Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Where am I?

I've been housebound for the last few days - my bipedal attendants have promised to take me on an outing tomorrow, although I'm not holding my breath - but the nifty thing is that we now have a new adopted home. Of course, I miss my god-bipedal attendants back in Italy a lot but maybe they - and even my female bipedal attendant's mother - will come visit me here:

Did you guess where I am? I thought it was a pretty good clue. If not, maybe this will help you (although it's not 100% accurate, but pretty close). Remember to turn your speakers up!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Arrive-bear-ci Italia!

Friday was our last full day in Italy and I wanted to leave the country with a bang - and what better way than to dress up and visit Venice's Carnevale! Of course, as a former international fashion model and current Freelance Goodwill Ambassador, everyone wanted me to pose with them for a photo op so it took me ages to navigate my way to and around San Marco's. I really can't blame them, I suppose - I did have a pretty spiffy mask.

If you remember, last month my female god bipedal attendant had spent hours scouring Venice for just the right bear-size mask (now I know how Goldilocks felt looking for that perfect bowl of porridge), and after a lot of misses, we found one that fit and set off my brown eyes. I confess that it was a little heavy and I needed a Bayer (bear!) aspirin by the end of the day but, at the risk of sounding vain, I think it quite becomes me. Too bad my female bipedal attendant was too lazy - I mean, busy for someone unemployed - to sew me a proper. Then again, I've seen her with a needle and thread. Not a pretty sight.

Anyway, Carnevale or Ca
rnival as we would say, is the two week festival which ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, the night before Ash Wednesday - the first day of the dreary month of Lent. Lots of masks, costumes, revelry and to the best of my knowledge, only one bear.

The origin of the word itself is disputed amongst People with Big Brains, although pretty much everyone agrees that the "carne" part refers to the Latin word for meat. The expression may refer to the cart used in a procession for the ancient god Apollo, or it may come from the phrase carne levare ("to remove meat") since Christians couldn't eat meat during Lent.

Two other theories suggest that it means farewell ("vale") to meat (as in chopped sirloin) or farewell to the flesh (as in the lovely ladies' cleavage you see, above right photo), giving Carnival a much racier tone. Personally, I like the idea of it being a celebration of wild debauchery - parts of carnival definitely date back to the lusty Saturnalia and Bacchanalia festivals in pagan times - but I suspect it was a way of saying bye-bye to beef. You Christians suck the fun out of everything.

Anyway, the first recorded Carnival in Venice
was back in 1268. At that time, people were allowed to wear their masks as early as the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26th) but they had to be removed by midnight on Shrove Tuesday. There were lots of other times of the year people could wear masks (adding up to almost 6 months in total), so Venice's mask makers (mascherari) were very busy, becoming quite powerful and eventually had their own guild, a spiffy statute of their own, and formed their own laws. I don't know what the laws were about: maybe how many sequins you could sew on a mask.

Traditionally, the mascherari made their masks from leather or from papier-mâché and were often relatively simple in design. Now they are fashioned mainly from gesso (a mixture made from calcium carbonate) and are very ornate.

There are different
classes of masks: the bauta, the moretta and the larva. The heavily gilded bauta covers the entire face and has no mouth, although mascherari will make a shorter version to allow its wearer to talk, eat & sip a cocktail or two without having to remove the mask. Often criminals and star-struck lovers used this style of mask because it offered the wearer so much anonymity.

The moretta was worn primarily by gentlewomen when they visited convents. It was made from black velvet - a stunning combination on any woman (oops! - that's the former international fashion model in me again) - and often had a veil attached to it. It was held on by biting onto a small bit or button at the back of the mask with the teeth. What we do for fashion! Some people think that women were forced to wear them by their husbands because they talked too much - the thought of which drives my female bipedal attendant to distraction.

By the 18th century, it wa
s common for ladies and gentleman to use bauta and moretta masks to conceal their identities as they lost the family fortune in Venice's gambling houses or sipped coffee in its coffee houses! How risqué, no?

