Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ferragosto Fiasco

Italy heads to the beach.
In August, Italy celebrates a holiday called 'Ferragosto' during which everyone has a holiday and goes to the beach. All over Italy, people dress down and chill out. The tradition goes right back to Roman times - the name of the holiday derives from the Latin expression Feriae Augusti (Augustus' rest) - the Emperor Augustus introduced it in 18 BC as a holiday at the end of the harvest season, a time to take a rest. So Italians have been taking their August Rest since 18 BC!

The whole thing was apparently given a boost by Mussolini during the Fascist period in the 1920s. Wiki tells us that:
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose during Fascism. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organisations of various corporations, and via the setting up of the "People's Trains of Ferragosto", which were available at discounted prices.
The initiative gave the opportunity to less well-off social classes to visit Italian cities or to reach seaside and mountain resorts. The offer was limited to the 13th, 14th and 15th August, and comprised two options: the "One-Day Trip", within a radius of 50-100 km, and the "Three-Day Trip" within a radius of about 100–200 km.
For many families, it was only during these trips that they saw the sea, mountains, and Italy's many artistic marvels for the first time. Moreover, since the trips did not include food, the connected tradition of the packed lunch arose.
The packed lunch on the train? Ah! Another mysterious Italian tradition explained!

I can report that, as far as Amalfi is concerned, the tradition of people with little money packing up and going to the seaside during Ferragosto is alive and well. The town filled up with budget local tourists and the beaches - the free public ones, not the pay-for-your-beach-lounger concessions - were packed. People arrived on buses and in their own sturdy vehicles, not in chauffeured hire cars. Still, despite the shoe-string budgets, they all appeared to be having a good time.

The cantina.
The locals too: up in the Valle dei Mulini, opposite my place, a new joint has opened. It's called 'Msieria & Nobilta - Cantina è musica' - which means something like 'the poor and the rich - cellar and music'. Each evening since it opened we have heard the strains of what sounds like bad karaoke drifting through the night air. The place claims to serve good basic Neapolitan food. During Ferragosto, with the town full of dodgy day-trippers, we decided to eat at the new cantina.

We found the place full of local people, including a long table of friends and numerous children. We grabbed the last table, close to the band, which consisted of two guys, one playing electronic keyboards and the other singing. The singer was the chap from the post office where I buy my stamps. They stuck to Neapolitan pop songs. The post-office singer was fairly tuneful, but the proprietor, a round and cheerful chap named Rocco, liked to take the microphone and add his own less-tuneful voice to the cacophony. Various patrons of the cantina also joined in - there was a spare microphone provided for the purpose. Rocco also had a variety of musical instruments around - tambourines, clappers, strange noise-makers - which he handed out to guests as the evening grew more raucous. I found myself energetically tapping away at a tambourine.

The party starts to swing.
Musical instruments causing hilarity. 
Rocco dances with his customers.
Our fiasco.
Of course, a few beverages will help you to get into the mood for a party like this. The choice of drinks  at the cantina was: water or wine. The wine - red - came in a fiasco bottle, the typical Italian straw-covered, round-bottomed bottle in which we all used to buy cheap chianti in the 1970s, and then save the bottle for a candle. The wine we received at the cantina had no name or provenance, but was very good.

In English the word 'fiasco' refers to a stupendously inept disaster: "A thing that is a complete failure, esp. in a ludicrous or humiliating way;" but Wiki says of the straw-covered bottle:
A fiasco (/fɪˈæskoʊ/; Italian pronunciation: [ˈfjasko]) is a typical Italian style of bottle, usually with a round body and bottom, partially or completely covered with a close-fitting straw basket. The basket is typically made of sala, a swamp weed, sun-dried and blanched with sulfur. The basket provides protection during transportation and handling, and also a flat base for the container. Thus the glass bottle can have a round bottom, which is much simpler to make by glass blowing. Fiaschi can be efficiently packed for transport, with the necks of upturned bottles safely tucked into the spaces between the baskets of upright ones.

Yes, they started to dance on the chairs.
A family occasion.
Rocco's table in the stream.
In case things got too hot indoors, I guess.
We enjoyed the wine in our fiasco, and as the evening progressed the whole experience seemed to descend into something resembling the English meaning of the word - but although things became a bit ludicrous, I don't think any of the participants would have called it a failure. It was a wild night at the cantina - great to see the Italian locals enjoying their night out.

Buon Ferragosto!

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