Archive for July, 2013
Exactly one week ago today we had what, for me (and for its starring participant, not to mention said participant’s parents) was one of the more extraordinary experiences of my eventful life.
The scene: The University of Padua, founded 1222.
Protagonist: Matteo Paganini, once a student at the Morosini Naval College where Lino taught him Venetian rowing, and till June 24 an aspiring M.D.
Occasion: Defending his thesis and being awarded (he hoped) his degree, diploma, laurel wreath, and future.
University students here don’t graduate en masse, as they do in the U.S.; they are hatched one by one, though in some periods, such as now, they seem to come out on an assembly line.
I’d seen plenty of these festivities in Venice, particularly around Dorsoduro, the sestiere where the two Venetian universities are located. Bunches of roaming students accompany the newly-minted graduate to some spot where they can celebrate by throwing eggs, flour, and other substances on him or her, and occasionally break into a doggerel ditty which I’m not going to translate, not because it’s blue, but because it’s stupid. Its purpose is to take the graduate down a peg. Many pegs.
In fact, having only seen the partying all these years caused me to lose sight of the fundamental reason for the carrying-on. Our day in Padua changed that, because before the fun there had to come the cross-examination. And when the person who has spent six (6) years studying in order to reach this moment of running across the intellectual bed of incandescent burning coals, the academic version of running the gantlet, it’s a pretty intense experience not only for him, but for everyone who cares about him.
It didn’t appear to be so intense for the board of examiners, partly because they’ve done it 157,000 times; partly because they have no stake in the outcome (at last they’re not supposed to!); partly because it was possibly the 20th such session they’d held that morning; and partly (how many parts am I up to?) because it was hotter than the hinges of hell and they were all caparisoned in heavy academic robes.
To my surprise, I was awash in pride and joy, and if little me could feel so much, I can’t even imagine how proud he must have been, to say nothing of his long-suffering and -paying parents, who didn’t give any sign that they were experiencing what had to have been Olympic-level kvelling.
The images below depict the outlines of this enterprise. But I’ll give away the ending: He was awarded his degree as Doctor of Medicine summa cum laude. When he finished his presentation, he was told he had earned 110 e lode, which corresponds to magna cum laude, but then he was given a stunning bonus: a “menzione di eccellenza,” literally “mention of excellence,” which put him at the summit of Everest, the absolute peak of academic achievement.
And all this from a university whose alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus, Torquato Tasso, St. Francis de Sales, Galileo Galilei, and William Harvey. Not to forget Elena Lucrezia Piscopia Corner, the first woman in the world to be awarded a university diploma (1678). And Federico Faggin, designer of the first commercial microprocessor. Age has done nothing to dim this academy’s luster.
Keep it shiny, Matteo.
I have been brooding on the struggle between the Venetian rowing racers and the Comune, and I think some numbers might be illuminating.
I know I said in my last post that the racers don’t need the money, but the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the payments this year hover somewhere between risible and offensive. If I were a racer, I would indeed be angered by a city office named “Tutela Tradizioni” (protection of traditions) which does so little to keep this tradition going.
This year the city looked under the cushions of the divan and found some loose change, which permits them to offer prizes which would not be enough to pay for a fill-up at a gas station in Correctionville, Iowa.
The winner of the race pictured above — SS. Giovanni e Paolo, young men rowing gondolas solo — took home 221.20 euros ($293.67). The man who won the Regata di Murano, which is arguably the most important race of the year, scored 347.20 euros ($460.95).
The woman who won the Regata di Murano earned 221.20 euros ($293.67). The boy who won the same race took home 66 euros ($87.62). The boy who finished last got 33 euros ($43.81). And there are people in the city government who say they’re worried about the future of the races because so few boys show up to try out.
It gets better. The first four women to cross the finish line of the Regata de la Sensa got a pennant and a gold medal, which I think is nice, though money has a more immediate appeal. The other five women in the nine-boat field got zip. Niente. Zero. Same thing for the Regata di Malamocco.
And so it goes. The city manages to scrape up more for the Regata Storica, usually around 2,000 euros per man for the winning pair on the gondolinos, and downward from there for the other finishers.
