It’s raining. Big, dark clouds have taken hold of the sky. Thick drops fall heavily then bounce back vigorously on the wide circles they have inscribed in the black water of the little rio. In a while, when the sun comes back, the air will be transparent and the house fronts will take on deep colours. I’ve been in this city – though ‘world’ might be a better word – for two days now. Discovering it, I got the feeling that not having known it for ever from the first glimpse meant never knowing it at all.
My father directs scientific research. He has come here for some time to finish an important study with a colleague. We are living in a vast and very lovely house on the campo San Boldo; it is lapped by the little rio, and by another, larger one that has come to join it. Together, they have formed a proper campielo, only with water instead of earth or grass. Boats are tied up there - topi, sandoli...
The colleague, his wife and his son, who is about the same age as me, are having Sunday lunch with us. The colleague’s wife talks to us about the city; she asks me nicely to tell her what has pleased me about it. I am slightly embarrassed; it would be presumptuous to tell her that the city is a world to me. Yet an answer is required. I describe the places that seem most likely to elicit admiration – palaces… What would she think if I told her that nothing had pleased me? To be sure, I could add “Life neither pleases nor displeases.” But I don’t want to say it; perhaps because I truly believe it. No, I had not sought out anything admirable during my first few short walks; walks made up of slow steps and stops during which thought absconded. The colleague’s wife seems satisfied with my account. The colleague asks me just as nicely for news of my studies and worries whether the school I will go to during my stay will suit me. I tell him that I will go to school for some of my lessons and that a teacher will come and give me tuition at home. The colleague seems satisfied with my answer. The conversation continues between the parents – advice on everyday living, promises of help with the inevitable practical problems, plans to visit the city, museums…
After lunch I go to my room with the colleague’s son. He is as wide awake now as he was asleep before.
"Do you like to go boating?” he asks, having barely come in.
My eyes light up:
“Yes, I love it!”
He hardly lets me finish:
“I’ve got a topeta all of my own!”
He adds, without taking the time to draw breath:
“Do you know what a topeta is?”
I take advantage of a pause:
“Yes, there are some below my window.”
“I know; they’re always there; I know who they belong to; I live not far from here; you turn left, then right and zo dal ponte and there you are!”
“Just over the bridge!”
Just over the bridge... Bridges: that’s all there are here. I should know, I’ve been over enough of them since I arrived. And the big one, the one you absolutely have to see, the Rialto, well – better not be tired before you cross it! Just over the bridge it is then! Zo... For him, it’s clearly his bridge, a bridge all of his own, like his topeta...
He’s been watching me and gives a laugh:
“Yes, everyone has their own bridge here, that way no-one ever gets lost. It’s convenient. When I come to see you, you’re zo dal ponte too. It’s your bridge.”
Now it’s my turn to laugh:
“When you get here, you’re given a bridge!”
Now he looks severe:
“No, not everyone; only those who keep it with them. For the others, it would be too heavy to take away…”
I want to tell him… I don’t know… I don’t know what to say… I burst out:
“I’ll keep it!”
He gives me a big grin:
“I knew you would.”
First day of school; I don’t have to go far and there’s only one bridge. I have to change my habits but I don’t mind that – I’ve never liked habits anyway. My classmates are quite pleasant, the teachers quite assiduous. Lessons end shortly after midday. If I don’t take too long for lunch, that leaves me the whole afternoon free; I’ll be able to go out with Zo dal ponte in his topeta! Not today, though, because my tutor has come to give me my first lesson; I didn’t get bored, he’s very knowledgeable.
The topeta nudges its way down the rio de Sant’Andrea; Zo has just stopped the engine and is using his long oar to edge noiselessly towards a half-open window. "Chi xe?" he asks mysteriously. The window opens briskly and I see a girl whose hair looks aflame with a sunset.
“I heard your engine!” she exclaims with a laugh.
Zo does not seem too downcast. He gives me a great slap on the shoulder, crying:
“Here he is!”
The girl gives me a welcoming smile:
“Zo told me you liked being here...”
She breaks off, seeing my surprise:
“I know what you call him. He calls me Brasa, because of my hair. He’s told me all about you; he said you looked at what’s alive here and not… the city, as the visitors call it.”
She goes on in a dull voice:
“They don’t like it.”
I am surprised again:
She interrupts with a trace of bitterness:
“Oh, they come in their crowds. They admire, they gasp; and when they’ve gone, they forget.”
She adds sarcastically:
“Except to say that they’ve been!”
“La xe cussì!”
That is indeed how it is, as I have seen walking around…:
“It’s true, everyone seems distracted, they turn their heads from right to left…”
She starts to laugh:
“Zo was right! You’re not a visitor!”
Zo smiles and gives me a friendly tap on the shoulder:
“Let’s carry on the conversation at Miracoli! It’s a good place to be, you’ll like it!”
Having tied up the topeta, we go in through a big, rounded door giving onto the rio. "You can bring a boat in here to mend it,” Brasa tells me, noticing that I was looking around curiously. Perhaps seeing me trying to find the boat in the empty room, she adds: “There are boats in a bigger squadro than this one on the other side; my father works there.”
We set off down a narrow path. “It’s nice, this caleta,” says Brasa. “It ends in the rio, it doesn’t go anywhere; even when there are lots of people around, nobody comes here.” A bridge – of course, but I’m getting used to it – and we come out into a wide street that I already know and am surprised to find myself on – I thought I was… I don’t think I even know where.
“Do you like ice cream?” Zo suddenly asks me, licking his lips.
Do I ever!
“Oh yes, I love ice cream! And I haven’t had one yet!”
“Well, look there, on the campo. The best ice creams in the whole wide world!”
Having reached the little square, I contemplate the vast array of ice creams, each one more inviting than the next. Zo is right, they really are very good. It’s a toss-up which of us will eat the most.
“You’ll make yourselves sick,” Brasa chides us.
Zo is willing to take the risk:
“You say that because you live next door. You can eat them a thousand times a day. We have to cross the whole Canalazzo!”
“You’re right, a canal that big isn’t to be crossed in a single day, to say nothing of the dangers of such a long journey!”
Zo strikes a heroic pose:
“You see all the perils I have to face just to get to your house!”
They both laugh aloud. They look so happy I feel full of joy myself.
Zo has given the signal and we set off for Miracoli; the way is through a little cale hidden behind an imposing church which we circumnavigate. At the end of the cale, a bridge. And Miracoli?
“Zo dal ponte!” Zo teases me with a laugh.
The campo is full of trees. Children are running around everywhere. Above the trees, the dome of a strange church, which observes.
“Ice cream makes you hungry,” says Zo authoritatively.
“Von a magnàr qualcossa in te l’ostaria.”
Turning to me:
“Gh’astu mai magnà sepio’ine?”
No, I have never tried cuttlefish; and I will be glad to go and sit down in the nice little…
“In pìe! People here don’t sit down,” she tells me brightly.
“We’ll have takeaway and sit down by the church, on the steps that go down to the rio.”
The sun is shedding its last rays on the motionless water and a light shadow has gradually fallen over the campo. The cuttlefish are delicious.
“I’m glad you like them. There’s no school the day after tomorrow; I have a friend who makes really good figadìn with gnagna; her uncle grows them on San Rasemo, the big island in the lagoon. If you like, we can go and have lunch with her.”
Zo finds it an excellent proposal but is worried about me:
“I hope you’ll like it, calf’s liver and onions.”
I reassure him. He goes on:
“You’ll see, she’s really nice, we both like her a lot.”
“La xe so zermana,” explains Brasa.
I say sarcastically:
“And his cousin lives zo dal ponte, of course!”
“Not at all!” they cry together, laughing.
“She’s in the Corte Zapa, right at the end of a calesela; and the place where she lives...
He leaves the words hanging:
“You’ll see for yourself!”
The topeta makes a wave in the rio that will take us to Zo’s cousin, la zermana. Some of Brasa’s neighbours wave to us from the lovely fondamenta lined with white stone which runs along the rio. "The white stone comes from Istria, it never blackens,” Zo tells me. We turn. Here, the boats are bigger and go faster. A man in one of them makes a sign for us to stop; he asks Brasa to tell her father that he’ll drop by tomorrow for a minor repair – “Nothing serious, but better not to wait,” he says. Another turn and the water becomes still again. “Look where we are,” says Brasa to me softly. I am surprised indeed: we’re at Miracoli! It’s quicker than on foot, and what’s more, we go under the bridges. The rii follow one another, now idle, now busy; from time to time, a few words are exchanged between boats. And suddenly, the vastness! A river flowing into a nearby sea – the Canalazzo! Zo has accelerated; he passes between a topo loaded with goods and a big boat loaded with visitors. Large houses, perhaps asleep, seem to watch us with indifference. We soon leave the imposing vista to take a narrow, solitary rio where the tender green of the ivy that climbs nonchalantly down the walls highlights the deep red of the bricks that decorate them. A turn in the rio… near a bridge, a bookshop; books have found themselves a place on the fondamenta, doubtless to sunbathe. Zo ties up the topeta:
“I’ve got a book to buy for school; you can find everything here; come and see!”
Old books, carefully looked after by their previous readers, are looking for new friends; Brasa rummages:
“Look! It’s a manual on how to repair sandoli; my father wrote it!”
Leafing through the book, she adds for my benefit:
“The sandolo you saw near my window, my father made it. I really like our little boat; I’m at home in it and it goes fast without making waves.”
The owner of the bookshop has come out and is chatting with Zo and Brasa. They are talking about me but I don’t understand everything. Nevertheless, I hear him say: "El xe un puto civil che me piase assae"; then he gives me a friendly smile. I feel happy not to displease him.
We set off again. In a little campielo giving onto the rio, a woman is hanging out her washing. She knows where we are going, because we’re very close to where la zermana lives; we exchange greetings. One final rio and, in a bend, a lovely campielo lined with large trees. We moor the boat, though not just anywhere! A wide opening in the campielo lets us into a proper little port; strictly speaking, the port can only take three or four boats, but it has a homely feel, as though we really were sheltered from storms. La zermana’s house is made of brick studded with blindingly white Istrian stone, but brick of a purple velvet shrouded in mystery. Zo was right, I had to see for myself…
The cheerful girl who has darted out of the house gives us a greeting full of smiles.
“Piase! I’m very pleased to meet you!” she says to me brightly.
Zo pretends to be starving:
“Sto figadìn, xe messo in tola?”
She answers mockingly:
“I was waiting for you to lay the table!”
The table is laid – by everyone. Zermana’s parents do not ask me any questions; they watch me and listen to the conversation. I am surprised by the gentle flavour of the figadìn. I make compliments. The father gives a slight nod. "Not everyone likes figadìn," the mother has said, and given me a smile.
After lunch, we settle down in front of the house to chat. Zermana invites me to come and sit in the topo resting in the ‘port’. Brasa joins us, while Zo stays on the edge of the little fondamenta, legs dangling.
“My father transports goods,” Zermana tells me, “but he doesn’t need the topo this afternoon.”
The water in the port, which we have barely disturbed getting down into the boat, rocks us gently. I have a sense of well-being, a vague feeling of travel without motion, seamlessly smooth, during which everything remains familiar. My gaze wanders off into the rio that leads away from me…
“That’s the way they went when leaving for distant lands,” says Zermana softly, having followed my dreamy gaze.
School has just finished. After a quick lunch, I head to the rio just by Zo’s, where we are due to meet Zermana. No sooner have I arrived than I see her coming with a firm step; she doesn’t seem to hurry, but here she is already.
“I saw Zo taking out his topeta as I was crossing the bridge,” she announces in her clear voice. “He won’t be long.”
She studies me:
“Do you like rain?”
I am a little taken aback by her question. Without waiting for an answer she goes on:
“The visitors leave when it rains and we’re left with ourselves.”
This time she waits for my answer. I hesitate:
“I like rain... I like rain because it’s beautiful...”
I have stopped. She is still waiting. I carry on:
“Beautiful... I never stopped to think what it means.”
“Goldoni said No zé bel quel ch’è bel, ma quel che piaze.”
“True; he’s right, only what pleases us is beautiful.”
“You know Goldoni?”
“Yes, but I don’t always understand everything.”
“He thought in our language, not that of the visitors. I can explain what you don’t understand, if you like.”
I thank her with a smile.
I hadn’t seen Zo coming. We greet each other with a salvo of joyful Bondì!
“Brasa’s waiting for us at her house and I absolutely mustn’t forget to fill up!” he says all in one breath.
Brasa is waiting for us on the doorstep; she must have heard the engine.
“’ndemo!” exclaims Zo.
We set off. I am surprised to see how familiar the rii have become; I have got used to them without realising. It is here, between the walls that peacefully plumb the water, along the windows from which tranquil voices can be heard, that the real ways of this world run. I am with them, with those who live there, far from the noise of the cali, not seeing the visitors who walk in the distance. I feel seized by a desire to stop, near one of those wooden posts where you tie up alongside the walls, and watch the water as it flows ever so gently, without knowing whether it comes from the sea or is going there. They know, they who are behind the windows, and I want to know too, so as not to be just a visitor. But the topeta has entered another rio, hardly any wider, at the end of which I can make out a solitary little bridge which watches the water flow past, just as I had wanted to do earlier. It doesn’t go anywhere, that bridge. Actually, though, it does. It goes and knocks on the door of a large house and murmurs: “Come, you who live beside me, I wait for you and never tire of doing so, to take you over the rio that laps your house.” And those who live there trustingly let themselves be taken, without even feeling the need for a parapet to protect them.
“It’s the only bridge left without a parapet,” Zermana whispers to me.
The sea!... No, I know, it’s the lagoon, the great lagoon which starts here, and where in the distance the water exchanges murmured conversation with the land, "sui bari de ’à", as the locals say. Zo has told me. We’ll go there soon, all together, he has promised me. Back to the quiet of the rii. My imagination gives me the feeling of finding shelter after the perils of the high seas. I keep such silliness well to myself. Not that I’m afraid of being mocked, certainly not; on the contrary, I believe I would be understood. But those who came before in this world went on other voyages and the comparison would be… embarrassing, I think. Zo ties up the topeta alongside a little campo surrounded by bridges and graced with a tree whose leaves have not yet left it. Hello, here’s another bridge that knocks at the door of a house. It is that house to which Brasa has to bring something from her father. Now Zo has decided we should go for a walk. Andemo a far una spassizada!
“It’s so nice to be able to take our time,” says Zermana.
Seeing my surprise, Brasa explains:
“Usually we walk to school, or to friends, or to go shopping. It’s not always convenient to go by boat. If we don’t walk quickly we waste too much time. School doesn’t wait. And why make a friend wait if there’s no good reason?”
“Big cities aren’t the only places where people are always in a hurry; we have things to do here too,” remarks Zo.
After a moment he adds:
“I don’t know anywhere where people don’t hurry when they have things to do.”
“Well, today there’s some walking to do so let’s get a move on and do it properly, then we won’t have to hurry!” says Zermana with a big grin.
Our walk is indeed unhurried. It’s not that we were walking slowly; no-one here seems to know how to do that. But there are so many times when we just stop and stand there, in the middle of a cale or a campielo or on a bridge, talking quietly, as though we were deep in comfortable armchairs in some drawing room. Night falls slowly…
“Ghe xe coli de pioza!” Zo suddenly warns us.
I look up... and get a large raindrop for my trouble.
“Al sotoportego a dretura!” cries Brasa.
We start running helter-skelter, bounding over the bridges - su e zo dai ponti! Just round a caleta, the sotoportego and shelter from the rain... though not from the wind, which whistles through our refuge, the sotoportego de le do Madone, a passageway beneath a house! Yet the rain falls harder and harder and the wind dies down. “It won’t last,” states Zo. The sotoportego is filled with the darkness of the sky, blackened by clouds; little candles in red holders placed before a Madona shed a soft light. "The wind doesn’t bother the lumini, the holders protect them," murmurs Zermana, seeing my surprise.
The big houses and churches fade into the distance. The topeta has picked up speed, threatening to take off with each wave. The stinging chill of the nearby sea whips my face. A large island looms. Zo slows down and points:
“Look! That’s where Zermana’s uncle grows his cèole. And he raises bisatini too; they’re the best little eels in the whole lagoon!”
Brasa, smiling, warns me:
“We’ll go and see her uncle, but if you want to try bisatini you’ll have to look sharp, before he snaffles the lot!”
Zo assumes the air of someone who would find such an idea perfectly acceptable; then he whispers, loud enough for the girls to hear:
“We’ll go together, the two of us, and catch them ourselves! I know how to choose the best!”
The girls feign a complete lack of interest in the conversation. Zermana turns to me and says:
“My uncle catches them himself; he’ll choose the best ones for you!”
Zo pretends not to have heard.
We have changed continents. Our bold topeta bravely makes its way up a wide river that penetrates into the deepest interior of the unknown lands that surround us. Mysterious lands, where no man has ever set foot? Lands which barely rise above the surface of the water so as not to betray their secrets. The river overflowed a very long time ago; it has affectionately embraced these lands in its long arms, and today only birds cross the solitary landscape. Yes, I know; it’s just the lagoon…
“The land of the cocalete!”
Zo points out the sleek white and grey birds which inhabit the sky of the lagoon. He goes on:
“They keep an eye on the tides... and the fish!”
We leave the wide river, which the lagoon has tamed into a broad, smooth path, and enter a twisting little channel. We arrive near a pond beside which stands an attractive white stone staircase, barely discernible beneath long grass.
“It’s been years since topi came to fetch salt from La Salina,” says Zo nostalgically.
Salt... the wealth of the world, centuries ago... I know:
“Yes, I know; I’ve read about it in books...”
I ask Brasa:
“Does your father make topi?”
She answers with a sad little smile:
“Fewer and fewer...”
“Fewer than when they used to collect salt,” says Zermana.
She goes on after a pause:
“We used to come here with a topo like the one you saw at our house. This is where we used to load the salt.”
Seeing me looking around, she adds:
“Yes, this was the port… No-one comes here any more; sand has replaced the salt… grass grows all around, as if to keep the memory…”
We step out of the boat. Seven steps lead up to a field. It’s not actually a field, but a forest of grass almost as high as we are makes me think it is. The remains of a once-beautiful house… I don’t know what makes me so sure it was beautiful. Another house…
“That one is still standing; we come here sometimes… You can heat it in winter, we’ve brought wood…”
Zo interrupts Brasa:
“E le putele fa da disnàr!”
“And Zo eats what we have made,” she comments with a laugh.
Zo, of course, has heard nothing:
“There’s even water on the island!”
“Fresh water; there’s a well,” answers Zo, smiling at my ignorance.
A thick curtain of tamarisk surrounds the island… It’s home.
Thursday. The air is fresh. We are walking around. The rain is walking around with us. I have the feeling I have gone out. Silly me! Of course I’ve gone out. No, that’s not it. I cast around for what made me… Yes, that’s it! The rii… I am out because I am in the cali, the campi. I am out because I am not in the rii. You aren’t out when you’re in a rio, you’re still in. In the cali, the campi, you’re with the others, the visitors; even when they aren’t there. And yet that’s not always so; the caleta that goes to Brasa’s, Zermana’s campielo, other calete, other campieli… It’s only in the topeta that I feel… I don’t know how to put it, indoors, as though the windows that line the rii were the windows of the rii themselves.
Sunday. The freshness has become sharper. The rain has come and spread mirrors on the cali and on the campi. The rii come right up to the edge of the fondamente, and where the water overlaps you have to be careful where you put your boots in order not to find yourself in the rio. “It happens,” Zermana says to me with a giggle, “but only to visitors!” Brasa has stopped for a moment to chat with a man busy emptying water from his boat. "Pioze! Bisogna sugàr el legno!" he grumbles. Then they talk about repairs to be made… Not many people on the fondamenta. A few, hurrying stolidly. Although the rain has stopped, the visitors have not returned; cautious…
“They rarely come this way; no monuments, no stories to tell,” comments Brasa.
“They sometimes come sniffing around our house, even though it’s well off the beaten track,” remarks Zermana. “Perhaps they want to discover some hidden secret that they would be the only ones to know.”
Curious, I ask:
“And is there a secret?”
She looks at me and says nothing. I go on:
“Is it like with the bridges?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“The bridges?” asks Brasa.
I tell the story:
“Zo told me about the bridges that everyone here is just by. I wanted to know if everyone was given a bridge; he told me they were given only to those who would keep it with them. And that for the others, they would be too heavy to take away. I promised him I would keep mine… I really like it.”
“And you’re really zo dal ponte, you are!” says Zo.
We all laugh. Except Zermana, who looks thoughtful. I go on:
“Maybe the secrets are like the bridges; even if you can see them, you don’t always know whose house they lead to.”
She shakes her head:
“If they find whose house the bridge leads to, they think they’ve found the secret.”
She gives a quick laugh:
“They have an address!”
She shakes her head again:
“I think we bother them. When they look at us, they seem surprised to see us living our lives. They would like us to be monuments to be visited. Monuments that move. ‘The inhabitants of this city are small, or large, speak a very interesting language very loudly, go about in boats, make good food, live in houses, sometimes very large houses, and also move about in large boats, which means we’re squeezed and can’t see very well’.”
She has fallen silent. Zo and Brasa look down and say nothing. The rain has started to fall again. We stayed a long time without moving.
“Come and see the fog!”
Can you see fog? Yes, of course. But what you look at is what’s behind it, blurred. Why do we like things that are blurred? Perhaps because we see only what our imagination adds to reality. Or because we hope that only what is true appears, and what deceives is no longer there. But what is there behind it? Does the fog hide something or not? If it doesn’t hide anything, can we say that we have seen fog? Yes, of course. When you have seen a monument, you can say that you’ve seen it. And what if the monument were like fog?
“Come and see the fog,” says Zo again, thinking I haven’t heard.
He is offering to take me to see the fog on the lagoon, this Sunday morning.
“You know what there is behind it.”
“Of course,” answers Zo, a little surprised. “Why do you say that?”
“What if there weren’t anything?”
“Well then, let’s go and see!”
Here we are. Zo stretches his arm out over invisible lands:
“Varda, mo xe una bea infissida sora la barena.”
Yes, I see; the fog has come without warning. No, it hasn’t come, exactly; it was suddenly there.
“You can’t say there’s nothing behind, since you saw it beforehand,” he says.
“And what if I hadn’t seen anything beforehand? What if I’d been alone?”
He gives a helpless shrug.
“You would be lost,” says Brasa slowly. “No visitors ever come here.”
“I foresti se daré perdùi in te l’infissida!” says Zo.
It’s true; in front of me there’s nothing but a silvery mist, nothing else. What could visitors do?
“Nobody comes here. There are fishermen; they have their islands. We’ll go and see them.”
Zo navigates with confidence, even though you can’t see six feet in front of you.
“The fog won’t last today; I’ll take you to a house where there’s only the fireplace left. We like to sit around there and chat; the cocalete sometimes come to listen.”
The topeta has stopped after scraping the bottom.
“The tide’s coming in,” Brasa tells me. “There’s no risk. If it were going out, we’d have to wait six hours before leaving again.”
I do indeed understand. How could visitors come? I exclaim:
“Gh’ho capìo; i foresti no pol vegnìr!”
Approving nods and smiles. The girls unpack the disnàr: bread, walnuts... a meal fit for a king! And a zambela to finish! I love cake! What more could you ask? Everything is ready.
“Semo a posto!” says Zo happily.
He goes on, munching a walnut:
“Pan e nose pasto da Dose!”
Of course... here, it’s fit for a Doge!
Around us, little white veils… But how come I can see them? I… Zermana has noticed my surprise:
“L’infissida xe vegnùa e xe partida”
How had I managed not to even notice?
“It’s always like that here; it disappears in a moment,” she adds.
I point out the little white veils.