The larva (Latin for "ghost") is usually white (see the top photo in today's post) and usually worn with a tricorn hat and black cape - this ensemble is quintessentially Venetian. The mask itself is made out of waxed cloth and are very comfortable, and like the bauta, perfect for eating and drinking. And flirting. Personally, the larva mask gives me the creeps.

My mask is a variation of the Scaramouche mask - based on the famous Spanish captain by the same name. Scaramouche beat an entire army of Turks and then carried back the beard of the Sultan as a trophy. I wish I had had a cape, high boots and a sword to go with my mask. I think I may enrol my female bipedal attendant in some sewing classes at the Learning Annex whenever we get home.

Beginning in the 14th
century, rival intercity gangs were encouraged to fight each other - usually over one of the city's many bridges. The games - often involving fists and canes - commemorated various events in Venice's history or celebrated Venetian virtues (I guess Venetian virtues involved fists and canes). They had names like the Dance of the Moor and Decapitating of the Bull and the Machine of the Flames. I bet that Moor wasn't just "dancing". Why are you humans so violent?

With so much going on - I always seemed to be at the centre of attention - and what with all those cameras and flashes going off, I had to take a short break and refresh myself with a bellini. The bellini is Venice's own cocktail - although they take credit for the spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeessss) as well.

It was created some time between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry's Bar in Venice. It got its name because the pinkish colour reminded Cipriani of the colour of a saint's toga in a painting by the artist Bellini - who was also a Venetian. I don't know if the saint was Venetian though - I'd have to check into his "virtues". With the likes of Hemingway, Orson Welles & Lewis Sinclair all clinking glasses in Harry's Bar, the drink would eventually be introduced to the world. And the rest they say is history.

The cocktail itself is made from Proseco (Italian sparkling wine) and white peach purée (traditionally the peaches should be marinated in wine
first) and its signature pink colour is the happy result of a splash of rasp(bear)berry or cherry juice. Like everything else in Italy, there are lots of regional variations of the drink. Mine though was particularly lovely even if I did cheat and get it from a bottle.

With all the fun associated with Carnival, it's bizarre to think that when the fun-loving Austrians took control of Venice
in 1798, the festival fell into decline. In fact, it would take almost 200 years - in the late 70's) to resurrect and revitalize Carnevale. The fact that the equally fun-loving Fascists outlawed it in the 1930's probably didn't help too much.

I decided to end the day by taking my bipedal attendant
s and god bipedal attendants to the Hard Rock Cafe which just opened in Venice. We went 2 weeks ago, but the restaurant had yet to open - something about the proper people not being available to make the necessary inspections. Sounds like a lot of palms waiting to be greased if you ask me.

Anyway, the people at the gift shop, which of course was open, said that the restaurant should be open by Carnevale. And of course, it wasn't. But I did get to meet two of my biggest groupies who insisted on having a photo taken with me. I don't think it'll be framed and displayed in the restaurant (if it ever opens!) because I'm a lowly Freelance Goodwill Ambassador - not a rock star. In any case, on that note, I'll bid a fond arrivederci to Italy and send big bear hugs to my god bipedal attendants who were so gracious to me and even put up with my whining, freeloading bipedal attendants.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Leaning Towards Pisa

With the clock ticking down to our departure on Saturday, I asked my male god-bipedal attendant to take us on a little road trip to Pisa yesterday. Bears are exceptionally fond of road trips although that particular trait is seldom touched upon in zoological textbooks or main stream media. So off to Tuscany we went …

Straddling the Arno River, Pisa was put on the map by the ancient Romans – although its settlement goes much father back in time - and was once a great naval power, at times rivaling both Genoa and Venice for maritime supremacy. Its coming-up-in-the-world began in the 800’s when it rose to the challenge of marauding Saracen pirates and ended about 400 years later with a crushing military defeat headed by the Genoans.

Although the city would completely fall to Florence, thanks to the Medici, it became a centre for the arts and lofty thoughts. Galileo was born here (and even conducted an experiment or two off of that tower which leans) as was tenor Andrea Bocelli, although Bocelli’s success didn’t have too much to do with the Medicis, having been born half a millennium later and all.

