NEPALESE IN VENICE (Satis
It was a bright sunny
morning when Claudia, Giacomo, Silvana I headed for Italy
from Freiburg. The first Swiss town we went through was
Basel, which is known for its university and chemical
firms near the Swiss-German border.
The sky was a cobalt-blue
as we sped through the Arisdorf tunnel. In Switzerland
you have to go through a lot of tunnels. The Swiss have
introduced a vignette system whereby every car has to
have a sticker pasted on its windscreen at a cost of 30
Swiss francs annually. The Swiss autobahn (highway) was
surrounded by breath-taking scenery, with green pastures
and rounded hillocks. In the distance you could see the
Alps. As you speed along the well-maintained highway you
see picturesque tiny towns and hamlets with their cute
church-tops. There are extremely romantic settings ahead
as you watch the mountains reaching out to the lake. You
see the mountains right in front of your nose with their
pine forests and snows tops. You drive past the Seelisberger
lake and view a magnificent mountain scenery.
There are pretty petite
Swiss huts on the lush green slopes of the hills with
pine trees and jagged peaks, which have often served as
backgrounds for scores of Bollywood films. With Lata Mangeshkar’s
touching and sad version of ‘Kabhi khushi, kabhi
gham’ blaring from the car’s stereo CD player,
we certainly felt like Bollywood stars. I was a Nepalese
from the middle mountains of Nepal and Claudia was from
Germany’s Black Forest and we’d met at a ballroom
and latin dancing class at the university town of Freiburg.
Giacomo was from Brescia, a town in northern Italy and
Silvana was from Sicily, and had, as expected, a lot of
jovial, southern temperament.
Near Luzern, the Alps
appear suddenly in their majesty. When we went past the
Sempucher lake I was reminded of the equally beautiful
Phewa lake at Pokhara. Then came a series of tunnels.
Every time you came out of a tunnel you were rewarded
with a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. Near the Vierwaldstätter
lake in Luzern we went past the William Tell chapel. Tell,
it might be noted, has become something of a Swiss institution
ever since he shot the apple from his son’s head.
The Gottard tunnel turned
out to be a feat of engineering but also 17 kilometres
of exhaust gas inhalation. It certainly was good for the
environment and local scenery but bad for the traveller’s
lungs. The air was thick. There were SOS-
telephones and video-cameras at regular intervals in the
well-lit tunnel. And finally we arrived in Lugano: an
extremely stylish and elegant city with a waterfront--the
lake Lugano. A board with the notice ‘Funiculare
angiole’ cropped up. Lugano and Tessin are the Italian-speaking
parts of Switzerland, in addition to north Tirol in Italy.
In south Tirol the Italians of German descent, like the
climber Reinhold Messner, prefer to speak German and are
proud of their Teutonic traditions. A pretty blonde Swiss
policewoman was busily distributing tickets for wrong
parking. I had the impression that she did it with a sadistic
The Italian highway is called the autostrada. It read
Milano 64 km, and after Milano came Chiasso, the border
town and then the San Nicolao tunnel. In Italy we had
to pay an autobahn tax. ‘I love travelling to Germany
by car,’ Giacomo had said once. It was only now
that I understood why. In Germany there was no road tax
for the autobahns, except for heavy-duty lorries, and
you could drive non-stop from one part of Germany to the
other without being stopped. A lot of Swiss Ferrari-owners
test their newly bought cars along the route, because
one is not allowed to drive so fast in Switzerland.
Milano had mostly brown
or ochre coloured houses with bed-sheets and other clothes
hanging out of the windows, like in Naples. That’s
Bella Italia, I thought. There was a traffic-jam along
the Milano road at 4:30 pm (rush hour) with commuters
impatient to get home. We drove past the not-too-picturesque
river Adda and an area with big factories coughing up
a lot of smoke. There was a lot of smog in the vicinity
of Milano. Suddenly, you could see the Italian Alps in
the distance to the right.
Bergamo turned out to
be a city on top of a hill and heavily cemented like a
citadelle, with its pompous church-spire. You could see
the marble blocks stacked together in front of a marble-quarry.
A series of hillocks appeared to the right with small
fortified towns on their summits and a vista of the Alps
in the background. And we arrived in Brescia, the Nepalese
base-camp, for further excursions in Italy.
It was already dark when
Giacomo suggested that we drive to a small hill overloo¬king
the town of Brescia or Brixia, as the Romans used to call
it in the old days. There were myriads of gaudy lights
winking at you. One couldn’t help thinking about
Kathmandu, as seen from the temple of Swayambhu. After
a typical rustic Italian dinner we descended to Brescia.
