To Siena for Lunch: The Palio Victory Parade

We’re all about side trips and spontaneity here, and just as we weren’t expecting to go to Stuttgart after Poland, we sure weren’t expecting to find ourselves in Siena while in Italy!

Typical view in Siena - Anywhere Bound
Wide hilly winding alleyways typical of Siena

After a much quieter than expected day in the little Veneto town of Cornuda, Italy, finding ourselves without a place to sleep, and with much less family outings to go to than expected, Moreno and I were lamenting about what a shame it is to be so close to our good friend Giacomo and yet to not be able to visit him. That was when Moreno suggested we try to catch him wherever he was, and so, four hours later, we found ourselves bound for the hilltop walled city of Siena.

Siena Preserved

Siena lies 80km south of Florence, it’s biggest rival. In  1348, the Black Death killed about 60% of the town’s population, and the city never quite recovered, losing all hope of regaining prominence. Siena thus remained submerged in its medieval history, and in the 1960’s was rediscovered by tourists who found it almost completely preserved, its people devoted to their culture and traditions to this day.

The Palio

The Palio is perhaps the greatest of these traditions. In the simplest terms, the event is a 90 second horse race for a banner (note the hoof prints in the title image); in more complex terms it is what those true to Siena live for.

The Palio, Siena
The Palio – the hand painted silk banner prize of the race

Siena is divided up into 17 Contrade (districts), each with their own flag, colours, church and animal. Twice a year (July 2 and August 16 ), ten jockeys and horses representing the selected Contrade race to win the Palio – a banner of painted silk uniquely painted each year which features the Virgin Mary and Child.
The winning contrada is able to hang the Palio in their church, and for months on afterwards celebrate the fact that they won. They are also able to celebrate that their rivals did not – rivalry is still strong between the Contrade, and acts such as shoving, hitting, and hampering horses in order to win are not forbidden. In fact, only nine horses raced this August, as one fell ill shortly before the race in what was rumoured (and accepted) as an act of sabotage.

The Victory of the Owl

The Civetta Contrada Victory Parade, Siena Anywhere Bound
The Civetta Contrada ready to lead on their Victory Parade

Though we missed the race, Moreno and I were there to witness a small part of the Victory Parade of the winning Contrada – the Civetta, or Little Owl. The residents of the Civetta district were there to support their Contrada wearing scarves matching their Contrada’s flag. Those more directly involved wore full costumes as they whistled or drummed along with the parade as it came down the alleys, preceding the winning horse and, more importantly, the Palio which was being paraded through the town.

Il Piato Misto, Siena
Can’t go wrong with a sampling of Italian food…

We did eventually have a delicious lunch in some quaintly chaotic hole in the wall trattoria – a plato misti (mixed plate) featuring a sampling of traditional and featured dishes – but not before taking in the rest of Siena as well: a must if you’re anywhere in central Italy (or elsewhere)!

The World Cup and the Festival of Futbol

With the FIFA World Cup taking over televisions everywhere, I can’t help but remember my own partaking in a similar festival two years ago, when the EuroCup was being held in Poland and Ukraine, and I was living in Gdansk, one of the host cities.

It was phenomenal being part of something as multi-cultural as the EuroCup, but more importantly, it was also an opportunity for the country to learn, improve, evolve, and do some serious armchair travel. Continue reading The World Cup and the Festival of Futbol

Westcoast Weekend: Canada Day – Vancouver Edition

Happy Canada Day!!

Before I get to some Canada Day celebrations and other things you can do this weekend around Vancouver, the NewsLeader had an interesting fun fact about Canada Day I thought I’d pass along.

When the Governor General suggested that the union of the British North American provinces celebrate the anniversary of its formation, July 1st became a holiday (albeit 11 years later) under the name of Dominion Day (which means ‘sovereignty’). This became an annual celebration in 1958, filled with multicultural, artistic, and sport events, but wasn’t officially known as Canada Day until 1982!

