Archive for Trieste


Pay the midwife already!

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This little campiello  tucked away across the canal from Campo San Zan Degola’ is named “Campiello de la Comare.” As far as my explorations have revealed, it’s the only place in Venice still physically bearing this name, despite the official list of streets which claims there are five or six.

They don’t make it any easier by whitewashing over it.

It’s sheer coincidence that what I want to say about offspring comes right after my little cadenza on nuptials.  Though I suppose it’s preferable to my having done them in reverse.  I’m so old-fashioned.

So now we’ve come to the subject of “Children: birthing of.”  Midwives were the norm here up until the Forties, anyway.  My husband was born in 1938, at home, with the aid of a midwife.

Midwife, in Italian, is levatrice.  But in Venetian, it’s “comare” (co-MAH-reh), which I deconstruct as “co-mother,” which is pretty nice.  (For the record, it also means matron-of-honor and official female wedding witness.)

Though midwives are no longer common, an old quip hangs on in occasional usage today: “Xe nato a lugio per no pagar la comare” (zeh nahto a LOO-joe pair no pa-gahr ya co-MAH-reh).  It literally means “He was born in July so as not to pay the midwife.”  It’s one of many affectionate ways to describe a boy or man who could be called a rascal, scamp, rapscallion, etc.  What the connection could possibly be between July and the midwife and her accounts payable isn’t clear at all.  Even Lino can’t tell me. In general, I suppose it’s meant to show how the individual from the very first moment revealed himself to be more than usually scampish.

Speaking of paying the midwife, or not, I always laugh when I listen to a particular riff (thanks to YouTube) which was broadcast and recorded in 1973 by a then-famous, now-forgotten comic named Angelo Cecchelin (check-eh-YEEN).  This hilarious sketch is called “Una Questione Ereditaria” (A Question of Inheritance), in which he plays the part of a man who has been summoned to a judge’s office, he knows not why, but is already on the defensive for fear that he’s going to get trapped into having to pay somebody money.  The fact that he is from Trieste, accent and all, stresses the stereotype of people from the Northeast, especially Friuli, of being spectacularly stingy.  I digress.

It starts off like this (translated by me):

Judge:  Name?

Cecchelin:  Giuseppe Sante fu Giuseppe fu Anna fu nata Paoli. (The old-fashioned way of giving one’s provenance via the parents’ names.)

Q:  Born?

A:  Yes.

Q:  I mean where and when were you born!

A:  I was born in Trieste on October 23 1894 in Via delle Zudecche number 19 fifth floor door number 24 on Wednesday morning it was raining cats and dogs and the midwife still has to be paid.

Back under the Venetian Republic, though, these women were not Hogarthian hags with hairy warts using God knows what as instruments and God had no idea what as medication. In those days, being a midwife was a real profession.  I love any discovery of how forward-thinking the old Venetians were.

Here is what Giuseppe Tassini says in his peerless book, “Curiosita’ Veneziane” (translated by me):

“One finds that in 1689, on September 26, the Magistrate of Health established certain norms for the women who wanted to practice the profession of midwife.

“First of all, he ordered that they had to be able to read, and that they take as their text a book entitled ‘On the Midwife“; that they had to produce a document to certify that for two years they had attended anatomical demonstrations relating to their art, and another to certify that they had spent two years of practical experience with an approved midwife; and finally that they had to undergo an examination which was conducted by the Protomedico in the presence of the Priors of the College of Physicians, and also two distinguished midwives, each of which could add her own questions to those of the Protomedico…

“In the field of obstetrics, the surgeon Giovanni Menini particularly distinguished himself, and he had built, at his own expense, an obstetric chamber so well-supplied and correct that the Venetian Senate acquired it for public use, calling Menini in 1773 to teach obstetrics not only to the women who wanted to be midwives, but also to surgeons.  From that time on, surgeons began to attend women in childbirth, something which had previously happened only rarely, and with unhappy results.”

The “Ponte de l’Anatomia,” or Bridge of the Anatomy, leads into Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.

