Archive for December, 2012


Detritus of 2012

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This would be an appropriate expression for anybody, whether looking forward or looking back. But maybe things will get better.

I’ve never been keen on New Year’s, nor have I ever felt an urge to celebrate it.  My instinct is to hide under the bed until after midnight.  But that’s just me.

I can’t  do one of those end-of-year reviews, it would wear me out.  Living it once was enough.  But bits of detritus are still flying off the stern of the Good Ship World as we speed toward the next 12 months, at least as seen from over here.  Before they sink (and may it be soon), here are a few:

Mrs. Ex-Berlusconi’s alimony.  Veronica Lario is certainly ending the year on a high note. It’s been determined that she will get 36 million euros ($48,000,000) a year in alimony.  Or $4 million a month. Berlusconi is trying desperately to get himself re-elected premier of Italy, but I think a settlement of these dimensions makes it hard to take him seriously as a person who has the well-being of his country in his hands.  But I think she would make a fantastic prime minister!  Secretary of the Treasury!  Chief Comptroller! If she ever wants to run for anything, she’s got my vote.

Don Piero Corsi and his opinions on “femminicidio.” The parish priest of the church of San Terenzo in Lerici published a broadside last week concerning the endless series of murders of women in Italy, awkwardly termed “femminicidio.”  First of all, I learned that more women meet a violent death in Italy than in any other European country. But he went at the subject from another angle, urging women to take a good long look at themselves to see how far they might be “provoking” such a crime.

I’m not going to translate it for you, but you can imagine the mushroom cloud of outrage that’s bloomed from all sides.  He hasn’t published a retraction, but the bishop has put him on what might be termed “administrative leave.”  (Spiritual retreat?  Re-education camp?). I was following all this with some form of calm until a perfervid feminist wrote a letter to the Gazzettino objecting to the ugliness of the word “femminicidio.”  Let me go on record as saying that compared to the act it represents, the word is as the “Hallelujah Chorus” sung by seraphim.  Let’s not waste time niggling about terminology — at least he got people talking about something that obviously needs to be talked about.

Divorced fathers sleeping in cars.  This isn’t a funny line, it’s another view of the economic crisis as lived over here in the so-called Belpaese where, according to a cliche’ I sometimes hear, “people really know how to live.”  There is a disturbing number of men in Padua whose alimony payments have eviscerated their budgets (is one of them Silvio Berlusconi?).  By the time they’ve paid the monthly support, they have almost nothing left over. So they are sleeping in their cars under an overpass, banded together for protection.  They wash at work and eat at the Mission with the destitute immigrants and alcoholic street people. I feel sorry for everyone, but these fathers have punched a hole in my heart.

Most dangerous items on New Year’s Eve: Homemade fireworks and clams. Tons of bivalves from Tunisia were checked at the port of Salerno and found to be harboring so many contaminants that, to protect the environment as well as people, the clams are being incinerated.  The importer has to pay the incineration fee: 10,000 euros. And a fine. Nice. But there are undoubtely plenty of other clams out there waiting for their big moment.  Eat beans.  Make your own explosives.

Last non-news of 2012 and probably first non-news of 2013: The Calatrava Bridge still has problems. The ACTV continues its extraordinary managerial contortions.  I can’t remember the rest, but the list is long.

Now to something beautiful.  I do love one thing about New Year’s Eve here, and that is going to the last mass of the year at San Marco, and hearing them chant the Te Deum in Latin — the only time in the year that this occurs. I love it, not because I think it’s a spectacle, but because in spite of everything, we’re supposed to thank God for all His blessings, even the ones we don’t know about, and especially the ones we thought weren’t. The Te Deum does all that.

See you on the other side.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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The last rant of 2012, I promise

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A touch of Christmas spirit, hung out to dry.  Festive photographs are added to this post to mitigate the rantage.

I can’t resist — well, I don’t know if I can’t, because I haven’t tried — recounting the latest arabesques from the ACTV.  And lest you think I am obsessed with the public transport system here, let me defend my little manias by saying that it’s not so much the ACTV that I’m obsessed with so much as I am with absurdities and preposterosities.  They have a fatal fascination for me.  My father was the same way.  And the ACTV is the Venetian equivalent of Old Faithful, gushing an unfailing flood of reckless absurdity over the the lives of innocent, unoffending travelers who have paid their money to go somewhere and have found themselves instead on the road to the looney bin.

