Thursday, September 15, 2011

Snail down! Repeat, snail down!

Beads of sweat dripped from the tip of my nose, whizzed through the air, and hit the sizzling cobblestone with a splash. I wiped my brow with a red, yellow, and blue bandana, decorated with a picture of an intimidating snail on the front. I watched my perspiration vaporize upon hitting the ground.

That morning, we had boarded a bus chuck-full of Australian backpackers looking for exactly what we were: a medieval, violent, Bacchanalian horserace that we had no hope of fully comprehending. Four hours later, it seemed like we might evaporate ourselves before witnessing the most majestic equine-friendly tradition Tuscany has ever known.

The Palio, a 355 year-old horserace steeped in complex medieval pageantry and partying, pits 10 of Siena's 14 neighborhoods, or contrade, against each other in a three-lap, bareback contest circling the city's central square. Twice each summer, the neighborhoods undergo days of preparation and feasting, with generally good-natured rivalries coming to a head on the day of the race.

Not all is fun and games, though, as townspeople have a history of drugging each other's horses or beating up jockeys just before the competition. Pushing, shoving, and smacking throughout the race itselfwith jockeys making alliances to assure the defeat of rivalselevates the Palio and its boisterous awesomeness to a league of its own.

After trial runs in the lead-up to the big day, townspeople from the different contrade, sporting symbols like dragons, the forest, or a she-wolf, don medieval garb and march through the town's circuitous streets. Singing children and flag-bearers lead their neighborhood's parade to a church, where a priest blesses the contrada's horse and wishes it good luck.

The benediction of the horse is seriously serious—"a particularly delicate and sensitive moment," our tourist pamphlet warned with not hint of sarcasm. "[D]uring the presence of the horse in the church, ABSOLUTE QUIET IS REQUIRED." Images of a drunken Australian mounting a sanctified steed flashed through my mind.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

Back in the main square, an absurdly long pageant complete with gratuitous amounts of flag tossing ended when 10 horses, 10 jockeys, and zero saddles emerged on the clay-covered course and trotted up to the starting line. I readjusted my sweat-covered bandana and looked down at the picture of the long-necked, determined snail staring back at me.

The second we had seen the snail earlier that day, we knew that that contrada was our contrada. Come on, a snail competing in a test of speed? Taking cues from a Chinese restaurant placemat, our pamphlet had informed us the snail's enemy was the no-less-ironic tortoise.

"Go snail!" we screamed among 30,000 tourists and locals packing the square, leaning forward and sweating on each other with bated breath.

And then... there were about a billion false starts. And then... they were off!

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

While the race lasted less than 90 seconds, the course's two straight-up 90 degree turns did not disappoint. On the last lap, a two- or three-horse pileup sent jockeys flying everywhere, and a couple horses finished the race without a human on top (completely allowed). But looking closer, we discovered—oh no!—the snail horse had crashed!

The Palio hooligans left us no time to sulk, however, as throngs of young and old Sienese rushed the course, picked fights with each other, and mobbed the winning jockey, who hailed from the giraffe contrada. Stupid giraffe.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

Our day witnessing living history ended with a night of raucous party-crashing, pizza-eating, and piazza-storming as we wandered the serpentine Sienese alleyways (ok, maybe more pizza-ing than partying...).

Throughout the day and into the evening, the seriousness with which the Sienese approached the Palio kept throwing us for a loop. At one point after the race, Justin swore he saw a teenage boy sitting on the side of the road in the elephant contrada, slumped over and crying into his hands. A sense of defeat enveloped people in a nearby bar, where Italian television broadcast footage of the race on repeat.

Meanwhile, the giraffe contrada was livin' it up. Bells rang loud, kids rapped on drums, and the prize of the Palio—a giant silk banner—hung in the neighborhood's main church.

Good for them. There's always next year, though. Or the 353 years after that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures in Italy, Part II (abridged)

I originally typed up a longer post about the rest of the Italian half of my summer trip, but (1) I accidentally deleted it; (2) I have lots of homework now; (3) a long post about my stereotypical European vacation is probably not super engaging anyway; and (4) speaking Arabic all the time is slowly eating away at my ability to communicate lucidly in English. So instead of rewriting that lost post, I'm going to take a page from the notebook of my sister Amanda, who signs her blog posts with a few words or phrases that are on her mind at the time. Enjoy!

Palermo (Sicily): Spur of the moment flight to Sicily, mob bosses, mob hats, fried swordfish, gritty streets.

Grill, salt, olive oil, serve.

Siracusa (Sicily): Ancient, empty Greek and Roman ruins, fried-eggplant hostel cooking, random beach with locals.

The locals used to sacrifice animals and other locals here.

Catania (Sicily): Fish market, transvestite prostitutes, Justin's wallet stolen.

Catania train station

Justin on the phone with Canada, post-theft

"This money belt thingamajig could prove useful!"

Overnight bus to Naples: Ferry, sleep, window seat.

Naples: Heavenly pizza, trash piles on the street (they've got nothing on Cairo's trash piles), extremely sketchy, crime-invested.

Naples in a nutshell (sans pizza)

Pompeii: Unbelievably vast site, ceramic casts of dead Pompeians, incredibly well preserved.

Rome: Tango by the Trevi Fountain, almost getting kicked out of a sovereign state (i.e. the Vatican), bargaining with Bangladeshis for roses, Sistine Chapel, Segways, LOTS of awesome ruins.

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

 The Map Room, the Vatican Museums

 Near the Pantheon

The Ara Pacis Museum 

 Cruising around the Villa Borghese park

The Vatican Museums

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Egypt on alert after rioters storm Israeli embassy

After a long Ramadan of somewhat lackluster protests that were particularly hampered by the violent breakup of the Tahrir Square sit-in in early August, demonstrators returned to the square yesterday under the slogan "Correcting the Path." I stopped by the rally in the late afternoon and was surprised at the decent turnout, particularly after conversations with Egyptians over the last week or two had revealed a sense of weariness with continued protests.

