Friday, August 31, 2007

A snapshot of ItaliaBall

Recently, I have been making up for lost time, years of my life when I wandered in the wilderness. I have come in from the cold. I have been soaking up ItaliaBall.

As the opening game of Italian Baseball Week, last Sunday’s friendly between Italy and China-Taipei came wrapped in ribbons, flags, and pomp. After the presentation of a few awards, the introduction of the two teams, and the release of balloons, a 40-person marching band strode onto the field from a gate in the center field wall under the colorful illumination of a fireworks display. The organizing committee had done their work well. Despite a few errors here and lots of inevitable sacrifice bunts there, the game itself was baseball played well in front of a knowledgeable and engaged crowd.

The announcer gamely tried to pronounce the Chinese names, though I can only wonder what those players were thinking of his versions. One aspect of baseball as I’ve always known it that unfortunately has not taken hold here on the boot is the 7th inning stretch. The public address system did play a recording of “Take me out to the ballgame,” but I may have been the only one actually stretching and singing along.

If I train my lens away from the international stage and turn to Codogno’s team, I find a more significantly Italian take on America’s national pastime. I have started going to baseball practice when I can, which is to say every time they have it. My reasons for going are many: it's right outside my door; the players have for the most part welcomed me as a new acquaintance; I enjoy team camaraderie and gobbling up the odd grounder that rolls my way; I can use the language practice; and, heck, it's better than trying to decipher "Walker, Texas Ranger" in Italian.

I haven’t played organized baseball since I was 13 so I can't speak with authority on regional variations but there are certain touches that strike me as purely Italian. The pace of practice, like much of Italian life, is molto lento. The manager wears shorts but (gasp!) no baseball cap and rarely leaves the area behind home plate. The other night, one player snuck a cigarette while shagging flies in left field, sending what I thought would surely be tell-tale smoke signals to the enemy camp across the mesa.

Before the game on Saturday, the players warmed up to, among other songs, the Cindi Lauper hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Perhaps there are inspiring hidden messages in the lyrics?... A mere minutes before game time, most of the team convened by the snack bar for a quick espresso. Others went a step further down the additive lane... As John Fogerty sang, “Put me in, coach. I’m ready to play.”

Unfortunately, Codogno lost both games of the Saturday doubleheader. Mark played third base in both games and came in to pitch with one out in the fifth inning of the second game. Despite a long, injury-related exile from the mound, he pitched masterfully, like Maddux of old. Painting corners, hitting spots, mixing speeds, throwing peas, confounding the Sala Baganzans. You can see the box score here. Teens flirted in the shadows of the grandstand. Toddlers sword fought with the inflatable thunder sticks. We drank beer and ate grilled sausages, though we had to bring our own senape (mustard). It would seem that baseball is baseball. [On a related note, you may be interested in this short documentary about baseball in Ghana that a friend of mine made. Don't know if they drink espresso in West Africa before games but...]

Tomorrow, I'll travel with the team to just north of Milan for the last regular season games. All the chips are on the table as the Jaguars are clawing for the last spot in the playoffs. Maybe Ernie Banks will be smiling on Codogno, 'cause they're playing two.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


As my brother pointed out, today is the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Following his lead, I am taking time today to try to remember where I have been, where I am, everything that I have been given, and those many whose lives have touched mine. Here are two of the many reasons I have to smile: my awesome cousins Patrick, ready for his first day of kindergarten, and his younger brother Ryan.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Opening day

Opening day. The sun shines warmly on green grass and trees, white clouds sail languidly across the blue sky, a delicate breeze ruffles laundry out to dry and lifts hearts... Today is the opening weekend of Italian soccer, or calcio as the beautiful game is called here. Last season was cast in shadow by the huge game fixing scandal – Juventus played down a division in Serie B (like the Red Sox playing AAA in the International League) and three teams started with negative points (okay, Patriots, you’re going to start 0-4 this year). The league is back at full strength this year and excitement is heightened.

Local energy level is also high this weekend as the Jaguars of Baseball Club Codogno return to action after the August vacation. The biancoazzuri (white and blues) take on Sala Baganza, a team from near Parma that includes some of Mark's former teammates, in a day/night doubleheader here at home. Tomorrow, the baseball frenzy continues with an amichevole (friendly) between the Italian national team and visiting China-Taipei. Our roommate, Juan Pablo, although he grew up in Buenos Aires, is one of the catchers for the Italian team.

