Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Round and Round at the Turn of a New Year

Luna Park, or what everyone who lives in Venice refers to as simply "le giostre" (or, "the rides"), has returned to the Riva dei Sette Martiri for its annual stay until 1 February. There's a ride I don't recall from prior years that's quaintly retro even by the not-exactly-cutting-edge-standards of the other giostre, consisting of small chairs suspended from chains that, as you can see above, spin around a broad two-colored base beneath fluorescent tubes.

Because being swung around the same circular route doesn't seem to be an adequately goal-oriented activity for children--not even in Italy, whose notorious bureaucracy regularly sets its adult citizens on just such endless circuits--there's something to grab for. On the equestrian-themed carousels of America a kid reaches--as the character of Phoebe famously does at the end of The Catcher in the Rye--for a gold ring. ("The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.")

Here, the child in the spinning chair is encouraged to reach for a stuffed plush serpent suspended from a rather make-shift stand just outside the ride's path.

Additionally, while the American child, alone on his or her mount, is encouraged to rise high and solitary in his or her stirrups and grasp for the shiny ring, on the ride here a child can't even get within grabbing distance of the dangling snake without the aid of a friend seated in the chair behind him or her.

That is, Sandro's friend "C" only had a chance to reach the snake if Sandro, seated behind him, pushed C's chair a bit further out of the chair's typical centripetal orbit. (Successfully, as you can see in the image above of C flourishing his captured snake.)

Now, I suspect there are any number of social, cultural, anthropological, philosophical, and religious reflections likely to be inspired by such differences between the carousel Sandro knew as a toddler in Brooklyn and the spinning chairs of this year's Luna Park, but I leave them to be worked out by those readers so inclined and, for my own part, settle instead for wishing you all a Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lost in a Sudden Fog on the Feast of Santo Stefano

The first signs of fog to appear during an otherwise sunny afternoon out on the lagoon seem almost sentient, I noticed yesterday: advance parties of frolicsome sprites--always seen, it seems, only out of the corner of one's eye--gamboling across the surface of the water.

It had been a bright blue Feast of Santo Stefano yesterday, people out strolling, enjoying the sun on their faces, kids playing soccer/football/calcio/whatever-you-call-it. It all changed very quickly, as I know conditions in the lagoon are prone to do (though more often in summer than winter).

I knew the sun wouldn't be setting for more than two hours; I was in our boat near Fondamente Nove, not far from our mooring place on Certosa, and in no hurry to head back to it. Though after those first evanescent bands of merry sprites, various divisions of light cavalry began trotting past. This was fog with something serious on its mind, but what did it have to do with me? The sky was still high and Tiepolo blue, the sun imperious, the clouds fluffy and smug.

Then, with my camera, I followed the course of the sanpierota sailing past me: from the broad open horizon of the west, to the view northward of Murano (the image above), northeasterly toward the cemetery island (below), and all the way east--to an invading army swelling thick and dark.

That--the scene you can see directly below--was a little worrisome. And of course the expert sailor of the sanpierota (which you may recognize from my post of 23 November) seemed to be heading home. But I wanted to go down the Grand Canal on this quiet holiday and, surely, I thought, the fog wouldn't get too heavy there.

A half hour or so later, after motoring down the Grand Canal from Ca' Pesaro, I arrived near the mouth of the Grand Canal to find that the Dogana da Mare had vanished off the face of the earth as far as I could tell, as had all the famous buildings of the Molo that everyone comes to see. To avoid completely losing my way if I strayed out into the basin of San Marco, I puttered along as close as I could to the area in front of the Molo roped off for the use of gondolas, but still couldn't see the Palazzo Ducale. In fact, I could see no building anywhere along the riva as I motored cautiously toward Sant' Elena, though I was not much more than a few yards distant from the dockside for most of the way.

By the time I tied up our boat, the vaporetti had stopped running. I caught a ride home with one of the marinai of the marina, who was polite enough not to ask what in the world I'd been doing out in such weather.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Flock of Santas in Sant' Elena

Many ran, some walked, some alpine walked, all of them were dressed as Santas--in greater or lesser degrees of verisimilitude. Once again, unfortunately, I'd missed the Regata dei Babbi Natale (of which you can see video here:, but these I couldn't miss. I looked out my window and there they were.

I didn't concern myself with what exactly they were doing, or the official title of their endeavor, or who participated in it or sponsored it. I was struck more by the fact that if you put enough Santas together in one place they began to look as whimsical and perhaps even (because of sheer number) almost as vaguely wanton as the gangs of Pulcinellas that Domenico Tiepolo liked to paint and draw (, Which I intend as I high compliment.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

3 Views of Sunset's "First Act", From a Boat Ride Home from School

All three of these images are taken looking west, toward the mainland, before the "2nd Act" of sunset began to the south
Sandro is disappointed when I don't pick him up from school in the boat, which, in truth, is most of the time, especially these days when the sun sets shortly after 4:30. As I use the boat to pick him up on one of his two long days of school each week, when he gets out at 3:45, this means it's typically pretty dark when we get home. And cold.

At this time of year the days disappear fast in the west, the light, color and special effects changing second-by-second as the sun slips downward like a rain drop on a car windshield. But hardly had the western horizon gone dark the other day and Sandro and I set off homeward in earnest from the detour we'd taken out behind the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, my camera safely stowed in its water-proof bag, than we noticed all at once behind us an encore, blooming in broad ragged folds of electric pink from the southern horizon beyond Isola Santo Spirito almost to the top of the sky's dome.

