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Water and fire to start the year

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Early late-afternoon is a magical moment in the winter, especially on Sant’ Erasmo. When we got there some people had already started their bonfires — smoke was going up all over the island.

Last Saturday night, while you were doing whatever you do, we were on Sant’ Erasmo participating in a wild pagan ritual. It’s known as panevin (pahn-eh-VEEN)or, more simply, brusar la vecia (broo-zahr ya VEH-cha — burn the old woman).

I’ve experienced it many times from a downwind distance, inhaling the smoke of many faraway bonfires, but three days ago was the first time I ever participated.  The Finotello family, whose market garden Sapori di Sant’ Erasmo has long since become our favorite produce store, told us they were going to be burning the old lady and sure, we could come too.

We always row over in a mascareta, partly because it’s a great motivation to go rowing, and also, not incidentally, the boat makes it easy to bring back our kilos of cauliflower or cabbage or tomatoes or eggplant or whatever’s good that day.

So around 4:00 we wandered across the span of lagoon between Castello and Sant’ Erasmo, threading our usual path along the flank of the Certosa and Vignole islands. The sun was going down, and it felt a little like we were sneaking out of the dorm after curfew, to be going out at the time we’re usually heading home.

I’ve written at other times about the history of this prehistoric practice, which is especially at home in the Northeast of Italy, so I’ll limit the scholarly details.  It’s enough to remember that the effigy represents the old (year, primarily) and therefore must be extinguished as a propitious start to the new (year, of course); that it’s an excellent way to dispose of the year’s prunings, which would have to have been burned eventually anyway; and that it’s a great excuse to end the holiday season with a party that also can keep you warm.

Needless to say, people in Mestre complained about the smoke (I say “needless,” because nothing happens here without some wail of protest from somebody, including me).  It wasn’t the fumes from Sant’ Erasmo that bothered them, but from various places close to the city.  Unbreathable air!  We had to stay shut in our houses with all the windows and doors sealed!  Call the fire department, something’s burning!

I give a little slack to people with genuine pulmonary issues, or anyone who might have encountered smoke caused by burning rubber or plastic.

Otherwise, here’s my message to the good burghers of Mestre: Get over it.

Walking up the lane, we could admire the magnificence of the Finotellos’ pyramid of plant matter. Either they have more land, or they had more hands to work, but it was twice as big as any of the others in sight.

The pyre is ready, a year’s-worth of clippings and rippings. No plastic! No tires to make more smoke, everybody knows it’s poison. Just honest old bits of botanical rubbish. The pieces of newspaper are going to be wrapped around a few long poles and moistened with diesel fuel, lit, and then stuck into the pile to get the blaze going. This is no job for a simple kitchen match.

Luca, the youngest Finotello, is all set to brandish his torch. I wasn’t watching but I doubt very much that he was allowed to go anywhere with this stick on fire.  Somebody’s bonfire is already ablaze in the distance.

The old woman was looking pretty sprightly, at least from below. Is that a Miracle Bra she’s wearing? I hope not, because there’s no miracle in sight for her.

The combustibles are ready, the people are ready, let’s just do it.

Claudio and his son Luca are ready to party.

It’s definitely getting to be time to light the fire.

The people just a few steps along the road had already set their fire. Maybe they were just burning up the old branches and twigs and not bothering to make a party. Crazy, I know.

Voila’! Let the bonfire begin.  The boys imagined incinerating their most-hated soccer team.  “Let’s burn Juventus” yelled a fan of Milan.  Naturally the response was “Let’s burn Milan!”  That went on for a while.

It was at least a flagration, if not something more.

The ancient lore relies on the direction in which the sparks blow as a prediction of the coming year’s prosperity, agriculturally speaking. If they fly west toward the mountains, “take your sack and go for chestnuts” (hard times); if they fly east toward the sea, “take your sack and go for wheat” (good times). Lino says that there isn’t really much magic about this. He explains that the wind follows the sun throughout the day; at dawn it blows from the east (here, the sea), and in the evening it blows from the west (the mountains). Any wind which contradicts the natural order of the correct direction would be a strange wind, an anomalous wind, one which (one might assume) would blow no good. But that’s true all year, Lino stated, not just at Epiphany. Sorry to spoil a good story. The interpretation of these sparks: Unclear. No definite sign from the old lady or anything.  The Finotellos don’t depend on sparks anyway — they take an appropriately fatalistic attitude toward their world and the weather.  After all, last year they got the tornado.  Predicting that was definitely above the old lady’s pay grade.

Let ‘er rip and let the sparks be damned.

All this fire is a fabulous sight, as long as it’s the old year going up in flames and not your house.