In many towns, referring to the “local energy level” as “high” when talking about baseball would be a joke. Codogno is different. Lango says, “I was real lucky to end up with this team, in this town. Many people who have played for the team over the years still live here and support the team.” While we’re not in Nettuno, Italy’s “City of Baseball” (think Cooperstown combined with Yankee Stadium combined with the Cape League combined with Normandy), Codogno does support her baseball.

Trees around town are wrapped in signs advertising the games; similar banners hang across the entrance to the central piazza. The team announcer wanted to enlist Mark’s help in advertising the game, but he had to decline out of concern for his boss’s reaction to any modifications made to a company vehicle.

Take me out to the gara, take me out to the spettatori...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rub a dub dub

Most travelers abroad have their favorite examples of mistranslation they have encountered, either to or from (in my, and probably your, case) English. Signs that warn of unexpected and unlikely dangers (If pulled too hard, toilet will hurricane onto floor.). Stores selling jeans that are the “nitgest level to wear.” A customer who orders breast milk instead of whole milk. And, of course, movie titles given unusual twists.

I learned today that Tremors, that 1990 Kevin Bacon vehicle, is called in German Land Of The Rocket Worms. Don’t ask me how I came upon this information, just know that my source is somewhere on the Interweb and is therefore above reproach. On a related note, I had a friend in college whose brother knew a guy in Brazil who could get you cashews, but that’s another story.

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the last 20 minutes of Pallottola spuntata 33 1/3 (Dulled Bullet 33 1/3), better known in the English-speaking world as Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. It was an unusual movie watching experience. I had to stand in one place in the living room, between two drying racks full of clothes, because if I moved the picture went static and the sound went bonkers. I could only understand one out of ten words that Leslie Neilson and the others were saying. [Allegedly, nearly all movies coming into the country are dubbed into Italian. I guess I had better get learning.] Additionally, the cast of Dulled Bullet 33 1/3 - Mary Lou Retton, Weird Al Jankovic, James Earl Jones, Anna Nicole Smith, OJ Simpson, Vanna White, and others - has had a checkered run of it since the movie’s release, adding a rearview mirror peculiarity. But, thankfully slapstick comedy transcends language. As is so often the case, the little things add bouyancy to life, like thousands of ping-pong balls glued to an elephant.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A day at the races

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Siena, a medieval city in Tuscany, with friends Paolo, Guisi, Carmen, and Magno. The event that we and thousands of others were there to see: the Palio, a bareback horse race that has been held in Siena every July 2 and August 16 since at least the 1600s.

What I didn't know before last week is that the Palio is much more than a horse race. It is medieval pageantry combined with ward politics, turf wars and territorial pride, centuries-old traditions, mob energy, religious fervor, gambling and speculating and fixing – the Kentucky Derby, a bare-knuckle fight, Yankees-Red Sox, Michigan-Ohio State, the Beanpot, Harvard-Yale times 800 years, a mad dash half blind and half chaos, the World Cup in miniature squeezed into brick- and cobble-paved streets of three-story shutter window homes lemon yellow Nantucket red bone white driftwood brown and brick, churches the pivot point around which whorl self-contained universes, walls sprouting fantastical lamps with octopus arms and Wonka Seuss dripping lights lighting the rolling crescendo of neighborhood activity cresting towards the beachhead – a day thronged with the elect and the vicarious, one hungry for victory, bragging rights, a good showing for the old home place, the biannual pinnacle day of flying the ancient colors; the other hungry for spectacle, for a glimpse (recorded in film and photo of course – otherwise, did it happen?) of exotic competition, guide book highlight, word of mouth itinerary must, transport to other times in a place that has one foot then.

The echoes creak in time with the martial drumming, rumbling through the centuries – le contrade, the 17 wards of Siena, each a world apart, insular proud marked by flying flags with coats of arms and the distinctive creatures, fountains (at least one has run with wine after a victory), and of course churches. In la contrada della Chiocciola (Snail), our homebase for the day thanks to a friend of a local resident, Chiesa San Marco acts as chapel, museum, headquarters, community center, barracks – white-washed walls and candelabra, oil paintings and statued niches, flags draped not for Lent or Advent but a horse race.

The blessing of the horse overfilled the chapel with silent faithful. After spending the time leading up to the race in the Casa di Cavallo, the anxious skittish horse was brought into the chapel to the thundering sound of silence. You cannot approach the door of the casa di cavallo before the race if you are not among those who tend to the horse. Try at your own peril; you could end up with a mouthful of fist. As the horse left the chapel, I could see many local residents with tears in their eyes.

