Monday, April 25, 2016

Recommended at the Rialto

Giuseppe, left, and Nerio Baita at their stall in the Rialto market
Venetian, and I believe Italian society in general, still runs (for good and bad) on recommendations, on  personal connections, on whom you know. It's important in America, too, but often in a more abstracted, more corporate way. It's vitally important to be in the know, and knowing, in America, but because the dissolution of social ties seems further along in my home country than in Italy, and because of the dominance of corporate chains there, the motivating sense of felt connection is, as often as not, with a brand or chain as with an actual, individual person. I've heard many Americans rhapsodize about Trader Joe's, for example, a corporate chain, while Venetians, on the other hand, will enthuse about the merchant Giovanni (or Alvise or Rita), a specific person so named, and probably tell you a little about their family and their own experience with them. 

In fact, after we first moved to Venice I couldn't help but notice how our retired native Venetian neighbor would look at me as I recounted, for example, a trip to the Rialto Market I'd made: with the kind of compassion and pity typically inspired by urchins, by those solitaries adrift in the cold world, reliant upon their own inadequate resources. Then he would take out a pad of paper and pen and quite literally map out exactly which stall I should go to in the Rialto pescheria, and write the name of the man I should speak to, whom I could trust--once I'd told him who'd sent me--to sell me only the freshest fish.

It is in something like this spirit that I write of the fruit and vegetable stand of Nerio Baita and Germana Zanella at the Rialto. Natives of Sant'Erasmo, each comes from families with long histories on the island. They bought the stall 30 years ago, and are now helped to operate it by their son Giuseppe (whose twin brother left his native element of water to take to the air, and works as a pilot in the Far East). Germana, who didn't want to be photographed for this post, was a champion rower, winner of the Regata Storica, and an abiding force in the two-women races until quite recently.

The vast majority of the produce they sell at their stall is Italian-grown--some of it from Sant'Erasmo--and brought in fresh each morning by Nerio himself, who rises by 3:30 am five days a week to drive his mototopo (large work boat) from their home in Sant'Erasmo to the wholesale produce market on the edge of terraferma, in the port of Marghera.

They sometimes carry produce they've grown themselves, but their working hours leave them little time to grow much. Though you can be sure you'll find their own home-grown pepperoncini (chili peppers) year-round at the stall: offered freshly picked from August into the fall, then dried and gathered into piquant red bouquets for sale the rest of the year.

Their stall is easy to find: it's the last of the smaller row of produce sellers located between two rows of buildings that one encounters after exiting the vaporetto at the Rialto Mercato stop, and it looks out on the longer stalls which are open to the Grand Canal on one side.

Is it the only fruttivendolo one should go to in the Rialto? I don't think even the two Venetians who suggested it to me would be so rigid as that: after all, Nerio and Germana can't carry everything. But it's an excellent place to start, and if it's your first time ever shopping at the Rialto you'll now at least be equipped with that most necessary of things in the minds of Venetians: a recommendation.   

A view of the stall, with its dried bouquets of pepperoncini in the wicker basket in foreground
Nerio Baita selects castraure for a customer
The good boat Baronetto, in which Nerio makes his early morning trips to and from Marghera

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A (Very Large) Fish Named Leo: Rialto, This Morning

The large red fish partly visible at left was labeled "Monica"; if you had any inclination to wonder if it might not be better if these two impressive creatures were still in the sea rather than on ice, this anthropomorphizing didn't help.

For a better sense of the size of the swordfish, see the image below. Venetian shoppers may do a lot with their trolleys in this city without cars, but nothing less than a full-scale commercial delivery cart would be adequate for "Leo."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Bite of the Lagoon: Crab Season Around Mazzorbo

A line of metal upright pipes support branches to which ten submerged crab traps are tied

It's moeche (soft-shell crab) season in the lagoon and as you pass through the Mazzorbo Canal on your way to or from Burano on the number 12 vaporetto line if you look carefully down the broad short channel that branches off it in a northwesterly direction you may catch a glimpse of some of the crab traps (crab crates, really) pictured above and below rigged up along its banks.

Not far off this broad short channel there are more traps lining the banks of channels too narrow and shallow for any vaporetto. Oddly enough, it's along these banks that we happened upon three signs posted on a chain-link fence rather imperfectly enclosing a few simple, low-roofed fishermen's structures. One, employing the iconography common in many churches in Venice, forbade the use of photo cameras. A second, in the same manner, forbade the use of video cameras. The third simply declared "STOP STALKING."