“It’s aleghe that’ve dried on the barena,” she says.
The clumps of seaweed on the damp shoal sparkle with icy droplets of dew…
“You see, there was indeed something behind it…” Zo starts to say.
“He couldn’t guess, but he wanted to know.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“He wouldn’t have said anything.”
“I think everyone wants to know what they don’t know.”
Zermana shakes her head:
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Perhaps what they know is enough for them.”
“They’re never satisfied! They always want more!”
“That’s true,” says Zo.
Zermana thinks otherwise:
“Sure, they want everything; but perhaps they only want what they know.”
“And they never want to know more?”
She thinks for a moment, then says:
“If someone brings a boat engine more powerful than the one they know out of the fog, they’ll take it; but will they themselves go into the fog to look for something they don’t know?”
“But you say someone will,” points out Brasa.
“Perhaps he always lives in the fog.”
“Why doesn’t he come out?”
“Perhaps he thinks no-one wants to see him.”
“If they had to waste time with him, how would they profit from the engine?”
Brasa sketches a disenchanted smile:
“One day a foresto came in for a repair; he didn’t even look at my father when he left.”
She adds, with a slightly forced laugh:
“And yet it was a sunny day!”
Thursday. The Canalazzo is ours. Through the infissida, which has returned, I can make out the indecisive large houses that had seemed asleep. Have they suddenly woken up, feeling themselves shielded from the eyes of the visitors? They no longer look on me with indifference; they wink at me. And what is this life that my imagination conjures up before me? A long, dark boat peopled with ghosts crosses from one side to the other; are the ghosts, unbeknownst to visitors, making for those houses in order to relive a life long gone?
Sunday. I leave tomorrow. My father is due to come back in the spring to continue his research with Zo’s father. The sun has come to bid me farewell. It’s warm. We have gone to sit on the steps of a large church, a place where no-one passes by. A few children are playing with a ball. We say nothing for a long time.
“And make sure you come back with your father! Otherwise I’ll come and get you in my topeta,” Zo scolds me.
“And I’ll come with him,” adds Brasa, giving me a smile.
Zermana has watched me and said nothing. We fall silent again. Zo points to the little ostaria on the campo in front of the church:
“Von a magnàr el bacalà co la po’enta!”
Zermana lives nearby and has known the ostaria A l’Anzolo since she was a babe in arms.
“The owner will give us the best cod!” says Zo as if it were the thing that mattered most in the world.
El paròn greets Zermana like a daughter:
“Bondì, fia mia!” he exclaims when she goes in.
We take away the bacalà with good helpings of polenta – I’m very fond of corn – and a bottle of wine unfamiliar to me.
We eat standing around a large stone vera right in the middle of the campo.
“We often sit on the well itself,” Brasa tells me.
The bacalà is indeed as good as Zo had promised. Zermana has poured me some of the unknown wine:
The next day I was far away. Back home, the delicious strawberry fragrance and the taste of the fragolìn Zermana had poured me stayed with me for a long time...
"Xe lusòr in te l’aqua,” Zermana would say to me, watching the watery campielo sparkle beneath my window. "Xe un bel zorno de sol," I would answer her, watching the sun climb proudly over the houses that are still trying to hide it; no infissida this morning! The campielo runs gently away towards the friends I had to leave such a long time ago. In a while I will go too; the four of us will have lunch at her house…
Yes, the months have passed, but we have stayed together nevertheless; how many letters exchanged with this one or that, how many telephone conversations! I know all about Zo and Brasa, who have also pressed me with questions; Zermana has told me about herself, I have told her about myself…
“Fioi, cavate el sgusso dei bisi!” the mother orders us.
Down to work! The peas have to be cooked as soon as they’re podded; and the uncle wouldn’t be happy if those he picked at San Rasemo this morning at the same time as the cèole were ill-treated! Zermana has prepared a special disnàr. The result of our efforts will be cooked in stock with garlic and some good rice. "Risi e bisi," she has announced radiantly. A chicken and some radichio – my favourite salad – provided by the uncle, el durengo – no meal without cheese! – we will lack nothing!
Monday. I arrived ages ago. Actually, I arrived yesterday. But it’s been such a long time… such a long time in my head. Did I ever really leave? Did yesterday ever end? No, because we are still all together in the topeta, flying over the waves of the lagoon. Well, actually, we’re not very far from the little rii through which we are heading towards the Arzanà where, Zo has told me, a galley used to be built every minute – I think that might be an exaggeration... but I am so happy to be here! The topeta is tidied away in a quiet corner, where our neighbour is the great wall of the Arzanà... and a cat beside himself with joy at having company. We didn’t have lunch so as not to waste time; Brasa has brought some good things to snack on, but I don’t think anyone has any mind to feel hungry… and after all, we ate so well at Zermana’s yesterday! Yet even so, Zo says:
“Dame un tocheto de persuto!”
Brasa gives him a couple of slices:
“I thought you said you didn’t want any!” she teases him.
The ham smells so good that in the end we all have some. The cat has demanded his share and is devouring it, purring. We set off again. We skirt the Arzanà – how vast it is! – then dreamy rii lined with houses in muted colours take us into a village. A village! Yes indeed: even the foresti wouldn’t say they were in the city.
Once the topeta has been tied up, a bridge with barely five or six steps takes us to a long fondamenta which runs alongside the Rielo, a quiet rio. Giving onto the fondamenta, a cale which looks more like a small courtyard. A friend of Brasa’s father, who also has a squadro, lives there. In the cale? That’s right! I’ll say so! He seems to be quite at home in the little corte he shares with three or four neighbours. We go in; a chair, a chest, a bike, a broom… and flowers on the windowsills! He truly is at home. We are greeted by his wife, who tells us he is in his squadro. Brasa chats with her for a moment, then we’re off again. A long cale, peaceful, like the campielo where children are playing. The squadro is on the edge of a wide canal which separates us from an island where there is a campo full of trees and a large church, San Piero de Casteo. A few residents have come to take their ease on a sort of stone bench which juts out from the wall of the great bell-tower.
Tuesday. Zermana has an errand to run for her father. We’re all there to accompany her – not that she doesn’t know the way, of course, but it’s to show me… the city. The city… Yes, the city; that of the visitors. The one that covers – suffocates, grumbles Zo – the fragile life of this world, a life that I have felt so intensely. The foresti aren’t from here. Of course, that’s obvious, that’s what foresto means; but the impression I get is that they aren’t from anywhere. Where they live – I’ve seen them, I know – they look at nothing, always in a hurry to go about their business; here… they look at nothing, always in a hurry to see everything.
“That’s where we’re going.”
A vast campo. The campo Sant’Anzolo. Zermana has pointed out a big house. The house is beautiful… I find it beautiful because it doesn’t look big… It’s stuck itself away in a corner of the campo; so as not to be disturbed, perhaps? Its windows have grouped themselves together by affinity, according to what they have to say to each other. The lower ones seem to be waiting for friends. The large door, which would be solemn were it not welcoming, is ready to greet them. If they are regulars, they will go up to the floor just above, and there they will be able to see us as easily as they like through the elegant windows of the salon. And if they are distinguished guests, imposing windows imply a magnificent reception room. Peace and quiet prevail in the upper parts, where the masters of the house take their rest.
“La xe la Ca Morosini,” says Zermana.
I repeat dreamily:
“Morosini... I don’t suppose he’s still in his ca.”
“Not for a long while,” she answers.
She goes on with a sad little smile:
“Those – or others – who are here today have no name; it’s not their ca, they just live there.”
She has stopped. After a moment, Brasa breaks the silence:
“The visitors are like them, they’re visiting.”
Zo breaks in:
“Of course they’re foresti. But when a Morosini was there, whether Menego... or Checo... the foresti weren’t all visitors, far from it!”
“I live in the cale dei Albanesi; on the other side of our house is the ramo and behind it the campielo dei Albanesi. They didn’t visit, they lived there; they were part of the life of our Republica de Venetia!”
“And they didn’t destroy it; quite the opposite!”
Zo adds spiritedly:
“No, they even defended it! Like a certain Savorgnan, a neighbour who came from Friùl a long time ago!”
“As for those who live there now,” Zermana goes on slowly, “they organise the visits.”
The topeta cuts determinedly through the waters of the lagoon. The island I am now well acquainted with looms gradually larger.
“Yes, that’s La Salina,” confirms Zo, pointing out the little house made of brick.
It may not be the Ca Morosini, but this house too looks alive to me; there isn’t anyone in it, yet I sense that it is ready to welcome those who might want to spend some time there. We won’t stop today because we’re going right to the end of the lagoon, to have lunch with some fishermen on an island nobody will tell me anything about – I’ll see for myself, I have been told. It has excited my curiosity; but I must wait…
Someone has hailed us as we pass in front of a handful of shacks; Zo has slowed down and is approaching them. Remarks are exchanged; I understand nothing, because the accent isn’t the same as the one I have become used to so far and I miss most of the words. We set off again.
“The fisherfolk of the lagoon live on Buràn,” Zo explains, “and the people there speak a language which isn’t quite the same as ours; we’re used to it.”
“Yes, it’s a big island; we’ll go there another day.”
“Is it as big as San Rasemo?”
“No; but San Rasemo has fields, whereas Buràn has houses.”
They are far off, the houses. Around us there is nothing. Water, land which emerges timidly, vegetation which hesitates to show itself, and then sky, sun, clouds. Nothing. Nothing for the visitors to speak of. Yes, I know, it is said that nature is beautiful. Well then, they will say that nature is beautiful!
Around us there are the barene. Each of these barely emerged shoals has its own life. "La xe una bea vegnua," Zo has said, pointing out a narrow channel which snakes through one of them. Our topeta barely fits into the vegnua through which we penetrate into the heart of the barena; no need to tie up before getting out here. I have learnt to observe the tide; it is starting to rise, we will not be stranded. I remark with satisfaction:
“L’aqua vien suso!”
My satisfaction is only half shared; Zo remarks:
“There’s no time to waste; if the water rises too far, we’ll have trouble finding the bibarazze!”
My satisfaction is suddenly tinged with anxiety; I was really looking forward to eating clams fished freshly from the lagoon!
The girls have noticed my concern and start to laugh; Brasa reassures me:
“We have plenty of time! Of course, Zo isn’t very quick, but we’ll give him a hand.”
Zo protests energetically:
“We’ll see who finds the most!”
The hunt is on! The little creatures are in no hurry to leave the sand they have burrowed into. A lost cause. Our agile fingers leave them no quarter. Well, when I say our fingers I may be slightly overstating the case; but all the same, for a beginner… We set off again with our booty. The lagoon stretches out, I find it harder and harder to make out the contours of the channel we’re in, a channel which gets mixed up with the little islands, most of which no longer even bother to show themselves above the surface; and yet they are there, treacherously seeking to rub against our topeta. But they have reckoned without the skill of Zo, who avoids the shallows that would entrap us and stays on a safe path, even if it does snake about a bit. We run alongside a fishing net hung on wooden pickets. Not far off, another net, then another, and another. Beyond them, a crown of trees, resting on the water. The crown grows in size; nestled between the trees, a white house emerges; the Cason Montiron. Yes, this is the island.
“We can’t go straight up to it,” Zermana tells me. “The tide isn’t very high today, there’s not enough water.”
So that’s why we are making such a large detour, which had greatly surprised me.
The friendly greeting is from the pescaori, the ones who have laid the re I saw a moment ago. They are cleaning eel traps.
“I xe cogoli,” Zo tells me.
He adds greedily:
“They’ll soon be full of bisati!”
Brasa teases him:
“Well, you can wait for them then, while we have polenta col sugo de le bibarazze!”
Zo assumes a pitiful look. It’s Zermana’s turn to tease him:
“If you help us make the sauce, we’ll give you some… a tiny little bit.”
Zo grimaces and we all laugh, including the pescaori.
“Now, to work!” declares Brasa firmly.
I don’t think we would get very far without the girls, even though we, the boys, make superhuman efforts. Zo has carefully rinsed the bibarraze, while I have removed the shells. But when it comes to sweating the onions, the girls haven’t let us anywhere near. Now they’re straining the tomatoes and pouring the white wine. A sprinkling of parsley and it’s ready! Semo a posto! Oh, I just forgot to say it’s the pescaori who have made the polenta… and it’s no easy matter, turning it for hours in the great cauldron. That may be an exaggeration, actually, but I can assure you it takes strength and patience... All that’s left is to eat the food while it’s hot, and that’s something we all know how to do. Mmm, delicious!
The weather is fine this Sunday; the spring sunshine caresses the leaves, still a tender green, of the trees that are coming to life again on the vast campo Sant’Iacopo. We are lounging on a bench. Around us, children run, balls fly; little girls are fussing over a large doll lying quietly in its pram – should she sleep, should she get up to go for a walk? Mothers on a neighbouring bench gently rock other prams in which their toddlers are quietly resting, while keeping an eye on those, hardly any bigger, playing near them. People pass by; are they in a hurry? No doubt; but the campo is like a magnet which slows their steps without them realising it.
“When I was little,” starts Zo, “my mother used to bring me here, because we’ve always lived just by here. Sant’Iacopo has always been my garden, even more so than the little garden of our house on the rio de Sant’Agostin.”
“Everyone here has a garden,” confirms Brasa. “Zermana’s at Màlgari is bigger, there’s a frutariòl in the middle of the campo; it’s really nice to eat peaches in the shade of the trees when it’s hot in summer and everything is silent.”
Zermana dreams for a while:
“I love this quiet; and I also love to sit in my topo, in front of my house, looking at the rio on which I will see my father come home in the evening.”
“What I like best at Brasa’s,” continues Zo, “is the rii, those intimate rii that surround her house; a few strokes of the oar and we’re together.”
Brasa has smiled at him. The children run, the balls fly; the doll has definitely gone to sleep…
After a quick lunch, I go with Zo to pick up Brasa, half-way to the campo San Paternian where we are due to meet Zermana. The tragheto drops the three of us on the other side of the Canalazzo, just long enough for the two oarsmen to exchange a few words with my friends. Zermana arrives at the meeting-place at the same time as us. "Straco?" she calls to someone behind me. I turn and see a gondola pulled in alongside the campo. "Stufo!" answers the gondolier in a voice in which despondency rivals with weariness. We go towards the pope, who stares into space:
“Nianca un ziro ancòi...”
No-one says anything. I am rather surprised he hasn’t had a single customer. Yet despite the friendship of Zo and Brasa, who have so kindly introduced me to the gondolier, I am a foresto and a little scared of saying something hurtful. Timidly I say:
“There are lots of people...”
I haven’t dared to add: “I’ve seen gondolas full of…” I think he has got my drift:
“They take the gondolas at Samarco.”
He shrugs slowly:
“It’s not very big down there; there isn’t room for all the gondoliers...”
He goes on, as though to himself:
“Customers don’t want to take a gondola from anywhere except Samarco; if they don’t take one from Samarco, it’s not a real gondola ride...”
I remember; right by the great square at St Mark’s I have seen flocks of gondolas, and of visitors waiting to go for a gondola ride.
We set off. The girls have decided to go and buy shoes in the big store which sells clothes, and much else, on the campo San Luca.
“It’s just behind this… building,” announces Brasa, pointing to a huge pile of scrap metal.
I stand there staring in amazement.
“My grandmother used to live here,” Zermana tells me rather sadly.
I am even more amazed. She goes on:
“This was built recently. Before, there were houses, less beautiful than those you can see all around, it’s true; they were very old, all you could do was live in them. Lots of visitors come this way, something more beautiful was needed to show them…”
I give a jerky nod towards the pile of scrap:
She smiles. Then, after a short silence, says mockingly:
“I can’t see how anyone could dare to think otherwise! Why else would they have built it?”
I reply in a disillusioned voice:
“Perhaps those who built it have lost the will to live.”
She gives me a smile. A pale smile. We set off again. After skirting round the object, we arrive at San Luca. Yes, lots of visitors come this way; there are those who are already there, there are those who have followed us… Brasa gives me a resigned smile:
“Let’s go and buy our shoes. We need shoes, we walk a lot. That’s our life. A life the visitors make no attempt to understand. But then, why would they? Visiting doesn’t mean sharing a life. Even if you’re a frequent visitor. You haven’t been here long, but we’ve always felt you by our side.”
“And I hope you’ll stay a long time now!” exclaims Zo, giving me an enthusiastic thump on the shoulder.
Zermana has given me a smile. A bright smile:
“Vien! Von da Goldoni a magnàr pasta e fasioi!”
I am surprised again:
“Yes; come along, you’ll see...”
In the meantime it was far from easy to see, given the number of foresti in the cali through which we did our best to push our way. I hadn’t yet been to this part of the city; I was surprised. Brasa explained:
“In these cali there are nothing but stores for visitors from all over the world who come to buy things they could find much cheaper back home.”
“And which most of the time they don’t even need,” added Zermana.
At last we ended up on a campo; I recognised this one, it was at the foot of the big big bridge. In the middle of the campo, a statue. Zo struck a pose:
And that’s how we came to eat pasta and beans at Goldoni’s, or at least in the ostaria on the campo, where Panduro, who knew us well – I say us… – had just made fresh beans, the first baete from San Rasemo, carefully mixed with just what was needed to make them delicious – a few new potatoes, some juicy carrots, onion, celery – and scented with rosemary and bay, all doused in good olive oil; not forgetting Panduro’s fresh little pasta shapes, which are far from the worst! Bon petito...
The San Felise channel takes us to the fisherfolk whose accent I had had trouble understanding the other day. The topeta dutifully follows the large wooden posts that mark it out. “It’s low tide, we mustn’t go outside the bricole otherwise we’ll hit the bottom,” Zo tells me. The heavy rain that had fallen yesterday has cleansed the sky. Far off, I can see mountains which sparkle in the sun and are reflected in the lazy water. “The snow never melts over there,” comments Brasa. We pass La Salina; on the other side of the channel a square tower emerges from the horizon.
"Torceo," announces Zo. He adds pensively: “This is where our world was born.” I know; I have read about it. "Varda la garzeta!" cries Zermana suddenly, pointing to a heron that has just snatched a fish. We are getting closer to the pescaori.
“Òe!” calls Zo.
I can’t see anyone in the shacks. Am I too far away? No; as we enter the Capo channel I can see the fishermen pulling pot-bellied baskets from the water.
“Ànemo mo! Tira suso sto viero che magnemo le mo’eche!” Zo calls to one of the pescaori.
The vieri appear, streaming with water; and now they’re pouring out tiny little crabs onto a slightly tilted board. The mo’eche scuttle away, the pescaori bring them back; or at least, they bring back those that are good to eat. A barrage of doubtless joyful splashdowns tells us how many mo’eche have made it back into the familiar waters of the lagoon.
“Oh, co bele!” exclaims Zo.
Lovely indeed, but above all good! We eat hungrily, chatting away. I still have trouble understanding, though perhaps a little less.
“Time to clear away now,” announces Brasa.
We clear up while the pescaori check the vieri. Zo hoses the nets, the girls have washed the few plates. The table? There is none, we have eaten standing up. Our work done, we get back into the topeta to make our lazy way along the channel. The vieri are attached to long rods plunged into the water; they look like saplings planted there to decorate the channel. The sides are lined with boats, some of them unused for years but not discarded because they have been faithful companions for ever. At the end of the channel, the lagoon…
“Today,” Zo has declared, “we’re going to the country!”
I ask him naively:
“No; Brasa has an errand to run for her father at Sant’Alvise and... you’ll see!”
I’ll see... I always have to wait. But I’ve never had any regrets so far. Let’s wait, then.
“We don’t often have the opportunity to go where our fancy leads us,” says Zermana. “We’re taking advantage of your being here to do just that.”
She goes on with a smile:
“And they’re places where no-one ever goes.”
“Do you mean the foresti?”
She answers with a quick frown:
“Oh no, not only them. The people here rarely leave the places where they live, where they have things to do. As for the visitors, do they even know this place exists?”
She adds with a laugh:
“It’s not part of a regular gondola ride!”
Here we are again on the rii that I’m starting to get to know; we approach the solitary little bridge.
“Xe colma alta! Ocio al ponte!” Brasa warns me.
I duck just in time; the water is high and the bridge is low. After a moment, just as I thought we were about to head out into the lagoon, we turned into a wide rio which went off into the distance, straight ahead, I couldn’t see where. Zo was right, you could almost believe you were in the country, with lower houses and small gardens…
“My great-grandfather used to have a big vegetable garden here,” Brasa tells me. “There were lots of them back then. Do you see the big church?”
“Se ciama la gèsia de la Madona de l’Orto.”
I had already heard the name of the church but hadn’t understood what it meant. The foresti say the church is admirable. Can I tell them it watches over vegetable gardens?
“Sant’Alvise!” announces Zo, like the marinèr in the boat which wanders up and down the Canalazzo.
After tying up the topeta we go towards a house whose little garden gives on to a campielo lined by a huge forest; actually, it’s not a forest, of course, but the many trees I can see on the other side of the old brick wall give that impression. At the end of a cale I see a tree with skinny branches, leaning up against a house and contemplating the lagoon. Having completed the errand, we nose idly around the broad rii of our bit of countryside. Zo has stopped at the end of the rio San Girolamo; I am filled with a sense of vastness, though a bridge in the far distance tells me that the rio does not continue to infinity; the water is still, untroubled by any boat. Another rio, very close; the topeta slides gently over the transparent water; tangled ivy covers the brickwork; and behind the wall, another forest; the country…
Sunday. Strange figures seem to have invested the lagoon, half-discerned through the morning mist. Over there, yonder, between the two barene which affectionately embrace them, they’re on the water, walking. They’re friends, they don’t separate and move apart. What are they saying to each other, so silently that I can’t hear them? Where are they going? They’re in no hurry, they’re still over there, yonder. The outline of the barene gradually becomes clearer and they lose their mystery. The strange figures come closer, emerge from the mist. No, these are not they, these clumps of grass I see before me. The strange figures have withdrawn, over there, yonder, behind the barene, into their secret world. Will they deign to speak with me one day?
“De diana! Cossa xe sta?” exclaims Zo suddenly.
What’s going on? Ah! In the distance, I can see a boat that a man is dragging with a rope. Zo speeds up and comes to rest near him on the barena. It’s one of the pescaori we were with the other day; he has engine trouble. We tow him back. I express my sympathy for him, telling him it must be hard work dragging a boat. He gives me a puzzled look. Then after a moment he gives me the nod of someone who has understood.
“We’re used to it,” he says calmly.
He remains thoughtful, staring into the lagoon:
“My grandfather used to come every day... there were fish to bring in... children to take to school... When the wind was strong and the tide was against, the boat sometimes had to be dragged too…”
He looks up at me again:
“Still does, as you can see... sometimes...”
He gives a long smile, as though saying thank you:
“We have engines now...”
He adds without rancour:
“They work most of the time.”
We reach the shacks. A pescaor is already rummaging around in the engine with him…
The sun lights up the lagoon. The mist is just a memory. Was the appearance of the strange figures just a dream? Perhaps, but can’t dreams reveal things that reality doesn’t show? The lagoon isn’t only a place where people catch fish. I can’t pin down the feeling I have, but I’m sure the strange figures would understand it.
“Xe magra d’aqua, varda le aleghe!”
Zermana points out some limp leaves floating in shallow water through which the bottom can clearly be seen; greenish leaves swaying over the pale sand.
The day takes its time, like us. Noon. The sky is blue. It’s hot. No shade. Brasa has brought polpete; I prefer the ones made with potato, Zo the ones with meat; no matter, since they’re well fried. A few drops of rain have come to share our lunch. Drops of rain? We look up. A cloud, a tiny little cloud is there, just above our heads; its shadow has covered us, bringing us the coolness we had so longed for.