On many winter evenings, even at the close of days when the sun has seemed too weary and infirm to shuffle out from behind a thick gray velvet curtain of clouds, sunset still turns out to be a two-act performance, with more to come--and often the most drama of all--after you think the show's over. The sun has surely vanished below the horizon line, you think, and only then, after the big headlining star has left the building, so to speak, does some obscure chorus line of clouds in some forgotten quadrant of the sky--way off to the east over Lido, even--cast off their coverings and put on their own closing number, flushing all over with their effort.

It's almost hard to believe your eyes, which had just been adjusting to the featureless dark, yet the width of the lagoon before you mirrors the sky's flaming pageantry--as did, the night before last, Sandro's face.

Living here and seeing the sky every day and night you realize that the great architects of Venice did not, as is sometimes suggested, construct drama in a wide waste of water otherwise devoid of it, but in the face of the stiffest natural competition. The lagoon was not merely the flat, passive, perfect foil for architectural effort, but a potentially overwhelming stage whose own natural effects were likely to make any uninspired efforts of builders look very small indeed.

All of which are reasons for me to take the boat to pick up Sandro from school more often, even in the coldest weather, even in the supposed dead of winter. Or, if you're visiting the city, to seek out an unobscured vantage point at the end of each day from which to take in the sky's theater.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boating Home a Christmas Tree: Tradition or Folly?

The view from behind the tree on our way home down the Grand Canal
It was not a mototopo (large work boat). It was not even a patana, or snub-nosed medium-sized work boat common to Venetian canals. Nor did it contain a gru, or hydraulic crane, as Sandro used to insist was absolutely necessary for the task. 

But after more than two full years of our son's tireless advocacy, exhortations, and frequent kvetching, we did actually transport the Christmas tree we purchased last weekend home in a boat. And, just as he'd insisted it would be since he was no more than four years of age (,, it really was the most enjoyable experience we've had getting the tree home.

At the helm on the Grand Canal: all business and sober vigilance--in spite of the Pimpa cartoon character life vest
There was nothing to argue about this year. We had the boat, and we were all united in our plan to drive it to pick our tree from among the small potted forest of them in the seasonal lot beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio. Then Saturday morning Sandro announced, just as we were about to leave the apartment, that our plan was "stupid."

"Stupid?" I asked, completely thrown.

"I don't think that" Sandro quickly replied. "It's what Tomaso said. That using a boat to get a Christmas tree is stupid."

"Who is this Tomaso?" I demanded.

"A kid in my class."

"Well, do you agree?"

"No," Sandro said. Then he added, "And he said you were stupid."

"I'm stupid? How does he know I'm stupid, this kid I've never even seen?"

"Because you thought of getting the Christmas tree with the boat."

"But you were the one who always wanted to use a boat to get the tree!" I reminded him. "Do you not want to now?"

"No, I do. Let's go! Tomaso is stupid!"

I include the above exchange not to suggest anything about "how sharper than a serpent's tooth is the ingratitude of a child" (or not much, anyway), but to illustrate that getting a Christmas tree in one's own boat may not exactly be a venerated and widely-practiced Venetian tradition.

Of course, given the fact that Sandro, like many kids, has been known to boast in the most annoying way, Tomaso may simply have labeled the whole enterprise "stupido" as a means of cutting him down to size. Though I don't know how I got dragged into it.

But the fact is that, as picturesque as the practice might potentially be, I don't recall seeing people transporting Christmas trees in their boats. The simple reason for this may be because of how many Venetians seem to favor artificial trees.

Or it may be that for some reason unknown to me, many Venetians really do consider such an idea to be as foolish as Tomaso said it was. (Though I'd give the kid's opinion more weight if he bore the distinctly Venetian name of Alvise or Iacopo.) 

In any case, one of the great benefits of being a foreigner of no standing whatsoever is the freedom from the worry that plagues those locals who are known, and who (as an Italian man once lamented to me) grow up with a heavy sense of the gossip likely to bubble up among their neighbors in the wake of being seen, for example, dashing off to the local green grocer in a shoddy outfit.

Or to put it another way, those video cameras one sees around the city are superfluous (and often non-functioning) shams compared to the system of surveillance already long- and securely-established here.

But I come from an entirely different tradition....

When I was a child, infected with popular images of what was supposed to be a distinctly American Christmas, I fantasized feverishly about going to get a tree in a station wagon. According to everything I'd seen, there was supposed to be snow on the ground, and, whether the tree itself was to be purchased from a charming seasonal lot warmed by an outdoor fire and the good cheer of its proprietor or chopped out of some friendly forest, it would be transported home all prettily atop the station wagon's roof rack.

Of course, as I grew up in the middle of the flat, temperate, agricultural San Joaquin Valley in California, snow was out of the question. As were forests.

We also lacked the station wagon.

It never occurred to me to think of going to get a tree in a boat. And, back then, even world-famous Venice itself was an undiscovered and entirely unsuspected country well beyond the constricted horizon of my family's near-sighted world. I could never have foreseen getting up on a cold gray morning and taking a vaporetto to the island of Certosa where we keep our little boat. I never had any childhood experience even remotely resembling that of heading out into the lagoon last Saturday as the sun squinted between clouds, casting a silvery sheen over a hazy fantastical silhouettescape of towers and cupolas, roof-line statuary and abundant ornamentation.

