Friday, February 17, 2017

Nocturne: The News and the Old

If left up long enough Christmas lights become Carnevale lights

Among the nice things about Christmas in Venice is that seasonal decorations for it don't go up too early or stay up too long. Or at least they didn't use to.

Most local businesses and residents typically don't put up their Christmas lights and decorations until the Feast of the Annunciation (8 December) and they take them down after the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January).

This is a marked difference from America, where Christmas decorations seem to go up ever earlier and are prone to appear while kids are still eating their Halloween candy. Of course foreign-owned and foreign-influenced businesses tend to follow the American Christmas merchandising calendar. It seems the new duty-free mall at the foot of the Rialto in the historic Fondaco dei Tedeschi site had Christmas trees up before Venetians even had the chance to celebrate their big local holiday of the Festa della Salute on 21 November. But, then, that mall, as the CEO of DFS (the Hong Kong-based duty-free chain which occupies the Fondaco) admits, is oriented toward Asian tourists.

However, while the city's Christmas lights didn't go up any earlier than usual this year, they've been kept up far longer than before. All the way through Carnevale is the plan--in spite of questions about whether a city so lacking in funds should really be extending their big Christmas electrical bill.

As much as I may like Christmas decorations when they first start appearing in early December here, I'm happy to see them vanish after the Epiphany. For decorative traditions are one way that a community marks its shared sense of the passage of time, of seasons. One way in which a community orients itself in time. The new year--as opposed to the New Year holiday--really seems to get underway once those decorations have been taken down. After the lull of the holiday, during which activity seems to be both heightened and arrested, gives way once again to what seems more like the normal (and now newly welcome) flow of time.

At least that how it's seemed to me in previous years here. This year the city's leaders (marketers, may be a more accurate term) chose to sacrifice this traditional sense of communal time to--you guessed it--what they decided were the needs of the mass tourist spectacle that is Carnevale. So that the very same strands of public lights that may strike a visitor to Carnevale as festive and fun and spirited are, at least to me in my darker moods, yet another sign of a city whose actual (and faint) local life--like the life of its lagoon--has been abandoned by those whose primary responsibility should be to protect and strengthen it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dead End Venice: Two of My Favorites


There's so much advice available on visiting Venice that I rarely feel compelled to give any more. But I will suggest to any visitor who likes to walk that if you don't find the calle you're on abruptly ending in water at least three times a day you're probably spending too much time on the main thoroughfares.

Never mind Piazza San Marco and the Doges Palace and Salute, dead ends (as films like Don't Look Now and The Comfort of Strangers underline) are a quintessentially Venetian aesthetic experience--and those that involve a sottoportego (a passage way beneath a building), as in the images above and below, especially so.

In a city of famous views these sottoporteghi act as the perfect frames, enclosing a representative fragment of the whole: glassy green water, brick, stone architectural elements, and the effects of time, all on an intimate, domestic scale. It's close as you'll find--when the light is just right--to a bit of Vermeer in Venice.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Carnevale Is Launched in the Light of Day

Some of the color of the water parade, with the recently renovated Ca' Da Mosto in the background, second from left
After the Vegas-y spectacle of the night before staged twice on the Cannaregio Canal, oriented largely toward out-of-towners, the association of the lagoon's rowing clubs had their annual corteo acqueo down the Grand Canal on yesterday. This year the number of boats seemed less than previous years, the costumes and decorations less involved and festive. But perhaps that's only because this year I was watching from a different and perhaps wider part of the canal than in prior years; I've seen no reports on actual participation. 

For images from previous years: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2016/01/carnevale-opens-with-venetian-air.html

http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2014/02/carnevale-parade-of-boats.html

The customary giant floating rat leads the parade                    photo credit: Sandro
An acquatic menagerie headed the corteo

The city's bookish Lion marked the boat carrying the mayor

Clad in a 19th-century-style black hat and cape Mayor Brugnaro looked to be reprising his role as Ebenezer "Are there no prisons for the poor?!" Scrooge, which he debuted just a few days before last Christmas with his idea of creating a "citadel" in which to sequester the destitute
Any familiarity with how Venice is run might easily have lead one to assume this Mickey Mouse crew to be the city administration but, in fact, the mayor had already passed