The day has taken its time, like us. The breeze has fallen. The tide has risen. I can no longer see the aleghe. The sun turns the sky crimson and slowly sinks into the lagoon. Night surrounds us on the way back. I no longer have any idea where we are. Actually, that’s not quite true; the bricole I can make out from time to time tell me I’m in the San Felise channel.
Monday. We meet up at Sant’Iacopo shortly after lunch. I say self-importantly:
“My father has asked me to take a file...”
Zo doesn’t let me finish:
“I know, to a colleague of your father’s and mine. He lives in a lovely ca with a garden beside the Canalazzo. You’ll see...”
He leaves the sentence hanging. I get it:
“Another surprise, and I’ll just have to wait and see!”
We set off. Many of the houses along the way are decked out...
“In my honour?”
“Luni, xe zorno de lissìa,” Brasa answers with a laugh.
I strike a condescending pose:
“Too bad! No-one is a prophet in his own land!”
Yes, there is washing everywhere today, at windows, on walls, hung on lines strung across the cali, white, green, red, plain, striped…
“Are you planning on staying like that much longer?” Zo asks mockingly.
I strike an offended pose:
“I was conversing with my ego!”
“It can’t be listening very hard if you have to talk to it so loudly!”
I’ve lost. But now Zermana comes to the rescue:
“At least he looks hard, and sees things!”
The implication is clear.
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbles Zo, “so you all gang up against me!”
“Poor Zo, we’re all so hard on him!” exclaims Brasa.
We all laugh.
A surprise? Yes indeed, a surprise! Hardly have I stepped into the garden of the ca than I find myself nose to helmet with a Roman soldier!
Zo turns towards the statue.
“How do you know he’s Roman?” he wonders.
I have no idea... I proffer an argument:
“Have you seen his tunic?”
“I told you he looks at things properly,” comments Zermana.
“That’s true,” says Brasa. “In all the time we’ve been coming here we’ve never thought to ask.”
The Roman soldier – if he is one – is not alone; who else is hiding there, behind the broad leaves of the shrubs?
“That, I know,” Zo tells me knowledgeably, “is a satyr; I’ve seen frescoes in a book about mythology.”
So here we are, in good company; and well-protected, to boot! At the foot of the large gate giving onto the Canalazzo, two helmets keep watch from the top of the haughty heads of two fearsome guards.
“They no longer guard anything,” says Zermana softly.
I feel embarrassed. No one says anything. In the end, Zo says abruptly:
“Let’s deliver your file!”
We climb up to deliver my file. The ca had already looked very large when I had seen it on arrival, but now it seems vast. Vast, because it does not know the measure of man. It’s not that I feel lost in these vast rooms, but rather that I get the impression they weren’t made for me. What I feel is that they weren’t made for the people they belonged to either. Who for, then? Nobody; they were made for nobody. Here is the colleague, entering one of the vast rooms. Why have I had the fleeting vision of a giant who for an instant has stooped to my measure? Is it this giant that the two guards are protecting?
The colleague is very affable and soon dispels my musings. He asks me for my impressions of the places I have been to, talks to me about those he knows, sings the praises of Zo, who he’s fond of because he’s a serious lad, asks about my studies, and hopes I will do something with my life that will serve others.
We go back down into the garden.
“What is of use to people, here?”
We are surprised by Zermana’s question. I ask her:
“Which people? Visitors?”
“No, not visitors; they’re happy just to visit. No, the people who live here, us maybe.”
Brasa suggests with simplicity:
“The things they need, I suppose.”
She adds after a short pause:
“They need boats; my father makes them.”
“Yes, yes... And my father transports goods; people need them too.”
After a short silence, Zermana goes on:
“There are boats everywhere; goods are transported everywhere.”
“You mean what is really ours?” asks Brasa.
“Yes; what our life would consist of if there weren’t any visitors.”
She goes on energetically:
“I mean visitors, not foresti, as we said the other day.”
“Life consists of many things...”
“School, our walks?”
“Our dreams, the things we have to do...”
“Like homework, or...?”
He hesitates; I answer:
“Yes, and things we have to do for others; our parents, our…”
“You’ll be asking me if I plan to go on like that much longer!”
No, he doesn’t ask, but looks thoughtful. Zermana says slowly:
“Eating is something you have to do in order to stay alive; but without dreams, what taste do they have, the things we eat?”
“Do the strange figures eat?”
It was spoken more under my breath than out loud. Given the curious looks directed towards me, I have no option but to tell the story; I do so. A long silence. Zermana gives a long sigh:
“If there were no more visitors, would the strange figures be the only ones to stay and live with us?”
Brasa’s father has asked her to take the maintenance manual for one of his boats to be printed; the typographer is not far from Zermana’s house, where the three of us arrive in the early afternoon. The little port is full; Zo, having dropped us off, goes to tie up the topeta alongside the wall, a little further away. Large nails have been driven here and there into gaps in the bricks. As always, I admire the agility with which he slips from one nail to the next in order to get back.
Zermana’s mother has made us a zambela. As Zo has refrained from making a single mouthful of the cake with its delicious taste of eggs and butter, we are all able to enjoy it. Now we are leaving by the calesela which isolates the Corte Zapa from the outside world. From cale to caleta, we come out onto the fondamenta of the rio de le Romite, a rio with two fondamente all to itself! Nearby, a large squadro that our putele know well; el paròn is a friend of Brasa’s father. "Bondì, Za paròn!" We stop for a chat; "Fasemo do chiàcole!" he has said, seeing us coming.
“La xe la Spina Longa.”
Zermana has pointed out a long island, on the other side of a broad canal crossed by large boats. We’re on the Zàtare, a long and wide fondamenta that I hadn’t been to before. I see another world. The houses on the long island are not really different, may even be lovely, but they do not live the same life; they are sensible.
Zo dal ponte! In passing, I catch sight of the squadro; el paròn is hard at work. He does not look out onto the rio, to which he turns his back, and yet the rio is certainly more present for him than it will ever be for me; it is on that rio that the gondola he is making will sail.
A wide cale; why can one see only the tops of the windows that line it? Have the houses sunk into the ground?
“Xe el rio terà de Santa Gnese,” Zermana tells me.
Seeing my incomprehension, she goes on:
“It’s the ground that has risen, not the house that has sunk; the rio has been filled in.”
I am amazed:
“Why? Did it have no purpose?”
She gives a sad smile:
“It had a purpose for the people who used to live there...”
She falls silent. I dare not ask anything else. She points to the people going by. They are visitors, nothing but visitors.
“There’s a museum at the end of the cale, La Cademia.”
She goes on in a dull voice:
“We no longer have our place here.”
No-one says a word for a long while. I don’t know what to say either. A vague feeling of embarrassment invades me; this is not my home. Can I understand…? What should I understand? What must I understand? It’s not only about visitors; no, we have already talked about that and I have understood. What, then? My mind blurs, and yet I suddenly say to Zermana in a firm voice:
“No-one will ever take your place; your place is La Cademia itself. You are La Cademia. The visitors walk in this cale only on an illusion; your rio has remained hidden with its secret, the same one as that of the strange figures.”
We have stopped; Zo and Brasa are holding hands and look at me with the kind of smile you see after tears.
“When you come,” Zermana says to me softly, “I don’t think of going anywhere else.”
I answer in a serious voice:
“I know I will always have a place at the Corte Zapa.”
We stay there without moving for a long while.
“We have to go to the typographer’s!” exclaims Zermana brightly.
A caleta takes us onto the fondamenta of a wide rio; on the other side, zo dal ponte, we find the cale del squadro which takes us through a rural spot – yes indeed! – where simple houses alternate with verdant gardens which remind us that spring has been here for a good month already. So where is the squadro then? Brasa sighs: “It’s been gone for years, it was smaller than my father’s, and as you know there are fewer and fewer topi being built…” At the end of the cale del squadro... we can’t go any further, it gives onto a little rio whose brick walls are covered in greenery. I must have looked surprised, because Zo has told me with a grin:
“After you; you have to swim!”
He laughs at my worried look, then reassures me:
“We’ll hire a sandolo to cross over to the other side.”
I am indeed reassured, but as for understanding… The solution fills me with admiration; he has untied a sandolo, gone to pull one over from the other side, and all we have to do is cross. I am not the only one to have observed the scene; motionless on a windowsill, a black cat with golden eyes stares at us. What has he thought of the manoeuvre? Nothing, I suppose; he must be used to it.
“I xe i Incurabili!”
Zermana has pointed out a large building on a campo surrounded by houses buried in a jumble of brand-new flowers and climbing plants.
“That’s where people who couldn’t be cured used to live. Today…”
She doesn’t finish. A silence. She goes on:
“Today, they don’t need us any more. And anyway, we can no longer do what we used to… before.”
And brightly, without even a pause:
“Let’s go to the typographer’s!”
A cale leads off the campo. A few paces away, in a façade, a large opening over a wide piece of white Istrian stone acts as a counter. We are at the typographer’s workshop.
Thursday. "Let’s go for ice cream,” Zo has suggested. No sooner said than done. The topeta slips away to Zermana’s. “I’ll take the opportunity to take these crates of vegetables to the frutariòl at Barnabà; my uncle didn’t have time this morning," she tells us. The frutariòl is at the end of the rio, near the church; we tie up to his topo, moored alongside the fondamenta.
She gives him the crates:
“Te li manda mio barba!”
The vegetables will join the others, as well as all sorts of fruit, that fill his topo. But the asparagus that Zermana has brought are welcome, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any. A woman, peering over the boat, has already asked for a bunch. We leave the frutariòl, a motionless sailor, who nonetheless offers the local produce.
Who has cried in such a loud voice? A gondolier! What’s going on? A boat has suddenly emerged from the Canalazzo to which we are headed. The pope, ahead of us, has been taken by surprise and is now giving great strokes of the oar to slow his heavy gondola; powerful, quick strokes. He is so quick to hit the water that it’s like seeing the vanes of a windmill in a storm! The gondola has stopped. The boat has come to rest against the wall. What a piece of luck it didn’t go left, where the gondola was!
“No, no, it wasn’t luck!” exclaims Zo. “It was the pope who shouted to the other guy to slow down; to do that, you pull on the oar, which turns the boat to the right.”
I had never paid attention to how to row a boat. With Zo’s engine… My curiosity is aroused:
“I’d love to give it a try...”
Brasa breaks in:
“Well then, do you want to start with our sandolo when we get back?”
“And if you get it right, I’ll ask the squadro we saw yesterday to let you row a gondola.”
I am a bit scared:
“What if I get it wrong?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be right beside you; if there’s a problem, he’ll chuck you into the water!”
I pull a face that makes everyone laugh. Zo adds:
“And no ice cream for you if you can’t manage the sandolo!”
I ponder this serious threat:
“We could start with the ice cream...”
No-one seems to have heard...
“That’s where our fathers work!”
Zo has assumed a pompous voice, and points to a large ca on the left; he continues in a more normal tone:
“You see that window, there, just over the garden? That’s my father’s office.”
A few moments later we pass under the big bridge, which is much less tiring than going over it. Less tiring for me, but tiresome for Zo; so many visitors in so many boats! It’s not easy to make a way through, or at least it wouldn’t be for me. But we get to the other side without even slowing down: Zo is at the helm!
The rio de Sant’Andrea drowses peacefully. I’m having my first boating lesson.
“No, not on the fòrcola!” yells Zo.
Not on the fòrcola? What’s it for, then? I’ve always seen the oar resting on the fòrcola.
“Yes, when you’re moving; but first you have to get under way. It’s easier to guide the sandolo with the oar resting on the side of the boat; go on, gently does it!”
I do it gently. The sandolo has quit the strand... or at least moved away from the wall. We’re on our way. We’re all there, some seated, others – I’m the others – standing, handling the long oar. Brasa’s cat sits stately as a figurehead on the prow. Off we go on new adventures, cat and all.
“Dai una siàda!”
Easy enough for Zo to say. At least it’s not too complicated when the sandolo’s moving. You push hard; on the way back, all you have to do is press on the oar with your right hand so that it doesn’t slip out of the fòrcola during the staìa. But stopping? One should never have to stop! What’s the point of stopping?
Why left? Oh, yes, otherwise I’ll smash the wall.
“It’s the sandolo you’ll smash,” Zo says sarcastically.
If I haven’t smashed the sandolo, it’s thanks to the prudent kicks against the wall given by my teacher to prevent the shipwreck. At last, after many fruitless attempts, I have finally managed to park myself absolutely perfectly beneath Brasa’s window. I rejoice:
“I’m a real pope!”
“At least you deserve an ice cream.”
There are so many good things around where Brasa lives. The day before yesterday it was ice cream. Today…
“Von a magnàr un zabagiòn!” Zo has suggested.
"It’s very near here," he has added. Yes, very near, just three bridges away... Only a couple of strokes in a sandolo.
“They’re very good here, much better than round where I live,” Zermana tells me.
Oh yes, they are indeed very good: eggs and sugar, beaten well and long, and flavoured with wine or brandy. And then a foamy hot chocolate with neve, a cream so light it seems like snowflakes…
“A walk will do you good,” says Brasa, “you’ve eaten too much!”
“You come here every day,” jokes Zo.
Off we go. Zo dal ponte, we come to a maze of cali and campieli. A few men are chatting in the sunlit quiet of one of the campieli, seated nonchalantly at a table in front of an ostaria. One cale leads into another, passing in front of half-open windows; one campielo shows us children playing peacefully, another a vera all decorated with sculptures. Zermana points to it and says:
“These days we get water from a tap, we no longer have to go and get it from the vera; it’s certainly more convenient.”
Lost in thought, she adds:
“There are so many things that are not convenient here...”
She gives a little sigh:
“Everything is more convenient elsewhere...”
A wan smile:
“Everyone here knows that.”
She goes on very quickly:
“How many go looking elsewhere...”
She does not finish. Brasa confirms:
“More and more.”
She turns to me:
“I told you my father makes fewer and fewer topi...”
“And you don’t think life will start up again one day?”
She answers with a bitter smile:
“El dì de San Mai!”
“Never? Then what will become of those who still live here?”
Silence follows my question. She finally answers with resignation:
“For those who only want what is more convenient the question doesn’t even arise, since they go looking elsewhere. For the others? Some live in the past, especially if they’re too old to do otherwise; some live in hope, even though they know there’s no point.”
Another silence. Zermana leans on the vera:
“And then there are those who stay per esser soto la chioca, at home, so as not to abandon la galìa that carried their heart, and is sinking.”
Sunday. A big church, a big square, a winged horse taking flight.
“El Cavalo doesn’t have wings,” protests Zo.
“That’s because you always see him in the same place; but when you’re not there, he flies away!”
“I see you’ve found out our secrets,” Zo says sententiously.
I assume an air of mystery:
“Perhaps El Cavalo is a strange figure who only flies when he can’t be seen.”
Brasa breaks in:
“And yet you’ve seen him!”
Zermana shakes her head:
“You only find out secrets when you look. He didn’t see, he looked.”
We have taken a narrow cale that goes nowhere. Actually, that’s not quite true, it leads into a campo full of water. No, no, it isn’t under water, it’s where two rii meet. On the other side of the ‘campo’, a large topo laden with crates of beer.
“I wanted to see if their boat was afloat,” says Brasa.
I am surprised:
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“My father repaired it and I wanted to make sure it was all right.”
“Talking about repairs,” breaks in Zo, “when do you think your father can...”
“Your topeta hasn’t sunk yet. And you’re a good swimmer.”
Zo pulls a face. She reassures him with a smile:
“He told me he can do it this week.”
“Oh, there’s no hurry; if it sinks, well, you know how to swim too!”
For all its interest, the discussion suddenly ends because Zo’s attention has been caught by something more exciting. Pointing to the shop we’re passing, he says:
“Renato has excellent ham.”
I show off all the knowledge I have acquired from my friends:
“Von a magnàr qualche feta de San Danêl!”
Enjoying their surprise, I add:
“Xe un persuto furlàn...”
And end as best I can:
“...that Savorgnan himself, a real furlàn, would not have scorned!”
“El xe venetiàn nato e spuà!” says Zo wonderingly.
Zermana has looked at me with a smile. I… I wasn’t born here, of course, but it has made me feel all warm inside.
“So are we going in or staying outside?” jokes Zo.
We go in. The hams hanging from the ceiling are tasty; I know, I’ve already had some at Zermana’s. Renato is the kindest of men and to serve us with celerity does a sort of little dance which takes him now to the ham, now to the counter… and goes nowhere. At last we leave with our fete.
“He’s really nice,” sighs Brasa, “but so slow!”
Another narrow cale and I can see the big topo again, though this time it isn’t on the other side of the rio but near me. We’ve gone in a circle without my even noticing. I am starting to get used to all the different ways of getting from here to there, but sometimes I’m still completely lost. The marineri have just finished loading their topo and are talking with Brasa. One of them has leant over the side and plunged his head into the water, as far as the shoulders. He straightens up again, cursing, a piece of old rope in his hand; the engine wouldn’t start, the rope had got caught in the propeller. The engine catches and the boat sets off; we too, to cross the rio. We find ourselves in the narrow cale which leads to El Cavalo. The topeta is moored not far off; it’s time to go home.
Who is calling us so loudly? Zo has slowed down. I can hear a long speech which I don’t understand much of. No, nobody called us, it’s just a boy having an argument with a chum. His chum is at his window on the second floor, so they have to talk loudly to hear each other. But the chum could be ten houses away and hear just the same. I did, even though the topeta was still at some distance. We enter the rio de Sant’’Andrea. Evening is drawing in, the slanting light lingers on a balcony overflowing with greenery from which the lament of an old piano can be heard.
It’s raining. It’s raining softly. The water is calm. The rain has woven a silvery web over Zermana’s rio. We’re in the little port, comfortably settled in the topo covered by a tarpaulin strung between four posts, like the one the frutariòl uses to protect his wares. Zermana has turned to me:
“I love being here, watching the raindrops dance on the rio…”
She lets the silence listen to the rain, then adds brightly:
“It was Zo who made this house for me!”
She goes on after a moment:
“I sometimes come here to learn my lessons.”
“That’s why she only gets good marks when it rains,” Zo says to me confidentially.
“That’s unkind,” protests Brasa, “she’s just as good at school as you!”
Zo has clearly sought an answer, and just as clearly failed to find one. An amused silence follows. I turn to Zermana:
What was I going to say? I don’t know. She has looked at me and is waiting. I start again:
“It must be nice for you to be here learning my lessons.”
Was that an imperceptible smile? I hurriedly correct myself:
“Yes, it’s… very…”
“If you like, I can come and learn when it rains…”
I correct myself again:
“No, I’d be bothering you...”
She interrupts me:
“I would like that.”
The heat is suffocating; it is hard to breathe. Xe la afa! But I don’t even feel it, so happy to be back again after spending so many months cussì lontàn da la chioca...
“Òe! Zenso caro!”
I go to the window; Zo is calling me. I shout a joyful “Coming!” and tear down the steps to hop into the topeta. We’re going to Zermana’s, where we’re having dinner this evening. But first, we stop by to pick up Brasa; her father is going to the squadro not far from the Corte Zapa and will take us. The topeta will stay in the rio de Sant’Andrea; we’ll come back in the evening on foot. Zo zooms into the Canalazzo at breakneck speed, creating waves higher than those a ship would make crossing the ocean! The boats moored here and there take wing on the spray, a pope rowing dismayed foresti yells his disapproval as the visitors’ boat threatens to founder. We serenely enter the rio de Sant’Andrea...
“Bondì! Bondì!” cries Brasa happily.
It’s a quieter ride with her father. Having barely left the Canalazzo, we pass by the frutariòl, and I can already see the Corte Zapa at the end of the rio... and Zermana standing in her topo waving her arms. We enter port, so to speak.
“Ti...” she starts.
I jump into the topo:
Her wide smile seems fixed in place. I stand there like a post – though mast might be more appropriate.
“We’re happy to see you again...”
That’s the parents... They say nice things to me. I answer as best I can. Most of the time they speak their own language, that of the Republica de Venetia, which I’m not yet quite familiar with. Though I will learn. It’s easier with my friends, they also speak the language I speak. They go to school, where they are taught how to speak properly. I will learn Zermana’s language. If I don’t, I’ll never know what she thinks. Though actually I will, definitely… But I will never be able to hear what she thinks. The mother shows concern, the journey must have been tiring. It’s true, I haven’t said much. It’s also true that I arrived late last night. I answer as best I can. Night has fallen. Zo gives the signal for us to start our walk.
“Bon spassizo, putei!” says the father.
Our walk is unhurried. The afa is still there and seems even more oppressive in the dark. The light from the streetlamps hesitates to penetrate the thick air, letting shadows invade the cali. It’s not too late yet, though there are not many people about; everyone stays in on Sunday evening, Zo has told me. A skewed bridge drops us off on the fondamenta of the rio de le Romite; a little further on and we are in the country again, with its low houses and little gardens… How can visitors see nothing but a city here, only a city? But they can’t see this patch of countryside from where they usually are, and the houses are much too low to be visible behind the great monuments. Yet just a single rio separates us from La Cademia, the museum not far from which we found ourselves last spring and where I had seen nothing but visitors, only visitors. Yes, but you had to go zo dal ponte! Everyone has their bridge here, Zo told me the first day I came. Perhaps the visitors don’t dare cross a ponte that they obscurely feel isn’t theirs…
“No schoolbooks to buy today!” exclaims Zo with a laugh.
I look at him, slightly surprised. He points to a closed shop:
“La xe la librarìa.”
I remember now. It’s the bookshop we came to the other day; it’s true, we’re on holiday, no school, no schoolbooks.
“We’ll have to be going back soon enough though...” starts Zermana.
She has broken off. Zo is less than enchanted by the prospect:
“Faso i corni a la scola!”
Brasa teases him:
“It was you who started talking about school!”
School… Yes, school...
“Don’t look right!” she says to him in the same tone of voice.
Zo feigns indifference. I don’t get it. She points out a large ca:
“La xe la ca Foscari.”
Seeing I still haven’t got it, she adds:
“That’s the great school, the university...”
“Whether I look right or not won’t change anything, my father will still want me to go there,” says Zo with resignation.
Time is getting on; there are fewer and fewer passers-by. We are near a large church that always has a lot of visitors – I know, it’s very close to where Zo lives – and the place is deserted. All I can see is a great empty space, a great empty space that is silent. Our path is marked out by the weary light from the lamp-posts, light that the heavy air causes to tremble. We pass by the campielo San Stin next to where Zo lives; the dozing vera half-wakes to whisper "Fasemo campielo!" to me, like when Zo used to play there as a child. And the space is no longer empty, it is full of all the lives in which the vera has taken part.
“No, it’s not a cave,” says Zo sarcastically.
And yet… I’m used to the sotoporteghi now; when it rains, they’re convenient to take shelter in until the rain stops. But this one… if it isn’t a cave… no, actually, it isn’t, and we enter a tiny courtyard with an odd name: Corte de l’Anatomia... are we going to see someone, a doctor perhaps?
“No, no,” laughs Zo, “it’s a main road!”
Main road my foot! But what is this bridge? And this campo, zo dal ponte? This campo, where bushes of light are dotted about an affectionate obscurity. No, I’m not dreaming, it is indeed the campo Sant’Iacopo! Zo smiles at my surprise:
“It’s better than a cave, it’s a secret passage that the visitors have never found!”
Brasa suggests that we sit down for a moment on a bench that is resting near a wall, looking at a vera in the middle of the campo. Are they both in the middle of chiacolàr insieme? We too chat with each other, joyful at being together again… I recount the time spent a long way from here, school, the trip I have just been on with my parents… my father was doing research on the other side of the world…
“Fortunately your father’s now working with mine,” says Zo.
