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Ashes and lamentation

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Just kidding.  Lamentations seem no longer to apply to the spiritual life; if you feel a lamentation coming on, it’s usually related to politics or family members, certainly not to yourself.

But Ash Wednesday (“le ceneri“) is still a crucial day in the Christian calendar, and even though people have become very lax about denying themselves meat today, the day remains a vestigial holiday for the butchers.  Those few that remain.  Those even fewer who maintain the Old Ways.  Of course, the public can still buy all the meat it wants at the supermarkets, so closing the butcher shop is by now just a symbol.  But a good one, if you have turned your thoughts toward penance, even for just a minute.

Of course, there’s that famous gap between the letter and the spirit of the law, and I’d like to share an amazing menu for your consideration.  It was displayed in an expensive restaurant in Udine right across the street from the Patriarchal Palace and adjoining church, and I supposed that the proprietors might be wanting to look good for the patriarch even though the rank of patriarch is no more, and the archbishop lives a 15-minute walk away.

I have never seen a menu created and advertised as being for Ash Wednesday (I thought bread and water pretty much covered the nutritional options, or at least week-old beans and a frightening lettuce from the back of the fridge).  The idea of promoting a day of renunciation with items as listed — EVEN THOUGH THEY DO NOT BREAK ANY RULES (except in spirit) — seems totally in keeping with the zeitgeist, and times being what they are.  I mean, there isn’t any clause saying you’re only allowed to eat horrible food.  I THINK the notion is that you shouldn’t be wallowing in your food fixations for one little 24-hour cycle in the entire year. But then I think: If the owners were inclined to give such a gracious nod to contrition, they might at least have lowered the prices. Why should the customer always be the one to repent when the bill comes?

The restaurant is named “Allegria,” or “gaiety” or “jollification.”  Bear that in mind as you read on.  From the top: The antipastos: Steamed mussels and clams with pepper; herring; creamy stockfish; mixed fish antipasto; “rati” (for which I am still seeking the definition, though at merely 2.50 euros it can’t be anything astonishing).  First courses: Chickpea and octopus soup; spaghetti with clams; “tuffoli” (a pasta somewhat like rigatoni, but shorter) with codfish, small tomatoes and taggiasche olives; barley and beans, a typical dish of the Friuli region, in which the city resides. Second courses: Stockfish in the style of Vicenza; small medallion of turbot with braised vegetables; cuttlefish confit with artichokes; red “rosa of Gorizia” radicchio with anchovies and aged Montasio cheese; “lidric cul poc” is an extremely prized type of wild radicchio with hard-boiled eggs.  Dessert: (I’m sorry, what?  You get dessert on Ash Wednesday?) “Bonet” of hazelnut with crunchy things, usually amaretto cookies.  A “bonet” is a typical Piedmont confection like a very firm creme caramel; marinated pineapple (I’m guessing in some sort of fabulous liqueur) with coconut gelato.  I’ll tell you what: If you have lunch here you’re going to have plenty to talk to your confessor about.  Go look up “gluttony” and see if there’s a loophole for the day of the ashes.  I myself will be going off shortly to confess the sin of envy.

“Wednesday Closed: Ashes” — this sign behind the lamb chops and veal roast looks like it’s announcing a party.  Parties were yesterday, buddyroe.  You’re supposed to be serious today.

And sing a few verses of “I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places” to the frittelle. (I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing frittelle…..). They’re the demon poster children of Ash Wednesday combining so many things you can’t have anymore. You know, everything worth living for, which is code for “fat and sugar.”  Technically speaking.  I’m sure there’s a loophole somewhere.

I discovered this little hieroglyphic of happiness in a small campo. Let not the wholesome spirit of spiritual discipline (sounds better than “giving up for”) distract us from the beautiful things that didn’t get the memo about deprivation.

Ditto this cat, in deep meditation and Vitamin D absorption.  Satisfied with the simple things in life.  Perhaps dreaming of finding a rat on a boat someday.

Ditto the first few violets of the spring, also benefiting from the sun. They’re not thinking about anything, which is what makes them so wonderful, in addition to being beautiful, making perfume and being good to eat when candied.

One violet, complete with morning shadow. Things are looking up.

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Signs of approaching Carnival

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Carnival has become one of my least favorite things about Venice, because each year its negative aspects increasingly outweigh the positive.

