Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lots of Me to Go Around

I stumbled on this site while doing some genealogical and surname research. How startling to find out that there are 75 of me in the United States alone. Goodness! And my family that one of me was a handful!
I wonder how many Valerie Schneiders there are world-wide? Using my "real" name- my maiden name (which I really should have held on to, as Italians have a great difficulty with all those consonants in Schneider) -shows better odds, only 5 of me. My sister is truly unique...only 1 of her to be had, so if there are any single male readers out there, you had better snatch her up quickly!
How many of *you* are there?
LogoThere are
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Downsides - Part I

I am frequently asked about moving to Italy. Many find the blog because they are dreaming of making just such a move themselves. A few thoughtful souls also want to know about the downsides up front, which I think is smart. No place is perfect, and there are some frustrations and quirks you'll experience living here. Most are little things, little quirks that are different; others are more serious. I thought I'd expound on a couple of them, starting with the biggest one.

So Far Away

Remember the old Dire Straights' tune? The plunky refrain repeating "You're so far away from me..." That's one of the biggest hurdles to living in a foreign land, the distance from loved ones. Not being able to see family and friends regularly can be upsetting. Especially at a time like this.

My uncle is suffering from cancer. Not a "normal" cancer that can be attacked aggressively with chemotherapy or that can be removed with surgery, but a very rare type known as GIST (Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumors). He is currently in the hospital with pneumonia and other problems and nearly died this week. My mom is with him and keeping on top of things, keeping him company, and keeping us informed. But it's hard to not be able to "be there now".

This uncle is my mom's younger brother, and he has always been like a brother to me, too. He's one who has always been there, always a stable force in my life, and I hate to see him suffering without being able to offer tangible comfort or a visit and a laugh. Because his condition is currently so serious, phone calls are minimized to let him rest. With tubes up his nose and oxygen pumping, he can't really talk well, anyway. Naturally, I'm worried and upset. So far away, so far I just can't see, as the song goes.

One of the decisions we made when we moved was that we'd always be available to go home at a moment's notice whenever necessary. Our families are too important to us to trifle around, and we'll spend the bucks and move heaven and earth to get there if we need to. If I have to catch a flight, I'll do it without quabbling. This is something that should be considered if you're thinking about moving overseas.

We were fortunate to have already been in the US when my grandmother died, but these are contemplations that merit thorough thought. It really is the biggest drawback.

More light-hearted aspects about life here will follow. What do you consider drawbacks to living in a foreign land?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ma Che Successo?

So what happened? There was a stunning upset at the Joust. We didn't attend the July edition, opting to attend a sagra in a hill town instead. We returned home and sat on our terrazzino to listen to the cheers and loudspeaker announcements which were intermittently arriving on the breeze. We live a short walk from Lo Squarcia, as the stadium is called where they hold la Giostra della Quintana.

It was rather rhythmic. A tornata by a cavaliere with the pause as he rode the course, followed by applause and then the announcement to broadcast his score. Suddenly the crowd went wild. Long, enduring cheers and shouts. Drums and trumpets. Something was amuck.

We walked down to the corner outside the stadium and joined a large crowd that was lining the entire length of Corso Vittorio Emanuele to see the results. The sestieri march out in the order of placement, just like in the Middle Ages, so all the good townsfolks can see how their heroes fared.

Following the civic procession, out come the exuberant representatives of the sestiere of Porta Tufilla. Porta Tufilla? They haven't won a Palio in twenty-two years! Everyone on the street was shocked, looking at each other...Porta Tufilla? Ma che successo?

The answer to that question is...I don't know. The morning newspaper wrote of the victory and gave a tornata by tornata recounting of the events...up through the seconda tornata, that is. Then, apparently out of space and not wanting to continue the story onto another pagina, the article simply ended there. The all-important, decision-making terza tornata was not reported on at all. The so-called competing newspaper said only that a problem with Piazzarola's horse decided the match and led Porta Tufilla to their joyful victory.

Such is the way of Italian journalism. We have discovered that the standards of reporting are vastly different here than in the States. First of all, a story is long-winded - meaning long on flowery speech but short on actual information. A recent article about an upcoming festival talked about the "beautiful and atmospheric events and gastronomic delights that are sure to evoke near euphoria in the eyes of the beholder who partakes," but failed to say the particulars about when, where, and at what time these inspiring events would take place. Other articles are circular, meaning they repeat themselves several times over...but basically say nothing of importance. Then there are the public notices...the "articles" that are actually announcements placed by proud parents to tell the citizenry that their daughter just graduated from college with a degree she won't be using as she is currently employed in the local underwear shop; or little blurbs to say the Enrico and Lilli have been married thirty years and will celebrate with a massive feast in a local restaurant. Other such tidbits announce births, promotions, or new jobs, usually for so-and-so's kid.