It's not the kind of area you'd expect to be subjected to heavy tourist traffic, but I suppose there's not a single waterway anywhere in the lagoon these days that's not likely to be trawled by some commercial boat or other promising to take its clients out of the usual channels. After all, who among us doesn't crave a unique personal experience of a place--even if it happens to be one we've found out about from a cable travel channel, or a newspaper, magazine, or guidebook?

But because of those three signs I'm afraid that the most picturesque images of the crab traps--like the close-up one showing the small crabs packed thick as cockroaches against a cages's screen, visible in the few inches of muddy transparency just below the water's surface--exist only in my own memory, rather than on any memory card.

One crab trap submerged at left in use, the other suspended in reserve

Picturesque as the crates may be, though, harvesting crabs from them is demanding work, a native Venetian friend told me. During the two seasons--one in spring, one in autumn--a fisherman must haul up each of his traps every two hours or risk losing his saleable crabs.

For what the fisherman is looking for as he sorts through the mess of crabs in his crate are not, as I'd imagined, crabs of a certain size, but crabs which are just about to lose their shell. We eat them once they've actually shed it, of course, but if the fisherman doesn't remove the crab just immediately before they do the other crabs will cannibalize their shell-less cohort.

How does the fisherman know which crabs are on the verge of losing their shell? "Experience," my friend said, "Practice. They just know."

This was the same kind of answer I got to my question about how the specially-hired pruners working in the old cloistered vineyard on the cemetery island of San Michele knew exactly at which point of the vine to make their cut (

Is it something the fisherman feels when he touches the shells? "No," my friend said, "more to do with appearance, color, I think, not feel."

But what about the crabs I've seen them pick out of the crate and throw back into the water? Are they too small? Too large?

"No," he replied, "nothing to do with size. Those are the crabs that the fisherman knows are never going to lose their shells."

How do they know that?

My friend shrugged. "It's a very particular thing," he said. "And every two hours, no matter what, they must check the traps. In the rain, in all weather... Not an easy job. But I suppose better than being stuck inside a factory."

We talked about this as we ate some fresh moeche (mud-colored and weed-colored like the banks along which they're found) that his neighbor had left off for him and his family. They were lightly powdered, then lightly fried; each one not much more than matchbox size, to be eaten in a single bite. I'd never had them before.

I bit one cleanly in half and glanced inside. In the back half of the body was what looked like a dab of white crab meat; in the front half was a tiny mass with something like the color and consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk. The legs were like those of a large beetle. I quickly popped it into my mouth, deciding not to get distracted by minutiae from all the history and culture and work contained in this one bite of the north lagoon.        

Saturday, April 16, 2016

MOSE as Art and as Mirage

The backdrop of white fluffy clouds in this image taken two days ago are in sharp contrast to the dark clouds that have figuratively hung over MOSE since its inception
Though the threat to Venice is from too much water rather than the complete absence of it, when it comes to the giant flood gates known by the acronym MOSE in Italian it seems to me the city is stuck in a long fruitless trudge through a hopeless desert, its eyes fixed upon a vision of salvation that forever recedes, mirage-like, before it.

Originally scheduled to be operational by 2012, the functioning date is forever being bumped a little further into the future. The last I heard it was 2017--which strikes the perfect balance being close enough to encourage some hope and distant enough to allow ample time to target yet another slightly more distant deadline as the former one approaches.

But then the other day I happened upon a piece on Venice in the Financial Times that referred to an operational date of 2020! Considering that the journalist--and I use that term in its loosest sense--got a number of other basic facts about the city wrong, perhaps it shouldn't be taken seriously. Or maybe in getting it wrong the writer actually got it right, as we do seem to be approaching close enough to 2017 that it's time for the relevant authorities to push back the date again.

In any case, after going to put some gas in our small boat two days ago I was struck by the sight of one of the giant flood gates near the lagoon-side dock of the Arsenale. Last year gates like this had inspired a round of dark, despairing mirth when local papers reported that once installed in their places in the mouths of the Lidi they were rusting far more quickly than ever imagined by the crack team of engineers assembled by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the conglomerate of Italian construction firms that without any competition had been handed the multi-billion euro project--and which, to absolutely no one's surprise (see, for example, the 4th- and 5th-to-last paragraphs in this 2008 piece), have in the last couple of years been found guilty of extensive corruption and fraud. Local papers pilloried the Consorzio for only having just discovered that there was salt in seawater.

Perhaps the gate above was a replacement for one already so far gone with corrosion as to need replacement? Whatever the reason, there it was on display, as utterly useless to this point in time as the most decadent of any old "Art-for-Art's-Sake" enthusiast could ever demand that a work of art be: more massive and more massively expensive than anything ever displayed nearby at that great International Art Show of the wheeling-dealing 1% called the Venice Biennale.      