All of which is to say something like: That as much as we may long to be secure in our sense of the world and our place in it, knowing what we think we want and what's expected of us by those around us, I often find that the best experiences of my life are those I never knew enough about to even desire. That if we are lucky, some of the best gifts we get are those it never even occurs to us to ask for: those experiences, and those people, we stumble into quite stupidly, as Tomaso might put it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sunday at Teatro Goldoni with Jack and Some Beans

The jewel box interior of the Teatro Goldoni
The Teatro Goldoni, a short walk from Piazza San Marco, has been reconstructed many times since it first opened in 1622, but it remains a magical place to see live theater. Yesterday we attended the first production in a new Sunday series of five performances for kids entitled Domeniche in famiglia.

A magnificent bean stalk conjured from humble materials
Jack e il fagiolo magico (Jack the Magic Beans) was a two-person production by the Bologna-based children's theater company La Baracca, that used music, video and simple but evocative staging to conjure a "great world above the clouds" where the most extraordinary rewards await a boy who seems to have gotten a bum deal on earth below. 

In addition to touring productions like the one we saw yesterday (and which have ranged all over the world), La Baracca maintains an extensive program of performances and activities at its home base in the Teatro Testoni Ragazzi in Bologna, which you can read about (in Italian or English) here: If you're planning to visit Bologna with kids, it's a resource worth checking out.

And the remaining four productions at Teatro Goldoni in this winter's Domeniche in famiglia series may be worth checking out if you're going to be in Venice in January or February with kids even if they don't speak Italian. At a cost of just 6 euro per seat, the spectacle and music and the overall experience may, for certain kids, make the language irrelevant. (Sandro sometimes likes to watch a certain Russian cartoon about a bear, though he doesn't understand the language.) A complete schedule of the series is here:

Coaxing a golden egg from a freshly-stolen hen

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On Practical Beauty in a City Famous for Artistic Ones

NOTE: As I'm still recovering from the flu and haven't yet seen of any of the city's holiday preparations, much less written about or photographed them, I hope readers won't mind if I re-post below a seasonal piece from a year ago that seemed to be quite popular. Fresh posts due soon. 

When it came time to buy our Christmas tree this past weekend we once again had to do so without the use of a boat, which Sandro, who seems to have a native Venetian's strict sense of life's essential proprieties, found to be a galling (if not downright humiliating) lack last December ( You see, like many good Venetians, Sandro fervently believes that anything one needs to do should be done in one's own boat, and that for every job or errand there is an appropriate boat.

Last Christmas season he declared that nothing less than a mototopo--one of the long workboats you see transporting pallets of groceries or a mountain of hotel laundry bags or a ton of construction materials--would serve to carry home our five-foot-high tree. Of course, as we didn't (and don't) even have a small outboard motorboat, there really wasn't much chance we'd spring for a mototopo to perform this annual errand, no matter how many other tasks Sandro assured us it would be extremely useful for.

This year, however, in spite of our continuing lack of any boat at all, he didn't complain. For while we still didn't have a mototopo, we did have a brand-new bright red heavy-duty carrello, or hand truck, which is the primary accessory of every mototopo--and at least as important as a pair of shoes for anyone determined to really get things done in this car-free walkaday world of Venice.

For hardly less picturesque to most visitors than the fact that the "streets" here are canals and the "cars" and "buses" are boats, is the sight of grocery store inventory and garbage collection being delivered and picked up, respectively, with hand carts. It's something that even the hurrying hordes of day-trippers to the city can't help but notice in their few hours here, but none with the detailed observation Sandro has devoted to such human-powered trolleys for the last year. He notes (and comments on) not just general differences in size, shape and color, but variations in the circumference and number and position of wheels, between rounded tubular construction and solid steel frames, and between the different lengths and styles of nose plates and how they're mounted.

Visitors have long made pilgrimages to Venice as a realm of Art, looking to leave behind the ordinary and everyday and earth-bound, but most Venetians I've met are far more practical-minded. Sure, you can wax rhapsodic about Tintoretto or Monteverdi with them if that's what floats your own boat, but Sandro seems to have bonded far more genuinely with most Venetian men we know because of his profound interest in every single step in the process of getting real solid objects from one place to another.

I see, for example, a neighbor in the street, the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends and the owner of a trasporti (freight moving) company, and ask him how he's doing. "Bene," he replies, "sempre bene." I see him another time and remark upon the extreme weather of recent days. He replies simply that he takes things as they come. On yet another day I encounter him as I'm walking with Sandro and then, finally, we actually have some common interests to discuss: mototopi and carrelli and the like. Or, rather, he and Sandro do.

It's a marvelous life here for Sandro: physical and material in a way that no other city I know could, on a regular matter-of-fact un-fetishized basis, offer a child his age. At this time of year when we're supposed to reflect on our blessings, I consider this one of mine: that in this ever-more virtual and disembodied world my son has the chance to grow up in this odd car-less city, where a 5-year-old boy can make a convincing argument that a real hand-truck is exactly what he needs, not just as a toy, but as a necessity. As he did argue for the last year.

