Archive for August, 2014


Hard times for humor

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Just something that struck me as innocently goofy the other day.  No big message attached.

Just something that struck me as innocently goofy the other day.  No big message attached.

I’ve been having a little trouble lately finding diverting things to write about, which accounts, in part, for the work slowdown in my posting.

The fact is, so many things are going wrong around the most beautiful city in the world that humor is hard to find — even that bitter, crackly humor that used to be easier to pick up than manna in the morning.

The vaporettos have reached Third-World levels of crowding, especially the #2 from Tronchetto.  The human body is 60 percent water, but these bodies are packed onto these vehicles with a force which evidently removes all liquids (in the form of sweat, or tears — I stop there) and leaves only the hide and gristle of thousands of tourists per day compressed in really harsh ways.

That might not matter except that the vaporettos of various lines have acquired the habit recently of breaking down in mid-run.  Motors that stop, or rudders that cease to respond, which sometimes happens near other boats, such as gondolas.  There have been several cases in a very short stretch of time.

Did I mention gondolas?  There have been other collisions recently between motorized boats (vaporetto, taxi) and the floating symbol of Venice.  August 17 is the first anniversary of the death of Professor Joachim Vogel in his gondola, and although the legal process has reached some conclusions (gondolier exonerated, three vaporetto drivers convicted of various breaches), the traffic situation has not changed at all.

The agonized city-wide soul-searching caused by this totally predictable tragedy led to the creation of a list of 26 proposed changes in the traffic patterns and the assorted uses of the aquatic spaces by specific types of boat. In other words, a plan to ease the jams and minimize, if not eliminate, the problems of too many boats in too small a space.  See above: Nothing has changed.

Well fine, you say.  Avoid taking a vaporetto (or gondola), and you’ll be okay.  And that’s true, except that there is also the increasing chaos created by the ever-more-aggressive itinerant illegal vendors proliferating in the Piazza San Marco and environs.  They sell corn to feed to the pigeons, counterfeit handbags and sunglasses, long-stemmed red roses, and toys of various sorts.

Well fine, you say.  Avoid the Piazza San Marco.  That would be one solution.

But what is happening here is that although enforcement of the laws was a bit random in the past, ever since the government was decapitated (June 4), the town has become a sort of Dodge City for every kind of independent (translation: illegal) operator.

I did discover something funny, though. There are laws — that’s not the funny part — which behave sort of like blank bullets.

Let's load our barge with geraniums.  I think that's the best suggestion I've heard all day.

Let’s decorate our barge with geraniums.  There can’t be any law against that.

For example:  A 28-year-old homeless man from Kosovo named Imer Tosca was drunk at 3:00 AM the other morning.  None of that carries a huge humor load.  But wait.

He didn’t want to waste time standing around waiting for the rare vaporetto at that hour which would take him to the Lido.

So he untied one of the vaporettos which is moored at night in front of the Arsenal, turned on the ignition, and drove it away.  A patrolling ACTV security boat almost immediately noticed this — hard to miss, considering that the three vaporettos that had been tied to his were now floating around, going adrift — and gave chase.  So did the police. But neither of those facts made much difference to him.  When the police tried to stop him, he tried to ram their boat.  Actually he did that twice.

He was finally overcome, and taken to jail.  He was released the next day BECAUSE…. a new law which was passed to ease the pressure in the prisons (disastrously overcrowded, too, even worse than the vaporettos), states that any person committing a crime or misdemeanor which rates a sentence of fewer than three years in prison is not to be sent to prison, but placed on house arrest.

Did I mention the perp was homeless?  Having no domicile, he couldn’t be placed on house arrest, so he was let go.

Next day….. he and some friends got drunk and proceeded to brawl in the cloister of the basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padova.  He was hauled in again.  And let go again.  Why?

Because with the rap sheet they discovered he had built up since he was 12, he should now be expelled from Italy.

Except that he is officially designated as a stateless person.  He has no country.  I don’t know how those documents get worked out, but it means that there was no country to expel him to.  So here he stays.

He may be drunk and homeless, for which I’m very sorry, but until he kills somebody, I feel a very unpleasant sort of admiration for him.

Here he is, pulling his shadow along behind him.  There are no signs saying that this is against the law.

Here he is, pulling his shadow along behind him. There are no signs saying that this is against the law.

On a more modest, but no less perplexing note, there was Olga, the Slovakian girl with the horse.  Her being Slovakian doesn’t really matter to the story, I just thought I’d throw it in.

A few days ago some distress calls began to come into the highway police from drivers on the Ponte della Liberta’.  They were being forced to slow down and change lanes (creating stress for themselves and other drivers who weren’t so alert) to avoid hitting a girl who was walking along, leading a horse.  The horse was saddled to the hilt with all sorts of Western gear, so I’m not really sure why she was walking rather than riding.  Maybe the horse was tired.