A bit of tango on the Grand Canal

                                          A wide view of the parade of boats as it reaches Ca' D'Oro                                   photo credit: Jen


Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Death in the Grand Canal, Part 2

An image of Pateh Sabally published in Venezia Today

In 2007, when the global refugee crisis involved just a fraction of the people it does today, the British filmmaker Isaac Julien released a profoundly moving meditation on the issue entitled Western Union: Small Boats. I had the chance to see both the original 3-screen version and the single screen version, entitled The Leopard, in London last fall, and there's a particular sequence, already unforgettable, that seems particularly relevant to the death of the 22-year-old refugee Pateh Sabally in Venice's Grand Canal on 22 January.

The 18-minute film was shot on the coast of Agrigento and in the grand baroque palace in Palermo where the final scene of Visconti's The Leopard was set. There's something of an implicit narrative in it, but its power emanates from its juxtapositions of the "realistic" or literal with the lyrical, mythical and choreographed; of the perilous journey in small open boats across the sea with luxury, high culture, and artistic beauty; of the unseen and desperate with the opulent and comfortable.

In the sequence I particularly have in mind, underwater scenes of a swimmer thrashing just below the surface of the sea are intercut with--and paralleled by--a dancer's sinuous, vigorous writhing on the decorative tile floor in which Visconti's famous ballroom scene was filmed.    

In this way the unseen "other" becomes visible in the halls of high culture. The rigorously patrolled aesthetic and cultural boundaries between the rich north and the poor south are ruptured, and their interdependence (as economically lopsided as it's been) is literally embodied, acted out. 

Of course this is a work of art whose complexity is very poorly served by summary, and which gives an abiding, haunting form to human suffering.

Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal was not art.

But because of where he chose to make that leap it became, in the broadest sense, a staged act. That is, performed in front of a large audience. And the rupture it caused in our carefully tended sense of things is attested to by the vigor with which some have tried to contain its implications, to circumscribe the act--sometimes almost to define it away. 

The most obvious attempts at containment and definition are those essentially sensationalistic newspaper accounts I wrote about in Part 1 of this post. Each tends to localize the event for the sake of maximum outrage (or, in the case of the Far Right reader, malicious glee). And even the allusion to the large numbers of refugees entering Italy tacked onto the end of each piece seems less a matter of contextualization than one last spur toward the amplification of whatever emotion the reader already felt.

A more relevant bit of context for Sabally's act, though, might have been the protests that occurred less than three weeks before his death at the refugee center a short distance from Venice in the small town of Cona. There, in a refugee camp designed to hold only 15 refugees that now holds (according to some reports) almost 100 times that number (1,400), a 25-year-old woman from the Ivory Coast died and residents, believing her ailment had been ignored by camp administrators, "revolted", destroying property and causing some frightened staff to barricade themselves inside a camp structure for safety.
  
It was the third protest in this former missile base in the last year, though previous ones had all been peaceful. After an autopsy on the deceased, Sandrine Bakayoko, officials announced that the cause of death was pulmonary embolism and found no reason, despite residents' claims (and prior infractions at the site), to pursue charges of negligence or impropriety.

There's no knowing if Pateh Sabally, who traveled to Venice from Milan on the day of his death, was even aware of the events in Cona. Yet to us witnesses of his act, his own knowledge (or lack) of it makes no difference. What we know alters how we see it, the sense we might make of it--and perhaps the growing sense that those people we do our best to keep out of sight are becoming ever more desperate to be seen.  

But despite the public nature of Sabally's act and the fact that with so many witnesses (in person and otherwise) there would inevitably be varying interpretations--or, rather, for this very reason--the mayor of Venice was quick to assert his own definitive version of things.

1 of 2 memorial wreaths in the water near where Pateh Sabally died
Local reports that the city of Venice would pay for the funeral expenses of Pateh Sabally also included Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's official statement on the young man's death, in which he describes the feelings of "sadness and human pity" inspired in himself and everyone else by Sabally's "personal act of desperation" and declares that we must "stigmatize" those who would misappropriate this act for their own political motives.

