Archive for January, 2014
Being a word person, and having a daily need to understand what’s being said around, or to, me, and also having a need occasionally to communicate some fact or feeling of my own, it’s to be expected that I’d be listening pretty much all the time to the wonders of the Venetian language. Which, as you know by now, is what I mostly hear spoken around the neighborhood (as opposed to Italian), and which is a wizard’s trove of phrases and terms that are utterly Venetian.
I’m not saying that similar expressions might not be heard (with different accents and spelling) elsewhere in Italy — certainly the concepts are universal. But there are so many Venetian ways of putting things which are perfect for the thing described that I sometimes struggle to recall what might correspond to them in English. Or even in the language of the divine Dante, which is something the let’s-rewrite-the-nizioleti squad quickly discovered. Certain things only work in Venetian.
These phrases express myriad nuances of human behavior, in terms which are often intricately bound to what was, at one time, the ordinary stuff of everyday life here.
Here are a few of the more common ones, which I, or somebody, is almost certain to use in the course of a normal day, or couple of days:
Magansese (mah-gan-SEH-zeh): This is my latest discovery and it’s a beaut. It means “two-faced,” “treacherous,” “dangerously, unscrupulously untrustworthy.” There is a lighter expression which you might use more commonly, which is to call someone “una bandiera di ogni vento” — a flag of every wind — a person who goes whichever way the wind, public opinion, fashion, happens to be blowing.
But to call someone magansese is bigger and darker, and it comes from a certain malefactor of the Middle Ages, no less, known in Italian as Gano de Maganza, or Gano from Mainz. In English, he’s known as Ganelon. He betrayed Charlemagne to the Muslims in 778, which is taking etymology, not to mention vituperation, back a breathtaking distance. (The whole story is recounted in the Chanson de Roland, which I know you remember because of all those Chanson de Roland bubblegum cards you collected when you were a kid.)
A traitor, in a word. A fatal, scheming, hideous traitor. One that died more than a thousand years ago. Just think — a person so bad that even when everybody’s forgotten who he was, the stench of his villainy lives on, perpetuated by everyday folks needing the perfect word to vilify their so-called friends.
If there’s more than one — they sometimes travel in packs — the plural is magansesi.
Impegola‘ (im-peg-oh-AH): It’s a verb form taken from pegola, or pitch. To say that you find yourself “pitched” doesn’t mean you’ve been blackened, nor that you’re in danger of having feathers stuck all over you and then be run out of town.
You would say that you’re impegola’ (or impegolada, if a woman) when you realize that you’ve gotten yourself involved in something that’s awkward or unpleasant in some unanticipated way, but that you would find awkward or unpleasant to get out of. Stuck, in a word, just as pitch was mixed with tar to waterproof all those thousands of wooden ships that kept the Serenissima in the game. Stuck in a particularly tenacious way which makes you discontented. “I offered to give her little boy a few English lessons for a week and now I’m impegola’ with his whole class every day for a month.”
You could also say that somebody else has impegola’d you. In any case, you’re stuck and you’ll have to find a way out on your own.
Cascar in covolo (cas-CAR in co-VOH-yo). Fall into a trap. Not a huge, menacing trap, probably, but if you’ve experienced this you’ve been tricked, shnookered, a little bit hoodwinked. You can do it to somebody else, too — make them fall into a covolo.
The “covolo” is a neat tubular construction for accumulating the fish which have let themselves be induced to swim along a stretch of net which you have tied to poles, only to discover that they have obliviously swum into a container you attached to the last pole, from which there is no way out.
If you have fallen into somebody’s covolo, they’ve tricked you in some way. It could be a practical joke, or a neat way of getting you to agree to do something before you realize what’s going on. You in turn could induce somebody to fall into a covolo. It doesn’t have to be serious or life-threatening. But once the falling-into-it has occurred, it can take some doing to get out. If you agree to the phone company’s too-good-to-be-true sales pitch without reading the fine print, you may well discover you’ve fallen into their covolo, along with a batch of other fish.
