Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I'm Such a Schmoozer!

Many thanks to Erin at the Olive Notes for nominating me for a Schmooze Award! What a sweet thing. I think. It’s a good thing, right?

Actually, it is. I’ve been following Erin’s chronicles about their upcoming move to Italy and their excitement is infectious, as well as memory-jogging about our own preparations and trepidations when we left the US. She has a great personality and voice, a great outlook on life and a great willingness to jump in and make the world a better place. I thank her for that as well as for bestowing the award on me.

"This award goes to bloggers "who effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship."

While most of the blog links I’ve listed are Italy-related, I enjoy a wide spectrum of reading in the blogosphere, so I’ve selected a variety to pass on the Schmooze Award.

Shelley at Really Rome
She not only shares insider secrets about the best places to go in my favorite city, she dishes up doses of kitsch, wit, and the quirky too. She is also downright nice and hosts great contests, which makes her a hit in my book.

Jeff in Puglia
Maybe it’s because he’s in the south of Italy, an under-appreciated area. Maybe it’s his great photos (and the fact that he considerately puts his videos on a separate YouTube page so as to not lock up my slow connection). Or maybe it’s the shared Midwest upbringing that makes me like this blog. Probably all of the above, but I really like how he shares his corner of Italy with us.

Jessica at In Search of Dessert
I recently met Jessica in person and have to say she’s as sweet as I’d pictured. I love that she writes very openly, with a touch of humor, and always with a great outlook. She’s smart and talented and together with Shelley started a book exchange group, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books. Cool, huh?

Palmabella’s Passions
Palma is a fellow Slow Traveler and the consummate party planner. She is passionate about entertaining well, eating well, and traveling well, and shares it all on her blog. Her photos not only make her elaborate parties look so inviting, she actually makes it all look easy.

Picturing New Mexico
Beautiful photos of the Land of Enchantment by my friend Lynn Schibeci never fail to make me smile. She is a talented photographer with a great eye for great shots. Best of all, when I see her photos I can see her taking them. A dose of home away from home, courtesy of a friend.

So, give them a look. They're interesting, diverse bloggers who will make you smile.

Here are the directions to participate:

1. Write a post with links to 5 blogs that have schmoozed you into submission.
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the award.
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Power of Schmooze Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote

NB: I'm still working on #3. I can't get the link to work, but will keep trying.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wanted: A Palio Winner

In the continuing story of this year’s edition of La Quintana, we attended last week’s jousting match, called La Giostra. As I explained in my last entry, the match is held in a special stadium with a horse track that runs around the inside perimeter, then turns into a figure eight-shaped course in the middle. The rider must control the horse on the tight curves, hang onto a very long wooden lance which he uses to pummel the target, a human-shaped dummy with an extended arm onto which the jousting target-board is affixed. He gets three passes through the center of the figure 8, aiming at the target each time. He must then high-tail it out of the track at high speed to complete the course and gain points for speed, accuracy of his lance, and general horsemanship. It’s an adrenaline rush to watch.

This year’s July joust was rife with problems and controversy, though, making it more heated and exciting than usual. The evening started with the stadium being thrust into darkness just as the cavaliers were warming up. Some kids tried to scale the fence to enter without paying, tripping the circuit and cutting off electricity. Unfortunately, two of the cavaliers had been barreling around the track and the sudden darkness scared the horses, who managed to get themselves free from their riders and run off frightened while several figuranti gave chase. They were eventually corralled without harm to the horses or the humans.

Once the lights were finally restored the jousting match began. After the first round, however, the crowd around us started screaming at the groundskeepers, calling them over to fill the holes in the track. Each attempt to rake the course brought louder cries, “over here, this one is as deep as a well for crying out loud.” This would continue throughout the evening and play into the controversy later.

The first run for the Porta Maggiore rider didn’t go so well when he hit the target and promptly lost his lance, disqualifying him from that round. His second turn was more tragic, the horse lost his footing and careened down taking the rider with him. It looked like a hard fall and the horse was limping slightly, the rider holding his back in pain while he wept in frustration. We felt terrible for him. Another cavalier and his horse went down on a tight curve, thankfully neither was injured. The crowd began screaming about the too-wet track that was causing this to happen.

Then the real kicker – the cavalier from Porta Solesta started his tornata while one of the groundskeepers, who had been called back out onto the field by the fans of that very sestiere, was trying to placate them and fill the holes they were pointing out. The rider nearly mowed the guy down, having started too soon without the official signal. He was disqualified for the round. Disgruntled, the cavalier approached the mayor and council to protest. In what can only be described as stupid, the mayor ruled that the guy could re-run his round. Meanwhile, the other sestieri competed and our own Piazzarola garnered good points. When the announcement was made in favor of giving Porta Solesta another run the crowd, the figuranti, the neighborhood dogs all went wild, screaming “schifo” and calling out some choice epithets about the mayor. I’ve heard colorful cursing before but this episode brought out some real doozies. Things involveing pigs and the cavalier’s mother that made the poor guy next to us blush. He kept leaning over to tell us stranieri that “it’s not normally like this”. It’s alright, we assured him; it’s more exciting this way! He was embarrassed, though.

