Archive for May, 2014
As all the world knows — or that part of the world that reads this blog — the ACTV, or Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano, is the local public transport company. When it’s in the mood.
The ACTV is an apex predator, which means it can do anything it wants. Strike? Bring it on. Send boats to the shop for repairs on a holiday weekend? You bet. Raise ticket prices again? Great idea. Do we regret any possible inconvenience? With all our hearts.
People in other human settlements might regard public transport as a public service. The administrators of the ACTV seem to regard transport as a favor, an onerous, tiresome, inconvenient and irritating sort of favor they’re compelled to grant the traveling public, like having to take your mother-in-law to the gynecologist on Saturday morning because you promised five months ago.
I can almost hear the murmuring soundtrack in the administrators’ brains. It says: “If only we didn’t have to haul all those people around every day, and repair boats, and go out in unpleasant weather, running a transport company could be so much fun. But no.”
I bring all this up not because two days ago the Gazzettino reported that two ticket-sellers have been fired for having recycled vaporetto tickets, pocketing large amounts of free money. That is a non-story because there will always be more. I say this because there always are more.
No, I bring it up because this weekend is election time all over Europe, in which the citizens of the EU are voting for their representatives in the European Parliament. Sunday will be election day in Italy. Yes, Italians vote on Sunday.
And who will be working the polling places? Employees of the ACTV. Why does this matter? Because bus and vaporetto service on Sunday is almost certainly going to be curtailed for lack of drivers, ticket-sellers, and so forth. The agency is alerting us to this already.
Sunday, you may recall, is a peak day for day-tripping tourists, especially when the weather is sunny, which it is expected to be. Just another example of how thoughtless people are regarding the ACTV’s convenience, to want to come to Venice on a Sunday.
Here is how the long-suffering officers of the ACTV phrase it, on the company’s website (translated by me):
“…seeing the experience of the past years…we estimate that an increased and unpredictable number of employees could be called to serve at the polling places… in past years, the phenomenon was so pronounced as to oblige the company to suppress some runs, whether of boats or of buses.
“Therefore the same risk may be run this year, and given the unpredictability of the absences, the possibility can’t be excluded that the agency could be constrained to apply reductions of service (vaporetto and bus) without being able to indicate in advance the lines or the precise runs that could be involved.”
I dwell with incredulous eyes on the lavish phrases of warning and exculpation. Why are the absences unpredictable? Why would the agency be constrained to limit service? Do they not have enough employees to go around? Why can’t you indicate in advance the lines and times that could be involved? And why, now that I’m busy asking questions, can’t you prepared to call in replacements? This election was scheduled months ago. It’s not like the fog.
If you would like to ask something, you might inquire as to what kind of idea of public service this might be. It’s the “We can do whatever we want because you have no alternative” idea.
And as long as there are questions in the air, you may further ask why ACTV employees have been given this assignment — and why they will get time off with pay to provide this manpower, especially considering that the people working the polling places also get paid. The answer is simple: Because getting money twice to do virtually nothing is a wonderful way to spend the day.
You may then ask (as I did) why ACTV employees enjoy this little perk, and not, say, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or the Red Cross, or the World Wildlife Fund, or someone else.
Because the ACTV contracts stipulate that their members will be allowed time off with pay for providing this service.
This is a marvelous clause, and if their contract were to contain similarly marvelous clauses, it would only make me more astonished that they ever bother to go on strike. It’s a wonderful life on Planet ACTV.
But I noticed that, at least as Lino explained it to me, the contract doesn’t stipulate that ACTV employees must be called. So why doesn’t the Board of Elections ring up the grain millers, or the Red Cross, etc., and just tell the ACTV employees “Sorry, but you’re going to have to go to work today. The panda-counters will supervise the voting. You’re going to have to do your job carrying thousands of people around the lagoon. Bummer.”
