A Tale of Two Carnivale Celebrations – Part I

Crikey! Time flies when you’re having fun. So much has happened since our last blog post that I have started to feel guilty for not getting our posts up in a more timely manner. I’m trying to give up guilt for lent, so let’s just get right to it.

We experienced two fabulous carnivale celebrations here in Italy, two weekends in a row. The first was a parade and carnival held in the seaside town of Viareggio, just north of Pisa on the tuscan coast. Each year this small town hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors over 4 weekends to celebrate Carnivale, the season immediately prior to lent. While Venice is famous the world over for its elegant costumes and masks, Viareggio takes a completely different tack. They have a parade featuring giant floats with political themes. They satarize everyone from local, national and international politicians to the pope to John Lennon and Mother Theresa. No one is safe. The floats are enormous and impressive, with moving parts, loud music, and costumed riders. Here are a few photos from the event.

Float at Viareggio Carnivale

This is a closer view of the peacock float. All those flames underneath the bird are people in costume.

This thing is huge and it moves and roars. Note the size of the people on the float under the dinosaur.

This one was preceded by dancing nuns. They weren't all female.

One of my favorite parts of this celebration is the way the crowd interacts with the parade going by. In America we are kept at a safe distance on the sidewalk behind a rope. Here, you can be a part of the parade if you want to. Everyone is in the street. It is just up to you to get out of the way before the float flattens you. People dress up, they throw confetti, and you have to be armed with a can of silly string to fend off the little kids who try to spray you unaware.

Here’s one of the crazies in the crowd:

Can't get much cuter than that!

And here’s that same guy, corrupting the youth:

Be prepared and carry extra cans of this stuff - that's my motto!

Although it was really cold, everyone had a great time and came home exhausted. This was the first train trip for most students, and now, mere weeks later, they are old pros at getting around on the train. I wish I could fill you in more on the social criticism of the floats, but perhaps ignorance is bliss.

Next post… Carnivale in Venice.


In the few weeks we’ve been in Florence, we’ve already visited most of its major cultural attractions, and we’ve taken excursions to Ravenna, Lucca, and Pisa of “Leaning Tower” fame.  Even in January and February these places are crowded.  Still, the crowds at these places were nothing when compared to the Sunday afternoon throngs that mobbed a multi-cultural attraction that Italians call “Eekaya.”  You’d think that inexpensive Swedish doodads for the home were the 9th Wonder of the World.  I seem to recall having been in one of these establishments years ago in the California town of Emeryville, but it lacked the Italian feed-lot ambiance of this store on the outskirts of Florence.  Entering the blue and yellow building, one immediately becomes a piece in an interminable, diabolical board game with 10,000 other pieces, following a maddeningly labyrinthine configuration of arrows that gives each participant the opportunity to observe every imaginable space-saving shelf unit, toilet seat, tea cozy, pasta fork, and spatula from at least a half dozen vantage points on the self-guided tour.  Shortcuts to the store exits were unthinkable because they all required going against the direction indicated by the arrows, which would have resulted in one’s being trampled underfoot in the slow but inexorable stampede of humanity trudging along en masse in a shuffling procession of souls like something depicted in scenes of Hell on an Italian cathedral ceiling.

We had taken a half-hour bus ride to the fringes of Florence on a quest for a cheap plastic kitchen recycling container as well as a cheese grater because the historic center of Florence mainly sells the pricier, deluxe genres of cheese graters that are intended to be framed, mounted and integrated with the household’s copy of the Last Supper.  We had intended to meet up with other faculty from the program in the cafeteria but had to give up because we were unable to distinguish any individuals in the swarm of Florentines who apparently develop a craving for Swedish pizza and wieners on Sunday afternoons in IKEA.

As I followed the arrows on the floor, there was a point at which I completely lost track of time.  The arrows double back on each other, and on two or three occasions I thought I recognized a younger version of myself coming toward me.  I remember an especially desperate moment when I was quite sure that there was actually no way out, and I had the urge to sit down and weep.  In the Cathedral of Florence there is a famous painting of Dante in which the entrance to the inferno is located on the outskirts of Florence.  Who would have known it was IKEA?  As Dante says, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”  (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)

Wildlife sighting!

A few days ago I spotted an unusual rodent down by the Arno river. It’s called a nutria. Although native to South America (where they are called coypu), they were introduced into Italy and other parts of Europe as part of the fur trade. When the fur trade collapsed several decades ago, many of them were released into the wild. I have also heard it said that they were introduced into European countries after World War II to help feed the poor, thus the name Nutria. They are semi-acquatic, and actually get around better in the water than they do on land.

