Thursday, November 10, 2005

Il Palio (The Europe Saga, Part III)

Weekend 1: Il Palio, Siena

So my first weekend in Siena they have this crazy race called il Palio, which is to Siena what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Siena is generally a sleepy little medieval town that though charming doesn't have too much happening. But leading up to the race and then following the race, this town goes bat shit crazy.

background:
The race itself only lasts about 2 minutes as the jockeys ride the horses four laps around the main piazza, il campo. Which they do bareback,and it's incredibly dangerous. But really, it's not about the race. It's about all the crap around the race, which boils town to two components: taunting and man-pride. The race has been around since the medieval period and is taken very very seriously.


The way it works is this:
The city is divided into districts called contradas. I'm not sure how you join a contrada, there seems to have been discussion about being born/baptised into one as well as marrying -- I'm not quite clear on the rules -- but I am not doubt that there is some arcane business to it. These contradas are a BIG DEAL. Each one has specific colors, mascot, a flag, a song, etc. We were drafted into the contrada Onda (wave) because one of our visiting professors actually belongs to this contrada. So as I mentioned each contrada has a song, a mascot, etc. and in the week leading up to the race the men of these contradas will don traditional garb -- tights, wigs, velvet doublets, etc. -- and go marching through the streets with drums just representin'.

That's right, dressing like a 13th century courtier and beating on a drum is the ultimate in man pride, and marching through another contradas territory is the ultimate taunt. In this heat and with these crazy hills, that is commitment people! Anyway, ever since we got here all your here are damn drums beating all the time and with these stone corridors, you can never tell where they're coming from. You can be walking along all normally and the next thing you know you round the corner smack into a crazy ass man parade. I think probably the closest thing it resembles is being in the French Quarter during Southern Decadence -- small streets, odd music, and a shitload of men in strange outfits.

Contrada Dinner:
The night before the race, each contrada has a big outdoor dinner in its section of town. Not wanting to miss this experience, D, Tiny and I all bought tickets and attended with a large groups of students. I also purchased an Onda scarf, as did D's roommate Dana. I tied it to my purse to show my contrada support and we walked to the Il Casato where the other kids are staying to head out to the dinner. Out rolls this kid we call Pink Shirt, who is a complete dipshit, and he is wearing the scarf around his neck boyscout style and looks like an utter fool. And then Tiny delivers the most cutting insult of all time: she makes eye contact at me, looks at my scarf, and then looks at Pink Shirt with complete distain and loathing. Ouch! It was so damn funny I coudn't stop laughing and the fucktards were perplexed as to what had me so amused. After that I shoved the scarf in my purse. Can't align oneself with the tards now can we?

So we go to the dinner, and Tiny winds up sitting across from this person called "old lady" on the trip who is rather annoying. She is an old lady, and not much more need be said about her. At any rate, Tiny is apparently completely annoyed by this lady and hits the wine like it's mardi gras. Halfway through the meal her eyes are flying half mast and she has a goofy grin on her face (no worries, I walked her home and then finished my dinner). I on the other hand was seated across from Miss H -- you may remember her from such classes as Torts or Contracts II. Anyway, she is really cool. And the president of BALSA (the african american law student society). And she totally invited me to join, which is awesome, since I'm a cracker.

I apparently impressed her by drunkenly insulting other contradas--there is one that is a snail and I was like "what's their story? Oh, we're snail, watch out or we'll roll up with our house on our back! Snap!" Also since northern italy eats more pork products than I have ever encountered in my entire life, I thought there should be, in all fairness, a salami contrada. Anyway, Ms. H was in the army and can kill people. I told her she should mention that when a professor gives her the smack down, or at the very least should have a t-shirt made. She has taken these thoughts under advisement.

Most of dinner proceeded without incident, except that there were some speeches made very far away over a PA and our table kept talking, as did others. A certain student flipped and claimed she saw people glaring at us and made a big deal about how uncultured we were. Meanwhile that same person had quite earlier flipped out on her hotel personnel because she did not get a clean towel every single day. uh... The next day my friend said no one paid us any attention, and our visiting prof. was at the table with us and would surely have told us to shut up if we were bad, so I tend to believe that things were col pasetic. It was a lovely time :).

the blessing of the horse:
So to continue with an institution of bad ideas, these jokers also apparently bless these damn race horses before the race, actually dragging them into churches in the various districts-contradas. These horses are like supermodels -- bitchy and hungry, and don't you know they just *love* being dragged into a church. I didn't get to see this part, sadly, but I am sure it was utterly delightful and filled with hilarity. And horsie poop.