In its heyday, Pisa had controlling interests and enjoyed special privileges in Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cairo, Alexandra and Constantinople. At one point, Pisa controlled Corsica and Sicily – the sacking of which paid for all those pretty buildings – including the one which leans - in its Piazza dei Miracoli, the Square of Miracles.

The Leaning Tower (or Torre pendente di Pisa) of Pisa just might be Italy’s most iconic landmark – although Romans might disagree with that. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, the U.S. has the Statue of Liberty, and Italy has this off-kilter counterpart. The tower, which is really a bell-tower or campanile for the Cathedral (yes, it’s another duomo), pretty much started leaning from Day One back on August 9th, 1173. Three tiers into it, it was leaning. Over time and a lot of shifting soil or substrate (I’m putting on my geological hat here), the Tower found itself inclining at a rate of one millimetre a year.

Back when you humans were killing each other in the 20th century (World War II to be exact, because I know there are many other incidents for you to draw upon), the Nazis used the Tower as an observation post. The allies appointed a U.S. sergeant who had the option of launching a military strike against it. He ultimately chose not to destroy it. I hope someone gave him a medal.

In 1990, the Tower was closed so that a group of Big Brains could finally figure out how to stop the leaning - they did, with the result that the Tower leaned 40 centimetres less. It was reopened in 2001. My bipedal attendants and I and another 37 people – entry is restricted to 40 bears and people at a time – climbed 296 very slippery and wonky stairs to reach the top, some 55.86 metres from the ground. The views were spectacular and almost as entertaining as watching my female bipedal attendant have a meltdown on the top. Granted, the Tower’s top isn’t level (the Tower leans, you know) and the guard rails are awfully low, but still I thought she made too big a deal of it. She can be such a baby.

Of course, everyone has to have their photo taken of them “supporting” the Leaning Tower. I normally don’t indulge in that kind of thing but I was immediately recognized (Italians know me more from my international fashion model days than my humanitarian work as a Freelance Goodwill Ambassador - Italians!) and, well, it’s just so hard to say no sometimes. Although you should always say no to drugs.

There’s a lot more I could talk about Pisa; after all, Pisa is much more than its Tower – but it’s the Leaning Tower that busloads of people come to see every year.

I’ll just finish by saying that in 2001, engineers stated that the Tower would remain stable for another 300 years. In 2008, after tweaking 70 metric tons of soil, engineers revised that to another 200 years. It’s not that I don’t trust all those Big Brains who worked on the Tower, but I’m glad that I saw it in 2009. Generally, I like to lean on the side of caution.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bear, a Borgia, and a Bunch of Bikes

Our time in Italy is sadly coming to a close and soon this bear will be moving on to more exotic locales. But before we left the Veneto, I wanted my bipedal attendants to experience a city not fraught with kamikaze drivers – or at least kamikaze drivers in cars. So, on Saturday, we headed south to Ferrara, Italy’s most bicycle-friendly city. The city is friendly towards cyclists but I’m not sure how friendly cyclists are to pedestrians. I must say that we were nearly knocked over a dozen times by careening cyclists. If only I could find a bear-sized bike - I only seem to fit in the baskets.

That’s me (below) in front of the city's oldest big thing: the 12th century cathedral which, because it has a dome, is known as the duomo – just like 98.6% of churches in Italy. I feel particularly sorry though for the fellow behind me (although he does have a partner on the other side of the door) because he’s holding up the whole church. I bet he could really use a bottle of Absorbine Junior.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Ferrara! - like most cities in Italy, its history is shrouded in fog – and I’m being figurative not literal, although it is foggy here a lot of the time. It was a city of powerful rival families, ambitious popes and even Napoleon dropped by for a bit.

It was also the home of Italy's most famous priest - the book-burning Savonarola. He eventually made his way to “depraved” Florence where he sent boys from door-to-door to confiscate "pagan" books & artwork, mirrors & makeup, gaming tables & musical instruments, women's hats & dresses, all to be burnt in what became known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. As a former international fashion model, I can say that you can like beautiful clothes (and look good in them) without being "morally lax" or vain. Maybe he had Naomi or Kate in mind.

