Archive for August, 2010

Venezia’s Pigeons

Taking into consideration the physical size of Venezia, you’d wonder how it could accommodate more than a handful of humans. The whole city can’t be much wider than a soft 3-iron shot (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit; the city’s maximum dimensions are perhaps six-by-two kilometres — roughly four miles long by barely one mile at its widest). The answer, as you will quickly find out, is simple:

Venezia, and nearby Murano. To the southeast is the Lido, home to the ritzy tourist-conscious hotels.


The population of Venice is pigeons; humans are simply visitors.

Well, this visitor (me), back in 1955, had met more than enough pigeons in Milano (millions of them) and I wasn’t about to do it again, so I wisely sat in a nearby bar — there are half a dozen in the shadow of the Basilica — and watched the pigeons hassle the tourists. The pigeons employ humans called “Italians” to rip off any visitors the pigeons miss.

St Mark’s Square (via Google satellite).


Venezia’s Piazza San Marco is a case in point. A broad L-shaped (though distorted) square whose total acreage is about the size of a football field, completely paved with tourists. Tourists are everywhere, and in the eyes of many Veneziani the tourist is the image of what is wrong with Venezia. Everything is tourist-oriented. The former wealth and power of Venezia — once Queen of the Adriatic Sea — is a long-gone dream. Like tourist centres all over the world, the only manufacturing is now aimed at any new and sparkling gimmick that might please the tourist. “… all the shops that served the native population — pharmacies, shoemakers, groceries — were slowly and inexorably disappearing, replaced by slick boutiques and souvenir shops that catered to the tourists, filled with luminescent plastic gondolas from Taiwan and paper-mâché masks from Hong Kong. It was the desires of the transients, not the needs of the residents, that the city’s merchants answered.” *

Lovers of exquisite glass, however, will be glad to learn that Murano, arguably the glass centre of the world, is still in operation.

Murano’s Grand Canal (Photo: Rettetast)

* “Death at La Fenice” by Donna Leon. p. 78, paperback, HarperCollins, 1995.


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So often it’s impossible to follow the vagaries of that inexplicable compulsion: Love. Even a mere infatuation, a passing fancy, can take more turns than a politician’s promise. You know you’re in for trouble when (a) mild men marry strong women; (b) tall women marry short men; (c) talented women marry men who still haven’t figured out how a door knob works.

If you think about these three situations, you will probably notice that in every instance it is the woman who gets the dirty end of the stick. Always seems to be the way, doesn’t it? No wonder there are so many Women’s Movements around.


Oh, grow up.

It’s almost as if men were created for the sole purpose of driving women crazy. The strong woman endures a lifetime of exasperation as her mild partner coasts through the years doing as little as possible. Tall women are wonderful, and are often quite happy with their height, a satisfaction that’s abruptly shattered when they marry a short guy. Short men seem driven to prove something, generally at the woman’s expense. And talented women? I think smart women marry dumb guys only in an unaccountable moment of madness — hey, we all make mistakes — and wisely cast him adrift at their earliest opportunity and get on with their lives.

Five-foot-two, eyes of blue …! * (there’s nothing, Babe, that I can’t do! Hey, every … body … dig … this … guy! * *)


Observers (and they all have a lot of spare time) ask themselves why the women took the marital step in the first place. Love? Well, if you want to try defining love you must have more spare time than the observers. As a cop out, you might say it’s a genetic thing, a sort of biological clock that tells a woman it’s time to get married, and any guy who’s still breathing is fair game.


And, by George, when you think about it, you realize it must be a human condition, because guys have the same genetic clock!


The handsomest of men will often pine

For girls of absent beauty, dull, bovine.

What man among us fails to come to grief,

When utter dogs cast spells beyond belief?

And man is not alone in his strange taste;

A woman, too, will leap with undue haste,

And wake from some delicious dream-like state

To find old Quasimodo is her mate.

And finds, what’s more, her happiness complete!

While Handsome Harry’s beauty cools its feet.

In life, dramatic beauty is miscast;

In love, like life, mere beauty ends up last.