Christmas Day.  I thought everybody knew that the entire world has important plans which involve some sort of travel.  But if you were to have been so ill-starred as to need to go between the Lido and Tronchetto (d/b/a/ the mainland) on the morning of our Saviour’s birth, you’d have spent all morning praying in your car.  A car almost certainly loaded with children, gifts for relatives, and perhaps foodstuffs not packed for long-term transport.

Poinsettias (known here as “stella di Natale,” or “Christmas star”) are always a good theme for a tablecloth. They’re so pretty.  And they don’t have to be watered.

According to the report in the Gazzettino, the reserved spaces for cars on the ferryboats for Christmas Day had been sold out almost a week earlier.  Which meant that — not to put too fine a point on it — the ACTV had time to prepare reinforcements, because it is obvious to anyone who has ever been alive on Christmas Day that masses of people who needed to travel but hadn’t managed to book a space would just show up.  And so it was: On the morning of one of the busiest travel days in the year, hundreds of cars were lined up, at the Lido and also at Tronchetto, just waiting.

This was Olympics-level waiting, waiting on the grand scale.  Because the ACTV had put only two (2) ferryboats into service that morning.  One (1) going each way.

The two “flagships” (“Lido di Venezia” and “San Nicolo'”) were out of service for scheduled maintenance work.  Not emergency maintenance, which would be moderately excusable, but work that had been scheduled by some large intellect for the holiday period.  Not only does this border on madness from the public-service point of view, it’s also insane because who would be working over Christmas?  Except, I mean, in an emergency capacity.

The enraged would-be passengers began a surge of protest on Facebook and (I suppose) Twitter.  The ACTV, roused by this from its torpor, launched extra boats — the two smallest ferries, “Marco Polo” at 12:05 and “Ammiana” (no heating, but who cares at this point) at 12:20.  For someone who might have had a two-hour trip ahead of them, this wouldn’t translate as “Way to go, ACTV, you’ve saved the day,” but “Thanks, ACTV, you’ve dismembered my Christmas.”

Note: Due to the “excellent work” of Mauro Minio, may his tribe increase and all go to work for the ACTV, the “Lido di Venezia” was sufficiently repaired in order to begin service that afternoon at 4:00 PM.

All this needs no comment from me, but why should that stop me?  The ACTV isn’t expected to stop the war in Syria.  It isn’t expected to eradicate malaria.  It isn’t expected to adopt Ukrainian orphans.  It isn’t expected to anything but provide the means, for payment, by which the public may go from here to there. But that seems to be too much to expect. Pay, yes.  Transport you to where you’re going? In the immortal words of Jack Benny, they’re thinking about it, they’re thinking about it.

Must keep foremost in mind the reason for all this wild activity. My vote goes to this scene; I’ve never seen a fuzzy pipe-cleaner palm tree before, but next year I want an entire oasis made of them.

Breaking news: The ACTV has announced a severe crackdown on scofflaws who ride for free.  Naturally there are people who skip the ticket-buying process. The company makes cheating irresistible, what with gouging the passengers with the price of tickets and then not bothering to maintain any system of checking them (I cannot remember, even if you promised me a house in Aspen, the last time a ticket-checker appeared).

Furthermore, ever since the new, computerized system of electronic tickets replaced the old paper version, you’re required to “beep” your ticket on a little machine before climbing aboard.  Even if you have a month’s pass, you’re required to “beep.”  Anyone caught with an un-beeped ticket is counted as someone who didn’t pay.

No one has ever understood why a person with a once-beeped monthly pass has to keep beeping it or be punished. The ACTV says it’s to get accurate statistics on ridership.

For a while, the ACTV put posters up in the vaporettos and buses complimenting themselves that the percentage of freeloaders had dropped from 8.20 percent to 1.16 percent under their intense vigilance.  But the numbers conceal an unpleasant fact, which is that the directors’ bonuses are directly linked to the percentage of deadbeats they catch. In the real world, that would make sense.  Prizes are supposed to be given for performance. But wait.

Davide Scalzotto wrote about this in the Gazzettino a month ago, headined (I translate): “The mystery of onboard evasion, and the mystery of the company’s bonuses.”  It was inspired by the press conference held to announce the new program to install turnstiles on the docks (there already are some in operation) and buses, turnstiles which are going to stop freeloaders forever.  But the company didn’t give specific numbers to delineate the dimensions of the problem, making it impossible to know how efficient they actually have been and, more to the point, how necessary these expensive turnstiles really are.