“Yes, and I hope they’ll keep on doing so for a long time to come,” adds Brasa.
The conversation continues in the quiet of the campo. A neighbour comes home; he gives Zo a little wave. We leave.
“When does your father have to go back?” Zermana asks me.
A topo advances proudly down the middle of the Canalazzo. It’s a friend of Zermana’s father on his way back from the Marcà, to which they both carry fruit and vegetables… One day soon we’ll go and spend the day with her uncle on San Rasemo, and we’ll come back with her father, bringing produce from the vegetable garden to the Marcà. Alongside the topo and slightly behind, a boat is unhurriedly carrying four visitors, parents and children – I can see they are visitors because they are constantly craning their necks, without ever taking the time to just look. Nearer to the ca where I am, a pope is rowing visitors whose radiant smiles are fixed for the entire duration of the “real gondola ride”.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
Who...? Oh yes, it’s Zo’s father, who I am visiting at the research institute. Brasa and Zermana had stuff to do today – both of them. I think they didn’t really want to come; the researchers’ science stories are of little interest to them, especially as they’ve already heard them many times: “It’s always the same,” they said. So Zo and I have come on our own. I leave the window overlooking the Canalazzo. Zo’s father is hard at work with my father.
“There is a rather lovely sun,” he comments aptly.
He goes on in the same tone of voice:
“Since your father is here, I’m taking advantage of the fact to finish up a little study with him.”
And to show me he knows about my linguistic progress, he adds a vague translation in his language:
“Fenimo sto laoro za che ghe semo!”
The little study is done. He explains what he does with virtuosity; he is clearly thoroughly familiar with his subject since he doesn’t stop even to breathe. As for following the explanation… I am clearly not quick enough. “You just don’t have the necessary knowledge, like me,” Zo will tell me a little later, “and as he never takes any notice…”
“Do you want to see maps of the places in the lagoon you’ve been to?” asks my father.
I wasn’t expecting to see such detailed maps; they show everything. La Salina, la Cason Montiron, the fishermen; and the channels, with their depth.
“You’ll soon hit the bottom if you don’t stay in the channels,” Zo warns me.
“How do you manage? I’ve never seen you with a map!”
“How do you manage to find your way about, where you live?” he answers with a laugh.
“You’re right… but if I go a bit further afield…”
He gives me a little smile:
“The lagoon isn’t very big...”
The lagoon isn’t very big... That’s true, I can see it on the map. It had seemed huge.
“Xe un zorno come i altri...” Brasa has noted, nodding her head.
Yes, the afa is still there, from morning, just like every other day since I got back. We are at Sant’Iacopo, on the bench we had sat on the evening of the day before yesterday. But the campo is no longer asleep; it resounds with the cries of children who seem to be unaffected by the afa. On other benches, mothers chat while keeping a keen eye on their offspring, and neighbours ill-treated by age allow themselves to slip into a gentle somnolence which makes them forget the stifling heat.
Who has shouted? I can see two rows of boys standing in a line with their legs apart; amid the shouting, one of them is running full tilt to stop a ball that is running away from him.
“The ball came out,” Zo tells me.
“It was supposed to stay between their legs.”
The ball comes back to its permitted place; a kick sends it spinning behind.
“The first has to pass the ball to the last, without it leaving the line; it’s not easy!”
“Then the one at the back goes to the front and they start again…”
The two teams go at it fiercely. This time it’s not the ball that has come out but a boy; he has trodden on the ball and fallen to the ground. Yes, but even while falling he kicked the ball through the line. Nice work!
“La xe una bela zogada!” say Zo approvingly.
One of Zo’s schoolmates has come up:
“Cossa fastu qua?”
“Semo a chiacolàr col mio amigo!”
The boy, told what we are doing, also spends a moment chatting with Zo. He talks quickly, so I can’t catch the whole conversation. He’s going on holiday, he hasn’t said where – Zo must know, I suppose – in a very big city by all accounts; the very big city has very great qualities which mean you don’t get bored like you do here, you can take a car, at least you get to where you’re going quickly; there’s lots going on, and museums for those who are interested in such things – I gather he isn’t; there are lots of shops, you can buy clothes, there’s much more choice than here, you can buy… there were too many things, I couldn’t follow; and then there’s space, you can go where you want without it being complicated. There’s nothing to do here, he has concluded with a frown of disgust.
What a lovely trip he will have...
The strange figures from the lagoon have passed before my eyes; Zermana was with them. I hear her voice emerging from the fog: “Stay…”
“A cossa se zoga?”
Some putelete have just come out from where they live. They are standing near the wall not far from us and are wondering what to do; one of them has sat down on the doorstep, doubtless to think better, for it is she who suggests with an air of decision:
“Zoghemo a la comareta!”
Two putelete run back inside and come back, one carrying a rag doll, the other a cushion and a little crocheted blanket on which she lies down, hugging the doll. Cossa xe? What game is that?
“She’s just had a baby and is waiting for her friends to visit,” Zermana explains.
“And all the little girls in the neighbourhood are going to come and congratulate her,” adds Brasa.
I feel slightly embarrassed. I look at Zo. He’s clearly used to it. He gives me a condescending little flap of the hand:
“Girls have their own games...”
I don’t know what to say. I still feel slightly embarrassed. Brasa smiles:
“They know they won’t be little girls all their lives.”
Zermana watches the boys play for a long moment:
“Boys play to show that they’re the strongest, or the most able; girls play to show that they don’t want to play.”
Putelete flock from all around; the telephone has clearly spread the news through the cali and campieli. The visit they make seems to be a serious business; they approach softly, doubtless so as not to scare the baby, compliment the mother affectionately and lean over the child with tender movements. If it had happened in a bedroom, around a real bed, and if you hadn’t known what was going on, you could have witnessed the scene through the window and believed it to be true. No, these putelete were not playing a game.
Two putelete sitting on the ground near the baby have grasped each other hands and pull and push assiduously while singing softly:
Dimàn faremo pan,
Faremo la fugazza,
Ghe la daremo al can,
Burata ti, burata mi,
Burata quela vechia,
Che ha dito mal de mi.
“They’re singing a lullaby so that the baby sleeps quietly,” Zermana whispers to me.
I no longer feel embarrassed but… how can I put it?... moved. She has looked at me closely, then continued, very softly:
“I’ll translate it for you:
Sieve the flour,
Tomorrow we’ll make bread,
Tomorrow we’ll make scones,
Give them to the dog,
Sieve you, sieve me
Sieve the old lady
Who slagged me off.”
“Ancòi fa un gran sofegazzo!” grumbles Zo.
So what’s new? Today isn’t the first stifling day we’ve had. Though this morning, it must be said…
“Do you like swimming?”
He has turned to me, clearly full of hope.
“Oh yes! Except that usually I can only go to the pool and I’ve always dreamt of swimming in real water!”
I give a little laugh:
“That sounds silly, doesn’t it?”
“Not at all,” says Brasa stoutly. “I wouldn’t like to swim in a pool; and you’re right, the water in our lagoon is indeed…”
Her voice remains suspended...
“...real!” she finishes off with a laugh.
“Let’s go to Gagia then,” declares Zo.
I know the way now; we go past San Rasemo, where we’ll soon visit the uncle, and now we’re back in the San Felise channel for the first time this summer. A feeling of peace settles over me as I look into the distance of the lagoon which still seems just as vast as ever… We turn into a wide channel: we’re at Gagia.
“Come on!” yells Zo, diving into the middle of the channel.
Now we’re all in the water... But what about the topeta?...
“It’s your turn to pull it up onto the barena, you’re on guard duty today,” says Zo in a serious voice.
I don’t have time to finish, my reply cut off by general laughter. All four of us drag up the topeta. Zo has gone ahead, taking the rope and the oar with him; on reaching the barena, he has planted the oar and knotted the rope around it. The topeta won’t go floating off now.
Why not? I had my moments, in the pool.
“We’re not going to spoil the pleasure of being in the water,” announces Brasa, roundly backed up by Zermana.
Off we go! Zo is a good swimmer, a very good swimmer even. But I feel that I could stay with him, for I have felt something strange: the water keeps me up. It’s true, I knew that seawater has a higher density than the fresh water of a swimming pool. Things you learn at school can sometimes be useful… The finish! Who won? We’ll never know, the line not having been particularly well defined. No matter. The girls mock us. “It wasn’t worth it!” they cry… No matter. We swim more sedately. “I’m hungry,” Zo tells us. Indeed, I think the same could be said of all of us. Back on the barena, we devour the food that Zermana had prepared for us, finishing with a large cake studded with almonds, candied orange peel and raisins and dusted with cinnamon. All we have to do now is bask, looking out over the drowsy lagoon shimmering in the sun whose rays are filtered by the heat haze through which, in the distance, I can make out the vague and slightly trembling shape of Torceo’s mighty bell-tower.
“That’s where we used to live...” says Zermana pensively.
I am slightly surprised:
“I thought you’d always...”
She interrupts me with a dreamy smile:
“A long time ago...”
A long time ago... Of course, it’s the history of Torceo in centuries gone by. She goes on in a reflective tone of voice:
“There’s nothing left here now. The church, a few people who live there, visitors…”
She stops for a moment, staring at Torceo, then goes on in a harsher voice:
“Foresti had chased us away from where we had been living; we sought refuge from them here.”
She pauses, then, still harshly:
“They weren’t foresti who wanted to live with us.”
She turns to me and says more gently:
“You’re a foresto but you haven’t come to chase us away. And you…”
She interrupts herself:
“We’re all glad you came.”
She pauses again, a long pause:
“The foresti who visit leave again some day. I know we say we don’t like them much; but I don’t think that’s actually true. It’s nice to be visited; of course, a visitor can be disagreeable, but that’s just part of ordinary life. No, what…”
She hesitates for a moment, then says in her harsh voice:
“There are foresti who don’t visit; they stay. Are they the ones who chased us away centuries ago? Have they come back? Have they come back to chase us away again?”
Her voice becomes duller:
“Can’t we do anything other than welcome them?”
Thursday. The day has been spent without me. I went with my parents to a nearby town – on the mainland, as Zermana says. People to see, the town to visit… Yes, that’s right, we were visitors… I was bored. We came back after dinner. Zo has come to get me, we had decided to see the night. My mother is anxious: “You can’t be spending the night outside, you’re tired!” I say something about the afa.
“We’ll leave from Brasa’s,” Zo tells me.
Night. We haven’t gone far. We are sitting, the four of us, on the parapet of the bridge near where she lives. Well no, actually, not four, since there are five of us. Her cat has come to join our gathering. In front of me, the black rio de Sant’Andrea is still, peacefully reflecting the light from the lamp-post on the neighbouring bridge. Xe colma alta. The water is at its highest and laps the fondamenta. It’s not a particularly high tide today so there has been no need to build a retaining wall to protect the front door of the squadro. I don’t want to move, for fear of seeing the rio disappear and finding that it was only a dream. No-one said anything the whole time; I felt that it was for me, so as not to disturb my meditation. I come back to myself; Zermana has given me a long smile. Brasa turns to me:
“We often come and sit on this bridge, Zo and I; we talk quietly, watching the rio.”
She gives a sigh:
“We can still feel at home, here...”
A moment of silence. Zo says cheerfully:
“Passemo arente a la laguna!”
The Fondamente Nove which border the lagoon are not far away; a single bridge, over the rio de Santa Catina. The rio is full of lights; the tender lights of the lamp-posts, which watch over late home-comers. A cale which winds its way between verdant little courtyards takes us onto the Fondamente. The night has grown bigger. The lagoon has replaced the walls of the houses; the darkness is pierced only by the little guide-lights on the bricole of the large channels so that the marineri can navigate without fear. Back via El Cavalo; does he also fly away at night? cali... An iron bridge glints softly under a lamp-post I can’t see. Hello, there’s the shop that sells the good persuto de San Danêl! I believe I can smell it… A large campo, Formosa. The dome of the church merges with the sky. Large and lovely ca on every side. The campo gives the impression of being their shared courtyard. Two vere provide drinking water. Used to… One bridge, two bridges, three bridges… Zo was right, everyone here has their own bridge: the three bridges lead into three houses. One of the houses, the leftmost one, invites you to a feast full of magnificence and cares not a jot for the imposing ca which faces it in the half-light and reigns severely over the campo.
“Vustu bever un cafè?”
What’s Zo on about now? It’s one in the morning, all the ostarie are closed; actually, everything’s closed.
Again... I’ll see... What will I see?
And the three of them laugh. All right, all right, let’s wait and see, as usual… But where are those voices coming from? Loud voices… No, it’s not the sound of voices raised in anger but the hubbub of people talking, loudly. Where? We’ve just turned into a cale – it is deserted; we advance – the hubbub becomes louder. Yes, that’s where it’s coming from: a shuttered ostaria.
The three of them have shouted loudly, knocking hard on the door. The door opens.
We are greeted as though we came there every night, with no particular fuss. Actually, that’s not quite true: conversations are struck up with this one or that – they all know one another… Except me, of course.
“The Zardineto opens late in the morning,” Zermana explains. “There’s a lock-in after closing.”
A bridge, a cale, a campielo, a cale; we are on the broad fondamenta which runs from Samarco to... afar. The lagoon has replaced the walls of houses once more. The fondamenta takes us... Oh yes, I know! A suspended bridge that is one of the sights – it’s part of the tour. My three friends have said nothing to me as we go past; have they even seen it? We pass the silent arcades of the Palagio del Dose. Samarco. The large church. The square. The very large square. Glistening with a thousand lights. Lights that watch out rather than watch over. Why has the square not seemed vast to me? We have rounded the church. A lion is there, on its plinth, guarding the square. Does it tell us of dangers to come or promise us that it will defend us? A dazzling light makes me look up. Above the church, dominating the heavens, the brightly illuminated bell-tower.
“El Paròn de Casa,” Zermana whispers to me. “It guards our houses like a good master.”
Along the fondamenta, gondolas tied up side-by-side patiently await the morning’s visitors. We have settled ourselves comfortably in one of them – Brasa knows the pope – and we chat quietly, rocked by the water which laps in a murmur. The lagoon sleeps. Imperceptibly, the horizon has taken on a pale blue hue; night, taken by surprise, timorously prepares to take her leave.
“Dawn...” murmurs Zermana.
We go back. From afar, Zo has heard the boat which regularly crosses the Canalazzo.
“Well then, let’s take it,” he yawns.
The marinèr is delighted to see us; his boat is empty and he was getting bored. Zo introduces me; the marinèr hopes I will enjoy my stay. Chiacolemo. We get out just near to where Brasa lives. The rio de Sant’Andrea, which the dawn light is beginning to illuminate, is getting ready to take the first topi about their daily business. We’re hungry, and Brasa makes us a good breakfast. We set off again in the topeta to take Zermana back home. The Canalazzo is coming to life again; the topi are hurrying to take fruit and vegetables to the Marcà – "Not forgetting fish," Zermana tells me. Day is breaking when we get to where she lives.
“You must have smelt lunch, you’ve woken up just in time!” my mother teases me.
It’s midday; I believe it is indeed hunger that has woken me. At lunch, I recount my walk of the night before.
“You’ll soon know the city better than the people who live here!” exclaims my mother.
I had never thought I could know the city at all, never mind that well. I start an answer:
“You know, what matters...”
I don’t know how to go on. Talking about this world, this life… I just don’t know how to go about it. My father has anticipated me.
“Have you been to the Academia? It has wonderful paintings by artists who used to live here in days gone by; it’ll help you get to know the city better than by just walking around.”
He takes his time:
“It’s a city with a history; you have to learn it. Walking around, you only see it superficially. You’re on holiday, you have free time; research the subject in museums, read history books. It would be a shame not to take advantage of your stay here otherwise than by just walking around.
I must have looked dumbfounded, for my mother has stepped in:
“He’s on holiday, you said so yourself, he’ll have plenty of time… And he’s always been good at school.”
My father has frowned slightly, looked as though he was going to speak… and said nothing.
At the end of the rio del Ponte Storto which laps around my house there is a caleta; I don’t know how I have got there. I know the place, having often passed it with Zo in his topeta; it’s a good way to get to the Canalazzo and tie up in front of the ca where his father works. Right beside the caleta, the rio de la Madoneta takes you there. When you’re at the beginning of the rio, you can no longer see either bridge or cale or campo; only the houses of the people who live there. Boats are tied up in a line against the wall. I jump from one to the next. When I get to the rio, I climb into one of the boats and stay there…
I had forgotten to think while I was walking; thought gradually comes back to me. History; my walk. History is something you have to learn; walking isn’t. Everyone walks; the visitors walk too. How is my walk different? Yes, I know, the visitors don’t look at anything. I don’t look at anything either, since I have looked at neither the Academia nor the monuments which are the symbols of the… city. Not just symbols, they have served those who made this world great. And it’s not true, actually; there are certainly visitors who look, and who know… history better than I do. The history without which there would be nothing here. I’ve already heard people – my history teacher, for example – talk about a country, describe it, in great detail, historical and cultural. What could I say, if I were asked to talk about this world, as I called it myself, arriving here for the first time? The cold of winter, the heat of summer… like anywhere; the frutariòl; the rio... like this one, where I feel at home; La Salina, where there is nothing... except cocalete perhaps; the little port at Zermana’s; the garden of Sant’Iacopo and the children’s games; the squadro, where Brasa’s father makes fewer and fewer topi… Would I be bold enough to open my lips and speak of that? Of all that has made my life here. That has made me want to live here longer… in a little port which might be… Who would listen to me, in the vast reception room of the huge ca where the soldier – is he Roman? – no longer guards anything? And yet I have read, I have read books, I have seen pictures by the painters who used to live here in the olden days. But they were just books taken at random; the pictures were only reproductions – I cannot say “I have seen a…!” No, all I have seen is the little port, all I have seen is the friendship of Zo, Brasa, Zermana, who have no need of books or pictures in order to give this world life.
“Sotomòrso el remo!” the squadro tells me.
Oh yes, I remember now. "Not on the fòrcola!" Zo had yelled to get me started with the topeta. The location is the same, the movement is the same; but this morning the oar is not the same, the boat is not the same. The oar is long and heavy. The gondola too is long and heavy – it’s not the topeta. Actually, setting off hasn’t gone too badly, the squadro hasn’t yet pitched me into the water.
“Voga da pope; premi!” he tells me.
That shouldn’t be too hard. The premada, that’s easy; you move forward, that’s all. Oh yes, you move forward… Or at least you should. I push the oar but there is no forward movement. The squadro watches me, looking slightly sardonic. Annoyed, I push harder. The gondola moves off… not very fast, it’s true… Suddenly, the oar slips out of the fòrcola, I teeter... and am not far from finding myself in the rio! I didn’t push my right hand properly on the oar to keep it in place during the staìa, when the oar comes back and keeps the gondola steady. I get ready to be annoyed again, but the squadro says earnestly:
“Nol xe cussì fàcile!”
I feel reassured now; I’m not the only one to find that it isn’t easy.
Ah, I know! I have to stop by turning right. Zo had got me to turn left, which hadn’t been a great success. It’s easier to the right; when you slow down, the gondola always wants to go right of its own accord. Here we go for a siàda bassa, then. Here we go – easy enough to say. Fortunately I hadn’t managed to get up much speed because the gondola obstinately refuses to slow down. That riles me. Bracing my legs, I pull violently on the oar – thinking about my right hand this time – and the gondola suddenly slows. Òe! chi xe el paròn qua? The squadro purses his lips approvingly. Have I passed the exam, if that is what it was?
Encouraged by yesterday’s success, I take the helm of the topeta; Zo teases me:
“Varè cossa che me toca a veder!”
I assume an air of importance:
“Actually, you are seeing a great seafarer at work!”
“So let’s go and get some polpete to celebrate!” he answers with a laugh.
Why not? It’s an appropriate reward; Zo has seen my satisfied look:
“I reckon you must like them, the way you gorged yourself on them last time. And the ones from Sant’Iacopo, zo dal ponte, are absolutely delicious.”
He concludes with an amused smile:
“It doesn’t worry me any more now when you say that.”
We come to a perfect stop near the steps that lead to the ostaria. We buy the polpete; and I don’t forget to ask, with a nonchalant air:
“Dame del fragolìn!”
El paròn gives me a wink and hands me a bottle he has taken from somewhere down below – you don’t give fragolìn just like that to visitors. Zo nods knowingly:
“Xe vin che fa ben al stòmego!”
After picking up Zermana, we come to the rio de Sant’Andrea. Brasa’s cat is sleeping with one eye open on the edge of the fondamenta opposite her house; seeing us tie up in front of her door, he dives into the rio to come and join us. I am very surprised:
“I never knew cats could swim.”
Zo answers in all seriousness:
“They can’t, but I taught him; it took a long time.”
I let myself fall for it:
“Is it very hard?”
“It is indeed. First, you start with the front paws...”
Brasa has heard; she sticks her head out of the window:
“He’s kidding you! The cats often go into the water when it’s the afa.”
She adds with a smile:
“And he’s happy to see you too!”
“He doesn’t throw himself into the canal to come and see me,” says Zo sulkily.
“You come round so often he’s got used to it,” she replies.
“Traitor!” he hisses to the cat.
The cat doesn’t bear a grudge; he comes and rubs up against him.
“Who fancies polpete?”
Zo’s offer is welcomed with pleasure; I’m not the only one to like them.
“Let’s go and eat them at the Ca d’Oro,” he suggests.
“The Ca d’Oro! How will we get in?”
“You’ll see!” he says ironically.
Here we are in the Canalazzo. Getting into the Ca d’Oro couldn’t be easier; we tie up alongside the arcades and just go in… I have already been past the house which looks as though it is made of lace, but I hadn’t really seen the inside. Behind the three arches of the portego de mezo, there is a small, empty room where we install ourselves – standing up, of course, the way they do here.
“It was the main entrance. This room was also where goods were unloaded before being taken inside; nobody lived in it,” Brasa explains.
“E quando xe colma alta...” starts Zermana, pulling a face.
She goes on:
“...that’s where the rising waters go.”
Having devoured the polpete, we set off again. I ask:
Zo answers after a moment’s thought:
“Do you want to go to the island of San Piero de Casteo?”
“San Piero... Oh yes, on the other side of the Arzanà, where we went to a squadro in the spring.”
“Yes, it’s a nice place to go for a quiet stroll when there’s the afa.”
We’re off! We pass through the rii to avoid the crowds around Samarco where the big boats carrying the visitors go. A quick wave to the squadro. We disembark on the island. It’s Sunday; there’s no longer any room at all on the stone bench that projects from the wall of the big bell-tower. Beneath the trees of the vast campo, women from the neighbourhood are sitting on chairs they have brought with them and talking peaceably with one another. Fishing nets are drying all around the campo. Men, standing, are arguing; "A casa mia la xe cussì!" states one large fellow to show that no-one will make him change his mind. Important things are happening near the church. A puteleta has clambered up onto a narrow ledge on the church wall and is struggling doggedly against a boy who is doing his utmost to push her off. But she is solidly ensconced, her feet either side of an angle of the wall, and the boy, less well placed, has lost his balance and fallen off.
“Serves him right. Why was he trying to push her off?”
Brasa tells me with a laugh:
“He wasn’t being horrid; it’s a game.”
“Yes. It’s as if the girl were sitting on a throne and the boy has to try and take her place; if he manages to do so, another player tries to remove him, and so on.”
The game continues. Another puteleta tries her luck. When she gets close to her future victim, she gives a great cry of fright and shouts:
“Òe Chechina! dame man, che no casca, cara ela!”
The other, surprised, holds out a hand to save her. Big mistake. It was a trap. The attacker gives the hand a sharp tug and dethrones her. I win!