This is so stupid that I can’t decide who to yell at first. It’s like inviting somebody to dinner and telling them to bring their own food.
But comes a ray of light glinting from a chest of gold doubloons, so to speak, from a faithful reader and friend (full disclosure).
This friend is American, by the way, which may explain why he sees ways to make money that the tired Old-World city government hasn’t yet considered. Evidently, what’s doable out in the big old vulgar tradition-free world beyond the bridge doesn’t seem so simple in our little tin-cup-rattling economy.
Let me say that I’m all in favor of the races being pure — whatever we think that means. But I don’t like them being poor. And I especially don’t like them not being, period. In case there was any doubt about that.
So here are some possible solutions:
“It seems to me that an infusion of crass commercialism could get things back on track. E.g.:
1. All boats will bear corporate logos like Nike, Taco Bell, Trojans, Depend Diapers, whatever … and thus a ton of ad revenue will get directed into the “Rowers’ Pot.”
2. All rowers will be adorned with shirts and caps similarly garnished and bearing internet addresses of the race sponsors = more ad revenue for the RP.
3. TV rights will be sold for live distribution around the world on the Nat Geo channel, thus tapping Rupert Murdoch for the RP.
4. Buxom cheerleaders for the various teams, scantily clad, no doubt, will cheer and bounce around in unison on the waterfront.
5. Observers will be barraged with logo items for sale by shoreside vendors who’ll remit 20% to the RP.
6. There will be time-outs between races to run commercials for said products – so more RP dough.
7. Travel agents throughout Europe will be tithed on airline ticket sales to Venice during June each year to create yet more moolah for the RP.
8. Racers will be paid the same amount in cash by divvying up the RP (estimated at about 4.5 million euros per rower annually); trophies made of various precious metals and gems will signify winners, losers, etc. (Here I balk: The four pennants — red, white, blue and green — have to be maintained. IT’S TRADITION.)
9. Racers will get lifetime supplies of all products advertised during the regata.
10. UNESCO will declare the race a World Heritage Event, thus assuring it United Nations funding in perpetuity.”
I cannot think of one reason why not to do any or all of the above. The one thing everybody agrees on, racers and city, is that they all want more money. So if the city can’t seem to discover any way to get more money for the races (though they were pretty clever at getting 5 billion euros and counting for MOSE), then we should just face it and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
Anyone who has lived longer than 25 minutes has discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s not that you are deprived of the consequence you wanted — though you might well be — but discover that you’re stuck with five that you didn’t want and can’t escape.
Last Sunday (July 21) was the day of the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer (Santissimo Redentore), about which I have written many times. And for an event which has been held every year since 1577, hence qualifying as a genuine tradition, this tradition’s components have gone through many, many revisions. In fact, I never knew that a tradition could be so pliable.
For example: Fireworks over the Bacino of San Marco. When Lino was a lad, nobody bothered about the Bacino. Everybody (99 percent Venetians) came in their boats (and there were many — no, a hundred times more than many — all propelled by oars) and tied them up in the Giudecca Canal in the area between the votive bridge and the Molino Stucky. Far from the Bacino. Uptown. Washington Heights, practically.
And the races on Sunday afternoon. We’ve always had them, hence, we always will have them.
Or maybe not.
The week preceding the festa saw a fearsome struggle between the racers and the Comune, and after a series of meetings and reports on meetings, which occurred up until race time, the racers enacted a protest and decided not to race. In a word, they went on strike.
Their issues, as reported by the Racers’ Association, are the increasing neglect (“profound abandonment”) of the races by the city over the past few years. I’m not clear on what “neglect” means here, because their press releases were not especially specific, though I know that the prizes have been dwindling and, in some cases, disappearing, which indeed is disturbing.
A digression: Unlike the racers in the old days — up to about 50 years ago — I don’t believe that any racers today need the money. While it’s true that they have, as they put it, “spent months of training, sacrificing work and family” (they sacrificed WORK?), none of them races because otherwise the gas company is going to interrupt service for lack of payment. The men have jobs ranging from acceptable to spectacularly lucrative (a fancy way of saying “gondolier”), and most of the women racers are married to them.
