004, the then-mayor, Paolo Costa, ringingly declared that a stop must be put to the big ships passing in the Bacino of San Marco.
He said (translation by me): “What happened has unfortunately confirmed my worries, and that is that an absolute certainty doesn’t exist on the possibility to guarantee the security in this zone of the city (Bacino San Marco) which is so important and delicate. It was horrifying to see the ship aground a mere 30 meters from a vaporetto stop, and fortunately consequences were avoided that could have been disastrous and unimaginable. Now we must take rapid measures, more than one, and very detailed, that eliminate the danger of finding, one day, a ship in the Piazza San Marco. Because everything which today is at risk in the Bacino of San Marco isn’t something that can be protected only probably, but certainly, and with safety.”
Eight years have passed, two mayors have succeeded him, Costa is now President of the Port of Venice, and those “rapid measures” are still being fervently invoked.
The Port of Venice may be protected from potentially dangerous winds, but there seems to be no way to protect it from hurricanes of hot air.
As you might imagine, during the past almost-week the shipwrecked cruise ship has taken over everybody’s thoughts and conversations here (as is probably the case in the rest of Italy).
Yesterday I got what I hope may be my final dose, as I sat in the doctor’s waiting room. Because he only comes to the neighborhood two hours a week (one on Wednesday, one on Friday — no appointments), the room tends to fill up fast. I suspect some of the old dears come over mainly to have the chance to indulge in a good long chinwag. They pretty much all know each other, and it’s better than a cafe’ because you don’t have to buy anything in order to sit and talk. They rarely say anything new on any topic at all — but if you do it right, it can take quite a while to contribute all the comments, opinions, and third-party bits of information to the information-mulching bin.
From this interminable gabfest about the Costa Concordia, I came home with many interesting things to consider.
1. Castello is populated entirely by experts on navigation. I heard so many detailed analyses of the fine points of the engineering, construction, and behavior of very large ships that I can’t believe they, including the grandmothers, aren’t all retired admirals.
2. None of the people present would ever consider, not even for a moment, going on a cruise. The implication is that they’re too smart to risk their lives on a vehicle and in a medium that is so inherently dangerous, and which any intelligent person would long since have known.
3. The ship is too big to make any kind of sense — 4, 429 people on board! This fact naturally sent up warning flares, confirming the intelligent people in their decision not to have taken a cruise on it.
4. The captain screwed up.
First prize for originality goes to the lady sitting next to me, whose observation was the following: “And they even had a climbing wall on the ship! What does anyone need with a climbing wall?” This was said with a whiff of scorn, which gave me the unpleasant sensation that in her opinion, you can virtually assume that a ship with a climbing wall is going to come to a bad end. I’m not saying that she believes it deserved to hit the rocks, or that the people who were on it were another race of people who require things that are obviously no earthly use to decent people who know enough to stay at home and hang out at the doctor’s office. But to her, the climbing wall was ominous.
The subject of abandoning the ship also got a certain amount of attention because everyone — including me — is utterly fascinated and bewildered by Capt. Francesco Schettino’s behavior. The exchange between him and Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Capitaneria di Porto in Livorno is harrowing, right up to the point where De Falco orders the captain to return to the ship, and he refuses.
A few commentators (not in the waiting room) have confessed a sort of shame that a nation which had produced such immortal seamen as Columbus, Vespucci, Verrazzano, Da Mosto, Caboto, had come to this. Italy has, in fact, been blessed by any number of men who had — as the saying here goes — “balls squared.” And they aren’t all world-famous.
There is one who is famous only among Italian and/or World War II buffs, whose name deserves to be added to the list if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to the crushing gravity of the current situation. Of course I realize that a hero in Column A can’t do much to redeem a caitiff in Column B. But I still want you to know about him.
His name is Salvatore Todaro (1908 – 1942), and I am not referring to Salvatore “Black Sam” Todaro, the mobster. Our Salvatore (whose name means “savior” — keep this in mind) was a submarine commander and came from Chioggia, just down the lagoon from Venice. Just to indicate that mariners from Chioggia aren’t necessarily limited to tying and untying the vaporettos at each stop.
He died in combat in 1942 with six medals for bravery, whose dedications contained such phrases as “resplendent example of serene, intelligent courage,” and “a mystic devotion to duty understood in its highest and broadest sense.”
Here’s an example: The “Kabalo Affair.” Off the island of Madeira on the night of October 16, 1940, he attacked and sank a Belgian ship. He then saved its 26 sailors, and towed them toward safety aboard a raft. When the towing cable broke after four days, he took them all into the submarine till they reached the Azores, where he put them ashore.