I am referring to the Mega-Commercial-Highly-Promoted Carnival whose vortex is the Piazza San Marco. But Carnival in its small, neighborhood version continues to charm me, mainly because it almost exclusively involves children (the smaller, the better) and their doting relatives.  Random frolicking.  Dressing up for no reason (by which I mean, not the reason of being photographed to, for, by, or with anyone, particularly tourists). Throwing fistfuls of confetti anywhere.

I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that Carnival has, as of today, officially begun. For the past few days the signs have been unmistakable.

Here are a few:

Even though this pastry shop/cafe produces wonderful Carnival sweets (galani and frittelle, in case you're wondering), they are overpriced.  But I do like the way their sign is lettered, as if by newspaper bits cut out by someone composing an anonymous ransom note.

This pastry shop/cafe produces wonderful Carnival sweets (galani and frittelle, in case you’re wondering), even though they are overpriced. But I do like the way the words are composed, as if someone was more accustomed to composing anonymous ransom notes using cutout newspaper letters.

There have been explosions of confetti, increasing in quantity and range, for a few days now.  The perpetrators have disappeared...

There have been indiscriminate explosions of confetti, increasing in quantity and range, for a few days now. The perpetrators are invisible.

Climbing the stairs to visit a friend two days ago, I discovered this mysterious harbinger of Carnival: The princess costume.  Just add princess and throw confetti.

Climbing the stairs to visit a friend two days ago, I discovered this mysterious harbinger of Carnival: The princess costume. Just add princess and throw confetti.



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The Carnival of the Weather

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At certain moments even the sky began to dress itself up. This little costume was delivered by a ferocious northeast wind.

The same moment as the picture above, but looking sunset-ward. To give you an idea of how strong the wind was,  you should know that those mountains silhouetted in the center of the scene are the Euganean Hills, 30 miles away.

I haven’t communicated in a bit because I was waiting for Carnival to end (midnight last night, as everyone knows) so I could sort through the rubble and look for something to report.

Judging by the mass of photographs clogging my computer, I evidently found plenty to chronicle, but mainly within the confines of our little lobe of Venice. We didn’t go the Piazza San Marco even once; the revelers aboard the vaporettos were enough for me.

Every year, the organizers of this event form it around a particular theme, something they hope will be irresistible.  This year’s title was “Live in Color,” but I can tell you that it ought to have been called “Drenched in Color,” or “Freezing in Color.” Or “Sloshing in Color.”  The colors mainly being the blue of your bloodless fingers and the gray of your bloodless lips.

This year’s carnival was all about weather. In the space of the festivities (Jan. 26-Feb. 12), we got rain, wind, snow, and acqua alta.  Sometimes together, sometimes separately. Several keystone events had to be reshuffled (one good reason to extend Carnival — this year, it was 18 days) not only because there wouldn’t have been any spectators, but because in some cases it would have been dangerous for the performers.

It didn’t matter to me because I hadn’t spent thousands of dollars making or renting a fabulous costume whose purpose in life was for me to wear it where people could see it and admire it and envy me.  There are many people — primarily French — who spend months planning and preparing their appearance (not to the extent of the samba schools of Rio, but still).  I hope they’ve taken home some beautiful memory.

The open salvo didn’t exactly make you want to dance: A headline at the start of Carnival announced that the President of the Province of Venice (bigger than the municipal area) had declared that she was banning confetti/coriandoli that would naturally be strewn festively by and among partyers in the main piazza of a town called San Dona’ di Piave. Why? Because “It makes a mess.” That’s the point! If there were any time in the year when it would be laudable to focus on civic hygiene, I’d say that Carnival isn’t it. But maybe this is her way of saying “We only have ten garbage collectors this month, please don’t give them more work to do.”  Or, based on my experience in this neighborhood, don’t give them any work to do.

Here is a look at Carnival in ErlaWorld: 

Our first clue that something out of the ordinary was on the way was the work that went on one morning to fill in the depressions in the long gravelly walkway toward the lagoon known as the “Viale Garibaldi.” Being as heavily traveled as Grand Central Terminal by people going to and from the Giardini vaporetto stop means that it has long since been worn down into assorted shallows. These weren’t so apparent in dry weather, but when it rained, we called this stretch of Venice “Bacan’,” after our favorite lagoon mudbank. You could see the same rises and depressions in the ground, interspersed with pools of water. This particular patch became a lake. Great work! Whatever came over them? Did somebody suddenly find thousands of euros that had fallen between the cushions of the sofa?

