Archive for December, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.