Archive for January, 2013


Swallow this

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Update from the innards of the hapless marine creatures who keep us alive.

You may recall my heartfelt ode to the fish inside the fish which will never see daylight again (either one of them).  Evidently this ode is going to have to be put on a continuous loop.

Lino was cleaning some hyper-fresh seppie not long ago, and I heard the clarion call from the kitchen: “Hey, look at this.”

One seppia’s last hors d’oeuvre was a minuscule sole.

This tiny sole made a seppia happy at least for a little while.

Then there was the day we bought a batch of moli, as they’re called here, otherwise known as blue whiting, or Melu’ or Micromesistius poutassou.

They’d been having a real feed, wherever they’d just been.

One of the moli had really hit the buffet — an anguela on the left, and a shrimp, too. Ignore the pink thing. It was never a fish.

I suppose I’ll have to stop this now.  It’s no news that smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish. It’s just that… I don’t know.  Maybe it’s because they’re swallowed whole.  But then again, would I expect them to be ground to paste and spread on crackers?


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It feels so good when you stop

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Three of the main features of Pavia: the covered bridge (reconstructed after its destruction in World War II bombardment; the ruins of the medieval pilings create the rapids seen just upstream), the cathedral and its massive cupola, and, naturally, the river Ticino.

Because man does not live by Venice alone — or we don’t, anyway — we occasionally go abroad (anywhere beyond the bridge) to vary our boating and socializing diet.

Last weekend we went to Pavia, an exceptionally fine town not far from Milan, where we have been many times on other boating occasions in the summer.  The object was to eat, drink, and row in an event organized by the Club Vogatori Pavesi. They call this little diversion the “Giorni della Merla,” in recognition of the fact that it is held during the frigid last few days of January which are often called “the days of the (female) blackbird.”

Considering what madness was involved, they might just as well have called it the days of the cuckoo. If someone asked which you’d rather do:  Row ten kilometers (six miles) up the Ticino River, against the current, in subzero weather, in the fog, in a boat weighing two tons (tempting, I know), OR: Drop and do 14,982 pushups without stopping, which would you pick?  Because we did (A) and every muscle in my upper arms is convinced that I did (B).

We departed the area of Borgo Ticino and finished at Canarazzo, a stretch of river which, like most of the Ticino, is not a stretch but a series of emphatic curves.  These curves increase (or sometimes decrease) the current, and the trick is to recognize where the water is willing to come to some agreement with you.  These agreements are brief and not very sincere.

There were about 17 boats involved in this pilgrimage, rowed in various configurations by members of two Venetian clubs –the Remiera Casteo (us, and two friends), and the Associazione Settemari — and by members of various local boating clubs.

The caravan stopped to rest and refresh on a broad sandy beach about two-thirds of the way. It took a while for everyone to get there, though; every so often another boat would begin to appear in the mist, like the Flying Dutchman.

As you see, the river boats are rowed in the same way as Venetian boats, and in the past were made of wood. Pulling and poling them over gravel and sand eventually made it appear that aluminum would be a better material. Less romantic, but hardier. And heavier.  The forcolas and oars are typically also not the same, but more rowers are using Venetian oars. The drawback there is that pushing them against the river bottom tends to damage them a lot. It’s always something.

The refreshments were simple but good. The veterans made it sound as if we were practically there, and by the map, we were (only about 3 kilometers, or 1.8 miles).  But if I’d known how much toil covering that distance was going to entail, I’d have eaten more.  Current?  Oy.

Trivia alert: The Ticino is the second-most important river in Italy in terms of volume of water, surpassed only by the mighty Po.  It rises in Switzerland, works its way through Lago Maggiore, and accumulates H2O from assorted tributaries along the way.

It’s not that it’s so deep (at least in the parts we rowed), but somehow it manages to maintain a momentum that would do justice to a number of carnival rides.  To attempt this little adventure in the spring when the Alpine snows are melting would be inconceivable; impressive inundations of the city are far from unknown.

