Archive for Hemingway

Nov
15

Running around Venice

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And they're off: another handful of orienteers has just grabbed their maps and the clock is running.

And they're off: another handful of orienteers has just grabbed their maps and the clock is running.

I started scribbling this yesterday to the sound just outside the window of a lot of people going by in a hurry. Sometimes a large hurry. I could hear the thudding of feet, the puffing of lungs, and incoherent voices of various ages and genders that sounded either baffled or urgent, or both.

This went on Saturday and Sunday.  “This” was the 31st edition of the Venice Orienteering Meeting. Each year, on the second Sunday of November, our neighborhood is besieged by people who’ve come from all over Europe (though I’m sure you’d be welcome no matter where you live. Pitcairn Island?  Cool!).  They are competing in a timed race armed only with a map and a compass, and a list of checkpoints to cover in the correct order in the shortest time possible.  That’s my homespun definition of orienteering, an undertaking which has now reached the level of a sport.  It even has a federation.

When an activity passes from being a game to a sport, things get serious. (A shout-out to Ernest Hemingway, who said “There are only three sports, bullfighting,  motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”) Frankly, some of the orientators didn’t look so serious to me.

The famous division of labor: The men do the hunting, the women talk about clothes and makeup.

The famous division of labor: The men do the hunting, the women do the talking about clothes and makeup.

In a way, much more than boating or swimming, orienteering is the city’s natural sport.  In fact, I’d say it was Venice’s destiny to present itself, not merely as the repository of historical and artistic magnificence, but as a serious challenge to the brains and legs of people who are looking at it as terrain.

However willing your team may be, doing anything as a group always takes large amounts of time, as anyone who has traveled with a couple of friends or relatives can attest. These girls are about two minutes from the starting line and already there is discussion and doubt.

However willing your team may be, doing anything as a group always takes large amounts of time, as anyone who has traveled with a couple of friends or relatives can attest. These girls are about two minutes from the starting line and already there is discussion and doubt.

What, after all, are mere forests and torrents and ravines compared to the seductive complexity of dark, narrow streets, canals, dead ends, and bridges to everywhere?  Any newbie who has ever set out for a specific destination armed only with the primitive map the hotel gave out can tell you that there may be moments here when negotiating forests and ravines would be simpler.

Two things about the course: First, it was designed by a German man. I don’t comment, I merely  note it. Make of it what you will.

However, being on your own doesn't appear to make it any easier.

However, being on your own doesn't appear to make it any easier.

Second, there were many different courses, divided according to the gender and skill of the orientizers. These courses varied in length and in “dislivello,” a complicated topographic term which I can only manage to remember as being the distance in the difference of the heights of any two points. (Perhaps a humorous idea in Venice, but deeply meaningful in the mountains.  If you’re running in the mountains, it probably interests you much more to know how far up and down you’re going to have to go than the kilometers to cover.  If you live in the Lincolnshire fens or downtown Houston, it is a totally foreign concept.)

The longest course was, logically, for the serious athletes in the Elite  Category.  For the men, it covered 10,500 meters and 80 meters of dislivello (six and a half miles and 262 feet). Winner: Alessio Tenani of Italy, who finished in 1 hour 9 minutes and 51 seconds.  The last in this category came in at twice the time: 2:20:23.

For the women, the Elite course covered 8,700 meters and 73 meters of dislivello (five and a half miles and 239 feet).  Winner: Sarka Svobodna of the Czech Republic, who made it in 1:08:27.  Last to come in here clocked 2:00:41.

Behind all these paladins were large squadrons of students of assorted ages, and a richly variegated quantity of people — couples with small children, some of whom could race like the wind, or quartets of young adults, or pairs of roundish older people taking the whole thing at a pace that could have been calculated in phases of the moon.

Three cadets from the Francesco Morosini naval college forge ahead. John Paul Jones would have been proud.

Three cadets from the Francesco Morosini naval college forge ahead. John Paul Jones would have been proud.

But while we’re talking about walking, you should know that there is another annual event that might be more appealing, or at least less competitive.  It’s called Su e Zo per i Ponti (Up and Down the Bridges), and groups turn out in hordes.  Here too there is a laid-out course to follow, but no need at all to use your brain. I’ve seen pods of people as they go by and most of them seem more interested in laughing and talking than in getting home before dark.

Next year’s “Su e Zo” will be on April 10 (2011) and if you’re going to be here it could be a very diverting and different thing to do.  After all, if you’re going to be tramping around from hither to yon anyway, why not join the masses of people who are so cheerfully blocking the streets?  You’re going to have to mingle with a lot of them anyway, and if you register you get refreshments and a medal, which you can’t say every day in Venice.