The next day we went with
Giacomo, our young amiable, bearded Italian friend, to
see the Roman ruins of Brixia which proved to be very
interesting. There was a Roman theatre with reconstructed
pillars and tombstones. I had the impression that they
were still excavating the ruins. Giacomo said that old
Roman city of Brixia lay at least four metres deep under
the present-day Brescia.
The town-council and theatre
buildings were imposing. There was a bustling vegetable
and fruit market in the middle of the city and it was
fun to watch the gesticulations and mimics of the Italians
haggling with each other. It was like the market scene
at Asan Tole in Kathmandu, except that there were no cows
roaming about and the women wore skirts and showed their
legs and shoulders, and were not draped in colourful saris.
Giacomo suggested we try
out a typical Brixian lunch at Sovenigo which was some
50 km away. It was a homely restaurant and it began with
a soup with tortelli. The polenta proved to be a thick
yellowish dish made of maize-flour.
‘It’s the staple diet in the north,’
explained Giacomo. And went on to explain that the word
‘polentona’ is regarded as a terrible insult
when people from the north are confronted with this word
by those from the south. The northeners retort with: ‘terroni’,
which means something like a country-hick who’s
bound to the terrain. It was akin to the eternal problems
between the madhisays and paharis, the flatlanders and
the highlanders in Nepal. A mixed-grill dish appeared
next with roasted fowls, pork, canines and small birds.
And all this was consumed with Tura and Valpollicella
After the sumptuous lunch
we headed for Verona.
Verona was a beautiful
city, with old houses and a pompous amphitheatre in Roman-style.
The alleys were crowded, it being Sunday, and the Veronese
were wearing their Sunday-best and the women were dressed
to kill, if one might say so, looking elegant, proud and
oh-so-self-conscious. Embroidered net-stockings, black
lack shoes and scarlet lips were in.
Who hasn’t heard
of Romeo and Julia? But few people know that the Venetian
writer Luigi Da Ponte created in 1500 the tragic Romeo-and-Juliet
story. And William Shakespeare made the eternal drama
out of it. Every year you see tourists on their way to
Julia’s memorial, to the famous balcony of Julia
and to Julia’s grave.
You still see the buildings
from the Roman times in Verona such as: the Roman theatre,
the Borsari gate, the Porta dei Leoni, the arch of Gava.
And the bridge that was frequently destroyed and repaired:
the Ponte Pietra and naturally the arena. The big amphitheatre
with its 72 arcades, which functions today as a summer
stage for world-renowned operas and ballet, was built
in the first century. During the Roman times, it was the
arena where ferocious animals and gladiators fought. Today,
the streets approaching this arena are packed with camera-wielding
tourists and strolling Italians.
Outside the city, you
still see the ancient city-wall, which was constructed
for defence purposes. At this stage their car had developed
thirst and started snorting and fuming. It had to be cool
down and watered. We stopped near a sprout and admired
the pedestrians and the buildings and then drove on towards
There was an impressive
castle to the left with walls that conjured up images
of the Great Wall of China. Castles cropped up every 20
kilome¬tres. There were miles and miles of vineyards.
In the Monti area we went through at least three tunnels.
We had to pay another highway-tax up to Chiogga. There
were dry patches of land along the way which normally
get soaked up by the sea during the tide. The waterway
was marked with wooden poles painted red and white.
Chiogga is a picturesque
and romantic fishing-town in the southern part of the
lagoon. It dates back to the Roman times. The main attraction
is the Corso del Popolo, where the most important buildings
are located: the Barock church St. Andrea, the gothic
grainary. The St. Martino church is an excellent example
of brick-gothic architecture.
Chiogga is connected
with Sottomarina by a dam, which in turn is an Adriatic
bathing resort with a beautiful beach. At the entrance
of the Adriatic harbour in Chiogga, where we intended
to spend the night with some Italians friends, we had
to go past a check-post. I naively asked the purpose of
the check-post, to which Giacomo replied, ‘Oh, from
here it is possible to take a boat to Yugoslavia.’
