Carnevale and the Killer Citrus Spree: Orangemageddon in Ivrea…

Allora, I’d like you to stick with me and keep your senses sharp for this one. I promise you, it’s worth sticking with. It’s worth sticking with because it ends in an ultraviolent epic food fight and the Orangeocalypse. Yes, it does. ORANGES.

I’m going to write a retrospective blogpost discussing something that happened several weeks back. I’ve discovered that this is a legitimate and acceptable thing to do. Looking at other people’s travel blogs I’ve discovered that they’re all about things that said people did months ago because, naturally, they don’t have time or space to keep things in-the-now. (I guess that’s what Twitter is for, but why would you want to be on Twitter when you’re in the middle of globetrotting adventures?) Funnily enough, I was speaking to my man Drake (dragon-sailor legend, not the rapper who sits courtside at Toronto Raptors games) recently and he told me he’s thinking of blogging his circumnavigatory voyage around the globe. That happened (is happening?) over 400 years ago, so my ‘let me tell you about stuff from over 4 weeks ago!’ post isn’t as late. Anyway, enough digression and let’s get to down to oranges…

The aftermath, after the Orange War. Oh man, here comes a flashback...

The aftermath, after the Orange War. Oh man, here comes a flashback…

Carnevale is a very important annual event in Italy. It marks the start of Lent, just like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Rio Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Pancake Day back in Blighty and in Ireland. Italians, by the way, don’t really comprehend the significance of Pancake Day and looked at me like I was simple when I talked excitedly about “one of our most important festivals“. “We have pancakes as well,” they shrugged, or they simply said “oh” and that was that. (Flat, like a pancake) On Shrove Tuesday some friends and I got high on crêpes by the canal while the crêpe-maestro watched on with a mildly troubled expression but, hey, I digress again. Erm, there was marmalade on one of those quasi-pancakes. Marmalade? ORANGES…

So, Ivrea: a small town in Piemonte near Torino (Turin, if you like) which for the early part of the year holds the highest oranges-per-human ratio in the world. (Citation not necessarily needed) Other Italian towns celebrate Carnevale with masquerade parades, confetti, silly string and clowns (invisible and/or chronically depressed clowns in Milano, or Milan if you like). Venezia (Venice, if you like) hosts the most iconic Carnevale, but when I heard about the unique festivities in Ivrea I ventured over there in the snow and sought to see it for myself.

There’s a lot of fascinating history but I know that you only came here for the oranges so I’ll keep it brief. A long time ago (not in a galaxy far, far away ’cause, Princess, I’m talkin’ ’bout Ivrea) the tyrannical Duke of this beautiful little town had the right to sleep with every newly wed women (or rather ‘soon-to-be-wed woman’) in the locality on the eve of her wedding. Legend has it that a Miller’s Daughter (known as ‘Mugnaia’) refused the Duke and chopped his head off so hooray for her, hooray for period drama proto-feminism and hooray for decapitating rapist despot autocrats. To commemorate this medieval tale of rebellion against the cruel nobility, every year during the extended Carnevale festival one woman is chosen to be the honorary Miller’s Daughter and they ride around in a horse parade throwing flowers to the masses. It’s lovely, and everyone’s in antique costume and all the gathered attendees are wearing Phrygian caps (‘Berretto Frigio’) to show their revolutionary sympathies.

In theory, the red caps also ensure that you won’t be a target of the rebels’ orange attacks. (Ha, nice theory.) The main attraction of the Ivrea Carnevale experience is ‘Battaglia delle arancie’ – ‘The Battle of the Oranges‘. Sorry, I can’t say that without echo sound-effects and a mighty power pose – THE BATTLE OF THE ORANGES. Indeed, ’tis an epic spectacle. It rides, flies and almost-dies like this: there are nine combat teams and the citizens of Ivrea are all aligned to one of them. They have badass names like ‘The Ace of Spades’, ‘The Devils’, ‘The Panthers’ and ‘The Chess Pieces’ and they all have a long history and their own insignia and team colours. These ‘Aranceri a piedi’ (orange-throwers on foot) all wear their colours proudly and, in total, their costumes look like a mix of court jester, football hooligan and rugby player dressed for midwinter Tuesday night training covered in heavy metal patches. The look is topped off, of course, by the red cap and these mixed-gender tribal mobs (I love the progressive politics of this whole thing) gather in the streets and piazzas and some of them chant very aggressive-sounding songs.

Enter the armoured guards: this is where citrus gets real. The armoured guards – ‘Aranceri Carri da Getto’ sport ridiculous-but-utterly-necessary amounts of protection and ride their heavy-duty horsedrawn carts through the streets pelting the crowds with oranges. The orange throwers on foot – their target – respond in turn. The result is all-out orange-flinging chaos. It’s complete carnage: a juicy Battle Royale; a zesty clash for the end of ages; a fruity Ragnarök.

Orangeocalypse Now... "the horror... the horror..."