The actual race:
We were advised to get to the square at 1pm to get a good seat, but the race isn't until 7 and you know that's not how we roll. Instead we showed up at 4:45 right before the square was closed (it goes on lock down at 5pm) and joined up the the people who had gotten there much earler. Yeah, it's ghetto, but I don't give a rat's ass. We rocked it just like mardi gras, roll up late and bring lots of wine. Tiny and I fouind a place that sold wine in a box the day before (because no glass is allowed on a plaza) and we were pleasantly surprised by its tastiness. Go Italian box wine! To transport said wine, I found the perfect bag in the market that I can sling over my shoulder onto my hip -- I can carry like 50 pounds in this sucker. I have decided that if I have a kid, I am simply going to cut feet holes and stick him/her in this sack. No over priced worthless baby crap for me. This thing was made in India, it'll totally hold a baby!

So we have some drinks because honestly, these people are annoying. The other Americans have put their wine in waterbottles, lacking the party savy that Tiny, D, and I so clearly possess with our box wine. But I'm not talking the little water bottles, I'm talking the 1.5 litre bottles, oh yeah. So as you all know, in accordance with the law of conservation of matter, what goes in must come out. Now most boys were able to hold it, but there's one guy, who I like to call Beerstein, whose blatter can't take it. So he retrieves his water-wine bottle and sticks it indiscreetly under his shorts and relives himself. For a long time. 1.5 litres worth. He then proudly held aloft his full bottle of man-urine, and it was, clearly, an equally proud day a day for America. Nothing says "screw your culture" like a bottle of pee proudly displayed at a public event. American, fuck yeah!

Meanwhile, the race is still trying to get underway. There is no gate like there is at american horse races to line up the horses to get them to start, so literally hours are spent trying to get these bitchy horses in a line. They paw and prance and have false starts, and all the while you can't see a damn thing. And it goes on -- for hours (like I said). This seems like a good time to point out that the race is also fixed. Fixed in the Italian sense, which just means more of a clusterfuck. Apparently the jockeys make all kinds of deals during the week, as in "you block so and so" or "you help push so and so" but half the time these deals are not kept, so fixing doesn't really fix anything, it just complicates things in an ever so Italian way. The only result of the fixing is that the winning jockey has to pay out money to the other jockeys who may or may not have helped him.

Why not just run the damn race then you may ask? Good question. I suspect the answer has to do with the fact that this whole enterprise would not be nearly as much fun if there were less subterfuge and man b.s. A bit later I look over and Beerstein is sitting on Bigman's shoulders waving out contrada's flag (I can prove this happened as I have pictures). Onda, fuck yeah!

Finally, it's like 8:30 ish, my feet hurt, I have to pea, I hate people and FINALLY the horses run! Yay horsies! Run! Going around one of the corners, one jockey totally wipes out, his horse falls him and this in turn causes about 3 other horses and jockeys to go down. The guy looks totally dead and the medics come and rush him off the course, but the race continues. And then next thing you know, it's over. Do I know who won? No clue! Does it matter? Not in the least! As I mentioned before, the race is really just a formality. However, in keeping with the theme of this trip I am delighted to report that Tiny saw none of the race, the crowd being too tall. I suggested at one point that maybe she should ride on Bigman's shoulder like Beerstein did, but she just gave me a look that communiqued "No" quite clearly. Personally, I would have killed someone if I'd stood there for 4 hours for nothing, but then I am not as patient as Tiny.

As the race finishes, a tiny riot of the winning contrada breaks out and then this huge plaza starts to empty of people. Fortunately it emptied pretty quickly so I could find potty. I found out a couple of days later that the turtle contrada won the race, but I don't know what they're called in Italian. But the best part? They do this entire race again in August. I'm not sure how this fits into the year long scheme of taunting. Is one race more superior to the other race? Is there some secret third race which is winner take all, year-long bragging rights included? Who knows! It's like trying to explain American football to aliens. Just drink and enjoy and try not to think about it too hard.

Yay culture!

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