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You can say that again

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We can't have just any old sunset here -- it has to be AMAZING.

Another day of expressing yourself draws to a close.

Daily life in the Nation of Venice is made up of occurrences that aren’t uncommon in other latitudes: Unplanned events, things going screwy, people acting weird, having to spend twice as much time as expected doing something simple, and generally starting out with one scheme and ending the day with a mishmash of improvised solutions or brilliant ideas that worked once but will never work again.

Naturally these days do not pass without comment, and Venetians have inevitably devised innumerable expressions to convey the nuances of the aforementioned daily life, as well as the emotions which its many happenstances cause to spring forth in the Venetian bosom.  Not that the emotions themselves are so nuanced.  Au contraire.

Many of these expressions are used so commonly that they now come to me spontaneously, and I struggle to recall what American expressions might correspond.  Not that I try very hard — the Venetian versions are so perfect for Venice that I just stick with them.  They’re not all profound, and certainly they aren’t all unique.  But a normal day in this abnormal city keeps emotions simmering, and the nearness of you, of them, of everybody, makes the urge to put them into words irresistible.  At least I’ve never noticed anybody resisting that urge.

One of the great things about using a common saying, rather than blurting out what you really feel or think, is that clichés, truisms, proverbs, make it socially acceptable to say something which, if you expressed it impulsively in your own original heartfelt way, would create worlds of grief and embarrassment for you.  Sincerity?  Highly overrated.  But thanks to these aphorisms you can say what you think without endangering the social equilibrium.

No matter how glamorous the boat -- here, the "disdotona" of the Querini rowing club -- a coffin is still just that.  Odd how death itself turns out to be such a useful concept for expressing things about life.

No matter how glamorous the boat — here, the “disdotona” of the Querini rowing club — a coffin is still just that. Odd how death turns out to be such a useful concept for expressing things about life.

“Morte” — death — is a highly versatile word.  You’d be surprised how often it can turn up in the most banal situations.

Vedemo de che morte che morimo (veh-DEH-mo de keh MOR-teh keh mo-REE-mo):  “Let’s see by what death we’re going to die.”  Cheerful, no?  I said it only a while ago, and I meant it.  However, death itself isn’t intended in this remark, but it usefully conveys a foreboding of a probably unpleasant experience you can’t get out of.

In my case, we were on our way to the mainland to help some friends move an unspecified number of heavy, cumbersome, dirty objects for an unspecified length of time, on a searingly hot afternoon in a location which was almost certainly going to be infested with mosquitoes.  (The instinctive American version of my emotions would have been “What was I thinking?”).

My saying the above conveyed that I assumed it was going to be a terrible experience but that I was going to do it anyway.  (Note: There were no mosquitoes.)  You can vary the intensity of this expression; it can be almost jaunty, depending on circumstances, but will always communicate at least some element of apprehension, or at least unwillingness.

Gaver la morte con qualchedun” (gah-VEHR ya MOR-teh con kwal-keh-DOON).  “To have the death with someone.”  The American expression “Have it in for someone” serves the same purpose but doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch.

You would say this about someone you really hated.  Naturally there is a word for “hate,” but to call in “death” amps up your hostility to a complete, total, 100 per cent direness, an aversion which has no chinks or cracks through which second thoughts, forgiveness, or extenuating circumstances might enter. It’s a feeling that’s going to last forever.  Unless the other person does something amazing to rectify whatever it was that went wrong, which can happen.

Esser la morte de qualcossa.”  (ESS-er ly MORE-te deh kahl-KOSS-ah).  “To be the death of something.”   In this case, “death” is a positive thing.  And it almost always is related to food, the quintessential positive thing in life.

Let’s say that a certain item is more or less good prepared in various ways.  But if there is one way in which a particular ingredient has reached its reason for being, that would be its “death.”

