Archive for December, 2012


Superfresh fish

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This is what a typical mormora looks like at the moment of its apotheosis (fancy way of saying “Attaining its ultimate purpose in life”). One good thing about leaving the head on is that he looks like he’s good with all this.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that “this” is soon going to close his eyes forever. (Photo by Rude.)

Lino is ruthless when it comes to fish.  If they’re not fresh, they don’t deserve to live.  Or be dead.  Or anyway, be for sale.

He recognizes every symptom; as someone who has spent his life fishing in the lagoon, he knows virtually every creature, its habitat, its life story (pretty much the way he knows people), and he especially knows when the fish on sale in the Pescheria is — as they say — “tired.”

Think about it: The fish is dead, but only then does it begin to tire out. But apart from the philosophical convolutions of the point, even I can recognize fish that’s been on the ice too long. It looks worn, faded, sad; it looks like it’s been waiting in the rain at midnight for a bus that it is slowly realizing is never going to come.

So it was a happy moment at the market the other day when Lino stopped suddenly. If he had little control-panel lights they all would have been flashing “Seppie!  Seppie!” And the “Seppie!” lights only flash when they are “Fresh!  Fresh!”

Then a separate scary little light begins to flash: “Must Buy!  Must Buy!”

So we did.  A kilo of demonstrably not-tired critters came home, and Lino began what is one of his most favorite activities in the world: Cleaning fish. Catching them is the best, of course, and eating them is good, but if you want to see a happy man, you need only look at him standing at the sink sending scales flying everywhere, or at the least (as with the seppie) eviscerating them.

These two seppie will be floating forever, far from Lino, on the Roman pavement of the nave of the basilica at Aquileia. The entire floor is a virtual aquarium, designed around the story of Jonah. Some of the fish verge on the fantastical, but the seppie would fit right in at the Pescheria.

The best moment of all, and the reason I’m writing this little announcement, is when he pokes around to see what they’ve been eating.  If there’s nothing in there, they almost certainly have been fish-farmed.  They’re still fresh, but they’re not wild.

But seppie aren’t farmed, so their stomachs are a little diary of their previous few hours.  I won’t list some of the ichthyological beings he has found, but the other day inspired a call from the kitchen.  “Hey, look at this!” I went to see what “this” was.

It was a baby mormora (Lithognathus mormyrus).  The mormora is one of my favorite fish, and I’ve seen plenty of fingerlings of various species flitting around the shallows, so its smallness wasn’t a novelty.

But I’d never seen one of these.  I felt a little sorry for it — it looked a little like it might be blinking slightly and murmuring, “Where am I? Was all that just a bad dream?”

But I never express fraternal feelings toward fish anymore around Lino. Fish were created to be eaten.  If the seppia hadn’t swallowed it, something or someone else would have. You might as well feel sorry for an ear of corn.

At least I’ve been able to give the little squirt a decent memorial.


I might not have felt quite so bad if he hadn’t already begun to develop his — or her — distinctive dark stripes. Oh well. There are about a trillion more still out there.




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Santa Barbara floats by again

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The course was inverted this year, as the tide was coming in (it’s always much better to start against the tide), so the race started in front of the Piazza San Marco, proceeded at a great rate toward Sant’ Elena, where the boats rounded the buoy and headed toward the finish at the Arsenal. The first two boats are already battling it out, while the team on the pink boat is probably discussing what to give their girlfriends or wives for Christmas. Not much else to talk about back there.

I’m sorry we can’t hear what opinions the teams on the first two boats are sharing with each other. Believe me, there can be as many insults yelled at your teammates as at your opponents, even if you’re in the lead.

As you know, every December 4 (for the past 16 years now) the gondoliers who are ex-sailors organize a regata in honor of the patron saint of the Navy: Barbara.

This year, seeing that the supply of willing gondoliers and/or ex-sailors is shrinking, each caorlina carried the usual one (1) student from the Morosini Naval School, four (4) gondoliers and one (1) fireman.  Barbara is also patron saint of firemen, as well as miners, artillerymen, and just about anybody who uses substances which explode.

Gondoliers also tend to explode when things don’t go right, as witnessed by the reaction of Franco Dei Rossi (nicknamed “Strigheta”) when his orange caorlina was cheated of its obviously well-deserved fourth place and consequent blue pennant.  He used Ugly Words to the race judge, which was unfortunate; it was also too bad that many people could understand — nay, shared — his sentiments, as most naked eyes had seen his boat cross the finish line fourth.

All would seem to be obvious from this vantage as the four boats we see here cross the line (orange in the background). Unfortunately, I didn’t include the yellow boat in this shot, and it was coming up fast on my left. The judge says it was faster than orange. I just don’t know anymore.

But righteous indignation and loud voices (though not Ugly Words) from somebody is almost always part of the tradition, along with rain (it was blazingly sunny the day before and the day after the regata — does Santa Barbara not like her regata?), cold, and a feast afterward featuring pasta and fagioli (beans) which, if it didn’t warm hearts which were still festering with rage, did a great job in warming our gizzards.