A good one-third of every newspaper is devoted to lo sport. Every sporting event known to mankind is reported on, complete with photos and tabloid-like gossip about which model each sports figure is currently embroiled with (or has split from). Yawn.

And as if that wasn't enough to drive out any space for actual news, now that summer is here several pages are always devoted to photos of women in bikinis, always in groups of three or more, either lounging in the sun or embracing each other with drinks in their hands showing what a fun, party-hearty time they are having on the beach. No men are pictured. Ever. And yes folks, trees are razed to make paper to print this stuff.

I never did find out what happened to Piazzarola's horse, who was supposed to be so promising and who would have likely won a Palio if something hadn't occurred. Whether he fell, turned an ankle, got skiddish...I guess I'll never know. Nobody of my acquaintance attended the giostra this time around. Apparently the newspaper reporter didn't stick around for the end, either.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pray For Peace - Then Go to War

No, this is not a post about politics. As the events of La Quintana continue to unfold, this week's most unique ceremony was a gorgeous affair that was sparsely attended. For some reason the word hasn't really gotten around about the tradition that took place yesterday, Il Saluto della Madonna della Pace.

The Salute to the Madonna of Peace takes place in the little Piazza of Sant'Agostino. Regal representatives of each of the six sestieri marched in, always to the rhythmic drum-beats of the musicisti, their distinctive banners waving in the breeze. Once they were solemnly assembled in front of the Romanesque church of from which the piazza takes its name, the smell of incense reached our noses. It grew stronger, and we watched as the church's masterpiece and source of great veneration among the citizens of Ascoli was brought to the door. The painting, the Madonna della Pace, is said to be the source of peace for this area. In ages past when the city-states were constantly at each other's throats, this painting was said to have brokered peace among warring factions.

The participants bowed and saluted the painting, asking the Madonna for continued peace as the priest gave a benediction over the horses and riders who are to participate in the giostra. Then a serious-faced child, intent on performing his duty well, came forward to present a bell to the church. In return he was given a framed print of the all-important painting. The official statutes of this event, written into the charter of La Quintana and dating back to the 1300s were read aloud from a city official on horseback. Then a plumed hat was inverted and small scrolls with the names of each of the sestieri incribed were placed inside. The mayor extracted them one by one, reading them off to determine the order of participation for the joust.

The woman standing next to us showed her displeasure immediately. Her sestiere of Porta Tufilla was drawn second. "No! Che schifo!" Showing my ignorance I told her that I would have thought going second was a good thing, but she explained that you want to be third or fourth. If you go first, you have nothing to gauge yourself on, no time you must beat. If you go last, the cavaliere could get too nervous watching the time and performance of everyone else. Best to go in the middle, she said. She should know. She's been attending these events for forty years.

She taught us the ultimate insult to yell out to the sestiere you despise most (in her case, as with many people we know, it's Porta Solesta`). Because the participants march out of the jousting arena after the event in the order of placement, those with the lowest score go last. "They must close the door after them," she said. Giggling, she says that she yells out to the potential losers, "Hey you have the keys?" Emotions run deep in this competition.

Tonight, following the grand parade, is the giostra. The six city districts will be battling it out for the Palio and bragging rights. I guess that is why they beseech the Madonna for peace...right before they go to war.

(In case you're wondering, my money is on Luca Veneri, the cavaliere for our old 'hood of Piazzarola.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Knight Time

Suddenly, walking around Ascoli is like a stroll through the days of old, when knights served the city and the different sestieri were each responsible for the defenses of their sections of town. La Quintana, Ascoli's medieval games which have been carried out since the 1200s, has kicked off with a bang...or more accurately, with a trumpet blast. The piazzas are brightened with vibrant splashes of color and are filled with the differing drumbeats and trumpet tunes unique to each sestiere.

Last night, I found my knight in shining armour. These three fine fellows do the city proud, wouldn't you say? If the clothes make the man, then armour makes them absolutely striking!

This new musician was beaming with pride to be a part of the civic band heralding the event and leading the sbandieratori to the piazza for their competition. What a cutey!

The flag-throwing competition is my favorite event, particularly the grande squadra. The sestiere's musicians move in perfectly-choreographed formations among the flags which are being launched in all directions. They demonstrate a mastery of skill and precise timing. We now reside in Porta Maggiore, so we rooted for our underdogs, who put on a beautiful performance. Their choreography was the most complicated and intricate, but unfortunately they didn't bring home the Palio. (They placed third overall.)