This cropped image shows the depth scale in meters on the gate's side

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

As Above, So Below

The shallow, still water temporarily covering the large man-made barena (or mud flat) near the island of Certosa acted as an excellent mirror this past Sunday--at least for as long as the tide remained at its high point.   

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Motoring to Mazzorbo, This Evening

Modest as Mazzorbo is these days, it wasn't always so. Ancient Mycenean vases have been found on the island, and even amid the little archipelago of islands on the other side of its main canal, long a neighborhood of very simple fisherman dwellings, a few large immovable marble remnants of ancient Roman constructions, to take one example, can still make it impossible for a resident to drive in the posts needed to construct a small dock at the weedy, muddy edge of the water. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Writing On the Wall and A Neighborhood Curse

"It's not true," my eight-year-old son, Sandro, declared as soon as he saw me pause a few days ago to read the sign pictured above.

Rain-proofed inside a plastic sheath, it's posted on the tall iron fence surrounding a large private garden in our neighborhood, and it refers to the mimosa plant behind it, well inside the fence. The sign announces that underneath the mimosa plant a black cat was buried, so that anyone who steals the flowers will be carrying away with him or her not only the flowers but, basically, a big bouquet of bad luck as well.

In a city too often dismissed as--and also celebrated for--being nothing but an unreal or incredible spectacle, in which no real people actually live, handwritten signs like the above appear as small eruptions of the local substratum that persists beneath the touristic surface.

The most common and most uniform of such eruptions are the death announcements that even day-trippers can't help but notice taped to walls in various parts of the city, each with its color image of the deceased, his or her full name and nickname, and age at death. These are traditional public notices that are--in a city in which the number of tourists on most days dwarfs the number of residents--becoming ever more private in their significance.

Where once they would have merely confirmed what the vast majority of residents in a given neighborhood already knew, they now call to mind one of Marcel Proust's favorite myths: the old Celtic belief that the soul of a dying person becomes captive in some animal, plant, or thing and is:
thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.
In a city overwhelmed by tourists the odds of any given passerby recognizing the deceased become ever more slim, and the chance that the deceased might "overcome death" in the memory of one who knew him or her becomes ever more remote.

These death notices evoke and invoke a vital local community that the vast majority of people now in Venice on any given day become aware of only in these literal signs of that community's quite literal demise. They learn of it just in time to wave good-bye.

But in certain neighborhoods there are other signs, handwritten like the one above, oriented toward the local present, or even the local future, rather than to memory. Sometimes in our neighborhood they take the form of political screeds or political satire, with the mayor (whoever happens to be in office at the time) or the city council or Renzi as its targets. Sometimes the target is much closer to home: like a recent one about the directors of the nearby marina.

Last fall my son and his neighborhood friends taped up their own handwritten sign announcing open auditions for a film they were planning to make. Inspired by their discovery of a mysterious circular pattern in the grass--which adults might have assumed was left behind by the riding lawnmower of a city worker, but which the kids knew was evidence of a flying saucer landing--they began pre-production of L'Alieno Segreto, or The Secret Alien. They had a screenwriter, director, and cinematographer (with his smart phone camera) in place, and had cast the title role (Sandro), but still needed to fill other roles.

They paid the local tabaccheria to photocopy their original handwritten notice and posted a half-dozen of them around the neighborhood. The signs gave a synopsis of the project, a list of its principal participants, and directed aspiring actors to the campo in which they'd recently set-up their open-air production office, with its conference table made of a very large flattened cardboard box resting upon two other cardboard boxes. They provided a great many irregularly sloping blank lines for actors to sign up, and announced, in large capitals, that the tryouts were NOT OPEN TO ADULTS.

They neglected, however, to specify a date and time for the auditions.

No one signed up. And as some rainy days and colder weather arrived (compromising their production office), and hostilities broke out among the crew (between one boy and girl in particular, who regularly battle like the pre-pubescent stars in the opening act of a romantic comedy), the film project--like so many film projects--collapsed. Or perhaps was simply displaced in their interest by the new pulley and rope one boy introduced into the group, which became the new focal point of their play. 

But what struck me about their sign--as well as those handwritten political declarations posted by a few neighborhood adults--was the implicit assumption of an audience for it. That there are still enough residents in our neighborhood, at least, if not in many others, as to make all those blank spaces awaiting names not simply the most fantastical and impossible part of their project. There are still a lot of kids in our neighborhood, I see them playing every day. And there are still a lot of residents--or, rather, enough--who will stop to read a hand-written screed or satire and, no matter how localized the subject matter, understand its point (if not necessarily agree with it).

