Unexpected Parade on a Saturday Afternoon in Florence

Today was supposed to be a lazy Saturday afternoon with no clear plans for me in Florence – just a day to do some laundry, food shopping, and maybe a walk while the weather was holding. But then I started to hear drums and trumpets outside my window on the Piazza Santa Croce, and a quick look outside showed a large group of musicians and flag bearers in Renaissance costumes and a large gaggle of tourists already swarming the piazza to take pictures and shoot videos. This is what is great about Florence: something exciting and visually stunning is always around the corner even if you do not expect it.

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Parade in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

Once I joined the group of onlookers on the piazza, I figured out that RAI – Italy’s National Broadcasting Company – was shooting a segment about Florence’s Calcio Storico, also called Historical Soccer (see previous post for more details). The games in summer usually start with a parade of musicians and more in Renaissance costume through town. The matches take place on the Piazza Santa Croce, and one of the calcio teams was actually on hand for the filming as well today. The white team from the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence was posing for the TV crew and tourists (especially groups of young women) on the steps leading up to the Basilica di Santa Croce.

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The White Team from Santo Spirito

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Participants of the Parade Posing in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

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Flags Thrown into the Air during a Performance

Since filming always takes a while and different shots need to be set up, the participants spent minutes at a time just standing around and unintentionally acting as perfect photo opportunities for tourists. Since this event was unannounced as far as I could figure out, the crowd was still relatively thin, and I had a chance to take plenty of close-ups that I would not be able to take during a parade before a match.

I loved the colorful costumes and flags in front of the white facade of the basilica, and the drums and cheers of the group still followed me as I crossed the river for a walk into the hills overlooking the city center.

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Basilica di Santa Croce and Renaissance Parade

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Calcio Storico in Florence: Historical Soccer

Over the last few days, workers had transformed the Piazza Santa Croce and covered it with a deep layer of sand surrounded by haystacks and fencing. Even though it was in the middle of February, a match of Calcio Storico, “Historical Soccer”, was planned. Italians really are not too bothered by dates and punctuality; supposedly, these famous games usually take place in June only but for some reason that I still have not figured out, a game was surprisingly scheduled in February. Since I would not be here anymore in June and did not expect  to be able to watch a game, I was happy about this change in schedule.

Calcio Storico is also called Calcio Fiorentino and was created in the 16th century. It is a mixture of rugby, American football, wrestling, and to some degree soccer. Both hands and feet can be used to pass the ball, but it actually did not remind me much of soccer but much more of rugby. The goal is to score a point by getting the ball into the narrow goal that runs the width of each end of the playing field. A team consists of 27 players and there are no substitutions, so any injured players just means fewer players on that team. A half point can be scored if the opposing team tries to score a goal but kicks the ball over the goal. The game lasts 50 minutes with no halftime or break. In addition, tackling players even if they do not have the ball is perfectly acceptable and actually good strategy it seems.

The game I watched was played by the Bianchi (Whites) of the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence and the Verdi (Greens) of the San Giovanni neighborhood. The Verdi won by 5 points (or 6 points – I cannot remember) to 2.5 points, so yes, the Green Team tried a to kick a goal and missed the net.

Here is what amused me during the game and/or here is what I learned: The players are blessed inside the Basilica di Santa Croce before the game starts (this reminded me a lot of the prayers in the locker rooms that are always shown in Hollywood sport movies).

The uniforms of the referees at the Calcio Storico are even more ridiculous than the “zebra uniforms” of the American Football umpires and Footlocker employees.

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Outfit of the Line Judge at the Calcio – And here I thought the “zebra uniforms” of the referees in American Football were hilarious.

The best defense seems to be to just tackle the best players of the other team and sit or lie on them. Seriously, this seems to be allowed and practiced. Even if the play is whistled dead, these interlocked pairs are still fighting for dominance.

There are no personal penalties; it seems normal to walk past an opponent and hit him on the back of the head with one’s elbow if the opponent is not paying attention; this can also happen away from the ball and does not trigger any penalties. I am not even sure there are penalties – just a ball out of play is called it seemed to me.

