Thursday, September 15, 2011

Festa dei Bescantà

My first bescantà went remarkably well, based on the fact that I now understand that I really need to just let go of what "a normal night out" consists of in the U.S., and embrace my "new normal". In this case, a normal Wednesday off consisted of dressing up like an old fisherman while wearing glasses made of lemon peel, drinking large amounts ofwhite wine, and eating lots of food while dancing along to dialect songs I don't understand.
The Festa dei Bescantà is an fantastic old Monterosso tradition which is recreated a few times a year as something of a benefit to raise money to restore the old oratory in the main square of town. Bescantà is a dialect word, which I thought, based on my required attire for the night, meant an old, rattily dressed, comical fisherman. Thanks to my handy Genovese dialects to Italian dictionary (see above) I learned otherwise. Bescantà is actually a dialect word for the Italian word biscantare, which thanks to another dictionary, I discovered was:

Bis (sometimes in the forms ber bre bar) a Romance particle used
in composition to denote that which is wrong , false, counter-  feit &c. ; 
It. biscantare to sing irregularly, trill, hum a tune,  
Pr. beslei bad faith , It. barlume weak light (twilight).

The festival consists of a buffet style supper with wine before the mass of people in the square begins winding their way through the old town, s
topping to drink, eat, and sing in dialect along the way. After follows a comedy play (again, in Monterossino dialect) then a makeshift disco with more wine and some silly dancing that grandmothers, teenagers and tourists swing along to until late at night. The tradition of the Bescantà was pretty hard for me to figure out - it took a good amount of research, as my friends only told me "Yes, we must dress like poor fishermen and drink a lot". This I could do, but was more curious why. This website explains it in Italian, which was a little bit of help.

I did some digging and found out that the Bescantà were old fishermen and pranksters from Monterosso who would go along the streets in the old town singing under
the windows of residents. If they came out and gave the ragtag group food or wine, they were crossed off their list and the Bescantà went on their way, singing under another window, drinking local wine and eating Ligurian treats (anchovies, foccacia) as they sang their way back through the town. Now the "singing, trilling, humming a tune" part makes a bit of sense. Everyone wears silly glasses made of lemon peel and wire, a tradition I'm still not clear on, but given the popularity of the local lemons, it wasn't too much of a stretch. Dressed like a fisherperson myself, I found out that the festa dei Bescantà involved, well, me. I was in fact a Bescantà, and had a role to play. A man came up with a wine cork, lit the end to char it and smudged my face. It was official. I was marked. I was dragged into the procession by laughing, singing friends of all ages as we went up Via Roma, stopping along the way as restaurants set out food and wine for the crowd, taking the role the residents used to fill in older times. We would sing and dance as we went, then an older guy from here would do the traditional "calling out" for food and drink at each stop. Lots of references were made to Ma Passu, the large rock jutting out of the sea on Via Fegina (all the rocks have dialect names). Tourists were amused, and I love how many stopped what they were doing, and simply joined the parade. By the end of the procession, even a long play in dialect didn't deter a crowd that understood nothing of it - I could only get two words myself, one of them a not-nice word for a woman, and one of them meaning "well then" in Monterossino. Lorenzo's family prepared some of the food for the festival, and handed me heaping plates of acciughe di Vernazza - anchovies baked with tomatoes, herbs, carmelized onions and potatoes, and huge plates of risotto con zucca.

Foccacia stuffed with local cheeses, and then stuffed with Nutella for a dessert. I was dancing like a fool in the middle of it all, which made me fit in more then standout. Italians are alleged to be great dancers, but I think it's more that they just enjoy it so much they don't care how you do it. It's like singing - if an old man with a bad voice wants to sing a song - loudly - you cheer him on just the same. It's an expression, and Italians love to laugh, cheer and have fun. By the end of the night, I'd lost half my fishermen accessories, but as we all made our way back home, I tookpride in the fact that maybe I wasn't the best Bescantà Monterosso has ever seen, but they didn't care if I didn't. Having fun is the most important part, and if you can rebuild a centuries old oratory while doing it, and preserve a language and culture largely unknown to the rest of the world, all the better.

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