If there are tickets left you can register the morning of the event, at the departure point in the Piazza San Marco.  It costs six euros, less than a vaporetto ticket.  I think you should do it.

A runner punches his ticket at whichever checkpoint this is and is off again.

A runner punches his ticket at whichever checkpoint this is and is off again.

I myself have never thought of participating, mainly because walking around Venice takes up so much of my daily existence that it would seem bizarre to do what I do every day with a batch of people who regard it as entertainment.  I’m not saying I don’t love walking around Venice, it’s just that I usually do it in second or third gear.  I need to get places.

If I had any free time on a Sunday, I’d be taking a nap.

No rules against participants carrying their beloved stuffed creature.

No rules against participants carrying their beloved stuffed creature.

A checkpoint symbol that missed the pickup at the end.  I wonder how long it will stay here before somebody does something.

A checkpoint symbol that missed the pickup at the end. I wonder how long it will stay here before somebody does something.

These are two people to whom earning the maximum points hasn't even occurred.

These are two people to whom earning the maximum points hasn't even occurred.

Categories : Events, Tourism
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Sep
18

Ready on the firing line

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IMG_1180 hunting comp

Walking home yesterday afternoon, I noticed this boat.  And I instantly deduced that hunting season is about to open in the Venetian lagoon.  It isn’t just the camouflaging reeds that give the game away, it’s the fact that they are freshly cut.

Actually,  a glance at the Veneto Region’s official calendar of hunting season shows that it had already begun (September 1, and a few scattered dates thereafter) for a small group of winged creatures that keep to the shore, such as turtledoves, blackbirds, jays, magpies, and crows.

The Northern pochard.  (Photo: Gary Houston)

The Northern pochard. (Photo: Gary Houston)

The Veneto has the highest density of hunters in Italy. However, the total number of hunters in Italy has fallen from 1.4 million in 2000 to about 800,000 today.  I can’t usefully interpret either one of those facts but there they are.

Bird hunting — I don’t mean pheasant and duck and other famous flying comestibles, but lesser-known sort-of comestibles such as song thrushes and skylarks — is a topic that could easily lead us into unpleasant political and environmentalist territory (the island of Ponza, for example, is essentially a seasonal killing field for any avian who enters its air space), so I’ll just stick to the basics.

In the Veneto, from September 19 till January 31, a person sitting in a blind freezing in the dark in the middle of the water is permitted to attempt to slay mallards, coots, common moorhens, common teals, shovelers, pochards, gadwalls, water rails, wigeons, Northern pintails, garganeys, tufted ducks, common snipes, Jack snipes, and lapwings.

Their landbound confreres gazing skyward will also be freezing and waiting for partridge, red-legged partridge, pheasant, ruff, skylark, woodcock, fieldfare, song thrush, redwing, common wood pigeon, and quail.

Male and female tufted duck.  (Photo: Andreas Trepte)

Male and female tufted duck. (Photo: Andreas Trepte)

The catbird isn’t found in Europe, but all these hunters will be sitting in its proverbial seat starting tomorrow, because the Venetian lagoon is situated on one of the most important flyways in Europe.  At certain times of year there can be as many as 200,000 birds here, nesting or resting or spending the winter diving, dabbling, or digging through the mudflats at low tide.

When UNESCO designated Venice as a World Heritage Site in 1987, it specifically included the Venetian lagoon.  You wouldn’t have guessed that by the antics that go on in it, but let’s move on for now.  The lagoon covers an area of some 212 square miles, and is one of the few coastal wetlands left in Europe, a region which has lost 2/3 of its wetlands in the past 100 years.

In other words, the lagoon is one of the best places in Europe to be a bird, except in the winter.  Depending on your species, a hunter is allowed to bag from 35 to 50 of your relatives in a season.

The days designated for this divertissement are Wednesday and Saturday in the Southern Lagoon, and Thursday and Sunday in the Northern and the Caorle Lagoon (where Hemingway used to love to hunt).

When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.” You can’t say that about everything, or even most things, in this life, so I’ll let him have the last word on the subject.

I’m glad I mentioned hunting, though, because it constitutes a direct link to the Great Days of the Venetian Republic.

The male mallard, which the old Venetians described as the "wild duck with the red feet," was the original ducal gift.  (Photo: Greg S. Garrett)

The male mallard, which the old Venetians described as the "wild duck with the red feet," was the original ducal gift. (Photo: Greg S. Garrett)

From farthest antiquity, the doge was expected to give a specific Christmas present to all the noble families, who formed the Great Council (there were 1,200 such families for a long period, then the number began to increase).