Posing with his new hand-truck in front of SS Giovanni e Paolo

True, the helpful man at the hardware store near the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo where we bought it last week suggested a slightly lighter tubular-framed one, with a load capacity still far greater than any Sandro would be able to manage for a good dozen years. But Sandro insisted on the solid steel-framed one he'd settled upon weeks before as being solely adequate to the demands--many of them make-believe--that he'd place upon it.

Of course he struggled to pull it up the steps of the large Ponte Cavallo in front of the basilica and ospedale civile just after we bought it, for it weighed not much less than he did. And there were some challenges getting it down the other side as well, as the weight of it threatened to get away from him and pull him flapping behind it like a flag tied to its hand grips. But once this first substantial obstacle had been bested and we paused for a rest, he leaned against his hand truck and sighed, "This is a dream come true."

So the dreamy red heavy-duty hand truck we used to pick up our potted Christmas tree and transport it the long distance home from the seasonal tree market beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio was the one he'd just gotten for his sixth birthday and it did, indeed, prove to be quite useful. I pulled the tree-laden hand truck up and down the bridges we crossed, but Sandro managed it the rest of the time, pulling it behind him down Strada Nova and then through Sant' Elena after we got off the vaporetto as though he were a cart horse. A very happy cart horse.

He was happy, too, to be seen laboring in this way by the guys at our neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand. Guys for whom, like him, hand trucks are a daily part of their lives. Practical hard-working Venetian guys, like him. But who, unlike him, probably don't sleep with their hand trucks standing snugly against the side of their beds.

Originally posted: December 9, 2013

Saturday, December 6, 2014

In the Soup

                                                                       My driver and I in healthier days                          photo credit: Davide Gerardi
I apologize for not keeping up with the blog in the last week, like many people here (and elsewhere) Jen, Sandro and I have all been--and still are--flattened by influenza.

For three straight days it was enough of a challenge to get out of bed, much less walk out of our apartment. But on the fourth I ventured outside the short distance to the butcher shop around the corner and the fruit and vegetable stall. I'd decided we needed chicken soup. In America, for simplicity's sake, I would have bought it prepared. Here, I knew the best I could do was buy some broth already prepared and then fill it out with other ingredients.

This, at least, was my fevered plan--which I mentioned in Italian to the husband and wife proprietors at our regular butcher shop.

"Brodo?" she asked me, not understanding.

Yes, I repeated, broth. I was sure I was using the right word for it, but the way she repeated it made me doubt myself a bit. I woozily tried to explain what I meant.

She looked at her husband, also behind the counter, no less confused. Then another customer in the store came to my assistance and said, Yes, as I was saying, the bread and salami store nearby carried ready-made broth in "boxes" (or tetrapaks).

Both butchers finally understood: matching looks of comprehension dawned on their faces, then, a moment later, perfectly synchronized expressions of utter disgust.

It was as if the helpful customer had explained that the foundation of the soup I was planning to prepare for my ill family was going to be mosquito-clotted pond scum. Or a liter of petrol.

The customer herself looked no less appalled, even as she explained. She was willing to be helpful, but wasn't about to pretend she approved of such a reprehensible plan.  

The disapproval of Italians in such matters is ecclesiastical. The influence of the Church may have faded in daily life, yet its forms, its manners of expression persist in secular contexts.

The judgement of these three fell upon me as if issued by a synod of bishops.

I wobbled where I stood. It was far from pleasant to be standing up at all. All I really wanted to do was crawl back into bed. I did not want to cook. I felt like I was going to die. And, I suspect, I looked like it: pale, with dark sunken-eyes and three days of beard.

But, those three bishops seemed to be saying to me: On the verge of death do you dare commit such a transgression? Ready-made broth?

The instructions and ingredients for making home-made soup turned out to be so simple, as the butchers explained them to me. It's about all we've been eating ever since.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two More Views of Last Friday's Festa della Salute--and The Wood Boy Disappears

On an unrelated note: The life-sized wooden parody of Charles Ray's monumental sculpture "Boy With Frog" that I posted about last Wednesday is no longer on the Punta della Dogana.

I located an article in the 14 November edition of La Nuova Venezia that identified the wood sculpture as a centerpiece of a protest against the exploitation of workers employed in the Italian culture and fashion industries: The protesters who created and carried the sculpture entitled it a "Monument to the Precarious Worker."

I was unable to find any more recent article to explain who removed the sculpture from the Punta della Dogana or what has become of it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A New Boy With Frog(s) Takes Up Residence on Punta della Dogana

While Charles Ray's original "Boy with Frog"(below) was monumentally-scaled, towering above viewers, the new "Boy with Frogs" sculpture (above) is life-sized, and much more approachable in the absence of an armed guard

When Charles Ray's nearly 8-foot-tall sculpture of a boy with a frog was removed in early May 2013 from the spot it had occupied "temporarily" on the Punta della Dogana for four years ( and replaced by a replica of a 19th-century lamp post that had once stood there I never imagined another boy would ever take the former one's place. Ray's sculpture was unpopular with many Venetians, who were widely-condemned by outside art critics as being narrow-minded and retrograde.

It's the kind of condemnation many art critics love to make, as it makes them feel (nostalgically, sentimentally) that they themselves are firebrands at the forefront of the avant-garde, rather than, typically, the free-loading shills of a profoundly cynical and essentially conservative art world ruled far more by market manipulation than aesthetics. (Loitering at the open bar, these revolutionaries never get as far as the barricades.)

