Thursday, May 29, 2014

Opera on the Water

This, too, is boat ownership: getting a tow for repairs
One of the big local stories a couple of days ago was that a restaurant owner in the vicinity of the church of Santi Apostoli had been rewarded with punches and kicks for being a good citizen. Specifically, the business owner had reprimanded a couple of youths for going too fast down a narrow canal in their boat and they'd responded, first, by slowing down probably more than he'd even hoped they would--coming all the way to a complete stop--then, by getting out and assaulting him.

The paper pointed out that the two ruffians were foreign-born, and not from Chioggia, as I saw one commenter suggest (predictably enough) on Facebook just after the first incomplete account appeared. I say "predictably enough" as the residents of Chioggia still seem to play the same role for present-day Venetians as they did back in Goldoni's day, as the butt of most jokes and the alleged perpetrators of no end of knavery.

The local papers here, like newspapers everywhere now it seems, specialize in tabloid headlines, aiming to inspire visceral reactions--indignation, revulsion, lust--with simplified oppositions of good and evil, virtue and ignominy, but the account of the incident I got yesterday from someone who knows all three of the players suggested something more in the way of old Commedia dell'arte. The restaurant owner, that pillar of the local business community, is, according to my source (who actually likes him) an aggressive fellow, prone to be a little too free with both insults and foul language. The youths may not have liked being told to slow down, but it was the way they were told that really set them off.

In any case, the little incident was still having ripple effects a day later. Inspired, apparently, by the example of the restaurant owner, local law enforcement was spurred (or shamed) to do its own part in monitoring excessive speed in that very same canal near Santi Apostoli (which, after all, is its job). The result was that my source had just received a ticket for going too fast in his boat as he passed through that area on his way to pick up his son from school. Barely a little too fast, he emphasized.

That youths--even angelic native Venetians--tend to go too fast around the lagoon is not news to anyone here, of course. The sight of a boat--usually a cofano (a low-slung 5 meter boat, usually fiberglass and usually piloted from the stern) pounding over the water always inspires the same disapproving exclamation from Sandro: "Teenagers!" Even if the boat is too far away to allow one to guess at the age of the driver and passengers.

Sandro has already promised, with no prodding (really!), that he'll never drive his boat that way when he's older.

But, then, until very recently he'd also agreed with me that there was really no need to have a stereo in a boat that you drive around the lagoon, like those absurdly thumping systems favored mostly by teens in their cofani.

The sound of the boat over the water, the rush of wind past one's ears, the smell of the air, the feel of the spray, the sights all around--what in the world could recorded music add to the experience, and who would have any attention to give to it anyway?!
No stereo system in any boat of ours! Sandro and I proclaimed, taking a firm stand, even if neither of us actually had a boat in which to put our feet. Jen wasn't so sure--she liked the idea of a bit of music. But we, my son and I, could not and would not be swayed.

At least not for a while... I haven't wavered, but Sandro announced last week that he likes the idea of big speakers in any boat we or he (eventually) might get. I could only raise my eyebrows at this. And hope that it would pass.

Instead, as is the case with most of his plans, it has only been further elaborated. Last night he admitted to me that, indeed, he looked forward to blasting loud rock and roll as he cruised about in his own cofano some day. But only in the open lagoon, he quickly added.

While wending through the narrow waterways of the city center, he assured me, he'd play only opera.

I can't figure out whether this reveals the influence of Italian culture (that bit of Otello we watched together on RAI 3, for example), or tourist culture (those singing gondoliers), or is just another example of his gift for crafting arguments especially suited to his listener that has periodically inspired me to call him "l'avvocato" (the lawyer) since he was 4. Whatever is behind it, though, I'm not so sure I believe him. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

When the Visiting Team Bus Is Actually a Boat... makes for a much more picturesque leave-taking, I think, regardless of the outcome of the game. This is from last Sunday afternoon, at the marina just behind Venice's Stadio Pierluigi Penzo.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Lagoon Set Off to Best Effect

Part of Murano against a backdrop of mountains, last week after a storm
The first time I visited Venice as a teenager I had no idea mountains were anywhere in sight around the lagoon. And even the second time, a little less than a decade later, when I stayed here for a few weeks, I still think I left in doubt, if not complete ignorance of their existence (were those vague shapes along the horizon simply low cloud banks?). I strongly suspect that most of the estimated 20 million visitors to the city each year also leave without, for one reason or another, ever really seeing them, which is too bad, as the lagoon rarely looks lovelier than when set off by them.

Of course the main obstacle to seeing them is that they aren't really clearly visible all that often, but are typically obscured by haze or smog or low clouds. They're most likely to appear on cold winter days, or the day after a strong windy storm has blown through town. The mountains then show up after all the meteorological drama as a kind of encore, seeming paradoxically (like much of the built city itself) both chimerical and substantial, almost too beautiful to be believed.