Far gagiolo (far ga-JYOH-yo). To “do” or “be” or “behave as” gagiolo. This is what someone does who is trying to pull a fast one. (Not to be confused with making you fall into the covolo. Just go with it.)
Somebody of whatever age who attempts some nifty little gag which ought to succeed because of its unexpectedness, or its audacity, or just plain luck, is trying to do a gagiolo. When it works, people may smile. When it fails, people may still smile, but sardonically. When the jig is up on some piece of reckless chutzpah, someone might say “Wow, you really thought you could do a gagiolo.”
A clunky example might be the person who gets his buddy to punch his time card so that he (person A) can quit work early.
Or better yet, the kid who says the dog ate his homework, and even brings his dog to class hoping to convince the teacher that its evident gastrointestinal distress is the result of ingesting five pages of algebra. Doing a gagiolo doesn’t depend on whether it succeeds; it’s enough to have tried. But you don’t get extra points if you succeed, either. The tinge of shiftiness will discolor any triumph you might be inclined to enjoy.
But wait, I hear you cry. What, or who, is a gagiolo? I can answer that. I have discovered that it was the name of the pirate who swooped down (along with his men) in the year 973 and stole the girls from the church of San Pietro di Castello in mid-ceremony. This is a swashbuckling tale with a happy ending for the Venetians, whose rapid pursuit succeeded in retrieving the girls, along with their jewelry, and their virtue (I think). And it was the beginning of the “Festa de le Marie,” which was celebrated on February 2 every year thereafter until 1379.
Seeing that Venice had so brilliantly out-swashbuckled Gagiolo and his henchpirates, it’s only natural that he would have become a byword, one intended to be pronounced with the tiniest bit of a sneer. Venetians are still dissing him 13 centuries later.
Petaizzo (pet-ah-EE-so). Sticky, in a gummy sort of way. If you make meatloaf and mix the meat and egg and other ingredients with your hands, the material has become petaizzo. So have your hands.
What use could this word have? Well, the butcher on the fondamenta has a sign in his window that advertises his musetto, whose quality is evidently superior because they’re said to be “petaissi.” Kind of gluey, due to the pork skin mixed into it, which is claimed to be part of its appeal.
Other things can be described as petaizzo — maybe the viscid pavement after the acqua alta recedes, for example. But its ideal use is to describe a certain sort of person, or behavior. It’s basically when you overdo being nice, or complimentary, or helpful — to the extent that you either make the other person uncomfortable or you embarrass yourself. Writing a thank-you note that is just a little bit too grateful or appreciative could be a small example of being petaizzo; or writing a note that’s just fine, but then following it up with a present. And then following it up with a phone call.
Petaizzo behavior is at its worst when it is seeking, or disseminating, gossip. A person can be petaizzo when she just has to find out that last little bit about why you came back early from vacation, and when she has to share this information with all sorts of other people. It’s not merely that she’s a gossip — a petaizzo is a sticky sort of gossip that you can’t get off your hands, just like the raw meatloaf.
I suppose men could sometimes be petaizzo, but they have a smaller repertoire. I don’t think they care about clothes, children, or boyfriends, but you could find yourself stuck with a man who wants to tell you every intimate detail about his last blood test and his prostate. Some men of a certain age seem to be convinced that this is important information which is desperately sought by their victim. And they become just as petaizzo as a musetto about it.
Impesta’ (im-peh-STA). In Italian, the plague is la peste. As you know, it was a catastrophically fatal and contagious disease that devastated much of Europe in various periods, and Venice was no exception. To call someone “impesta'” is an ugly thing indeed; it not only means that in your opinion the person is already afflicted (ghastly) with the plague but is probably spreading it (even worse). You wouldn’t say it to someone’s face but you might be driven to say it about them. “This impesta’ never answers my phone call when he sees its my number, he’s been avoiding me for a week because he owes me money.” You should be really angry or exasperated to say it, and it’s never used in a humorous or affectionate backhanded way, like some other denigratory words.
You might also hear someone say that someone is “Brutto/a come la peste” — as ugly as the plague. No laughing matter, around here. I recommend that you avoid trying these words out, they could really backfire.