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The players wear odd Renaissance-style puffy pants and regular T-shirts that also seem to be of very poor quality since many of the T-shirts get torn a few minutes into the game. It seems like no shirts at all would make more sense and is preferred by the players.

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Calcio Player

All the music played before and after the game is Renaissance-style music – no hip new top-of-the-chart hits for this game.

I am wondering what costumes any cheerleaders would wear – if they had cheerleaders.

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Calcio Players after the Game

The game is pretty entertaining to watch and easy to figure out especially if you are familiar with rugby and/or American Football rules. The 50-minute game passes quickly since there are no timeouts. If you are in Florence during the time Calcio is on the calendar (or even if there is a surprise unscheduled match),  I hope you have a chance to check it out.

Carnevale di Viareggio

Italians really do not worry about punctuality too much – not even when it comes to the end of Mardi Gras/Carnival, which traditionally celebrates the last few days or maybe weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. The keyword is leading up. Here the Carnival parade can last deep into Lent. One of the famous Carnival celebrations in Italy and also shown on TV is Carnevale di Viareggio in the small seaside town of Viareggio about a 90-minute train ride West of Florence.

The parade takes place on several Sundays in a row in the streets bordering the beach. It is a family affair, which means even though alcohol is served and visitors are dressed up and dancing in the streets, the celebrations do not seem to get out of hand (at least at the one I attended). The parade starts at 3 in the afternoon and is a slow procession of huge paper-mache floats, dancers, and smaller costumed groups. The tallest floats dwarf the  five-story buildings next to the parade route. The parade is slow enough that one can walk faster than the floats and the parade route is a large oval, so there is no worry to miss something and always a chance to see a favorite float or group again.

The first Carnival celebration in Viareggio took place in 1873, and paper-mache floats were added in 1925. Just as with the American Rose Parade, artists work on the floats for a whole year. In contrast to the Rose Parade, there are no flowers on the floats, a lot more biting political commentary in the theme of the floats, and more dancers (who are not strapped down to the floats as in the Rose Parade). Unfortunately, my Italian was not strong enough to decipher the political commentary. One float made fun of Facebook and Zuckerberg and seemed to criticize the hold Facebook has over our lives; signs on the float read “Io sono dio” (“I am god”). Another float was clearly criticizing Angela Merkel’s tough stance on the Euro and her/Germany’s influence in the EU. And another float showed Hillary riding a donkey with Bill sitting behind her; the word “Bill” had been edited to now read “Hillary.”

Many of the statements, unfortunately, were lost on me; for example, I could not figure out what the point of the float was that was filled with dancers in a Uncle-Sam costumes.

The official site of the event mentions that over 200,000 people attend the parade, but the event does not feel too crowded or out of hand. Most visitors were dressed up or wore at least a small mask. Plenty of vendors sold cheap masks for a few Euros as well as wigs for those who did not plan ahead. Of course, they also sold bags and bags of confetti as well as spray cans of silly string. The streets were covered with confetti so that they seemed covered in snow. I had so much confetti in my hair that I could not get it all out and still found confetti on my pillow the next morning. There are also food and beer vendors and a few cafes and restaurants, so it is easy to spend several hours at the event.

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Visitors are dressed up as well.

Visitors to the parade need tickets as the whole area is fenced off, but that also makes it easier for police to check bags of visitors coming in and I think keep the event more controlable. The Carnevale is still on for a few more weeks: Feb 21, 2016; Feb 28, 2016; and Mar 5, 2016 in case you want to go. Check the official website to learn more about the event and where to buy tickets.

Truly American Experience: The Rose Bowl

I will be spending four months in Europe this spring for work with the majority of the time in Florence, Italy but also nearly a month in Austria. So the blog will include a lot more photos and stories about Italy than fits the name of the blog. But before I left the U.S., I made sure to “pile on” truly American experiences and that included in addition to the Rose Parade (see previous post) the Rose Bowl itself – because what is more American than football at the oldest bowl game in the U.S.?!?

