Sunday, May 4, 2014

Big Little Crabs

In spite of all kinds of color and pageantry and diversions nearby, these boys had eyes only for i granchietti
There was no shortage of things for kids to do at last weekend's open house at the Arsenale--throwing pottery, modeling with clay, drawing, learning to row in the Venetian style, to name a few--but the favorite activity by far of my son Sandro and his close friend (whom I'll call C) was not one of those offered in the official and well-run workshops.

It was to the traditional Venetian childhood activity of fishing for crabs that the two boys devoted themselves for at least 4 hours on Sunday. They'd discovered a length of old cord shorter than they were beside a broad unused old boat ramp on Saturday and spent the little time they had left at the Arsenale that day with leftover bits of fritto misto tied to the end of it as bait. It turned out that granchietti, or small crabs, are mad for fried seafood, and granchietti were the first things Sandro told me about when he got home with his mother, his found fishing cord still in hand.

Granchietti, and fishing for them, were also the last things he talked about falling asleep that night, and the first things he talked about when he awoke the next morning.

On Sunday we brought along a similarly short length of hemp twine for C to use when we met him at the Arsenale, where the boat ramp--its long incline gunky and green, rocky and rubbishy, and not exactly fresh-smelling--was the boys' first destination, well away from the open house's main attractions. 

At Sandro's suggestion I tied rocks to the end of each line to weight them down in the water. That was one change from Saturday. Another was that i granchietti didn't have to wait for leftovers; they got their own plate of fritto misto, which they were served long before the rest of us finally sat down to eat. And another was that Venetian-born C, who is five years old, no longer screamed in what Jen had described to me as a mixture of glee and terror every single time a crab was pulled from the water. Glee and fear were still in evidence, but C expressed them almost exclusively in dance on Sunday.

Now, the fact that the crabs in question were quite small--the vast majority of them wouldn't have extended beyond the dimensions of Sandro's open 6-year-old's palm--didn't diminish any of the excitement (or fear). Nor did the fact that they were caught simply to be immediately returned to the water rather than eaten. The thrill of the hunt was everything.

The boys would drop their baited lines into the water and particles of grease from the fried bits of sardines, calamari or baby squid would silently burst into oily iridescent blooms on the water's dark surface, one after another, like an extravagant firework display in miniature upon the murky mucky shallows. But I was the only one who cared about such surface pyrotechnics; the boys peered right through them to the bottom, intent on crabs lurking among the detritus.

An entire ring of fried calamari tied to the end of one line brought up a dense seething cluster of little crabs, bigger than an apple, more than a half dozen at once--inspiring an appropriately agitated piece of choreography by C.


There were brief periods of time during the long afternoon of crabbing that other kids joined in, after having happened past the boat ramp with their parents on their way to look at the old submarine mounted on a sloped stone pedestal nearby. At such times there were as many as 10 or 12 kids huddled around Sandro's and C's two lines, or arrayed along the Istrian stone edge of the boat ramp with bare unbaited sticks they hoped the young crabs would clamp onto out of sheer curiosity or a callow lust for adventure. "Enorme!" the kids would cry as a crab was pulled from the water, and "Gigantesche!," with such relish at some supposedly monster crustacean hauled from the brine that I was almost willing to believe them--though all I actually saw were granchietti hardly more substantial than matchboxes.

Even the beast Sandro proclaimed "il Re dei granchi" (the King of the Crabs) as he landed it to a loud chorus of awe and wonder wasn't quite large enough to earn a spot on the humblest dinner plate in Venice.

But the kids grasped what I didn't: that the size of the crabs was, after all, relative. To an American raised with his native land's fond addiction to stark polarities of good and bad, Italy can seem both refreshingly and frustratingly devoid of ethical absolutes. I get no sense that Americans actually adhere to the ethical absolutes they love to preach about to others any more than Italians do to those they generally leave it to the Church to preach, but the habit of absolutes is a hard one to break, even in those many matters (like scale) in which relativity obviously rules. Italians, too, are ruled by absolutes, but in different realms of experience. That is, it may not be hard even now to find some Italians who will respond with a shrug to Berlusconi's crimes and shenanigans, but not a single of them will let you get away with putting cheese on a fish dish.    

"Un granchiettone," is what Sandro called one of his last crabs of the day--"a big little crab": capturing and containing in a single Italian word, in a perfectly balanced and inseparable and vigorous ambivalence, what his American-raised English-speaking father would have needed at least three to express, and still not caught just right.


10 comments:

  1. This is a post of forgotten wonders and imagination for many of us. Thank goodness for children who still have magic in their souls, thank goodness for parents who recognise something special is happening.

    I hope that "un granchettone," features in our dreams and lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your very kind comment, Yvonne; it's especially appreciated coming from someone who manages to notice all kinds of wonders herself.

      Delete
  2. I wish I could crouch comfortably like the child in the first and second photos.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do, too, Bert. Is there any consolation to be taken from the fact that most of us once could, or does that just make it worse?

      Delete
  3. That is a wonderful series of photos, more and more kids as the pesca continued.

    I have seen many kids fish for crabs and doing horrible things to them, I still have all those images in my brain I just realized. I hope Sandro and the other kids got a nice lesson in being respectful to living creatures, even if seemingly insignificant like a crab.

    I wish I could have been in Venice for this event, my mom went and it sounded like a possible sign or renaissance?

    Your son sounds like he is a great kid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid that kids doing cruel things to small animals is not uncommon (at least not where I grew up in California), Laura, but no crabs were persecuted on this day. Those little crabs are actually quite remarkable, and not at all insignificant.

      Against great odds, there are people who are committed to bringing about a renaissance in Venetian life, but it is always an uphill battle. It would be nice if the population would grow a bit rather than shrink!

      Delete
  4. Bravo, mio nipote. I used to do a similar thing, da ragazzo, off the docks at Clark Lake near our cabin in Door County. We caught crayfish with worms or bread crumbs. Good clean fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So that must be where he got the knack for it, John!

      Delete
  5. Stickleback and minnow fish with a cheap net were my catch as a kid. Simple pleasures.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Simple and universal, it seems, Andrew.

      Delete