This building on the campo was once the celebrated school of anatomy, where medical students and midwives alike attended dissections and lectures.

And now a fragment of memory comes fluttering across my mind: Some years ago, I read in the paper that the parish priest of Pellestrina — or maybe it was San Pietro in Volta — anyway, a village down along the lagoon edge toward Chioggia — made a radical suggestion. He remarked that everybody was accustomed to a bell ringing to announce a death.  I’ve heard this bell too — it’s dark and lugubrious and yes, you can ask for whom it is tolling, because plenty of people always know.

But what this priest suggested was that they also ring the bells to announce a birth.  I think it was a brilliant idea, and certainly the bells would have been cheerier than the funeral tolling.  Louder, in any case.  At the least loud enough to drown out the sound of the newborn’s shrieking and wailing, possibly caused by the ringing of the bells.

On the morning of November 8, our local fishmonger opened with this fabulous fanfare of welcome to his new son, Matteo. The blue bows are the customary festive announcement for a boy (pink for girls), but this is the first time I’ve seen so many bows as well as photos of the baby.

“Welcome Matteo!”  Matteo has the typical stunned. groggy look of the just born, perhaps increased by the awareness that he’s drawn a dad who’s going to be doing things like this. Or maybe I’m just imagining that.

Speaking of boys, a friend of ours had her first baby on November 13, in Vienna. So we put the blue bow on her boat.

Bows or not, evidence of little people (not to be confused with The Little People) is everywhere. I have no idea what sodality was meeting here this afternoon.  Maybe it was the Pink Bicycle Marching and Chowder Society.

This family either has ten children, or one child who has to change clothes five times a day.

In any case, bring on the kids!


As I’ve often remarked, one of the things I love about being here is the faithful return of certain events — moments — throughout the year.  Of course there are events everywhere upon which one may confidently depend — tax deadline day comes to mind — but I’m talking about here.

One occurrence which is so predictable that I don’t even have read the paper, much less even wake up, to recognize it is the double-edged event known as THE EXODUS.

Trieste is only 7 km/4 miles from the Croatian border. From then on, time and distance take on new meanings.

No, it has no Biblical overtones, unless one is thinking of the famous Plagues. In fact, now that I think about it, this could possibly be a worthy candidate to join the frogs and the flies that afflicted Pharaoh.  But since we’re living in a democracy, this little plague afflicts everybody going on vacation. And everybody goes in August.

So the first weekend of August inevitably sees an outbound migration  of massive proportions clogging the highways — The Exodus.  On the last weekend of August, there is the equally appalling Return Exodus.

This is what Croatia looks like from the Italian side of the border. You can be sitting and looking at this for quite a while. But of course, you're not seeing this, you're seeing what it represents: Fabulous beaches, great food, maybe even no people.

We could call it the Plague of Traffic.  Or, if you’re sitting on the highway in a monster backup, the Plague of Everybody Else on Earth.  And the only thing that changes from one year to the next is the length — from unbearable to inconceivable — of the backups at the Italian borders and Alpine tunnels.  Last Saturday the backup at the border dividing Slovenia from Croatia reached about 40 km/25 miles.  Ah yes, Croatia: Gorgeous! Near! Irresistible! Cheap! Also: Small! Mountainous! Not Many Roads!

This Exodus traffic is funny to people who aren’t there, like me, and to people who are funny wherever they are, like Lino Toffolo.

Lino Toffolo is an actor/standup comic  from Murano who writes a column every Sunday in the Gazzettino.  He’s usually right on top of the main subject of the day, which last Sunday was The Exodus.

Here is what he wrote (translated by me):

Instead of facing the usual five kilometers of tailback [in Italian, merely “tail”] to go to Jesolo, why don’t we go to Croatia or Dalmatia or along down there, where there are bound to be fewer people?

Perfect idea!  Let’s go!  40 kilometers of continuous tailback!  Basically, when the last person gets there he just turns around because his vacation is over.

