Archive for July, 2012


The Old Travelers meet the “Innocents”

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I am currently wandering around Europe in the highly entertaining company of Samuel Clemens, reading his account of the long and complicated trip he took in 1867 and wrote up in “The Innocents Abroad.”

The first page of the detailed itinerary advertising the trip. As we all know, it’s simple to plan trips that sound smooth and entertaining. Taking the trip reveals a different story.

It’s nice to get away from Venice for a while, speaking of tourism. And I’d accompany the famous Mark Twain wherever he wanted to go, even if it were downtown Bugtussle, Oklahoma.  Still, his five-months-long voyage of discovery is, in many respects, better experienced from afar. This way you don’t have to put up with the insufferable man he nicknamed The Oracle, for one thing, and also you don’t have to spend any money.

The ideal travel companion, in my view, needs not only a galvanized stomach, an indestructible curiosity and no need for sleep, but a sense of humor more finely tuned than any Stradivarius. To laugh at others and at oneself is harder than it looks, but Twain has got the touch.

More than all that, he, unlike many returning travelers we have all known and tolerated (or not), is usually interesting and occasionally informative and always, ALWAYS amusing, especially when he says something that totally nails the truth.

A fairly well-known example, still worth repeating, is from his first night in Paris:

After dinner we felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion, and so we sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops.  Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.

But that isn’t the best.  The best is his portrait of the Old Travelers.

To get to the Gandakush Pass, first you have to go to a town called Dugoba, in Kyrgyzstan. A photographer known as igor_alay_2 has been there before you, as you see.

Old Travelers are hard to find because by now everybody’s on the road.  Nobody can travel like he did anymore, as we all know, because if we haven’t already been there, we’ve read or heard about it by one of a million means.  There will always be somebody who has preceded us to the remotest peak of the Gandakush Pass or some fleck of a barely-populated mini-Micronesian atoll.  No surprises left.

If you want to stroll around Poluwat Atoll, exploring its 3.4 square kilometers (1.3 square miles), I’d be willing to bet money you’ll find somebody already there, buying postcards.

But in his day foreign travel was still relatively difficult and expensive, so the Old Traveler was still at large, prepared to ruin the enthusiasm of any honest beginner.

And here is what he has to say about the ones he found in Paris:

The Old Travelers — those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know …

But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel and lie.  We can tell them the moment we see them.  They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled.  Then they open their throttle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know anything.  They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast!  But still I love the Old Travelers.  I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural ability to bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriant fertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!

If you are ever tempted to behave in this manner toward a fellow traveler (so to speak), be aware that the ghost of the sage of Hannibal, Mo. will be fleering at you from somewhere on high. It would be safer, and certainly more polite, merely to reply to whatever the less-traveled person may have said with the impregnable response with which H.L. Mencken is said to have answered every letter responding to his editorials in the Baltimore Sun: “You may be right.”

This vision from another world, another epoch, appeared at the regata of Pellestrina a few years ago. Countless hundreds were broiling in their own greasy sweat under the pitiless afternoon sun and suddenly there she was: Cool, pressed, perfect, sheltered by her own little shade. She’s even carrying a wrap! Where did she come from? Why is she alone? What is she doing here? There is NOTHING in Pellestrina to attract anyone except three hours of races once a year. She may or may not be an Old Traveler, but I’d give her about forty fathoms of slack: Whatever she might have felt like saying, it deserves admiration more than scorn.


Categories : History
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Same old same old

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I don’t know why they call it news — here, at least, certain things happen over and over to the point where they ought to be called olds.

Some random examples of olds would be the periodic blitz of the Guardia di Finanza against the illegal clam fishermen; the periodic blitz of the Carabinieri (or vigili, or Guardia di Finanza) against the illegal handbag sellers, with concomitant confiscation of their unfathomable supply of counterfeit goods; the periodic blitz (hm, we haven’t had one of those for a while) of the aforementioned forces of public order against the perpetrators of motondoso; and the ceaseless moaning of the city, like a raccoon caught in a foothold trap, that “no ghe xe schei,”

Two headlines this week are worth reporting, if only because we haven’t seen them for a while — though that does not mitigate the “here we go again” factor.

Note that the gates are not going to be in the Bacino of San Marco. But it’s a cheerful little vision of how beautifully the system is supposed to work.

