Sunday, March 27, 2011
Il Carnevale staordinario di Viareggio
Last week at church, we met a couple of charming German retirees who nearly thirty years ago purchased a ruin near Viareggio and have been working on it ever since, coming here regularly for a few weeks in the fall and spring. They took us out to lunch, and today we return the favor. Eberhard formerly worked in German radio and television. He has traveled extensively and tells us some intriguing stories about his work. Dorothea is a theologian and teaches ethics to students planning to become social workers. She speaks German, English, Italian, French and Czech and has experiences equally as fascinating.
At some point in the conversation, Carnevale comes up, and we tell about our soggy attempt to see the corso mascherato last week. Today is a beautiful day, and we know that because two of the five Sunday parades were rained out (and another was held in the rain, with some damage to the floats), the city of Viareggio has decided to hold a corso staordinario today to make up for the missed parades. We are interested but don’t feel ready to invest the rest of our day in this pursuit, knowing that the trains run less frequently on Sundays and we could spend much time waiting around.
Eberhard and Dorothea went to Carnevale here years ago and were disappointed because it didn’t match up to Carnevale in Germany cities. Not as much drinking, not as many people dressed in costume, not as much spirit, they said. They plan to go home and work in their backyard. An old olive tree tipped over this winter, and a handyman has cut it up. Now they need to gather and stack the wood. The thought of Eberhard, who is eighty, hauling wood on a steep hillside prompts Lucy to volunteer our services. Eberhard and Dorothea have a short discussion in German and make us an offer we can’t refuse. They will take us to their home, where we can help gather the wood, and then we can rest a little, and they will take us to Carnevale. Afterwards, they will take us out to dinner, and then we can spend the night in their guest room. The next day, they will drive us back to San Salvatore.
We accept, not so much because we are dying to see Carnevale as because we are enjoying the company of these interesting new friends. Their house, now nicely restored, is located on the steep olive-tree covered hillsides above Piano di Mommio. It reminds me a bit of my all-time favorite book about foreigners coming to live in Italy (and I have read about twenty of these), Extra Virgin. Neighbors can be seen on the adjoining hillsides, but it would take quite a hike to visit most of them. One can just see the Tyrrhenian Sea from here, as well as the northern half of Viareggio.
Lucy and I make short work of the firewood harvest, and she is ready to take a rest, but I am anxious to do more. Eberhard has mentioned that later he will use his electric chainsaw to cut the branches into smaller pieces to fit in the fireplace, and I find Dorothea, who shows me where the saw is located, and she and I string the electrical cord out the back window. Now Eberhard joins me, holding the branches while I hold the saw, and in twenty minutes, we are finished. We celebrate with nuts, crackers, cheese and a variety of beverages, and then we are off to Carnevale. On the way, we drive past Cittadella del Carnivale, a mini-city where the craftsmen make the floats. Parking for us is not a problem, because Eberhard is not going to stay; he drops us off a block away from the entrance.
The corso mascherato is suitable impressive, and Dorothea admits it is much better than she remembered or expected. The floats circulate continuously along the two waterfront streets, and the artwork and animation are spectacular. We are told that the organizations which create floats must compete for the honor of being selected for the Viareggio parade, and each float has a theme with both serious and satirical sides. For example, U.S. President Obama, animated eyes roving from side to side, is pictured as a smiling grand magician waving a smoking wand in front of a flea circus, in reference to campaign promises that are becoming mere illusions. More smiling and head-nodding paper-mâché members of his staff, including Hillary Clinton, follow him. Suddenly, in a puff of gunsmoke, out from his top hat pops an armed Osama bin Laden. On another float, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi pulls back the mask that is his normal face to reveal a grotesque and grinning skull beneath, a reference to the problems that lurk under the surface of his administration.
The most notable difference between the corso mascherato and American parades is intricate use of animation and the finely detailed paper-mâché instead of the floating balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the flower-covered floats of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. Live characters on the floats are engaged in singing, dancing and acting rather than just waving at the crowds or throwing candy. Also, there are no barricades to prevent spectators from walking in the streets and taking photos standing directly in front of the floats, although there are escorts on foot to make sure no one is run over or gets whacked on the head by a protruding animated arm or tail.
Later at dinner, we learn more about Eberhard and Dorothea, including a fascinating tale of how Eberhard escaped from East Germany balancing a backpack and a young niece while crossing a stream over a narrow railroad tie. He was near a guard station manned by Russians, but that was part of his plan, because he didn’t think anyone would be expecting someone to cross at that point. The frightened niece was able to keep quiet while Eberhard stepped over a knee-high trip cable placed on the railroad tie crossing.
After we go back to the house to get ready to spend the night, we are alerted to lights and sounds in the sky over the water. The fireworks marking the end of Carnevale have just begun, and we climb higher on the hillside to get a good view. It is a magnificent display, with several exploding shapes that we have not seen elsewhere. We clamber shivering back down the hillside and make our way inside and prepare for bed. What started out as a day with no plans other than going to church has turned into an unexpected and unforgettable memory.
Il boscaiolo fortissimo