Our charming and garrulous guide talked the Italian police
over and we drove past in no time. I wondered how Ludmilla
Tüting would have faired with her polaroid-number
at the Italian check-post, because she mentioned in one
of her Nepal guide-books that it helps to have a polaroid
camera when one goes to the Nepalese countryside. ‘The
Nepalese just love to see themselves in instant photographs,’
was her explanation two decades ago. It’s digital
We were given a warm welcome
by the skipper Luigi, who ran a 5-boat sailing school,
and his German-speaking wife in their beautiful cosy house
with a fire-place that was already crackling. We had,
what the Germans call Schollen (plaice), tasty self-made
Italian bread with butter, cheese and noodles with parmesan
cheese and a birthday cake too. Giacomo, who turned out
to be an excellent troubador, played Luigi’s guitar
and we sang English and Italian songs late into the night.
We slept in one of the
school’s boats, a moderate affair with six sleeping
berths. I slept very well in spite of the fact that it
was a bit chilly. There was a strange toilette on board
where you had to use a handle to pump the water. The tap
had to be pumped with a foot-pedal, like in one of the
The next day we went to
Chiogga, which has three parallel canals cutting through
the town. There were pretty arched bridges, and nearby
there were Italian vendors with stalls displaying Mediterranean
fruits, vegetables and fish. It was a bright day, and
we could feel the bustle of this small sea-town as we
went about our errands. There were fishermen drying out
their nets and Italians talking animatedly. I took a photograph
from the bridge and a burly moustachioed Italian in a
two-piece suit who came in the way and said, ‘ I’m
sorry’ with a smile and touched the tip of his hat
and walked away, like in a Fellini film.
As we took a walk through
the town’s main street, we noticed the Italians
talking in small groups. Most of them were men. A macho
society, one is likely to say. The women were probably
in the kitchen or in the church or with their children.
You see old, dilapidated houses, people staring at each
other from windows and balconies. We noticed, however,
that there was life there. The noise coming from the street,
the children playing and emitting screams of delight.
In the narrow lanes you saw the ubiquitous clothes-lines
stretching from one house to another, a sight that’s
unusual in German towns, except during the carnival celebrations
(Fasnet) when the houses are decorated with colourful
flags, like the ones during the Buddhist Losar celebrations.
We changed money at the
local bank in Chiogga and learned to our dismay that it
was dead slow with its service and pretty crowded too.
The Nepal Rastriya Bank isn’t fast either, I thought.
From Chiogga we headed for Mestre, a colourful harbour
town on our way to Venice.
MASKS AND COSTUMES
‘Jetzt sind wir
bald in Venezia,’ said Giacomo, after all we were
out to enjoy life in Venice, as we went past the Guarda
di Finanza building. "Bella Venezia!" shouted
Silvana, stretching her hands in the process. I remembered
the time I’d come to Venice in a bus from Rottweil.
Most of the passengers had spoken with heavy Swabian accents.
The Swabians are a jolly folk with business acumen, and
they’d laughed and cracked jokes and poked fun at
all and sundry. The British would have looked stuffy in
their presence, I had thought.
I read aloud, "Linea
direta autostrada" written on a big sign-board. It
always fascinated me to read boards written in foreign
languages. In Italy you still have to pay toll on different
parts of the highway because they are owned by private
persons. We went past Mailand, known for its Theatre Scala,
the Verdi museum and one of the biggest railway junctions
in Europe. There were endless rows of factories to be
seen en route, and then we were relieved by the sight
of the snow-capped mountains of the Italian Alps against
a blue sky.
We were excited about
the carnival in Venice. Unlike the noisy carnival in Germany
and Switzerland, in Venice it is serene and this ancient,
historical town in the lagoon with its many bridges, palaces
and buildings, waterways, gondolas becomes a magnificent
background for the festival of costumes and masks. As
Shakespeare said in "As You Like It": All the
world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
Venice at carnival-time suddenly becomes a stage with
performers from all over the world, each playing his or
her role with dignity and cool, in exotic and extravagant
costumes. Nonchalance is the order of the day.
Venice has always had
a special meaning for everyone. For Nietzche it was another
word for music. When you see all those costumed and masked
people from Italy and other parts of Europe, you are inclined
to ask: do they hide their daily lies and lives behind
them? Even the ugly become beautiful during the carnival,
adorning themselves with finery in brocade, chiffon and
yards of silk, and the beautiful wear hideous masks. The
ghastlier the better.
As our car approached
Venice and went past the graveyard of St.Michael, Claudia
and Silvana said that they smelt the sea. A huge Campari
ad appeared to the left as we sped along the bridge to
Venice. There were seagulls circling around hoping for
tit-bits from the tourists. A series of rusty cranes appeared
and right near the harbour was a turquoise coloured boat,
loaded with kegs of red wine. The cost of the ferry to
Venice was 10,000 lire, before the euro was introduced.