Then, beginning with his very next sentence, Brugnaro himself politicizes this "personal act of desperation" with an extended appeal--on purely "humanitarian" grounds, of course--that migrants in no way be given any false hope that they will be accepted in or have any place in Italy.

Indeed, his heart swelling with compassion, Brugnaro goes on, first, to issue an ominous admonishment (reeking of the far Right, anti-immigration, racist Lega Nord party) that we "understand the future implications" of continuing to allow immigrants into Italy, then closes with the philanthropic suggestion that the very kindest thing we can do for immigrants is to repel them at our borders (and on the open sea?), saving them thus from the "tragedies and suffering" they'd otherwise inevitably undergo here.

This was classic Brugnaro. As is typical of him, he was defining the issue once and for all and declaring all other opinions null and void. Having reportedly paid for the funeral from city funds otherwise available only to him, our wealthy mayor seemed to believe that his munificence gave him the patriarchal right of having not just the final word, but the only one. A faulty and essentially anti-democratic belief that forms the core of his governing style.

Moreover, Brugnaro's expressed compassion for Sabally and other immigrants would certainly be less dubious if he were not also inclined to stoke Lega-Nord-like fears of an Italy overrun by Africans. For example, just two days after Sabally's death, and three before his statement about it, Brugnaro hysterically warned that limiting the flow of tourists into Venice would "probably" lead to "tourists being replaced by Nigerians, whom it would then be even harder to scare off."

I suppose what I'm generally suggesting here is that it actually takes a great deal of effort to depoliticize Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal. It requires a concerted effort to block out the contexts--in Venice and the Veneto, in Italy, in Europe, in the world at large--in which such an act, and such despair, can't help but make us think about how our local, regional, national and trans-national governments are responding--or not responding--to this global crisis. We do not know Sabally's intentions or thoughts; he drafted no manifesto before his act. But he didn't need to tell us his exact thoughts for the significance of his leap to be far greater than merely "a personal act of desperation."

Last week it was reported that the city of Venice also paid to return Sabally's body to his native land of Gambia. As a way, Brugnaro said, of "alleviating in part the family's pain." But none of the painful issues raised by his very public death in Venice can be laid to rest by his private burial in Africa. Those issues are still very much alive; the suffering continues, the crisis goes on. In this city of spectacle, which has long sold itself as a stage set for fantasy--engagements, weddings, romance, carnevale--Pateh Sabally showed us something real, too real for most of use to abide.

I have no solutions to offer to the issues. But I think it's important to pause over Pateh Sabally's last act, and important to remember that in the Grand Canal directly in front of the train station, where new arrivals first step into the fantasy world of Venice, a man was willing to die in order to finally, if only briefly, be seen. In a matter of minutes the water swallowed him up, but he is not forgotten, and there are millions of others like him, still living, struggling, suffering, who deserve our attention.


You can find Part 1 of this post here.
A view of the area of the Grand Canal in front of the train station where Pateh Sabally drown

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Walking Home from School, This Afternoon


I'm afraid I haven't had the chance to finish writing Part 2 of the post about the death of Pateh Sabally in the Grand Canal. I hope to do so tomorrow.

In the mean time, after two days of fairly heavy rain, there seemed to be a foretaste of spring in the air today.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Death in the Grand Canal, Part 1

A memorial service on 27 January for Pateh Sabally is led by some of his fellow Gambians near the place of his death in front of the Santa Lucia train station

On the cold Sunday afternoon of 22 January, 22-year-old Pateh Sabally, a native of Gambia, jumped into the Grand Canal in front of the Santa Lucia train station and, in front of scores of onlookers along the banks and in a nearby vaporetto, drown. English-language newspaper accounts of this incident have been sloppy at best, grossly irresponsible at worst. I'll attempt to provide a fuller account here.

Pateh Sabally arrived in Sicily two years ago after surviving the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean from Africa to Italian territory. An article from three days ago in the Spanish paper El País describes him as "part of the half million migrants rescued in the last three years by the Italian Coast Guard." (A figure that seems hardly credible until you read an article such as this one from last fall that describes more than 10,000 migrants being rescued in just two days.)