But racing for nothing does have a depressing sort of parish-benefit vibe, and last year some of the races began to be put on for free.
Did I mention depressing? I had no idea how dejected one could feel on a so-called feast day when the big event is canceled. Some hardy souls might maintain that the big solemn mass and the blessing of the city are the most important elements of the weekend, and there are thousands upon thousands who come only for the big fireworks party the night before. But a Redentore afternoon with no races made me feel as if we were the ones who had been abandoned.
Naturally the racers hope and intend that this dramatic gesture will bear the fruit they desire, which is to wake everybody up, city and citizens, to the imminent demise of one of the last — or last — truly Venetian elements still barely surviving in the most beautiful city in the world.
I hope it all works out for them, but I have some mini-doubts. One is based on the suspicion that if they try this again, somebody in the city government is going to wonder why go through all the tsuris with the big-league racers when there are plenty of bush-league rowers around who could do the same thing, for nothing, without complaining. Tourists don’t know the difference. I agree that it’s an ugly thought, but I have thought it.
Or what about this idea: If the tsuris continues, the city could start canceling races. Another possible unintended consequence, almost as unpleasant as racing for free.
Or the city might even make the racers pay to race. Or at least make them pay for the race they didn’t do last Sunday. Because when you sign up to enter the eliminations, you sign a document that says you agree to the terms of the enterprise. I have no idea if the city, which did incur expenses for an event which didn’t take place through no fault of its own, would regard this as breach of contract and consider legal recourse against the racers. If I were a city, I would think so.
Let me conclude with another disagreeable little idea that has come to my mind via other people who have said it out loud. Why is all this happening now? Some people think that the Racers’ Association got all het up because two of the biggest rock-star racers (Giampaolo D’Este and Igor Vignotto) were punished for serious offenses committed during the regata at Murano on July 7. Their punishment was to be forbidden to participate in the next race, i.e. the Redentore.
Apart from the right or wrong of this decision, it is objectionable for two reasons. One: Their partners, who hadn’t done anything wrong, were also, by extension, also excluded from the race of the Redentore. Two: There is an undercurrent of doubt among some participants that the Racers’ Association would have gotten so all-fired mad if, say, Irving B. Potash and Melvin Bluebonnet or anybody else had been so punished. Perhaps righteous anger based entirely on principles (deterioration of tradition, say) isn’t quite so righteous after all? Or does it strike only me as odd that the people who claim to be the last defenders of tradition were the first to break it to bits?
And you thought that parties were supposed to make you forget your troubles? This one just delivered a whole new batch. Some assembly required.
That title doesn’t actually mean “report on the hot dog,” though it would be easy to misconstrue.
Anyway, I made it up; I don’t know German. I studied it for a year, but it rejected me, as if I were a foreign body somebody had tried to transplant into the corpus of what is, in fact, a hugely expressive language.
However, you might be interested to know that “Frankfurt” means “the ford of the Franks,” therefore the various people who named their town Frankford, who I used to think were embarrassingly ignorant, totally nailed it.
There was a mixture of rowers who came for the three-day “Days of Venetian Rowing” on the Main River, organized by the Comitato Internazionale di Voga Veneta (CIVV). Some from France, some from Venice, some from Treviso and Padova, and some individuals from here and there around Germany, a few of whom brought their own boats. The rowing club at which the CIVV is based, the Germania Frankfurter Ruder Gesellschaft, provided a very glamorous and historic base of operations.
We went, we rowed, we ate, we basked in what we were assured was spectacularly unusually beautiful weather, and we saw some interesting things. Lino drank beer, I drank enough apfelsaft (apple juice) to drain all of upstate New York. It was the simplest non-alcoholic option: cheap, ubiquitous, easy to pronounce.
Here are a few snaps of what went on, and who went on with it. I’d have made many more, but that would have cut into my eating, drinking, and seeing-interesting-things time. Choices have to be made, and they were.
Soon I will return to your regularly scheduled Venice.