I don’t know why. But all this makes me think disagreeable thoughts. The ACTV is eager to take money by fining a passenger who hasn’t beeped his ticket before boarding, even if the ticket is a monthly pass which obviously has been paid in full. They demand this immaterial beeping, and punish non-compliers. We demand a boat every 12 or 20 or 30 minutes, or whatever the timetable is at the moment, and we get “Sorry, we can’t guarantee service because we’ve been constrained, obliged, and otherwise compelled to suspend runs by forces beyond our control, beyond even our ability to predict, which causes us to feel distress at the plight we have inflicted on you totally against our will, even though we’re inflicting it anyway.”
The world belongs to the ACTV, in the same way that it belongs to killer whales, Nile crocodiles, Harpy eagles. Because although you can kill these creatures, if you really try, you can’t possibly make them afraid. Or even vaguely apprehensive.
If you don’t think this could be a correct assessment, you should know that the ACTV has announced a 24-hour strike for May 30.
Walking home the other day, I cast my eye, as usual, on the building corner which Lino refers to as “The Wailing Wall.” Meaning no disrespect to the original place of that name, our little angle is the perfect spot to tape up death notices. I’ve mentioned on other occasions that the cost to publish such a notice in the Gazzettino is totally fantastical, so these rectangles of plastic are extremely useful in keeping people up to date on for whom the bell is tolling.
But I don’t usually expect to see names I recognize, mainly because the number of people I know who might be likely to demise is very limited. And although some surnames are a little unusual, there are very few which hurl one back 700 years into one of the most complicated and desperate conspiracies ever formed to attempt the overthrow of the Venetian Republic.
So I was unprepared to see a new notice stuck on the wall, complete with photo of the deceased, announcing the death of Baiamonte Tiepolo.
This name may not connote much to you, but anyone who has skimmed Venetian history knows it as the name of one of the most audacious revolutionaries who ever tried to scuttle somebody’s government.
It was like seeing a notice for some innocuous little person who just happened to be named Benedict Arnold, or Oliver Cromwell, or Ernesto Guevara, or Gregory Rasputin.
As for someone bearing the name of a renowned Venetian noble family, this isn’t quite so startling. I interviewed a descendant of doge Jacopo Tiepolo some years ago, and I know that there are Grimanis and Zorzis and Da Mosto’s still roaming the city. I have also met a young woman carrying forward the storied name of Bragadin.
But it’s one thing to bear the last name; if you were a Bragadin, I think it would be cruel to name your son Marcantonio. The name is certainly worthy of remembrance, but the boy’s life would be hell. There are only so many witty remarks you can make to someone whose forebear was flayed alive after an epic siege that lasted almost a year, and the lad would have to hear all of them.
On the same note, the Venice phone book lists two men named Marco Polo. They must have been doomed to a life of a steady drizzle of really funny remarks. “Hey, Marco — back so soon?” “Give my regards to the Khan, next time you see him.” “Did you really invent pasta?” And so on.
For the late Baiamonte, the drollery would have had to be more erudite, and I won’t risk any here because life is short, and by the time one (that is, me) has related as much as possible of his ancestor’s spectacular, if also scurrilous, story, the potential for humor would have dried up and blown away in the wind. But I feel safe in saying that, thanks to his namesake and his cohorts, the year 1310 stands out in Venetian history as much as 1492 or 1776 stands out in the American annals.
Here is the drastically condensed version of his story. The plot was foiled, he was exiled for four years, and his palace was torn down. He spent those years traveling, visiting Venice’s enemies (Padova, Treviso, Rovigo, and some very powerful families therein) doing everything conceivable to convince them to join him in another conspiracy. He just wouldn’t give up.
Not amused, Venice changed the sentence to perpetual exile. He wandered around Dalmatia seeking new collaborators. He was imprisoned. He escaped. The Venetian government forbade anybody to have anything to do with him. Finally, in 1329, the Council of Ten decreed that he had to be eliminated, by any means.
The details of Baiamonte’s death are uncertain, which is not surprising when a person has to be eliminated. (The “Caught a cold and stopped breathing” explanation has often been sufficient.) As for location, at least one historian states that he was in Croatia, staying with relatives, when his last day came and went.
