Archive for August, 2012
I went out this morning on a series of errands and came home more perplexed than when I left. Perplexity is likely to increase wherever humans are to be found, and outside the door there is quite a supply of them.
Example: The little boy and his father who were walking toward me not far from via Garibaldi. As they passed, I heard the boy ask, “E’ bella Parigi?” Is Paris beautiful?
Considering that Paris is the #1 tourist city destination on earth (not made up), it’s not unlikely that his father had been there. What bemused me was that a seven- or eight-year-old boy — from Castello, no less, meaning no disrespect — was at all curious about Paris — that he even knew it existed. If school were in session, I’d have supposed he needed to know for some enigmatic project. But all by himself, he wants to know if Paris is beautiful? Zounds! Where will it end? Next thing you know, he’ll be wanting to construct the Gobi Desert in a bottle, or learn to compose haiku.
Now, though, I wonder if he was talking about Paris Hilton. But no, impossible. Nobody would call her Parigi Hilton.
Still, this is nothing. Consider what happened somewhat earlier on the #5.1 vaporetto going from San Zaccaria to the Lido.
I get on. It’s crowded. So far, so normal.
Down in the hold every seat is taken, and there are plenty of people in the aisle. I edge into a small sliver of space. I turn toward the bow and idly watch the rest of the people getting on.
You should know that the four first seats on the starboard and port sides (two pairs facing each other) are officially reserved for people in the following four categories: Pregnant women, women with children, an injured person, an old person. An adhesive label on each seat demonstrates symbols for these, with the clarification in Italian and English that “old” means 70 and up.
You should also know that these seats are routinely taken by whoever wants them, of whatever nationality or condition, and that people — usually Venetian — of the four appropriate categories almost always have to ask (tell, actually) someone not old or otherwise incapacitated to get up and give them their seat. Sometimes these requests are not polite.
This morning all four seats are taken. Normal. One of them is occupied by a young man, somewhere between 20 and 25.
An old battle-axe comes down the steps and sees that all the seats are occupied. Normal. The young man does not get up. Also normal, unfortunately. It’s a rare person who gets up for the old and infirm or pregnant, unless their mother or wife commands them to do so.
The elderly man sitting on the aisle gets up and gives her his seat. Not very normal, but very nice.
Seated, the old lady fixes the young man with a stadium-floodlight glare, and a gesture of explication intended to clarify that he doesn’t belong where he’s sitting. Also normal, but usually ineffectual.
But wait! He gets up! He doesn’t debate, he doesn’t rebut, he just gets up and goes to the aisle, where he stands with his beach stuff for the rest of the trip.
This is incredible. First, because he responds, and second, because he has not vacated the seat for anyone in particular. He has merely vacated the seat because he’s supposed to. The usual response would have been along the lines of “Well you’re sitting down now, so you obviously don’t need a seat, so get off my back.”
Meanwhile, there’s an empty seat! Manna from heaven! Water from the rock! But does somebody else nab it? No! This is where the strangeness really begins. The vaporetto is full, yet not one single person makes the tiniest move toward that seat. True, it’s by the window, which means climbing over the two people facing each other on the aisle, but this is a tiny inconvenience compared to the dazzling value of finding a place to sit.
I am here to tell you that that seat remained empty for the rest of the trip. Nobody took it. When we pulled up to the Lido, it was still empty. Empty seats on vaporettos are the vacuum which nature is said to abhor — they actually cannot exist. It was as if some extraordinary force-field had surrounded it, repelling humans. There the seat was, and there it remained, a tiny island of space in the midst of a sea of people.
Back to the young man. Why did he do this? There could be only one explanation: He was some well-brought-up, easily cowed visitor from some Anglo-Saxon land, where floodlight-glares convey real meaning and inspire real reactions. I had to find out.
So I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he spoke English. A few pleasant but broken words revealed that he didn’t, very much. Italian? Much better!
It turns out that not only was he Italian (I presume he still is), but he comes from Mestre, just over the bridge. Which makes the entire event utterly incomprehensible.
I was standing in the shade of the dead ticket booth by the vaporetto dock at the Giardini, waiting for Lino to get home from rowing. Two men were talking just behind me. They were electricians, or something, doing some little task for the transport company which involved rolling up bits of cable and suchlike.
One was talking to the other. He said (translation by me, obviously):
“I was in Jesolo (a nearby beach town) and I was standing in line at the checkout at the supermarket.
“There was an old lady behind me with a cart full of stuff.
“She asked me, ‘Young man, could you let me go before you? I left a pot cooking on the stove.’
“And I said, ‘Sorry, but I left my two-month-old son out in the car alone.’
“She said, ‘ARE YOU CRAZY??’
“So ‘I’m crazy leaving my kid in the car?’ I said. “You left the pot cooking on the stove.'”
I just started laughing. Because it was obvious to him (and to me) that the untended pot was a fable, something she made up so she could jump ahead. Little old people can be brilliant at inventing these fake dramas.