We drove through Mestre,
which was rather polluted and had a number of dilapidated
and unfinished buildings. That's because the Italians
haggle while constructing their houses. The more you haggle
the more it takes time, and the lesser the costs? Giacomo
said, ‘They try to press the price of cement, wood
and building materials.’
The lagoon to Venice was
closed and the Venetians were breeding mussels and clams.
The colour of the water reminded me of the Bagmati and
Vishnumati rivers of Kathmandu valley. There were a few
ships and containers at the ferry harbour, which was connected
by train and road.
We put up at the Sheraton
in Padua, because it was rather difficult to get rooms
in Venice itself during the carnival. In the evening we
went to do the sights of Padova, as it is called in Italian.
The huge dome of the Basilika was impressive. In front
of the Basilika were scores of pigeons and the tourists
were photographing them. There were pretty cafes and restaurants
around the Basilika. We entered a building and saw a huge
congregation of Italians attending the mass. There were
priests at every corner and the pious catholic Italians
were doing their confessions with earnest faces. It being
a university town, like Freiburg, there were many young
students in the streets.
We then left Padua and drove past the blue snow-capped
mountains of the Monte Crappa. Typical Italians houses
fleeted by and industrial complexes appeared and all the
while we had canned music: Eros Ramazotti`s scratchy,
passionate Latin-lover voice. In Germany his fans call
We left our cars and headed
for Venice. It was an enticing, ravishing Venice full
of fantasy, illusions and excitement. At the Piazza San
Marco there were extravagantly clothed people with and
without masks to be seen. Faces and costumes that conjured
up images of the times when Venice was flourishing and
was a world power. There were sheikhs with a row of beautiful
harem ladies, children dressed in the fashion of Bertolucci's
"The Last Emperor", Gieshas, Robotcops, Batman
and Robin, Spiderman, Mr. Incredible and his whole family,
Swiss and German tourists dressed as barocque noblemen
and ladies with powdered faces and a lot of silk. There
were at least a dozen people dressed as the Doge, bearing
masks and dark clothes with cloak. It was the Doge who
ordered all the gondolas to be painted black in 1562.
We crossed the Bridge
of Sighs and there was laughter as the passengers emitted
feigned sighs. The unique Venetian atmosphere had captivated
them. We headed for the Piazzo San Marco and further in
the direction of the Piazza Academia through wind-swept
alleys and crossed a good many bridges.
You have to slow down
your pace in this lagoon-city to take in the optical fare
spread for your delight. Every now and again you come
across people in breathtaking costumes from another century,
and you look at them deep in their eyes. The pair of eyes
behind the mask stare at you. You feel it. And in a moment
the magical contact disappears. Thoughts swerve in the
air. You realise you need more than a pair of eyes to
take in the ancient backdrop of Venetian palaces, houses,
bridges and captivating canals of Venice.
Claudia, Giacomo, Silvana
and I walked along the Academia corner, crossed the Canale
Grande and admired the many Venetian art galleries and
the Guggenheimer collections with works of: Picasso, Matisse,
Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Moore and Pollock to
name a few.
After all that we were
a bit tired of walking around and entered an Italian cafe
and discovered that there were a lot of American tourists.
Some thick-set Venetian fishermen dropped in and the atmosphere
became lively. It was interesting to watch the Italians
talking and discus¬sing. The gesticulating hands,
the facial contortions and the pitch
of the voices rising in crescendo along with the consumption
of grappa and wine was amusing. Even if they have
nothing of relevance to say it sounds important and passionate.
The coffee, chocolate and sandwiches and grappa (Italian
raksi) were excellent.
We strolled towards the
Piazza San Marco. Dusk was falling and the Italian monuments
took on a new golden hue. Every few steps you could see
costumed people walking by leisurely. We couldn't care
less that we had cold feet. Gusts of icy wind blew in
every alley. We were out to celebrate, and be a part of
the Venetian carnival, and nothing was going to stop us.
Ah, Venice, where Thomas Mann wrote his ‘Death in
Venice’ in 1911 and now a Donna Leon writes fiction
about murders in the canals of Venice.
At the Piazza San Marco,
which is the saloon of Venice, there was a great deal
of tumult, and a sea of humanity was gathered there. Costumed
figures were posing elegantly in front of the historical
buildings. As soon as someone started posing, a swarm
of professional and amateur photographs would swoop down
on him or her with their digital and auto-focus cameras,
camcorders and throw-away ones. The costumed and masked
figures would change their positions slowly and gracefully,
moving their upper extremities with controlled gestures.