I suspected that the animosity many Venetians felt toward the piece had more to do with the fact that here, in a small city in which immensely wealthy (and often outside) private interests too often overwhelm the public good, Ray's sculpture was a private work (commissioned and owned by French billionaire François Pinault) installed in one of the most famous public spaces in Venice and watched over by an armed private security guard.  

The only thing that could have made this set-up more disconcerting to many Venetians was if the guard were clothed in a Napoleonic uniform.

The new boy on the Punta della Dogana, which I just saw for the first time today, subverts both Pinault's multi-million-euro showpiece sculpture and the rather stodgy replica lamp post that replaced it. (That the original lamp post had been "lost" during the course of the Ray boy's 4-year-stay was taken by many to indicate the usual shenanigans with public property: first, theft, then the no-bid contract to some properly-connected interest to provide the replacement). With its modest materials, its human scale, its parodic intent, it reclaims the spot for the public, as the carnivalesque traditionally used to do. Before Carnevale was privatized into solely another tourist attraction.

At least this is what I take to be its intent. Whether it succeeds or not--and what "success" would consist of--is yet to be seen. And in fact, I'm not even sure of who made it and positioned it where it is, though I assume the Ca' Foscari student group Liberi Saperi Critici, whose decal adorns the plywood sculpture's groin, is behind it (

(Two pieces I wrote in 2011 about Ray's original piece, when it seemed it would always be on Punta della Dogana, can be read here: and here:

NOTE: Within a week of the above post the wood sculpture was no longer to be seen on the Punta della Dogana. A brief explanation of the wood piece's original function as part of a protest can be found here:

When it comes to the amphibious element, what the new piece lacks in realistic detail it makes up for in number--and wind chimes
The new sculpture, above, is yet to attract anything like the interest of the old one, below--but it never requires a protective enclosure

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The End of Romance on the Accademia Bridge?

A worker welds protective metalwork to the handrail supports on the Accademia Bridge
It seems that the problem of "love locks" on the Accademia Bridge has finally and definitively been solved. A world-wide phenomenon, variously blamed on a fairly recent Italian novel or an old tale of lost love from decades ago, these locks adorned with a couple's names are supposed to symoblize eternal attachment.

A handrail support as it was a year ago
There were so many hanging heavily on the Pont Des Art Bridge in Paris that their weight caused part of the railing to collapse last summer ( Nothing so dramatic happened here, but Venetians still hated them, and in late August Venetian writer Alberto Toso Fei led a public information campaign against them. Flyers and stickers and ribbons were posted around the city informing visitors that the locks were nothing but vandalism and encouraging them to find less destructive and onerous (to the city) ways to express their love (

But while the pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, city officials seem to have come to the reasonable conclusion that in this particular case some preventive metalwork might be mightier still.

The same handrail support yesterday with the defensive metalwork
In recent weeks thousands of the locks have been cut off the Accademia Bridge and workers are now just completing the process of welding wide bands of stainless steel onto each of the slender curving rails once so perfectly suited to the locks. The new additions make for a slightly more noticeable handrail support, but they are nowhere near as unsightly as the locks.

Of course some visiting romantics may bewail the new metalwork, but I think it returns the responsibility for a memorable experience back to where it belongs: into the minds (if not literal hands) of the lovers, rather than an enterprising street vendor hawking a ready-made clichè. If, as they stand on one of the most charming vantage points in the city, nothing memorable or charged happens in the shared private space all lovers create between themselves then no outward sign--no matter how conventional or obnoxious or gaudy or public--will matter.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Sometimes a wrought iron railing and the presence of boats is all that distinguishes a canal from pavement--in this case, in one corner of Campo Santo Stefano. We've had about a week of rain and recurrent acqua alta, with another five days of (at least) the former in the forecast: if you're coming to Venice soon, bring high rubber boots.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Of Cappelunghe, Salt, MOSE, and the Lowest Forms of Life

 photo credit: AT
The hole of a cappalungha is recognizable by the lower-case "b" that surrounds it
To be honest, I didn't even know what cappalunghe were, much less that they were caught using salt. In English, I've only just learned, they're called razor clams. But when I saw them stacked or bundled together at the Pescheria di Rialto they registered as little more than sticks of the sea, and nothing I ever thought about eating. I also had no idea that they were local; that they could, in fact, be caught a short distance from where we live.

Like so much of the natural life and culture of the lagoon, our introduction to them came through Sandro. He'd spent last Saturday afternoon with our neighbors and he returned home after eating dinner with them bearing two cooked cappalunghe which, to be honest again, didn't look especially appetizing to me at that particular moment.

But he was thrilled with them. He'd caught them himself just a few hours earlier on the strand of Sant' Erasmo and they had eaten all but these two for dinner at our neighbor's apartment and they were, he told us (bouncing on the balls of his feet with barely-containable enthusiasm and pride), absolutely delicious. He actually licked his lips to underscore this last point, just as a particularly ravenous cat might do in the very old Woody Woodpecker cartoons he likes to watch on Youtube.

There was nothing to be done but eat them. Jen took one, I took the other. The taste and texture didn't exactly go well with the apple I'd just finished eating, and it took me a moment to identify them both, but then I exclaimed, "It's a clam!" Which was a discovery only for myself.