That present was five mallards per family, which comes to 6,000 ducks a year. Eventually this number dropped to two, but finally there were so few birds that on June 28, 1521, the Council decreed that instead of the ducks, the doge would give each patrician a coin specially minted for the occasion, worth one-quarter of a ducat.  This coin was known as an osella, Venetian for bird.”

The osella of Doge Pietro Grimani (1751).  (Photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

The osella of Doge Pietro Grimani (1751). (Photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

With the exception of two extremely short-lived gentlemen, every doge from Antonio Grimani (1521) to Ludovico Manin (1797) minted an osella each year.  One side bore a generic image of him kneeling before San Marco, and the obverse a particular design highlighting an important event or aspect of the past year.

The poster for the exhibition of the oselle owned by the Banca Popolare di Vicenza.

The poster for the exhibition of the oselle owned by the Banca Popolare di Vicenza.

The Banca Popolare di Vicenza (People’s Bank of Vicenza) happens to own the most complete collection of oselle in the world visible to the public, which comprises 275 coins.  After the middle of the 17th century, the oselle were minted in gold.  The Bank of Vicenza collection was on display here for a short while last spring, and even though I know next to nothing about numismatics, they were spectacular.
Just think: Even when they start with ducks they end up with money.  I love this town.

One of who knows how many duck blinds left behind when the season ends.

One of who knows how many duck blinds left behind when the season ends.

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a)selvaggina stanziale: 2 capi giornalieri con un massimo di 35 capi stagionali; per la lepre, 1 capo
giornaliero con un massimo di 5 capi stagionali;
b)selvaggina migratoria: 25 capi giornalieri (di cui non più di 10 codoni, 10 canapiglie, 5 morette e
5 combattenti) con un massimo di 425 capi stagionali (di cui non più di 50 codoni, 50 canapiglie, 15
morette e 15 combattenti); per la beccaccia 3 capi giornalieri con un massimo di 20 capi stagionali
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I’m thinking about  World War I today, partly because yesterday, May 24, used to be a date engraved in every Italian’s consciousness.   Yet it passed unremarked in any way, which to Lino is yet another sign of the general deterioration of just about everything.

We were walking along the fondamenta yesterday morning when all of a sudden Lino said: “It’s May 24! …‘il 24 maggio l’esercito marciava…” and he was off, declaiming the four long  stanzas of the “Legend of the Piave.”  

This is one of the great patriotic songs, immortalizing the departure of the army to war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire on May 24, 1915.    Some of the  most ferocious battles  toward the end took place along the Piave River.    maps_44_italy_piave_1600It is a pleasant little stream which starts in the Alps and empties into the sea not far from Venice, but more importantly, it formed the front which finally stopped the enemy advance and led to its ultimate defeat.     The Piave is therefore also  known as   “The river sacred to the motherland.”  

Schoolchildren  used to be taught these impressive chunks of poetry and as you see, it stuck.   This feat was perhaps made a little easier by singing; the music of “The Legend of the Piave”  is so distinctive that you can’t get it out of your mind  no matter what you try to put in its place.   Everybody knows it.   It was in the serious running to be designated the Italian national anthem.  

“My father  fought in the war,” Lino was telling me, “on the Asiago plateau.   He was taken prisoner, and they took him to Trento, to  the Castle of Buonconsiglio.   He took me there once, when I was little, to show me.   We went into the big room and he said, ‘That’s where the judge was sitting, and that’s where the bench was where I was sitting.’   He always told me he was going to take me to Asiago to show me the trenches he was in, but he never did.   I’ve always been sorry.  ”

The military judge’s job was very simple.   All  he had to do in order to know what to do with a prisoner was to ask where he came from.   Large areas of what are now Italy only became demarcated as such after hideous battles.     So if the prisoner came from Venice, or anywhere south of there, he was treated as a normal prisoner of war because he was fighting for his own country, Italy.   Lino’s father got sent to the internment camp at Mauthausen for the rest of the war, came home, and went back to work driving the train from Venice to Trento.

If, however, the captured soldier came from Trento or Trieste or any of the many northern, now-Italian,  towns which were then still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire,  he was considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly.   Firing squad,say, or hanging (Nazario Sauro, August 10, 1916), or hanging and garroting (Cesare Battisti, July 12, 1916) —  it was all good.   img_8359-sauro-compThese are famous martyrs of the Italian resistance.   Despite living in Austrian territory they considered themselves Italians were fighting for Italy, while according to the Austrian viewpoint  they were supposed to be fighting against it.   These men were epic heroes.   I can’t understand why their life stories haven’t been turned into tragic operas.   Where is Verdi when you need him?  