The Venetians have worn
their classical costumes from the times of the Serenissima
and the Doges. The entire court was present. And the tourists
came from another epoch. There were younger tourists who
were having a good time disguised as dollar-coins, scarlet
plastic shampoos, or ecology-conscious ones carrying garbage
bags draped around their torsos.
Later, Giacomo said at the Sheraton, "If I were a
Venetian I would run away from this revelry and artificial
merry-making." He hails from Brescia and shuns the
tourists. When the Karneval tourists come, the Venetians
make for the open spaces, especially the Alps to do a
bit of skiing. Far away from the maddening crowds. Venice
receives 12 million tourists per year.
Some German tourists were
rather rude, as they jostled for better camera angles
like the paparazzis running after prominent people, but
the costumed figures were kind, patient and graceful as
they posed near the Venetian fountains and pillars. It
was so wonderful to discover the various alleys and water-lanes
with their cute little shops. There were gondolieros waiting
for passengers and hotel guests with immaculately dressed
bell-hops, waiting for the water-taxi to arrive. A gondoliero
earns 75 euros for 25 minutes, and 1000 euros per day.
Venice’s canals are rather congested with its 20,000
boats. And there’s a speed limit of 11 kmph in the
lagoon, and the water-police are always around the corner
with their laser speed checks. However, the biggest waves
in the lagoon are caused by the police themselves.
In Venice you try to take in the visual feast that is
spread in front of you with your all-seeing-eyes. You
look at the masked ladies and gentlemen dressed in the
clothes of the Doge and Marco Polo and the Middle Ages,
and if you look deep enough you might see the blue, brown
or green eyes flash back, or twinkle at you. This flirting
and coquetting is done in Venice with dignity and a certain
nonchalance. Claudia danced with an elegantly dressed
Doge and I danced the fox-trot with a masked lady to Frank
Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York.’ After
the danced was over I thanked her for the dance and asked
her if she was a Venetian lady. She replied in English
with a heavy Bavarian accent, ‘I’m sorry to
disappoint you, but I’m from Munich’. I told
her Claudia and I were from Freiburg and we had a good
laugh. One meets tourists, and not Venetians, in Venice.
There is no chance of
getting lost in Venice because there are yellow signs
pointing to the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge or
the other sights at all important junctions and corners.
But at night it is a different matter. It's dark and you
might get the creeps, with all those long shadows thrown
in the alleys of Venice. Venice sleeps at night.
Satis Shroff lives in Germany according to the motto:
once a journalist, always a journalist and has written
over a period of three decades, what the Germans would
call a “Landesumschau,” for his Nepalese readers
with impressions from Freiburg, Venice, Rottweil, Prague,
Paris, London, Frankfurt, Basel and Grindelwald. Satis
Shroff has worked with The Rising Nepal (Gorkhapatra Corporation),
where he wrote a weekly Science Spot and wrote editorials
and commentaries on Nepal’s development, health,
wildlife, politics and culture. He also wrote weekly commentaries
for Radio Nepal. He has studied Zoology and Geology in
Kathmandu, Medicine and Social Science in Freiburg and
Creative Writing under Prof. Bruce Dobler, Pittsburgh
University and with Writers Bureau (Manchester). He was
awarded the German Academic Prize for 1998.
Writing experience: Satis Shroff has written two language
books on the Nepali language for DSE (Deutsche Stiftung
für Entwicklungsdienst) & Horlemannverlag and
the books are meant for Nepal-bound German development
workers of GTZ, Goethe Institut, DAAD, Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft
and the German diplomatic corps. He has written three
feature articles in the Munich-based Nelles Verlag’s
‘Nepal’ on the Himalayan Kingdom’s Gurkhas,
sacred mountains and Nepalese symbols and on Hinduism
in ‘Nepal: Myths & Realities (Book Faith India)
and his poem ‘Mental Molotovs’ was published
in epd-Entwicklungsdienst (Frankfurt). He has written
many articles in The Rising Nepal, The Christian Science
Monitor, the Independent, the Fryburger, Swatantra Biswa
(USIS publication, Himal Asia, 3Journal Freiburg, top
ten rated poems in www.nepalforum.com. Also read his articles,
essays, poems and book-reviews at www.yahoo & www.google
under: satis shroff. His anthology of poems and prose
‘Between Two Worlds(Satis Shroff)’has been
published by www.Lulu.com.