This time, instead of taking the San Felise channel, we take the one that leads to Buràn coming directly from San Rasemo. Brasa brings a fòrcola that her father has made. I will still have trouble understanding their language… And talking of which, I can hear tongues from all over the world, except the place where we are. We make our way the best we can through the crowd of visitors, most of whom are clumped around a few tables scattered about in the middle of the street. I ask:
“Is it always like this here?”
“Yes,” Brasa answers, “it’s one of the musts... things that have to be done…”
“For the foresti, it’s still a city.”
“Nianca!” she says with a laugh. “La xe un merleto!”
I am surprised indeed:
“A city can’t be a piece of lace!”
“The foresti don’t see the city,” chips in Zermana. “They only come here to buy lace.”
“That’s odd, I’ve hardly ever seen lace in the houses of the people I know…”
She breaks in:
“The lace is under glass, in a frame; it’s only there to be bought.”
I say sarcastically:
“Is that a must?”
To my great surprise, no-one laughs, as I had expected they would. After a long silence, Zermana says dully:
“I think that here where we live, everything that makes up our life has become a must.”
No-one says anything. Suddenly I take her hand:
“I will never make you do anything!”
I turn to Zo and Brasa:
“Nor you two either!”
Calm seeped into the short silence that followed.
“It’s a good job the visitors don’t have good eyesight!”
Why is that? And why has Zo spoken so sarcastically?
“They can’t even see that there’s more to this island than just this place. So much the better; everywhere else is deserted, we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
Off we go to deliver the fòrcola. Zo was right; there’s nobody around. Except for a man, busy with his nose in the engine of his boat and, standing near him, someone on the edge of the canal, watching him; but from the language I can hear, they must live here. A little further on, we run into some washing. Yes, run into, that’s what I said. The washing is hanging on lines strung from wooden posts across the whole of the little square we need to cross. How are we to get through? Quite simply by trying to slip through the little gaps in between. Yes, a person can feel at home here. If the visitors can’t see anything but lace, the people who live here can’t see the visitors! Brasa goes to take her fòrcola into one of the little low houses all splashed with colours that sing. We arrive… in a field. No, it’s not a field, of course not… - “Yes, yes, there used to be cows here in the olden days,” Zermana tells me. There’s lots of exciting things going on in the field. Boys are running around, energetically kicking a ball, at the risk of seeing it borne off by the lagoon which runs alongside the field. But they are skilful and the object of admiration – silent admiration – on the part of the girls who pretend to chiacolàr, sitting on the grass which turned yellow long ago with a little help from the afa. Overturned boats doze beneath the trees. I can smell grilled sardines… Yes indeed! A little to one side, in the slight breeze from the lagoon, a woman is preparing some lovely fish for supper. A large fishing boat is waiting to catch the tide and bring back fish – sardines, perhaps…
Who’s calling? Oh yes, it’s the man Brasa took the fòrcola to. He would like her to go with him to see if all is well; his boat is in the Mazorbo canal. We set off with him in his còfano. Just as we leave Buràn, I suddenly see an enormous ship bearing down on us. Frightened, I turn to the man at the helm of our còfano; he is quite calm and watches the great ship without the slightest hint of emotion. But he must have given the tiller a slight nudge because we pass without difficulty alongside the ship, which is in any case only one of the boats that bring the visitors to Buràn and is actually not quite as big as it had seemed to me in my fright. The visitors have turned to look at us and watch our manoeuvre with interest; and so I will be part of the memories they will take back with them to distracted friends, recounting how they were almost part of a shipwreck. No matter. Not having sunk, we head towards the Mazorbo canal. "Ara i mazorini!" Zermana calls to me as we enter the canal. I look. A family of ducks; the ducklings advance in a line, paddling for all they’re worth to keep up with their mother, who is careful not to go too fast. Farther off, right in the middle of the canal lined with tall trees, in the slight mist of approaching evening, the beautiful sampierota awaits us; it can sail or be rowed, and that’s what Brasa has brought the fòrcola for. Checks are made, everything’s fine. The man brings us back to land on the nearby island of Mazorbo; from there we can walk back to Buràn, where we have left the topeta.
“Look, some hens have escaped!”
Zermana answers with a laugh:
“No, no, they’re just out for a walk, like us.”
“What if they get lost?”
“Where would they do that? We’re on an island here!”
It’s true, it was a stupid thing to say. And if the three hens I can see in front of me are out for a walk, they don’t forget to feed themselves while doing so.
Brasa makes an expansive gesture:
“It’s the country on this side of Mazorbo, there are more market gardens than houses.”
“Like on San Rasemo,” adds Zo.
“It’s not quite the same,” she objects. There they grow vegetables to sell at the Marcà, here they grow them for themselves.”
“I think they sell them too.”
“That’s true, a little, at the market on Buràn. It’s a community here.”
“Here, you get the impression of being far away from everything. Maybe far away in time too; the time of the Monestièr de Santa Catina.”
She points out an imposing building a little further off, beside the canal we are walking along:
“It used to be an important monastery. A long time ago. A very long time ago.”
She says nothing for a moment, then adds pensively:
“When will it be our turn to disappear?”
I look around me; behind a little fence a plum tree offers its succulent fruit, a woman is picking a lettuce from her vegetable plot, a man is filling a narrow crack in his wall, an old bicycle is lying on the ground, along with a few planks that must already have seen service several times… I look for something to say:
“The people who live in these houses, these gardens, among their friends, aren’t they happy?”
Zermana smiles sadly:
“Those who live here, yes. But what about those who leave?”
“Those who leave? Why do they leave?”
“I think no-one likes them any more.”
“No-one likes them any more? But what about their friends...”
She cuts me off; her voice is hard:
“Maybe their friends will leave too.”
She doesn’t leave me time to answer:
“When you’re chased away, what else are you supposed to do?”
I don’t understand. She goes on:
“The visitors are greedy, they have to be given their feed.”
We enter Buràn by the wooden bridge that links it to Mazorbo.
“The visitors never go to Mazorbo,” remarks Zo.
He adds scornfully:
“There’s this bridge between Buràn and Mazorbo; how ever would they manage to cross it since Mazorbo isn’t one of the musts?”
“When they’ve swallowed up everything where we live, they’ll have to be given something else; attractive bait can be laid for them here.”
I express my surprise:
“Why attract them?”
“Perhaps because we are no longer in the days of the Monestièr de Santa Catina; life no longer runs the same way.”
After a short pause:
“We no longer have anyone to row our galìa; those who make the bait probably want the visitors to bring them an engine.”
She goes on in a disillusioned tone of voice:
“But what use is an engine if the galìa sinks?”
Zo, in sarcastic mode again, says:
“Oh, there’s bound to be someone who’ll put it on their pleasure boat.”
Did the two girls give a pale smile? I don’t know, night had already fallen…
“’ndemo a bever un’ombreta!” exclaims Zo.
We are in the long square on Buràn where the visitors were thronging to buy merleti. There are no more merleti; there are no more visitors
“And there are never any foresti in the evening,” he tells me. “It’s the time when the people who live here come out for a walk.”
Yes indeed, the people who live here are out for a walk; it’s as though all Buràn were in the long square which seems to have got even bigger so that they can enjoy their spassizo de sera even more. But they are walking, not strolling; they walk quickly, taking large strides.
“They’re used to standing, here like where we live, on land or in their boat. As you have already noticed. And as for walking, can we do otherwise? It’s not like on the mainland, where you can take a car.”
I endorse what Zo has said:
“Yes, and I’ve noticed that people often stand even to eat.”
We stay there, talking and watching everyone who is anyone on Buràn go by, and all Buràn passes before us, again and again… A shy zoveneta – she has not yet reached the age of indifference – goes even faster than the others. Each time she passes by she looks at us with a quick smile, as though she wanted to say something to us; but she doesn’t slow down, and we just have to wait until the next time she passes… It’s getting late; we go to the ostaria at the end of the long square, towards the church, to eat some sepio’ine... and at last drink the ombreta Zo had suggested, a good while ago now. I exclaim with a laugh:
“I would never have thought a shadow, even of wine, could fill a whole glass!”
“The glass may fill, but most of all it empties very quickly,” remarks Zo, pulling a face.
Brasa turns to me, pretending to be worried:
“Our captain will no longer be capable of steering our boat!”
The captain protests energetically:
“A good captain must be able to face any storm!”
He refills my glass, even though it was still half-full:
“L’aqua imarcisse le bricole!”
I laugh. It’s true; so many bricole eaten away by the waters of the lagoon… We drink, our two friends looking on indulgently. Having established a solid foundation, we leave the ostaria, which is already closing up behind us. Of course, we haven’t forgotten a supply of biscuits before we take to sea – by which I mean the lovely bussolai made on Buràn. Not a whisper of a breeze in the humidity of the afa which has still not left us. The lamp-posts surrounded by haloes show us the long square, now deserted and silent. Buràn sleeps.
Tuesday. A late morning and a lazy day. Late this evening we will set off to see the night again. Small houses sprinkled among the tall grass near Zermana’s lead us to the rio dei Ognissanti and the squadro who taught me how to row a gondola. The night is thick and still, undisturbed by any sound. Far ahead of me the fondamenta stretches into the distance, finally disappearing mysteriously at the point where the darkness is inhabited only by a lamp-post whose glow hardly illuminates more than itself. A high, dark wall runs along the rio; above the wall, which has also forgotten to seek illumination, near a bridge whose Istrian stone reflects an uncertain light, two black ghosts loom side by side. When did they get here? What will be their command? I keep my ears open for their orders. In the silence that enfolds me, the sound of distant footsteps, high-pitched and staccato, is my answer. The steps come closer, ringing out on the fondamenta. Is it a messenger from the two ghosts? I probe the night; the footsteps move away… I will never know…
Brasa looks at me in surprise:
“What do you mean? Don’t you know where you are? The squadro...”
I interrupt her:
“The squadro... I know...”
I add, hesitatingly:
“The two ghosts have disappeared...”
“The two ghosts?”
Zermana follows my gaze towards... the two ghosts:
“Le do ca... Ghe giera un Dose...”
Zo breaks in:
“Are you sure a Doge was there?”
“No... it’s what I’ve always heard people say here...”
Now the two ghosts have taken the shape of two dark and looming ca which seem lost in a motionless dream. There is nothing to tell them apart. Are both ca just one? Is there only one ghost? That of the Dose?
“Ara el lume de la luna!” exclaims Zermana.
The moon... it has just risen and is already illuminating the lagoon that I can see from the bridge of La Cademia on which we have stopped. The boat that plies the Canalazzo has just berthed; the marinèr does not give his usual cry of "Accademiaaa...!" There are no visitors at this late hour. A few people get off and hurry away; they must live nearby. The boat has left and the water it has churned up becomes still again, until the next one. We lose ourselves in calete where the meagre light from the few lamp-posts barely penetrates. The film on TV is particularly exciting and, despite the hour, we can easily follow all the twists in the plot from one house to the next. In a wider cale, we are treated to a magnificent violin recital from a music-lover living in a garret.
“Not many visitors come this way,” says Zermana to me softly. “They all take the quicker route that goes to the Tragheto dei Cani.”
I am surprised; all the more so since I have perfectly understood what was said. I ask:
“The visitors take a passage for dogs...?”
My three friends laugh. Brasa explains:
“In the time of the Republica, there was only a single bridge over the Canalazzo, the Rialto; and people liked to say it was the only place dogs could cross if they didn’t want to get their paws wet.”
I laugh too, and yet...:
“I wonder, if I had been a dog, whether I wouldn’t rather have swum across rather than climb that horrible bridge!”
Zo say ironically:
“The day you find yourself at the foot of the Tragheto, send me a messenger and I’ll come and take you across in my topeta!”
It’s a deal! The walk continues. The film must have ended; there is not a sound to be heard. Is the music-lover asleep? We are too far away to tell. Silence has fallen again.
“I like to listen to music at night, when everything’s quiet. And you?”
“Me too, but you don’t often hear any round where I live,” says Zermana. “Visitors, if there were any, would have nothing to complain about, however much they like to grumble about the noise.”
“You said there weren’t many visitors where we were.”
“Where I live there aren’t any at all.”
“Does music bother the visitors? And yet they’re not asleep while they’re walking around!”
“It’s not so much when they’re walking around – they’re rarely out late in the evening – as when they’re in.”
“But then they’re asleep.”
“Lightly, though, in front of the TV!”
“There’s music on TV too.”
“That music’s normal; it’s not made for itself. When the visitors return from their trip, they can talk about the music they’ve heard if it was made by… someone. They won’t say ‘I heard music from an open window, I’ve no idea who it was…’”
“And if they come to visit us, it’s not for what we are, it’s because they too will have a name to say, the name of what for them is just a city.”
Zo says with a short laugh:
“But it’s true that the locals who invite them don’t tell them about anything else!”
Lunch at Zermana’s. Her mother always finds good things to give us. Today’s pudding is a crema frita the way they make it here. It’s an unusual dish: a custard, indeed, but a really thick one which solidifies on the marble; and then it’s cut into big discs and deep-fried in oil. Delicious! And there’s a secret; the eggs are first beaten – thoroughly beaten – with the sugar…
“Gnente spassizo ancòi?” asks the mother, seeing that we haven’t moved.
No, no walk today… She asks again with concern:
No, we’re not tired, we just want to stay quiet, to chiacolàr insieme...
“Let’s go to the topo,” suggests Zermana.
Her mother has heard. I think she would like to talk too; it’s true that she talks, she talks to us, but as though she were talking to herself. She talks about her life, her life on which those around her depend; her life in which nothing happens, yet which is so full. And if anything happened, what would become of her life? Does she think of the galìa that will sink? Nothing in what she says shows that to be so. Why does she seem to me like someone who expects nothing? She goes to the kitchen; I can hear the clatter of pots and pans. We go to the topo.
I have stopped. I start again – I don’t feel very sure of myself:
“Your mother seems sad...”
Zermana waits for a moment before answering:
“My father no longer transports the same things…”
I am concerned:
“Does he have fewer customers?”
“It’s not really that...”
She gives a sigh:
“They’re no longer the same customers...”
I give her a questioning look. She goes on:
“As customers go, they are good customers...”
“Very good customers...”
“Before, we had friends. Many of them have left…”
I am intrigued:
“They didn’t want to stay soto la chioca?”
Brasa cuts in:
“They would much rather not have had to leave; but it’s the people they used to work for who left.”
She adds, lowering her head:
“Now, life here is no longer made for them.”
I ask her:
“And who did they use to work for?”
“For those who found that there’s nothing to be done here, as Zo’s classmate said the other day at Sant’Iacopo.”
She gives a helpless shrug:
“My father used to work for them too...”
Zo grasps her shoulder:
“Let’s hope I won’t soon be the only one to have my topeta repaired at your father’s!”
She gives him a smile:
“It’s still all right for the time being... But as Zermana said, not all customers are friends now...”
Zermana turns to me:
“You know, the squadro just near to where we live, the one who let you row his gondola, I think we’ve known them for centuries. And Brasa knows them just as well.”
Zo gives his friend an affectionate shake:
“I never knew you were that old!”
After a couple of timid smiles, my three friends end up laughing softly. Zermana takes my arm:
“We’re glad you’re with us.”
I give her a smile, a long smile:
The big boat carrying visitors heads towards… no, not the high seas, we are only in the lagoon; but I feel quite disorientated, finding myself surrounded by these visitors as if I were going on a cruise. A cruise! It is only San Rasemo we are heading towards.
“’ndemo!” calls Zo, who had been gone a while.
Where are we going? He continues brightly:
“I thought I recognised the captain; his son is in the same class as me.”
He turns to me happily:
“Do you want to steer a ship?”
“Yes, the captain told me he’d let you take the helm… not all the time, of course. I’ve already done it; you’ll see, it’s fantastic!”
I can well believe him. We climb up stairs which take us to a rather large cabin with big windows on every side giving a panoramic view. I am surprised by what I see. I no longer have the impression of being on the water, or rather of touching the water; it’s down there, far away. The waves that surrounded the ship seem ridiculous, like a drawing. The captain is a forthright fellow who clearly doesn’t like to waste his words. He immediately stands me in front of the ship’s wheel and watches… I’ve got it! I have to show that I don’t freeze when something unexpected happens. I grasp the wheel firmly, taking care not to turn it; I can see out of the corner of my eye that the captain is ready to intervene. Ahead of me, the channel defined by the bricole. The ship is barely advancing; if you don’t look carefully, you might even think it’s not moving at all. I see the bricole swinging slightly to the left; the captain stiffens. I turn the wheel carefully – not enough, I think. The ship does not react; what should I do? The captain shows no emotion. I wait. I realise that giving the helm a great heave will take the… I haven’t had time to take the thought any further, the ship has swung gently to the left. I quickly take the wheel back to where it was before. An interminable wait for me. The ship straightens. "Bravo, dasseno!" the captain says to me.
“Bondì barba!” cries Zermana.
Her uncle has come to meet us with a sort of motorised cart. “That’s where he puts the vegetables he grows,” she explains. The cart’s progress is not swift and I have plenty of time to contemplate the landscape. I didn’t think I would see so many vegetable plots… or such odd, long and narrow pools. “That’s where they raise bisatini,” Zermana tells me. “We’ll go fishing for them this evening,” says Zo. He adds brightly: “We’ll see who catches the most!” We reach the uncle’s house, beside one of the little canals that criss-cross the island; it is the canal through which La Zaneta, Zermana’s father’s topo, will come tonight to take the vegetables and fruit to the Marcà. In the meantime, we go for a stroll along the little dirt pathways that pass between the vegetable gardens and the canals. "Fasemo passarini!" exclaims Zo suddenly. He has found some flat stones and is skimming them down the canal, counting the number of times they bounce on the water. “Eight! Did you see that? Your turn!” he cries to me. A great battle ensues, in which the girls more than hold their own. Now we are helping el barba to pick the vegetables: green beans, aubergines, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, leeks and heaven knows what else. While we labour under Zermana’s expert guidance, el barba takes advantage of our help to trim his courgettes, plant onions for next spring and pinch the last flowers off his tomato plants… It will soon be time for disnàr and we are mighty hungry. El barba asks us what we would like to eat. Zermana had told me beforehand that her uncle liked to serve guests the excellent food he made himself, so I had prepared a compliment, more or less borrowed from Goldoni:
“Saveu cossa che v’ho da dir, missièr barba caro? So che ve diletè de laoràr ben in cusina!”
El barba gives me a great big smile and launches into a speech which is doubtless full of kind words but of which I understand absolutely nothing, since they are spoken with yet another accent. My three friends accomplish miracles in inconspicuously helping me to understand. As I had supposed, his declarations were indeed kindly meant.
“Vegnì a pescar i bisatini?” asks el barba.
The night is very dark; however will we manage to catch bisatini? Well, it’s easy. El barba has brought a powerful flashlamp whose light attracts them, and all you have to do is spear the bisatini with the fòssena; the teeth at the end of the long wooden pole take care of the rest. Everyone helps but there won’t be a winner because we only need enough bisatini for our disnàr.
“You’re in luck!” Zo calls to me with a laugh.
That’s as maybe. But you still have to catch them… There’s one! I quickly strike with my fòssena... but the bisatìn is faster than I am. I strike again… no luck. I look around me; el barba has already caught his, followed shortly afterwards by Zo. Rather concerned about the meagre result of my efforts, I strike again and again. Ah, at last, there is my bisatìn! I think I caught it at the same time as the girls caught theirs…
“Se metemo a tola?” calls el barba.
Ah! It’s time to eat, and I will be able to see how they make bisatìn here. The recipe is not very complicated, but if the garlic and onion haven’t been grown by el barba and well fried in good olive oil, and if you add too much vinegar, if you forget the bay leaf, if you cook it on too high a heat, and above all if you haven’t caught the bisatini yourself, you’d better not claim it as a local dish. Otherwise, how could you explain that it doesn’t have the delicate taste and heady aroma so particular to the lagoon?
“Cafè?” asks el barba.
He goes off to make it without waiting for the answer.
“Xe un cafè de colo!” he tells me, serving me the first cup.
I am touched by this mark of kindness, the first coffee out of the jug being the best and hence the most worthy to follow such a perfect bisatìn. We stay chatting for a while – chiacolàr, I should say – and I gradually get used to the uncle’s accent. It’s getting late; it’s el barba‘s bedtime. We are due to leave for the Marcà with Zermana’s father, who will be coming at half past three. We decide to go out into the lagoon – we can sleep another time. El barba has a boat that will do.
“He could clean his spark plug,” grumbles Zo.
The engine is misfiring, which Zo doesn’t like.
“I’ll do it now,” he decides.
No sooner said than done; the spark plug is unscrewed and we let ourselves drift with the current while Zo strives to restore the spark plug to its pristine state. We are in the big channel which goes to Buràn, not far from the San Felise channel; I know, because I have recognised the buoy which marks the point where they cross. The current is strong and we’re already nearing the crossing-point. I look around distractedly, chatting with Zermana and Brasa, when all of a sudden I notice that something is not at all right; the buoy has moved! I cry out:
“The buoy! The buoy’s gone!”
The girls look at me with astonishment. Zo has lifted his head and yells:
“Quick! Dive in and bring it back! I’ll never manage with just the oars!”
Instinctively I start to get up; Zermana grabs my arm and exclaims with a laugh:
“Relax! It’s not the buoy that’s moving, it’s the current taking us away!”
I look again; it’s true, everything is moving away, the buoy, the shore, the little house near which the big boat that crosses the lagoon is moored… I pull a comical face and we all laugh.
Half-past three. El barba has just woken up. The muffled noise of an engine heralds La Zaneta. After loading the fruit and vegetables, we enter the canal which takes us to the lagoon through a gate which is closed for the colma alta so that the water can’t flood the vegetable gardens. Dawn announces its forthcoming arrival. We leave the lagoon, entering the rio dei Santi Apostoli – which passes just near the ice-cream seller – and coming out into the Canalazzo, where the Marcà is.
“Andemo a bever un cafè!” suggests the father.
We won’t say no; we need to stay awake. And the coffee tastes so good in the first light of dawn… especially Leda’s coffee. The coffee machine has just woken up, ours are the first cups. The parona talks quietly with Leda, her daughter. I don’t understand a word of what they say; not because they talk quickly, quite the opposite, but the words flow softly from their lips like a fountain in summer when the water has not dried up yet but snowmelt is already a distant memory.
“Andemo a laoràr!” says the father after a last mouthful.
The Marcà is gradually waking up as the night steals away. The stallholders set out their wares; customers start to arrive. Their voices, increasingly loud, mingle with the breaking day.
Noon. Lunch at Brasa’s. We’re not really sleepy despite our all-nighter, but we’re not exactly bushy-tailed either. No long walks today. When we’ve finished eating we’ll go and sit out nearby, on the rio de Sant’Andrea bridge, a quiet spot we like very much.
The conversation at lunch is desultory; not that the parents don’t take an interest in what we do, but they don’t seem to know which particular questions to ask, which specific subject to raise. As the foresto, I give my impressions of what I have seen and felt of this world, so new to me, but which I am also gradually getting used to. “Getting used to” was what I told them, because I couldn’t find anything else on the spur of the moment; and I thought it was neither the time nor the place to embark on an academic explanation. The parents seemed to feel a sort of contentment – albeit rather timid, I would say. The conversation becomes more general, the father talks about his squadro, carefully, as though he were handling something fragile. The mother talks about her morning shopping; finding a radichio – Brasa had told her I was very fond of it – had been quite an adventure because her regular frutariòl didn’t have any more; and the frutariòl is getting old, he will soon close down and she doesn’t think anyone will replace him – and her daughter can’t always be there, like today, to go and get one – and there are four bridges to cross with the shopping bag.
“Is the tide going out?”