According to El País, Sabally spent some time in a refugee shelter in Sicily and then, two years ago, was granted a Permesso di Soggiorno, issued on humanitarian grounds. Recently, according to various local newspapers, his application to renew this visa had either been turned down or, according to another paper, his visa had been rescinded. There is a significant difference in these two verbs but, as with so much of this story, the reporting I've seen is poorly documented and careless.

What is known for sure is that after taking a train from Milan to Venice on the afternoon of January 22, he exited the train station, left the backpack he carried near its entrance, walked to the edge of the Grand Canal and, after a few seemingly indecisive minutes, threw himself in. In his pocket was, according to El País, a "perfectly sealed plastic bag... to keep out water, [containing] his passport and his train ticket [that he'd just used]."

The temperature that day was not much above freezing, but Sabally was not only leaping into the mortally frigid water of the famous Grand Canal but, whatever his exact intentions may have been, also into visibility.

A visibility that in English-language media has rarely gone beyond the lurid; all of them presenting an image of Sabally "flailing" in the water before hundreds of observers who do nothing but laugh and launch racist taunts.

Now the issue of racism in Italy, and especially in the matter of immigration, is unfortunately ever present, and plays a big role in this incident. But it is possible to keep in mind both this racist context and other relevant contexts. It's not either/or. Nor does it necessarily serve any socially beneficial purpose in this particular instance to present it as either/or: as if the response of everyone who witnessed Sabally's death was either entirely motivated by racism or (with the exception of a few loudmouths) entirely free from it.

For one thing, to present it this way not only invites a too-easy sense of moral superiority or despairing (and fruitless) sentimental anguish in the reader, but it also (as a look at the comments following the story in almost any news source will disturbingly reveal) seems to energize the kind of vicious racist posturing that characterizes the Far Right.

More importantly, though, it localizes a problem which, alas, is not limited only to Venice--nor only to Italy. Nor even only to Europe. Indeed, the great walls (both literal and metaphorical) proposed by America's mad autocrat aim not just to keep people out, but to block out the nation's responsibility for mass migrations as well.

Though I never watch videos of people's death--which seems to be a major genre on news sites, legitimate or otherwise, these days--I made myself watch a one minute video of Pateh Sabally in the Grand Canal because of how sensationalistic and unreliable seemed the reports I was reading. 

One thing I noticed was that Sabally was not at any point "flailing" in the water. Now, it's extremely important to remember that people who are drowning usually do not flail as they do in the movies. In fact, because it's so important to remember this, and because this fact has been completely absent from the discussion of Sabally's death, I'd encourage you to read this piece on the 10 signs of drowning.

To create maximum tabloid outrage, though, "flailing" is the verb that's used in every English language report I've seen--even though it presents a false image. After all, it's the verb that most readily inspires the indignant question that each account of the incident implicitly poses: How can any human being not react, even in some rash impulsive way, to another person in obvious distress in the water--let alone make some stupid or racist crack?

But before returning to the question of what drowning actually looks like, I'd like to add one other bit of context, for whatever it's worth.

Pateh Sabally is said to have jumped into the Grand Canal and swam toward its center. This is a lot different than accidentally falling into the canal--and it's a difference that is especially marked for locals. For a lot of people come to Venice and do stupid things, such as (quite often) jumping into the canals. And when visitors do such things, the habitual Venetian reaction is one of scorn and derision and contempt, no matter who does it. This is not to excuse any despicable comments involving race--such as the moron who shouted "Africa!" in the video I watched. But some of the comments that have been reported, such as the person who is supposed to have remarked "Fa finta (He's faking)," or another who is supposed to have said, "He's stupid, he doesn't want to live," simply sound very, well, Venetian to me. That is, I wonder to what extent some of the comments are simply typical of that insular segment of the population that feels its city is under siege by outsiders of all races who do not "properly respect" it.

Is this attitude appropriate? Is it not always in danger of turning inhumane? I leave those questions to you.

Of course on a freezing winter day one would hope that this habitual response would almost immediately be replaced by a sense of the very real danger that the person in the water was in, no matter how he first came to be there. For the shock of being in such frigid water quickly incapacitates a person, no matter what that person's original intention might have been.