The Rose Bowl – also called the “Granddaddy of them all” – is the oldest of all college football bowl games (playoffs). In 1902, the first post-season game in the nation took place here between Stanford and Michigan (Michigan won 49-0). The Rose Bowl included many firsts –  for example, the first transcontinental radio broadcast of a sporting event in 1927 as well as the first national telecast of a college football game in 1952.

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Iowa Hawkeyes Fans – Love the Hat!

The current Rose Bowl Stadium was built in 1922 and is listed as a National Historic Landmark because of its importance in American culture and history.

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Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, CA – 2016

Even though the team we rooted for (Iowa) was beaten badly in this year’s game against Stanford (45-16), the Iowa fans kept up the good mood and atmosphere in the stands and made this a great experience as my last big event to visit before I go to Europe (there were some grumblings and complaints about the Stanford band making fun of Iowa and sticking to stereotypes that showed very little knowledge of Iowa and made me question the maturity and creativity of Standford students, but that is a different story – read more here if you are interested: Article on Stanford Band). Although I am excited and curious about Italy and look forward to spending some time in Austria, I am a little sad that I have to miss the Super Bowl experience in San Francisco this year (it is not that often that the event is that close to where I live). Next time, I will be posting from Florence. Ci vediamo!

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Shirts for the Super Bowl for Sale at the San Francisco Airport

Rose Parade

The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day is over a century old and is usually shown on American TV. 2016 marked the 127th year of the parade. All floats have to include only natural materials such as flowers, seeds, and grasses and most floats take a year to construct by mostly professional float-building companies. Seeing the parade live though provides a lot more behind-the-scene details and close-ups than ever shown on TV, and this year I had a chance to see the parade live.

What I did not realize was that people actually reserve spaces on the sidewalks along the over five-mile long parade route 24 hours before the parade starts at 8 in the morning on New Year’s Day. Plenty of people camp out over night just to ensure the best spots to view the parade.

 

Some people were really settling in for the night:

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We went the more traditional route and put chairs out the day before but hoped they would still be there in the morning even if we did not spend the night. Another option was to spend money on grandstand tickets.

 

And it worked! Our chairs were right there in the front row waiting for us. Someone actually moved them even closer to the line during the night, so we sat so close that I was worried some of the members of the larger bands would actually trip over our feet.

There were so many large bands:

The floats were even more impressive close up than on TV since it was really obvious how many flowers were on these large constructions:

My favorite floats were the the ones with strong colors that popped against the bright blue sky and seemed to vibrate in the sun:

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Downton Abbey Float – Public Broadcasting Company

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“Treasure Life’s Journey” from Donate Life – all people on the flat actually received donated organs

Other details that the TV broadcast usually does not show is that many floats that are very high actually have to lower some of their parts to fit under the freeway and some of the floats break down and have to be pulled by a tow truck, which also leads to some delays towards the end of the long route:

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The large tower in the back had to be lowered to fit under a freeway.

Another detail is that the poop-scoopers walking behind the groups of horses in the parade actually get more applause than the bands and floats (I forgot to take a picture of them though – they are dressed in white and push a garbage can for the over five-mile walk). The parade is unique and more exciting in person than on TV even though it does take hours; this year’s parade featured 95 different participants: floats, marching bands, and horse groups. It is a New Year’s tradition just as the New Year’s Concert of Strauss waltzes in Vienna is an Austrian New Year’s tradition.

And there was even room for some political comments during the parade:

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Sky writing during the parade

Fight for Whiskey

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“The Whiskey Rebellion” (ca. 1795 Unknown Artist), Metropolitan Museum of Art: George Washington before his march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion

Some receive fruit of the month club shipments, others receive monthly wine selections as part of a club or membership, and I receive a monthly whiskey shipment (I am pretty sure it beats the fruit of the month club although I have never received that). Every month, I receive a new bottle of whiskey or bourbon from mostly small distilleries that are hard to come by in regular stores (even those specializing in selling alcohol). Each bottle comes with a booklet about the distilling process, the region, the distillery, the history of whiskey or bourbon and more. So it is actually very educational – or at least that is my justification why a bottle of whiskey a month showing up at one’s doorstep makes perfect sense.