Opere infinite Il Mose slitta di due anni” (Infinite works MOSE slips by two years).

MOSE:  Sometimes friends and/or visitors inquire as to the progress of the floodgate project which is going to save Venice from acqua alta, so the builders claim.  Despite incessant statements by interested parties giving the impression that high water is virtually a daily scourge, I should mention that I didn’t put on my boots even once last season (by which I mean acqua-alta-season, running from September to April).  Not once. Yes, there was some water in the Piazza San Marco a few times.  As usual, it went away after a few hours.

This headline carries no surprises but only some new information. First of all,  construction projects everywhere are born behind schedule. So we are not amazed to read that the project isn’t going to be finished in 2014, as claimed a few years ago when 2014 was also a shifted-forward date.  They say it’s going to be finished on December 31, 2016.

Bear in mind that the construction of the Calatrava Bridge took six years to complete (original projection: one and a half years), and it’s a simple span a mere 80 meters (262 feet) long.  So looking at MOSE, if the term “Great Pyramid of Khufu” comes to mind, it’s understandable. (For the record, the pyramid was built in 20 years.  MOSE was begun in 2003, but considering how far construction projects tend to expand into the future and into the budget, we may be seeing a rival for the record in the making.)

The basic reason for the change in date is that the money is running out.  You may have noticed that money is not as plentiful as it once was — say, back in 2003, or even in 2006, when the government, under Prime Minister Romano Prodi, voted colossal quantities of cash for this undertaking.  In my view, this was an investment, not in the future of Venice, but in the future of the investors themselves, seeing that it will require spending money for maintenance for the rest of eternity.

It’s the first time I’ve noticed the geometrical similarity between the two mega-projects, though I suppose engineering feats involving 45-degree angles aren’t all that rare. I wonder if anyone will be around in 4,500 years to notice if the floodgates have lasted as long as the pyramid. Or if anybody will care.

The Berlusconi government was less enthusiastic, but the funding continued.  But now it’s different. The current government, headed by economist Mario Monti, is attempting to keep the entire country from going to the bottom with all hands aboard, so you can understand why paying for MOSE might not be seen as an urgent national priority. Especially since the current estimate on how much it will cost to finish this little adventure is 1,200 million euros ($1,451,890,000). There might be other things that cost more, but those other things might be more important to more people. Anyway, this number will also change.

Vu’ cumpra’ in fuga dai vigili travolgono due turiste (“Illegal handbag-sellers fleeing the police knock over two women tourists,” reported Monday, July 23);  Blitz antiabusivi, agente travolto (“Blitz against the illegal handbag sellers, an agent knocked down,” reported Tuesday, July 24).  

Nothing new here except the quantity of victims.

Translation: “”Vu’ cumpra'” is the African-accent rendition of “Vuoi comprare?” or “Do you want to buy?” It has become the generic nickname for the entire category. “Abusivi” is a general term which could be applied to anyone doing something without a license which requires a license.  (Hence drug dealers or prostitutes, for example, wouldn’t be called “abusivi.”)

In Venetian terms, an abusivo could be a clam fishermen who digs mollusks out of season, in forbidden areas, in excessive quantities.  It can also describe the new self-appointed porters, mostly Eastern European men, who semi-threaten tourists in order to carry their luggage over the Calatrava Bridge for money.

But it most often is used to describe the street-sellers of counterfeit handbags and other objects such as sunglasses and tiny camera tripods.  There are so many of them in critical tourist areas (Riva degli Schiavoni, Calle Larga XX Marzo, Strada Nuova) that the undermanned police forces make only sporadic efforts to punish them.  They arrest whomever they can catch, they take their goods, they might even take them to court, briefly. Next day — sorry, next hour — everything has returned to exactly the way it was.

A typical scene. I would have taken some pictures myself, but I’m afraid of them too. (Published on, perhaps taken by the author, Giovanna D’Arbitrio.)

The only reason the abusivi might deserve a place in the Gazzettino would be either the assault by the police, or an unusually large amount of merchandise taken away, or physical harm to whatever unfortunate human was in their way as they were fleeing at top speed down narrow streets and around corners. In this case, two of the above.

Running into people, I note, is a good thing for the fleeing abusivi because it means that at least some of the pursuing officers have to stop to look after the injured person.

