Nov 11, 2014

A Study in Contrasts

It's 1:30 AM and raining in Santhià as I begin this update. ‎ (And 3:30 as I finish it.)

One of the drawbacks to my newly sedentary life is that I'm just not tired enough to fall asleep by 9:00 PM any more. I have been doing a lot of reading while my flesh grows back over the large section of skin on my heel that was ‎surgically removed.  This evening I watched as a spider methodically disassembled its web that was exposed to the wind and rain. I hadn't known they could do this, let alone witnessed it before. And those are the ‎highlights of the past two days I've spent in Santhià. 

I've already written about my excursion to Turin on Saturday, so in this update I'll be talking about my experiences on Sunday.

Last week while I was reclining in my bunk reading, one of the local volunteers who helps maintain the hostel in Santhià came by. Mario speaks more English than I do Italian, so our conversation was weighted towards my native tongue. (I do try to use as much Italian as I can‎, both as a sign of respect to my hosts and to reinforce the learning process.) When he learned that I am Orthodox, he promptly pulled out his mobile and called the Orthodox priest who lives in Santhià. (I was pleased and impressed that he had Fr. Julian's number saved, and could call him directly without having to search for his contact details.)

Fr. Julian is a Romanian priest ‎who alternates services between Santhià and Vercelli. Each parish has their own church building (centuries old Catholic churches). The service this weekend was in Vercelli. I hadn't prepared to receive Holy Communion, so after a small breakfast and a coffee, I caught a train to Vercelli. I got the address from the World Orthodox website ( but I didn't know at which end of the street the church was located. Fortunately for me, it's a short street, located near the train station. 

I arrived shortly before the Great Doxology, and even though I didn't receive the Eucharist, it was GOOD to be there. As at the Romanian parish in Ivrea, they sang "To Thee the Champion Leader." I may not know much liturgical Romanian, but that tune is instantly recognisable. At the end of the Liturgy, I spoke with Fr. Julian briefly ‎and then made my way back to the train station and Santhià. 

I was a little footsore after the walking and standing for the three hour Liturgy, but I headed to the café for a quick pick-me-up. Enrico had been in Turin the night before, celebrating a friend's birthday, and although he was exhausted, he was also very enthusiastic about the city - so much so that I decided to abandon my plan for a quiet afternoon in Santhià and headed back to the train station. 

It was almost 4:30 when I arrived in Turin. Most businesses, museums, and churches close early in this part of Italy, so I made my way directly to the Biblioteca Reale. On Saturday, I'd noticed that the ‎Royal Library had just opened a Leonardo exhibit, but when I poked my head in the door and saw the lineup, I decided to keep moving.  

When I arrived on Sunday, I was informed that there were no more tickets available for the day, and that I should come back "tomorrow." I explained that I was a pilgrim walking the Via Francigena, and was staying in Santhià. The woman behind the counter astounded me by making a judgement call and allowed me to pay my €12 for the opportunity to see original drawings and manuscripts by da Vinci and a few other artists.‎ Admission to the Royal Library itself is free, so I wandered through the section open to the public for half an hour before being escorted to the vaults for the special exhibit.

It was an impressive display.‎   My ignorance of the visual arts is profound, so the only other artist whose work I recognised was Rembrandt. In addition to their sketches, there were a number of 16th century maps of Turin, some illustrated early Renaissance science texts, several gorgeous illuminated manuscripts (including a 15th century copy of the Lives of Sts. Barlaam and Joasaph), and some late 15th and early 16th century maps. I spent more time poring over the navigational map of the Mediterranean and Black Seas and their respective watersheds than I did any other single object on display. (To be fair, I do have skin in the game. Literally.)

Once I re-emerged from the library, I was somewhat at a loss. It seemed a shame to head back to Santhià after such a short visit, but the other museums nearby were no longer admitting patrons. And it was raining. And I'm trying to curb my spending. With a mental shrug, I crossed a square heading towards the street back to the train station. Both sides of this major street are lined with cafés and high end shops, and the broad sidewalks‎ are covered with arcades. At least I would stay dry.

As I approached the start of the sheltered sidewalk, I heard a bit of commotion. "‎Signore e signori!" (Ladies and Gentlemen!) The rest was beyond me, but what I saw was a group of about twenty people in costume, carrying drums and kazoos and an electric guitar (complete with amplifier, flange, and a few other effects pedals) assembling.

"Fun!" I thought. Since I had no other plans, and my train wasn't scheduled to leave for a few hours, I decided to follow the parade and see what happened. They were headed my way, they were walking under cover down the sidewalk of a major ‎thoroughfare, and they were blowing large soap bubbles and making lots of noise.

Maybe I maintained a poker face (I don't know), but inwardly I was grinning like a madman. I had gone from being an aimless and broke foreigner in a ‎rainy city to a witness of creative chaos that disrupted the expectations of everyone along the route. Quite a few people followed the procession for several blocks, people sitting at sidewalk cafés gawked, shopkeepers came to their doors and smiled as we passed -- it was wonderful! I've posted some photos and one video of the Famiglia Malfatti on Flickr. (

It took an hour to travel the kilometre to the corner opposite the train station. After a few final minutes of mayhem, the group began to disperse. I chatted with a few people, and Ludovica gave me an "admission ticket" to the Freak Circus. (It's tucked away safely in my wallet. Echoes of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.) I learned that they'd be performing later at a contemporary art show being staged in the former maximum security prison nearby. One of the guys pointed it out to me on my GPS map - the great news was that it was only a block away from the other train station in Turin, which is accessible from where we were by the Metro.

After bidding them "Ciao!" I crossed the street to the train ‎station and checked the departures schedule. The last train going through Santhià was leaving at 11:00 PM, so I grabbed a miserable train station sandwich and then took a short subway ride.

I had an hour to explore the various art exhibits set up in cells on three floors of one prison wing before my new friends began their performance. There were a few really interesting ‎displays, but it was too much to really engage with any one artist or display. 
The photo accompanying this update is one of the few pieces that prompted more than "That's pretty cool." It took me a few seconds to register what I was looking at, and then I literally laughed out loud.

Carlsberg was one official sponsor of The Others Fair, with beverage carts that displayed the slogan "Drink Different." My internal reaction was the same as it was back in the 1980s when I learned that the "indie" beer Black Dog (slogan - Be Your Own Dog) was a wholly owned subsidiary of Molson's. Yes, I understand that art shows need funding. Leonardo da Vinci was dependent on patrons, as were many‎ of the great European artists of the past thousand years. (Or more - I'm ignorant about the visual arts, remember?) Still, an art show sponsored by banks and breweries provides a very different context for experiencing art than a random act of beauty one happens upon in the street. (Perhaps something like Nuit Blanche has struck a healthy balance.)

To me, the important distinction between a contemporary art show and a street performance like those put on by the Famiglia Malfatti and ‎Valter Luca Signorile ( is the element of surprise and delight that results from having the artist come to you and presenting you with an opportunity to explore something new and unexpected. People who go to contemporary art shows have a certain set of expectations which frame their experience. Yes, it's still possible to be surprised and delighted, but there's an extra layer of mediation that simply doesn't exist on the street.

Anyway, that's enough of my late night philosophisin'. I do have one last hospital checkup on Wednesday, but I'd have started walking again today if my care package from home had already arrived. Hopefully it'll be here in the next day or two.

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