Saturday, March 31, 2012

Moorings Found and Lost

Last month I wrote about the complete lack of mooring places or ormeggi available in Venice (

But I've just found out that the city is taking concrete steps to address that issue. A friend told me that Venice has announced a forthcoming lottery for a number of ormeggi. It seems any resident can enter this drawing for a chance to win his or her own docking place.

This is exciting news.

Kind of.

You see, no one believes that there will be anything random about the selection of the lucky "winners".

In fact, I was told a price has already been fixed for those who want to guarantee their random selection as one of the winners of these extremely rare spots:

2,000 euro.

This is not the official price for being selected, as of course none of these spots are available for purchase, officially--it's a lottery after all--yet this is what it will cost you.

A friend tells me that I really should enter this lottery, that it's important to do so--though I have no chance of being selected without paying 2,000 euro.

He tells me of a friend of his with a restaurant who refused to make the unofficial official payment required to obtain a liquor license in Venice. This friend of his actually went to court and was able to get a liquor license without the bribe.

Perhaps it's merely symbolically important to enter this rigged lottery, as I don't know whom I'd take to court after my entry is not selected.

Or perhaps if the number of ormeggi available is greater than the number of lottery entrants willing to pay the 2,000 euro then some of us non-paying entrants will have a chance to be selected.

Though, let's be honest, I think other connections may enter into the selection process at that point: family, old friends, business connections. Ormeggi are in such great demand here that there's far too much to be gained to leave any part of the selection to mere chance.

I wonder: If (like a friend of ours) we'd pooled our resources with other friends to buy a boat, would we now be talking to those same friends about pooling our resources to purchase this lottery selection for a place to dock it?

Perhaps. Or maybe even very likely.

But here are two more advantages of not having a boat right now: We have no need to worry about finding a mooring for it. Nor do we have to worry about losing our moorings, ethically speaking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wild in the Streets (or Calli)

On the message board of a certain website I sometimes used to visit before we moved to Venice an aspiring ex-pat once made the mistake of expressing her fantasy about her young daughter wearing a pleated plaid skirt and skipping home after school over old Italian cobblestones.

The poor woman was savaged.

It seems there are a lot of rather unhappy ex-pats lurking on such websites and each of them felt compelled to disabuse the woman with the young daughter of her picturesque notions of Italian life by regaling her with tales of their own dreadful experiences abroad.

I'm not sure whether these horror stories were actually helpful to the aspiring ex-pat, or in any way altered her fantasy, but their tellers seemed to derive no small amount of gratification in relating them.

I'll admit that in nearly a year and a half here I've yet to see a school girl in a plaid skirt--though I used to see them regularly around the Catholic school we lived near in Brooklyn. And I could easily relate some of the unpleasant realities or shortcomings of the Venetian public school system, but what I'm more struck by lately are the particular pleasures of picking Sandro up from pre-school here.

Of course the biggest difference between a child's life in Venice and his or her life in even the most (in)famously child-centric neighborhood elsewhere--such as the one in Park Slope, Brooklyn where we used to live--is the complete absence of cars. With no threatening traffic, kids can run riot. Indeed, in certain narrow calli, a cluster of 4 or 5 rampaging pre-schoolers (on foot or, as above, on scooters) becomes the most likely thing to run you over--especially if you're one of the more infirm and tottering members of the city's elderly population.

But I'm not sure it's only the absence of cars that accounts for the difference between picking up a pre-schooler here and picking one up in New York. There also seems to be a certain difference in sociability here. I hesitate to make too much of this difference, wary of falling into cliches and of how those cranky ex-pat enforcers of the reality principle mentioned at the top might respond, but yet... Well, I can only tell you a little of what I've seen.

Taking leave of one another in Sandro's little class of just nine students is a big deal. On a sunny spring day when most of the kids happen to walk from school together, as each peels off to his or her own route homeward, it's not just a matter of the usual ciao or even arrivederci but the more dramatic addio! (farewell).