For example, you might really like seppie in their ink with polenta, and you’d be happy to eat seppie in their ink with pasta.  But if you think that risotto is the best way on earth to eat seppie and ink, you’d say that risotto was their “morte.”  A normal person might just comment, “Well, I think seppie risotto is best of all.”  But if you are convinced that seppie were born to die in a plate of rice, you’d say “Risotto xe i so morte.”

Or take gray mullet.  Lino states “Rosto xe i so morte.”  You can fix them them any way you want, but he says that being grilled is their (correct, ideal, perfect) death.  Think “destiny.”  It sounds a little less drastic, but means the same thing.

Any boat event -- here, the launch of a new mascareta -- calls for at least 400 salami or mortadella sandwiches, beverages, potato chips, and when things are really going well (as in this case) a bottomless vat of pasta e fagioli.

Any boat event — here, the launch of a new mascareta — calls for at least 400 salame or mortadella sandwiches, beverages, potato chips, and when things are really going well (as in this case) a bottomless vat of pasta e fagioli.

Ghe gera per cani e porchi, or Ghe gera per santi e paoli.  (Geh JEH-ra pehr CAH-nee eh POR-kee… pehr SAN-tee eh PAO-lee). “There was enough for dogs and pigs,” or “There was enough for saints and Pauls,” specifically Saint Paul.  I cannot discover any reason why Paul would have been singled out for special mention.  I’ve often heard the former, but only the other day did Lino come up with “saints and Pauls.”

They both mean the same thing: Abundance.  Food and drink beyond any measurement that could be considered prudent or rational.  It is a positive thing to say — it doesn’t imply waste, it implies generosity, hospitality, all you could ever deem necessary or acceptable in putting on a picnic or a wedding reception or a committee banquet.  (If you use it to describe what was available on your cruise, it only implies that you got what you paid for.)

But you wouldn’t say this, however complimentary it may be, to the provider himself.  You wouldn’t go up to the bride’s father and say “Wow, great party — there’s enough here for dogs and pigs.”  You would describe the festivities thus to your friends the next day in answer to the question, “How was it?”  If you say this, you’ve said it all, whether or not you go on to say there was Iranian caviar and Peach Melba and truffle risotto and millions of little salame sandwiches.

Multiplying a single saint (1: Paul, Unit: each) into a plural is an old-fashioned custom from the early 20th century; Lino says that his father, and many other Venetians, would make plurals out of names (not unlike the similar habit they have in Philadelphia of pluralizing nouns: “She writes for National Geographics,” for instance).

An example: In the old days Lino says it was normal to hear someone refer to the island, not as San Giorgio in Alga, but as San Zorzi in Alga (pronounced AH-eh-gah). Or, instead of Sant’ Angelo delle Polvere, it was “San Anzeli de le Polvere.”  A linguist or etymologist would understand this shift.  But people said it anyway, without wondering why.

Lino brought me flowers for my birthday.  Three, of course.

Lino brought me roses for my birthday. Three, of course.

Uno no xe da dar, Do no xe da tor, Tre xe d’amor, Quatro da mato, e Cinque d’inamorato.  “One isn’t to give, two aren’t to take, three are for love, four are from a crazy person, and five are from someone who’s in love.”  A curious bit of doggerel which defines the significance of the number of roses which a man might give to a lady.

It isn’t something you’d say every day, but this morning at the supermarket I was surprised to discover that Lino isn’t the only person left who still knows it.

The cashier had finished with me, and had just begun with the man behind me.  She saw that he had only three bottles of mineral water.  “Tre d’amor,” she quipped, to no one in particular, as she moved them down the belt, and on she went, ringing it up. It was great — it was like discovering I knew the secret password.

The numbers stop at five.  Perhaps more than five roses are too expensive to consider.  Anyway, if the number of roses were to continue past being in love, we’d be facing, say, Six is for your first fight, Seven is for getting lost because you wouldn’t stop to ask directions, Eight is for that vacation with the in-laws, Nine is for having gone to the soccer match with your buddies on your anniversary, and Ten is for having forgotten to close the car windows at the carwash. Or whatever the Venetian equivalent might be.