They are about a 1.5 to 2 feet long (plus a 10 inch tail) and about a foot tall, which makes them smaller than a beaver but larger than a muskrat. It took me about 3 weeks in Florence to spot one, but it has been extraordinarily cold. When you come to visit, you’ll have to keep an eye out for them.

Limoncello making party

To celebrate the completion of the first week of classes, we had the faculty members and their families over to make a big batch of limoncello for all to share. For those of you unfamiliar with limoncello, it is a powerful, super-tasty, Italian lemon liqueur. I have been making it for several years now. In fact, I like to think that the teachers in the Florence program get along with each other exceptionally well because I introduce limoncello into their lives early in the process. Everything is just much more cheerful with limoncello.

Everyone brought 6 lemons, a little cash to cover the cost of the alcohol, and an appetizer to share. We made a double batch. After the lemons have steeped in the alcohol for 3 weeks, we will have 4 liters of limoncello – one liter for each family.

Here is the recipe for limoncello:

  • 12 lemons
  • 1 litre grain alcohol, such as Everclear (available at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, CA)
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water

Zest the 12 lemons and put the zest into a clean, 1 liter glass bottle with a lid. Be careful not to get any of the white part of the peel of the lemon as it is bitter. When zesting the lemons, you want to only take the color off the outside. You can use a microplane grater, a vegetable peeler, or a citrus zester. Add the alcohol. Stir or shake it a bit to mix and leave it to steep for 3 weeks.

At the end of 3 weeks, the lemon zest will have given up all its flavor and color. Your alcohol will be yellow and the lemon zest will be pale, almost white. Strain the alcohol and throw away the zest. Combine 4 cups sugar and 4 cups water in a large saucepan on the stove. Heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. (This mixture is called simple syrup.) Let the syrup cool completely. Measure to make sure you have 1 liter of simple syrup. If you need more, it only takes a few minutes to make. Just use one part sugar to one part water.

Combine 1 liter lemon-steeped alcohol with 1 liter simple syrup. Pour into clean bottles. Serve very cold. Can be kept in the freezer or refrigerator. Because the alcohol content is so high, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but should be stored in a cool, dark place. They say it keeps for a very long time, but I wouldn’t know. Ours never lasts that long.

Here, Calla and I demonstrate zesting lemons:

While the adults zested lemons, the kids helped juice the lemons and we made lemonade. Calla is a champion lemon juicer. She juiced about half of the lemons (12) by herself.  In addition to the lemonade we made, everyone got to take home lemon juice for making lemon bars or lemon granita (an Italian frozen lemon dessert.) We ate bruschetta, olives, cheese, chocolate covered panetone, and heavenly chocolate mousse (made by Maria), with prosecco (sparkling wine) or lemonade to wash it down. It was an “eclectic” mix of foods, but everyone had a great time. Just look at this happy bunch.

We realized at the end of the evening that there was an olive pit floating in one of the two jars of lemon zest soaking in alcohol. We blame it on the two year old.

We figured the alcohol would easily kill all the germs, so it wasn’t a big deal. We also decided we would have to have a limoncello TASTING party to see if we could tell the difference in the two batches.

Meet our traveling companions

I think you are all aware that there are 3 other teachers participating in the semester abroad program here in Florence, along with 84 students. We have spent the last year getting to know the other faculty members and their families, and now we cross paths on almost a daily basis. I think it’s time for you to meet them, too.

Vi presento (I present to you) Diana Bennett, Art History Instructor

Diana is stylish, calm, thoughtful and kind. As a good pastor-friend of mine once said, though, everyone has a good story to tell after their second glass of wine. After sharing several glasses of wine with Diana, I have seen her more feisty side and I like it very much.

Vi presento Maria Giuili, International Relations and Women’s Studies Instructor

Maria is lively, witty, and fun-loving. She has lots of international experience: she was born in Poland, lived many years in Egypt, and has taught in the semester abroad programs in London and Florence. She also makes a fantastic chocolate mousse (even without a food processor).

Vi presento Nich Miller, Sociology Instructor

Nich is young, hip, cool and fun to be around, as is his partner Katie. They are both extremely brave and adventuresome as evidenced by their willingness to travel with their young children, Calla and Kinsey.

And here are Calla, age 4, and Kinsey, age 2. They are sweet, lovely children and we are having a great time playing with them, spoiling them, and giving them back to their parents. In other words, honing our grand-parenting skills.