Zo, sitting opposite me on the parapet of the bridge where we have just settled, turns questioning eyes to me:
“Why do you ask?”
“The water in this rio is always still. There ought to be a current.”
“The rii at each end of the Sant’Andrea flow in the same direction,” Brasa explains. “It’s like on a hillside, we’re on a flat path between them.”
“Oh! I know!” cries Zo brightly. “There’s a law in physics about electrical current…”
Unanimous protest interrupts him:
“No you don’t! We’re not in school yet!”
Zo gives us a pitying look:
But his pitying look must have looked ridiculous, because we burst out laughing. Well, not all of us: Zermana has not joined in. She has looked at her cousin sadly and said, in a resigned tone of voice:
She has halted for a moment:
“You will be like your father...”
“You need to know things...”
Again. We look at her with surprise. She continues slowly:
She has stopped and says no more. Silence. I feel embarrassed; I would like to say something… Zo hesitates for a moment, then exclaims brightly:
“Oh, I’m anything but a swot, as well you know!”
Brasa echoes her friend:
Zermana gives a big smile:
“I’m talking nonsense. And anyway, I’m not bad at school either.”
She turns to Brasa:
“That’s true,” her friend confirms.
I would like to say something… The conversation at lunch time comes back to me. I turn to Zermana:
“I said just now that I had got used to this world…”
I hesitate for long moment:
“...in which you live.”
I look at Zo and Brasa:
“And in which you live too… you too…”
Then, after a while:
“I haven’t got used to it; no, it’s something else… I’m still a foresto…”
Zermana interrupts me forcefully:
“You’re not a foresto to me any more!”
Zo and Brasa beam at me:
“Nor to us!”
We stay there, not talking. The rio de Sant’Andrea is motionless.
A slight breeze has got up over the lagoon – the afa has gone. The topeta is dancing lightly over the little waves of the Buràn channel. We’re heading for the Capo channel where the pescaori are waiting for us, passing as usual through the San Felise channel.
“Hey, look! The buoy’s come back!” exclaims Zo, as if he can’t believe his eyes.
They’re not catching me out this time:
“Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that I had asked the shipping people to replace it. And from now on they say they’ll be posting a guard every night...”
He interrupts me with a laugh:
“And now I know where you’ll be spending them!”
Suddenly he breaks off:
“Watch out for the wave! Hold on!”
What’s happening? He points to a large boat full of visitors on a cruise which has just entered the San Felise channel and is heading towards us at a rapid lick. But where’s the danger? The boat is on the other side of the channel, not really close to us, and hardly a threat. What seems strange is that Zo has quickly turned the topeta and is bearing down on three small, short waves formed by the larger vessel. For one thing, the waves look pretty harmless, and for another, wouldn’t it be better to face the wave side on, being wider? I have no more time to analyse the situation further than the first wave is upon us, very quickly; the topeta has suddenly reared up and falls back in an explosion of spray. I have had trouble keeping my balance. The second wave hits. The topeta hasn’t had time to settle and leaps again at the shock. And the third wave. I think I was scared to see the topeta rear even higher.
I… Zermana gives me a smile:
“These short waves are dangerous,” she continues calmly. “If they hit the boat side on, they can capsize it.”
She adds in the same matter-of-fact tone of voice:
“The boat is quite long but it’s not very wide.”
“A friend at school told me that her brother had fallen overboard like that, in the same place; he had to wait for a passing fishing boat to help him. Fortunately he didn’t have to wait long and it wasn’t winter; it can be very serious when the water’s icy.”
“In all events he was going too fast; that’s really not on,” grumbles Zo.
He concludes sarcastically:
“But what matter, since the man overboard wouldn’t have been a visitor.”
The San Felise channel; the buoy is indeed there. Far off, I can already see the island of La Salina pointing us towards the Capo channel; ca Salina watches us with its great sad eyes as we pass by. “Aren’t you coming to get salt?” No, we’re not coming to get salt. Instinctively I look down, as though I felt responsible.
“We’ll go there next time,” Zermana says to me softly.
She adds, more brightly:
“We love going there.”
The topeta scuds along the channel. The pescaori’s huts have just appeared; perched on their stilts, they look like a village from a world that hasn’t existed for thousands of years.
We are expected.
“Fasemo le schie, e dopo, una bea spaghetata!”
Having woken late this morning after the all-nighter and the Marcà, none of us have had much to eat. A good plate of pasta the way they make it here will be welcome; to say nothing of the tiny little shrimp – yes, that is indeed what I said; you should see them! – which burrow into the sand at low tide, and all you have to do is find them! It’s good to eat the schie, swallowing them in a single mouthful, lounging around the old plank that serves as a table, laid among the vieri da mo’eche awaiting their cargo of crab. The sun, not far off drowning in the lagoon it has enflamed, has come right to the end of the Capo channel to bid us farewell. The pescaori talk about their life, their day-to-day life, their unmysterious life. And yet… They are acquainted with the strange figures, I know; they can’t not be. How many times must they have encountered them on those foggy days – zorni de infissida – when the channel you have to follow merges into the barena? It is they who have warned them, they who have guided them. And what about me, the day when the strange figures that had appeared to me had withdrawn behind the barene: had they fled me, or called me into their secret world?
Disnàr done, the pescaori use what is left of the daylight to finish their regular clearing-up – washing the floor, putting away the vieri da mo’eche, hosing down and hanging up the re and the cogoli, doing the washing-up and other chores; their everyday life does not stop just like that.
Countless stars have come out to replace a moon that has forgotten to come. The dark bricole stand out against the barena that lines the San Felise channel. Silence has settled all around us. It is not the silence of daytime, sprinkled with the silky swish of the supple-winged cocalete, but an infinite silence which does away with time and lets the night talk to the lagoon.
Sunday. I’m waiting for Zo, who is to come and fetch me during the afternoon to go zo dal ponte to Sant’Iacopo, magnàr quatro boconi in pìe. Then we will go and chiacolàr on one of the benches in the campo, opposite the vera around which the children from the neighbourhood play their games. Brasa and Zermana will join us later. I wait, leaning on the window-sill of my room, contemplating the proper little garden formed by the two rii which meet under my window, a garden all planted with boats, of which there are sometimes more, sometimes fewer; a man who rents them out, and has done so from time immemorial, is the gardener.
“’ndemo!” calls Zo, almost before he’s arrived.
I don’t take much persuading; excellent polpete washed down with the traditional fragolìn await us zo dal ponte. We eat them standing up, and now here we are, comfortably installed on our favourite bench in the campo Sant’Iacopo. The weather is fine, the afa only a memory, and the children play their games and run around, sometimes jostling elderly people who scold them good-naturedly. All is well.
As usual, mates of Zo’s stop from time to time to exchange a few words with him. Some have come back from holiday, others haven’t yet left. I am asked questions – people know who I am now. When will I be leaving again? Where do I live? When does school start? When will I be back? Do I like it here? What do I do outside school? Can I come and go as I please? I sense that they want to ask me something else. What? The boys exchange looks. One of them takes the decision:
“Do you often go beyond?”
I don’t understand, and not because of the language:
The boy sways on one leg; then, after exchanging a few more looks with his friends, he adds hesitantly:
“Beyond the town where you live.”
The question seems odd:
“Yes, of course, when I go to see friends or when I’m out and about.”
The boy says nothing. I ask him:
“Don’t you ever...?”
He interrupts briskly:
“Yes, of course I do!”
He waves vaguely:
“You have to leave the city... go to the mainland...”
When I arrived here for the first time, it was as though I was discovering a world… not just a world I knew nothing about, but a world whose existence I had never even suspected. To be sure, the history of the Republica shows clearly enough that a world is what it is, but I don’t think I’m really doing justice to the feeling I experienced on arriving and that I feel more and more. I am in a house, a large house to be sure, but a house nonetheless. Behind the windows are people from the same family; the wide corridors – the cali, the rii – take me from one person to another. And if I want the sky to be my roof, living rooms small and large – campi and campieli – invite my friends to join me. Yes, I know now, esser soto la chioca is all those things.
Can one leave it?...
A downcast "Òe!"; Zermana and Brasa are coming towards us. The boys left a short while ago.
“Well?” asks Zo anxiously.
“They’re very much afraid they’ll have to go,” says Brasa.
I know what they are talking about; the parents of one of her school friends have serious problems. The house they live in is not far from Samarco; it has been bought by foresti who want to turn it into a locanda for visitors. In order to stay, the parents would have to agree to new terms.
They can’t afford it.
Monday. After dinner, we all meet at La Cademia to see the night again. A hot, soft night which wraps us in its silence. We are quite close to La Fenise, the opera house, a place thronged with visitors all day long. It is deserted. The visitors have gone to bed; like in a holiday camp for children – “Time for bed, kids!” We are alone. We are alone and I think my friends do not regret it. I think this evening they don’t even want to know that visitors exist. Brasa’s school friend was crying, yesterday.
We walk slowly, stopping now and then on a bridge or by a vera, saying little. The little rio we cross not far from La Fenise tries to console us: “I’m still here…” For how long, though? Does it know that it can upset the visitors if it talks only to those who, like Brasa’s school friend, happen to live beside it? A little earth will be enough to bury it. Will people remember it, walking on the rio terà it will have become? The two imposing ca on either side, the church of San Stefano it runs up against: will they be able to protect it?
At present we are taking those long cali where no-one has lived for ages; at least not since they have become nothing more than the aisles of a department store for visitors. Behind the shuttered windows there are things but no people any more; and if the people haven’t left yet, they are going. They are leaving as Brasa’s school friend’s parents will doubtless be leaving.
For a few moments now we have been standing on a bridging watching the motionless waters of the rio. The conversation has stuttered back into life, my friends tell me about the places we have passed through. I listen. What ever could I say?
Zermana has heard me:
“There is nothing to be said. Of course everyone will help her; until the time comes when everyone will no longer be able to.”
We stay there without moving, watching the still-motionless rio…
The powerful engine of a motor-boat. The boat erupts at full tilt from under the bridge. Just ahead of us, a sharp bend in the rio.
“It’s going to crash!”
I couldn’t help shouting out loud. The boat has already turned, straightened up and disappeared, leaving a tumultuous wake which ripples through the rio in all directions after breaking on the boats that had been slumbering along the walls and are now dancing around in stunned surprise.
“It’s an ambulance, it’s out on an emergency call,” Zo tells me.
“Everyone has to do the things that depend on them; perhaps it’s all we can do, but it’s what we must do,” says Brasa slowly.
We move on, still walking slowly; the night does not chivvy us. We talk about the things you never think of as long as you have something – anything – to do. Disparate things, things which come to mind unbidden, things you wonder why you’re talking about them at all. And then you realise that they’re things you’ve been thinking about for a long time, without ever finding any reason to talk about them; perhaps not even daring to do so because no-one had ever asked. So do you need permission to talk about what’s on your mind?
“’ndemo a sentarse su la gratata,” suggests Zermana.
We go and sit on the wide steps that go down into the rio de la Fava in front of the church, our feet on the last step still above the water.
“When I was little,” says Brasa, “I used to wait with my friends for the water to rise; the winner was the last one to pull their feet up.”
She goes on with a smile:
“It was in summer, we were barefoot.”
I am surprised:
“There’s nothing wrong with getting your feet wet in summer!”
“No, not your feet; but the water carried on rising...”
Zo says with a grin:
“Un zorno de afa, xe anca bon star col culo a mogio!”
He’s right; when it’s the afa, it must be nice to get your bottom wet. But no question of that this evening; no afa, and in any case the tide isn’t strong enough.
“It’s a shame people no longer swim in the rii like our parents used to,” continues Zo.
“I still used to when I was little,” remarks Zermana. “We’re right at the end of the rio, not many boats come by there.”
She adds after a moment’s thought:
“And then, where we keep our topi, that’s my place!”
No-one has said anything. Why bother?
The tide rises very gently; nobody feels like playing. We set off again, taking a dark little caleta – the lamp must be turned off. Brasa corrects me:
“No, look! There is no lamp-post.”
Indeed, there is no lamp-post; why is that?
“There used to be many fewer lights in the past. To begin with, they were put up in the busiest places. The lamps were meant to give light…”
I stifle an exclamation. She goes on:
“Yes, it may seem odd, but lights are gradually being put up for decoration, not to light the way.”
I am more and more surprised. Zermana adds:
“There was talk of putting in a stronger light in the calesela that goes to my house...”
Oh yes, I had noticed how dark it was:
“Coming from the cale Lunga, it’s a surprise; but it’s never bothered me. And there is a lamp-post, after all… even if it doesn’t light anything!”
I correct myself:
“That’s not true, it gives enough light to get to your house, and at least it doesn’t dazzle you!”
I think about the little port:
“On your campielo, you’re far away from everything, you don’t need lamplight... to dream...”
Zo says sarcastically:
“You need strong lighting in the places that visitors flock to, places where we never go; otherwise, when it gets dark, we’d find all the visitors in the water and I wouldn’t be able to get through in my topeta.”
We can’t help laughing, though not very loud.
The caleta has widened out and the light has returned. Not too strong, however, even though visitors are relatively frequent.
“It’s still all right here; it’s mostly around the ferovia that there’s more light – even than in the daytime!”
That’s certainly true, as I had realised when I came out of the railway station for the first time.
Zo is increasingly sarcastic:
“I would have turned everything off. If the visitors couldn’t see anything when they got here, they’d just have to leave again. And that way they wouldn’t tell all their friends to come. If they’d been asked what they’d done here, they could just have answered: Veni, nihil vidi, abivi!”
Zo’s father plays the violin – just for his own pleasure, he doesn’t play in concerts. The bridge needs a small repair.
“Von dal lautèr arente i Càrmini; el g’ha giustà el scagnelo del violìn!” Zo tells me when he arrives after lunch.
Zermana lives close to the Càrmini. We’ll drop in after leaving the topeta in the little port; then we’ll go to the nearby luthier who has repaired Zo’s father’s violin. The luthier is a foresto who has been here for many years. “He lives like us; who still remembers he’s a foresto?” Zo tells me. We meet up with Brasa near the campo dei Santi Apostoli, where she had an errand to run. How could we not take advantage of the delicious ice creams that are to be found there? Having quickly crossed the Canalazzo, we make a detour via the little rio scureto de la Toleta – it is the high, ivy-covered brick walls which make it dark – to get a textbook for Zo at the nearby librarìa which we had already visited the previous autumn.
I tease him:
“Not bad for someone who claims not to be interested in school!”
“I... It’s for my father’s sake...”
Brasa gives him an ironic glance. We come to the librarìa. Zo has found his book; however, he would have liked to see others on the same subject.
“I don’t have any,” the bookseller says. “They’re rather rare, you know.”
He adds, seeing Zo’s frown:
“The old bookseller near Formosa used to have lots, but he gets fewer and fewer customers and is wondering whether he won’t have to close his bookshop before long.”
I am rather surprised:
“But surely the school students...”
He interrupts me with a sigh:
“There are fewer and fewer of them too...”
He holds up his hand:
“They’re on the mainland. You can find everything there.”
I remember Zo’s school friend who we saw at Sant’Iacopo. "There’s nothing to do here", he had said.
We set off again, taking the quiet rio that leads to the Corte Zapa. I look around me. Windows overflowing with plants and flowers, a bird singing gaily in a cage hanging on the shutter. Why would you ever leave this place so vibrantly full of life?
My two friends had been silent since we left the librarìa. We reach the Corte Zapa; as one of the topi has gone, doubtless to carry goods, we enter the little port. After letting us out, Zo goes off to tie the topeta to the wall and comes back as always, sliding from one nail to the next.
“You’re bound to fall in one day!”
“If I do, I’ll try and make sure it’s during the afa!”
He adds with a grin:
“It’ll be your turn next time!”
We head off to the lautèr, taking our time. It’s a lovely day, not too hot. “The afa won’t come back again,” Brasa has said with confidence. On a fondamenta not far from the Anzolo, a cage in a window. A cage? But there are no birds! No, no, just two putelete who are sitting quietly on the window ledge, behind a pretty grille which covers it, watching children play on the other side of the rio. A quick “good day” on either side as we pass by. A little further on, one of Zermana’s neighbours is leaning on the parapet of the bridge we are crossing, chatting with a friend at her first-floor window. On the other side of the rio… xe l’Anzolo e xe l’ostaria A l’Anzolo which we enter - "Bondì!" – to fortify ourselves with an excellent zabagiòn each. We settle down as usual on the vera in the middle of the campo, amid the players whose footballs are a constant threat – well no, actually, that’s not true, they’re too skilful for that – the players, I mean, not the footballs… The three or four old ladies who are sewing peacefully on their doorsteps, while not depriving themselves of the pleasure of chiacolàr insieme, cast not the slightest anxious glance at the campo. And as for that fellow standing near a house, head thrust through the window – a friend’s no doubt –, it might hail footballs and I’m sure he wouldn’t even notice. The campo is lively today; here is a workman energetically pushing a cart full of sacks of cement, there is a flour-covered baker’s apprentice carrying a basket of loaves whose lovely smell whets my appetite – as the zabagiòn finds out to its cost! I no longer want to move, as though I were putting down roots, as though this world were becoming mine…
“And when they’ve gone...”
Zermana has spoken softly. I have woken up. This world... But it cannot disappear; it must not disappear. It must not.
“All the people who are here aren’t going to leave!”
My friends have turned to look at me, doubtless surprised by how brusquely I have spoken.
“Not all of them…” starts Brasa.
She stops for a moment:
“What will they do if they stay?”
I answer in the same brusque tone of voice:
“They’ll carry bread, they’ll...”
The words – the ideas perhaps – do not come easily. I fall silent. Zo says:
“Those who have gone will no longer be here to eat it.”
I feel like answering: "They shouldn’t have left, then!" Suddenly I can hear Brasa’s school friend asking me: “I want to stay! Do you think it will be possible?” If she were actually standing in front of me, what could I say to her? Was Zo’s friend who had said there was nothing to do here really wrong? Perhaps he hadn’t realised the real reasons why he had said what he did.
“It’s good to make bread for people you’ve been living with for ever…”
Zermana has again spoken softly. No-one says anything. She goes on:
“And for those you invite, too… for friends who come to see you…”
She leaves a silence:
“For those who don’t have any.”
She takes a deep breath:
“How do you make it for those who don’t like you, for those who chase you away?”
Mazorbo; I remember. Zermana had spoken of those who were no longer liked, and of the others who chased them away to make room for the visitors. Brasa nods:
“And bread is good for everyone, even us for as long as we are here; whereas…”
She leaves the end of her sentence in mid-air. Zo grunts:
“...whereas what those who want to stay are expected to do is good only for the visitors.”
I am surprised:
“And yet what Zermana’s parents do… and Brasa’s…”
“Yes, my cousin exaggerates a little...”
“... but not really very much.”
She adds sadly, after a short silence:
“How long will it be before he’s right?”
No-one answers. I turn towards Zo:
“Your father doesn’t work for the visitors.”
He answers me in a disillusioned tone of voice:
“No, my father still works for our world, as you called it; but if our world becomes empty, if the visitors take our place, what will be left? Pebbles?”
I don’t understand. He expands sarcastically:
“Yes, as my cousin said, I overstate the case – or should that be understate? They’re not pebbles, they’re stones, big stones, no, sorry, I mean great stones – monuments! Like the pyramids, where all that is left are empty tombs!”
Silence has fallen. The shouts of the children have taken possession of the campo. The pigeons, indifferent, strut about the tall grass that grows between the flags. But if the grass comes back one day and covers everything, the cows of the olden days will never return. Should they be regretted? The milk they gave can be found elsewhere; and it’s still milk, sometimes better, sometimes not as good. Sure, life then did not pass by the way it does now; perhaps it was more pleasant, I don’t know; and it was also the life of those who had been living here for ever, since the first among them came to find refuge on Torceo. But if life today has changed, it is still the life of those who are part of the same world. That of Zo, of Brasa; that of Zermana. Of those who stay… Not of those who want to leave; not of the visitors. A world which does not get its life from pebbles.
“’ndemo dal lautèr!” mutters Zo suddenly, jumping down from the vera that has been his perch for a while now.
We set off through a grassy cale which also leads into a field; a real field this time, running alongside a rio. The field is full, though not of cows but of mothers who have come with their children and are sitting peacefully on folding chairs they have brought with them; the children can run around as they please without fear of hurting themselves if they fall over in the soft grass.
Behind a large, wide-open window the lautèr, who we find absorbed in his work, raises his head and gives us a kindly smile.
“It’s ready,” he announces, pointing to Zo’s father’s violin, carefully laid on a bench at the back of his workshop.
Zo thanks him for not having taken too long over the repair:
“My father will be happy, he really misses it when he isn’t able to play for several days.”
The lautèr looks down at the viola he is holding:
“I’m not very busy at the moment; I just have an adjustment to finish on this one…”
He breaks off for a moment; then, shaking his head:
“Lots of people are on holiday in the summer, I have less to do.”
“It’s a good job it didn’t happen in winter, then…” starts Zo, without knowing how to go on.
The lautèr purses his lips:
“I would have found time...”
He adds under his breath:
“I’m less busy than I used to be...”
A moment later:
“Perhaps people have less time for music…”
He breaks off. Then, in a rush:
“Some have gone, and it’s not those who are only passing through who…”
He gives a soundless laugh, as though in mockery of himself:
“When you’re off on your travels, you don’t take your violin with you to get it mended, do you?”
We return to the Corte Zapa.
“Let’s go back via the gèsia,” suggests Zo.
He adds for my benefit:
“It’s shorter and more fun.”
I don’t really understand:
“That’s the way we came.”
“Gh’astu vardà i àrbori drio el muro de casa mia?”
“The wall where your boats are? Oh yes, there are some lovely trees behind it.”
“I xe i àrbori del zardìn de la gèsia che xe arente i Càrmini.”
I’ve got it now. It is indeed more pleasant to cut through the church garden. But… I ask Zo:
“Why did you say it was more fun?”
He looks at me, laughing up his sleeve:
I assume the air of one who has seen it all before. Now here we are in the garden. I look at the wall we are heading towards; where is the door? There is no door. So?... My three friends watch me with unfeigned irony.
“Ara el àrboro!” Brasa ends up telling me, laughing out loud.
The tree... what about the tree? I look… Silly me! It was obvious. I assume my most innocent look:
“It’s true, it is indeed more fun to climb the tree in order to get up onto the wall.”
I add negligently, turning to Zo:
“And don’t worry; if the topo isn’t there, I’ll use the nails to go and get the topeta…”
Well, I did it! It’s easy enough in theory; you just have to put your foot on one nail then on another, holding on to other nails placed within reach. What could be simpler? But the hand risks letting go, because the nail isn’t very big, and the foot risks slipping, because the nail slopes down. I mustn’t fall; not that I’m bothered about getting wet – it’s warm – but because I don’t want to look ridiculous. At last… I’m in the topeta.
“Varè che gran cosse!” exclaims Zo admiringly.
I’m proud of myself, even if I’m aware that his admiration is mostly well-meaning; after all, I haven’t done anything extraordinary, it’s what those who live here do naturally. If I’m happy, it’s because I have done what they would do as a matter of course and not to show off.
Wednesday. We have brought the makings of a feast with us. "Andemo a magnàr a La Salina," Zo had suggested, a proposal accepted with enthusiasm. We take the quickest route, via the lighthouse which stands facing the sea at the mouth of the lagoon. It’s the route taken by the big boats, like the one I had steered the previous week. The topeta, going at full speed, crashes through the waves, waves which slap the shoals, waves that I am not used to seeing so strong on the lagoon. It gets calmer after we pass San Rasemo, leaving it on our left-hand side. The San Felise channel is swallowed up in an instant. La Salina. We have arrived.