Orangeocalypse Now… “the horror… the horror…”

Spectators are ‘shielded’ from the Full Mental Racket by nets surrounding the piazzas and streets, but they don’t offer much in the way of protection. While observing from behind these nets I got dusted by stray flecks of zest, skin and juice and got bopped right in the middle of my forehead by a rogue projectile. I also had my phone knocked flying out of my hand and the Romanian tourist next to me got her designer label handbag soaked in citrus juice (the Orangeocalypse is no place for haute couture). The cars kept on a-comin’ and the orange throwers kept on turning back to pick up more missiles from the towering boxes packed with fruit (most of it surplus from the south of Italy, so really the whole exercise is creative recycling). Wave after wave after violent, angry, orange wave. It was mesmerising.

After watching the Battle I departed the city, shaken and stirred. Taking a step aside to look at this thing from another angle, here’s how it plays out: I’d been stood in that square for an age before tip-off, freezing and finding no comfort in a bag of dried oranges (dried orange doesn’t taste very nice) and feeling quite confused. More people gathered, there was a sense of looming and the ritual procedures occurred and I felt very confused. Somehow I’d ended up in a strange town in Piemonte wearing a silly red hat and that confused me. Then everything erupted into a orangemageddon and abject insanity and that was very confusing. Observe the insanity. (Ah, you can’t observe the insanity because I’m not allowed to upload videos. Never mind, ’cause that’s adds a more esoteric edge to the mysteries of Ivrea. One day I might try and re-enact the most epic and messiest role-play exercise I’ve ever seen in my life in your living room, if you ask me nicely…)

Everything here is confusing, insane, shockingly violent and a bit silly...

Everything here is confusing, insane, shockingly violent and a bit silly…

Madness. Madness. But it was beautiful madness and beautiful confusion and an immense experience to behold and sort-of-participate in. It’s this kind of inspired and creative insanity that has made Italy such a great nation, and such an important one in the development of our global civilisation and culture. The ‘Battle of the Oranges’, then: absurd and unbelievable. And very orange. ORANGES.

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Free Hugs and Lots of Valentine’s Day Love in the Galleria…

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Hugging Robot, Human Feeling…

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Saturday was the 14th February, so Saturday was Valentine’s Day. You’re probably aware of this and know that the day commemorates the martyrdom of poor San Valentino (a.k.a. St. Valentine, Vizzy Heartdust, Sweet Val the Virile) stabbed to death by rose thorn-brandishing heathen eunuchs employed by a devastated Roman senator whose wife had run off with a Christian leathermaker. And then Al Capone shot some people, Captain Cook was skewered on Patrick Swayze’s surfboard, Richard II died after starving himself because no one invited him out for a candlelit dinner and Benedict Cumberbatch got married.

All of those are reasons to note the 14th February, but really I’d just like to think of it as a timely moment to say, “Awww, yeah! Love is great!” Love is always great, in whatever form or flavour. I could go on quoting all kinds of pop songs, pop aphorisms and suchlike but I’ll spare you because Valentine’s Day has passed us by and you could get all that by watching Moulin Rouge (and I haven’t a hope in hell of making this blogpost as entertaining as Moulin Rouge). Still, I want to reflect on it a little though and write down a short account of my lovin’ Saturday experience because I feel it has some significance.

In brief, I’m a lover but I’m not a lover. As a single man on Valentine’s Day there is nothing to do and no one to do it with, but I don’t see any point in being bitter, sad or antagonistic. Also, if you show me a calendar, I’ll seize any opportunity to do something timely related to a milestone day, even if it’s just a doodle. When February 14th rolled around I figured, “Hey! I’ve got to celebrate Valentine’s Day! I’ve got to do something to celebrate love and spread loving feeling!” I would have declared my affection to someone I love and showered them with bad poetry if I didn’t have the problem that I only fall in love with film characters (some of them robots) and women who sit opposite me on trains and then vanish out of my life after just three stops.

Still, I’m in love with the idea of love like Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge. And maybe in a couple of months I’m going to move to Paris and write a hit musical that’ll spark a fresh Bohemian Revolution. For now though, I’m in Milano in Italy and I was also in Milano in Italy on Saturday. “How romantic it is just being here in this romantic place surrounded by all these beautiful people on Valentine’s Day!” I thought. “I’m going to see if any of my friends want to come with me to the Duomo on Valentine’s Day morning and share ‘Free Hugs’ with strangers!

I did that – actually we did that, because some friends joined me – and it was wonderful. Sadly, the weather was lousy and it was too wet to stand outside next to the grand cathedral so instead we stood under the cover of the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (the great shopping arcade, home to high fashion outlets and a floor mural of a bull on whose testicles you stand and spin around if you want some extra good luck). I made a sign to advertise that I was offering free hugs and a number of passers-by embraced me and my colleagues.

