The Constitution of Tragedy
Article I – Preamble
This is about Alberto and Deborah. I have made mention of Deborah here – that delightful Southern Belle with attitude and humor and a heart as big as the world. She came to Italy at 17 years of age and, to all intents and purposes, she has hardly left. Art History Major. Taste to die for. A true Chef. Wit that is instantaneous. Age? Not altogether indeterminate – but one does not, after all, ask a Lady, particularly a Southern Lady, her age.)
Alberto. 78. He was a professional boxer who fought 23 fights – the story of his 23rd fight is worth an episode in and of itself. He played premier league “football” (Soccer to the Euro uninitiated) for many years in England; one consequence is that you cannot tell whether he is a native English speaker or not. He won three dance contests in the 50s. Fisherman par excellance. Kind. Great Good Humored. Quick with wit. Can get by in six languages, but is almost totally dyslexic, so he can read only with great difficulty, and writing poses similar challenges. Native Venetian. A difficult, hard childhood – hard as in he was sold as a child; which he more than survived, he transcended. A man in love with the traditions of Venice. An unfailingly friendly man who does the Passeagato (the afternoon, or evening – hell anytime of the day – walkabout with his friends, stopping for a Prosecco or a Spritz, talking, enjoying).
Article II – Why Janus Has Two Faces
What significance does the word tragedy carry anymore? One can only hear it associated so many times with multiple school shootings, women kept prisoner in a basement, runners being blown apart just because of their love for the Big Race, and etc. before its application on a smaller, more individual level loses not only import but meaning entirely. Nevertheless, tragedy can sometimes be a blight, a calamity, a transcending adversity that asks us to refocus on its real meaning, to re-visualize the application of it to two everyday people and their personal Waterloo. As Aristotle noted and the Romans affirmed: Life is composed of the tragic and the comedic. Because the tragic has become so much of a constant staple of concentration in our media afflicted lives, I think we forget to laugh to relieve the pressure. Consequently, failing to laugh, I think we inure ourselves to tragedy’s true, emotional and spiritual impact. In Alberto’s case, only gallows humor could suffice at any rate.
Article III – The Best Laid Plans
Alberto and Fema lived together for some 20 years in a fine, fine Apartamento that she owned. They did not marry. They had a relationship, by all accounts, which transcended the “need” for marriage. When Fema became ill, they set a marriage date. The Commune of Venice cancelled that date – you have to know Italian local politics to appreciate that. Two hours before the new date and time Fema died. Fema was a practicing attorney. She left a will that was witnessed. The will left their 5th Floor Apartamento to Alberto. Fema’s sister fought the will in Court for years (and even brought criminal charges against Alberto saying he had forged the will). What can only be seen as a travesty of justice beyond description resulted in Alberto losing the case.
Article IV – Why?
Let us just say the word – avarice. This Apartamento is easily worth 1 million Euro ($1.3 million US).
Article V – A Classic Venetian Life.
How can words describe physical reality? It is damn hard. The glass of Italian wine next to me helps actually! Imagine a five story building (Palazzo in Italian) that sits right on the quay overlooking the Grand Lagoon of Venice – not the Grand Canal mind you. Still, this somewhat “lesser” cousin has delights that makes the Grand Canal rather ordinary. The Apartamento is on the fifth floor. It has floor to ceiling windows in bedroom, living/dining room, and extra room which overlook the expanse of the Lagoon as it sparkles in the sun light and hosts boats galore coming and going in their steady, necessary courses. One can see, in the near horizon, the many islands of the Veneto, in the far horizon the Great Adriatic. It faces basically South, so the rooms are light, airy, and sun-filled. Oh, and yes, just off that small, extra room, it has a small terrace. Venice is peculiar. Because space is so precious and valuable, what we think of as terraces in America are here rather – well much more than rather – small. It will fit two chairs, plants, and a small table. For the view it affords, see above and then add in that you can watch the passeagato of people on the Quay below. One could easily wile away hours just enjoying the sea, the sun, the sensation of a world quietly passing by for your personal pleasure and edification. The rooms are beautifully spacious and comfortable. Alberto and Deborah lived together in the apartamento for 10 years.
Article VI – An Italian Life
Alberto worked his whole life. Because he only had one year of schooling (remember the “sale”), he could not get a work card in Italy, because such requires 5 years of schooling. So, he worked at what he could get. One employer, who he was with for many, many years did not pay into the state system (we in America call it Social Security). He, you guessed it, did not tell Alberto. As a consequence Alberto has only the most basic of pensions that amounts to 500 Euro a month. The apartment was his retirement not just for living accommodations but, when the time came, to sell and have the resources to take care of himself. There is more here though. Alberto has spoken to me many times about his sense of responsibility for Deborah’s welfare. He knows that she has reasonably sufficient, independent means, but he is a fine, honorable, loving man, and he feels the deeper blow of failure in that regard.
Article VII – Pre-Nup
After court hearings at numerous levels, an appeal court ruled against Alberto and ordered him out of the apartamento in 15 days. If any of you have lived somewhere for many years, you know well what I refer to when I talk about the accumulation of a life. This was the accumulation of two lives well lived. The Courts also ordered that Alberto pay his sister-in-law’s court costs. Because he and Deborah married, her accumulated life goods are now under threat of confiscation to pay his debts – this despite their having executed a Prenuptial Agreement, valid under Italian law, that declared their goods as separate. So, in order to prevent their possible attachment, Deborah had moved to storage most of her valuable furniture, art, and those things accumulated over her years in Italy – accumulations which make a highly intelligent, art-historian’s house a comfortable, pleasant, and tremendously satisfying environment.
Article VIII – Consequences.
On the evening of the day of the court ruling and the eviction notice, Alberto got sick, very sick. Lung based.
Article IX – Consequences
“I am worn out, for the first time in my life, I am worn out.” Alberto repeated this to me a number of times as we moved their worldly belongings away from the home he loved. Actually, it was as others moved the belongings. Alberto was too sick to do much, something which affected him greatly as a man: “I’ve always been capable and strong”, he would say over and over.
Article X – Consequences.
Alberto lost 13 kilos in 30 days. He is a typical Venetian – small of stature, solid, definitely not heavy or “fat”. From solidity and tone, his arms and legs have turned to the loose skin that one sees in the nursing homes. He has now gone to numerous appointments for internal problems that could be quite serious.
Article XI – When A Heart Breaks.
Deborah told me of numerous occasions when Alberto would just break down crying. There is more here than words can ever express. Here was a confident, boot-strap scrapper, generous, full-heart Italian who cannot now stop tears when alone or with his Amore. There is still more. One of Alberto’s attributes is easily understood – he worries about not only caring for Deborah now and when he has died, but that she should not have to finance him. If anything could tear the heart out of a genuine man – besides losing his home of 30 years – it would have to be seeing oneself deprived of the ability to financially support the one you love or, even worse, in seeing her independent assets being put at risk because of you.
Article XI – How Far Must That Be Carried?
There are 66 steps up to the Apartamento. They hired a “moving” company to come for the big items – refrigerator, furniture, beds, marble counter tops, cabinets, etc all went by hoist out of and down from the window and on to a boat to be taken to storage. All the rest of the accumulation of their lives, had to be carried down those steps and then be hand carted off to various spots where friends were letting them store their now packed up life. Remember, in Venice it is either boats, hand carts, or hands – no pickups backed up to the door! I told Deborah that the experience had at least cured me of one important vice – that of envy for those Venetians who live in the top floor apartamentos!!
Article XII – I’m From The Government, And I’m Here to Help.
Midst all this, a representative of the Commune of Venezia (the city government) told Alberto in the presence of Alberto’s brother-in-law not to hand over the keys at the end of the 15 days (as ordered by the Court), for he was not supposed to be made homeless by such actions. When they refused the key turnover (against their own lawyer’s advice), the lawyer quit them, and the Commune Representative then said he never said any such thing. This all resulted in a police visit.
Virtually everything had been moved out of the Apartamento (remember the 15 day notice!) just when a representative of the court showed up to sequester any property for the court debts. Luckily, he was a considerate fellow, and he also did not know about the storage area on the ground floor chock-a-block full of goods to be hauled away the next day.
Article XIII – When Temporary Becomes An Affliction
Friends let Alberto and Deborah use their empty apartment temporarily for a month. So, we moved interim possessions into that apartment – only three flights up!. Af then end of that month it was off to another temporary apartment – only three flights up – for two months. The operative word here is temporary. Imagine your life thrown into the chaos of temporary living on fifteen days notice. To help that imagination note that it is high season in Venice, an expensive place at any time. Now with July well advanced and, more importantly, all of Europe set to take vacation in August (the owners do not leave their keys with their apartment managers, so when they are on vacation, you cannot view an apartment), there is a desperation setting in.
Article XIV – Pummeled Again
I liken the unfolding story of Alberto (and Deborah) to his being in the boxing ring. Except here, he receives blow after blow after blow and there is neither a ref to stop the fight nor a bell to end the round. One small example: Ordinarily, in the Italian system, someone in Alberto’s circumstances and limited pension would be eligible for public housing. Because Deborah has an apartment (which is rented out to help pay their daily living costs), which she owned prior to the marriage (see Article VII Prenup Agreement above), Alberto has been refused public housing.
Article XV – Kicking When They Are Down
Apparently, being awarded the fine apartamento was not sufficient. Now the former sister-in-law is using the legal system to seek back rent from the date of Alberto’s first wife’s death – at 2000 Euros per month. She is seeking to take Deborah’s assets since Alberto has none.
Article XVI – What is Tragedy?
What constitutes tragedy? What one sees in Alberto’s last 8 weeks is something you would swear could only be in a book or a movie or a fable meant to provide lessons to the young. From what was, he is now an old, vulnerable 78: Vitality sapped, humor, mostly forced. The passeagato is rare. The fishing he loved so dearly is rare, but returning slowly, thank goodness. He makes a good face of it, rallies as we say in the States, but it is heart-breakingly brief and only enough to make you sadder than you can imagine – having seen what tragedy can engender in two months. I have not addressed the effect of this upon Deborah and upon their relationship. In all conscience I cannot. It moves from the reportorial to the personal. I trust that your sense of the human condition can fill in the blanks.
Article XVII – Post Script
I now know more deeply the helplessness one feels in the face of tragedy – all one can do is lend a hand, climb and carry, trundle hand carts, comfort the afflicted, and fantasize about sudden wealth that would buy their beloved apartamento and move them back in.
Continued . . .