This time, though, tons of hardcore soccer fans bolstered the demonstrators' numbers; violent clashes between fans and police after a game this week had spurred the fans on to participate yesterday. The hooligans, if you will, are called "Ultras," and they creatively turned some of their well-known chants and songs into anti-Ministry of Interior and anti-Mubarak chants.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

A little later at dinner in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks away from Tahrir, my Egyptian friend got a call informing him that another protest in front of the Israeli embassy a couple miles away had turned ugly, as police started beating back protestors who tore down part of a newly built concrete security barrier around the residential building that houses the Israeli embassy. On our walk back to Tahrir, we passed groups of young people clad in Egyptian flags hailing cabs to "assifara alisra'iliya"the Israeli embassy.

The embassy back in June. It occupies the top floors of a residential building overlooking the Nile.

Egyptians have been demonstrating outside the embassy for weeks now in respsonse to Israel killing five Egyptian soldiers while pursuing gunmen across the border following a terror attack in southern Israel that left eight people dead. Among their demands are that the Israeli ambassador leave the country and the embassy shut down.

Back at home on my awesome roof above the streets of Dokkia neighborhood kind of between Tahrir and the embassywe saw dark smoke rising against the night sky, coming from the direction of the Israeli mission and a nearby police station we heard was on fire. The sound of sirens filled the air, and we began to see protestors running down a street near our building in the direction of the embassy.

But the protestors seemed to have been turned back at some point, and all of the sudden we saw 50 to 100 black-clad riot policemen marching down the street. We live right by a relatively quiet police station, and it looked like that was where they came from. The policemen banged loudly on their shields as they made their way toward the embassy. It was an eery sight.

Next, we heard from friends who live a bit closer to the embassy that they inhaled some tear gas as they stood on their balcony listening to Molotov cocktails explode from a few blocks away. I fell asleep following the developments on Twitter.

All in all, reports said the riot at the embassy left a few people dead and hundreds injured. About 30 protestors reportedly made it up into one of the lower floors of the embassy itself, throwing down hundreds of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The falling white documents reminded me of my first snow day in Cairo.

Israel ended up evacuating nearly all of its 80 diplomatic staff in Egypt, including the ambassador and his family, according to reports. Egypt declared a state of alert, and the prime minister and his cabinet might tender his resignation this afternoon.

It's amazing how quickly things can blow up. While I doubt popular anger at Israel will translate into another uprising, last night's events leave one to wonder what type of incident could actually set off a new set of mass protests in Egypt, igniting the tinder box of popular discontent at the ever-deteriorating economy and political process.

As Egyptians are fond of saying, "Rabbina yestoorna"may God protect us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Adventures in Italy, Part I

After our epic adventure in the Pyrenees, Justin and I were ready for a good three weeks of world-class museums, humongous churches, and mouth-watering pizza, maybe with a few canals thrown in on the side. We weren’t exactly sure where to go, but then someone suggested Italy and we were set. Some highlights:

Before leaving España, we visited the capital of Catalonia. We wandered across the city exploring bizarrely playful and curvy buildings and parks designed by Antoni Gaudí, including his masterpiece cathedral, the Sagrada Família. After eating dinner by the beach, we stayed out clubbing until we had to leave for the airport at 4 a.m. for an early-morning flight.

The interior of the Sagrada Família

The cathedral's trippy Nativity Facade

Ahh! Seafood at the Boqueria Market

After a funny train ride sandwiched between an Italian DJ and his Harley Davidson-riding, silver-capped teeth-sporting, football-playing friend, we attended Friday night services in a grand, ornate synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto and then ate a free dinner with tons of tourists at the local Chabad’s restaurant. Fun fact: The word "ghetto" is derived from the Italian for "foundry," as there were a bunch of foundries in the Venetian neighborhood where they moved all the Jews. Fun fact #2: The Venetian Ghetto is the oldest in the world, dating from 1516. At the also really old synagogue, the rabbi delivered the sermon in Italian and Hebrew, simultaneously translating every couple sentences.

We wandered around canals and alleyways the next day, then on Sunday attended Mass at the famous San Marco’s Bacilica. It’s way more interesting to see people use old religious buildings than it is to quickly shuffle in and out of them with no understanding of their original purpose.

Venice was spectacular, but it was approximately 99.3 percent tourists and 0.7 percent Venetians who worked in the tourism industry. It reminded us of Disneyworld.

Outside St. Mark's Basilica (if you can't see the video, click here)

Michelangelo’s David wowed usthey really nailed the lightingthe Uffizi art gallery overwhelmed us, and one massive, juicy, perfect Florentine steak stuffed us. The Duomo, one of the largest cathedral domes in the world, would have probably been spectacular had we not repeatedly arrived at the church doors only to find it was closed.

Me and Machiavelli

One and a half kilos of goodness

Cinque Terre
Probably my favorite stop during our five-week trip, Cinque Terre consists of five fishing villages squished between perilous cliffs on the western coast of Italy. Visitors can hike between the towns on paths along the coasts or take trains and ferries from one to another.

My Cinque Terre memories include accidentally hiking down to a beautiful nude beachand jumping right in, if you willand doing yoga for the first time ever, early in the morning on a rock alongside crystal-clear water lapping against a cliff. Our hostel room was about 20 feet from the water, and you could actually see its door in postcard photos of the town we stayed in.

Our room, center right.

After a fleetingly short time in Cinque Terre, we spent an even less time in Pisa. Snapped some classic photos and peaced:

 Strike a pose!

To be continued…