We shared some really nice cuddles with an array of random people from both Italy and various international destinations. We got into nice conversations and made a lot of people smile. It even followed a couple of us home as we ended up hugging and talking with a mixed group of Anglo-American tourists to the bemusement of everyone else in the train carriage. I repeat again: it was wonderful, and the main reason it was wonderful was because it was a sweet moment of human connection and human sharing.

What I learned – or re-learned, or was potently reminded of – was this fundamental fact which I very often forget: human beings are social creatures and they need to retain a link to other people, to be open-hearted and to live with compassion and empathy. ‘Free Hugs’ is a way of consciously forcing oneself to knock down the barriers and make yourself open to others as opposed to distancing yourself. As a loner prone to self-isolation (not always a good thing) and as someone who wants to make people happy (“And, by Aphrodite, I will make you happy, damn you!” *smites them all with a double-rainbow*) ‘Free Hugs’ is a win-win scenario.

I loved the experience, and I’m going to do it again (and again and again, if possible) not for attention, but because I believe that ‘Free Hugs’ is a beautiful thing. It spreads positive energy, encourages human connection and brings human beings together, even if it just for a fleeting moment. It’s a moment of love and love is something worth celebrating, on Valentine’s Day and everyday.

I’m going to go and write a Bohemian musical about love. And I’m going to try and find more people to hug, which is easy in Italy where hugs are conventional everyday greetings. I hope you all had a nice Valentine’s Day and urge you to hug more often. Embrace it, and embrace each other…

Hey! Let's hug!

Hey! Let’s hug!

Epic Cathedrals, Awesome Cow Boxes and Italian Kids: An Update from Milano…

Allora, amici. I’ve got a morning without lessons, it’s snowing in Milano and I’ve got an itch to kick out blogpost and provide an update from bella Italia. Do you want a brief update? I hope you do, because I’m gonna give you a brief update and I’m going to begin it with a GPOY that sort of sums it all up…

Mugging before Milano's immense marble masterpiece...

An idiot abroad…

Hey! I’m in Milano! I’m in Milano and I’m getting to be silly! It’s my job and it’s my city and it’s all feeling really good. (Except for the fact that I’ve been addled by the flu-bugs that have struck down half the children in Italy and seemingly most of the teachers but, hey, we’ve got to fight on through froggy throats and sniffly noses, right?). Over the course of the past fortnight I’ve returning to Italian rhythms and settling back into the country that clearly has become my second home. To get back into the groove I stayed with my very good friends near Lake Como for a couple of days, learned how to make Risotto Milanese and caught the same kind of ailments that my future work colleagues and students had. (“When in Rome, or indeed, Milan…“, y’know?)

I then hit Milano and moved in with yet another fantastic family, hooked up with a host of other mother tongue English-speakers and we all got down to prepping for our new gig. That new gig is work as a linguistic assistant in the city’s schools, acting as a tangible, real-life English-speaking presence and teaching Italian children through informal methods (activities, games, songs, art, etc.) Basically, my objective is to be fun and be English. My first week has revolved around me walking into a classroom, beating my chest like King Kong and showing children a shoebox decorated in cow-print paper that contains five objects that represent me. The following doodle sort-of showcases some of the things in my amazing (seriously Jamazing) cow box…

 

 

The five objects are: teabags (because I love drinking tea and because English people drink lots of tea); a pen (because I love writing and drawing); Boston Celtics wristbands (because I love NBA basketball and support ‘dem Celtics); an ‘A Trip to the Moon‘ pin-badge (because I love films and because I love science fiction); and a Super Mario figurine (because I love Nintendo videogames, am a fake Italian like Mario and because Mario reminds me of my childhood and my family but I don’t go into all that ’cause it’s too complicated for the children and I’d probably start crying and squealing “Aww, man, I miss my brother!“). The lessons have been a blast and the children’s English ability is astounding. They’re really enthusiastic, ultra-keen to show off all the vocab they know, ask for new words and ask questions. The most common question is “Manchester City of Manchester United?“. Other questions I’ve been asked include  “Do you prefer it in Manchester or Milan?“, “Are you married?“, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Is your brother married?” Aww, them kids. It’s good to get back to engaging with Italian children again.

Altogether, it’s all really sweet and I’m excited about all the things I can do here (hopefully making some comics, composing some educational songs, imagining up some new games and so on). I also keep having “Whoa!” moments when I realise that I can just pop out to Piazza del Duomo on my lunchbreak, admire that epic marble masterpiece and grab a slice of pizza (genuine Italian pizza). Anytime I want I can drift off and dig Milano’s history and culture. I’ve still not quite got over the “Hey! I’m living in Milano!” state of elation.

I’ll now go back to that and cut this brief update short. More blogposts and bits of writing may surface soon (I’m still seeing how my time and work are working out). The snow’s now coming down thick and I’m going to charge out armed with a cowprint box to play Pass the Bomb with i bambini. From me in Milano then, buona giornata, be excellent and have fun with whatever you’re doing. (Having fun is my job, so I’m very serious about it…)