Every year, right on schedule, other than the drama of the “checking the stomach on the beach I swear I’m never eating again” is the  one — unsolvable — of “where to go” and above all, “when to leave.”

The imagination is unchained!  At night, at dawn, at mealtimes like telephone calls [local people scribbling ads often say “call at mealtimes”].  Every so often somebody has the idea of the “intelligent departure,” which they reveal only to their friends who — as with all true secrets — they pass along to one friend at a time, even on Facebook.

The result: Everybody is stuck in the backup, everybody is complaining.

Grandpa Tony thinks that the laborers working on the highway are tourists who just got bored sitting still and figure this way they can at least be doing something…. Sometimes you can watch plants growing.  

“But — it is obligatory for us to do this?”  “No!  That’s exactly why we’re doing it!  If it were obligatory, we’d all stay home!”  

And the Croatians?  Where do they go?  Italy? Gorgeous!  Near! Irresistible! Expensive!

This is a glimpse of the Croatian coast. Worth the voyage, as the Michelin Guide might put it.


This is the Italian coast in Puglia.




Italy. The only difference I can see that might make it worthwhile to sit in a car for hours to get to one instead of the other would be that Croatia is currently a hot destination, while Puglia has always just been there.







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March blows into Venice

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We were all peacefully plodding along toward spring when March burst through the door. Did the famous month come in like a lion?  More like a pack of enraged jaguars.

On Monday night (February 28) the wind began to pick up.  A very special wind, the bora, blowing from the northeast with gusts up to 54 km/h (33 mph).

At Sant' Elena, looking toward the Lido.

This went on all day and night for the following two days — as I write, the wind is finally subsiding to a polite 20 km/h (12 mph).

The scirocco, the fetid breath of the southeast, can impel acqua alta, but if you stand sideways to the bora it will blow your brain out of your skull. Not that you’ll be needing your brain at that point, because the survival instinct will have taken over the controls.

We could hear the powerful roaring noise with the door and windows shut. Women didn’t hang out their laundry, which told me more than even the messages being tapped out on our window by the desperate Venetian blinds. Normally you’d like a real breeze because it gives you a boost in the drying-laundry department, but here your housewife would have risked either seeing her underwear being ripped out of the clothespins and soaring away toward Sardinia, or clinging to the clothesline while being rent to rags, like a flag in a hurricane.

For me, not seeing laundry is more ominous than the dog that didn’t  bark in the night.

The bora making its point along the Fondamente Nove.

But while all this is very exciting for Venice (well, for me, though it’s certainly not the first bora I’ve experienced), it set a record for Trieste, the city as famous for its wind as Venice is for its canals.  They haven’t had a zephyr like this since 1954.

The Triestines endured this bora with gusts up to 163 km/h (101 mph). This is a speed which isn’t even on the Beaufort scale, and creates more damage and danger than 76 acqua altas put together. Some people in Trieste were literally blown over, suffering serious head injuries.  The houses and trees went through something of the same thing.  It’s quite a place where the weather person can breathe a sigh when he tells the viewers that the wind is dropping and that now it’s only at 70 km/h (43 mph).

Here is a view of the bora in Trieste at 150 km/h.  This occurred in 2005, but it gives some idea of what 163 km/h might look like.

Interesting fact that sounds like folklore, except that I can confirm that it’s true: No matter how many days the bora may last, it always ends on an odd-numbered day. Like today. Strange, I know.

I stayed home and made my once-a-year batch of galani, to gorge on today (“Fat Thursday”).  They didn’t come out as well as they did last year, and I am convinced that I changed nothing.  Of course we’re eating them, but they fall short of sublime, which is disappointing.  If I’m going to eat slivers of fat and sugar, they ought to be at least irresistible.

The galani this year. Next year, even better.

Call me deranged, but I’m blaming the bora.  Cold high pressure from Russia meeting warm low pressure from the southwest right over our little hovel. I’m just glad that the roof tiles didn’t get blown away.  Though I suppose I could have glued some galani on in their place.

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