And there were the fundamental refreshments: “Pinza” (two different recipes), which is a sort of pound cake that wants to be a fruitcake, the hot spiced red wine known even here as vin brule’, and hot chocolate. Fire, food and wine — the only thing missing is the old lady, who by now is pretty much reduced to ash.

A view of the fire as we walked back to the boat. Looking around, we counted nine other fires scattered across the dark landscape. The view from a helicopter must have looked like the Fourth of July in the middle of the lagoon.

But the blaze wasn’t the only beautiful experience that evening.  We got a massive bonus with the row home in the dark.  I suspected we would, because we often used to row at night. But years have passed since our last “notturna.”

The lagoon isn’t ever ugly, but it’s like Gloria Swanson — at some moments it’s more beautiful than at others.  At noon on a summer Sunday you will not see it at its best.

At night, though, and especially in the winter, it is a place of deep, luminous glamour.  The silence, the stillness of the water, the sense of space, the stars, the cold — all the components join to make something much greater than the whole.

I didn’t even try to make any photographs because I knew they would never show what was really there.  The barely perceptible movement of the water’s silky surface responding to the oars, which I could sense in my hands and then, from the bottom of the boat, through my feet; the small sound of the oars themselves, slipping through the water and occasionally squeaking against the humid wood of the forcola; the frigid damp of the oar chilling my bare fingers.  The coldness of the air that I could breathe all the way down to the bottom of my lungs. The bright white dot of Venus reflected in the water, which floated next to us all the way home on our port side, bobbing back up after every stroke.  The misty beam of the lighthouse on Murano shining straight out to sea through the inlet at San Nicolo (4 flashes, 2 seconds pause) and the unexpected way that it appeared closer to us at one point, then five minutes later seemed to be miles away, even though the physical distance had barely changed.

A mere two miles (3.6 km) from the bonfire to our house felt like some pilgrimage suspended in time. In the dark, the lagoon seemed untethered from everything that wasn’t it.  No longer was it the plodding, workaday lagoon, the watery equivalent of an enormous Wal-Mart parking lot forced to marry an interstate interchange, but something whole, completely itself, majestic, complex, lacking nothing, needing nothing.

We crossed the Canale delle Navi by the Arsenal and rowed down the rio di San Pietro. Boats, walls, houses, windows, but no people.  It was only 7:00 PM and there wasn’t even the sound of a person.  We turned into the rio di Sant’ Ana — deserted.  Nobody on the fondamenta.  Nobody on the bridge.  Silence.  It was eerie. Beautiful, I guess, but it was as if the lagoon had just let itself go and obliterated everybody but us.

But of course, it hadn’t.  At the end of the canal we could hear the Saturday-evening-going-home cacophony.  Men shouting, dogs barking, kids wailing.

We now return you to your regular dimension.

Categories : Venetian Events
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This is fall?

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The first day of autumn came and went as decreed by the cosmos, but around here summer didn’t get the memo.  The heat wave that began some two months ago is still enjoying itself thoroughly, lolling on the beach, gleaming on the Alpine peaks, bringing  joy to the daring hoteliers who risked staying open and not unconsiderable damage to the farmers.

It was the hottest September on record; on average, nearly 3 degrees above the norm. In Piemonte, Torino registered 30 degrees C (86 degrees F), a September temperature it hasn’t felt since 1753. Rainfall has become a distant memory.

The farmers are not amused.  Not only are the crops lollygagging along for lack of rain and excess of heat, but the harvest, whenever they manage to make it, is going to be puny. Ten percent fewer grapes, and they’re already fermenting — unheard of.  Tomatoes and olives and rice are down 20 percent.

No matter where you go, there will be some business named for Venice. In Conegliano Lino paused in front of the Trattoria "Citta' di Venezia," but I discovered a Cafe Venezia in Casablanca. Anyway, there isn't a Trattoria Citta' di Conegliano in Venice, which I think is narrow-minded.

But one crop is still going strong: The Adriatic beaches continue to pullulate with tourists even though the kiosks are closed and the lifeguards have all gone home.  Some wag had his picture taken under his big umbrella holding a batch of chestnuts, two seasonal icons which have never met and probably never even heard of each other.

But let’s make the proverbial hay while the proverbial sun is still proverbially glowing.  Even though school started two weeks ago, Gianni Stival, vice-mayor of Caorle (a beach town) is dreaming of a bumper crop of late vacationers and has proposed — not for the first time — that the Veneto postpone the first day of school for two whole weeks.

