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Sunday, August 16, 2009
Born Again in Siena
Civetta (the "Little Owl") won the Palio, Siena's twice-yearly medieval horse race. Civetta is one of 17 contrade, or districts, of Siena, a walled city that once rivaled Florence for domination of Tuscany.
The contrada that has not won the Palio for the longest is called la nonna or "the grandma," and with its 30-year losing streak, Civetta was la nonna by 10 years over the next "oldest" contrada (Lupa, the "She Wolf"). Think of the (pre-2004) Red Sox or the (current) Cubs...that's Civetta. In fact, during this year's July Palio, Civetta's horse was injured the day before (during the prova generale or "general test race") so they didn't even get a chance to run! A few years back, a Dutch TV station even ran a documentary called The Last Victory (reviewed here) about their failure to win since 1979.
Cena della Prova Generale, a dinner thrown by each contrada to celebrate the final test race and prepare for the next day's Palio. (I'll ignore for the moment that she chose Civetta because their flag matched her outfit...) There, we joined the civettini as they sang their traditional songs and neighborhood bigwigs gave speeches about their favorite contrada. Carlo Rossi, the priore (president) explained that this smallest of the contrade was still the best: "We are great, not because we are many, but because we have great hearts."
duomo (cathedral) and we grabbed some picnic supplies to feed the rest of the group. On the way back, we encountered an interesting West Side Story Sharks versus Jets meets Robin Hood: Men in Tights moment, as rival contradaioli sporting full medieval regalia passed each other in narrow lanes, taunting each other with flags.
As the afternoon wore on, we finally got some shade and watched the long medieval procession into the Campo. After much flag-throwing and trumpet-blasting, a number of young civettini arrived and shoved their way into a spot near us. Their arrival nearly started a fight: On one hand, the people whom they shoved aside had been waiting for many hours to get that spot: first come, first served. On the other hand, those people were outsiders merely here to observe, rather than participants here to cheer on their beloved Civetta. We had experienced similar less-than-welcoming attitudes from Sienese earlier, which reminded me a bit of some of my former island-mates in Bainbridge Island, Washington, who professed to hate the ferry to Seattle, even though that ferry is the only reason the island is so wealthy. After all, Siena's economy depends on all the outsiders coming into Siena during Palio. Still, it was a thrill to now be surrounded by fanatic Civetta fans.
As the time wore on and frustrations mounted, we reminded ourselves of Civetta's motto: Vedo nella notte ("We see at night")...which was appropriate, as the late hour and diminishing sun almost made the city fathers postpone the race until the next day. Finally, almost without warning, they were off! As they rounded the first turn, we could barely believe our eyes: Civetta was ahead! They approached the deadly Curva di San Martino (a sometimes literally deadly 90 degree turn), and as they emerged...Civetta was still in the lead! We began to jump up and down excitedly as they went around the piazza a second time. Civetta still ahead! As they went around a third and final time, Civetta's jockey (Andrea Mari, or "Brio," the same guy who couldn't ride in the July Palio due to his horse's injuries) opened up a commanding lead and wild euphoria broke out among the civettini (see Rai 3's coverage below...the race begins at about 1:30).
It is said that when a contrada wins the Palio, the residents are all re-born. They even sport pacifiers to bring home the point that they are no longer the nonna. Thus, while yesterday, like all the residents of Civetta, I was 30 years old, today, I am born again!
Monday, June 15, 2009
La Dolce Via: How to Drive in Italy
Three major tips for understanding Italian driving. For even more excitement, follow my example and learn to drive stick at the same time!
1) CARS ARE BIG SCOOTERS - Italians can't drive until age 18...but they can drive scooters as young as 14. When they grow up, they treat their cars like big scooters: weaving around wildly.
2) PRAGMATISM, NOT RULES - Americans follow rules. They stay in their lanes and stop at stop signs/lights. The Italians will stay in their lanes--but not if there's extra room. They will stop at traffic signals--if there is someone to stop for. Americans expect cars to come to a complete stop for pedestrians, but Italians just weave around them (remember rule 1: Cars are just big scooters). It's actually much more efficient.
3) DIFFERENT SIGNALS - Take a look at this handy chart: