Archive for Epiphany


Is it sad? Or is it just meh?

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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.

"Glorious" is not a word I usually think of applying to via Garibaldi, but in this case the street applied it to itself and I just got to watch.

“Glorious” is not a word I usually think of applying to via Garibaldi, but in this case the street applied it to itself and I just got to watch.

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.

The fog was too thick to allow us to go rowing (not that we've never rowed in the fog). But it did provide some beading on the otherwise invisible spiderwebs on the bridge by Sant' Elena.

Jan. 7:  The fog was too thick to allow us to go rowing (not that we’ve never rowed in the fog). But it did string some beads on the otherwise invisible spiderwebs on the bridge by Sant’ Elena.

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.

Jan. 9: A morning view of the most beautiful city in the world, etc. etc. It's out there somewhere -- beautiful, undoubtedly.

Jan. 9: A morning view of the most beautiful city in the world, etc. etc. It’s out there somewhere — beautiful, undoubtedly.

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.

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.”

Jan. 12: It wasn't blue, it was grey.

Jan. 12: It wasn’t blue, it was grey.

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.

Jan. 13: Wherever you look, you see fuzz.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  This weather doesn't make me remember my lost love(s), it makes me wish I had a fireplace and a mug of cocoa.

Jan. 13: Wherever you look, you see fuzz. Sometimes more, sometimes less. This weather doesn’t make me remember my lost love(s), it makes me wish I’d been better to my mother.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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The Befana sweeps through

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Epiphany, which it says in the fine print is intended to commemorate the visit of the Three Kings to the Baby Jesus, offering him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, has metamorphosed over the centuries into a day dedicated primarily to a happy little hag known as the Befana.  Her name, which I suppose could just as well have been Hepzibah or Basemath, is a homely mutation of the word Epiphany.  You probably already figured that out.

She's almost always smiling.  That's a good sign.

She's almost always smiling. That's a good sign.

Her connection to the day is gifts.  No, of course children haven’t gotten enough of them yet.  Are you mad?  It’s been a whole 12 days since the last truckload of presents was dropped on them.

The Befana is a remarkable creature, and to love her you must get past your feelings about hook-nosed, snaggle-toothed harpies with broomsticks.  She’s actually closer to honey and poplar syrup and agave nectar, all sweetness and no light.  She flies at night.

Stockings don’t belong to Santa Claus, here they’re hung out tonight for the Befana to swoop through and fill with candy and doodads.  In my day, a doodad might have been a Slinky. Today, it’s probably an iPhone.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

She is also liable to leave coal instead of candy, coal being the traditional judgment on Bad Children. But naturally  by now a loophole has been found — created, actually — by inventing a candy that looks like coal.  I’ve tried it, and it tastes exactly like what you’d think a block of black sugar would taste like.  Not that black has a taste, but your imagination instinctively supplies one.

The Befana is always changing, always the same. Averaging out the thousands of versions crowding the candy stores and pastry shops, I’d say she was a combination of Dame Edna Everage and Jimmy Durante. I found one that looked like a distant cousin of Porky Pig, but I’m sure that was unintentional.

IMG_3983 befThere are many and deep significances to this observance which I won’t repeat now; my post last year covered most of them.  I only note here that I am looking forward, as always, to detecting the smell tonight of woodsmoke blowing over from nearby farmland — Sant’ Erasmo, or, slightly further away, the settlements by the sea near Jesolo, Ca’ Savio, Treporti, smoke swirling out of the flaming bonfires which are lit in her honor.

I want to note — for the record, whoever may be keeping it, or reading it — that the occasional practice of burning the effigy of the Befana atop the pyre is historically wrong.  Bonfires, yes, but with the purpose of disposing of a lot of dead plant material you have to get rid of before next spring’s planting.  The “Vecia” (old lady) is more traditionally burned up at the middle of Lent, and some places still plan it that way.

Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to this venerable crone, I have to say that Venice once was swamped with cronish ladies, of various ages, whose mission in life was to patrol the family, and neighboring families, with relentless scrutiny.  Now that neighborhood life has changed so much over the past three generations — television, sufficient heating, children moving away, and death have taken their toll on the dense agglomerations of terrifying, invasive, implacable old ladies who could smile like angels as they slashed your reputation to ribbons behind your back.  I know this because Lino has told me Stories about them, and does a bloodcurdling impression of a typical conversation between a few of these matrons.

Even more, I can confirm that the Venetian language is gratifyingly rich in terms which describe the myriad nuances of ancient females.  I don’t imagine I can do them justice on my own, even though they’re words you could hear every day and eventually begin to use instinctively in certain situations: Marantega, carampane, grima, sbetega, peocio refa‘, and many more, all have deliciously complicated meanings.  The fact that there are so many words for the variations on these life-battered and -battering women (not to mention casual expressions to describe them, such as “Ugly as the plague,” “As ugly as hunger,” and so on), show the depth of feeling they inspired in everyone who knew them or even came near them, especially their families.

IMG_3980 befEspedita Grandesso, in her wonderful  book, “Prima de parlar, tasi,” has applied her exegetical scalpel to many of these terms.  Here is a brief sample (translated by me):

Marantega: [Ma-RAHN-te-ga].  The Befana is sometimes referred to as the “marantega barola” (barola meaning really old), but that is sort of a slur, in my opinion. A marantega, according to Grandesso, is primarily an ancient and misanthropic woman, dedicated to the cult of the dead in the sense that she keeps daily tabs on who has preceded her to paradise, spreading the news everywhere. This type of woman possesses a mournful sense of existence and is the town crier of every disgrace which occurs in her range of activity.  In days gone by, one could find her in the performance of these duties in church, at the hour of saying the rosary, or vespers, in the act of delivering the last horrid news in the ear of yet another unfortunate biddy, chosen from among the meekest and most impressionable.

Carampana:  [cah-rahm-PAHN-ah]. By now this term signifies a woman of decrepit agedness, who maintains presumptions of attractiveness and, for that reason, plasters her wrinkles with rouge and continues to dress in the style of the time when she was lovely. In general, she is a pathetic creature who, unfortunately, gives a helping hand to derision.  In the past, however, this term literally meant “prostitute,” and can still describe a trollop who is old and out of service, and who, with her excessive makeup and her attitude maintains an equivocal air that is almost the stamp of her long-practiced profession.  In fact, it was originally the name of the neighborhood near the Rialto which was the red-light district.

IMG_3982 befSbetega: [SBEH-teh-ga].  Literally a shrew and loudmouth.

Grima: [GREE-ma].  Much worse than a sbetega.  In this case it means a malignant woman who is, at the same time, aggressive and hard to neutralize.  Mothers-in-law often belong to this category, but daughters-in-law also do pretty well for themselves.

Peocio Refa‘: [peh-OH-cho reh-FA].  Literally a made-over cootie.  This is a person (who could also be a man) who has made money and enjoys a good financial position, remaining at the same time crude and mean-spirited, whose greatest pleasure consists of humiliating her neighbor, especially if that person is culturally superior to her.  The northeast Veneto [and, may I add, much of the Lido] offers excellent examples of this species.

These would be Befana Lite.

These would be Befana Lite.

Otovario dei Morti: [Aw-to-VAH-ree-oh day MOR-tee].  I myself haven’t heard this term used in daily life around here, but the character it describes is eternal. Grandesso says that the “ottavario” was the word indicating the repetition of a religious feast, one that was particularly solemn or deeply felt, eight days after its first celebration. Therefore the Ottavario dei Morti was tied to All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of the deceased. This term is given to a person who is sad, either in appearance or temperament, who only talks about depressing or funereal events, whether public or private, reaching the apex of pleasure when they are particularly disastrous.  In the days of patriarchal families, this role was generally performed by widowed or spinster aunts, well along in years.  These charitable women, having long since left behind the joys of the world, busy themselves in extirpating them as well in the hearts of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

None of these expressions could ever be used for the Befana, though.  She adores children and I myself don’t believe she cares what adults might think or say about her. You can tell she isn’t from around here.

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