“It would be good for tourism,” he explains, “because now when the first school bell rings at the middle of September, families are compelled to go home.” And take all their money with them.  Never mind if little Bepi never learns the names of the European capitals or the definition of plankton or that when a girl says “no” she’s pretty likely to have meant “no” (oh wait — they don’t teach that). Whatever is good for tourism is, by definition, good for everybody, assuming that little Bepi has somehow learned to count past 20.  Or maybe that doesn’t matter either, now that cash registers calculate the correct change.

Last Saturday we decided to become tourists, in our own small way, so we took the train to Conegliano, a small but prosperous provincial town just 58 km (36 miles) from Venice.  Conegliano is  famous for Prosecco and a painter named Giovanni Battista Cima (1460-1518), nicknamed “da Conegliano,” or “from Conegliano,” so we don’t confuse him with all those other Giovanni Battista Cimas.

I ate cappellacci di zucca, or "big straw hats stuffed with pumpkin," which were bestrewn with smoked ricotta and drenched with butter. This is a typical autumn dish -- note the pumpkin -- of the area around Ferrara, but it tasted fine here too. Three of these will give you the strength to harvest another five acres, if you can manage to stay awake.

It was a heavenly day — sorry for the farmers, but we loved it, even though we were thwarted in our intention to browse the weekly market, which spreads along the main street and its tributaries offering everything from socks to handmade baskets.  Don’t assume that Saturday has been ordained by God, or the mayor, as the perfect day for a big market.  Turns out they hold it on Friday. In case you ever need to know.

Members of a local mycology club were setting up an exhibition of just-collected local mushroms ranging from delectable to fatal. The drought made a serious dent in this harvest, as well; there ought to have been several times more than these.

But we didn’t care.  We wandered around enjoying the sun, sat outside the duomo watching the guests arriving for a big wedding, we ate too much, we sprawled in the garden of the ruined hilltop castle. If it sounds like we did nothing, I want to tell you that nothing was exactly what we needed and we did plenty of it.
As far as I’m concerned, if this is autumn, it can stay like this forever.



The backdrop of tiny wild apples and unshelled chestnuts (the green spiky ball) made a very attractive arrangement


The chestnut squad at work: One man roasting them, two others sitting by bags of chestnuts from Cuneo, slitting their shells, one by one, to prevent their exploding in the heat.


A classic autumn assortment (though no pumpkins). Clockwise from bottom left are walnuts, plums, chestnuts, giuggiole (jujubes), persimmons and grapes.

Mirtilli, or wild blueberries, at only 12 euros a kilo ($8 a pound). Pretty cheap, considering these are all picked by hand in the woods.


These mushrooms, on the other hand, are absolutely for eating: "Galletti" and "finferli," also uncultivated. Delectable.




Categories : Food, Tourism
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What he did on his summer vacation

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The reason for the unusually long time since my last post is the inverse correlation between the current heatwave (still increasing) and my capacity to think and/or act upon my thoughts (still decreasing).

Of course it’s summer so of course it’s hot.  What does everyone expect?  The Siberian front that usually moves through here in January? Everybody complains about that too.

And I recognize that longer and more intense heatwaves have been tormenting people in many other parts of the world.  But I don’t use my brain there and I haven’t been using what’s left of it here lately either.

For about a week now the daytime temperature has gone near, and now will be going past, 96 degrees F/36 C.  With searing sun which not even the most foolhardy cloud has dared to veil.  The “perceived heat” will be over 100.  It’s like living in Pascagoula with palazzos.

But heat doesn’t seem to prevent people from doing all sorts of unusual things, so I thought I’d share one of the more eccentric or anyway less horrifying recent summer events (by “less horrifying” I mean episodes not involving drug overdoses, marital homicide/suicides, fatal hit-and-run accidents, and so forth). Many of those have a highly ironic nature which might lead you to consider them humorous, but I’m going to avoid them.

The best of the batch is being accomplished by a certain Ivano De Marchi, 65 years old, who lives in Marcon (just 14 miles/22 km from Venice).  He has been driving around the Veneto in his convertible BMW with a coffin jammed into the passenger seat.

Here is a video of a sighting on the A4 highway near the Vicenza Ovest exit.

For those who don’t see the video, here’s the link:

I’ll simplify his explanation: It’s a pilgrimage.  Not any ordinary one, but a “protest pilgrimage” to punish the mayor.

Back in 1988, De Marchi paid a lot of his own money and time and energy to create a motocross track, presumably near his hometown and presumably something he intended for his own enjoyment.  I don’t know how much money or time you need to construct a motocross track but I know it’s not something you just throw away, like the 20 million dollars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spent for that chateau in France.

Anyway, he spent the money, then the mayor razed the track and cut it up into parcels, presumably for houses (there was no mention of a miniature golf course or firing range).