This is a strope bush/tree, a species which loves humid environments.  How convenient for the ingenious Venetians.

This is a strope bush/tree, a species which loves humid environments. How convenient for the ingenious Venetians.

Need to tie or bind up something.  Just break off the right-length twig and strip away its leaves...

Need to tie or bind up something? Just break off the right-length twig and strip away its leaves…

As you see, this flexible little sprig can be bent and tightened and knotted.  Not shown: The intermediate step of placing the twig, or preferably many of them, in a basin of water, to soften even more before using.  The twig in its natural state still has a little too much spring in it to be reliable.

As you see, this flexible little sprig can be bent and tightened and knotted. Not shown: The intermediate step of placing the twig, or preferably many of them, in a basin of water, to soften even more before using. The twig in its natural state still has a little too much spring in it to be reliable.

Stringer le strope (STRIN-jer eh STRO-peh).  Essentially it means to tighten your belt — drastic economizing.  I don’t know what they say in the rest of Italy, but in Venice this expression still does the job.

You could say “Gavemo da stringer le strope” (we’ve got to tighten the strope), or “Gavemo streto le strope” (we’ve tightened the strope).  Given that for the past eight years all we’ve heard is how there isn’t any money in the city, those municipal strope must be worn to mere threads by now.  Not to mention ours.

“Strope” are twigs of the Salix viminalis which have been soaked to become flexible, thereby serving, among other things, as natural cords for tying up things such as vine branches, bunches of flowers, or to make baskets, fish-traps, and so on.  I believe that the correct term for these natural twist-ties is “withy.” The twigs also are used to make wicker-work objects.  (“Wicker” in Italian is “vimini,” as per the scientific name.)

Bushes which could grow even to the size of small trees are found along the edges of canals and islands in the lagoon, and were just another of the innumerable useful things which the old Venetians harvested and used.  Everybody knew what strope were.  And most of those also knew what it meant to tighten them, either literally or figuratively.

Netony, or "betonica" (photo: Aroche, Wikipedia).

Betony, or “betonica” (photo: Aroche, Wikipedia).

Ti xe come parsemolo (tee zeh coh-meh par-SEH-mo-lo) or Ti xe pezio de la betonega (de ya beh-TON-eh-gah).  “You’re like parsley,” or “You’re worse than betony.”  What?  The first is easy: Lazy or unscrupulous or unimaginative cooks are prone to cover a dish with chopped parsley when they are aware that it needs a little help but they can’t be bothered to figure out what.

Parsley, like many things, does not improve in quality along with the quantity.  In fact, the more parsley on your plate, the more suspicious you should become. There are people who  throw parsley on everything, like there are people who find a word they like and just keep using it.  We had a neighbor when I was little who called everything “cunning.”  That would have been like parsley.

Therefore, to compare a person to parsley is not to comment on his/her nutritional or aesthetic qualities, but merely to say that the person is ubiquitous.  We used to see a certain man around town in so many different places and situations Lino nicknamed him “Parsemolo.”  It was years before we found out what his real name was.

Betony, another plant (Stachys officinalis), is now lost to everyday medicinal use — its first use was to defend a person from sorcery, but soon demonstrated more helpful daily qualities, especially as a diuretic, but which apparently could also deal with everything from gout to gallstones to drunkenness to dog bites.  Although nobody cultivates it around here, as far as I know, the expression lives on.

The Dizionario del Dialetto Veneziano (the touchstone of all Venetian words) says that this plant was once extensively cultivated in Venice, and that the usual phrase was “esser cognossuo come la betonega” — to be as well-known as betony.

The first time I heard somebody refer to betony, they were referring to Lino.  He was “worse than betony” because he seemed to know everybody we ran across.  They weren’t far wrong; a few days ago we were on a bus coming back from the mountains, and a lady got on at Strigno, a wide spot in the road about 130 km (80 miles) from Venice.  As she climbed aboard, Lino murmured to me, “We were in nursery school together.”