* Photo: Haukurth. Lyrics by Sam Lewis and Joe Young, 1925

* * Lyrics not by Sam Lewis and Joe Young

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In any artistic field, at some point you will run up against the critic, the so-called expert who knows everything and wants to explain it to you — never using a one- or two-syllable word if he can avoid it. Here’s an example:

Give some people a pen, and right away they’ll write a critique on what others have written with it. *

“Abstract Expressionism was largely divorced from the traditions of geometry. The relations of this new movement to surrealism, and particularly organic surrealism, are obvious. (They are?) The essence of abstract expressionism is the spontaneous assertion of the individual. (Couldn’t have expressed it better myself) At the moment when the movement was being recognized on a world-wide scale, it was actually — at least in its most accepted form — in the process of change and even decline. (Hey, too bad; hardly started and already it’s going downhill).”

Did you find you had to read some sentences more the once? You’re not alone, and that’s a pretty mild example. Some are so unbelievably confusing they are raised to the level of art … if I can use that expression.


Go ahead, make anything out of them **

The spiral animal that walks by itself ***

It’s almost refreshing to pick up a child’s plastic toy, a dog or a truck, stylized, but still recognizable — as if seen through the designer’s eyes — as the animal or truck, and without a moment’s hesitation or confusion it entertains the child, and us too, and needs not a single word of pedantic gobbledygook.


* Illustration: www.ClipProject.info

** Photo: Priwo

*** Photo: R.McLassus


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Upper Fountain Rapids of the Fraser River at Fountain, located 15 km upstream from Lillooet. (Image via Wikipedia)

If you are not aware that things change with time, then I can give you the name of a reputable shrink who can help you.

Change was, up to a few years ago, something that no one was really aware of because it happened so slowly. Generations passed with no recognizable changes. When it took as much as two months for a letter to cross the Atlantic, a change would have been welcome.


“Descent of the Fraser River, 1808” (British Columbia) by C W Jefferys. This was one way of disappearing quickly when the occasion required it. Not incidentally, it was also one of the fastest ways of travelling on water. The mighty Fraser didn’t waste time on its way to the Pacific, nor did the large birchbark freight canoes used by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Outfits like the Hudson’s Bay Company sent factors out to the wilds of Canada when the only civilized place was (and still is) Montréal. The company sent these representatives to run their North American affairs knowing, without a doubt, they would never hear how they were doing, what they were doing, why they were doing it, or indeed without knowing if they had even arrived. It’s difficult to realize that business was conducted by mail, back and forth across the Atlantic, solely by boat. “Dear George: How’s business?” Six months pass. “Dear Ralph: Business is great. I’m investing ten million of your dollars in the fur trade.” Eight more months pass. “Dear George: You’re fired.” But by this time George has taken the money and disappeared, which was not hard to do in the backwoods of Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Today, change is everywhere. Blink, and things have changed. We accept change in everything we do:


In clothes unique, and languages complex;

In foods bizarre, like escargots, tex-mex;

In strange religions, and old arcane taboos,

And heads of spiky hair in vivid hues.


Change is often seen as synonymous with progress, but sometimes we have to wonder …


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Going to the second-hand store to buy a gift? Are you serious?

Understandable if you’re Scrooge, but buying a special something for that special someone, at the second-hand store, seems … well, it doesn’t seem right, does it? Yet you sure can’t beat the prices. I break glasses as if I were the president of the Anti-Saloon League, and replace them from the second-hand store at no more than ten cents apiece.

The expensive tools with which to save a dollar.

I’ve been looking for a nice wool cardigan in the second-hand store, and that is definitely the place to go. The items are often in good shape, pure wool, well made, top-of-the-line name brands — see? Look at the label on this cardigan: Hand-made by Ralph Lauren himself for Paul McCartney (or Justin Bieber; depends on your age, take your choice) — for as little as a dollar. I haven’t been lucky so far. I guess the fall lines haven’t arrived yet.


Or this one maybe. Like it? It’s yours, for a buck and a half, but don’t ask them to wrap it …

Here’s a great gift idea: A second-hand store gift certificate.

What’s the returns policy at the second-hand store? Easy; just take it back. Kiss your dollar goodbye, but you can’t have everything, even at the second-hand store.

If I buy two second-hand cardigans, do I get one free?

Smart second-hand stores will soon be advertising: “Great buys in Calvin Klein (cuff slightly frayed)” or “90% OFF NEW FALL LINES! (1948 and 1963 only).”