"That's what cappa means," Jen said.

"Ah, yes, 'long clam'..." I murmured, a small dim bulb lighting up for me while the rest of my family already stood in knowing sunshine. Then, in response to Sandro's vivid waiting expression: "It's great!"

And so it was--especially in terms of the adventure he'd had in catching them with his friends.

"Their holes are in the shape of the letter 'b'!" Sandro told us. "That's how you find them!" For a first grader excited about learning to write and spell and read this fact seemed to carry a special significance. As if the natural world were validating, as no teacher or parent ever could, that the alphabet really did have some immediate practical--and fun!--application. Boy, I wanted to say, that alphabet is really something!*

But he was already telling us about how you have to put rock salt on the their hole. Carefully, not letting your shadow fall upon their hole, or else they won't come out.

"Really?" I asked.

"Really. It scares them."

"How long won't they come out?"

He shrugged. "For a while. From the shadow they know not to come out. But then they forget..."

When they do start to rise out of their hole you have to grab them quick, before they retreat--with not too tight and not to loose a grip--and then they spit at you!

"They spit at you?" I asked.

"Yes. It's their defense."

"But it didn't work against you?"

He shook his head, fearless.

(The next day I'd learn from the father of Sandro's friend that took him to catch cappalunghe that while the spitting was no deterrent, the surprising fact that much of the first clam Sandro caught stretched pendulously out the back of the shell as he lifted it from its hole almost made him drop it in disgust. But after that first shock he was the picture of courage.)

"And salt is all it takes to get them out of their holes?" I asked Sandro. "But isn't there plenty of salt in the water of the lagoon? Don't they have enough of it already?"

He shrugged. "They like salt," he said.

Alas, it seems that cappalunghe are not the only things in the lagoon with a fatal susceptibility to salt.

To absolutely no one's surprise except, apparently, those conscienceless crooks civic-minded saviors of Venice who do business under the name Consorzio Venezia Nuova, it seems that the salt of the Adriatic is having a shockingly deleterious effect upon the multi-billion-euro water gates (known by the acronym MOSE) that are supposed to protect this city from extreme acqua alta. (As many people have sarcastically exclaimed, "But how could CVN and its various well-paid experts have ever been expected to know that there was salt in the sea!")

As reported three days ago in the local paper La Nuova di Venezia, architect Fernando De Simone (who specializes in underwater and underground projects) has called attention to the disturbing fact that photographs of the water gates raised out of the sea after just one year in place clearly show far more damage to them from the salty marine environment than was ever projected by Consorzio Venezia Nuova ( Which means, he says, that the Consorzio's projected maintenance costs--already, as one might expect, astronomical--will turn out to be only a fraction of what in reality will be needed.

Rather than the projected maintenance cost of between 30 and 40 million euros every five years to deal with damage from salt water forecast by Consorzio Venezia Nuova, De Simone claims that current evidence suggests that between 30 and 40 million euros in maintenance will be required each and every year.

Now, given the fact that the cozy monopoly that is Consorzio Venezia Nuova has exclusive rights to perform maintenance on MOSE unto perpetuity this egregious (but no doubt entirely innocent miscalculation!) is really no problem at all for Consorzio Venezia Nuova. But De Simone, and many others, are encouraging Prime Minster Renzi's new anti-corruption czar--who already has his hands full with the more than 130 people already under investigation or arrest for corruption in connection with the particular "business practices" of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova--might want to take a closer look into this profitable little underestimation.

And so twice in recent days I've been amazed to learn of the kinds of creatures that a little (or a lot) of salt can expose to the light of day: in one instance, a bunch of hapless and innocent bivalves. In the other, an unsavory bunch of much much lower forms of life.

*Note: From Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: "Printed posters go up in the cities, in Samarkand and Pishpek, Verney and Tashkent. On sidewalks and walls the very first printed slogans start to show up, the first Central Asian f--k you signs, the first kill-the-police-commissioner signs (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!)..."

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Best Place to Buy Vegetables in Venice--and A Fad for Some of the Stuffed Variety

Water parking at the farm and vegetable stand of I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo (Tastes of Sant' Erasmo)
Vegetables are all the rage among the youngest Venetians these days.

You'll see a toddler clutching piselli (peas) while seated in his stroller, a first grader walking around with a peperone giallo (yellow bell pepper) in her arms, another with a head of broccolo (broccoli).

Less surprisingly, fruits are also popular with the kids. You'll see a large fragola (strawberry) being cuddled, an over-sized banana poking out of a half-zipped backpack.

Sandro, however, goes around with fungus. A fungo, or mushroom.

All of these veggies, fruits and fungi are stuffed, all of them plushy dolls available for a limited time (until 16 November) from a chain of supermarkets here. Called, all together, "I Super Vitamini", they're lures in the kind of insidious promotion I remember well from my own childhood in the 1970s, in which a business stokes the desires of children as a means of influencing the buying patterns of their parents. In this case parents receive one stamp for every 10 euro they spend in the supermarket chain, and after 10 stamps have been collected a kid can choose one stuffed fruit or vegetable from an array of 10 at a cost of 3 euro.