The first four finishers all clumped together, since they were so close in the home stretch anyway. Orange was still far out in the middle of the canal, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t, in fact, ahead of the yellow boat.

But wait! The white boat suddenly seem to have only five rowers.  And why are they all looking over the side?

Sorry for the blur but I was rattled.

The big police boat, and the equally big fireman’s boat, began to zoom over to give a hand, creating, in the process, waves which could have caused more problems than the one they were coming to resolve.

But our trusty gondoliers were quicker than that. At least two of them were.  The other three seem pretty calm.  In fact, it isn’t at all unknown for gondoliers to fall in the drink.  Sorry if that destroys a myth for you.

While the drenched racer goes inside to get into some dry clothes, the judges (huddling under the ramp leading up and over the bridge of the Arsenal) return to the previous drama: Deciding the fate of the orange boat. After much trading of comments and peering at somebody’s cell-phone video, they decided that yellow finished before orange.

Characteristic gear for a person rowing on the right side of the boat, usually the rower in the bow. It protects his leg from rubbing against the cinturino, or wooden upper edge of the hull.

Or you can just deal with whatever happens, like the man who was rowing on the red boat. That’s red paint, not blood, but the pants are undeniably torn. I didn’t examine any closer, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

Lino with the nine cadets from the Francesco Morosini Naval School who raced, plus the extra stand-by emergency rower. The great thing about this race is that, no matter what, four of his students are going to take home a pennant.  And now, bring on the beans.






Categories : Boatworld, Venetian-ness
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Light and shadow

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Costalonga’s funeral was completely according to custom, beginning with the earlycomers standing around, on the lookout to see who else is coming, and the floral wreath by the door.  Both of these elements make it clear that the imminent event does not involve something cheerful, like a bride or a baby.

Day before yesterday, like yesterday, began in superb form: One of those dazzling winter mornings — gleaming air, scintillating sunshine, cold (but not too cold), no wind. Perfect. Just the kind of morning that makes you take deep happy breaths and think of going to a funeral.

Of course that’s a stupid thing to say.  Nobody wanted to go, least of all the suddenly departed.  And whether it’s winter or summer, sunshiney funerals make me feel worse than rain and gloom.

I don’t make a hobby of attending funerals, though by now I’ve been to a considerable number of them.  They almost always involve either someone in the rowing world, or a former colleague of Lino’s.  He only goes to them because not going would be worse, but there are plenty of people who seem to find them morbidly enjoyable.

Members of the Canottieri Cannaregio rowed his casket to the church in a caorlina, accompanied by quite a contingent of club boats. Many who didn’t row came in the club uniform anyway.

Maneuvering a coffin from a caorlina onto the funeral-company’s gurney isn’t so easy, but they managed it well. Then they put the “casket-cover” flowers back in place and into the church they went.

One of the most impressive funerals I ever attended was for legendary Venetian-rowing champion Albino “Strigheta” Dei Rossi in 2004.  The ceremony was in the basilica of San Giovanni and Paolo, and the casket was borne to its final resting place in the center of the “Disdotona” (the 18-oar gondola of the Querini rowing club), rowed by 18 of the cream of the current champions.  Thrilling, but it struck me as being more toward the spectacular and less toward the personally-moving end of the scale of mourning.  I don’t recall any damp eyes or expressions of sadness.

But day before yesterday was different, and even more so was a funeral last August, maybe because they were ceremonies for people who would never be legendary but who would be deeply missed.

The most recent occasion involved Luciano Costalonga, a former president of the Canottieri Cannaregio rowing club.  I knew him, though not well.  By now I more or less know a substantial number of people in the rowing world, and many of them have (unlike me) been getting older.  I wouldn’t have classified him as old –he was only 71.  But he had recently undergone an operation (I don’t know for what), and a few days ago just dropped dead.

It was slow going to follow the bier into the church, and not everybody went inside anyway. A good number of people always seem to prefer staying out, where they can exchange the usual platitudes, such as how young/old he was, really, and how much better to go suddenly like that than to pass (insert preferred length of time here) suffering in the hospital.

Something of the same thing, though worse, happened last August to a gondolier named Michele Bozzato (whom I didn’t know).  Lino knew him, but naturally Lino knows — or in this case, has known — almost everybody.

Bozzato’s real love was singing, the obituary said; he had even sold his gondolier license (he kept working as a substitute), so he could devote himself to music full-time, forming a trio called “The Gondoliers,” with whom he cut a disk of Venetian songs.

He was tall, he was strong, he never smoked, he barely drank.

On August 8, he started to have trouble breathing.  They discovered a tumor on his lung. They operated on him. Two weeks later he was gone.  He was 49.

Bozzato’s farewell was amazing; it was more like what happens when a fireman or policeman dies. He had been involved in so many different activities, from soccer to basketball to rowing, and it appears that everybody loved him. The Gazzettino said there were a thousand people there, which I believe — I’m no good at counting crowds, but the church of San Marcuola was so crammed it was like a Turkish bath.