After the benediction, the contrada gathers forces in front of the chapel and begins to cheer, sing, and wave their colors. The flag and drum corps starts their marching; they will not stop until just before the horses lineup for the race – almost five hours of drumming, flag twirling, and marching in costume. With the ceremonial horse and rider leading the way, the contrada throngs towards the center of town. From all over the city, streams converge – crowds of people following their contrada’s horse, drums and twirling flags, awash in their contrada’s colors, cheers and songs resounding in the canyons of the close streets – schools of adrenalinized fish following first one flash and then another of flag and drum. The rivalries and alliances are often centuries old as well. For example, Pantera must be friends with Chiocciola because the church they share straddles the borderline between the two contrade. As the altar is in Chiocciola territory, they could say, “No, you may not bless your horse here.” All but the Oca (Goose) have allies, yet it is the Goose with the most victories over the years - the Sienese version of the Yankees.

After wandering the spectacle all day in the company of a wonderful guide, Magno (a knowledgeable Palio attendee with 20 years experience), we settled into folding chairs in the basement of the Chiocciola headquarters to watch the race. The start itself can be another whole chapter of chaos, machismo, maneuvering, deal making, frustration, boiling excitement, and verbal fireworks. Historically, the riders came from the contrade themselves but this has changed over the years. Magno told me, “It is still every child’s lifelong dream to ride your contrada’s horse to victory, beating your rival at the line." Most of the riders today are from Sardinia: they are smaller by nature and used to riding bareback. According to Magno, there has only been one female rider in the history of the Palio; apparently there is a American movie about her out there somewhere.

Finally, after 20 minutes of archetypal jockeying, the horses flew out of the start and we all flew out of our seats. Never I have felt goose bumps so many times in one day; for those few moments when our horse and rider were in the lead, I caught my voice in my throat and felt we had a chance. Electricity coursed through the room as I’m sure it did throughout the city – I can only imagine what the gathered thousands experience in the center of the piazza...

The race has faced growing criticism in recent years because of the dangers it poses to both horse and rider. Although short – the race is over in less than two minutes, it is violent as the riders are permitted to hit their own horses, other horses, and even other jockeys with their crops; falls are common and a horse without a rider can still win. The course becomes especially treacherous at the corner just before the clock tower, as evidenced in this year’s race when our horse, after starting in the lead, crashed dramatically into the padding along the wall. Leocorno (Unicorn) rode to victory and the contrada celebrated through the streets, the cathedral, and undoubtedly long into the night. Chiocciola will have to wait until next year. You can watch the entire race here and see photos we took here. Additionally, watch for footage from this year's Palio in the next installment of the Bond franchise.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

First ascents

Like pioneers on the big walls of Yosemite putting up first ascents in furious rapidity, only without the chalk dust, bloody knuckles, and rapidity, I have been doing many things for the first time recently. First time to the post office. First time getting chased by a dog in Italy. First time out to take photographs of the town cemetery. First time getting kicked out of a library in Italy. First time buying a pink newspaper. First time encountering the bureaucratic “Yes, tomorrow you can come back and we’ll fix this.”

For example, my first festa della birra, a beer festival. As you're not a pogo stick and I'm not a kangaroo, let’s not jump ahead. [On a side note: the accessories which in the US are called fanny packs are more or less ubiquitous here. It is my current theory that these must be given to Italians as they come of age as elsewhere are given spirit names, cars, or bank accounts in Zurich. In Italy, they are logically referred to by many as "marsupials."] These are not beer festivals like you might expect to find in Portland or Denver or even Lowell, the Mill City. At tonight's party, you could only get one kind of beer, Heineken, but then beer was not the primary attraction.

As basically everyone is on vacation for the month of August (please hold any and all comparative labor law disputes for a later time), towns up and down the country hold festas. While similar for in their exuberance and communality to festas common to Little Italies I have seen in Boston and New York, many of the August festas here are not religiously based. Some are held for a particular crop or local historical event - the strawberry festival (where's Pete Seeger when we need him?), the festival of the sea, the festival of the escape of the ox, and, if all else fails and you're just a small town looking to have a party, la festa della birra. If you are a small town without such a festa, or merely a resident of one, here is a recipe that has proven successful:

- (one) big loud band
- (at least 3 gross) people dancing, most likely a mix of retirees, newlyweds, 7 year old girls in pigtails, parents out to embarrass their teenage children, and, if you’re lucky and/or skilled at marketing, two or three odd Americans [emphasis here is on “odd”]
- (200 bushels) good and cheap food
- (a lot) beer
- (another lot) wine, mix of white and red
- (one or more) large tent(s), preferably white
- Optional: dueling trumpets, insufficient benches, hilarious cook who also drives a school bus and plays baseball, hedge maze.