I don't think such promotions are now anywhere near as popular in the US as they were when I was a kid--pining for a toy available only after collecting 10 boxtops from a breakfast cereal (all artificial colors and sugar) that my mother refused to allow into our house--but they're still common here. This, however, is the first one that Sandro has really taken an interest in. And, unlike the typical teases of Smurfs or Pixar or Disney figurines, the supermarket has presented these large stuffed fruits and veggies as a means of encouraging good nutrition. The proceeds are supposed to go toward the construction of four childrens' hospitals.

Each plushy doll has a face and a name. Sandro's mushroom is Pier Fungo. There's also Tony Peperone, Bob Broccolo, Miki Mela, Clara Carota, Francy Fragola, Max Banana, and Leo Pisello. I'm particularly interested however in two rather distinctly Mediterranean characters: Rudy Aglio (garlic) and Frankie Fico (fig), which I suspect a good number of American kids wouldn't even recognize.

But then again, a recent NY Times Magazine article on the long-running conflict over school lunches in American schools ( makes me wonder how many American kids have seen any of the 10 fruits, veggies or fungi in anything resembling the unprocessed un-packaged forms the stuffed dolls take. And I wonder, too, if (1) the diets of Italian kids are still much better than those of the average American child* and (2), given calls for austerity, privatization, and the ever-present push of and for Anglo-American-style corporate hegemony here, how much longer any such dietary superiority can be maintained.

Not wishing to contribute to any such corporate ubiquity we generally do our best to avoid buying anything at one of Venice's chain supermarkets that we can buy elsewhere. We have the good fortune to have a husband-and-wife butcher shop basically around the corner from us in which the two owners behind the counter can suggest not only ways to prepare the meat but describe in great detail where it comes from. (Sandro likes them so much he wants to invite them to his birthday party.) We frequent two fruttivendoli (fruit and vegetable stalls), also tirelessly staffed by their owners.

But recently we've started getting most of our vegetables from another, even more local source. All of the produce for sale at I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo is grown on the farm surrounding the stand. And how fresh is it? When Jen asked for lettuce recently they went and picked her some.

We've been taking our boat there, as a good many people seem to do, to buy directly from the farm stand. But they also make weekly deliveries to six locations around Venice, including Lido and Giudecca. You can register on their website, compose an online order from the list of available produce (updated weekly), and then pick up your vegetables at one of the six designated drop-off locations at the designated time. You can visit their very informative Italian-language website,, which includes recipes, along with information on the farm, its exact location on the large island of Sant' Erasmo, and how to place an order.

And if everything else about the farm and its locally-grown products weren't enough of a recommendation, their prices are a fraction of what you'll pay for the tomatoes shipped in from Basilicata, for example, you'll find at other fruttivendoli around town.

So, while a chain supermarket may be the only place to get the plush stuffed vegetables presently so popular with local kids, when it comes to the real things there are much better options. The best of which we've found is I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo.

*Note: In sharp contrast to what the historian Martin Clark has called "the myth of Italy as the [kitchen] garden of Europe", the diet of large numbers of Italians (both north and south) has traditionally been quite limited: in 1881 more than 1 in 4 Italian conscripts were rejected due to poor health caused by malnutrition; another 12% were turned away because they were not tall enough (Chapter 2 of Clark's Modern Italy) Similarly (as stated in the Times article linked to above), the US military's concerns about the poor nutrition and health of their own recruits in 1945 led to the creation of the first national school lunch programs. Nowadays, as the same article points out, the most common reason would-be American soldiers are rejected is obesity. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bella Figura Alla Valesana

photo credit: Jen
Most people in Venice these days row either for recreation or sport, and are dressed accordingly. This man, however, in slacks, dress shirt and tie, is a dapper exception.

("Voga all Valesana" is a form of Venetian rowing in which one person uses two oars, as above and below, usually shorter and lighter than the single oar one would use when rowing "alla Veneta"--ie, as gondoliers do, most famously.)

photo credit: Jen

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost & in Danger in a Rented Kayak: Part 2

I snapped this photo of the above work boat after it had rounded a corner not 25 meters from the new kayak rental business as evidence that any kayak renter should immediately be prepared to encounter some very real and very large hazards
The big headline on local papers two days ago was that the family of the German tourist killed in a collision near the Rialto Bridge between the gondola in which he rode and a vaporetto has filed a suit asking for 6 million euro in damages.

A headline in yesterday's paper noted that another vaporetto had collided with a moored gondola near the Rialto Bridge. No one, fortunately, was injured.

And one month ago there were headlines about yet another incident between a gondola and vaporetto almost directly beneath the Rialto Bridge, in which a gondolier's oar became stuck in the rudder of a vaporetto.

In other words, it would be impossible to imagine that Venetian authorities have been able to forget about either the the fatal accident of just over one year ago or overlook the fact that the dangerous bottlenecks of traffic around the Rialto have in no way been resolved. Yet not only has no new approach to water traffic been implemented but, as I posted 10 days ago (, a new kayak rental business has been allowed to open just a short distance from that dangerous area.

Still troubled by my meeting with those two very lost and frightened kayakers that I wrote about in my prior post, I decided last week to seek out the new kayak rental business they'd gotten their boat from, to see for myself if it really was renting kayaks in the center of the city to all-comers, regardless of inexperience and with no guidance.