Okay, there are a few disadvantages: No boutiques or special departments (the whole store is a department). Forget about parking facilities; and don’t leave your car in front. They’ll sell it. Back to you, probably. The in-store décor leaves a lot to be desired, too, all very nouveau-garbage dump, and they’re not big on customer service, the volunteer clerks — retirees, mostly — get around on walkers, but hey, you certainly can’t beat the prices.

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I like women. Always have. I think most women sense this attitude, thus I usually get along fairly well with them. Their viewpoints are generally more realistic, more balanced; they tend to see things as they are, not as they would like them to be. Men spend too much time and effort on Pie in the Sky, seek possibilities in impossible situations, identify with Don Quixote and never miss a production of Man of La Mancha, and hum The Impossible Dream for weeks afterward. Women, on the other hand, don’t stare at the horizon in hope and expectation; they see what’s in front of them, the reality, and get things done. I like their company, the way they think — lot of common sense there, the kind I don’t have much of, and none of the masculine macho “Me Tarzan” insecurity seen in too many men (me included, I suppose).

Almost all the women I know are quite happy to be women (part of that common sense I mentioned).

Feminists (or is it sexists, or anti-chauvinists, or some other -ists? Anyway, the ultra rock-hard undeviating Fundamentalist faction) seem to grow very bitter and twisted at any attempt to fit women into a stereotypical rôle, be it as a sex symbol to serve men’s interests (and I’ll go along with them on that point), or a housewife, or even motherhood.

Imagine: Motherhood, for Pete’s sake!

The little girl would have loved this one, a big and roomy wicker baby carriage complete with sun shade, late 1800s. Bit tough reaching up to push it, but she’ll spend the rest of her life reaching up anyway; might as well get used to it …

The other day I watched a little girl — maybe five or six years old — pushing her mommy’s new baby in a carriage. Talk about self-importance! This little girl hasn’t really thought much about feminism. Doesn’t need a rôle model. She’s already got one: Her mommy. Why, she’s almost a grown-up mother herself, as I can see by the confident no-nonsense way she’s pushing her baby carriage, tucking the baby in and admonishing it to sit up straight. Sit up straight! The baby’s maybe three months old. Better step aside if she approaches you. With her at the helm of the carriage it’s straight ahead and damn the torpedoes! Don’t get in the way of this young mother, by George.

I think the feminists — the rabid ones anyway — will always have a tough time, at least when it comes to converting the stereotypical little “mothers” and turning them away from baby carriages. A lot of good old fashioned Mother Nature is on the side of the little girl.

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When I visited Venezia back in 1955 I had serious doubts about my safety. The generally accepted belief at that time was that the city was slowly sinking into the lagoon. Fifty years later it’s still there, and still believed to be sinking, due in no small part to the minor tidal waves created by the power boats (motoscafi) that take the place of municipal transport along the major canals. You can watch the waves smashing against the buildings at water level and almost see the city sink another couple of inches.

Piazza San Marco and the Campanile (the Ducal Palace on the right), looking across the eastern entrance of the Grand Canal from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The bell tower (Campanile) in Piazza San Marco. The façade of St Mark’s Basilica is seen lower left, the Grand Canal off stage right.

The sinking process  was proven to me on my first night in my pensione: The floor of the room must have slanted 45 degrees. When I got up for a pee during the night, gravity (and the vino at supper) sent me staggering across the room and almost out the window into the canal.

My pensione was only about a hundred metres from the city centre: St Mark’s Square, a strangely asymmetrical piazza — L-shaped if you happen to be standing in front of the basilica and facing the Grand Canal — with the top of the L on the edge of the Canal. A tall bell tower dominates everything, including the Basilica it faces.

The Excelsior Hotel. Not your summer cottage.




For most visitors their first impression must be slightly troubling: Venezia seems to be built at sea level. The city appears to be but a dry extension of the canals. You sense, intuitively, that if you were to pour a cup of water into the Grand Canal, 500 streets would be flooded.

I don’t know if they still dump bedpans etc. into the nearest canal the way they did centuries ago, but in the mid-50s some of the smaller canals would lead you to believe they do. Pity they don’t dump the tourists into the canal (one of the deeper ones).

But then you’d have the flooding problem again.

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