I suppose what I'm struck by is an assumed sociability unlike any I've known in the US, whether living in a densely populated urban area of apartment houses or a less-populated neighborhood of houses--and no matter how much any given neighborhood we've lived in has boasted of its "community spirit."

But this is a topic that's far too big to get into here, and full of paradoxes and contradictions, besides. More generally, I take such signs in this "dying" city to be signs of life, with their assumption of a local audience and aspirations toward some future project--whether the unseating of a disliked mayor or L'Alieno Segreto.

But to return to the sign with which this post began: one of the oddest things about it is that the plant is set far enough back from the fence as to be impossible to reach its flowers through it. And the fence is so high it's impossible to reach them from over it. So that as alluring as all those yellow flowers may be--especially in March, when they are the customary gift of International Women's Day--I can't imagine that any passerby has ever succeeded in actually getting at them. The sign seems gratuitous, as though its writer were creating a curse simply for old time's sake (recalling when such things were more common), or to keep in practice for some future occasion when one might really be needed.

Or perhaps it's intended as a parable; one of those ancient kind that warns that anything beautiful and desired and acquired too easily by trespass--whether Helen of Troy or a pot of gold--delivers more in the way of disaster than blessing.

At the very least it's kind of like a very short bit of storytelling, whose aim is to create an urban legend.

Maybe that's why I like it. It's certainly had an effect. Sandro insists adamantly (too adamantly) that it's not true, but in a tone both frightened and intrigued by the possibility that it might be. He argues that as his friend's grandparents who live right nearby know nothing of a buried black cat or curse, and that the lawn beneath the tree looks like the lawn everywhere else in the yard, with no sign of recent burial, it can't be true. And yet the seed of a legend has been planted, and I suspect that the very kids who are busy denying it now will be the same ones who propagate it, carry it into the future: keeping this curious neighborhood curse alive for as long as tourism--its own golden promise predicated often enough on easy trespass--doesn't destroy the social conditions of its germination and growth.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Amin Maalouf at Ca' Dolfin, Yesterday

Amin Maalouf (center) speaks in the 16th-century Aula Magna Silvio Trentin of Ca' Dolfin yesterday; at right is the interviewer Marie-Christine Jamet; at left, the interpreter Lidia Bogo

Having missed, unfortunately, last week's Incroci di Civilità International Literary Festival (, I made sure to at least attend yesterday's talk by the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf at Ca' Dolfin, part of Venice's Ca' Foscari University. The author of fiction (including the Goncourt Prize-winning Le Rocher de Tanios), non-fiction, and a number of opera librettos, Maalouf was in Venice not only as part of last week's literary festival but as a resident writer in the Waterlines Project: Residenze letterarie e artistiche a Venezia.

Twice a year, in winter or spring and fall, Waterlines invites an internationally-known writer and an artist to take up residence in Venice for three or four weeks. While here, the writer and artist are encouraged and given the opportunity to engage with students at Ca' Foscari, local artists and writers, and with the general public in conversations or presentations open to all. The aim of the project, now completing its second year, is to "reaffirm the role of Venice as a place of artistic and cultural production (ribadire il ruolo di Venezia come luogo di produzione artistica e culturale )". To reaffirm it as a place in which art is still made, rather than simply shown.

Few writers seem better suited to last week's Incroci di Civilità (Crossroads of Civilization) Literary Festival than Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian whose mother tongue is (as he discusses in his non-fiction book On Identity) Arabic, the language of Islam, and who has written extensively in both fiction and non-fiction on the rich, complex cultural history of the Mediterranean. Not to mention the fact that his work as a young Arab-language journalist took him to more than 60 countries ( Yesterday, his conversation (in French and Italian) with Prof. Marie-Christine Jamet provided an excellent overview of his career, including his relationship with the three primary languages in his life (Arabic, French, and English), and the inspirations and aims of specific works, which have been translated into over 20 languages.

The Waterlines Project itself is an extremely interesting one, and gives visitors to Venice in the autumn and winter the chance to attend (at no cost) presentations by writers and artists of the high caliber typical of the annual Incroci di Civilità in the spring.

To find out more about the Waterlines Project, its past participants, and future programs visit: 

Some of the still-arriving audience before the start of yesterday's Amin Maalouf event in the Aula Magna Silvio Trentin, whose walls and ceilings are frescoed in the style of Tiepolo and which once held ten historical canvases by Giambattsita Tiepolo that are now in the Hermitage Museum.