Whatever you want to call it, here’s some ways to celebrate in Vancouver on July 1:

  • Celebrate Canada Day at Canada Place with music, entertainment, food vendors, sports shows, an official Ceremony, a children’s park, the Canada Day parade and the Fireworks Show in Burrard Inlet. 10am-11pm. Free.
  • Join theCanada Day celebration at Granville Island for the annual Parade, an official Ceremony, dances, jazz performances, a children’s pavilion, face painting and the like. 12~10pm. Free.
  • For something a bit different, try the Steveston Salmon Fest for a Parade, an official Ceremony, culture shows, craft fairs, art exhibits, a carnival, the famous salmon BBQ, and more. 6:3am (if you want the pancake breakfast) until 5pm. $15/plate.
  • Don’t forget that most malls and community centers will have family friendly activities to celebrate as well like Burnaby Village Museum (11am-4:30pm), Lougheed Center (12-3pm) and Edmonds Community Center (grand opening of the center and Fred Randall Pool 10am-12pm, Canada Day celebration 12pm-3:30pm in Edmonds Park).
  • The Run Canada Day Race (Kids, 5K, 10K) will start warming up at the UBC Running Room at 9:45am. Late registration is available if you’re feeling active, $20/$40/$40.
  • Or there’s the Surrey Canada Day celebrations at the Amphitheater, with loads of activites, tea, an expo, amusement rides and a full music and artist lineup. 10am-10:30pm. Free.

And don’t forget these great events over the long weekend!

One Night in Bangkok: A New Year’s to Remember

“Are you traveling alone?” I hear at my right, and turn to see John, green tee and faded blonde hair, waiting for an answer.

I had arrived in the Big Mango a few hours earlier and was now walking Khao San Roadthe backpacker hub of southeast Asia, if not the world – looking for something that would do justice to my New Year’s Eve.

Khao San Road on a good day. Bangkok, Thailand

So far, the street had been littered with couples looking into each others’ eyes, parents looking after their six year olds, and groups looking to have a good time together – no room for a stray like myself.

A stage at the end of the road with some entertainment provided a decent location but there was still two hours till midnight and I was hardly willing to stand around. I took my cue and headed deeper down Khao San Road. That’s when he found me.

“I’m from the couchsurfing group – have you heard of it?” John goes on to ask after I confirm my solo status.

I have, and know it’s exactly what I was looking for.

Couchsurfers, New Year's 2013, Bangkok, Thailand

Within seconds I’m being introduced to couchsurfers from Turkey, Serbia, and Sri Lanka, as they all appear from behind me in train formation like in some sort of movie.

We head to the Shamrock Irish Pub where a group of about 20 CS’ers has already formed and set up on the stairs. We get scolded – something about a fire hazard? – numerous times but inevitably end up right where we were.

The dancing begins and by the third time each of Gangnam Style, Balada Boa and my favourite remix of Ai Se Eu Te Pego are played, almost everyone knows the lyrics. And the moves.

I have the privilege of meeting more people from Gdansk (!), Thailand, Germany, Laos, Scotland: all good, open people. My favorite conversation is, however, with the guy from Ohio (not the one in the Michigan shirt).

Happy 2013 from Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Me: Where’re you from?

Him: (Muffled by the loud music) The states.

Me: What?

Him: The States. (And then enunciates loudly) AMERICA.

A neighbor! I think. I wonder what state he’s from!

Me: Oh! So, where’re you from?

I should’ve been more specific.

Him: That’s where I’m from! A-MER-I-CA!

Me: Dude, I’m from Canada, I know what America is.

Madness. New Year's Khao San Road, Bangkok, ThailandThe two hours fly by and we head outside for the countdown.

Khao San is intense and there’s barely room to breathe, much less move. We catch on at about ’3, 2, 1′ and then it’s HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!! And madness ensues.

Fireworks go off, noise makers sound. There’s yelling, whoo-ing, singing, cheering, someone is flat out high-pitched screaming. It is deafening. And it is packed.

And it is perfection. Fireworks! Bangkok, Thailand

As for my first pad thai and the police? That’s easy. After another hour or so, one of the guys wants to grab food and since I hadn’t eaten anything since the plane, I invite myself along. He stops at a pad thai vendor.

Me: So what do we order?

Him: (Points to the array of noodles and fish and meat) That.

Me: What is it?

Him: It’s pad thai.

Me: Oh.

My first pad thai, Khao San, Bangkok, ThailandBut I’ve had noodles, and egg, and meat before, and so have my first pad thai. In the meantime, he goes to buy us a sausage each from another lady and within seconds he’s yelling, “No!”, she’s yelling “Take it!”, and I’m going, huh?

And then she’s pushing him and he’s leading her and I’m following them both through the crowd, eating my pad thai.