Sbatola (z-BAH-toe-a). I truly love this one. I can’t decline it for you, but “sbattere” is a verb which means “beat” or “bang”, the go-to word for the racket made by unsecured shutters in the wind, or a desperate person at your front door at midnight as the posse is closing in. Now imagine that sound being created by somebody’s jaws as they talk, and talk, and talk. To say that somebody’s “ga ‘na sbatola” means that when that person starts — and he or she is always in “start” mode — he or she will not stop, probably not even when you just walk away.
This is not ranting, this isn’t free-associating, this is sheer abundance of one-sided conversation which must, at all costs, be expended on friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances, acquaintances of friends. All it takes is to ask this indefatigable person how he is or how things are going or what he’s having for lunch or where he went to school, and you discover that you might as well have asked “What’s the plot of “War and Peace”?
Up to now, my idea of the average hostel has been deduced from the average hostel-dweller, at least as seen around here in the summer.
Every sweltering day the vaporettos carry payloads of dauntless wayfarers and their gear, 80-pound backpacks that look as if they’d just arrived via the Old Silk Road lashed to the chassis of a 2 1/2-ton 6×6 truck. Their owners don’t look much better, pounded like Swiss steaks by summer heat and malnutrition and the cumulative effect of too many languages and sleepless nights during their seemingly free-form peregrinations. Their clothes appear to have forgotten what it ever meant to be clean. These travelers might have credit cards and laptops and tablets these days, but going to a hostel still struck me as meaning they were essentially going to be sleeping in a multi-bed hangar, with a bucket by their heads to catch the rainwater coming through the roof.
There has been a hostel in Venice since the Fifties, and it was (I’ve been told) of the Old School. I never visited it, but I read its rules once somewhere and was sorry to learn that in addition to everything else that seemed to suggest the aftermath of a festival as painted by Brueghel, the paying guests were required to get out by 11:00 AM and take their stuff with them. That seemed harsh.
But no more. Not long ago I got an e-mail from Generator Hostels, alerting me that they had re-done the “Ostello” on the Giudecca, and inviting me to take a look at it.
I have never written about a commercial operation on my blog. It’s been a point of pride. But this philosophy, to which I am still faithful, runs head-first into my desire to be useful. If the new hostel is a good thing, I ought to know about it.
So I went. I was shown around by Operations Manager Keti Camillo, and even if she hadn’t been so helpful, I’d have been impressed.
Bear in mind that I’m not risking the claim that this is the best hostel on the planet, because I don’t know. But I do know that for Venice, this is a remarkable lodging resource.
This is not an infomercial. I haven’t been paid anything by anybody. I am merely letting you know about this place because I think it’s amazing, and I would happily stay here myself.
Naturally I consider that the maximum compliment.
Here’s what we’re getting today for a refreshing change of meteorological pace: Rain.
It was raining yesterday, too, and it’s expected to continue for another two, or maybe three, days.
Well, you say, at least it’s not fog. This is very true. But the grey remains. And the fog is expected to return.
I think that all the grey clouds in the northern hemisphere decided to come to Venice on holiday. They got bored, hanging day and night over Oslo and Bydgoszcz and the Kaliningrad Oblast. So here they are and they’re really enjoying their vacation.
“Oh, we don’t want to do anything,” they all agreed; “We want to relax, look around, just chill for a while in the most beautiful city in the world that we’ve all heard so eternally much about. We’ll just hang out and be all grey and dismal while we’re at it.” All these clouds either bought a one-way ticket because they have no definite plans to go home, or they drove here in a friend’s car and now they’ve lost track of the friend. It happens.
But here’s something wonderful: I heard the year’s first blackbird yesterday morning. As you know, this is a pivotal moment for me. I won’t attempt a sonnet in praise of this avian avatar but I bring him forward as a sign that spring is still a possibility.
The last time I saw the sun shine was January 6. It must have been a special gift from the Befana, one heck of a great stocking stuffer for the whole city. Here is what the morning of Epiphany looked like. Dwell long and lovingly upon it, because evidently we’re not going to see its like again, if the week that followed is any indication.