For the Tiepolos of Lower Castello, maybe it was a point of pride to name their son Baiamonte. It couldn’t have been inadvertent. I can’t imagine somebody saying “Heavenly days, it never crossed my mind that somebody would think of the old subversive of blackened fame.”
I notice, though, that he named his son Andrea. Maybe he had had enough.
As I have noted in various other circumstances, the following is one of my most favorite expressions, and I’m sorry to say that nearly every day something happens to illustrate its profound truth.
El diavolo fa e tece ma no i coverci (el dee-AH-volo fa eh TEH-cheh ma no ee co-VER-chee). The Devil makes the pots, but he doesn’t make the lids. Sooner or later, the flaws in whatever fantastic and usually highly sketchy project or idea you’re involved in are going to be discovered. The jig will be up.
Small-, medium- and big-time criminals are astonishingly prone to cook their schemes in lidless pots. Perhaps nobody has explained the importance of keeping them thoroughly sealed, like a pressure-cooker. Perhaps they don’t believe the Devil would ever play a dirty trick on them, seeing that they’re so busy at it themselves. Here are some recent illustrations of how this works.
The bicycle-racing champion. With apologies to Sir Walter Scott, I have to ask: Breathes there a man (or woman) with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, “I’m going to call in sick today and go get my hair highlighted”? If such there be, he is not Marshal Roberto Ambrosi of the Air Force, because instead of asking for sick leave and then going to the salon, or the Casino, or some other place of amusement, he decided to enter the World Championship of Mountain Biking.
So far, so possibly anonymous. Except that he won the race and the gold medal, and the published image of him crossing the finish line with arms upraised all combine to make one heck of a kitchen utensil to leave uncovered, because he had requested eight days of sick leave which he spent training, and not lying on the sofa consuming hot liquids and taking his temperature.
Sick leave is usually linked to some ailment, as I understand it, so the bike training is awkward. The court in Verona, which has jurisdiction, maintains that either an ailment didn’t exist, or wasn’t sufficiently severe to warrant sick leave. If he indeed was ailing, and if it netted him a gold medal in a fairly strenuous sport, we’d all like to know how to catch whatever it is.
His defense maintains that he never claimed to have an ailment. Seeing that this ought to be a point which would be phenomenally simple to determine — look at the request form, which somebody must have signed? — there must be something more going on here. His lawyer attempts to gain ground by also pointing out that the race was held on a Sunday (time off, by definition), though I myself see no link between eight misidentified days of leave and whatever the accused did on Sunday. It all makes nit for the legal experts to pick.
I should mention that the race was held last year, so I’d give Marshal Ambrosi five extra points for succeeding in not being discovered for a fairly long time. Points which I am compelled to withdraw for the fact that any of this ever happened in the first place.
The get-in-line thieves: Three men go out to rob a bar in Martellago, just up the road (this is not the beginning of a joke. Or maybe it is). It’s 4:00 AM, which as we all know is the perfect time for robbing bars. This trio had demonstrated this fact on a number of other occasions. So it was understandable that they were a little peevish when, just as two of them were cutting open the security shutters on the door, some other guys showed up.
The third thief, who had been stationed as a lookout for the police, was quick to cut them short. “Hey,” he snapped — “We got here first.” Beat it, in other words, leave us in peace and go rob some other bar.
Except that the “other guys” were Carabinieri in plainclothes. The three bandits figured this out as the handcuffs snapped around their wrists. Good going, lookout! We need to take you with us again!
This would be a too-perfect example of another of my favorite sayings: No xe da portarte a rubar (no zeh dah por-TAR-teh ah roo-BAR). Roughly: “You’re not someone I’d take with me to steal something.” This phrase is useful for any moment in which a person spontaneously does or says something which ruins whatever project you had going in another direction. For example: Your boss calls you at home and your wife answers and says, “Oh, he’s not home right now. He’s out all day training on his mountain bike for the world championship.” The husband would be justified in telling her that she’s just the perfect person to take along for the heist.