Following the competition, the winners are announced, the Palio is awarded, and the teams parade out of the piazza in the order of placement, a long tradition which allows the citizens to see how their teams fared.

This is just the beginning. We have a month of contests and events to look forward to, giving us lots of opportunity to be a part of these gorgeous traditions still being carried on. Not to mention the chance to hang out with the knights. Viva La Quintana!

More about La Quintana:
Men in Tights
Wanted: A Palio Winner

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Sagra and i Soci

As you already know, we're sagra enthusiasts. We love the home-spun events that bring people together over plates of good, cheap food and music that is usually the equivalent of a B-movie. Like has-beens from the 80s that are now touring the State Fairs, we've noticed that many of the bands seem to make the rounds, playing the 'sagra circuit'. But hey, it's free entertainment and for us, it's all about the food. And the cameraderie.

In our sagra experience, we've found that people are generally congenial and at nearly every festival we've attended we've had someone chat with us and offer us wine from their pitcher. "E` troppo," they tell us. I have too much wine for just the two of us, take some. Since Italians don't feel a meal is complete without wine, they always buy a liter. Since most of them drink only a glass or two they know they'll not consume it all, so it's customary to offer some to whoever happens to be sitting nearby.

Such was the case Saturday at the opening night for the sagra in the Porta Romana district. Their annual festival centers on mezze maniche all'Amatriciana and those little grilled critters I like so much, arrosticini. Mezze maniche is a type of pasta I'd never seen in the US, at least not under that name. Short sleeves is the literal translation. Turns out they are basically your run of the mill rigatoni. This particular sagra makes good renditions of both specialties, but we've found the kitchen to be rather slow. It didn't help that we arrived on opening night while they were still trying to get organized.

As we sat at our table stewing at the slowness (as well as from the heat), we noticed an older man next to us doing the same. He was alternatingly fanning himself and bouncing his right hand up and down with his finger drawn together...a classic Italian gesture that indicates "what the hell is the hold-up" and such-like sentiments. He got up and talked with someone behind the counter. He threw his hands up in the air and came back to sit and wait. He had his eyes resolutely set on the kitchen area and didn't give a sidewards glance in our direction. We noticed this only because there were not too many people yet and because the wait was- as I mentioned- rather long, leaving us rather bored.

Finally a few numbers, including ours, were belted out over an insanely-loud microphone, causing everyone to jump. We retrieved our food and dug in. Our neighbor went for his meal and returned with a liter of white wine. That's when he gave us some notice and was horrified to see that we not only hadn't ordered any, but sitting there on our table was a glass of beer. Beer! Mah! Pour that out and give me your glass, he said. We passed him the plastic cups we'd procured to hold water. He filled them up, saying he had a friend behind the counter who had given him the wine. Drink's much better for you that beer. Piu` leggero, it's lighter. Better for the digestivo.

Naturally we got to talking as we dined. He was stunned to hear that we are Americans, that we live in Ascoli and that we're appassionati about sagras. He's lived in the Porta Romana district for years and years. This became evident as people entering the tent would call out his name and greet him. He kept pouring wine we didn't need, and at the end of the meal he ushered us up to the counter to introduce us to his benificient friend (who, it turned out, was actually his son-in-law). He bought us caffe and wished he had his own home-made liquore to make them corretti. He continually cursed the fact that none of his cronies had bothered to show up for opening night. He wanted them to meet us, could we come again for dinner together...his treat? Ma certo! we said.

We rode our bikes home, bumping through the cobbled streets ringing our bells madly for no other reason that it was fun to do so. The bell on Bryan's rickety-sounding but sturdy bike makes a hearty bring-bring type of tone. Mine is a wimpy little ping. All the way across town we echoed out the little chorus. Bring-bring. Ping. Ciao amici, a friend called out as we rode by. Bring-bring. Ping ping.

Tuesday we had a sagra encore when we met Ezio and his friends. We had an evening with lots of laughter and too much food, too much wine, too much gelato (yes it's possible to get too much!).  He and his friend Guido both uncorked bottles of home-brewed mistra, that fire-water concoction that will burn a hole in your stomach. I had to pretend to taste it, but no way was I going to swallow that liquid inferno.

They were all so very sweet, inviting us to partake in horseback riding and a grape harvest. This is so typical in Italy...we just met them, yet they were so immediately accepting because their friend said we're okay.

By the end of the evening they declared us soci, members of Porta Romana, even though we live in a sestiere across town. By this definition, they tell us, we will be included in other events because we are soci in their circle. All because we sat down to dine and accepted a glass of free wine. And people wonder why we love the sagras?