Addio! Addio! Addio! They shout to each other as, for example, two classmates climb into the motorboat with their parents which they'll take home. Addio! Addio! they all shout as the motorboat sets off down the canal. Addio! Addio! they shout as they run on the long fondamenta alongside the slow-moving motor boat, waving and clowning. Eventually, as the boat distances itself from them, most of the kids will leave off the chase and the farewells--but not all. Though we'd reached the calle where we needed to turn off and the motor boat was now almost beyond shouting distance, one 5-year-old girl we sometimes take home from school kept after it, singing her good-byes.

I actually had to chase her down. When I finally got her to stop, she turned back, gave a great shoulder-heaving sigh, and said, "Sono innamorata di Lorenzo.... Ma lui non è innamorato di me." (I am in love with Lorenzo.... But he does not love me.")

Other days there are songs, or just the repeated jokey sing-song refrain of "Amore, vieni fuori!" (Love, come out!) They'll address this to the unknown doorways they pass, or, for big laughs, lift the lid of one of the wheeled neighborhood trash dumpsters of Cannaregio and sing it to the unseen contents within.

If pre-schoolers in New York weren't picked up by their nannies or didn't need to hustle off to their private lessons in Mandarin and yoga and hedge fund management, if there wasn't the constant threat of traffic, would they carry on this way? Do they, in other parts of America, before they clamber into their individual SUVs and go their separate ways? I don't know.

I know that I noticed last year how operatic Sandro's leave-taking from even a certain favorite male friend could be. A long embrace, a kiss, then their reluctant separation, their gazes returning to one another as the distance between them grew, an extended exchange of ciaos thrown like a life-line across the widening gulf. If the chance presented itself they'd race back together for another last embrace, starting the whole cycle again.

Lately a new female friend, after a long embrace and a kiss, and many ciaos, cries every time they say good-bye.

In contrast, Sandro's male cousin in Illinois, who lives not far from Chicago, who is also 4, and who is also fond of taking leave of his classmates with hugs and a kiss, was taken aside (along with his mother) by his pre-school teacher and told "I really think high-fives would be much better."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Still the Best Way to Get Around Venice

Sometimes rowing is just a matter of being practical, not picturesque
Having recently seen a friend struggle unsuccessfully to start the newish outboard motor of a beautiful old wooden boat she recently bought, I'm freshly convinced that the above (taken today) remains the best mode of transportation in this town. And, as the picture shows, doing without a motor gives you extra space for a couple of large bottles of orange soda and a paint brush.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Voga alla Veneta: One Oar, One Master

"Feel the boat," my friend and instructor told me in Italian. "Feel the water," he said, flexing his knees, showing me how my legs were supposed to register the slightest movements of the lagoon with all the sensitivity of a snail's eyes taking in the world at the end of their soft slender stalks. "Do you feel it?" he asked.

He was poised at the back of the gondola--in one of the large basins within the Arsenale--I was rowing at the front. A native Venetian, he'd been rowing for 40 years, since the age of 5. He'd won races as an agonista.

I didn't feel a damn thing, to be honest, aside from the strain of maintaining my proper rowing position. I nodded, though, agreeably. I really was learning a huge amount from him but, you know, I didn't expect him to work miracles.

That was back on a very cold morning in December. Everything he told me that day helped me immensely the next times I went out rowing. But it's only been in the last couple of weeks that I've finally felt the boat, felt the water.

It's fantastic.

I've felt it the most since I began learning to row a mascareta by myself with a single oar. A mascareta is generally about from 6 meters long (19.75 feet) and can weigh as little as 120 kg (264 lbs).

A mascareta does not have the banana-curve of a gondola so if you were to row it from a position in the back with one oar in the manner in which we usually think of rowing a boat you'd simply go in a counter-clockwise circle. I know this from experience.

photo credit: Jen
How it's done: a more experienced single oar rower
To make the mascareta go forward in a straight line you essentially have to row in two directions.

But, first, the basics for those who, like me, know little about rowing. I will try not to make major errors.

If you were to hold your hands out before you, parallel to the ground, palms facing downward, you'd be ready to take hold of an oar. In the Venetian style of rowing when you grip the oar in this way the blade of the oar would be horizontal, parallel to the ground (or water).