So now, 23 years later, revenge.  According to De Marchi, the Virgin Mary came to him in a dream and told him to undertake 1000 pilgrimages with a coffin to 1000 churches, after which time presumably the ex-mayor will be ready for his box.  That’s the assumption De Marchi is going on.

Of course the police have stopped him (no word on whether the bishop has sent out his own squad).  They gave him the breath-test and the drug test and he was just fine.  “Then they made me open the coffin, which obviously was empty” — actually, not so obvious to even a moderately alert policeman.  “After that they told me to be careful, and they let me go,” he concludes.

“Of course I”m careful: The coffin has got its seatbelt fastened.”

If we are given any updates on the fulfillment of his vow, especially the expected outcome, I’ll certainly let you know.  As it is, while the rest of us are being steamed like asparagus out here, he is out there breezing along with his coffin and his retaliation to keep him company.  I have no idea if he has a time frame for this quest — even if he were able to visit ten churches a day, he’d be at this for at least three months.  It’s not going to be quite so much fun when the winter rains move in.

But for now, he’s happy.  At the least, he’s not stuck in miles of traffic coming home from vacation, like all those really dumb people.



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The big water event in the Veneto region in November has had nothing to do with Venice and high water and the temporary walkways and how inconvenient or amusing the tourists find it and how aggravating it is for the merchants to deal with some water on the floor for a few hours.

Part of downtown Vicenza, a part of the world which is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets.

A scene of downtown Vicenza, a city which, unlike Venice, is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets. (Photo:

The real story, which is still unfolding in all its drama and grief, has been the catastrophic flooding in large areas of the region caused  by diluvial rains and overflowing rivers.

I mention this as part of my modest personal crusade to give acqua alta some useful context for people beyond the old Bel Paese who read the endless and fairly repetitive  articles on Venice.  I’d like  to provide some recent perspective on the subject of water in these parts.

On November 1 the sky fell on the Veneto region.  I actually can’t remember whether we got acqua alta in Venice — if we did it couldn’t have been a problem. But what happened out beyond the shoreline showed, at least to me, that anyone living near a river is going to be facing bigger and uglier problems than anybody does  in Venice when the tide comes in.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage.

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage. (Photo:

Areas in or near Vicenza, Padova, Treviso, the mountains of Belluno and the countryside around Verona have been declared disaster areas.  In a 48-hour period 23 inches of rain fell on Belluno, 21 inches on Vicenza, 15 inches on Verona, 14 inches on Treviso.  Roughly the amount that falls in a normal year.

The total damage to houses, property, municipal infrastructure and agriculture in the Veneto has been estimated (this will undoubtedly increase) at over one billion euros ($1,365,530,000).

Garbage: Many of the Veneto’s 200 km (124 miles) of beaches, usually covered by vacationing Germans and other families, are now covered by seven million tons of garbage deposited by the swollen  rivers emptying into the Adriatic. By “garbage” I don’t just mean bags of coffee grounds and orange peel but plastic of every sort, sheets of metal, uprooted trees.

Experts meeting in Treviso are trying to figure out not only how to remove this amount of material, but how the sam hill to pay for getting rid of it, seeing that this type of trash costs between 170 and 180 euros ($232 – $245) per ton to destroy.  I’ll help you out: That comes to more than one and a half billion dollars just for the garbage.  I’ll send them a contribution but it probably wouldn’t pay for destroying more than a shopping-bag’s worth of detritus.

Mudslides: That amount of rain has drastically undermined the character of the land in many places.  Cleaning up and consolidating the areas of mudslides is another entire problem which will cost an amount of money I’m not going to bother calculating.

Businesses: On their knees.  Loss of merchandise, damage to buildings and interruptions in transport have immobilized many businesses.  Parts of many roads are still under water.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where traffic has ceased to function.

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where we see that traffic has run out of road.

Agriculture: Fields and crops destroyed.  Some 500 farming operations are now at risk of going out of business. The government has estimated the damage at 25 million euros ($34,138,250).

I realize that you can replant sugar beets and chardonnay grapes but you can’t replant the Doge’s Palace, should water ever inflict comparable damage on this incomparable monument.  But still.

Very recently, but before all this happened, Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, took a trip to Rome to make the rounds of government ministers and rattle the tin cup.  He didn’t come back with much, and now the future will inevitably be even more austere.  It’s not hard to picture how urgent it’s going to seem to preserve a couple of palaces and churches  to a government struggling to help an estimated 500,000 people get their lives back.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation.  The numbers will undoubtedly rise.

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation. The numbers will undoubtedly rise. Among other items is the damage to the Prosecco vineyards, so don't expect an excess of this delicacy next year.

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Categories : Events, Problems, Water
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