Next thing I know, we’re at the police station.

I stay outside, all loyal puppy like (see? nothing to worry about) and within minutes he comes out with a complimentary bottled water like some show contestant and we head back to the Shamrock.

Police Station on Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Like I said, a night to remember.

A Polish Christmas Eve: Then, There & Now

I recently realized that the only memory I actually had of Christmas from childhood was that of a photograph – the one where we were all sitting on the couch, my two cousins and I, my aunt and my uncle and my grandparents.

Moments earlier, someone had rang the doorbell, and when we three young’uns returned from checking who it was, we returned to a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree (!). Settled down, we were now waiting for the first star to appear – the star of Bethlehem – to signal the birth of Jesus and the beginning of Wigilia (vigil), one of the most important holidays in Poland.

This was the Christmas I had longed for since we moved to Canada, and this year, since I was ‘in the area’, I decided to celebrate the supper, held on Christmas Eve, Poland-style.

The day starts out with all eleven of us running around – there is a lot to prepare and everyone’s contribution is required. The children dress the tree, hang up some mistletoe, and spend the rest of the day playing computer games.

The table is prepared with hay under the table cloth, traditionally to bring good crops for the year, now mostly as a reminder of Jesus’ manger birth, and fish scales, symbolizing affluence, scattered under the plates to be later placed in respective wallets.

An extra setting is arranged at the table for a lost family member, or a wandering soul.

The beginning of Wigilia is set for 5:30pm: carols, no longer sung, are played quietly in the background, the birth story is read from the Bible, the Lord’s prayer is said by everyone, and then the oplatek – the Christmas wafer – is broken between each person as they wish each other good tidings for the year to come. There are twelve dishes as there were twelve apostles, and each one has to be tried. 

There is never red meat, but there is always fish (carp & herring) which symbolizes life, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (‘little ear’ pierogies), compote of dried fruit, and homemade desserts with mak (poppy seeds), which, through their ability to reproduce from one seed, symbolize abundance.

The uszka are missing but the ryba po grecku (fish ‘greek’ style), ryba w galarecie (in jello) staples are all there along with some new spins like herring rolls with plums and masala, and with apples and onions.

The children push for present time and when it comes, they run handing out presents like mad until everyone has a pile in front of them. When they’re all open, everyone finds their way back to the table to enjoy more pastries with compote and wine. And at midnight, the family goes to Pasterka – the midnight mass, originally to commemorate the three wise men paying homage to the baby Jesus, now done largely out of tradition.

I liked it. I liked how full of tradition it was. It was so different from my Christmases ‘at home,’ in Vancouver, where I always thought our table of four always felt so incomplete.

In Vancouver, we start out in a mad rush to finish with just the four of us there. There is no need to set up the Christmas tree – this was done by us all weeks ago and has been giving the whole house a feeling of festivity and warmth since. The carols are put on the radio, the table is cloaked with a white tablecloth, and an extra setting is arranged for a wandering soul.

Wigilia is begun when preparation is finished. The oplatek is shared amongst the four of us and well wishes of happiness and success are shared. There is never red meat, but there is always fish ‘po Grecku’ and ‘w galarecie,’ barszcz with uszka, pierogies with cabbage and various mushrooms, wine, compote, and makowiec from the Polish store for dessert.

When we’re ready, we hand out the presents one by one and take our turns opening each one. One of the presents is inevitably a movie from Santa for the whole family and when all the presents are opened, we grab our wines, aperitifs and poppy seed cakes and let the movie play. We eventually retire to our respective rooms, or go off to visit other friends.

And I like it. I like how full of comfort it is. It’s different from the Christmas in Poland, but it’s a tradition that we had made our own, one that grew and changed along with us.

The Christmas from my childhood, the one from the photograph, from my hometown, when we all still believed in Santa Claus and my grandfather was alive, was always the one I had longed for, but I was never going to be able to recreate it.

We weren’t in my hometown, I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and my grandfather was gone. And when we finally got hold of the photograph I found out the biggest reason of all: turns out the photograph was taken during summer vacation one year – it wasn’t a Christmas photo at all!

My one memory of Christmas was one that didn’t even exist!

But the thing is, Christmas is huge in Poland, and it’s particularly important as quality time spent with people you love. That’s exactly what the photo resembled for me, and it’s exactly the thing I can always strive to recreate.