The other sestiere, particularly Piazzarola who would be the winner if the other guy hadn’t gotten a do-over, crowded the field to protest. Much discussion and gesticulating ensued. Our friend who accompanied us tired and went home. We were invested in the drama by now and waited to see the outcome. At one point an announcement was made that if the figuranti didn’t return to their seats the entire competition would be cancelled. Another tornata remained and no one wanted to be completely eliminated, so order was restored and the games continued more heatedly.

The remaining jousts were carried out without ordeal but the energy level in the stadium was peaking as the official winner was calculated and everyone awaited the announcement. Because of the second chance the cavalier had garnered high points and came out the winner, but because of the controversial nature, it was highly contested. Why shouldn’t the riders who fell also get to re-do their turns? The mayor is biased! He has money riding on that horse! So it went among the people around us. The final decision was that there would be no decision that night. A meeting would take place and an announcement made the following day.

Three days after, the city was still in uproar and still impatient to know who would get the beautiful Palio. The mayor and councilors had convened, met with the players, discussed it ad nauseum, reviewed the films. The other sestieri had their say, discussing the poor track conditions and that the two possible contenders should be punished for their actions by awarding to the Palio to the third-place jouster.

In the end? They ruled no one gets the Palio. The behavior of all involved meant no one merited the prize. In the midst of it all, the mayor says he’ll penalize Porta Solesta and Piazzarola in some manner (I’ve not heard what time of reprimand will be meted out) and the papers continue to carry news and editorials about the situation. Surprisingly to me, no one is really hurling accusations at the mayor himself; he seems to have successfully focused the arguments onto the sestieri by denouncing the bad behavior, while also deflecting attention from the fact that none of these actions would have occurred if he’d not ruled the silly do-over in the first place.

The colorful Palio will be interred in the Quintana office, a display of the debacle for generations to come. Naturally, no one is happy with the decision and the electricity is building intensely for the August joust, when the competitions will take on greater importance and rivalry. I can now see how city-state wars broke out so frequently in the Middle Ages.
2007 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Men in Tights and Armored Knights

A little note to acknowledge that I'm a bit behind in posting these exciting events to the blog. The Quintana turned into a "never-before" spectacle this year...details will be posted in the next installment.

Men in Tights and Armored Knights
The steady, persistent pounding of the drumbeats beckoned us from our house. Closer and louder, we knew we had to hurry. Down the two flights of stairs we raced to catch the knights and their noble entourage marching in serious concentration to the ever-rhythmic drum. Down the hill they went to slowly strut into the civic square, Piazza Arringo. Our sestiere’s representatives for La Giostra made a distinctive entry.

One by one, the other five sestiere joined them, rounding together before the official Quintana band and the Magnifico Messiere (the role is fulfilled by the mayor) and his councilors led them all through the streets of the centro storico to the small Piazza Sant’Agostino, where they assembled in the shadow of the medieval landmark, the Twin Towers.

The piazza takes its name from the Romanesque church of the same name and on the steps awaited the Monsignor, who prayed for the cavalieri, their horses, the comune and proclaimed the power bestowed upon the fair city by the church’s important Madonna della Pace. The painting, said to broker peace even in times of distress, was reverently brought forth as the cavalieri held their hats forward and bowed. The horses were given a benediction along with a sprinkling of holy water.

One sestiere at a time, they departed as they came. Drum beats calling out the steps, each man marching in time with solemn faces. They paused in the Piazza del Popolo as the beautiful, vibrant Palio was interred within the Palazzo dei Capitani, awaiting to be awarded to the winner of the Giostra.

The following day the assembly gathered in another piazza, this time growing exponentially in size as the courts and damas and their attendants, all in sumptuous costume, made a spectacular sight striding through town to the Squarcia, the stadium where the jousting match, La Giostra della Quintana, was held. Not to be snarfed at, this parade held nigh 1200 participants all wearing velvet, brocade, and woolen tights. Men in tights, people! Knights in *actual* armor! Women in glorious gowns! It’s a step back to the Middle Ages when the noble families and their courtiers along with the valiant cavaliers who defended the city amassed before the common folk to show their power, prestige, skill and beauty. Today, the beauty and skill part are still evident remainders of the tradition. Whether the figuranti hold power and prestige, being a foreigner I am not too sure. The entire assembly arrayed themselves in the middle of the field awaiting all of the participants to make their circle of the stadium and then gather together. They completely filled the center portion of the stadium, a resplendent gathering of rich fabrics, elaborate head-dresses, and colorful flags. The drumbeats continued unabated throughout the entire scene.

The joust utilizes a unique figure 8-shaped track; in the middle is a target called the Saracen or the Moor. No, political correctness hasn’t invaded medieval traditions. The cavalieri must ride the horse around the track, enter the figure 8 and skillfully maneuver the horse on the tight turns while holding on tight to a long, heavy wooden lance that he uses to pound the target. All at full speed, I might add. Exciting stuff being played out before thousands of spectators, all of whom have strong affiliation with their sestieri or their parents’ sestieri, screaming in favor of their cavalier and jeering at the others.