The eight of us have shared many meals, many stories, lots of laughter and a handful of minor disasters. We are extremely fortunate to be traveling with people who are so supportive and get along so well. Over the next 3 months you will be seeing their faces show up in our photos quite often. To get you started, click on the link below to see photos of the day we spent in Pisa and Lucca together.


La Bella Firenze

We’ve been in Florence for over two weeks, and I have yet to say anything about the high culture of Florence and greater Italia.  I don’t want folks to get the impression that it’s been nothing but eating, shopping, mangling the Italian language and watching the snow fall. In Florence we’ve visited the Accademia, the Museo del Opera del Duomo, the monastery at San Marco, Piazzale Michelangelo, Ognissanti Church, San Miniato Church, the Palazzo Strozzi and IKEA, and have been much edified.   We were able to see Michelangelo’s David as well as his sculptures of the Slaves without interference from throngs milling about with headsets.  In Florence it is commonplace to pass by the two very impressive copies of the David in the course of a normal walkabout, but the original is always breathtaking, especially in its  texture and its immensity.   How this sort of work could be done with hammer and chisel is beyond my comprehension.  Just as interesting to me are Michelangelo’s Slaves that line the corridor leading to the David.  To see these forms emerging from the rock gets the philosopher in me all excited, in a strictly (neo)Platonic sense, of course.  The miracle of modern technology (and Lois’ general sense of derring-do) has resulted in the following clandestine and vietato (forbidden) photos of David and his entourage.  Mum’s the word.

A Florence museum that is often overlooked is the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.  It is wonderful.  This is where many of the sculptures and reliefs that once decorated the outside (and inside) of Florence’s great cathedral (Duomo) have been moved, often in order to protect them from the elements, the automobile exhaust, and renovation projects. There are two exquisite choir lofts facing each other high on opposite walls of a room in this Museum, one sculpted by Donatello, the other by della Robbia (who is more famous for his beautiful work in ceramic reliefs).  One choir loft is decorated with joyful angels and the other with children singing and playing a variety of musical instruments — just the place to make music.  Aside from his lovely Pieta in St. Peters, Michelangelo sculpted a second Pieta when he was in his 80’s, and it completely and suddenly fills one’s field of vision at the top of a flight of stairs in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.  Michelangelo sculpted himself into the scene in the role of Nicodemus helping the two Marys take Jesus from the cross.  It’s not as beautiful as his first Pieta, because he left it unfinished after finding a flaw in the marble and hammered off Jesus’ left leg in a rage, as if our savior hadn’t already been through enough.  Michelangelo possessed what Italians called terribilita’.  Unlike the David or Michelangelo’s other Pieta, both of which are shielded from the public after having been attacked by folks who apparently had a touch of Michelangelo’s terribilita’ as well, this Pieta (also called the Deposition) has no barriers whatsoever, and visitors can get as close as they’d like.  It is an amazing work, even after having been vandalized by the artist.  This is my photo of the scene one sees at the top of the stairs:

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is filled with Donatellos, none more astonshing and moving than this sculpture in wood of Mary Magdelene:

Lois has been having a difficult time locating a suitable hair dryer and was able to identify keenly with Mary.

At the same museum we were also treated to a look at John the Baptist’s index finger.  We’ve seen his arm on another trip to Italy.  Apparently Salome had not only had asked for his head, but she must have pretty much ordered up a total dismemberment.

St. John the Baptist’s digit is the vertical object in the window of the reliquary.   Art appreciation is not for sissies.

There is only so much high culture one can endure in one sitting before one just has to go out and watch a rowdy, bawdy Italian football spectacle.  So off we go for some rejuvenation, and I’ll once more take up the cause of the noble arts when I return.



The students arrived last weekend, fresh, exuberant and disoriented, both culturally and meteorologically.  We’ve had light snow for the past few days, and today the temperature will dip into the teens and soar into the mid twenties — Fahrenheit.  Over the past week Florence has been consistently colder than South Lake Tahoe.  I’m loving it, although those who imagined Italia as a sub-tropical paradise are deeply bewildered.  Yesterday we tagged along with the students on a guided walking tour of Florence with temperatures sinking into the low 20’s, and there was a  this-is-not-what-we-signed-up-for  look in their eyes.  We are always trying to help our students understand cultural differences between Italy and America, and it’s satisfying to know that our students now deeply understand and appreciate the reason why so many Italians wear scarves  — it’s freaking cold!

A view from our Florence apartment window across neighboring rooftops a few evenings ago.