The only reason to go anywhere by any means of transport is to eat and drink. And wash up.

As Scalzotto points out, the ACTV is stuck.  If they admit that evasion is high, they don’t have any basis for awarding bonuses.  But on the other hand, if they say evasion is low (“We did it!”), they don’t have any basis for justifying the new turnstiles.

The data provided by the ACTV shows that in 2009 (one year after the electronic, or IMOB, system was instituted), the rate of evasion on the vaporettos was 0.49 percent, and on the buses was 1.72 percent.  In 2011 the rate was 0.64 percent on water and 2.12 on land.

The limit below which bonuses are automatically awarded is fixed at 0.70 and 2.0 percent. This is extraordinary: The numbers given for diminished evasion are just a squeak under the limit which permits the bonuses. I’m not sure how they got around the 2.0 ceiling, but bonuses to the ACTV are like rain in Cherrapunjee, India: Inevitable.

Now a city councilor, Sebastiano Costalonga, has opened an inquiry which will seek to obtain the certifiable passenger/evasion numbers from 2010 to today, and discover the parameters which are used to determine the bonuses.

But keep this in mind.  The ACTV has declared that they’re 8 million euros in the red.  The turnstiles will cost around 5 million euros.  Apart from the fact that these turnstiles will create a sack of problems, as we say here, for the passengers, how can the ACTV keep raising ticket prices because they’re broke, if at the same time they’re so ready to spend money they don’t have?

For something which — if their own numbers are to be believed — isn’t necessary in the first place.  Because if they really have driven down the percentage of cheapskates with hardly any turnstiles, what’s the point of adding more turnstiles?

I promise to change the subject in 2013.  Not for the entire year, but at least for a little while.

Happy New Year.

Wishing everyone a year full to the brim with everything wonderful.

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This year the students at the Francesco Morosini Naval School, aided and abetted by the chaplain, Don Gianni, put together a lagoon Nativity scene. It’s very cool that the Three Kings are arriving aboard a classic boat, a “sampierota.” They wisely left their camels behind, perhaps to leave space to bring everybody back to the mainland from this little sandbank after Epiphany.

Christmas this year (so far) has been the most subdued I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the spirit that is lacking, but the fundage.  I don’t need to remind you that yes, we have no money.

Christmas lights no longer festoon via Garibaldi, though a few indomitable individuals have put up some illumination.  I salute them. They obviously have nothing to fear from the energy companies.

And speaking of indomitable, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the neighborhood pastry-wizard has outdone himself in widening the space between size and price in his festive offerings.  An ingenious little creation (note the use of the word “little”) of chocolate shavings and lumps of torrone, representing an Alpine village — the sort of thing which usually adorns a liquor-and-mascarpone-sodden cake — is now being offered without the cake.  For the same inflated price.  If I were to want to spend 30 euros ($40) for a plate of chocolate fragments, I would…. No, I wouldn’t, actually. If I had 30 euros to spend on a present, I’d give somebody a batch of bees via the Heifer Project.  At least that way the gift would propagate.  No propagation powers yet discovered in the world of ostentatious confections. End of sermon.

An example of the minimalist approach to the Christmas cake. He has made a version which costs “only” 30 euros, but you see the style. It’s on a cardboard base about the size of a luncheon plate, if anybody uses those anymore. Not small, but not big, either. Not 30-euros big, in any case.

This is what a normal, standard-issue Christmas cake looks like. True, you can’t eat much of it, and what you do eat sort of haunts you for hours. But at least you’re getting something in return for your cash.

Day before yesterday, feeling the onset of the big day, we had a party at our rowing club.  It was great.  Because the tornado last June destroyed our clubhouse, we now cling to the edge of the lagoon with our boats parked under two big tents, with a container serving as locker room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kind of container they give to earthquake survivors.  It works, but it’s not a long-term plan.

A table, panettone and wine, and people: It’s a party! The fog invited itself.

Just to give an idea of the atmosphere. We’ve had more fog than high water so far this year by a factor of at least ten, and fog is arguably more dangerous than acqua alta to most activities (I’m thinking of fatal collisions, and also getting lost). But fog just doesn’t seem to excite reporters in the same way.

It was a modest, Bob-Cratchity sort of celebration but the most important elements were there:  Fizzy wine (not the usual prosecco, but somebody’s home-bottled lambrusco), panettone and pandoro (my favorite, as is anything involving extra sugar), and smiling people. The frigid foggy wind was thrown in at no extra cost.