So the First World War, which to many of us seems extraordinarily remote,  is still part of the lives of  many people — like Lino — still walking around loaded with memories.   Did I say memories?   He and his twin brother, Franco, have lived their entire lives carrying the names of   two of their mother’s brothers who were killed in the war.   Every Venetian parish, as well as the Jewish Ghetto, displays a memorial plaque listing the names of the local boys who died in the carnage.   The names  of Lino’s doomed uncles  are  inscribed on the  memorial in Campo Santa Margherita.    Whenever I go by I  stop to look; I have this odd feeling that they’re part of my family.  

The Piave, let it not be forgotten, was also  where Ernest Hemingway was wounded at the age of 19, after only two weeks at the front.   Because his poor eyesight prevented him from enlisting as a soldier, he volunteered to work with the  Red Cross ambulances bringing soldiers down from the action on Monte Pasubio.    

He was sent to Fossalta di Piave, a town on the river not far from Venice.   At midnight on July 8,  1918, an Austrian mortar hit the trench where he had gone, more out of curiosity than merely to distribute cigarettes and chocolate.  

The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time,” he wrote to his parents from the American Hospital in Milan, “only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on.   Hot water… But I got up again and got my wounded into the dug out… I told him in Italian that I wanted to see my legs, though I was afraid to look at them.   So we took off my trousers and the old limbs were still there but gee they were a mess.   They couldn’t figure out how I had walked 150 yards with a load with both knees shot through and my right shoe punctured in two big places… ‘Oh,’ says I, ‘My Captain, it is of nothing.   In America they all do it!   It is thought well not to allow the enemy to perceive that they have captured our goats!”  

When the bravado wore off, he was left with nightmares, insomnia — I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body — five months of physical therapy, and his vivacious American nurse, Agnes von Kurowski.   In the end, she jilted him and shattered his soul into more pieces than the shrapnel ever had.    

Bombs even fell  on Venice here and there (there were victims in Cannaregio).   There is even an unexploded bomb which was retrieved from the roof of the basilica of the Frari, and which is mounted on the wall near the Pesaro altarpiece as a memento to this small, perhaps, but marvelous moment of salvation.

Speaking of bombs, there is a  slowly disappearing stone  in the Piazza San Marco.   It has been worn away by millions of undiscerning feet.   Sometimes I pause and just watch people walk over or past it, oblivious, snapping their pix, thinking about work, looking for a bathroom.   It marks the spot where an Austrian bomb fell on September 4, 1916,   five steps from the entrance to the basilica.  It is just another stone, mute, but eloquent.

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Every barracks and City Hall in Italy (as here,  at the entrance to City Hall in Venice) displays a large bronze plaque made of melted-down enemy cannons.     img_8364-diazIt gives the full text of the address given by General, later Marshal,  Armando Diaz, chief of general staff,  announcing the Italian victory of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the end of the war.   It manages in very few lines not only to report the precise details of the enemy’s  undoing  but to convey every emotion conceivable in the victors of a struggle beyond human comprehension.

The war against Austria-Hungary which, under the high command of His Majesty the King, the Italian Army, inferior in numbers and means, initiated on May 24, 1915, and with unwavering and tenacious valor conducted fiercely without interruption for 41 months, is won.

The gigantic battle engaged on the 24th of  last October and in which took part 51 Italian divisions, three British, two French, one Czechoslovakian, and one American regiment, against 73 Austro-Hungarian divisions, is finished.  

The rapid and daring advance of the XXIX Army  Corps on Trento, blocking the enemy’s means of retreat in Trentino, overwhelming them  on the west by the troops of the VII  Army and on the east by those of the I, VI, and IV, determined yesterday the total ruin of the adversary’s front.    From Brenta al Torre the irresistible surge of the XII, the VIII, and the X Army, and of the cavalry divisions, drove the fleeing enemy even further back.

On the plains, His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta rapidly advanced at the head of his undefeated III Army, longing to return to the positions which they had already victoriously conquered and had never lost.

The Austro-Hungarian Army is annihilated; it suffered grave losses in the fierce resistance of the first days and  in  the pursuit it has lost huge quantities  of materiel of every sort  and virtually all of its stores and warehouses.   It has left in our hands about 300,000 prisoners with entire general staffs and not less than 5,000 cannon.

The remains of what once was one of the most powerful armies in the world is ascending, in disorder and without hope, the valleys which it had descended with such proud security.   DIAZ

For me, though, the most powerful and poignant epitaph to  war — military, emotional, or both —  is what Hemingway  wrote as one of    the 40-some endings he  crossed out for “A Farewell to Arms”:  

Many things have happened.   Everything blunts and the world keeps on.   You get most  of your life back like goods recovered from a fire… It never stops.   It only stops for you.   Some of it stops while you are still alive.   The rest goes on and you go with it.”

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