Or how about this, a true story from Lino’s past as an airplane mechanic at Marco Polo airport. He was working aboard a plane with a group of guys and they decided to kick back and take a break. So they picked one man and told him to stand at the doorway of the plane and tell them if the boss was coming. The boss does indeed come; he walks up the steps and asks the lookout, “What are you doing?” And the lookout says, “I’m standing here watching to see if you’re coming so I can tell the guys inside.” Not made up.
To return to our trio: The fact that the investigators then went to the culprits’ homes and recovered all sorts of stolen stuff from other jobs is just the proverbial cherry on the cake, as they say here.
What will live in history is the blinding flash of brilliance of the indignant lookout invoking “honor among thieves” — First come, first served. Don’t jump the line. Take a number. — to the Carabinieri.
The jealous, potentially flammable, ex-husband. This anecdote will not inspire mirth (I hope), though it certainly made me move my lips in a smile-like way as I paused to dwell on the inscrutable workings of Providence.
One evening not long ago, here in the most beautiful city in the world, a Romanian man was out stalking his wife. She had endured far too much abuse, from physical attacks to the loss of all their money due to his gambling addiction, and in 2011 they separated, then reconciled. They left the children with the grandparents in Romania and came to Italy to start over. Before long, the only operative word for them was “over.”
She left him, and moved from Padova to an undisclosed address in Venice. She got a job as a waitress at a bar-disco called Il Piccolo Teatro in Campo San Lorenzo.
But none of this spelled “Forget her, she never wants to breathe the same air as you” to the rejected husband. He began to cultivate the conviction that she was having an affair with her boss, and also that her boss was making her work as a prostitute. Having not had much success with the stalker’s usual barrage of phone calls, messages, and threats, he found out where she worked (I never understand how stalkers discover these details), and decided to settle the matter in person.
He filled a bottle with gasoline, took the train from Padova to Venice, and waited near the entrance to the bar for her to show up for work. Which she did, shortly before opening time at 10:30 PM, along with her boss and another employee.
The ex-husband then splattered gasoline over her, her boss, and himself, cried “You’re going to burn with me,” and took out a lighter. Screams and confused phrases ensued, during which time he would flick the lighter on, then close it.
Now we get to the good part. It just so happened that at that very moment the chief of police, Vincenzo Roca, was walking home, close enough to the scene to smell the gasoline and hear the hysterical screams of the woman. He instantly intervened, managed to convince the man to give him the lighter, then called the mobile squad to come take him away.
The police chief lives in the palatial police headquarters which are literally just across the canal from Campo San Lorenzo ((cue Inscrutable Providence!). What are the odds of all this? Set aside the amazing fact that it was the chief himself who witnessed the scene in time to avoid horror — what sort of deranged ex-husband decides to try to kill his wife directly in front of the police station?
During the two hours of interrogation which followed, he maintained that he never intended to kill anyone, that his wild scenario was merely to get his wife’s attention and, having accomplished that, to convince her to quit working and come back to him. If I were soaked with gasoline, the only thing a lighter-wielding man could convince me of would be that he is criminally insane. But that’s just me.
He is now in prison, accused of attempted homicide, and for stalking. The judge for the preliminary hearing wasn’t convinced that he needed to be kept locked up for the first count (you don’t think he would try again? Really?), but did leave him in the clink for the stalking. Whatever works.
Gold stars to police chief Roca! And kudos also to Inscrutable Providence, whose message to the man by now must be extremely scrutable: (A) Do not attack anyone in front of the police station, (B) Do not attack anyone, period, and (C) Go somewhere far away and start your life over. Ideally in a magical realm where all the pots have lids.
As everyone knows by now, laundry, over time, has become a minor obsession with me.
I’m not alone; to judge by the number of tourists who stop daily to snap photos of lines of drying clothes, hanging out your garments has become as quaint as hand-grinding your cornmeal.
Drying clothes, though, requires only a cord, a handful of clothespins, and sun and breeze. Or sun or breeze. Or lots of time and hope. One memorable day I hung out an excellent collection of raiment, and we went for a long walk. It rained. (Bad.) It stopped. (Good.) This happened three times before we got home. This sort of day will make you appreciate the sun more than eight days on the beach in Curacao.