Next up…La Giostra and the Aftermath.
2007 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 09, 2007

Raise Your Banner High

Heralding trumpets sounded the arrival of the stately procession. On horseback the crier arrived in the piazza accompanied by armoured knights and regal companions bearing long jousting swords in splendorous array. Banners of the city were held high and the year’s colorful Palio presented to the Captain of the People. A heavy scroll was unfurled and the official proclamation announcing the opening of La Quintana was read with a booming voice. The entire procession then departed the piazza to sound the news to another quarter of the city. Ascoli Piceno’s medieval games had begun.

Comparable in scope and pageantry to the more famous Palio of Siena, La Quintana is Ascoli Piceno’s annual fete, showing once again how this city’s soul is deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. The sestieri of the city continue to compete against each other to display their civic pride and manly skill.

This weekend we witnessed the sbandieratori, or flag throwing competitions. Forget any image you may have of a majorette with a baton. These guys are athletes with great balance, strength, coordination, stamina and a touch of showmanship. Beginning with singles, then small-group competitors working together, they launched the heavy banners in a show of artistry filling the space above the piazza with a blaze of unfurling color. Some worked as many five flags at a time, deftly using their feet as well as their hands to fling the flags skyward in an explosion of waving glory. The second night brought the doubles competitions, and the most amazing event, the large-group competitions, whose choreography incorporated the movements and intermingling of the musicians, making American marching bands look positively bland. Drummers twirled in formation while long wooden-handled flags whipped past their heads. Without flinching. Slender elongated brass trumpets blasted while their players wove among the host of characters. The entire scene looked like an elaborate, beautiful dance. Oh yes, and all of this is performed while wearing heavy brocade and velvet costumes.

Each of the sestieri took their turn to defend the honor of their district. Our own Piazzarola didn’t fare too well. The team is relatively young and still learning the necessary skills; they lacked the refined choreography exhibited by most of the other sestieri, but not for lack of practice. Nearly nightly for about two months now we have heard the unique musical song of the district as they rehearsed in the campo uphill from us. After their competitions we cheered loudly. I’m always for the underdog, after all.

At the conclusion, the points of all the sbandieratori events were tallied and the Palio awarded to Porta Solesta. They have won more than any other sestieri, so no one was wholly surprised, but there were still a number of people around us crying “schifo” and “thieves”. The participants then paraded out of the Piazza Arringo in order of their standing, marching to the Piazza del Popolo where citizens awaited to accompany their sestiere’s heroes home.

In the upcoming weeks the processions, events and festivities will continue. The July version of La Quintana is sort of a primer for the “real” events in August, culminating on the Feast of Sant’Emidio, the city’s patron saint. The competitions are truly amazing to watch and kept us mesmerized. What is more amazing is that this grand, historical enactment is so unknown that there were only three small metal grandstands erected in the piazza for the spectators. The rest crowded around the perimeter like us, standing the entire time to take in the show. No tickets, no actual crowd control, no souvenir stands. Just a lovely tradition being carried out for yet another year.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Double Dose of Heat!

At first glance I thought we'd made a terrible mistake. Approaching the hotel, the doors and windows of the lobby area were thrown wide open and I had a moment of panic. The website said "air conditioned". I couldn't have mistranslated "aria condizionata". No way. There is supposed to be cold air blowing within the walls of this establishment! Had they lied? Was it not functioning? I feared we'd be searching for a different place to stay.

It may seem trivial, but we wanted relief and had booked this place specifically because it had the ol' a/c. Fortunately, the friendly manager escorted us to the room and explained how the simple control panel operated, turning it on and allowing the chilled air to flow forth. Aaaah. Yessss. Blessed relief if only for one night.

Assisi is beautiful always, so when our former neighbor in Corrales contacted us that she'd be touring Italy with her sister and the closest stop to us was Assisi, we quickly agreed to meet up with them. We hadn't made any getaways recently, so it was a nice little break. And, did I mention the a/c? Yes, I guess I did.Irene and Helen arrived in the late afternoon, bus-weary but ready for a dinner out on the town. After introducing us to their group leader, a personable chap named Andrea, and freshening up, we drove the short distance from their hotel into the centro storico of the pink-stoned splendor that is Assisi. The restaurant was packed but the meal was very good, and we chatted nonstop about their trip thus far, what's been happening in Corrales and Albuquerque, our adventures of the past year, and generalities about life in Italy. A few hours of fun-filled dining with our neighbor. It was great!

Then the second heat wave hit...two sack-loads! Treasures in little containers...the yellow label bearing the New Mexico Zia symbol, with the precious words HOT green chile. This is the kind of heat we can stand! Sweet Irene...she toted twenty (count 'em, twenty!) cans of green chile across the ocean in her luggage, hauling it along on the trip to deliver into our very grateful hands. We did wait until we got home to Ascoli to crack one open, though the tempation was great to ask the pizzaiolo to top our pizza al taglio with the stuff at lunch the next day.

In one day we got to have air-conditioned bliss and a welcome dose of heat for our mouths. Thanks, Irene!