The eastern Alps visible behind Burano, whose leaning campanile can be glimpsed through the door of the vaporetto stop
A panorama of Murano (which, like all images on this site, can be enlarged with a click)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ottilia's Secret Garden, Giudecca

Ottilia Iten, in hat, talks with some of the many visitors to her garden on the Giudecca
Depending on where you arrive at Giudecca, and where you walk, it's easy enough to let the more recent incarnation of the island as the industrial and manufacturing center of Venice overwhelm your sense of its more distant past in the 18th-century as the site of the city's most luxurious aristocratic gardens. Most of the island's 20th century industry is now as completely a thing of the past as its old pleasure-seeking nobility in powdered wigs, but there are still working cantieri busy repairing boats of all sizes, and there are still, behind tall rather crumbly brick walls, some hidden gardens.

One of the most beautiful is the Giardino di Ottilia, whose dark unadorned metal door opens up to what seems very much like some fairy tale reward only after you've braved a long narrow sunless calle from the Palanca vaporetto stop, suspecting ever more the further you walk that perhaps you've fouled up the directions and taken the wrong path, as how could there possibly be a garden here amid so much pavement and brick?

Once inside the enclosed "giardino naturale", with rose blooms profuse and fragrant all around, you may wonder why you didn't simply follow your nose to it. The garden is large but, fortunately, not palatial, which is a good thing because all this abundant and wild beauty is the work of one woman and it's hard to imagine how she could possibly manage any more. The woman's name is Ottilia Iten and while she can tell you anything you'd like to know about each different variety of plant and flower in her garden (and in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English, no less), the basis upon which the plants in her garden are selected, placed and nurtured is not simply out of some scientifically-minded conventional handbook.

Her gardening follows energetic rather than theoretical principles, and as important a tool as any spade, shovel or rake in her garden is her pendulum. Ottilia says she uses her pendulum to "choose the plants that want to come into the garden, find out where they want to be planted, on what day and at what hour they want to be planted, and how and when they want to be cared for. I may sense that something should be changed or done, but then I check with the pendulum to find out exactly what it should be."

If you've never used a pendulum yourself, held it above an object and watched its bob slowly began to move, circling minimally at first, then building up to a surprising force and velocity, it's easy to suspect that the person holding it is actually manipulating it. There appears to be something magical, or maybe just deceptive about the process, though I suspect Ottilia would say nothing could be more elemental; that is, less of a trick. For those who use them, pendulums serve to read energy the way a simple electrician's probe is used to reveal whether a wire is "live."

Ottilia's interest in gardening this way was inspired by her reading of Peter Tompkin's and Christopher Bird's book, Secrets of the Soil, and Tompkin's The Secret Life of Nature. The former book devotes a chapter to Perelandra, a nature research garden in the United States founded by Machaelle Wright, whose own books (such as Perelandra Garden Workbook: A Complete Guilde to Gardening with Nature Intelligences) also form the core of Ottilia's approach. But, she points out, one can now find a great deal of information about all this online.

Having specifically waited until the nicer light of late afternoon to visit the garden, I arrived to find most of it in the shadow of neighboring buildings and trees. This didn't diminish my enjoyment of it, but did make it much harder for the camera to capture its colors and infinite details.
I was fortunate to visit Ottilia's garden two Sundays ago during one of what she calls her "open doors": short spans of days when she welcomes visitors. She told me that she offers three such "open doors" each year: in the spring for the narcissi, in May for the roses, and in autumn for the michaelmas daisies and asters. Though she also gives guided tours to groups--for example, from the Italian club Wigwam ( "open doors" are intended only for individuals, couples, friends, families, not large groups or tours.

Ottilia says that she finds gardening in this way to be an "adventure," one that keeps her continually interested and satisfied, and, judging from the many visitors I observed two Sundays ago, I think her guests would describe their experience of her garden in the very same terms. It's a magical place. 

Ottilia is an excellent guide for visitors of all ages--and many tongues

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Real Drama Over the Island of Poveglia Begins Now

A mix of blue sky and storm yesterday over Poveglia (background) and the former lunatic asylum island of San Servolo
For those of us fond of old movie depictions of auctions ending sonorously, dramatically and conclusively with the thwump of a gavel--"Sold to the man in the eye-patch for 120 million French francs!"--the bidding on the abandoned Venetian island of Poveglia was destined to be a bit of a letdown. For one thing, it was online, and it's doubtful that the winner even received one of those exclamatory E-bay emails ("Congratulations! You've won 99 YEAR LEASE ON POVEGLIA! Click here to arrange for payment and shipping!"). For another, this is Italy, where every supposedly dramatic conclusion usually turns out to be only the preface to another round of wrangling and dispute.

As it turned out, despite a late surge in donations, the nearly 4,000 members of the civic group Poveglia per Tutti fell a little less than 100,000 euros short of the winning bid of 513,000 offered in the first part of the auction. The identity of the winner was revealed to be entrepreneur Luigi Brugnaro, head of the company Umana and owner of Venice's pro basketball team, Reyer. But, congratulatory email or no, Mr Brugnaro had little if any time to enjoy his victory.

Suspected of, and portrayed as, harboring the most nefarious plans for the island while the auction was ongoing and he was known only as "User_10801a9e", "Mr X, or "Mr 513", perhaps it's no surprise that Brugnaro accepted his prize in a rather pugilistic crouch, declaring right off during a press conference after the auction's end that he "bought the island only to save it" from falling into the hands of rapacious "Chinese, Russians, Arabs, or Americans" (though, of course, by the end of the first part of the auction it was clear no such nasty foreigners had even made bids). He, too, he asserted, was motivated solely by the most community-minded sentiments, and was dedicated to preserving the island for public use and saving it from ugly exploitation or speculation. He was a good guy in this story, he insisted, not some monstrous Goliath, but when the press remained skeptical he become rather strident, if not a bit heated ("Brugnaro attacca il giornalisti" ["Brugnaro Attacks Journalists"] ran the title of a video clip on La Nuova Venezia website).

One of Brugnaro's key points was not just that he never had any plans to put a luxury hotel on the island, but that he was open to everyone's ideas, was just dying to hear them, and (as a local paper put it) he extended his hand to Poveglia per Tutti--which showed little if any interest in taking it.

And, really, who can blame them? For having garnered a tremendous amount of public support in only a month--blossoming almost overnight into a major presence in the discussion of Venice's future--the group seemed understandably hesitant to legitimate the unknown projects of an entrepreneur over whom they would ultimately have no real control. Instead, the group hopes that il Demanio (or state property department), which now has up to 30 days after the auction to decide whether to accept the winning bid, will reject it as being inadequate in the high-priced real estate market of Venice. After all, Poveglia per Tutti supporters ask, is it right that an island of 7 hectares (17.3 acres) should be leased for 99 years for the sale price of a one room apartment on the Zattere? Instead of dealing the property at such an absurdly low price to a private investor, wouldn't it be more fair to turn it over to those Italian citizens to whom it's supposed to belong in the first place?

In these questions, Poveglia per Tutti is echoed by Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, for whom the end of the auction seemed to sound like the bell at the start of a boxing match, sending him into the ring swinging. Indeed, Orsoni declared, the state property office couldn't possibly accept such a low bid, but if it did the comune of Venice would make use of its right of prelazione, or pre-emption, to acquire the island itself. "Even a city with as many budget problems as ours," Orsoni announced, "must be able to find resources for a worthy expenditure of this sort." An announcement which, in a city where parents literally take to the streets in outrage because there are no funds to clean the filthy classrooms of their children, caused more than a few residents to chuckle bitterly, and others to assert that Italy is still plagued by Communists.

Brugnaro himself, however, didn't seem especially worried by the mayor's stated plans. Instead, he reminded Orsoni and the comune that the real cost of Poveglia will extend far beyond the 513,000 euro purchase price. Brugnaro claims that, according to his own calculations, the restoration of Poveglia will cost more than 20 million euros in addition to the original purchase price, and with this in mind, and with obvious sarcasm, he invited the cash-strapped mayor to go right ahead and pre-empt his winning bid if he wanted to. "Si accomodi," is how Brugnaro put it, using the phrase with which a polite host invites a guest to "make himself at home", confident that the seat Orsoni would be taking with his prelazione would prove to be extremely uncomfortable, if not ultimately untenable.

And so things now stand as the state property office crunches its numbers--or whatever they'll be busy doing for the next 28 days. I can't pretend to make any sense of Italian politics, but I'm not sure that Brugnaro will turn out to be the winner of this competition even if he does indeed win the lease on the island. Regardless of Brugnaro's claim that his bid was motivated solely by a selfless desire to do what's best for Venetians, I've yet to hear of the entrepreneur who is thrilled at the prospect of having people tell him how to spend his own money and go about his business, not even if only half a million euros were at stake, much less something like 20 or 10 or even 5 million.

Brugnaro is trying to position himself as a paternalistic benefactor to the people of Venice. I think he'd have more luck with this in America, where people have over the last 34 years developed a remarkably blind (and, I'd say, unfounded) faith in corporate benevolence. I don't see it playing well in the lagoon.  

In contrast, I can't see how Poveglia per Tutti--as long as they adhere to the principles they've espoused of transparency and community action--can completely lose, as both Brugnaro and Orsoni have declared they want to work with them on the future of Poveglia.