Never mind.  She was creating a hazardous situation, so the police sent out an escort which would alert the drivers behind her (kind of like a “wide load” sign on a truck).  They accompanied her safely to the end of the bridge — Piazzale Roma — where she turned around and crossed the bridge again, with escort, and went on her mysterious way.

The next day, it was made known that she had been cited for various infractions.  None of them specifically mentioned unlawful use of a quadropedic vehicle, but they did mention her endangering the safety of the drivers (41 euros), and also for allowing the horse to leave the bridge dirtier than she had found it (25 euros).

She had been walking from Austria to Bussolengo (near Verona) for the past two months — again, why she was walking with a perfectly good horse, rather than riding, I have no idea — and said she wanted to come to Venice to take a picture, and was planning to turn around and leave anyway.  That is, there were no further plans, such as swimming him to the Piazza San Marco, or riding him up the campanile, or whatever other effervescent ideas come fizzing into people’s minds in the summer here.

Also, she said there were no signs indicating that it was forbidden to take a horse across the bridge.  Very true.  Everyone admitted that.  No one observed that there were no signs forbidding bringing aardvarks over the bridge on skateboards, either, or prohibiting the passage of Laotian rock rats clinging to low-flying birthday balloons.

Come to think of it, there aren’t any signs that forbid the untying and taking of a vaporetto in the middle of the night.

We need to make a whole lot of new rules around here.  “Don’t act silly” doesn’t go far enough.

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You want me to go where??

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A view of the island of San Michele, with the sculpture placed just right.  Going my way?  (photo:

A view of the island of San Michele, with the sculpture placed just right. Going my way? (photo:

One day in 2007 a bronze sculpture suddenly appeared in the water between the Fondamente Nove and the island of San Michele.

It represents two men standing in a boat, one of them pointing somewhere important.

If there had been an announcement about this innovation, I missed it, because I was compelled to try to figure out what it was all by myself.

I failed; in fact, I didn’t even come close.  My main theory was that it was Saint Francis with one of his disciples.  Logic!  Because it is said — or even known — that in 1220 the “Poverello,” returning from the Fifth Crusade, stopped in the Lagoon and founded a hermitage on the little island now known as San Francesco del Deserto.

I was slightly troubled by the consideration that if the armless man in bronze were St. Francis, why wasn’t his companion pointing to the island he adopted — or toward Venice, at least?  The statue is pointing more toward Murano, but that makes no sense, even if it is something from the Biennale, whose components are not supposed to make sense.

Then I thought it might be some representation of Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”:  “Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land, / “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” / In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon.”  Mounting wave: check.  Plenty of those.  It’s a start.

But now I know the truth, and it’s more troubling than ignorance.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that truth can be that way.

This pair of metallic men floating in what appears to be a pistachio shell is a creation of a Russian artist, Georgy Frangulyan, and it is known as “Dante’s Barque.”

Excuse me?

In the early 1300’s, a Florentine pharmacist and poet named Dante Alighieri took a trip to Hell — not the Piazza San Marco at noon on a summer Sunday, but the other Hell — in the company of the ghost of Virgil, the famous Roman poet, who acted as guide and fixer. They also went to Purgatory and Paradise, and he wrote the trip up in “The Divine Comedy.”

I knew all that a long time ago, but I never imagined that the creation installed in the Venetian lagoon depicted an interlude in the allegorical travels of the Supreme Poet and the author of the Aeneid — specifically, their preparation to be rowed across the Acheron, a boiling river of damned souls.  Many congratulations to all.

Now that I think of it, they could also just be two tourists crossing the Grand Canal on the gondola traghetto.  The one that goes to Hell.

Now that I think of it, they could also just be two tourists crossing the Grand Canal on the gondola traghetto. That’s pretty much a boiling river by now. (Flickr)

There’s just one thing.  Who came up with the idea that it would be cool to position a big statue showing two men heading for Hell pointing at the cemetery?

It was bad enough when the city’s funeral launches, which carry the coffins to the graveyard, had a big sticker on the stern bearing the name of the city’s garbage collection service.  Thank God they finally stopped that.

But this isn’t much better.  It isn’t any better.  I realize we live in an era which has been deformed by irony and mockery, but that’s no excuse.

If I had to accompany my mother’s body to the cemetery, I would never want to know that those two characters are Dante and Virgil.  You could tell me they’re George and Gracie; you could tell me they’re Crick and Watson; you could tell me they’re two of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

But I’d appreciate your just leaving Dante out of it.

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