On Monday, July 23, a surprise “attack” on the sellers in the Calle Larga XX Marzo was made around 7:00 PM, when the shops begin to close and the street begins to be lined with bag-sellers.  This action was a result of a petition signed by the merchants who say that potential customers are afraid to pass the vu’ cumpra’ to enter their stores.  These petitions are also perennial.

The agents blocked all the exits, so to speak, and swooped down.  They carried away some 400 items, mostly bags, a trifling amount, as well as 15 sellers, half of whom were clandestine (i.e., here without permission) and some of whom already had long, dense rap sheets on file.  But some of the sellers fought back, particularly the one who violently pushed one agent who fell to the pavement.

Around 11:00 PM last Saturday night, on the bridge by the Danieli Hotel, a similar scene involved a woman bowled over by a man running away loaded with his bulky bag of stuff. No major harm done to her; it appears that the man got away.

Sunday afternoon around 3:00 PM in Campo San Zulian, the same scenario: Running man ricochets off woman.  No major harm here either, but it’s not much more attractive to watch than it is to experience.

You may ask why this situation persists.  Everyone wants to know the answer to this question.  If I ever find out, I will immediately let you know. The answer might even be published in the oldspaper.



Categories : MOSE, Problems
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Feeding the family

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Ask any kid and naturally he or she is going to say that fish should be sold to buy all this.

Lino thinks I’m going deaf, but I think I still hear too much.

Example: Yesterday morning on the bus.  To be precise, the CA bus on the Lido, which I had boarded with a suitcase full of laundry, bound for the laundromat. Useless details, but I like to set the scene.

A very old lady sat down in front of me.  A young-middle-aged man sat down facing her.  They began to talk.  It wasn’t really what I think of as conversation — it was more like verbal badminton in which cliche’s are used in place of the shuttlecock.

It started with the usual sort of pleasantries (“Am I taking up too much room?” “No no, not at all,” and so forth).

Then they began to bat remarks back and forth.

“Unbelievable wind.”

“The bora.”

“Yes, the bora.”

“It will last for three days.”

“It always does.”

“Of course, now it’s cooler, which is good.”

“Yes, the heat has gone on too long.”

“We need rain, though.”

“Yes, the drought is bad now.  I was at Jesolo yesterday and there were incredible sandstorms on the beach.”

“Still, what can you do?”

“The weather does what it wants.”

(How true.)

(Are you still with me?)

I must have drifted off for a minute because I lost the thread, if there was one.  In any case, they left the weather and moved on to the History of Large Families.  Perhaps there was a link somewhere. It might have been Weather in the Old Days. People here love to talk about the way it used to be, in their lives or the life of somebody else. The further back, the better, because then your listener can’t contradict you.

I checked back in at the point where the man was talking.  “My grandfather had ten children,” he said..  (So we’re far back in the Olden Times when life was hard but people were honest and we were all better off when we were worse off.  I’ve heard this so many times.)

“He used to go out fishing,” the man continued.  So far, so normal.  Lots of men did this to keep the family alive. “Then he’d take his catch and sell it, and buy steaks.”

He did what? I’m no genius of domestic economy, but even with only two kids this isn’t a scenario I’d ever have come up with.  You take fish, which are free and are hugely nutritious, and you sell them — I’m good so far — and then you buy steak?  Does the word “shoes” not come to mind?  Books? The electric bill?  I’d even accept “wine”  before we got to steak.

Then I had to get off the bus with my dirty clothes, so I’ll never know what the old lady’s response was.  Maybe everybody did that back in the old days.  You were taught to sell fish for beef right after you learned how to knit a new heel onto an old wool sock, or shine the copper polenta pot using lemon and salt.

The world may be crazy now, but it doesn’t appear to have been much saner back then, either, no matter how honest and hardworking the people might have been.

Any parent knows that kids should be eating this, not steak. And certainly not fish.

Or perhaps the father hoped to come home with something resembling the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 19th century)….

…while imagining them as a herd of stampeding buffalo in Nebraska (William Henry Jackson, 19th century).

Categories : Food, Venetian History
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Redentore: the shore report

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A glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco at 7:00 PM, when the wind and waves made the prospect of staying out on a boat all night something less than appealing. But what are wind and waves when you’ve paid money to drink and dance to deafening house-techno-grunge music for hours?