The washing of said garb, however, is an entirely different matter. Since I’ve been on Earth, there have always been washing machines of some sort. But Lino, and anybody else born before, say, 1950, recalls otherwise. If you’re a woman, you recall it vividly.
How do I know this? Thank you for asking.
One morning, my phone rang. It was one of my dearest elderly friends, and she was asking for help. Not for herself, but for her equally elderly cousin, L.G, 84 years old, who, in the middle of their morning walk to the supermarket, began to feel seriously faint.
My friend called the ambulance, and waited with L.G., of course. But she couldn’t manage also to accompany her cousin to the hospital, because she herself didn’t have any strength to spare. When you’re over 85 and have constant pain in most of your joints, especially your right knee, you have to ration your energy, and she had already used up her allotment for the day. Would I be willing to run to the hospital, intercept L.G. when she was delivered to the Emergency Room, and see her through whatever had to be seen through? There is only one answer to that question, and that’s the answer I gave.
We were at the hospital seven hours, which isn’t important to this story; most Emergency Rooms take a leisurely approach to people whose life is not in imminent danger (perhaps not recognizing that the accumulated tedium can be deleterious to your health). So I spent the day on my feet, standing next to her in her wheelchair and strolling along with her to whatever X-rays or other tests had to be made. No food for either one of us all day, because I knew if I were to wander away even for 20 seconds, the doctor who hadn’t been born yet when we signed in would suddenly appear and take her someplace I would never find her again.
All of this is preamble.
We were chatting away (she had begun to feel less faint rather quickly). She was telling me about her other assorted physical problems.
“And my wrist really hurts,” she told me, holding up her right arm. “It hurts so much I can hardly move it.”
“What happened?” I asked, imagining a fall, or her running into the furniture in the middle of the night.
“It happened when I was wringing out the sheets.”
“I had washed the sheets and I was wringing them out.” Obvious? Not in the third millennium.
I stared at her. I once mopped up all the water in the bottom of Lino’s boat using a terrycloth hand-towel from my hotel, and I can tell you that after about an hour, wringing out sodden cotton begins to hurt. It has never been my fate to have to hand-wash a sheet, but I can imagine it.
What I couldn’t imagine was an 84-year-old woman doing it. But she does.
She grew up washing sheets by hand; it’s not as if she had been forced to start doing it when she turned 70. This has always been normal, and while she’s perfectly aware that the washing machine has been invented, she doesn’t see any need for it.
When she was discharged, I accompanied her back to her apartment, where I got a look at how this particular lady lives. I don’t say that her situation is typical, but I wouldn’t say it’s unique, either.
First, the climb to her apartment is up two flights of stairs which are as steep as the ratlines on a square-rigger. She does this every day, though when she goes to the mountains she has to ask her neighbor to help her horse her suitcase down (and up) the stairs.
On the other hand, she has lived in this apartment her entire life; she was born here. So she’s had time to get used to the degree of ascent involved. I can tell you that if it were a mountain trail, plenty of people would just turn around and go back to the lodge.
The apartment itself reminded me of my grandfather’s house, primarily because the furniture was old, and although in reasonable condition, it showed every sign of having been left to fend for itself. If something wasn’t broken — I mean totally broken and useless — it would be there forever. A little break, or nick, or crack, doesn’t count as damage. Everything was old, and seemed to be tinted with the same general, faded-all-over earth-tone from the distant days when the concept of color scheme was simpler, or perhaps hadn’t been invented yet. The whole apartment smelled kind of tired.
Among the many things that hadn’t been changed since she was a girl was the kitchen sink. It is a rectangular slab of granite, with a shallow rectangular hollow in the center, and I’ve been told that a sink like this could be sold for its weight in almost any currency you choose. I’ve seen another like this — even bigger — in the kitchen of a palace, installed next to another amazing artifact: A fireplace remaining from the days when you cooked in cauldrons over the flames. (More about that in a moment.) But the palace residents were not aged widows living on a pension. Au extremely contraire.