Rowing upstream is an interesting mental exercise, as well, especially in those areas where the current is especially strong and no matter how hard or fast you row, you can’t make the boat move forward.  Not to mention those moments when we decided to row to the other shore to see if the water flowed any more peacefully there, which meant that while we were continuing to row, the river was carrying us back downstream over precious space we had struggled so hard to gain.

These were the moments when the question arose all by itself: “Why am I doing this?” Many possible answers are available, beginning with our being put on this earth to suffer and ending with its reward being the steaming risotto of sausage and wine, and cauldron of lentils and cotechino, that were being stirred up at our destination, a shingly beach at Canarazzo.  There is a primitive hut which provides shelter for a few tables and a simple cooking area.

This area being the mother lode of rice, fixing risotto was normal. It would never happen at a big boating event in Venice, where pasta e fagioli, or bigoli in salsa, are the traditional heating and nourishing elements. I wouldn’t say that I’d row upstream ten kilometers every day just to eat risotto, but it was extremely good.

Another reason I continued to slave away against the force of gravity which was carrying the water so powerfully downhill — not that I had much choice — was that I knew that the same force was going to carry us back to home base in record time.  When lunch was finally over and we took to the river again, we barely had to move our oars as we sped past gravelly beaches and rustic shelters, while I amused myself by looking through the crystal water at the pebbly river bottom and seeing how remarkably fast it was moving. (Note: I realize that it was the water, not the river bottom, which was moving.  I refer merely to the optical effect.)

In a mere 30 minutes we covered the distance it had taken us nearly four hours to make in the morning. Then we ate hunks of panettone and drove back to Venice with our friends, a trip of 300 km (186 miles) which, when all goes well, takes about the same time as it took us to row to lunch.  That tells you everything you need to know about the internal combustion engine.

Like the day before, the afternoon sun absorbed the fog and created a beautiful soft atmosphere that made the morning’s expedition to the Arctic a strange memory. We watched a few late arrivals from the floating boathouse anchored to the riverbank, and gave some thought to what flooding means here, when the river pours over these embankments and into the houses.

Just downstream is the abandoned hulk of a once-important airmail station built in the Thirties, one of several along the rivers between Torino and Venice which were used by hydroplanes (obviously). One of the local rowers told us that when Mussolini came to inaugurate this wonderful structure, he leaned out from the terrace to take a leak into the river and fell in. If a passing fisherman hadn’t managed to pull him ashore, the history of the world would have been very different. This story was told to me as true. But the building is an authentic treasure, in my view, and I’m sorry they’re letting it go to rack and ruin.

The washerwomen of Borgo Ticino, the old neighborhood near the boat club, were something legendary. I can’t say why, but they deserved this monument.

This detail of a 16th-century fresco in the church of St. Theodore depicts the covered bridge and some impressive cargo boats, with the washerwomen at their suds on the riverbank.

Categories : Boatworld
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Carnival, yet again

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Extravagant bushel-loads of coriandoli are already appearing, strewn everywhere as if some lunatic Johnny Confetti-seed had torn through the neighborhood.

I have nothing positive to say about Carnival, except that it lasts a relatively short time. “Relative” is relative, though, because this year will hold the longest Carnival ever: January 26-February 12, or eighteen days, or almost three weeks.  Zounds.

Of course, compared to the Old Days, it is short.  Back then, Carnival could last six months. So? Lino says that if the city could make it last from January to January, they’d do it.

Actually, there is one thing which I love about it, and that thing is kids. The neighborhood tykes with their painted-on whiskers and frilly tulle princess costumes and especially their fistfuls of confetti (here called coriandoli).

Erudition alert: Why do we call them confetti and the Italians say coriandoli?  Here, confetti refers to the almonds covered with a carapace of sugar, given to guests on festive occasions and colored accordingly (weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, First Communions, etc.).

In the most ancient celebratory days, it was coriander seeds which were used in sweets called confetti, presumably because they had been confected.  Documents attest that at weddings or Carnival during the Renaissance, sweets (confetti) containing coriander seeds were often tossed festively at fellow revelers.