Your hands and oar are essentially in these positions at the end of a stroke, after you lift the oar out of the water and draw your hands back toward your body (arms straight), pivoting the blade of the oar forward in preparation for the next stroke.

As you prepare to drop the blade of the oar into the water to begin that next stroke you roll both of your wrists back toward your body, turning the blade of the oar into a vertical position, then begin (with your rear foot and leg) the push forward that will shoot the boat forward.

That's something like the usual stroke when, for example, you're rowing with 3 or 5 other rowers, your oars distributed equally on either side of the boat.

But when rowing a mascareta solo with one oar you never actually lift the oar out of the water at all. The oar stays in the water as you return it to its forward position. This isn't entirely unusual, as on a wavy day you may also do this when rowing with others for extra stability. But in that case you'd try to bring the oar forward in the water with as little drag as possible, knifing it cleanly through the water.

photo credit: Jen
The submarine, alas, does not belong to the remiera
But when rowing alone with one oar a little drag on this return stroke is exactly what you need to keep the boat going straight. That is, as you draw your hands back toward your body you actually roll both wrists a little forward to turn the blade of the oar a little forward, to create drag.

Depending on the blade's angle, the greater or lesser amount of drag you create pulls the nose of your boat back more or less strongly in a clockwise direction.

This is something I could feel. When each part of the full stroke is done clumsily--again speaking from personal experience--you don't so much go straight forward as feel yourself and the nose of the boat pivot, first, counter-clockwise, then clockwise. You don't actually move forward at all, really, and each part of the stroke takes great effort, as you try to force the oar through the water first in one direction, then in the other.

But once underway you feel--as I never had before--how the slightest alteration in the angle of your oar, as well as the force you exert on either the backward or forward stroke, affects the course of your boat. You feel how your straight swift forward movement depends just as much upon how you bring the oar forward as how you push it back. I suppose it's a yin-yang kind of thing, meditative in its own way, and the seed of countless other analogies or reflections as well. But I'll leave those to someone else. What you feel, in general, is completely constantly engaged, and how the current beneath you, the waves, the wind, all require you to make countless subtle adjustments on the fly.

As a beginner rowing with others you find it hard enough to get into a regular pattern with your partners of essentially: Reload, Fire; Reload, Fire; Reload, Fire: a coordinated metronymic group effort. Out alone with a single oar you find yourself playing a game of give and take, apprehension and response; called upon to react with great sensitivity to ever-changing conditions, even as you also try to establish some rhythm of your very own. You feel the boat, you feel the water, you feel yourself engaged with the lagoon itself, and infinitely overmatched: like a novice musician struggling to play your very small simple part in a duet with an ancient master who's gigged with legends.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secret Garden, Giudecca

Guidebooks tell us that in the days of the Republic the island of Giudecca used to be renowned for its private gardens: the enclosed pleasure grounds of those trouble-making aristocrats who were banished there because of their anti-government inclinations. A couple of months ago I met a woman who is supposed to own the best (and perhaps last) private garden still in existence on Giudecca. I hope to get a chance to see (and photograph) it this Spring. But two days ago Jen, Sandro and I visited a Giudecca garden of a decidedly more democratic bent than those old ones of the vanished Republic. 

Set behind the Church of the Zitelle, beside the Hotel Cipriani, this community garden, a Spiazzi Verdi project of a group devoted to permaculture (or sustainable organic agriculture), covers about 1 hectare (or 2.5 acres) of land within a large enclosed plot it shares with a casa di riposo (or rest home). As you can see in the photo above, it has a large plot of artichokes, a vineyard, a few fruit trees, and (less visible) another large plot of land given over to vegetables of every sort.