After all the mutterings on and about the eve of the big feast day (the eve, as you know, being at least as big as the day itself), here is how it all came out.  I’ve waited a few days because I needed to let all the post-festa hot air, super-heated words, pumice dust, and floating cinders all burn out from the assorted arguments about what did and didn’t happen.

Here goes:


The wind dropped.  The rain did not fall.  There were something like 90,000 spectators/participants that evening, according to the Comune. (The firemen and the gondoliers at the Molo at Piazza San Marco estimated many fewer.)  Whatever the number, I guess that’s good — anyway, people didn’t stay home in front of the TV eating soggy pizza.

This inexplicable vessel was boarding passengers on the Lido, down toward the Alberoni. Whatever it’s usually used for, it didn’t seem to fit any of the categories that were made to worry about fines.

Also good, though not a Good Sign: We didn’t go out in a boat, a decision we spent all evening congratulating ourselves on having made.  We’d have been rammed to splinters, then sunk.  And anyway, it wouldn’t have been any fun to be in a small wooden boat in the midst of the masses of floating migrating mammoths.  We also discovered that being on shore meant you could see lots of other things going on, which was more diverting than settling for what you can see from a boat tied to a piling for hours on end.

People at Sant’ Elena have known for years that they’ve got the best seat in the house without leaving solid earth. Picnic tables, blankets, room for the dogs to run around — what’s missing but a few trillion waves?

Not so good:

We didn’t go out in a boat. Like almost everybody else who has hung on to the Old Way, who even accepted the gracious concession a few years ago of a tiny patch of water dedicated to boats with oars where we could feel safe, we finally faced  the fact that a motorless boat is a suicide boat.  I don’t believe anyone went out in a craft powered by fewer than 40 horses.

There were very few topomotori and pescherecci, as far as I could see and rumor can report.  The Gazzettino said that there were estimates of some 800 fewer boats than usual.  In fact, they were almost completely absent. That’s a lot of no-shows.This has been interpreted as precisely the result desired by….. I don’t know who.  “They.”  “They don’t want Venetians anymore.”  “They only want tourists who come and spend money.”

The waterfront which has customarily been left free for the pescherecci to tie up to was occupied by yachts.

In any case, the threats from the Capitaneria di Porto evidently had a powerful effect. Only 6-10 topomotori braved the hazardous waters of the Bacino supposed mined with fines.

One of the few hardy pescherecci, or fishing boats, that made the trek up to Venice for the fun. All the men on the bow are probably yelling “Land Ho!”

The Laguna Trasporti company decided to face the risk of fines straight on and sent three boats out into the fray. After dark, may I note.

This is a not-atypical boat heading for the Bacino of San Marco. It’s not how they look that’s so unnerving (a lie), it’s how they sound. Boats like this turned the entire lagoon into a pounding roar that was like standing inside a throbbing boil on your knee.

I add, for the record, that the newspaper states that the Comune had repeatedly denied that there were going to be massive document-checks — the mayor says it was a mysterious rumor accumulated via the internet that created all the tsuris. But the mayor also made clear that the Comune wasn’t in charge of the waters patrolled by the Capitaneria.  This is akin to saying “I didn’t forbid you to get married, but I’m not a Justice of the Peace.”  The mayor also denied that the threat of fines had any effect on the decision of people to come in topi or fishing boats.  Next he’ll be telling us that gravity isn’t really what keeps everything stuck to the surface of the earth.

The sub-mayor for Tourism cheerfully said the absence of boats was probably due to the discouraging weather forecast, and that the absence of the working boats (full of Venetian families, I note) made the departure of smaller boats safer.  My own experience of nearly 20 years out on the tumultuous waters of the Bacino after the last firework fades leads me to doubt this.  The most hazardous boats aren’t the topomotori, but the big shiny craft loaded with people from the hinterland. It was noted that most of these craft were visibly overloaded, but nobody in uniform pulled up to demand to see their license and registration and lifejackets and safety flares and on and on and on.

Here is a summary of the no-working-boats-or-you’ll-be-fined situation.  A mere 40 penalties were imposed, and that was for “viability violations,” which I take to mean parking in the middle of the road, so to speak.

The mayor said “The campaign spread (about the checking of working boats) turned out to be a boomerang.  I myself denied many times any intention to turn the screws on the boats during the festa, but they preferred not to listen and now everybody can see who was right and who was wrong.”