I knew the business's rough location from the map its two overwhelmed customers had shown me, and when I arrived in the vicinity I asked a gondolier whose route ran through that area for help. I found it in a courtyard a short distance from the Coin department store, but tucked away from the area's main thoroughfares. The business occupied a dark low-ceilinged warren of ground floor magazzini (or storage rooms) in an otherwise residential building. The kayaks were arrayed on various racks a short distance from the magazzini's water door. One of the storage rooms with decent light coming in from its windows served as an office, and a friendly man greeted me there from behind the table where he sat.

I asked him in English, "What are the qualifications I need in order to rent a kayak here?"

"Qualifications?" he asked pleasantly.

"I mean, do I have to know how to use a kayak a little bit?" I said. "I've never used one. I know nothing about them. Can I still rent a kayak and take it around the city?"

Absolutely, he assured me, my ignorance and inexperience was no problem. "We show you how to get started, how to use it," he said.

"Do you provide a guide?" I asked. "Do you go out with a new kayaker?"
No, he said, they'd show me how to use the kayak, then I'd be on my own. They would give me a detailed water-proof map of the canals. Though he suggested, rather uncertainly (as if he'd never been asked the question before), that perhaps it would be possible to hire one of the staff to go along with me as guide if I wanted.

I looked at the stacks of glossy flyers and pamphlets (in Italian and English) laid out neatly on the table before me. Then, from another stack, I picked up a multi-page text-heavy legal-looking document: the insurance waiver all renters are required to sign. I started to put this into my bag along with the other promotional materials, but the man behind the desk kindly told me that that was for customers who were renting a boat. The first few pages I'd flipped through were all in Italian. Perhaps the last pages were in English, or they kept an English translation behind the desk. I don't know. I returned the document to its stack.

Taped to the surface of the desk were 10 rules for renters, each one a sentence in English (with a smaller Italian translation beneath it) stating things such as: "Cross the Grand Canal when it is clear and do not stop in the middle", and advising that kayakers make a noise before rounding blind turns.

"You just opened?" I asked him.

"Yes. We've been here two weeks," he told me.

I thought of telling him about his two scared helpless customers I'd met a short time before that I'd written about in a blog post. But what good would that do? My own opinion might be that it's a bad idea to send kayakers of whatever skill level (or absence of skill) into the canals in the center of the city, but I suspected his would be that he was offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience of ancient waterways in environmentally-friendly boats. 

I'd counter that that might indeed be a beautiful thing to do, if it weren't for all the large motorized boats everywhere. A historic center in which all boats were powered only by oar would be a marvelous sight, as well as the best possible thing for the well-being of the old canals and buildings. But until that time comes, I find the thought of increasing numbers of potentially rather clueless kayakers amid all the motor-driven chaos to be worrisome.

On my way home on a vaporetto I noticed ads for the kayak rental place amid the other advertising placards above its passenger windows.

Then, looking over the business's pamphlet and flyers, I noticed that each features the same two images of kayakers paddling happily in the Grand Canal. There is not a vaporetto, water taxi, nor even a gondola in sight.

Upon closer inspection of each image's background it's obvious that both were taken on the same holiday, when the Grand Canal was closed to everything but rowed boats: There are crowds lining the canal's edge, and rowing clubs in their distinctive colors rowing, for example, a six-person caorlina.

Another image (only on the pamphlet), shows a woman paddling in flat glassy water right past the Doge's Palace, the ancient twin columns of the molo, and the campanile of San Marco. I imagine this photo was taken on the same holiday as the others, for typically that same area is quite wavy with the wakes from all the passing water traffic. The number 1 and 2 vaporetti lines, in fact, run right about where she is pictured.

In other words, the company's advertising gives no hint of the actual conditions a renter is going to encounter in the Grand Canal. Judging from the images on the pamphlet and brochure, water conditions in the actual city of Venice are exactly like those in the replica "Grand Canal" of the Las Vegas hotel The Venetian--which is, of course, nothing but a very large swimming pool.

And why should any particular skill or knowledge be required to row a kayak in a large swimming pool? Especially when the kayaks, the pamphlet assures us, are completely equipped "for your safety": being, as they are, "stable and easy to handle" and fitted with "a third seat for a child." 

Indeed, an image in the pamphlet shows what appears to be, at most, a ten-year-old boy alone in his own small kayak in a Venetian canal near his parents in a two-person kayak.

Reading over last week's Corriere del Veneto's news story on the German family's suit for nearly 6 million euros in damages in the wrongful death of their father aboard a gondola near the Rialto, I was reminded that among the five drivers of various boats implicated in the accident the lone gondolier was not, as one might expect, the gondolier who piloted the gondola containing the family. That gondolier, according to the wife of the deceased, was not at fault.

Rather it was another gondolier, entering the Grand Canal abruptly from a small side canal, who is charged with instigating what the Corriere called a "domino effect" of reactions among various vaporetti operators and a water taxi driver that resulted in the fatal collision (

In other words, what one does on the waters of Venice--as on a road--can have very real consequences for others as well as oneself. And if a gondolier, who knows at the very least how to handle his boat and knows the canals, can set off a fatal chain of events, what might a kayaker who knows neither of the above set into motion? 

Perhaps the owners of the kayak rental place near the Rialto have a firm belief in what's popularly called "Beginner's Luck." But that's no reason that the rest of us, nor their renters, should be forced to depend on it.