Saturday, November 12, 2011

A festa in the fango

Observation: Whoever said Italian people don't get drunk has clearly never been to the festa dei becchi.
The Festa Dei Becchi is another Monterossini tradition, but one a little more difficult to explain. A party for the huge lemons reaching down from the trees lacing the countryside, a celebration of the silver anchovies that sweep through the Ligurian Sea - these are things people are grateful for and it makes sense to rejoice in them. A party for the patron saint of cheating on your spouse, however, is one that still has me scratching my post-festa-wine-foggy head.

I did some research as to the tradition behind this, and without going too overboard, November 11th is San Martino Day (that's St. Martin for us - and there's 2 - I'm talking about Martin of Tours), which is celebrated with various traditions in many countries. In Malta you get a bag of nuts. In the Czech Republic you eat a goose. In many other countries, you go "trick-or-treating", asking for sweets door to door. The feast day coincides with the day that most of the fieldwork turns to harvesting, and the wine ready for drinking. It's for this that San Martino is the patron saint of vintners and, conveniently, alcoholics. He's also the patron of victims of adultery, and it's this that Monterosso turns to. Becchi (the plural of beccho) are "cheaters", commonly referred to by making a horn sign with your hand, which explains the significance of the horns (cornuti) paraded around town last night. The cornuti are, in dialect, becchi. What started as a traditional "calling out" of those unfaithful in the town, rattled off by a local man who gives this speech at the steps of San Martino, in the Old Town, has turned to more of a "making fun" of anything that happened all year. Hung on signs, paraded around with candles, palm fronds, and adorned with large animal horns, it's a bit like a "roast", and targets commonly include the National Park of the Cinque Terre, locals,
and, of course, Berlusconi. The huge banner hung on the train tracks reminded everyone, again, about adultery - "Remember, you're always the last one to know". It's apparently hilariously funny, witty, off color and a bit risque, and in dialect. What follows the speech is another all night party, which traditionally serves chestnuts, roast sausage, pasta fagiole, and lots and lots of local red wine.

Monterosso needed a party. The significance of what happened the last few weeks wasn't lost on me as we crowded around a dumpster eating off our paper plates. Dancing isn't easy in mud boots, and the revelry also included some mildly confused Italians from other parts of the country who are workers here helping fix the village. Since the Old Town is still not in an condition for a huge mass of people, ranging from very young to ancient, to go trooping through for a speech, a brief one was given in the piazza instead. It was more heartfelt then full of cutting wit, but it was important and moving for everyone to hear.
One of the local men stood up on a pickup truck from the fire department and gave his speech - but instead of starting by addressing his dear, "brothers of the becchi", he amended it to his "dear flooded brothers of the becchi". He went on, laying out that the were unsure weather it was right to have the festa this year in light of the flood and the huge losses felt by Monterosso, but the community was stubborn and wanted it, and, he said, in our opinion, this is right. This is who we are.

Much of what he said mirrored what I have been thinking about Monterosso and what I've seen and written about since moving here, and especially after the floods. It is more important, he noted, to have your friends at your side then to think about the money lost. One who only thinks about the past can't move forward, and, he yelled to huge applause as everyone screamed in approval - "We WILL move forward. To a Monterosso stronger and more beautiful then before".

What followed was a fun party with too much wine (I'm really catching on to these Italian street parties) and friends - dancing, singing, and having fun even with the mud and construction equipment surrounding us. It certainly wasn't a normal festa dei becchi, but it was what it was. We adapted, and it's incredible to see that in spite of everything that's happened, we can still keep close traditions like this.

These are the important things to keep in mind as we work, our speaker roared
to the crowd, long days "in the mud, without water, without our houses - with nothing". The most important about this festival wasn't lost on me. It's these traditions that make a community, and it's remembering what we're trying to save.

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