It isn’t totally strange that a Venetian would be found up in the Sugana valley in the summer; thousands of Venetians have headed that way since forever, spending at least part of August in a cooler clime.  But of all the Venetians to climb aboard at a truly insignificant place, it does strike me as noteworthy that Lino knew her.

But it just keeps happening.  He opened the Gazzettino this morning and saw a little article in which don F. B., a parish priest in a small town on the mainland, was quoted.  There was a picture of a conventional silver-haired priest with a one-size-fits-all expression.

“We were kids together,” Lino said.  “His family lived where Giamberto lives” (that is to say, near Campo San Vio).  Not enough information?  How about this:  “One of his brothers died when he (the brother) was very young.  Their mother ran a casin (brothel).”

And these are the round-breadstick bussolai.

These are the round-breadstick bussolai.

And these are the sweet-cookie bussolai.  They're both good.

And these are the sweet-cookie bussolai. They’re both good.

Chi ga santoli ga bussolai.  (kee gah SAN-to-ee gah boo-so-YAH-ee).  “He who has santoli has bussolai.” A “santolo” is like a godparent, but in a wider sense is someone who is perfectly positioned, with the perfect amount of power, to be the perfect person to help you do something important that you couldn’t manage to do yourself.  A person who could find a job for your son would be a major santolo.  Further, a santolo would be someone available to you, but perhaps not available to your friends at the bar.  If you turn out to have a santolo who can help you resolve some difficulty, you automatically acquire an aura of special potency which you cannot — or won’t — share with anyone else.

So what are bussolai?  Technically speaking, the word comes from “bussola,” or compass. They are circular baked goods which can either be crunchy dried bread (like a round breadstick), or softer and flatter and sweeter, essentially a heavy cookie laden with butter and eggs and sugar.  The former is a specialty of Chioggia, or the islands, and the latter is a specialty of Burano (even though today the commercial bussolai are made on the mainland in Jesolo).

The overall meaning is: If you’ve got a protector, you’ll have food.

This was little M's first day at the beach in his life, and everything -- sand, sun, water -- made for a great chance to snanarar.

This was little M’s first day at the beach in his life, and everything — sand, sun, water — made for a perfect moment to  snanarar.

Snanarar (znah-nah-RAR).  To futz around in a happy aimless way.  I’ve heard it used almost exclusively aimed at children.  (The adult version for any harmless incoherent activity is “tatarar via” (tah-tah-rar VEE-ah). You’d take your toddler to the beach to let him/her snanarar in the water, though you can snanarar doing enjoyable, meaningless things in other places.  Perhaps “pottering about” might be a rough equivalent.

I can’t find it in Boerio, but Lino’s assertion that its root is “anatra,” or duck, sounds good to me.  Ducks splashing and plotzing around with their webbed feet expresses at least a little of the delicious sense of formless pleasure doing whatever it is you enjoy.  I don’t mean needlepoint or ceramics; I think there has to be some element of frittering away the time in the process.  Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but every time I hear Lino say it about something it makes me smile.

If  lion were inclined to squaquarar about somebody, he might look like this.

If a lion were inclined to squaquarar about somebody, he might look like this.

Squaquarar (skwah-kwah-RAR).  Another word obviously derived from ducks, but less benevolent than snanarar. In this case, the quacking would be from the mouth of somebody talking behind your back, saying unpleasant or untrue things.  Gossiping, spreading tales, speaking disparagingly in a particularly thoughtless and unscrupulous  way.  I heard it for the first time not long ago when Lino said, “Well I’m not going to say anything about this to (name here), because he’ll just go and squaquarar around.”

It’s not surprising there are so many words in Venetian for the numberless ways in which people can talk about each other.  Venice is, as I’ve often said, essentially a small town in Ohio, where you see the same people many times a day, and propinquity inevitably creates some instinctive interest in their history, their character, their behavior, their clothes, their dogs, their children, how they behave in church, whether they even go to church, and so on.