The ca Salina is there, seeming to meditate; yes, it knows we haven’t come to get salt, but its great eyes seem to thank us for our visit, which tempers its solitude. We unpack our disnàr. Zermana has made sardele in saor – made them herself, three days ago; fresh sardines from the nearby sea, caught by the pescaori from Buràn, which her barba brought her at the same time as the cèole from San Rasemo, the best onions there are. A layer of fried sardele, a layer of cèole, more sardele, more cèole, all marinaded in vinegar and good olive oil; not forgetting, as they used to in days gone by and as Zermana still does, pine nuts, raisins soaked in wine and a mix of spices, the secret of which is handed down from mother to daughter, to season each layer. A patacheo, one of the excellent cakes they make on Buràn, follows the sardele; it’s a polenta, but not like any other polenta I’ve ever eaten; it’s mixed with apples, almonds, walnuts… what do you say to that? We, in all events, have no time to say anything much, we’re too busy enjoying it!
“This is where we come when we’re weary of doing the things we do every day,” Zo tells me.
“It’s quiet here; there’s only the cocalete and the garzete...”
Zermana chips in:
“It’s not only that there aren’t any visitors or there’s no homework to do for school, but here you can be yourself without it being noticed…”
“And yet when we were at Sant’Iacopo...”
She doesn’t let me finish:
“Yes, we were with good friends, people we know well, we could talk about the things we do every day… the things we have in common…”
She breaks off for a moment:
“About the things we have in common, not about ourselves…”
She breaks off again:
“No, I mean we could talk about ourselves, of course, but about what is part of everyday life. And the things we do every day take all…”
“... all our time, of course, but it’s not just that. We’re still here, in these cali, in these rii...”
She waits a moment:
“We like the way we live here, being here… soto la chioca...”
She stays silent. Brasa turns to me:
“We don’t want to leave… to live somewhere else… but, as you said, we live here as though it was a house, a very big house…”
“When you live in a house you want to go out from time to time, to go for a walk outdoors.”
He adds after a moment’s thought:
“We do sometimes go to the mainland, go and see people who live elsewhere…”
“And we sometimes go on a trip, go and see family…”
“But that isn’t leaving the house to go for a walk outdoors…”
“We no longer have any link with la chioca; I mean, we have left it. We haven’t gone for a walk in the garden of the house, we have changed…”
She looks at me, smiling:
“...changed worlds, as you said.”
She goes on, still smiling at me:
“La Salina, la xe el nostro zardìn.”
Their garden… It’s also her garden… in which I am so happy to be...:
“Son contento de esser in tel to zardìn.”
Thursday. Night has come. Zo has accompanied Brasa, who has gone to see her aunt, who is ill. I am to meet up with them there, along with Zermana, whose father will bring her in his topo after making his delivery. I jump into the tragheto not far from where I live; after crossing the Canalazzo, three cali – and four bridges – take me to the campo San Marcilian. That’s where I am to wait. I do so sitting on the parapet of the bridge that leads to the campo, legs dangling over the mirror that the sleeping rio has become. An engine I recognise tells me Zermana is coming. "Bon spassizo, putei!" calls her father before setting off again. The gnagna’s house is on the other side of a little bridge nearby which gives onto a corner. Hardly have we climbed the first steps than two heads close to each other appear – sorry, I should have said two necks – which we both know well; Zo and Brasa are there, sitting side by side on the steps... zo dal ponte.
“Come!” Zermana whispers to me, pulling me gently by the arm.
I follow her. We go back to the campo San Marcilian; she stays silent. We cross the bridge which leads out of the campo and find ourselves in a cale lined with large houses. She goes on in a slightly louder voice:
“We’ll go round the other way and take the fondamenta; that way, they’ll see us coming. It’s never pleasant when someone creeps up on you from behind unexpectedly.”
She adds with an affectionate smile:
“They’re very fond of each other; it’s nice to see them sitting quietly together like that.”
I think it gives me pleasure too. I whisper:
“It’s a shame to disturb them.”
“We can’t do anything else, they’re waiting for us.”
Zo and Brasa haven’t seen us until we’re almost upon them.
“Ah, there you are,” says Zo.
He falls silent for a moment, then cries brightly:
“You took your time!”
He stands up:
“Von a far una spassizada!”
Zermana asks after the gnagna. Brasa gives her good news. Her aunt will soon be better; it was less serious than they had feared.
The night is black. The moon is not there. We walk slowly along a rio, then another. We were right to be wearing boots; ancòi xe colma alta! The water is so high that the fondamente have disappeared. A boat has taken advantage of the fact to take possession of the freed-up space. We have just enough room to squeeze between the wall and the boat. I have the impression of walking in the rio itself, above the red lamp-posts that shimmer at the bottom of the water…
The cali we are walking through now are dry; it’s higher here. No, there aren’t any hills, but you only have to climb such a short way… Not everyone is asleep yet. In the warm darkness of a caleta, a woman is sitting on the steps that lead up to her door, deep in tender conversation with a man sitting on a deckchair; a friend, her husband perhaps. A little further on, in the middle of a campielo, two young people are standing and talking… one of them has leant towards his friend and is waving his arms as he speaks; what can he be saying to merit such animation?
This morning we are at the market. It’s not the Marcà, it’s much smaller, but you feel comfortable, like people who know each other. And you can find very good stuff, such as radichio… though don’t think I’m speaking only for myself, because the gnagna, who clearly has excellent taste, has asked us to buy some for her. Here the shoppers take their time, among neighbours, talk with the vendors who know their habits and tip them the wink if a peach is slightly bruised… We buy a chicken to make stock that will last for a few days; we’ll add celery and fresh leeks, fragrant carrots and a few potatoes. Convalescents need feeding! And as the gnagna says, "De aria no se vive!"
If you can’t live on fresh air, you can live very well while knitting. The gnagna has decided to make a scarf and gloves for Brasa. It’s a secret, a surprise for winter. The only trouble is, she’s short of wool and nobody nearby has the same shade. The haberdasher’s where she has always shopped now only sells trinkets for tourists, flashing gondolas and the like… As Brasa and Zermana are busy helping the gnagna with housework and cooking, Zo takes advantage of the fact to whisk me off on some pretext – excellent no doubt – to buy the missing wool.
“Where will you find it?”
He answers with a smile which seems… resigned:
“I would love to say ‘You’ll see’ again, but this time I don’t think you’ll see much.”
He stays for a moment looking down.
“Come on, follow me,” he continues with a little sigh.
I follow him. He takes great strides. I follow without saying anything because he doesn’t say anything. We reach the ferovia. I hear Zo mutter: “I hope there’s a train soon”. Oh, right. We’re taking the train. Where to? He turns to me:
“I hate the bus. It shakes you up and it’s so slow you might as well walk.”
Oh, right. The train it is, then… But where to? Tickets. We climb into a rickety old train, directly into the compartment. The seats are made of wood, lovely, shiny wood. Zo throws himself down on one of them. I seat myself more deliberately. There aren’t many other passengers.
“They all take the bus,” he sneers.
Then, without transition:
“Yes indeed, that’s how it is now for everything. You have to go the mainland.”
Right, got it… Indeed – he had warned me – I didn’t see much… And I think I would rather not have seen anything at all… The commotion, the noise, the air you have no option but to breathe in order to survive, the passers-by who jostle you, the cars that hunt you down… Yes, I am familiar with all those things; it’s not the only town, far from it, that has the good fortune to live a life called normal… Zo tears through the streets. “There it is!” he cries in front of a vast department store, like others I know; they’re everywhere. The wool is bought. He shrugs impotently:
“Yes, here there’s always everything you need. What is one to do?”
We’re back on the train again. Zo stretches out lazily on the seat; he is smiling:
“This train is going back home,” he says in a calm voice.
This morning, some errands for the gnagna, which we run together, Zo and I.
“And yet there are lots of people about,” he points out. “They’re all going quickly but nobody bumps into us. It’s not like yesterday.”
“Perhaps because there aren’t any cars?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, yes, it might be a reason; but I don’t think it’s enough of one.”
He thinks for a moment, then says:
“Look at the people as they walk; look at the way they are.”
He adds with a laugh:
“Not the visitors, of course!”
He carries on, looking himself at the people going past:
“Yes, of course, here I can meet people I know; but all the same there are some I don’t know. And they all seem to be going somewhere!”
I express surprise:
“Yesterday too, they were certainly going somewhere.”
“They weren’t going where they wanted to.”
“What do you mean?”
He pulls a face:
“It’s silly, what I just said... I don’t know how to put it... In the street, they’re not at home.”
I think I have understood:
“They don’t have a chioca!”
He looks at me, nodding:
“Yes, that’s it… that’s it...”
He carries on nodding:
“I’m glad you said that.”
He assumes a mysterious look:
“It’s almost a secret… no, it really is a secret. Who else can you talk to about la chioca?”
He laughs joyfully:
“La chioca!... It deserves...”
He assumes a serious look; earnest, rather:
“What it deserves is that we do whatever we can not to abandon it. That’s what it deserves.”
Then, in a murmur:
“And how are we to do that?”
Sunday. The stars shine softly in the little water garden beneath my window. I can hear Zo’s engine; he’s come to get me to go and “see the night”, as we had said the first time. We turn into the rio which runs past his house and over which leaps a large and solid bridge whose bricks glow like coals. Is this one of the most beautiful of all the bridges here? Yes, I am sure it is. But don’t tell anyone, they’d only laugh at you. No, go and see it rather, on a fine, moonless night…
Having picked up Zermana, here we are in the Canalazzo. It’s not busy; one of the big boats that ply it regularly is dawdling from one stop to another. The big ca between which we pass seem to have grown even larger in the darkness which hides their outline.
We enter the calm of the rio de Sant’Andrea. Brasa has heard us coming from afar and is waiting for us in front of her great, rounded door. We set off for Sant’Iacopo – and the surrounding area, as the tourist brochures say – to stroll around a bit, lounge on our favourite bench in the campo…
The narrow rii we take on the other side of the Canalazzo pick their way between large, dark ca which, squeezed up against each other, keep a watchful eye on those who pass by. A gondola has trustingly fallen asleep alongside a wall; the rio has become still so as not to wake it.
Having moored the topeta near Sant’Iacopo, we start our stroll. The nights are still warm, without being as stuffy as they were not so long ago. We cross the rii by which we came just now; I have the curious impression of seeing them distant, inaccessible. And yet I was there… I think of a theatre, I don’t know why, where the rio is the stage, the bridge the auditorium and the parapet the footlights that separate them. What play am I seeing? And how will it end?
One cale follows another, never very long, sometimes coming up against a wall. At first sight they may all seem alike; if that’s what you think, take another look! In one, you will see an illuminated Madonna resting her sorrow in a little niche in the wall; in another, a small head sculpted in stone valiantly holding up a window ledge; and a little further, a serious head which looks down from above a door and will ask you whether your visit deserves to be authorised.
Sant’Iacopo. Our favourite bench. The night has just taken the path that will lead it to morning. Nobody…
“Has the night seen us too?”
“Night is a friend, it was with us,” answers Zermana.
She adds pensively:
“With us, it remains dark and peaceful; with those who don’t like it, it lights up, so as not to be seen, so that people forget it exists.”
“What could I see if the night were lit up? Houses, windows; not the life behind the windows!”
She gives me a smile:
“I sometimes go and sit in my topo before going to bed. In the rio in front of me, all I can see is the reflection of the stars; of the moon sometimes. The only lamp-post whose existence I can guess, because I know it’s there, hides in the cale, near the bridge that faces me. The rio shows me its secrets. I wouldn’t see anything either if it splashed me with light.”
We say nothing. I suddenly remark:
“I hadn’t really realised, but at Sant’Iacopo the lights hide too: behind the trees, behind the church…”
“I don’t know if I had ever realised it myself: when you’ve known something ever since you were born…”
He breaks off a moment:
“I think it was as natural to me as the leaves that grow on the trees.”
Brasa has looked around slowly; she gives a soft sigh:
“The trees... What if one day the trees get in the way of the visitors?”
A few days ago Zermana had met a school friend who had made her promise to come and see her. The friend has come back from abroad and is spending the rest of the holidays with her barba not far from the San Felise channel. The barba’s house is not on one of the islands of the lagoon and you can get to it by car from the mainland, though of course we go there in the topeta, taking the route past the lighthouse. Shortly after entering the San Felise, well before La Salina, we turn into a small canal which snakes through the barene – they are not really barene, Zo tells me, though they look very much like it to me. The canal passes close by the house and that is where we tie up.
Here, everyone can hear the engines from afar. Meneghina has already come to meet us.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she tells Zermana joyfully.
She adds without a pause:
“Your friend seems really nice!”
She goes on, looking at me:
“You must be used to a different life from ours. I’ve come from a long way away, life in other places isn’t the same at all.”
She exchanges a few friendly words with Zo and Brasa and we head towards the house. Her barba and gnagna welcome us cordially. I get the impression that they are slightly surprised to see me; I mean, to see me as I am. They were expecting someone else, I’m sure. They ask me questions, questions that I would call circumspect. After the traditional “Do you like it here?” they ask me if I don’t get too bored, because what is there for me to do apart from visiting the city? Yes, they know I’m not a visitor, but I must find life here really grim. They have their vegetable gardens, lettuces to sell at the market in the nearby town, they don’t have time to… They trail off. I answer as best I can, they listen without really listening, they are trying to discover who I am; for them, I’m not a visitor, I’m not… I don’t live here… Their train of thought is simple, it shows on their faces: they don’t understand.
You don’t come without saying what you’ve come for.
We leave the barba and gnagna to go and sit on the grass, near the little canal by which we came. We talk about this and that. Meneghina does not try and find out who I am; I am Zermana’s friend and that is good enough for her. What had been good enough for Zo and for Brasa? What had been good enough for Zermana? Meneghina tells us about her travels. It was a long way away, it wasn’t the same. And… And there weren’t any visitors. I am astonished:
“What do you mean, there weren’t any visitors?”
Meneghina looks at me, slightly surprised:
“Are there a lot of visitors where you come from?”
I too am surprised by her question:
“I live in a big city, there are always visitors.”
She seems rather put out:
“Yes, you’re right, I saw some too, where I was…”
She falls silent. I have lost the thread. Zo and Brasa ask, almost as one:
“Were there fewer than here?”
“It’s true, there were fewer...”
“But it’s not just that...”
“They weren’t the same visitors?”
Meneghina seems relieved at the question:
“Yes, that’s it! Or rather no... I mean yes, that too... They were visitors who came to visit.”
Now we’re all surprised. I protest:
“And here they don’t?”
“Yes, they do, but they don’t go away.”
“They don’t stay here for ever.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t know how to put it…”
She thinks for a moment:
“There, I would see visitors; and then afterwards I wouldn’t see them any more. It wasn’t all the time…”
“Here it’s every day,” grumbles Zo.
“And all day, from morning till night,” adds Brasa.
Zermana picks up her idea again:
“You said they weren’t the same visitors ‘too’. Why ‘too’? Was it the kind of visitors you meant?”
“Yes, they didn’t behave in the same way as those who come here.”
“And then you said they came to visit. Was that the way you were thinking about?”
Meneghina says nothing for a long while. We wait. Finally she says in a clear voice:
“They came to the people who live there as visitors. Here, I sometimes get the impression it’s the other way round.”
She has fallen silent. Nobody wants to break the silence.
A boat has just gone by, a neighbour who has given us a greeting.
“At least there aren’t any visitors,” mutters Zo.
Meneghina purses her lips:
“No, there aren’t; and I can’t see what might attract them either. But why is the neighbourhood being developed as if in expectation of them?”
“What do you mean?” says Brasa with surprise.
“We have cousins, not very far from where we live, who have always lived in a few houses grouped around a courtyard. At the back of the courtyard is a chapel where my gnagna used to like to go and pray. Anyway, the chapel was falling down and it was restored. Now it’s like new again. But my gnagna has lost the intimacy of the little dark corner where she would go and pray ever since she was a child. Now there’s a bus stop just near the chapel; will people come to visit it one day?”
Zermana’s father has a bad back. It’s not the first time; carrying boxes every day is hard work. Today the doctor has told him to rest. But customers are waiting; deliveries have to be made. Zermana will do it… and we of course are going with her.
“Don’t worry, I’m here,” says Zo reassuringly when he sees me looking at his cousin taking the tiller of the topo.
“She’s better with La Zaneta than you are,” Brasa teases him with a laugh.
She turns to me:
“He thinks he’s in his topeta and goes much too fast.”
Zo defends himself energetically:
“I don’t go too fast, I just go twice as fast as she does, that’s all!”
Paying no attention to the sarcastic murmurs, he adds solemnly:
“And I have never done any harm to La Zaneta.”
Zermana, in captain mode, gives him his orders:
“Untie that rope, won’t you, instead of talking all the time!”
“Siora si!” he declares, bowing with comic seriousness.
Now we’re off, full steam ahead! The rio takes us to the frutariòl at Barnabà where we had already brought boxes of vegetables some time ago; today it is boxes of fruit… A quick detour via the Canalazzo and we come back by the next rio along; actually, we don’t really come back, two more bends and we arrive at the squadro where I had so successfully rowed a gondola. A parcel to deliver… Next! Now we are crossing the broad canal – much wider than the Canalazzo – which takes us to the island of Spina Longa... having waited for an interminable liner to go by, leaving large waves behind it which bounce us around as if we were on a fairground ride. Not dangerous, they remind me of the three short little waves that had given me such a scare in the Buràn channel. The Spina Longa; it’s straight, it’s broad, it’s clear; we stop by a frutariòl, at the corner of two entirely predictable canals which, for some reason which escapes me, are called rii.
“Another frutariòl,” announces Zermana. “It’s at the other end of the broad canal we’ve just crossed. Tomorrow we’ll go into the rii.”
“The tide will be lower, we won’t have any trouble passing under the bridges,” comments Brasa.
We come back into the broad canal. Zo hops about:
“There’s plenty of room, go faster!” he urges his cousin, who pays no attention.
“You see,” Brasa says to me confidingly, “didn’t I tell you...”
He interrupts her, turning towards me:
“We’re not allowed to go any faster...”
He adds impatiently:
“We’re the only ones to keep to the speed limits. Don’t you remember, in the Buràn channel?”
Zermana points out:
“You weren’t exactly hanging around when we went to La Salina past the lighthouse!”
Zo says sarcastically:
“You’re right, I shouldn’t have gone so fast; after all, I could have capsized a cruise ship full of visitors!”
“Oh, I’m sure you would have done if you could have!” exclaims Brasa with a laugh.
Zo nods to show that he doesn’t disagree with this suggestion. We are nearing the Palagio del Dose. But… we aren’t on the mainland on a wool-buying mission! Did the Doges really have that view from the windows of their palace? Would they recognise the joyous bustle of their era in the tumult, the noise, the big boats that hunt you down… - and, according to Zo, in some cases even jostle you! I’m going to be afraid of capsizing again, I know it!... But no, Zermana skilfully weaves her way between the traps set on all sides. The broad canal joins the Canalazzo, the big boats pick up speed: Zermana accelerates. Well, well, well! Why does she do that? She gives me a running commentary:
“It’s dangerous to go slowly here; you can’t always see the boats coming from behind you when they’re going very fast.”
Zo is sarcastic:
“It’s more that they can’t see what’s in front of them!”
“Just as well we’ll soon be turning into the Tana,” interjects Brasa.
We enter the rio; the water has become smooth again, calm reigns. We pass by the imposing brick wall which runs along the Arzanà opposite the peaceful facades of houses separated by shady cali in the middle of which women have pitched their chairs and converse quietly with each other while sewing. I know the left-hand branch of the following rio; this time, we take the right-hand one – not for very long, though – and come out into another rio which almost immediately comes up against… am I really awake? – an avenue from some great city, a vast avenue which stretches as far as the eye can see! Have I left la chioca without realising it? I must look really stupid because Zermana tells me with a smile:
“A couple of centuries ago or more it was a rio which carried on from the Sant’Ana where we are now. On either side of the rio, between the Arzanà and the gèsia de Sant’Isepo, were the houses of the thousands of arzanaloti who worked at the Arzanà.”
She ponders dreamily for a moment:
“Where are they now?”
Brasa has said the words sadly. She goes on:
“They no longer work at the Arzanà, there is no Arzanà, there are no galìe, there is no Republica, not any more.”
“And the people who worked for them, how could they have stayed?”
In the corner formed by the rio, the frutariòl is waiting for us in his topo. I help Zo to unload the crates we have brought him. He needed them, too, because there are lots of customers around his boats; lots of customers… and not a single visitor.
I am surprised. After we have left, Zo explains, in a voice dripping with sarcasm:
“It’s like with the bridge between Buràn and Mazorbo; it’s not part of the must-see tour.”
“So there are people who live here and don’t work for the visitors, then.”
“There still are some...” Brasa answers slowly.
Then, with a bitter little laugh:
“But nothing like as many as before.”
Silence. Zermana turns towards me:
“There are very few shops left along this great avenue. The people here come long distances because there aren’t any shops at all where they live. They come from the houses that are near the Arzanà, from Sant’Isepo on the other side, and even further afield, from Santalena; they also come from San Piero de Casteo, the island where you saw the game of trono...”
“Oh yes, I remember! You had to knock a girl off the wall of a church…”
I am suddenly struck by a thought that takes me by surprise. I add forcefully:
“But it’s a long way away!”
Zo adopts a sarcastic tone again:
“Oh, but you don’t get bored during the trip; after all, you’re not alone. In winter there’s the icy wind that just loves to keep you company on the interminable bridge that goes over to the island…”
He goes on, nodding:
“Though it’s true the wind isn’t always icy; sometimes it’s rainy instead…”
This morning, as Zermana’s father still has a bad back, we are going to make our deliveries in the rii in the centre. It is no longer frutarioli who await us. Zermana tells me sadly:
“It’s restaurants; not even ostarie, like those where we’ve often eaten together.”
She adds in a tired voice:
“Òe! per diana de dia, ancòi laoremo per i foresti...”
She catches herself immediately:
“No, that’s not what I mean, I don’t mind delivering violin strings for the lautèr; I know he’s a foresto, but he lives among us...”
She turns to her cousin:
“Your father’s happy he’s there.”
She goes on, in a harsher tone:
“No, it’s the visitors we have to work for these days.”
Silence. Brasa confirms:
“It’ll soon be the only work that’s left.”
The topo is moored near La Fenise; the first delivery is for the nearby restaurant. The staff are busy; we’re not visitors, why would anyone speak to us? We deliver, we leave.
“Hey, we didn’t get invited to lunch,” jokes Zo.
I try my hand at humour:
“You didn’t understand: they can only speak visitor now!”
He approves vociferously:
“You’re absolutely right! I didn’t even understand their compliments.”
“The compliments they gave us for the fruit the barba brought from San Rasemo during the night; the fruit whose taste and freshness they boast of so much to the visitors who come to eat there.”
The rio which takes us to the next restaurant is not very wide; it takes all Zermana’s skill to pick her way through it without getting in the way of the pope, busy giving visitors a “real gondola ride”. Brasa wasn’t wrong yesterday: the tide is low, the bridges are high. It’s true that she wouldn’t get it wrong either, she is familiar with the tides just like everyone here. But there is another possible snag: if the water is too low, it’ll be like in the lagoon, we’ll get stuck on the bottom and have to wait six hours for the tide to come up again. Though at least here you can just leave your boat where it is and go home.
“The bottom isn’t the same everywhere,” Zo tells me. “You really have to know what you’re doing. My cousin is more used to her topo than I am; there are places where a gondola can pass, or even my topeta, but her topo can’t.”