As Lino tells the story, Todaro recounted later to have prayed fervently not to encounter any enemy ship on the way because he would have been forced to dive, inevitably killing his enemy passengers because the only place he found room to stash them was in the compartments which, in order to effect a dive, are filled with seawater. One of his few comments on the exploit was “I’m here to destroy ships, not men.”
I realize that you have to be born that way — they don’t teach it in Captain School. But they must teach something rudimentary of that nature, which did not immediately come to the mind of Francesco Schettino. Which in addition to the loss of life, makes me extremely sad.
January 6, as all the world knows, is the Feast of the Epiphany in the non-Orthodox Christian calendar. Here in Venice, as most of the world by now must know (if it’s been following my bulletins), the day is personified by a grizzled old woman with a broomstick. This cheerful hag is known as the Befana.
Her arrival and swift departure bring joy to overstimulated and overfed children, even if the joy is tarnished by the fact that she signals the official end of the holiday period — back to school, the party’s over.
Anyone walking around Venice will have noticed, even with only one eye open (not recommended, unless that eye is dedicated to scanning the pavement ahead where the remnants of canine overfeeding may well be waiting), that her distinguishing characteristic is candy — specifically, a stocking full of it known as the calza caena (KAL-tzah kah-EH-na).
But anyone who has foregone the city for an afternoon ramble in the lagoon during this period will have noticed that her distinguishing characteristic is exceptional low tide. This phenomenon is known as the “secche de la marantega barola,” or the exposed-sandbanks-of-the-ugly-old-lady.
High tide, of course, is the star around here, inspiring in transient visitors (fancy term for tourists) a mixture of fear, loathing, terror, pity, catharsis, and whatever other epic emotions a couple of inches of water on the ground can stimulate. High water also makes for interesting pictures, even if they are all pretty much the same.
But every year I feel much greater emotions inspired instead by the absence of water. When the tide really, seriously goes out, as it always does in this little window of time, a concealed world emerges, to the joy of the foraging wildfowl and the marveling eyes of your correspondent. I know it’s not magic — it just feels like it.
The first time I saw this phenomenon I was taken completely by surprise. Looking from the Lido across the lagoon toward Venice, I saw, instead of the usual expanse of grayish-greenish-blueish water, a vast swath of brilliant emerald green, dazzling marine vegetation gleaming in the sunshine. It was like seeing Nebraska with bell-towers. Of course I knew that the lagoon bottom wasn’t as empty and flat as the high-school swimming pool, but seeing it was astonishing. I was hooked.
Why does January (or this year, also late December) always favor us with this phenomenon? Myself, I’d just give the credit to the Befana and move on, but curiosity has nagged me into looking for a real answer.
After more research than I anticipated, most of which only led me dangerously deeper into the astronomical wilds, I will hazard a summary of the situation.
It’s all based on the indestructible link between the sun, the moon, the earth’s orbit, gravity, centrifugal force,and probably other things as well. (There is also a correlation between high pressure and low tide — the higher the first, the lower the second.) But this only tells us what, not why.
One source explains: “The gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun both contribute to the tides. The sun’s gravitational force is greatest when the earth is closest to the sun (perihelion – early January) and least when the sun is furthest from earth (aphelion – early July).”
Basically, the sun’s pull can heighten the moon’s effects or counteract them, depending on where the moon is in relation to the sun.
The Moon follows an elliptical path around the Earth which has a perigee distance of 356,400 kilometers, which is about 92.7 percent of its mean distance. Because tidal forces vary as the third power of distance, this little 8 percent change translates into 25 percent increase in the tide- producing ability of the Moon upon the Earth. If the lunar perigee occurs when the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, it produces unusually high Spring (not the season Spring) high tides. When it occurs on the opposite side from the Earth that where the Sun is located (during full moon) it produces unusually low, Neap Tides.
Neap: from the Anglo-Saxon hnep, meaning scanty. I knew you were wondering.
It so happened that the day I took the most dramatic photographs was December 23, when the waning moon was one millimeter from being completely new, which it was on the following day. I maintain that the new moon has the same effect as the full moon, as described above.
To sum up: In January, therefore, I deduce that the relative positions of the sun (low) and moon (high) combine with other factors — such as the aforementioned high pressure — to produce the unusually low tide.
You can have your Bay of Fundy, and I’ll throw in Mont-St. Michel as well. I wait all year for this moment to see the lagoon revealed in its spectacular variety and richness.
Postscript: Low tide in the city is also diverting, revealing banks of mud lining the canal walls which were churned up by months, even years, of passing motorboats. It also, may I point out, creates at least as many problems as high water — if not more — for normal life here. If the ambulance or the fireboat doesn’t have enough water to get to your house, it’s arguably worse for the quality of life than whatever happens in acqua alta — for example, having to put on boots for a few hours. This aspect of the secche de la marantega deserves a chapter of its own, but not today.