This is why it's typically not recommended that another person dive into freezing water to try to save the person already there. But none of the English language accounts of the incident refers to the low temperature of the water, and for those many people living abroad who are inclined to think of "sunny Italy," this oversight only ramps up their sense of moral indignation. The kind of moral indignation that does not necessarily lead to any kind of moral action, but that definitely leads to more online clicks.

But what about the marinai, the sailors, on the number 2 vaporetto line that reversed its course to draw near to the drowning man? Aren't sailors required by the law of the sea to aid people in distress--even to the point of throwing themselves into frigid water?

Yes, they are obliged to aid those in distress in the water. But ACTV, which runs the vaporetti, forbids its sailors--either the driver or his/her colleague--from abandoning the boat at any time. The crew of the vaporetto drew as near as it safely could to Sabally and threw him at least 3 orange flotation rings, toward which he seemed to make no movement. This is another point we'll return to in regards to what drowning actually looks like.

So what more could have been done for Pateh Sabally while he was in the water? I had no idea. Until I attended last Friday's memorial service for him along the Grand Canal in front of the train station: a gathering of more than 300 people who came together not only to mourn Sabally, but to signal a rejection of the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that surrounded his death. It was only then that I was struck by something I should have already known. On a Sunday afternoon, even in winter, that part of the Grand Canal had to have at least a half dozen water taxis plying its waters. There are taxi parking places all around where Sabally drowned. Not too far away there's even a gondola stand. Were there no gondolas in the water at that time? Is it really possible that there were no taxi drivers right in front of the train station who could have pulled up right alongside Sabally (in a way that the much larger vaporetto could not) and aided him?

Standing at the point of the waterside from which Sabally jumped in, I found that hard to believe. There had to be someone driving a taxi. More than one, most likely. It's what I told my wife, Jen, when I came home from the memorial service.

Then two days ago La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre reported that authorities, after reviewing various videos of the event, were bringing charges against a 35-year-old driver of a motoscafo belonging to the Casinò di Venezia, who'd passed close to the drowning man but hadn't stopped to offer either a life-saving ring or a rope--an omission of aid that violated the codes of navigation

This motoscafo driver, and any supporters he may have, will no doubt say he is being scapegoated. And if he so chooses he'll have no difficulty finding various Right Wing groups and politicians to take his part. After all, Pateh Sabally's actions in the water--specifically, the fact he seemed to make no move toward the flotation rings thrown to him--supposedly made it clear he wanted to die.

Now, in the absence of more details on the charges and the evidence upon which they're based, there's no saying whether they're appropriate. But given the way in which people actually drown, what they actually "look like" while doing so, one cannot say for certain that Sabally wanted to kill himself. Here are some relevant points taken from the article linked to above:

1) "Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help."

2) "Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help."

3) "Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface."

4) "Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment."

Add to these factors the debilitating frigidity of the water and an observer in any position to aid the drowning man can't excuse his or her inactivity with the claim that Sabally "obviously" wanted to die. Even if he'd traveled to Venice with that idea in mind (though he neither wrote nor told anyone anything like this), we can't know whether at some point in the icy water he changed his mind--only to find himself no longer able to do anything to save himself.

This is as much as I've been able to put together about the death of Pateh Sabally in the Grand Canal and it, too, can't help but be only partial and imperfect. In my next post I'll turn to some reactions, political and otherwise, to his death. But before closing I'd like to make one simple non-political suggestion; something that might have saved Sabally's life.

Given the fact the ACTV marinai are not allowed to enter the water to save a drowning person, I'd suggest that each vaporetto really must carry at least one--preferably two--life saving devices known as a body hook or shepherd's hook. They're exactly what the names suggest; made of lightweight material and have a reach of 3.6 meters or 12 feet. They could easily be stowed on brackets along the sides of a vaporetto, or just above or below its roof. Each ACTV employee should be trained to use one. Here is a short video showing how one is used. They are far more effective at saving an incapacitated person in the water than a flotation ring. In the case of Pateh Sabally it would have been the vaporetto crews' only chance to save him.  


You can find Part 2 of this post here.
A view of some of the crowd after the conclusion of the memorial service for Pateh Sabally