Today the tide is neither high nor low and we pass without difficulty. In the rii in the centre it’s not like at Zermana’s or at Brasa’s; on each bridge, a platoon of visitors observe us with keen interest and carefully store the unforgettable view of our passing in their memory. The second delivery; we tie up alongside a riva, where two or three steps take us up into a caleta which leads to the restaurant’s back door. The staff are busy but a few friendly words are exchanged; my friends’ language is still spoken here.
Do you really have time to think about la chioca when you spend all day making deliveries?
Some friends of my parents were due to come for the day to visit the city. They have done so. So today I must accompany them all on the tour. They have come with their daughter; she may be a little older than I am, perhaps a little younger, I don’t know; I asked her but didn’t manage to remember what she said.
We take the boat which regularly plies the Canalazzo; the stop isn’t far from San Boldo. The girl looks around indifferently as if to say: Is that all there is to see? Her parents turn their heads from right to left; their eyes seem to ask no questions at all. We clamber on board, adding to the press of people already there. The marinèr comes to check our tickets. He has given me a quick glance as he passes in front of me and hasn’t checked mine – “He recognised you, he knows you’re with us, he trusts you,” Zermana explained a little later.
We head towards Samarco to “see” the Palagio del Dose. The boat spends much more time at each stop disgorging passengers and then filling up again than actually going anywhere. We pass in front of the Ca d’Oro; I have a sudden urge to tie up there and eat polpete with Zermana. The Ca d’Oro recedes...
“That palace: that’s the Cà d’Oro?”
Surprised, I turn towards our friends’ daughter; it is indeed she who has asked me the question. I answer as nicely as possible and even offer to tell her some things about the ca but she is very knowledgeable and knows the “palace” much better than I do; she counts off the columns, speaks about proportions… How am I supposed to tell her about polpete? Which in any case I haven’t the slightest inclination to do. And why not fragolìn too, while I’m about it? I exaggerate, I’m not nice, but it wasn’t on purpose; I think at the same time I was aware of the little cries of ecstasy coming from the visitors who fill the boat. It was like hearing delicate flowers being trampled…
“Rialtooo...!” shouts the marinèr.
The boat expels a great gobbet of visitors out onto the dock; the scrum of those waiting push and jostle to get on. We arrive at Samarco. I don’t recognise the square; or should I say I can’t see it? Xe colma alta? Yes, though it’s not the waters of the lagoon that have come to submerge Samarco but the visitors. Where is the contemplative lion of the other night? I know, I don’t need to see him; he’s over there, on the other side, behind the church.
“That’s the Doge’s Palace,” the knowledgeable girl tells me, pointing to the palagio.
I have learnt so much… “And the Doge was the ruler of the city, and he had a council of ten wise men…” Ah yes, the diese Savi...
We go inside the palagio. It’s big, it’s very big, it’s as big as you like, but – I remember the ca of the colleague of my father and Zo’s father who I had taken a document to – it is not vast. And yet the palagio is much bigger. But the ca was for one man; the palagio is for everyone. So who did the life of this world depend on? The diese Savi didn’t live here.
Well, well, well. The knowledgeable girl even knows that there are gondolas here. Will she…? She will. “A real gondola ride”. Off we go…
The little dock near Samarco is full of pope waiting on the visitors’ whims.
“I’ll choose the best one!” decrees the knowledgeable girl.
And off she goes to inspect all the gondolas lined up there. At last the choice is made: this one, it seems, is shinier and better decorated… We get in. I have recognised the pope, it’s Mòmolo, we had spoken with him previously; he has recognised me too. I make him a little gesture of resignation; I think he must have understood, because he gives me a discreet little smile in return.
"Sotomòrso el remo!" I may have thought it, but of course I didn’t say it out loud. Mòmolo doesn’t need my advice. I remember how hard I had found it the first time, when Zo had shown me the movement, while contemplating how easily and elegantly Mòmolo takes us away from the quay. Yes indeed, xe cussì! We’re on our way. We cross paths with other gondolas, there are gondolas ahead of us, gondolas behind us; it’s gondola circus!
The knowledgeable girl keeps up a running commentary during our “real gondola ride”: “It smells bad in the canals! – They could’ve painted the facades, it’s not hard! – The people here are filthy, they throw empty bottles into the canals! – Oh, look at that! They hang out their washing at the windows, it’s disgusting! I can’t think why they don’t ban such things!” The knowledgeable girl’s parents turn their heads from right to left and one cautiously asks the other:
“Did you see that bridge, don’t you think it’s pretty?”
The other says:
“Yes, yes! It’s...”
And they each punctuate their opinion with a significant nodding of the head, accompanied by a pursing of the lips and a frown full of deep feelings. And you can’t explain feelings, can you?
Mòmolo valiantly helps his passengers to understand the trip:
“This house is where...”
The rio passes in front of a campo at the back of which I can see the huge pile of scrap metal. Mòmolo has made an ample gesture towards the huge pile of scrap:
“This recent work...” he begins.
And during the very slight pause he makes before continuing, he gives me, still discreetly, an ironic little smile; in return, and just as discreetly, I make a compassionate grimace.
The huge pile of scrap has roused the interest of the knowledgeable girl; she has asked questions about…
Do you know what? I have no idea. I wasn’t listening… It smells bad, washing, scrap metal… It’s true that the rio – fortunately rather short – with which the tour begins is not very pleasant; however, I admire the exceptional memory of visitors who, even after an extended stay, can recall only that particular place. Washing? True, it’s very simple: if nobody lived there, there would be no washing. Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before?
We come out into the Canalazzo; a few gondolas have gathered together and the pope, accompanied by an accordion, sing traditional songs that are not from here…
The tour ends. The knowledgeable girl, her parents and mine alight from the gondola with the fixed smiles of people at the pinnacle of satisfaction. In a low voice I give Mòmolo a little schiao; he gives me a little wave.
It’s lunchtime; the knowledgeable girl clearly knows which restaurant to go to, she has read it up in her guidebook. “It’s just next to La Fenice”, she declares without hesitation. Equally clearly, she knows how to get there: “You take 22 Marzo”. She also knows the cale in question. “It’s good for shopping”, she concludes authoritatively. Her parents approve everything she says with the distraction that seems to be their customary state. Two or three shops – I don’t know exactly how many, I wasn’t really paying attention – are… visited, doubtless as part of the must-see tour… The knowledgeable girl chooses clothes for herself, chooses others for her mother – “This dress will really suit you!” – and tells her father to buy the pair of shoes she saw in the window – “The ones you’re wearing aren’t right for walking here!” Her parents, as distracted as ever, follow her every suggestion and, the shopping done, in response to the question “Do you like the dress, Mum?” her mother has answered: “Yes, it’s lovely, let’s have some lunch, I’m starting to get hungry.”
After dropping off the shopping at the hotel, just a stone’s throw away, we go for lunch. I was slightly anxious, because the restaurant in question was the one I had made the delivery to the previous day. But there was no need to worry: as nobody had paid any attention to me yesterday, nobody has recognised me today.
To be honest, the food we are served is very good; some are local dishes, others are the same as you can find in other cities. But the local dish I have chosen – figadìn – is nowhere near as good as Zermana’s. I have a picture in my mind’s eye: the Corte Zapa, Zermana’s figadìn with the barba’s cèole that I ate there for the first time... I stifle a sigh; the Corte Zapa is far and I’m bored here in this restaurant. Still, I put a brave face on it; I don’t want to make my parents sad. The knowledgeable girl has also ordered figadìn; I reckon she has copied me, as they say at school. And why not? At least it proves she has taste! (Only joking, of course.) Now she is doing her best to make sure no-one notices how hard she has to try to swallow her liver – and the onions, ah, the onions! Yet I admire her courage. Her parents, on the other hand, have carefully avoided anything that was not already familiar to them – visiting is fine, but one mustn’t go too far, must one? Dessert? As expected, the innkeeper – sorry, I mean the head waiter – has come to sing the praises of the fruit that the barba has brought… “from the island of Sant’Erasmo!” I have almost corrected him: “No, no, it’s San Rasemo! You’re from here; why do you do everything you can to forget it!” In all events, they succeed…
How kind! The innk… I mean the head waiter offers us coffee with a smile grown wide on the one he saved yesterday. No longer having to struggle with the figadìn, the knowledgeable girl takes up her commentary on the city again. Her parents approve trustingly – they have come to visit, not to make a study. The comments are still just as unfavourable: the streets are narrow, you can never go in a straight line, you can never find your way, you’re always passing by the same spots… My parents hadn’t been able to help much, they don’t know the place well enough yet. As for me, I had tried in vain to point out the way once the shopping had been done, but the knowledgeable girl had said she knew where to go; the first mistake she made had been fatal. We circled La Fenise until I finally cried out “I can see it!”, which was absolutely not the case since the cali were too narrow, but had enabled us, the knowledgeable girl having abdicated as our guide, to reach our destination. As we had crossed several rii during our wanderings, the knowledgeable girl had drawn the conclusion that “All the canals look the same!”
Now it’s time for a rest, though the rest is spoilt somewhat because the knowledgeable girl has just reminded everyone that “going to the Academy is a must!” Her mother has suddenly forgotten to be distracted, uttering a pained “I’m not going anywhere, my feet hurt!” Her father looks up anxiously – the visit was on the timetable… The knowledgeable girl replies with irritation: “Let’s call a taxi, then!” Our ever so helpful head waiter having called the taxi – does he get a kickback? – we set off for La Cademia.
My father was right: “It has wonderful paintings by artists who used to live here in days gone by,” he had told me. Had he been right to add: “It’ll help you get to know the city better than by just walking around”? Of course, arguing that today’s walks show you today and not days gone by would be pointless, however tempting. So wherein lies the difference, if indeed there is one? After all, the painters of days gone by also walked around to choose the places they wanted to paint. And why should those places be less interesting than the places I go to on my walks? In any case, they are sometimes the same. I look at the paintings; the past is before me. To refuse to recognise it is to assert that you don’t want to do anything for the future. Does today exist? Yes, yes it does; but today is also the past. If I paint now, I too become a painter of the past. If I paint the here and now, I have to look at that here and now, and I have to look at it myself. And in order to look at it, I have to walk around. My father is right to tell me to inform myself, in museums, in works of history. I will become cultivated. But more is expected of a plant that has been cultivated than of a wild plant. My duty is to paint, to paint for the future. I say paint, but it could be something else; it’s up to me to find out.
“We should get a move on, the taxi must be waiting to take us to Murano,” the knowledgeable girl warns us in a low voice.
“Over there on the left we can see a painting by…”
The guide has just gone by with her group.
“Take the Grand Canal and go slowly,” the knowledgeable girl tells the taxi.
“As you wish, young lady,” replies the man with a hint of sarcasm.
There is no other way to get to Muràn unless you want to go round the whole lagoon. Then the rio de Noàl, because the rio dei Santi Apostoli is closed for repairs.
All along the Canalazzo the knowledgeable girl, guidebook in hand, reels off the ca. Her parents and my mother listen. Her father asks questions. My father, who knows some of them, makes comments. I think they all forgot to look at the ca themselves; their trip was made in the guidebook.
“Varè co i dise ch’el ponte de Noàl xe a San Felise!” the man has muttered between his teeth.
San Felise is the parish where the rio de Noàl begins. Another minute and they’d have been talking about it! he must have thought to himself.
“This is where my colleague’s son will soon be going!”
My father accompanies his declaration with a broad sweep of the arm which shows the ca Foscari. It’s true, Zo will be at the University one day… and then he will no doubt do scientific research at the place where his father works… As it happens, we are passing just in front of it; my father has pointed out the ca Papadopoli and talked about his work.
Having... done the Canalazzo, we take the route to Muràn.
“The Murano glassworks date from...”
The knowledgeable girl has started reading from her guidebook again. I look at the red glow of the fire that has melted the glass reflected on the little horse that, in the glassmaker’s skilled hands, is starting to emerge from the shapeless blob.
“You can deliver it to our address!”
The knowledgeable girl and her parents have bought a chandelier, a Muràn speciality, whose little diamond shapes come to life in the light and glitter with a thousand colours.
“The big one over there, the one that glitters the most!”
Sant’Iacopo. Zo and I are sitting on our favourite bench. Brasa and Zermana are with the gnagna.
“Was it you who rowed the gondola?” Zo teases me.
I answer, in my most natural tone of voice:
“Ah, so Mòmolo told you then...”
He almost fell for it. Startled for a moment, he quickly replied with sarcasm:
“De diana! ghe mancarìa altro! co el me g’ha dito tuto! E l’aqua, no la giera freda?”
This time it is I who have no intention of falling for it; I answer casually:
“It’s Mòmolo you should be asking if the water was cold, not me. I was rowing as hard as I could to fish him out!”
“No capisso una gazarada!”
“Of course you don’t get it!”
He starts to answer back but gets tongue-tied and bursts out laughing. We both do.
“If you only knew how bored I was!”
“It’s happened to me too sometimes; you really don’t know what to do, do you? And at least you were lucky…”
“Yes, at least they knew where they wanted to go; mine didn’t. The first time I was a bit lost; then I had a brilliant idea.”
“What was it?”
“I took them to places I never go myself.”
I grin too:
“Varda che casi! Great idea! But it’d be harder for me...”
“I don’t know my way around as well as you do… I could have taken them to somewhere it feels good to be; and I don’t suppose they would have liked it at all.”
We laugh again.
“If you stay longer, you’ll get to know your way around better...”
If I stay... I answer hesitantly:
“My father will be leaving again soon...”
He breaks in:
“He’ll be back; my father told me so.”
He cuts me off:
“You’ve already been to school here; everything was fine.”
He goes on without giving me time to answer:
“You could come to my school, we’d be in the same class.”
He cuts me off again, even though I haven’t said a word:
“You can come and live at my place; we have room.”
“But your parents...”
“They don’t mind, I’ve already talked to them about it.”
The gnagna is getting better but still needs some help; Zo and Brasa have gone to see her this afternoon. After lunch, I go to Zermana’s. On the way I pass through an area I didn’t know. I don’t suppose I’ll go back again, but I won’t be taking any visitors there; there’s nothing for them to see. I don’t suppose Zo will either, for the same reason and not because he never goes there; on the contrary, I believe he does. It is a place where people live, where there is life. When he talks about places he never goes, I think they are places from which life has already begun to seep away, like the water in the rii when the tide goes out.
I reach the Càrmini by a caleta so narrow that people would have to pass each other sideways. At the beginning of the caleta stands a large, silent garden, or rather a field in scrubland, abandoned. At the end, high ca which overlook it. On one of them, a huge window with a wide balcony indicates an imposing reception room, perhaps of some dignitary or other. On one side of the field, drowned in a curtain of trees, an elegant little ca on which you can make out a façade of fine Istrian stone embellished with large columns. I approach; everything is closed up and you couldn’t get in even if you wanted to, through the lush green vegetation that has long taken the place of the people who used to live there.
I Càrmini. I cross the rio de San Barnabà; the topo is in the little port. The Corte Zapa.
The mother greets me with a broad smile. The father is there, he has finished his deliveries:
“Ghe ne vustu?... un fragolìn?”
A fragolìn? Why not! With the hot weather having come back, something cool would be welcome:
“Sto fragolìn me dise ben! Co sto caldo, ghe xe caso che possa bever un gotesìn!”
“Anca mi, papà!” exclaims Zermana, coming in.
Her father pours us each a good draught. We stay chatting for a while. The parents have started to get used to me; they no longer just listen to me, like they did at first. The father tells me what he did this morning, even giving me details; one of his customers had arrived late because his wife was ill, he had to go back after delivering his other customers, it had made him late for his delivery to the frutariòl on the Spina Longa, which was a nuisance because the people who live there don’t have many shops and going somewhere else is a bit complicated, you have to take the boat which only comes every twenty minutes, but it all turned out fine in the end.
He has stopped, nodded to confirm what he has just said, looked around the table and poured another glass. I have made a few comments to show him I was interested; he has nodded again and given me a smile.
The cool of the rio mitigates the heat of a sunny day. The two of us have come to sit in the topo and are eating apples full of juice that the barba has brought from San Rasemo.
“Do you remember what I told you in the spring, the day I left: I’ll come back when it rains? Ancòi nol pioze...”
“Si po, me arecordo. I’m glad you came all the same; pioze rare volte d’istà.”
The rain will come in autumn, autumn already heralded by the first yellowing leaves on the trees I can see on the other side of the wall. Autumn means school.
“Your father is leaving soon.”
My father is leaving soon. I know, he told me yesterday.
A boat goes by in front of us. The man has waved to Zermana. She is staring at the rio in front of her and has not answered. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed, because he was turning, and is heading off now through the San Barnabà.
“I won’t be leaving with my parents when they go.”
“They’ll be back soon.”
“You’ll have to go to school.”
“Zo told me...”
“I know. Have you talked about it with your parents?”
“Not in as many words; I wanted to talk it over with you first.”
“Do you think they’ll agree?”
“Yes. The question already came up, a while ago. My father travels a lot. And as Zo’s parents are willing…”
“It’s what I want too.”
“I said a couple of weeks ago when we were at Brasa’s that I hadn’t got used to it…”
“...that it was something else.”
She has looked at me, her eyes not moving, for a long time.
“I told you that as far as I was concerned you were no longer a foresto.”
“When I went away in spring, I missed la chioca… I thought of those who were the first to come to the lagoon. They never left it. Of course, they were safe here. Is that the only reason? There are lots of places where you’re safe… La chioca too is something else.”
“I’ve always lived here. I’ve never thought about la chioca; it’s always been part of me.”
“For me, you are part of la chioca.”
In a caleta, not far from the Tragheto dei Cani, there is an old ostaria where you breathe the air of a past that the visitors have not yet invaded, no-one knows why. When you go in, wooden wall panels aged by time embrace you in their warm colours. The master of the house welcomes you with discreet and sincere attention, as though you were a traveller tired after a long journey. Is it finding a house that is lived in where you expected nothing more than a table, is it finding a host in a place you had only come to for a meal that puts up a barrier no visitor can cross?
My three friends have surprised me with an invitation to this intimate disnàr to celebrate my decision to stay soto la chioca. A mazorìn betrayed by the lagoon has just ended its adventures on our plates. Time ticks away slowly a chiacolàr insieme...
The night is full of the heat left by the sun, a sun that approaching autumn is starting to soften. We walk from time to time, stop in between times. Around us, the windows sleep. The rii turn into enchanted mirrors which reflect houses, boats and bridges. The cali and the campieli call out to us softly: "Come on, there’ll just be us, there’s nobody about now!”
Zo dal ponte from a rio that seems to go right into the houses, behind a sotoportego, a dark campielo where small black arcades keep their eye on you - the Corte del Miliòn. Marco Polo used to live there.
“Siòr Miliòn...” says Zo with a frown.
“He came back loaded from his travels?”
He answers with the same frown:
“No doubt he did. But that’s not why he was called siòr Miliòn.”
“Oh, I know! He brought back tales of a million adventures!”
“Yes, that’s right, that’s why… but that’s not it, all the same!”
I look so perplexed that Zo starts to laugh:
“Siòr Miliòn taught the people here lots of extraordinary things. But people don’t like to think someone knows stuff they don’t know themselves, so…”
“So,” goes on Brasa, “people said that siòr Miliòn had made up a million adventures.”
I point out:
“If it’s true that it wasn’t true, it proves in any event that siòr Miliòn had a vivid imagination.”
“And those who don’t have any don’t like that either,” concludes Zo.
Silence falls. Zermana says softly:
“I putei zoga a chi le dise pi bele...”
She turns to me:
“It’s a very old game that children play; one person asks a question and all the others have to give the craziest and funniest answer they can think of…”
“I get it now,” I exclaim. “And that’s what siòr Miliòn did!”
“Especially as the rules say that anyone who gives a sensible answer has a forfeit.”
We continue on our way, which will take us to Brasa’s, where the topeta is moored. Coming out of a cale, the soft splashing of a fountain makes us thirsty. And drinking makes Zo hungry.
“Didn’t you have enough to eat at dinner?” laughs Zermana.
“Guess what I’ve got in my pockets!” retorts her zermàn.
And he pulls out… a handful of peanuts.
“Bagiggi!” cries Brasa. “What a great idea!”
“Let’s go to Morosini to eat them,” suggests Zo. “We can put them on the vera.”
Morosini is just a little courtyard lined with high walls where slanting light illuminates the outline of two lovely arched windows that lean sadly against each other; the Corte Morosini. But a real snag arises when it comes to putting the bagiggi on the vera: this is a place where cats rule supreme. And the vera is already taken by a long cat – I use the word advisedly because he has stretched out all his length, right in the middle of the vera. Zo tries to negotiate, but the occupant has no intention of giving up his situation. The negotiations – subtle and tricky – end, as negotiations always do, in compromise. Missièr el Gato consents to allow us just the tiny little bit of space we need for our bagiggi; va ben cussì! On the staircase that leads up to the house, the other cats, each on its step, considering that our business is of no concern to them, have not even granted us the courtesy of a miaow.
“If visitors are all that is left here, what will have changed for the cats?”
Zermana’s question has created a feeling of unease.
“If they still get fed perhaps they won’t even notice,” replies Brasa.
Zo exclaims angrily:
“If we’re no longer here, what do cats matter?”
“What will have changed for the stones that were used to build our world?” goes on Zermana.
“They will have become the stones that were used to build… the city.”
“And what will have changed for the visitors?” says Zermana insistently.
Zo says sarcastically:
“If they still get fed...”
“I’m afraid it is they who feed us,” objects Brasa.
She adds bitterly:
“And if they’ve had enough of feeding us, they can always chase us away.”
“They still need someone to look after them.”
“They’ll just keep the staff,” mutters Zo.
“The staff and the actors,” suggests Zermana.
I express surprise:
“The visitors come to visit, don’t they? They will still have the city, they will still have the cats, and if we’re no longer here, they will need actors to take our place.”
“All dressed up in costume, with new gondolas made by the visitors themselves, like fish that are thrown into a lake so that they can be caught by visitors who come to fish in a real lake with wild fish straight from the fish farm!” scoffs Zo.
We leave the Corte Morosini; the cat stretched out on the vera has lifted his head and for a long moment watches us go. We wander, our steps guided from time to time by a luseta in te la note, light that evaporates as soon as it leaves the lamp-post. On the facades of the ca, xe tuto sarà, not a window has remained open. Miracoli, and its church which sleeps with its eyes open. We stop nearby, on the ponte co la feriada of the rio de San Canzian, with its pretty wrought-iron decoration. Ahead of me, over a door giving onto the rio, a cao de piera; a venerable man has left his head sculpted in the stone as a memorial, unceasingly watching the reflections of a vanished world which had been his life and talking to the ghosts which inhabit the rio.
A few more sleeping cali and we reach the quietness of the rio de Sant’Andrea; here we are as always on our bridge, right at the end of the rio.
“E come podemo pensàr a la vechia?” grumbles Zo.
“If you want to think like the ancients you have to live like the ancients,” says Zermana.
“You can row the topeta, even though it’s got an engine.”
“You can indeed, though your time of arrival won’t be the same.”
“The oar can come in handy if the engine breaks down,” remarks Brasa.
“Yes, but that makes no difference to the time of arrival.”
“And if you’re late, no-one will have waited for you,” comments Zo.
“That’s true,” confirms Zermana. “When the arzanaloti came to offer the oars they had made, the customers they hoped to find were already far away in their motor-boats.”
“There are no arzanaloti any more...” says Brasa sadly.
She goes on, in the same sad tone of voice:
“Who still needs our salt? Or the things that came from China?”
“Who still needs the things we were the first to invent: newspapers, banks… Who still remembers Aldus…?”
“I saw a book printed by him in a museum…”
He nods slowly:
“In a museum...”
Zermana finishes up, in a disillusioned voice:
“One day, will we be just a museum bought by the visitors?”
T H E E N D