We stayed outside because there was no point forcing ourselves into a large sweaty room pumped full of carbon dioxide.  Women were weeping.  Men were weeping.  I don’t mean wailing and keening, but there were many wet red eyes and the sound of many noses being blown. And the silences between people standing around together weren’t the comfortable “At least it wasn’t me” sort, but more of a stricken “Of anybody at all, it shouldn’t have been him.”

What the two funerals had in common, though, was the general sense of a family loss.  I’m not sure if I mean the Venetian family, which is shrinking inexorably, or the rowing-world family, or the gondoliering family. I do know that everyone seemed to belong to each other, and for the few intense hours of the ceremony it was not only easy to see, but to feel.

On the whole, there seems to be some difference of opinion on who to feel sorrier for: The person who’s gone, or those who are left.  Oddly (in my view), Venetian sadness is directed at the departed.  They have a little rhyme: El pezo xe per chi ch’el mondo lassa, chi che vive se la spassa.  (It’s worse for the person who leaves the world; those who are alive can keep having a good time.)

By the look of things at the churches on these two occasions, though, I’m going to have to say that the people who were alive weren’t enjoying it at all.

Michele Bozzato arrived in the funeral-company’s launch, as per normal, but behind it was a traghetto gondola (technically called a “barchetta”), rowed by four gondoliers, prepared to take him to the cemetery after the funeral.

The very old flagstaff carried in the barchetta belongs to the gondoliers’ association (NOT to be confused with the ENTE Gondola).

The traghetto barchetta is broader than the normal gondola, and has a simpler stern and bow. The white thwarts are there to support the casket; the flowers are there because it’s just absolutely the right thing to do.

Another custom on especially solemn occasions is to tie black ribbon to your boat — in this case, the gondolinos of two pairs of rowers preparing for the Regata Storica a few days later. The blue boat was assigned to Igor and Rudi Vignotto (both gondoliers, as it happens), while the green boat was taken by the Busetto brothers, Roberto and Renato.

Plenty of people were standing around outside the church of San Marcuola, on the side facing the Grand Canal as well as here, by the back door. Obviously the mourners have clustered in the shade, while the sun blazed down on more floral tributes than I have ever seen anywhere.

The ribbon across each arrangement is inscribed with the name(s) of the donors, and the range of names gave some indication of how full his life had been. From left, and I translate: “The Association ‘Note Veneziane’,” “From the Guys at the Ae Oche Pizzeria,” “The Reyer” (local basketball team), “Traghetto S. Sofia (gondolier station), “The Friends from the Bar La Tappa,” “The Checchini Dona’ and Fiorentin Families,””The Friends from Laguna Soccer,”  “The Virtus rowing club,” “The gondoliers of the Traghetto Dogana,” “The gondoliers from the Bacino Orseolo,” “The gondoliers from the Ferrovia,” The gondoliers from the Traghetto Molo,” “Gondoliers Association Venice.”  (The gurney is parked by the back door because no steps clutter the path between here and the Grand Canal.)

Considering the size of these arrangements (regardless of shape or exoticism of the flowers themselves), it’s unlikely that any cost less than 300 euros ($400), and the larger ones were at least 500 euros ($650) each.

All the same, it still is a fine summer morning; some people brought their kids, but you couldn’t expect them to stand around doing nothing.

There was a certain amount of down-time for the photographer from the Gazzettino, too.

When they start to take the flowers back to the launch, you know it’s almost over.

The throng follows — in this case, quite a throng. When the casket was placed on the barchetta, the gondoliers raised their oars in the traditional “alzaremi” salute, and everyone’s instinct was to applaud, so they did.

The barchetta departs for the cemetery, escorted by the two gondolinos.

The gondolino cortege departs. While I recognize that it was a scorchingly hot morning, and that the rowers were more interested in training than in funerals, I merely note that the Vignottini, in the blue boat, changed from their sweat-garb into the classic racing and otherwise ceremonially appropriate white pants and striped T-shirt. The Busettos had a somewhat different sense of the occasion.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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Happy baguette to you

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Just to show that it’s not all lamentation and garment-rending out here, I’m sharing a glimpse of a blithe little moment in the Piazza San Marco this morning.

Four French women (no, they hadn’t been sent as reparations, or hostages, by Napoleon…) were celebrating the birthday of one of them.  It was pretty sweet.  I didn’t ask what else the day had in store for them.  Any people who are able to come up with this as the centerpiece of a party are capable of just about anything, and I hope they did them all.

This sort of celebratory stegosaurus-tail baguette certainly upstages your ordinary old cupcake. The woman on the left was celebrating her “28th-and-a-half” birthday. I don’t see a half candle, but never mind. I didn’t wait to watch, but trying to light, and keep lit, 28 candles facing  into the wind was kind of like trying to keep all those plates spinning on their little sticks.   Anyway,I wasn’t there to stage-manage their birthday bread. They were having a great time, and that’s the end of the story.


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