Today I saw the woman who hangs out for hours at the bar/cafe with her two hysterical tiny dogs; she was walking down the fondamenta without the dogs.  And I thought, “How strange — I’ve never seen her without the dogs before.  Are they sick?  Did somebody kill them?  Were they arrested?  I never thought she could spend 20 minutes without the little vermin shrieking at her feet.  Have they been impounded?”  By the time she was out of sight I was still wondering about all this.  That’s what propinquity does to your brain.

If you see little bunches of women, or even bunches of men, standing around on the street or on the bridges and talking, obliviously blocking your way, I can promise you they are not talking about the Milan stock market or the melting polar ice caps or the latest Bruce Willis movie.  They’re talking about themselves, or their family, or your family, or retired people they used to work with, and they may well be squaquararing about them.  You’d never squaquarar about somebody you didn’t know.  What would be the point?

"Piova e sol, le muneghe va in amor."  "Rain and sun, the nuns are falling in love."  I suppose the saying is intended to convey improbability, but I wouldn't say one is much more unlikely than another.  I may be wrong.

“Piova e sol, le muneghe va in amor.” “Rain and sun, the nuns are falling in love.” I have no idea where this came from, and it doesn’t seem to have any hidden meaning.  Maybe the saying is intended to convey improbability, but I wouldn’t say one is much more unlikely than another. I may be wrong.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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Perhaps your local gazette hasn’t mentioned it yet, but Pope Benedict XVI is planning a big trip soon. He’ll be touring Northeast Italy, and will be in or around Venice on May 7 and 8.

"King Henri III of France visiting Venice in 1574, escorted by Doge Alvise Mocenigo and met by the Patriarch Giovanni Trevisan," by Andrea Micheli "Vicentino." This is the kind of welcome everyone had come to expect.

Venice has a long and prodigious history of state visits — King Henry III of France and Poland, in 1574, was one of the more famous guests, just one of a seemingly infinite procession of princes, ambassadors, potentates, emperors and, of course, popes coming to see the sights, visit the doge, and usually ask for some favor, like money or soldiers. Reading the list of deluxe visitors over the centuries gives the impression that the main business of Venice was hosting foreign notables, while other activities such as running an empire filled the random empty moments, kind of like a hobby.

Yet His Imminence has aroused not only joy and excitement among the faithful, but tension and recrimination and a series of increasingly regrettable remarks among the city’s gondoliers concerning who is going to get to row him the approximately five minutes it takes to row from San Marco to the church of the Salute, and in what boat. By a mystic coincidence, gondoliers are also known as pope (POH-peh), because they row on the stern (poppa) of the gondola. I have no idea what this might portend.

"The reception of Cardinal Cesar d'Estrees 1726," by Luca Carlevaris. Just all part of a normal day.

Don’t suppose that the battle to transport the pontiff is any particular evidence that gondoliers are so pious. A pious gondolier would be a distant cousin to a pious illegal-clam fisherman, or a pious doctor of a cycling champion.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just kind of unusual. But they do like to be the center of attention and, in fact, they’re used to being regarded as some sort of star.  At least to the damsels they may be so fortunate as to row around the canals.

Popes aren’t supposed to cause dissension, they’re supposed to resolve it. But Benedict has unwittingly set off a sort of collective seizure.

Pope John Paul II being rowed in the city's balotina by four "re del remo" in 1985; high astern is the legendary Gigio "Strigheta."

First: Luciano Pelliccioli, vice-president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) offered to join Aldo Reato, president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) to row His Sanctity in Luciano’s extremely elaborate and glamorous gondola.

No!! The cry went up.  Why should those two men profit by their position and crowd out equally (I mean, more) deserving gondoliers?  Why, indeed?