Allow to simmer under the summer night sky for 5 to 7 hours. Serves many. Here are photos of last night's finished product.

Tomorrow I’m headed south to Siena for the Palio, a centuries-old horse race resplendent with medieval pageantry. I am sure there will be stories to tell...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Veni, vidi... ?

As they say at the Brickyard, "Start your engines." And we're off. Or at least I'm off, into the wild green-white-and-red yonder of Italy. I have now been living in bel paese for one week and the international clamoring for some informazione (See? Isn't learning Italian easy and fun?) on my where-abouts, how-abouts, why-abouts, and so forth has been deafening. As many know, I rarely turn down an opportunity to tell a story, so...

I am in Codogno, Italy, in the province of Lodi in the region of Lombardy. I am living with Mark, aka Lango, a friend since kindergarten, who is playing professional baseball in Italy's Serie A2 and working full-time in Milan, 45 minutes to the north.

To extend the metaphor, if this adventure is to be an Indy car race - colorful, loud, exhilarating, enervating, at times stomach-turning but usually captivating (notice I didn't add "fast") - then for the past week I have been weaving back and forth on the track, warming up my tires.

Despite a whirlwind of moving, packing, good-byes, and good riddances (for those who bemoan the Disneyland-ification of New York City, fear not: rodents of reputation yet roam free), I managed to find myself at JFK, early and with my head screwed on straight. Muchas gracias to Dan, Sara, and Jim for hosting my little hurricane; muchisimas gracias to Lorena for so generously driving me to the airport. After a pleasant flight next to a jet-setting cosmopolitan theater director who makes Jason Bourne look positively settled, I blundered my way from the Milanese airport to the train station. Weighed down like a one-man nomadic village, I wandered towards that venerated Italian eatery, McDonald's, to meet up with Mark. Dropping my bags, I noted that I was dirty, tired, and definitely in Italy.

A tap on my shoulder and a voice, "Excuse me. I'm looking for Ray Finkle - and a clean pair of shorts." It could have been me looking for a clean pair of shorts as I was surprised to beat the band. David H., a friend from high school who now lives in Geneva, had come down to surprise me and succeeded. Ah, Europe. Together we left our bags with Mark, explored some of the highlights of Milan, and bought lots of designer shoes.

Happy hour found us meeting up with Mark, some of his colleagues, and one of his teammates from the baseball team. In the large Italy v. USA battle upon which I am sure to comment with frequency and wit, Italy wins stage 1: the bar offered aperitivo, which translates loosely as appetizer but here usually means a spread of free food put out by the bar to attract drinking customers. Salmon, various pasta salads, grilled vegetables, bread - no peanuts and stale cheese puffs this.

Saturday, Mark, David, and I spent the day and evening in Parma, where Mark spent two summers andwhere I visited him in 2004. While justifiably famous for the foods of its region, Parma seems under-visited, especially when compared with its bigger sisters Bologna and Florence. It is a charming city and often ranks high in national ratings for its quality of life. After wandering and eating and sipping espresso and snapping a few photos, we drove out into the country outside Parma to a birthday party for one of Mark's former teammates. As is usually the case, I was heartened to see some familiar faces from my first visit to Italy. Because of Mark's four summers here playing on two welcoming and hilarious teams (about whom you'll here much more in the future), he is greeted by many like a prodigal son across the region. That also has to do with Mark, and I get to ride his coattails. Generous and gregarious friends, tables of food, coolers of drink, karaoke, stars in the sky (or was that my eyes?).

Sunday, Mark, David, and I went for a run on a local road that wends out from town into the countryside. Here is a video Mark posted on his blog this spring that will give you a sense of my new favorite running route. The fields are now mostly full of corn and the air smells like growing.

The rest of the week I did what most Italians are doing this month: I relaxed. For the first time to such an extent, I have more time than I know what to do with - it has taken some getting used to but I think I am improving. I read, I go to the piazza to sip espresso and watch the world go by, I try to read the newspaper, I go to the grocery store, I nap, I wonder when offices and stores will open again, I sip espresso, I nap, I explore on bicycle the town and countryside, I take photographs.

Oh, and now I write a blog. Stay tuned for more.