On the other side of a brick wall, there is a second plot of grapes, in an area long-used for their cultivation (at right). There is also a third vineyard, also long used for the cultivation of grapes, on the cemetery island of San Michele, and a very old cantina where, as monks did for centuries, the group makes wine from the fruit of their vineyards. [Insert your own joke about Wine and Spirits here.]                                     
We only found out about this garden last Saturday, when Sandro and I chanced into a conversation with its director and his 4-year-old son at La Serra, the one-time greenhouse for the Giardini Pubblici alongside Viale Garibaldi, which over the last year has become one of the liveliest and most interesting places in Castello. La Serra is not only a lovely tall sunny space, filled with plants for sale and a nice cafe, it hosts a wide variety of events: from water color and yoga classes for adults, to paper-making workshops for kids, fencing exhibitions, and educational projects about the ecosystem of the lagoon. Some of the seedlings sold in La Serra got their start at the community garden on Giudecca.    
The next day Sandro, Jen and I went to work at the garden. Sunday is the usual day for people to work there, though other days are also possible. Anyone can work and, in return for their labor, share in what the garden produces. In a place so unrelentingly urban as Venice, in which it's possible to stroll for an hour without seeing a tree, it's a marvelous thing to dig in the dirt. One of the main thrusts of the garden is educational: it hosts workshops for Venetian school children. And Sandro enjoyed hoeing and shoveling and running around so much that he didn't want to leave. 

It wasn't an especially good day to take photos: the sun was high and bright, and the garden was in its winter guise, much of it dead or, like the grape vines, pruned bare. But some beautiful photos and a really well-shot video of the garden in summer, along with much more information about it, can be found here:

For a very long time it's been easy and even fashionable for some people to be dismissive of Venice: a certain kind of male English writer in particular seems inclined to dismiss the city as merely, at worst, a tourist trap, at best, a museum. Geoff Dyer, for example, repeats the cliche about the inauthentic nature of the city's inhabitants, as if they all are merely playing at life on one big stage set. (Couldn't the same thing be said about Manhattanites, by the way?). Such writers pride themselves on being knowing, or in the know, seeing through the appearances that take in the rest of us. But in seeing through things, I wonder if they ever actually see anything at all aside from their own defenses, abstractions, or projections. It doesn't help, by the way, that many of the people who are most dismissive of the city speak no Italian at all. For such people as these the city largely remains a closed book, which they take great pride in judging by its cover.

But against all odds, there is plenty of life in Venice still, resisting the push to commercialize every square inch of it to death. In scattered sometimes hidden places, there are growing things--available to those who have or make the time to look and see.

The garden's wood-powered kitchen

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pinocchio in Venice

I think Robert Coover's ribald comic novel Pinocchio in Venice (originally published in 1991) is a much more insightful and perhaps even enjoyable book about this city--and the myths of this city--than, say, Geoff Dyer's Jeff In Venice. But I'm not sure how many people will agree.

For one thing, Pinocchio in Venice is not a realistic work. At every point in Coover's book a lover of Venice will know precisely and vividly where he or she is: the squero of San Trovaso, the church of San Sebastiano, Campo Santa Margherita beneath the truncated campanile, the Biblioteca Marciana, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but it's nothing like making your way around the city with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti. For the protagonist of Coover's book is Pinocchio himself, reimagined as an aged, internationally-esteemed Nobel Prize-winning moral philosopher returning to his native city of Venice from his adopted home of America, while the city of Venice becomes the stage for a raucous, irreverent, obscene and even blasphemous tale in the manner of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte

Collodi's devilish little puppet who, after many travails learned to be so Good as to finally become a real boy, has made a career out of his virtue. Coover's Pinocchio is, at the outset of the novel, a sober, profoundly-respectable literary man: part Gustav von Aschenbach (from Death in Venice), part Plato. More than simply a spokesman for an ethical human life devoted to Reason and the Highest Ideals, he is widely considered, indeed, their very embodiment. 

Well, at least until he returns to Venice, where he aims to complete what he knows will be his last and (hopefully) greatest work. For after more than a century of human life, Pinocchio finds himself, to his great shame, losing flesh and returning to his puppet form. But in Venice absolutely nothing goes as the good professor plans and his vaunted Reason--of which he has written so much--doesn't keep him from making all the same disastrous mistakes of his infamous ill-spent puppet youth, with the very same characters (or descendents of those characters) who led him astray before.

To really enjoy Pinocchio in Venice, it's best to know both Collodi's original story as well as the Disney film, as Coover plays upon both of them (sometimes at the same time). Mann's Death in Venice is also a must as Pinocchio is, at least when the book begins, just as "stiff" a personage as Von Aschenbach. In fact, Pinocchio's arrival in the city and his struggles with a difficult porter echo Von Aschenbach's problems with his menacing gondolier at the start of Mann's book, as Pinocchio's later inevitable struggles with lust for a young beloved play upon those of his German antecedent.    