Then the kids, the dogs, and the confetti began to come out into the sunshine. (Yes, the sun did shine occasionally. Just enough to make you miss it when the next wave of weather passed over us.)

A little executioner out for a stroll with his grandfather, looking for someone to dispatch.

Kids get started early in the dressing-up game — not that they need any help or encouragement.

We had noticed a stage and small soccer area being set up over the course of two days, and a crowd gathered to see the first match of a new Carnival diversion called the “Palio dei Sestieri,” roughly the Trophy of the Sestieri, which are the six districts of Venice. The teams were made up of boys organized in teams of increasing age over a few days, and they played “calcetto.” It’s regular soccer, but with only five players, not eleven, per team. For the record, at the end of the series our very own sestiere, Castello, took home the victors’ cup. Coincidence? I really hope so.

Excellent block by the goalkeeper of the Dorsoduro team. I can tell you that hurling himself to the ground to intercept the ball wasn’t any fun on the granite paving stones. But all the goalkeepers did it. Bruises. Contusions. Fun.

And of course there was a half-time show, to music.

At the next break, another show, this time with smaller dancers and big pompoms. Go Big Red!

One morning around 9:30 I got on the #1 vaporetto heading uptown. At the Arsenale stop, several exceptional Beings boarded, going (I thought) to San Marco to display themselves. All normal so far, except that one Being was wearing wings with plumes, which stretched out as far as her/his arm on each side. (There is a person in there, between the wings.) Needless to say, this occupied an amazing amount of space which nobody else could use. I’m accustomed to luggage taking up square yards of space, but it’s not often a costume is so big that it probably ought to pay for an extra ticket. Every time he/she turned around, people stood back.

This very impressive quartet got off at the train station. Maybe they had to catch a train back to Brigadoon. They are a good example of the people who give Carnival everything they’ve got, though I didn’t hear what language they were speaking. Maybe when you’re dressed like this, speaking is superfluous.

Last Sunday morning saw the traditional (by now) regata in costume organized by the Settemari club. These were the two front-runners, as they sped past us approaching the Rialto Bridge.

My friend, Antonella Mainardi, rowing like mad as Her Britannic Majesty, led by her faithful corgi, steered by her faithful prince. The backwash from a passing vaporetto created a brief challenge to her nearest competitors, a pair from the Giudecca rowing club decked out as a pair from the Giudecca rowing club. No points for creativity there.

And on they sped, providing a highly wrought spectacle for the gondola hordes. And the gondoliers, too.

Monday, the next-to-last day of Carnival, we got mega-weather. But it wasn’t yet up to speed in the mid-afternoon, when these  intrepid revelers headed out to find some frivolity somewhere. Snow means nothing when you’ve only got 48 hours left to party.

It snowed all day, gradually intensifying, with a northeast wind that blew up to 30 mph (50 km/h). That’s why all the snow is sticking to the east parapet of this bridge; the other side was completely clear.

The slick packed slush on our bridge was inviting anyone who crossed to slip and fall and break something.

Via Garibaldi looked like the Great White Way. Amazing how hard it is to walk on deepening wet snow, even if you do have the wind at your back. The return was even more amusing.

Garibaldi on his pedestal, unimpressed, unimpressible.  Perhaps nobody had yet advised him that the Tide Center was predicting an exceptional acqua alta tonight: 160 cm.  Of course, why would he care?  He lives on the third floor.

We, sad to say, do not. We live on the ground floor, and while we are high enough to stay dry with a tide that reaches 150 cm, after that, it’s all hands to man the pumps. Or to be more precise, put all our belonging up on something. Here, the contents of a few bookshelves and God knows what else are up on the sofa, and sofa is up on two plastic storage boxes, and if the storage boxes get wet, they’re on their own.

And everything at high-tide-level in the bedroom was up on the bed, including whatever was on the closet floor, and the lowest drawers of the three bureaus. High water: Romantic? Dangerous? I’m going with “damned nuisance.”

But we had no worries about the appliances, having learned several years ago that when the water comes in, it makes itself comfortable everywhere. So we had exerted ourselves a year ago to take  measures to protect them from dampage.

But we were reprieved! The next morning the world was smiling again. The wind had changed direction when the tide turned (signaled by a single thunderclap), and the water only came up to 143 cm. However, we had to stay up till 12:15 to know this. These high-water vigils only seem to take place in the dead of night. Waiting for the water to turn around and go out is like sitting by somebody’s bedside listening to them breathe.