“We took the warning seriously,” said Giovanni Grandesso, representing the working boats that belong to the artisans’ association.  “The people were afraid.  But what we were supposed to do?  The vigili (local police) told us this in the presence of the sub-mayor for waterborne traffic.  If this is said in an official meeting and the sub-mayor keeps quiet, what were we supposed to do? They also said, ‘You know perfectly well you’re not allowed to carry people.’  And this made us think.  We then asked for a meeting with the office of the sub-mayor, but it was all too late.  All that was needed was to have clarified this at the beginning — it’s too easy to tell us now that we misunderstood.”

As you see, all the fireworks don’t explode in the sky.

And speaking of fireworks:

The fireworks: Quantity:  The show was curtailed from 45 minutes to 32.  (Lest we might be tempted to forget that “no ghe xe schei.”)

The fireworks: Quality:  What we saw was evidently culled from the “factory seconds,” “slightly defective,” “previously owned” barrel because they were possibly the most boring pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen.  I am a fireworks fanatic, so it actually takes very little to please me. But these were so generic, so predictable, so perfunctory that even ten minutes of stale rocketry seemed like 45. Lino and I (we discovered later) were both standing there thinking, “Can we go home now?”  Of course we could have gone home, but we each thought the other wanted to stay, so we said nothing in order to be good sports.  That shows how much difference it made for me to learn to speak Italian: None.  You might know 15,000 words and be able to conjugate every verb down to the remote past imperfect, but  in order to communicate you’ve got to actually say something.

Forget the fireworks: It was more fun watching the kids from Chioggia jump into the canal from the ponte dell’ Arsenale. You’d be amazed how much foam three people hitting the water together can make.

Terrifyingly Not Good:  While everybody was getting themselves worked into a lather about what could happen to somebody out there in a boat, nobody gave any thought to what could happen to somebody on a packed-solid vaporetto dock at 1:30 in the morning.

Because the dock was mobbed — and mobs tend to think in big simple terms like “Me! First! Now!” and not in terms like “Watch your step” or “After you, my dear Alphonse” — somebody almost got crushed between the arriving vaporetto and the dock.

As the vaporetto (also overloaded with people thinking in big simple terms) began to pull up to the dock to tie up and let people on and off, the heavy waves caused by the departing mammoths in the darkness made the equally heavy and bulky vehicle leap and plunge.  The mob on the dock began to push forward get nearer the edge to be ready to get on (“Me!  First!”).  The girl slipped and fell between the dock and the boat.

She managed to grab onto the edge, thanks to her backpack snagging on something on the way down, so she didn’t fall completely in the water.  It’s not clear how the vaporetto managed to avoid performing one of its famous plunges against her, the kind that even on a normal day make the dock shake and the metal of the boat’s hull reverberate.

Somehow she got dragged up and out before she was reduced to kindling.  The ambulance took her to the hospital, where the doctors stated that she’d been “miracled,” as the Italian verb so neatly puts it.  If the waves had been bigger she’d have had at least a shattered pelvis.

Solution: Station pontonieri on every dock all night.  These are the individuals at work on certain busy docks who keep the chain stretched that prevents the public from moving toward the boat till it’s stopped and the passengers have gotten off.  The fact that evidently human instinct doesn’t lead you naturally toward this behavior means that a person has to be paid to stand directly in your way with a chain.  But it works.

My conclusion, based on nothing remotely resembling scientific calculations, is that the truly Venetian festa has already begun to move ashore.  It’s a hell of a note, but it was more fun to be with the families and dogs on the street than out on the water surrounded by drunken disco dancing outlanders. The mayor would probably disagree.

Tables began to appear in all sorts of neighborhood nooks.

Even in via Garibaldi, there were as many impromptu parties as there were overflowing restaurants.

This happy group made seats out of anything solid — I’m pretty sure the pair in the middle are on a dismantled desk.

It’s like being in a boat, but without the hassle. I’m thinking we should try this next year.

Or you could do like the gang from Chioggia here — do the boat AND the table ashore. Next to the bridge from which you will soon be hurling yourself. They didn’t need no stinking fireworks.

The banquet set up outside the Navy non-commissioned officers’ club was impressive. Speaking of fines, I’d be doubting that they (or anybody else with a table and a chair) paid the required fee for occupying public space.




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Categories : Venetian Events
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