Our upstairs neighbor, G.S., now retired, finally has all the time he wants to go fishing. I understand that this is the dream of many men, and he is living it to the full.
He sits in his boat on some expanse of water — naturally he will never tell us where, and Lino, a fisherman himself, will never ask. He sets up three fishing rods, and with what appears to be superhuman talent always brings home something. Often, many somethings. Which he sometimes shares with us.
First, he passes our kitchen window, which is usually open except in the depths of winter. He may call a friendly greeting, or Lino may already have heard him tying up his boat. So G. will pause, and Lino will indulge in what seems to me to be lots of time discussing the day’s conditions, catch, and other occult particulars of the angler’s art. Lino never fished with a rod (he prefers the leister, or what I simply call a “trident” even though it has many more than three prongs). But he knows as much as anyone about the lagoon environment and the customs of its finny fauna. So they confer for as long as they feel like it, then G. goes around the corner and upstairs.
For quite a while, he would sometimes reappear (three flights of stairs, twice — what a guy) and plop a plastic bag of some of his fish onto the windowsill. And not just any fish. Gilthead bream (orata, or Sparus aurata), sea bass, seppie, and assorted companions who made the wrong decision by thinking “Gosh, if the bream bit, it must be good. I think I’ll try it.”
He would briefly and modestly accept our praise and thanks. Like anyone who does something really well, he considers most compliments to be mere statements of the obvious. I once complimented the wife of a trattoria-owner in our old neighborhood on her fried meatballs. “They’re the best meatballs in Venice,” I said, thinking I’d give her pleasure. “I know,” she replied. And that was it. Once I recovered from the sensation of having missed a step going down the stairs, I realized that she couldn’t honestly have said anything else. If she didn’t know how good they were, who would?
Back to G.
Matters have taken a new turn. He comes home, he passes the window, he shows Lino the catch, they talk, he goes upstairs. Normal. But the other evening, after a few minutes, we heard him call. Then a plastic bag tied to a string mysteriously appeared, descending from above, framed in the doorway.
People still sometimes let down baskets to pull up whatever they need (everybody’s got flights of stairs), and more than sometimes they let down their bags of garbage and leave them hanging on a long cord for the garbage collector to retrieve. (Except they won’t be doing that tomorrow, because the garbage people are going to be on strike. Gad.)
I suppose if we lived on the third floor and he on the ground, he’d call for us to let down a basket, bag, tray, some kind of receptacle, and we’d pull up the fish, sometimes still thrashing. His generosity means that we now eat fabulous fish at least once a week. But it’s beginning to be hard to keep up with him. When somebody gives you eight or ten bream, which is one of the most valued fish in the Venetian culinary repertoire, you feel joy and gratitude and bursts of self-congratulatory health. But you can’t eat eight or ten at one go, and the freezer is beginning to murmur in a discontented sort of way, probably beginning to consider staging a mutiny of the bounty.
But we have put our hand to the plow, as the Good Book hath it, and, as advised, we are not looking back. If fresh fish is to be our fate, we will just keep on accepting it.
I promise that I will not transform this blog into the daily bulletin from the MOSE hecatomb.
But two days ago (June 14), at the last meeting of the council of ministers, the government did something so extreme — and indisputably necessary and long overdue — that I want at least to make it known.
They abolished the Magistrato alle Acque. An entire government agency with 500 years of history is no more. Yesterday it was, today it is not.
Beginning in October, its responsibilities will be “absorbed” by the Inter-regional Director of Public Works of the three contiguous regions of the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino Alto Adige.
Of course this is good, but I feel sick at heart. Not only because of the annihilation of one of the last tiny links to the Venetian Republic, but because a gesture of this magnitude shows all too vividly the extent of the rot.
People who occasionally had to request a permit for temporary use of a certain stretch of lagoon have long been aware that the Magistrato was as swampy as Reelfoot Lake. It wouldn’t have been the first city agency whose functionaries accepted the occasional guerdon for speeding up the processing of requests. I’m not saying the employees of the Magistracy did such a thing. I’m just saying that if they did, they wouldn’t have been alone.
The Magistracy of the Waters was established in 1501; it was specifically charged with overseeing the health and security of the lagoon, and any action required – digging, land reclamation, maintenance — had to have its approval.
Care of the lagoon required care of its tributary rivers, too. Venetian engineers diverted the Po River, for God’s sake; between 1600 and 1604, innumerable men with shovels and wheelbarrows cut Italy’s greatest river at Porto Viro and turned it southward. There were many reasons for this, some of them political, some economic, but it was also time to limit the amount of sediment that was filling up the lagoon. The Venetian Republic knew that the care of the lagoon was its primary life insurance.
“Lagoon” (laguna) is a Venetian word, by the way.
But the Magistrato was populated by many individuals who were not all of the same stripe, and in 1678, human nature having demonstrated its impressive dimensions, the Venetian Senate created a group of inquisitors to conduct the legal cases against those accused of having damaged the lagoon. There must be some diabolical hothouse somewhere that causes little tiny crook seedlings to sprout, then sells them to the Magistrato alle Acque where, in its own special microclimate, they can flourish and grow to be big tall leafy crooks.
In fact, I now learn that this is the third time that the Magistrato has been “suppressed,” as the headlines put it, though it’s the first occasion where the reason was crime.