As for Orsoni... Well, the possible outcomes for him or any Italian politician are far beyond me.

In other words, the real drama of Poveglia, the real competition, is going on right now. There's hope among a good number of people here that if the community spirit evident in Poveglia per Tutti can be maintained and, ideally, expanded, the winners will ultimately (against great odds) be the residents of Venice. But it's not likely to be easy. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Today is Your Last Chance to Buy a Venetian Island for 99 Euro

"We show our faces, but Mr X doesn't": A recent post on the Poveglia Per Tutti Facebook page contrasts the transparent and communal aims of the group to the unknown aims and identity of the higher bidder for Poveglia
What is supposed to be the final stage of the auction of the abandoned lagoon island of Poveglia a short distance west of Lido will take place tomorrow, and I'm sorry to have been so busy lately as not to have posted something sooner.

Two bidders for the island emerged from the first part of the auction on May 6: the civic group Poveglia per Tutti (Poveglia for Everyone), with an initial bid of 160,000 euro, and an anonymous bidder known only as "User_10801a9e" who offered 513,000 euro. A couple of different identities have been put forth about the exact identity of this larger bidder, and in both cases "Mr X" or "Mr 513" (as the local papers now call him) is in the business of building luxury hotels.

Of course the fear of yet another private luxury tourist destination is what spurred the creation of Poveglia per Tutti. (Incidentally, about a year and half ago I saw a headline in the local paper that announced that the 5 star San Clemente Palace on the lagoon island of that name was going belly up, lest anyone be too quick to believe the popular fantasy that any luxury development in this New Gilded Age of ours is bound to be a rousing success. A Turkish firm purchased it in fall 2013).

Within three days after the first stage of the auction, Poveglia per Tutti had nearly doubled its bankroll, with contributions not just from city residents, but from people around the world. But as of today it still seems to have some ways to go to reach the baseline bid of 513,000 euro with which tomorrow's auction will begin.

For more about the auction, the island, and the bidders, see yesterday's piece in the NY Times:

A lot of Venetians I encounter are heartened by the efforts of Poveglia per Tutti. It seems all-too-easy for Venetians to believe that many of their fellow residents have given up hope of retaining any part of the city for themselves, have succumbed to the necessity of earning a living in a relentlessly touristic monoculture, have simply been worn down by forces that seem far too massive and relentless to oppose. After all, it seem that the selling off of public lands to private or corporate interests has been the goal, and is now the crowning achievement, of the last 30 or 40 years of international political and economic policy.

If you want to take a stand with Poveglia per Tutti, you can read about their project (in English, Italian, French, Russian, Spanish or German) and make a contribution at:

If the group is not successful in its bid for the island, your contribution less 19 euro will be returned to you.

Another recent post on the Poveglia per Tutti Facebook page shows the increase in contributions after the May 6 auction and asks "Mr 513" why he has not revealed his own plans for the island

Friday, May 9, 2014

Festa di Primavera Tomorrow in Garden of ex-Ospedale Umberto I

The preschool Pan di Zenzero occupies part of the building at left; services for adults who are known in Italian as i diversabili (the differently-abled) are in the building at right

Festivities begin at noon tomorrow & go till 7 pm
If you happen to be in Venice now, tomorrow (Saturday, 10 May) is your chance not only to get to see the enclosed overgrown giardino on the edge of the lagoon toward the western end of Cannaregio within the complex of buildings that once made up Ospedale Umberto I, but, more importantly, to do much much more besides. It's the annual Festa di Primavera of Pan di Zenzero, un asilo steinriano, or what would be known as a Waldorf kindergarten in the US, which follows the early education model first proposed by Rudolf Steiner.

The festa will feature games and workshops and theater for kids, food and beverages and music and hand-made objects for all ages, the most affordable rides in a gondola you'll find anywhere in the city, and, in addition to la pesca delle sorprese (or fishing for surprises) for kids, the chance for adults to snag their own larger prizes. Last year, for example, one lucky couple won free lodging in a private vacation house in Sardegna.

The closest vaporetto stop is Sant' Alvise, and the gated entrance to the giardino lies a few minutes' walk west of the church of Sant' Alvise, along the same fondamenta. Devoted to various community services and programs, the ex-ospedale is not typically open to residents not partaking of or participating in such programs or to tourists.

Foreground: the floral centerpiece of a vegetable garden created and maintained by both the school and larger community

In another part of the giardino, an abandoned concrete bunker lies in the shade of the trees behind the commemorative bust, at the edge of the lagoon.  
What would Venice be without fishing? In this case (taken at last year's festa) for kids' gifts.

A real baker leads a bread-making workshop at last year's festa
Il giardino in early April

It's doubtful anyone ever compared Umberto I to a rose

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.