In any case, people soon tired of Savonarola's excessive zealousness (duhhhhh) and he would eventually be burned at the stake just like the books he hated. Ironic, no? A lot of Renaissance art was lost to the flames forever because of him. Serves you humans right.

Anyway, by the 13 century, the city was firmly in the control of the powerful Este family who, when not warring with their neighbours, made Ferrara a hub of music, poetry and the visual arts. One of the most notable Estes was Alfonso d'Este who married Lucrezia of that fun-loving Borgia family of promiscuous popes, incestuous sons and murderous daughters. This would be her third marriage (the first ended in annulment, the second in murder) and was apparently made tolerable by Alfonso's and Lucrezia's numerous affairs, including one with Alfonso’s sister’s bisexual husband, Francesco II. That ended when Francesco contracted syphilis. Too bad Savonarola was dead by then - he would have had his hands full with Lucrezia and the Estes.

Ferrara is also known for the architecture which flourished under the Estes. Its castle, which my bipedals selfishly did not photograph me in front of – although I would have looked great in front of it - was essentially built to protect the family from the city’s citizens. The Estes had just raised taxes again and the people were miffed. You’d think it would have made more sense just not to raise taxes than to build a whole castle. Eventually when, like people the world over, people got used to paying higher taxes and calmed down, the family took up permanent residence there.

Saturday was Valentine’s Day. We know almost nothing about St. Valentine except that he was a Roman martyr (although there were probably several by the same name) and that he was buried in Rome – the rest is all myth & legend. Because of this, the Catholic Church de-sainted him in 1969. Poor guy.

Anyway, he – or rather the day - didn’t even become associated with romantic love until Geoffrey Chaucer came along in the 14th century talking about courting birds & love on Saint Valentine's Day. In that spirit, I brought my bipedal & god-bipedal attendants to La Bottega del Cioccolato so we could all indulge in a glass of rich cioccolata calda, or hot chocolate. The women, of course, complained about the calories (bears don't have to watch their waistlines) but it seemed fitting in a city associated with crazy priests, warring families and a very dangerous Borgia that we end the day with our hearts & stomachs full of love & chocolate ... Happy Valentine's Day - especially to that very special donkey in my life!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Drink By Any Other Name

Last night, on the way to an intimate dinner in a small restaurant in Venice, I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants to a trattoria off San Marco's Square for a quick aperitif. After all, how can any refined person - let alone a bear of distinction - dine without preparing his or her stomach for its impending gastronomic treat?

And of course, the aperitif of choice - the aperitivo preferito - in Italy is the "spritz". Or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss as it's said here. It's generally agreed that the bright orange drink was created in Venice - a happy product of Venice's bygone days when it was part of the wine spritzer-drinking Austrian Empire. And one day, the Austrian spritz (or shpritz) magically became the Venetian spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss).

And although everyone agrees that props go to Venice for the drink's creation, there seems to be little agreement on how to make one. Let me illustrate:

How to Make a Spritz (or Spreeeeeeeeeeeessss)

... to make a Venetian spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) you combine white wine and fizzy water or proseco and fizzy water, or just proseco and either Aperol or Campari. I prefer my spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) with Aperol (a pretty orange-red Italian aperitif made from bitter oranges, the gentian flower, rhubarb and the cinchona shrub) and proseco (a dry sparkling Italian wine like Spanish cava). Add ice and a slice of orange and you have a spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss).

And once the spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) became popular outside of Venice, local variations started popping up. In Trieste, the spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) is served in the traditional Austrian fashion with white and water and no pretty orange colouring, while in Florence, they prepare it with Martini Rosso vermouth (- vermouth, can you imagine?). I'm no mathematician - bears generally excel in the humanities not the sciences - but that makes for a lot of combinations.

At least everyone seems to agree on the orange slice.

Apparently the spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) has recently conquered the United States: any place from New York to Los Angeles with pretensions to grandeur serve a spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss). I confess that I do like a good spritz (or spreeeeeeeeeeeessss) although I'm not a huge fan of all the hype surrounding the drink - I mean it's not a nice dry sherry or manzanilla - but they are awfully nice. And I do appreciate the fact that my instructions above were pretty confusing and contradictory (this is Italy after all), but if you want to make one - and by one I mean one variation - you can click here for a very instructive video.