In 1808, during the brief but eventful French domination of the city (1806-1814), the Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais put an end to it, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered. It didn’t take long for it to become evident that this was an error, the neglect having contributed to an assortment of watery damage. When the Austrians took over for the first time (1816-1848), they quickly re-established the Magistrato, reorganized it, renamed some departments, applied a coat of varnish and it was good to go again.
In 1866, when Venice and the Veneto became part of the new nation of Italy, the Magistrato was annulled again, and again a series of hydraulic disasters showed what serious consequences could come from indifference to the state of the waterways.
The Magistrato was reformulated for the third time in 1907 as part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, and its authority expanded to cover the entire hydrological basin of northeast Italy — an enormous watershed of rivers, lakes, and other lagoons stretching from Mantova to Trieste. Total area of its authority was some 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles). So when we talk about the misfeasance of the Magistrato, we’re not talking about some little local entity that turned out to have just a few bad apples.
I very sincerely hope that Cuccioletta and Piva, in their respective cells awaiting trial, are happy. Because I’m not, and neither are a whole bunch of other people.
On June 4, the dam broke.
I don’t mean the ingeniously devised dam (a/k/a “MOSE”) still under construction, which is formed by mobile barriers intended to block high water from entering Venice for a few hours every so often. I mean the dam that was the financing of the project.
No one is really surprised. Any public work budgeted at 5 billion euros (6.5 billion dollars) is a monumental petri dish for cultivating corruption. But what has stunned just about everybody is the sheer scope of it all. I’ve heard some people say they don’t believe it will ever become completely untangled — names which were given code numbers, foreign accounts, fake receipts, fake financial reports, fake banks, even. All of this created and maintained by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the consortium which had sole power over the administration of the work, the awarding of contracts, and every detail of who and what was involved in the project. Taken altogether, some estimate that the Consorzio paid out 1 billion euros in gifts, favors and graft.
The Northeast, especially members of the Northern League, has spent years sneering at the waste and crime south of Rome, past Naples, deep into the heart of Sicily. The North wanted to secede from the feckless, blood-sucking South. Marches and vigils were held in the “fight against the mafia.”
But no more is the voice of the sneer heard in the land, at least not in the Veneto.
News of the arrest of the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, sped around the world, though he is just one tiny (sorry, Giorgio, but you are, in fact, very tiny) piece of the story. To spend even five seconds thinking about Orsoni is like thinking about a broken fingernail when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.
Orsoni resigned today, after house arrest, liberation, then plea-bargaining which got him a trifling four-month sentence. To reach this point, we had to endure the usual tedious pantomime.
Day 1: “I didn’t take even one euro.”
Day 2: “I took money but it was for my political party.”
Day 3: “I took money.” How much? 560,000 even-one-euros. Rabbit pellets! Emilio Spaziante, the number-two general of the entire Guardia di Finanza (what I call the Finance Police), was given 2,500,000 euros by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova. Vulture chow! Giancarlo Galan, the former governor of the Veneto Region, got 1,000,000 euros per year for seven years (2005 – 2011).
Back to Orsoni.
Day 4: “I’m not resigning.”
And on Day 5, “I have tendered my resignation.” Orsoni said he is bitter, disillusioned, and is going to leave the perfidious world of politics. He might as well; he already opened the Emergency Exit door himself.
Malfeasance of these dimensions requires a book, not a blog post. A mere book? “Give me a condor’s quill!” Herman Melville cried, staggering at the prospect of describing the white whale; “Give me Vesuvius’ crater as an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!”
Being a mere mortal, I can only outline a few details here, each of which is plenty.
After five years of unflagging labor, 300 officers of the Guardia di Finanza had assembled enough evidence to validate — nay, require — the arrest of as many as 100 people on charges of corruption, bribes, kickbacks, fraud, influence-peddling, and every form of villainy in which money can play even so much as a walk-on role. The complexity and the dimensions of this titanic construction of crime, begun in the early Nineties, has overwhelmed this project, overwhelmed even its perpetrators.
The edifice began to crumble with the unexpected retirement, on June 28, 2013, of Giovanni Mazzacurati, who spent 30 years at the apex of the Consorzio, first as director general, then as president. He cited reasons of health. He got a 7 million dollar departure bonus. And on July 12, he was arrested for turbativa d’asta, or bid rigging.
At that point, even I knew what would come next: He wasn’t going to go down alone.
A straggling procession of degraded characters marches across the newspaper every day now, carrying the equally monotonous quantities of money — public money dedicated to the project, not private money — which they so eagerly accepted in so many forms, right down to the classic white envelope stuffed with cash.
A judge from the Court of Audit. Members of parliament. Members of the European parliament. Directors of the Magistrato alle Acque, the agency established in 1501 to safeguard the lagoon (Maria Giovanna Piva, director from 2001-2008 and Patrizio Cuccioletta, director from 2008-2011, received 400,000 euros a year to ignore what was being done in the lagoon). Eleven years of good times rolling everywhere in the world of the famous floodgates.
In its report, which runs for many hundreds of pages, the Procura — an official government watchdog entity — said that there was “total confusion in the roles of the controllers and the controlled. No obstacle, no vigilance, no important remark was made by the Magistrato alle Acque under Piva and Cuccioletta.”
Everyone knew something very fishy was up. But the haul has been beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine.
“Corruption” is such a compact word that we tend to lose track of its essential meaning. “Moral perversion; depravity; perversion of integrity; decay: rot; putrefaction.”
MOSE was supposed to save Venice. But nobody could save Venice from MOSE.
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.