A Vignette of Wartime Europe

Three men were merrily talking as they crossed the Ponte dei Pugni, or the Bridge of Fists, in the Dorsoduro quarter of Venice. One had the singing voice, proclaiming: “The Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna maintain Italy, isn’t it?” And then he looked up in my direction, addressing me the same question with a broad smile. I smiled back but then clarified, “I am not Italian, but nobody is perfect.”

The men giggled uncomfortably, and hurried away. Then I noticed all three were wearing kepi style hats, but my eyes focused on one of them, a rosy-cheeked man with a snub nose face and clear colored eyes. He was the most discomfited one by my response. His face and fashions, and the nostalgia for pre-unification Italy, reminded me of the characters in the drawings of George Grosz, of the Weimar era.

And it was a Weimar moment, or a wartime Europe moment. Right after, coming from the opposite direction, American writer Alan Jones and his wife, German filmmaker Friederike Schaeffer, approached me. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the imminent disaster of the Trump presidency.

Jones, however, was not alarmed. The American democracy would withstand the shock. Then he brought up the case of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Francis Joseph, a sublime incompetent who ruled over the empire for over four decades.

Still under the impression of the Weimar flashback, I asked Jones if he remembered how the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had happened, and what it brought about. Jones shrugged and bid me farewell, walking away across the Ponte dei Pugni. This little bridge bears its name because of an ancient tradition by which men from opposite sides of the bridge would gather on it every Friday night for fistfights. The tradition ended in the early 19th century when a house had gone up in flames while the men were busy with their brawls. There is something in the air, and it doesn’t smell good.

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