You're welcome - and salute!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ravin' in Ravenna

Last weekend, fed up with the constant whining about the fog & rain, I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants on an outing to Ravenna to see its wonderful early Church mosaics – some of which date back to the 400’s – and to visit Dante’s tomb. And also because there was only a 10% chance of precipitation in Ravenna and I thought that might keep them quiet for at least a couple of hours. Honestly, the forecast had better change around here soon or I’m going to have a mutiny on my paws. Why humans just don’t hibernate is beyond me.

Anyway, back to Ravenna … historically, Ravenna was settled,
ruled, invaded and ruled (and invaded) again by various interested parties: a couple of Caesars, a handful of Emperors, and two flavours of Goths: the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths (although I don't think Goths wore black nail polish and heavy eyeliner back then). It was also here that in 49 b.c.e. Julius Caesar mustered his soldiers before crossing the Rubicon River, pitching the country into civil war and changing the course of history.

In 493, Theodoric (the Great), Ostrogoth and viceroy of the Emperor in Constantinople, captured it from Odoacer, the King of Italy, with w
hom he immediately signed a treaty pledging that both men would be co-rulers. At the celebration banquet which followed the signing, Theodoric killed Odoacer with his bare (bare!) hands– but sources tell us that he waited until after the toast. What a swell guy. A bear would never have done that because the guest-host relationship is sacred to us. You didn’t see us kill Goldilocks after she helped herself to our supper and had a nap on one of our beds - and she hadn't even been invited!

But I digress.

Most of the mosaics can be found in Ravenna’s various churches and church-y buildings, and they are quite beautiful in a Byzantine sort of way. If you like wide-eyed people staring at you à la deer-in-the-headlights, then you’ll absolutely love them. Personally, I liked looking at what everyone was wearing – so much brocade and gold and lots of nifty headpieces – but that’s just the former international fashion model in me peeking through. I couldn’t find any bear mosaics though. The closest was that of Saint Ursicino (photo, above-right), and Ursicino sort of sounds like orso, the Italian word for bear - so who knows? Maybe he was in touch with his inner-bear.

I also took my collective bipedal attendants to see the grave of Durante degli Alighieri,
Durante Alighieri – or just plain Dante. Some 700 years ago he penned Divina Commedia or The Divine Comedy, still considered to be the greatest literary work composed in the Tuscan dialect of Italian – Italian, rather than Latin, which was quite revolutionary for the time. It also set the dialect on the road to becoming Standard Italian. But 700 years? – don’t you think that it’s about time some aspiring Italian writer dethrone him? Is Umberto Eco just sitting on his hands?

Anyway, Dante used literature as a means to channel his all-consuming passion for his one true love, Beatrice and his grief over her early death. His wife, Gemma, was never mentioned in any of his works.

Thanks to a very confusing political situation – at least confusing to me – and poor choices in friends & enemies, over the years Dante was condemned to death, fined several times, and sentenced to permanent exile from various cities. The city of Florence threatened to burn him at the stake if he returned without paying his fines. The death sentence was only rescinded last June. He eventually died in Ravenna and the city continues to refuse Florence’s repeated requests to have the poet’s remains repatriated. I can hardly say that I blame them.

… but back to the mosaics.

Some of Ravenna’s most beautiful mosaics can be found in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, who was the daughter, sister, husband and moth
er of four Emperors. It’s fair to say that she was well connected. Anyway, there’s a story bandied about that when American composer & songwriter Cole Porter visited her mausoleum he was so moved by what he saw that he wrote "Night and Day" (click here if you want to hear the classic Sinatra version). I have my doubts about this "origin" though …

Day and night, night and day, why is it so
That this longing for you follows wherever I go
In the roaring traffic's boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you.

There is no roaring traffic near her mausoleum. Of course, Porter himself claimed that it was the muezzin’s call to prayer (he had travelled to Morocco previously) which had really inspired him to write the song. What mosaics, a mausoleum or Islam have to do with the roaring traffic's boom is beyond me. I just don’t get you people sometimes.