Well, that was wonderful. It was like falling in love; I wish it could have gone on forever. But the next morning fog took over and hasn’t left yet –the weather has become as tedious as Sheridan Whiteside, a/k/a “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but not as amusing.
Because fog, whatever its density, wears out its welcome very fast. That’s just an expression; nobody welcomes fog. Water in the form of acqua alta is one thing; it may come, but you know it won’t be long before it goes. Water in the form of fog, when it’s not too heavy, is like an enormous sheet of grey gauze pulled across the face of the world, and you just have to put up with it until it’s gone, whenever that might be.
Fog can be dangerous, of course, but it is more commonly inconvenient — it compels the “GiraCitta'” round-the-city motoscafos to go up the Grand Canal instead of their usual routes. But where big fog is brawny, the lesser forms of airborne condensation are as monotonous as the droning of the Indian tanpura.
In Italian, there is nebbia and foschia; fog and mist. In Venice people refer to caligo (kah-EE-go), which I’ve only heard used to describe medium- to heavyweight fog. Caligo derives from caligine, which means “haze” (I discover that Caligo is also a genus of butterfly, but let’s stick to the weather). Technically, caligine is more like smog, which thankfully we don’t have here.
Call it what you will, it’s grey. Dingy grey, drab grey.
Fog lends itself to a particularly useful expression: “filar caligo” (fee-yar kah-EE-go) — to spin fog. If you are worrying about something, worrying in a particularly elaborate way about something you can’t fix — obsessively, silently, baffled, anxious, and so on — you would say (or some exasperated friend might well say) that you were drio a filar caligo. It’s the best expression I’ve ever heard for that particularly futile and gnawing kind of worry that drives everybody crazy. Many people do not reveal that they are in that state of mind precisely because they recognize its futility. But that doesn’t mean they can stop, any more than you can make the fog stop. It just has to go away on its own, usually when the wind changes, or when the thing you dread either comes to pass, or evaporates.
Charles Aznavour wrote (with F. Dorin) a song entitled “Que C’est Triste Venise” (Com’e’ Triste Venezia, or “How Sad is Venice”). That was 1964, and versions in Italian, English, Spanish, German and Catalan have come out since then. http://youtu.be/aMQ6GyUs-fc
In my opinion, that gave another push to the general idea that Venice is sad. Maybe it’s where the idea started. But while this song deals only with how sad the city is for the singer because his love is no longer with him, people seem to have concluded that the city itself is sad. Fog helps, of course. Cold and dark, even better.
I realize that if you are bereft of the love of your life because the relationship has ended, evidently against your will, and you had happy moments in Venice, of course you’re going to see your own sadness in the city. It’s natural. But somehow it seems that the received wisdom about Venice is that it has a particular affinity for melancholy. It might go just fine with the fog (and cold and dark). And I suppose Mr. Aznavour could have sung about how sad it is to be in Venice even if he’d been walking down via Garibaldi on Epiphany morning, when the world was coruscating with light, if all he had on his mind was his lapsed love affair.
But why should Venice have to be the world’s favorite sad city? You could just as credibly sing “How sad is Paducah.” “How sad is Agbogbloshie.” “How sad is Sanary-sur-Mer.” If you’ve lost your love, anywhere is going to feel like Venice in the fog.
There you’d be, wandering aimlessly around downtown Platte City, or wherever, repeating the song’s phrases which admittedly sound much better in French: “How sad is (fill in your town here), in the time of dead loves, how sad is (name here) when one doesn’t love anymore…And how one thinks of irony, in the moonlight, to try to forget what one didn’t say….Farewell, Bridge of Sighs (Susitna River Bridge, Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, Sixth Street Viaduct), Farewell, lost dreams.”
So I’m going to risk saying something radical: Venice isn’t sad, and it doesn’t make people sad. Venice is just a city, like you and me and everybody who lives here and in Smederevo and Panther Burn and Poggibonsi, trying to figure out how to get from today to tomorrow without leaving too many dents and dings on the surface of life.
I’d like Mr. Aznavour to go find another city in which to remember his lost love. And I’d also like the fog to go somewhere else. One of my wishes is going to be fulfilled, eventually.