Furthermore!! Champion racer Roberto Busetto, never at a loss for an opinion (he isn’t a gondolier, but that’s a detail), objected on the grounds that if Luciano should ever think of selling his gondola, he could easily make a huge profit by marketing it as the gondola that had carried the pope.  Busetto gets five bonus points for crassness, though that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Anyway, Luciano withdrew his offer of his gondola and himself.  Reato also withdrew, but the incessant calls have continued. There are 425 gondoliers and by now probably each of the remaining 423 has called him at least once.  Some of them have fantastic reasons to be chosen: “Padre Pio came to me in a dream and said you should pick me,” said one.  Another person suggested Giorgia Boscolo, the first woman gondolier.  That idea burnt up on reentry into reality.

Then somebody suggested the “Strigheta” brothers, Franco and Bruno, sons and heirs (and gondoliers) of one of the greatest racers/gondoliers of all time, Albino “Gigio” Dei Rossi, known as “Strigheta.” (He rowed not only one, but four popes in his day.) They’re loaded with credentials and nobody hates them, which helps.

Then somebody suggested a four-rower gondola, rowed by the current racing champions, the Vignottini and D’Este and Tezzat. I think the idea was that rowing the pope could somehow magically bring peace to these two savagely feuding pairs, though somebody else opined that it wasn’t appropriate to expect the Holy Father to resolve every little neighborhood squabble. In any case, the four men have declared their willingness to row the Pontifex Maximus together, which is already a big step forward.

Then somebody asked: Why should it be a gondola?  Excellent question, considering that the city of Venice owns a more capacious gondola-type boat called a balotina, on which Pope John Paul II was borne along the Grand Canal in 1985.

Then some daring person suggested using the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, which belongs to the Querini rowing club, and which in my opinion is not only the most spectacular boat in the city, by far, but would provide 18 men the chance to Row for Holiness.

Naturally, this idea got nowhere, because nobody thought one club should be given preference over another.  We’ve all got great boats, the thinking goes — why them and not us?

Even when it's not doing anything, the "disdotona" is impressive. I think the pope would look splendid seated in the bow, what with the velvet drapery trailing in the water and all.

I’m surprised nobody has yet suggested using the “Serenissima,” the huge decorated bissona with a raised stern, making the pope easy to see plus providing space for his entourage and some trumpeters, if that seemed appropriate.  But so far no mention of this little coracle.

Which brought up the next question: Why should the rowers be gondoliers? Another useful point.  In the olden days, a visiting potentate — such as John Paul II — would be rowed by the necessary number of “re del remo,” men who had won the Regata Storica five years in succession.  There aren’t many of them, because it’s fiendishly hard to do.  That would instantly reduce the number of candidates to something manageable.

And by now there has been at least one practical joke.  Someone purporting to be Aldo Reato (president of the gondola station heads) called the Gazzettino and said the matter had been settled: Luciano’s fancy gondola was going to be used after all, rowed by Franco Girardello, a retired gondolier who goes by the nickname “Magna e dormi” (eat and sleep). This fantasy was quickly dispelled by all concerned except the anonymous prankster.

The "Serenissima" was born for this kind of event. Odd that so far nobody has suggested it.

The most recent bulletin is that the matter will be put to a secret vote among the gondoliers.  The mind rather reels.  Busetto thinks the papal gondola is going to cost the moon at resale?  How much is a gondolier’s vote going to be worth, at this point?  No checks, no credit cards.

Comments from bemused readers of the Gazzettino run from “The pope doesn’t care who rows him” to “What a farce” to”Actually, Padre Pio came to ME in a dream and said I should do it.”

A certain Riccardo made the following suggestion:

“Requirements for candidacy:

Never to have blasphemed; Never to have used foul language; Never to have spoken in a coarse tone of voice.  In the case of more than one valid candidate (doubtful), preference will be given to the one who has a good knowledge of the principles of Catholicism, and/or who has read at least one of the 16 chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, patron saint of our city.”

This pastoral visit has been in the planning stages for at least three months — probably more — and yet here we are, at the last minute, dealing with the frenzied bleating of the flock.

Meaning no disrespect, I think it would have been better for everybody if they had given a crash course in rowing to a Rastafarian and a dervish. I can’t think of a gondolier who could possibly be cooler than that.

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