Another bonus was having time to hang around with some of the old guys and hear them geeze about the old days.  I pick up unexpected bits of lore this way.  This time I learned why gondoliers hate the nickname “pasta e oca” (pasta and goose).

Lino (whose grandfather was a gondolier, as is his son) says that they ate pasta and goose because they’ve always been “grandoni” — that is, tending toward the grandiose.  Someone added, however, that in his opinion they hated being called this nickname because the dish (which I’ve never tried) is a sort of viscid, mucilaginous preparation which is so revolting it makes you want to barf.  As it was told to me.

In any case, the preferred rejoinder to “Hey, pasta e oca!'” is “And yo’ mama gets the neck!”

Christmas spirit comes in all shapes and sizes, and I liked our standing-around-outside-in-the-freezing-soggy-air version.  There weren’t very many of us, but it didn’t matter.  This would be the only point on which I might agree with the pastry-shark.  When it comes to a festa, it’s not about quantity.

So auguri (ow-GOOR-ee), as we say here.  Technically, “good auguries.”  We no longer practice divination by studying the liver of sacrificial animals, or the flight of birds, so I’ll translate this as “Good wishes!”

Our irrepressible neighbors along the canal have thrown caution somewhere — to the wind, or into the water– and favored us with all these sparkles.  In these purlieus, the Christmas star leads , not to the Baby Jesus, but to the laundry on the line.

Heading out to do some errands this morning, I came across a festive garbage collector. He turned the corner about ten seconds ahead of me, and when I turned it he was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. I’m thinking Santa has turned his sleigh in and is working with the ecological operator’s wagon.

Near San Giovanni Crisostomo, I came across a kiosk selling a vast assortment of figurines for your own Nativity set at home. In addition to the Holy Family, shepherds, angel, ox, ass, and Three Kings, you could have a woodcutter, with wood.

Here is a couple eating pizza, something I’ve always felt that Nativity scenes lacked. And a butcher with large sections of just-cut-up animals.

The sign says this woman is a “battipanni,” or rug-beater, though technically the battipanni referred to the woven wood paddle she’d use to pound the dust out of the carpets. Just so you know. Still, an excellent person to have in your Christmas creche, what with all the swaddling cloths and probably saddle cloths too, for the donkey.

A tailor would be an excellent person to have on the team; here she’s busy making shirts.

Someone to re-upholster your sofa or ottoman. You could get everything in your house fixed up by Epiphany, at this rate.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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Transports of delight — NOT

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From the Rialto Bridge, you can see four busy vaporettos practically nose to tail. And this was a meaningless morning in April. As summer approaches, there are more. Actually, there are more now, too. It’s not that one of them makes so many waves, it’s that all of them together make plenty.  So a solution was sought.  And bought and paid for.

Every time I tell an arriving friend that a single ride on the vaporetto here is going to cost 7 euros ($9.26), I stifle a shriek. Though if I were to let myself shriek, it might cover the sound of my friend’s shriek. Or gasp. Or disbelieving laugh.

Why vocalize at all?  Because the city covers roughly a mere four square miles (ten square kilometers), and while ten dollars may not seem unreasonable if you want to travel the length of the Grand Canal on the faithful #1 from Piazzale Roma on to the end of the line at the Lido (apart from the crushing crowds, it could qualify as one of the cheaper scenic boat tours in the world, I guess), it seems a demented price if you only need to go four or five stops.

For the record, I have done some calculations, and the average distance between stops is 1,141 feet (348 meters).  The time involved in each leg is usually around five minutes.  If you only need to go a few stops, the price comes to a lot per minute. It’s true that you can often reach your destination faster on foot, but not if you’re lost, and dragging suitcases the size and weight of the foundation stones of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon.

Note to readers: There are unlimited-ride tickets available for specified lengths of time for much less per ride, but that’s beside my point.

Returning to my point: The cost of public transportation in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world.  It wasn’t always thus, back when there were more residents than tourists. But over the years, although the number of residents has fallen, the number of tourists has risen which, according to my primitive notion of economics, ought to mean that the price of a ticket should shrink. Silly me.

“We have no money” remains the one-size-fits-all justification given by the ACTV, the transport company, for anything it does or doesn’t do; it has adopted this motto from the city government as a whole (note: the city is a part shareholder in the ACTV).