I’m glad somebody had a good time last night. I discovered these relics not long before the slowly warming morning returned them to their primal element.

And toward the shank of the afternoon on Fat Tuesday, we headed out — like a few hundred other savvy neighborhood people — to feast on the free fritole and galani offered by the Calafati.

Here they are, in all their glory: The feeders of the five thousand. Full disclosure — I am a member of this august society, but I do not presume to man the deep-fat fryers. It seems to make them happy enough for me to come and make a fool of myself eating.

Lino Penzo, who is also president of the Remiera Casteo, has no scruples about feeding my addiction. “Here — knock yourself out,” he didn’t bother saying. I took them, and I did. They were great.

The man in the red jacket, front and center, is Dino Righetto, the creator of all these fritole. He made 700 of these little suckers, and they’re so light and fragrant you couldn’t believe that what they sell in the shops would have the courage to call themselves fritole.

I wasn’t the only one scarfing up the fat and sugar.

There was plenty to do between snacks — like pour confetti over your friends.

Or play hide-and-seek with your friends, who seem at the moment to have hidden themselves so completely she’ll never find them.

Carnival doesn’t always have to be about masks and garb. Why not just grab a soft plastic hammer that squeaks on impact, and go around bopping people with it?

This little sprite has one of the best costumes ever, showing (yet again) that you don’t need square miles of tulle and sequins and paint to show that you are a fantasy creature. She’s like a sketch by Picasso: A couple of quick lines and there you are: Carnival!

Then again, why waste precious time getting dressed up when the fritole are still warm?

While we were all scarfing and laughing, the hardy trinket-sellers were packing up the Carnival masks for another year. I never saw anything that said “The party’s over” quite the way the sight of the boxes of masks did.

And stealthily the afternoon departed — the light drifted upward, the dew began to fall, everybody was pretty much played out. That was Mardi Gras on via Garibaldi. It’s totally good enough for me.

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Carnival, yet again

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Extravagant bushel-loads of coriandoli are already appearing, strewn everywhere as if some lunatic Johnny Confetti-seed had torn through the neighborhood.

I have nothing positive to say about Carnival, except that it lasts a relatively short time. “Relative” is relative, though, because this year will hold the longest Carnival ever: January 26-February 12, or eighteen days, or almost three weeks.  Zounds.

Of course, compared to the Old Days, it is short.  Back then, Carnival could last six months. So? Lino says that if the city could make it last from January to January, they’d do it.

Actually, there is one thing which I love about it, and that thing is kids. The neighborhood tykes with their painted-on whiskers and frilly tulle princess costumes and especially their fistfuls of confetti (here called coriandoli).

Erudition alert: Why do we call them confetti and the Italians say coriandoli?  Here, confetti refers to the almonds covered with a carapace of sugar, given to guests on festive occasions and colored accordingly (weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, First Communions, etc.).

In the most ancient celebratory days, it was coriander seeds which were used in sweets called confetti, presumably because they had been confected.  Documents attest that at weddings or Carnival during the Renaissance, sweets (confetti) containing coriander seeds were often tossed festively at fellow revelers.

In 1875, Enrico Mangili, an enterprising engineer from Crescenzago, near Milan, decided to sell, as a substitute for real coriander-containing sweets, the tiny disks of paper left over from the perforated paper used by the silk industry.  Voila’!  Symbolic coriander/confetti which were cheap and, as we might say now, rigorously recycled.  I can imagine with what enthusiasm the city’s pastry-makers greeted this innovation.  If they were inclined to throw anything, it probably wasn’t sugared. 

In any case, as you see, the two terms underwent mitosis.

So far, I haven’t seen costumes or makeup, but the Carnival spirit has already begun to simmer along via Garibaldi.  Fritole and galani are already on sale, and I’ve heard the distant cries of tiny swarming humans. And they’ve left their gladsome spoor along calli and campi.  There is no day so dull that it could not be brightened by these bits of colored paper.

I’ve decided that these snippets are the mystic spores from which Carnival germinates and eventually fruits, producing great harvests of masks and fritole and galani.

To which I say, throw more.

Or better yet, let’s get back to the very old days and start throwing fritole at each other. I don’t care whether they have coriander seeds buried inside them, but I do insist that they be made by our friend Dino Righetto. His lifelong experience as a baker — or his innate genius — enables him to produce fritole so delectable that those on sale in the shops are as swine before pearls.

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