In 1875, Enrico Mangili, an enterprising engineer from Crescenzago, near Milan, decided to sell, as a substitute for real coriander-containing sweets, the tiny disks of paper left over from the perforated paper used by the silk industry.  Voila’!  Symbolic coriander/confetti which were cheap and, as we might say now, rigorously recycled.  I can imagine with what enthusiasm the city’s pastry-makers greeted this innovation.  If they were inclined to throw anything, it probably wasn’t sugared. 

In any case, as you see, the two terms underwent mitosis.

So far, I haven’t seen costumes or makeup, but the Carnival spirit has already begun to simmer along via Garibaldi.  Fritole and galani are already on sale, and I’ve heard the distant cries of tiny swarming humans. And they’ve left their gladsome spoor along calli and campi.  There is no day so dull that it could not be brightened by these bits of colored paper.

I’ve decided that these snippets are the mystic spores from which Carnival germinates and eventually fruits, producing great harvests of masks and fritole and galani.

To which I say, throw more.

Or better yet, let’s get back to the very old days and start throwing fritole at each other. I don’t care whether they have coriander seeds buried inside them, but I do insist that they be made by our friend Dino Righetto. His lifelong experience as a baker — or his innate genius — enables him to produce fritole so delectable that those on sale in the shops are as swine before pearls.

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Another Venetian glimpse

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This is canottaggio, a sport which motondoso has doomed to imminent extinction in Venice. A few clubs still have some rowers, but training is feasible almost exclusively in the winter. This image, taken in January last year, shows some rowers from the Querini rowing club making the most of the broad stretch of water by Sant’ Erasmo (here looking toward San Nicolo’ on the Lido), an area which in a few months will be a boiling maelstrom of waves. Between May and October, training will have to be done at dawn, if at all.

What I love are the glimpses of life I get when I’m walking around the city with Lino. Lino’s life, mostly, which by this point extends and entwines itself with what seems like virtually everyone and -thing we encounter. I’m convinced that I could point at anybody (or thing) at random, anywhere in the city, and it would bring some reminiscence to the fore.

Sometimes the reminiscences arrive under their own steam.

The other morning we were walking from San Giovanni e Paolo (please note: No matter what the guidebooks insist on claiming, primarily because most of them repeat what they’ve read in other guidebooks — fancy way of saying “copy” — NOBODY says “Zanipolo.” I have seen it written as the name of a transport company, but as for saying it?  Never. They might have done so 50 or 100 years ago, but even if the Venetian language is still thriving, it too is metamorphosing, and certain words and phrases are as remote as “Forsooth.” People here go to the Maldives and Thailand on vacation and have all the satellite TV in the world.  And it’s hard to maintain quaint old-fashioned modes of speech, no matter how much certain foreigners wish you would, when your kids watch “The Simpsons” and MTV). Anybody who wants Venetians to be saying “Zanipolo” almost certainly wants Americans to say “Goldarn it” and Mexicans to say “Caramba.” Except that specimens of the latter two might possibly still be found in a grotto somewhere.  If you find a Venetian who has just said “Zanipolo,” I want you to bring him or her to our house and I’ll fix him or her dinner and take pictures of him or her and send them to the Gazzettino.

So as I say, we were walking from there toward the Strada Nova, wending through the mid-morning traffic.  A man overtook us.

“Ciao Lino,” he said as he passed, without stopping.

“Oh, ciao!”

And he was gone.

“That man used to be a national rowing champion,” Lino said. By “rowing” he was referring to canottaggio, or what is also called here “English-style rowing.” This is a sport with a glorious history of Venetian athletes but which now barely survives, due to the inexorable increase of motondoso, by eating tree bark and licking dew-dripping leaves.  So to speak. So a national champion from Venice is not to be taken lightly.

“His son also rowed,” Lino continued.

“One day they (the Italian Olympic committee) contacted his son and invited him to join the national Olympic team.  No tests, no trials, no eliminations.  Just like that.  He was that good.

“And his son said, ‘Nah.  Not interested.’ Nobody could make him care.  So he didn’t go.”

“His father must have lost his mind.”

“You can imagine.” 

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Categories : Venetian-ness
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