Lois has been training to run a 10k in Florence in April, and I’ve been providing moral support, tagging along behind her.  Our main running venue is Cascine Park, one of the largest city parks in all of Europe — 2/3 the size of Central Park, NYC.  (See Lois’ recent post about Cascine Market, which is set up every Tuesday in Cascine Park.)  Having an irrational fondness for snow, I was snapping photos while we were running in the snow — one of the many eccentricities of mine that Lois is forced to endure during our travels.

In December 2010  Florence received over a foot of snow, and snowboarders were bombing down the hill from the David at Piazzale Michelangelo and even down the steps of the monuments….dude.  I’m hoping for the same.  Frigid temperatures and intermittent snow are supposed to be with us for another week, and I’m…like…totally stoked, at least as much as a 60+ year old can be stoked.  My colleagues here in Florence have been humoring me about this, but I think this sort of thing may be getting on their nerves. They’re sniffling a lot.


Treasures from the street market

All of you who know me well, know how much I love to get a good deal. I’m not a big shopper, but when I do shop, I love to feel like I’m really getting my money’s worth. There are several street markets in Florence, but the one I am most partial to is the Cascine Market on the west end of town. The market is set up in the middle of Cascine Park, about a 10-15 minute walk from our house, every Tuesday morning. There you can buy everything from olives and cheese to slippers and underwear. You can buy food ingredients, prepared food, clothes, shoes, kitchen items, drapes, plants, perfume, purses, belts, hats, gloves, shampoo, utensils, even pets such as birds, turtles and fish.

On our first trip to the market I got some really thick and warm footless tights (€3), a fish necklace (€3), 3 pairs of striped knee-high socks (€2), a beautiful blue scarf (€1 – that’s right $1.30, my friends!), fruit and veggies, sicilian spiced olives (yum!) and some fantastic sicilian pecorino cheese. My big score on the first week, though, was my boots for €10! I love my new boots. (They’re actually even cuter with fishnet stockings!) I’m sure I’ve already put 20 miles on them.

On the second Tuesday, I got 2 new shirts for €2 each, and a knit hat for €2. Aren’t they adorable?

George got some gloves, sweat pants and some hooks for the bathroom all for under €10.

One of the things I love most about the Cascine Market is that Italians shop there. None of the vendors speak English, so you have to get in there and speak Italian. Every week the offerings are a little different, so there is a lot of push and shove, a lot of please and thank you, a lot of smiles, a lot of new words like “specchio” (mirror) and “tartaruga” (turtle). There is the joy of a long walk with an empty backpack, and then another long walk with a bag full of new treasures.

All this happy shopping comes with little bit of a dark side, though.  For every item I buy I have to give up something else.  I came with one full suitcase and I am determined to leave with exactly the same one I came with. Meer weeks ago, I went through the really difficult process of going through each and every little item I own and deciding whether to pack it away for later or let it go. I let a lot of it go. I also learned in the process that my refrigerator was out of control. Carla and Mike and Pat are nodding there heads right now. They inherited my mind-boggling number of open bottles of mustard and vinegar and tons of other food stuff. Food for Thought received my truly ridiculous collection of pens and pencils. (Where do they all come from? I can’t remember buying ANY of them.) I gave away bags full of clothes – many, many, many bags full of clothes.

I narrowed my world down to that one suitcase (plus a backpack) and that is all the space I have for the next year. It has been my plan all along to give away or send home most of my winter clothes, but still…

As I stood at the sink washing dishes today, I realized that I haven’t yet fully grasped the idea of living small. We have made a conscious choice to travel in a way that allows us to settle in, unpack, get comfortable, and get to know the places and people around us. Right now, I don’t feel like I’m traveling, though, I feel like I’m living my everyday life. Which I am. But I still don’t have a handle on how to do that well without expanding into my space. Every time I hand over that money and put that new thing in my pack, I think about whether I’m taking it with me to the next destination or leaving it behind as a gift to the home that I have temporarily taken over. Do I really need that new knife for 3 months time? (The answer to this one is yes! Best €10 I’ve spent so far.) Or that new pair of boots? (Yes to that one, too. They replaced the crappy pair I brought with me.) Or that new scarf? (No, not at all. I brought 5 with me.) How about the knit hat I just bought? (Maybe. It is REALLY cold here and I am getting out running, but I could have just used the little headband I already had.) I really want a small food processor for while I am here so I can make pesto and aioli and white bean spread with ease. Yes, I know I can do it the old fashioned way and take my time and build my muscles, but… but…

These desires go on and on. I love the market for its colors and sounds and great deals. I love the idea of making due with what I have and getting comfortable with less stuff. I don’t know how to reconcile the two. I guess I have time to learn.