Back to L.G. This granite receptacle is where she washes everything — dishes, sheets, herself. She doesn’t have a shower or a bathtub. She doesn’t have a hot-water heater, either. If you want water, it’s cold. She does have heat, though, and she has a toilet, in a tiny cubicle about two inches larger than the appliance itself.
I wondered silently whether this arrangement was the result of habit, or parsimony, or sloth. You can make a case for all of these factors. But the truth is otherwise.
The reason, I was informed by a reliable source, is that she isn’t sharp enough to understand how to operate it.
Faced with the challenge of attempting to operate a washing machine, and almost certainly failing, a wet sheet is just simpler, even if it does have to be washed and wrung out using nothing but her own ten little toothpick-sized fingers. Just like she has always done.
The history of washing machines (by which I mean the mechanical invention, not the woman herself), begins in 1851. Many improvements in the design rapidly followed. I realize that not everyone could afford one, but buying a washing machine wasn’t as unusual as, say, buying a flying saucer. Anyone in Venice who had the means to get one did not hesitate.
This alacrity was inspired by the fact that virtually everyone washed everything by hand until the end of World War II, and often beyond. Lino and his older sister (born in 1929) have educated me on how Wash Day proceeded at their house.
They had running water in their second-floor apartment, and a sink. But their mother, like many Venetians, was still cooking over a wood fire in a fireplace, just like Little House on the Canal. “There was a chain that hung down,” Lino said; “the cooking pot was attached to it, and that’s how my mother cooked.”
Wood fires make ashes. Ashes plus boiling water make lye, or in Venetian, “lissia” (YEE-see-ah). Lye makes soap.
Lino’s father made their soap from the aforementioned lye and the fat and bones that had been saved from whatever meat they had eaten. He boiled it all, as Lino remembers, in a big pot in the kitchen and then poured it into a wooden container, where it dried and could be cut into pieces.
When it was wash-day, your clothes or other fabric items such as tablecloths went into a big wooden tub, and you got to work with a washboard. The washboard in a Venetian family had two uses.
First, to scrub clothes (over time, the scrubbing could begin to wear out the fabric, to the point of producing holes. Hence “bucato” as the general word for “laundry” — it means “holed.”)
The second use was a kickboard to help children learn to swim. Generations of Venetian babies, up to and including Lino, clung to mom’s washboard as they thrashed their way around the water — usually out in the lagoon, but a nearby canal was just as good, and more convenient, too. That which does not kill me makes me stronger.
But lissia also makes bleach. As Lino’s sister explained it, they would carefully layer the items to be bleached into the wooden washtub, and cover them with a cloth. Then they would pour the lissia into the tub and leave it all to soak for a while. “Your clothes came out perfectly white,” she said, and smiled, remembering how her mother would look at the result with a sort of bedrock satisfaction.
You can understand her smile if you know that Lino’s father drove a steam train, fueled by coal, of course, on the Venice-Trento line. He came home in the evening black all over. That’s not the inspiration of the phrase “ashes to ashes,” but wood-ash seems to have been the perfect weapon against coal dust.
Lissia was such a common element of life that, like so many common elements, it became a very useful term to express all kinds of situations, and some of these expressions are still used.
“Far lissia” (to make lissia), to really clean right down to the ground. You could also say this if you’ve eaten up everything in the house (as we would say “really cleaned out”).
“Perder el lissia e ‘l saon” (pehr-dehr el EE-see-ha ehl sah-OHN — to lose the lye and the soap). It means you’ve totally wasted effort and money and have nothing to show for it all.
“Mi sugaro’ sta lissia” (Mee soo-gah-ROH sta EE-see-ah — I’ll dry out this lye). You’d say this when you mean to really settle an issue or deal with a problem once and for all.
“Co e done fa pan e lissia, i omeni scampa via” (coe eh doe-neh fa pahn eh EE-see-ah, ee OH-men-ee scampa vee-ah –When the women make bread or lye, the men get the heck out of there). Centuries of domestic conflict-resolution are contained in this phrase, which I think must have been coined by a man. Making really good bread, and making lye, were two strenuous tasks that would inevitably exhaust the wife. And an exhausted wife, as all husbands discover, is a dangerous person to be around. Flee!