“If she’d said, ‘My feet are killing me,’ I’d have let her go ahead,” he told me. “But a pot on the stove? Naaah.”
Now that I come to think of it, I don’t know whether his kid in the car was a fable, too. It wouldn’t surprise me. He was pretty sharp.
All of this happened before noon today. I need to take my brain in for a 5,000-mile checkup; I think some parts are wearing out.
It’s true, I have been AWOL. AWOL is an acronym for “moving slowly and holding still in the shade while trying to breathe.”
We are now experiencing the seventh hideous heatwave of the summer. I realize we are not unique in this, but I can only speak about what I know. Today it’s hotter in Torino than it is in Palermo.
Each wave has swept over us from the Sarahan wastes of northern Africa, and the only thing interesting about them has been the series of nicknames they’ve been given. I can’t remember them all, but there was “Ulysses” (not sure why), then “Charon” (that’s cheerful), and we even saw the “Colossus of the Deserts” come and go, leaving space for some appropriately catastrophic Roman emperors: Nero and Caligula. I’m sorry the naming committee changed course before giving a moment of glory to Pertinax or Hostilian, but probably they weren’t gory enough.
Moving on, at the moment we’re undergoing the torments of “Lucifer” — another week of temperatures over 100 degrees F. in wide swathes of the old Belpaese. In Venice we have occasionally gotten a bonus of 100 percent humidity. Everything is soggy. This is far beyond poor but honest little afa. Life was good back when a dog-day remained modestly canine, without changing into the Beast of Gevaudan.
On the subject of names, I’m not sure how to surpass the Great Deceiver, but I think we should branch out in finding a big name for the next heatwave — something more international-like. Perhaps “Vlad the Impaler” could work. “Leopold II of Belgium.” “Genghis Khan.”
Crops are devastated by the drought (did I mention the drought?). Not only is 80 per cent of cultivation destroyed in some areas of Italy, even the mussel crop has died off in the overheated waters of their little habitat. And there is the daily disaster of fires scorching endless acres of woodland. One hundred and ten fires just today, most of them ignited intentionally. Forget trips to the Alps: they’re melting too.
All this is not an attempt to seek sympathy, though of course I wouldn’t reject it. It’s just to say I have not forgotten the daily chronicle, but the contents of my cranial cavity have been kept functioning at the most elementary level only by emergency applications of espresso and gelato.
I was coming home the other evening from the Lido on the #1 vaporetto.
Sound simple? Not then, or any other evening in the summer. Because it was in that period — late afternoon/early evening — when every sort of human in every sort of combination leaves the beach and, like me, heads hearth-ward. Strollers! Mothers! Dogs! Coolers and bags! Kids of all species! Old people scattered along the lower strata, babies strewn along the upper layers of a mass of people which I’m pretty sure exceeds the posted maximum passenger number, or tonnage. Whichever is higher.
Before the ACTV added extra lines and runs, this experience was like the fall of Saigon. Now it’s only like being in a one-ring circus that has been turned upside down and had a big graduated compression stocking pulled over it.
As usual, I headed for a corner near the exit on the shoreward side and held still. As the people swarmed aboard, I noticed a small group of ladies of the proverbial Certain Age. I think there were four of them. They were all well-dressed in a sporty sort of way, and their low-key way of talking didn’t give any hint as to where they might be headed. At that time of day, women of a C.A. are usually detailed to haul home their hot, over-tired grandchildren.
About halfway between the Lido and the first stop, Sant’ Elena, I suddenly realized that the girl next to me had given way in a dead faint. She didn’t fall — she seemed to have spread herself gently along the floor parallel to the gate. But there she was, long, broad and very still.
But I was slow to catch on. The corps of LidoLadies had already seen everything, and gone into action. One of them held the girl’s legs up in the air; one of them patted her cheeks; one of them pulled out a small, cold bottle of water and held it against her face; one of them somehow got a cookie into her mouth (I saw the jaws working, so that was good). The girl came to just as one of them was asking the mob at large if anybody had a piece of candy. A young mother managed to find a non-sugarfree gumdrop, fruit flavor.
By the time we pulled up at Sant’ Elena, the girl was on her feet, smiling, extending her thanks, requesting pardon, emptying a square packet of sugar into her mouth, and so forth. She got off and went home.
I’ll tell you what: It’s not the victim that left an impression on me. It’s the astounding Lafayette Escadrille of middle-aged women (dames whose greatest concern normally appears whether to drink their spritz with Aperol or Campari) who Saved the Day. I’m guessing they weren’t heading for the weekly mah-jongg game after all, but a meeting of the Sodality of the Retired Emergency Volunteers of Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk.
Some people — and I would have been one of them — might have thought of calling an ambulance, or a doctor-in-the-house, or the firemen, or the Red Cross. Not anymore. I’m seriously considering tacking a little card to my chest that says “In case of emergency, call those four Ladies from the Lido and just stand back.”