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Bottle of Bower Hill Bourbon

This month’s whiskey proves my point. It has taught me about a U.S. rebellion that most textbooks overlook. How come I was not taught about the Whiskey Rebellion when I had to sit through U.S. History?! This month’s bottle is from Bower Hill, and its name shows a clear connection to the aforementioned Whiskey Rebellion. According to the nifty little booklet that comes with the bottle, the U.S. Government decided to create a whiskey tax in 1791. It was the first tax of the federal government levied on goods produced and sold in the U.S. The main goal of the government was to recover the costs of the Revolutionary War, so I guess people must have sold and drunk plenty of whiskey for the politicians to expect the tax income to be large enough to impact the costs of a war.

Farmers, distillers, and other supports – mostly from Western Pennsylvania – came together to resist the tax, and this rebellion lasted several years. It seems to have been serious enough that George Washington himself led an army against the rebels. In July 1794, over 500 rebels attacked the home of John Neville, a prominent tax collector. His estate was called Bower Hill and burned down during this attack (Neville survived the attack, and it seems only a couple of men were killed). Eventually the rebels lost, 170 of them were arrested, and the whiskey tax was enforced until is was repealed under President Thomas Jefferson.

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Historical Marker for Bower Hill (found on Explore PA History)

The Bower Hill bourbon is named after this estate and according to the manufacturer is celebrating the “rebellious spirit” connected to the Whiskey Rebellion. The flags on the bottle are the flags of the Whiskey Rebellion. The bourbon is a blend of bourbons from Lexington, KY and is extremely delicious (smooth and pretty sweet). In addition to receiving a great bottle of bourbon, I also learned a little more about U.S. history – a win-win situation in my book.

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Ready to Enjoy a Taste of Bourbon in front of the Fire

More American Than Apple Pie

The phrase “as American as apple pie” describes something or someone that is typical of the U.S. or the people of the U.S., so is a first-place apple pie then even more American than just any ordinary everyday apple pie?

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Winning Apple Pie at the County Fair

My visit to the rural county fair of Amador County, CA was entertaining and provided plenty of cliches of the “typical” America. Amador County might be better known for its many wineries (where I spend way too many weekends), but I am glad we skipped the typical wine tasting this time and checked out the county fair although this was the second fair in as many days. This particular fair was my favorite one I have been to in California because I found all the small cliches associated with rural (Western) America. Half a building was dedicated to prize-winning pies, cookies, and other deserts locked behind glass in display cases. How am I supposed to appreciate the first-place peanut butter cookies without tasting them?? Which leads to my next question: how does one become a judge for the baked goods at a fair?

More Winning Desert Entries at the Fair

More Winning Desert Entries at the Fair

Even tomatoes and onions and zucchinis could win prizes, which was rather baffling; they all looked the same and I cannot imagine one red onion tasting so much better than another red onion (maybe I am not cut out to be a food judge after all).

Winning Vegetables

Winning Vegetables

Of course, there was the obligatory rodeo, which meant more cowboy hats in one place than I have ever seen – and thus another stereotype of America to check off. I am wondering whether there is a special term for a group of cowboys: a posse, a band, a cabal (even if this group is not plotting)…

Cowboys Waiting for the Team Roping Event at the Rodeo

Cowboys Waiting for the Team Roping Event at the Rodeo

I think deep down the chance of seeing/experiencing what I thought America and especially the West was like before I moved here from Europe explains my fascination with rodeos and fairs. The tally for this year so far: three different fairs, two different bull riding events, and one rodeo – but the year is not over yet and there are still plenty of events to come to enjoy the “typical” America.

Longhorn at the California State Fair

Longhorn at the California State Fair