It's not the easiest book to read: the sentences are long and complex, the pace frantic, the antics absurd--and sometimes embarrassingly so. There's an extended scene at the squero of San Trovaso where a befouled Pinocchio is licked clean by two talking watchdogs that I found especially trying. And, yes, dogs and puppets and even San Marco's stone lion on the Piazza clock tower all talk, just as similar creatures talk in Collodi. In fact, nearly all of Pinocchio's old friends and nemeses reappear in this book: Mangiafuoco's puppet troupe, the Blue Fairy, the dog who saved him from the green fisherman, the fox and the cat, and the boy Eugenio, who survived the assault from the nearly fatal book to become (in this book) the protege and heir of the Little Man who ran Toyland.

One of the book's running jokes is that the setting for everything that happened in Collodi's original story was actually Venice. The Field of Miracles where Pinocchio buried his money, for example, was actually the Campo dei Miracoli; the place where the donkey-boys were auctioned off was on Giudecca. And what old city could lay a better claim to being Toyland than the spectacularly rich Venice in its decline, when the Republic (even before its final collapse) contracted to a city of illicit pleasure? In the words of the lascivious Eugenio, Venice was "The Original Wet Dream."

Another of my favorite of the book's conceits is that the evil exploitive Little Man, who lured bad boys to donkeyhood and slavery, was the person responsible for the development of the industrial zone at the edge of the lagoon and represents every other short-sighted act of shameless unscrupulous greed that still threaten the city's existence. In the book, the original Little Man has died and is buried on San Michele, but not before incorporating himself as Omino e figli S.R.L. Eugenio, as the head of this corporation, is heavily involved in the privatization of as much of the city as he can lay hands on--even the Palazzo Ducale.

Alas, this last detail, the privatization of Venice that began around 1990 and continues apace is not merely fictional.

And that's the thing about this novel: as outlandish as its plot and characters may be, it remains essentially if not always literally true to the city of Venice--its history, its painters, its people, its present. For example, the first part of the book especially is filled with all kinds of crude pithy sayings about life that are perfect comic imitations of the kind of crude pithy sayings Venetians still utter. Moreover, the verbal and imaginative extravagance of the novel, its madcap energy, capture not only the air of Commedia dell'Arte, but of the physical city itself--where everywhere you look you're overwhelmed with an abundance of historical and cultural and social details. To look at a famous building in Venice is not to see simply a building, but a building overlaid with all the images you've already seen of that building, all the things you may have heard about it, or read about, or fantasized about it. Because of the city's history and fame, I'm tempted to say there's a lot going on in even the quietest calli of the city. By writing in a fantastical manner Coover may have an easier time evoking this all-at-once complexity than a someone who writes in a more realistic mode. 

Or as another lover of Venice (John Ruskin) pointed out in one of his earliest works (Modern Painters), it's a mistake to think of art as being merely a literal imitation of reality, of having what is almost a one-to-one correspondence with what exists in the world. Art, even representational art, was not tied to reality, Ruskin suggested, but its own enclosed system: beside but apart from the real world. The artist did not represent the real world, she created in her own medium and according to its own demands an equivalent of it.

I think this is what Coover has done in Pinocchio in Venice: an entertaining and illuminating re-imagining of the Pinocchio story--its history, incarnations, and uses--as well as a lively equivalent of the magical earthy divine corrupt and infinitely complex city of Venice. Where the simple notions of good behavior that we were supposed to have learned from the original tale of Pinocchio rarely take us too far.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Wheelbarrow & Madonna dell'Orto, This Morning

If a wheelbarrow is going to be flying through the air at the end of one of the many cranes in Venice, it seems strangely apt for it to be doing so near Madonna dell'Orto (or Madonna of the Garden).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hazy Morning Vogata, Arsenale, Today

photo credit: Jen
One of the rowers above is yours truly, trying to learn how to row & steer at the same time