But why do we have no money?  One reason could be the effect of the thieving ticket-sellers; there was a lively period in which sticky-fingered employees were turning up all over, discovered selling tickets worth a fraction of the price they charged for them and pocketing the difference, or counterfeiting tickets (back in the paper-ticket days), or other simple little dodges that worked surprisingly well for a surprisingly long time, taking home what amounted to multiple thousands of euros.

Another reason for the belt-tightening which was given in the somewhat distant past (and my favorite): “Do you have any idea what a can of paint costs?” Visions pass through my mind of surging oceans of paint upon which little bits of tickets are floating.

But a new glimpse of why they have no money may be discerned in a recent series of detailed articles in the Gazzettino, and the reason is the simplest of all: The ACTV has no money because they’ve spent way too much of it, particularly on failed conveyances.

This is the “Waves-eater” as shown in the Gazzettino (uncredited). If I had time, I’d try to find out why it wasn’t lagoon-worthy, just out of morbid curiosity.

There was the revolutionary vaporetto dubbed the “Mangia-onde” (or Waves-Eater, a nice, Norse-saga sort of nickname) which was going to banish waves and make their destructive effects a fading memory. It was built by the M Ship Co, of San Diego, California. One craft was bought and came to Venice in 1999 to great fanfare and trailing clouds of glory and the promise of the salvation of the city from motondoso.

But it was too good to be true. Not because it created waves, but because it created problems.  For example, it wasn’t adapted to lagoon conditions (I take that to mean it was unstable); it didn’t pass under the bridges, such as the Ponte delle Guglie, and also the hull wasn’t fireproof.

The Mangia-onde was taken to a shipyard in Castello where it sat, abandoned, for 13 years. A few weeks ago this once-proud herald of the future, which had cost 900,000,000 lire (464,811 euros, or $651,061) was sold to a private buyer for 20,000 euros ($26,465). Without the motor.  Nobody seems to know what happened to it.

The current director of the ACTV, Maurizio Castagna, was also director in the late Nineties. He explained that the boat was put aside because “It didn’t meet the standards of the Italian Naval Registry, and also because of a series of onerous (that means “expensive”) maintenance interventions and adaptations of the boat to the lagoon area.”  One certainly couldn’t be expected to know what the legal nautical standards were (I’m thinking of the fireproofing), or what characteristics a boat has to have in order to putter around the lagoon, especially if you’re in the aquatic transportation business. So that was that.

Bonus digression: The saga of the bargain ferryboat a few years back.  Just more of the  same old from the ACTV.

There is now the “Sandra Z.” to consider, a motonave which the Gazzettino has dubbed the “latest ‘hole in the water’ of the ACTV.”  She too was built and unveiled to great pomp in 1999, and since 2006 she too has been nestling in mothballs.

This unoffending ship was born under an evil star, it seems. An expensive evil star, too: Four million euros, or more than five million dollars. Pretty fancy for a floating storehouse.

She was built (in Messina, curiously, not at a Venetian shipyard, but let’s not get distracted) to carry 1,200 passengers — the perfect vehicle for the pilgrims traveling around Italy in the Jubilee year of 2000 (who never materialized, in Venice, anyway).  But even if they had shown up, they’d have had to start a new round of prayers and supplications after climbing aboard.

The system of propulsion created serious problems of maneuverability.  The “Schottel” (name of its German company) enables the propellers to work at 360 degrees, which — says the Gazzettino — transformed the ship into a sort of spinning top that couldn’t be managed by its captains, not to mention the unpleasant effect on the passengers.

I am not qualified to make any judgment on the qualities of this propulsion system; I have no doubt that it is excellent in many situations.  Just not on a motonave.  Which couldn’t have been tested, it seems, before it was too late.

Four months after its launch, it ran into the wall at the cemetery island of San Michele (four injured); not long after, it ran into the dock at Punta Sabbioni.  The electronic system went crackerdogs.  Finally, in July, 2002, the “Sandra Z.,” pulling away from the Ponte della Paglia by the Doge’s Palace, caused two gondolas to run into each other and their passengers ended up in the drink.

She kept on randomly running into docks until 2006, when the ACTV tied her up and turned her into a floating storehouse.

Cost: 7 miliards of the old lire (4,000,000 euro, or $5,293,000).

No ghe xe schei.” We have no money. I begin to see why.  And I begin to see why vaporetto tickets have to paid for with small gold ingots.

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