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    I’m now back in Istanbul after a week in Italy. Today, I’m posting photos of Venetian masks, which is a new fascination of mine after this trip. They’re simply striking; I love the high theater and drama. And, while, the Venetian Carnival is in February, the masks are displayed and sold throughout the year.

    Walking the back streets of Venice, I came upon a dress and mask shop. I saw a woman hand-sewing a traditional Venetian baroque costume, all the work completed with a simple sewing  machine and her hands.

    Honestly, it was a relief. So many of the stores along the waterfront sold items that were ostensibly “Italian” or “Venetian.” But it didn’t take a brain-surgeon to guess otherwise. The material was cheap and obviously mass-produced. Half the stuff was probably imported from China or Bangladesh. In perhaps one of the most touristy places in the world (Old City Venice in August!), one would be a fool to not know they were being taken as a fool. So, to witness something so basic as a personal handicraft, completed on an old shop desk, on a forgotten side street, was really quite remarkable.

    I chatted with the store owner, too. The business was an old family-run operation, and he participated in Carnevale every year. He asked if I was religious, told me he was an atheist, and talked about psychological research conducted by a professor at my former alma mater. Then, pulling out his computer files, he showed me his recent photos — there he was, decked in fine white silk, and his son — like a baby baroque charmer — and an older Dutch woman, who has participated in the Venetian Carnival for over 20 years, and even an old gay couple, with one man in female costume.

    I bought a handmade, paper-mache bauta (full-face mask.) It was a rare character, explained the shop girl (who was religious) — someone who is always getting involved in everyone else’s business. “Oh, a gossip!” I exclaimed. She continued, “One of the main characters in the Commedia dell’arte is Harlequin,” motioning at the Harlequin masks. “How about women?” I asked. “Oh, there is Colombina,” she said, “who is smarter than Harlequin.” My mask is now sitting on my bookshelf; it has a long-nose, beautiful sea-blue paint and a traditional Venetian floral design on a paper surface.

    When I’m traveling, I like to talk to everyone, from dapper cafe dwellers to bored plumbers. There’s a pleasure in being an “outsider,” and as a result, not even noticing (or at least fully participating in) the class distinctions. Similarly, Carnevale was developed with the same spirit; the masks rid of traditional social distinctions. You cannot see who is who. So, in theory, everyone can rejoice freely. And, yet, how true was this? Did common servants walk in lavish costumes, exquisite jewelry and finely-painted masks? I would think not.

    The same holds for today. A poor kid, trying to make ends meet, will not fly to Venice, purchase magnificent historical costume, and have the financial means to forgot himself in a week of high-end drunken splendor. Sorry, Venice. Just wouldn’t happen.

    Venice has become a holiday destination for the idle rich, who purchase sinking architectural masterpieces along the Grand Canal. It has become a playground for who? Maybe Russian oligarchs or Euro socialites. Maybe American billionaires or bored heiresses. I don’t quite know who. But I certainly do know that this beautiful city — once the home of Marco Polo, Bellini, Titian and Casanova — is now a home to a very select few: the long-standing locals and the rich.

    And, combined with the hordes of tourists, Venice can also be a nasty thing. I was reading quotes on Venice, and came upon some funny ones.  Henry James on Venice: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” And, Truman Capote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

    But, ah, I’m veering! I’m supposed to be writing about the MASKS. And I do genuinely find them gorgeous.

    I learned that the Commedia dell’ arte, which is the origin of many Venetian masks, has ancient roots, going back to Greek theater and Etruscan festivals. This tradition was carried on to the Roman Empire, though the first record of such performances was in 16th century Rome. The performances were earthy affairs, played on the streets and in public venues, by traveling actors. And, unlike other European theater of the time, female characters were played by actual women — imagine that! In fact, Ben Jonson supposedly referred to one female player as a “tumbling whore.” Fantastic.

    I especially love the characters. They are full of humor and real life relevance. I can imagine people today, in my life (especially in Istanbul!), who could stand as examples of such characters. There’s the Zanni, the a-little-too-clever servant, with country roots and a wooden sword. There’s the Innamorati (“the lovers”), constantly and melodramatically in love. And, as the shop girl said, Colombina, the flirtatious, female intellect.

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos from my Italian Week of Food, Wine and Beautiful Things. I visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Padova, Verona and Lake Garda. I remembered how much I loved Italian food. Like prosciutto with melon. And wine. And fresh mozzarella. I remembered pizza and pasta. I tried new foods for the first time, like tripe soup and horse meat! And I was charmed by a bevy of cafe baristas and shop owners and candy shop keepers. Thank you, Italy.

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    June 28th, 2011adminActivism, Istanbul, Parties & Night Life

    Gay Pride Parade, passing a Catholic cathedral on Istiklal. Quite a sight!

    It is remarkable to attend a Gay Pride Parade in a majority-Muslim country. I believe Turkey is the only country that can claim such a thing… Though “gay pride” is certainly NOT widely accepted.

    Hell yes!

    For many years, I attended San Francisco Pride, perhaps the most famous Pride event in the world. But Istanbul Pride felt very different. The biggest contract was the audience/non-participants. Whereas, in San Francisco, the audience members are a wild, effusive and diverse crowd, the crowd in Istanbul looked generally confused… many  people did not know what to make of the radically queer gay men and brazen, unapologetic lesbians…

    Interviewing an out Turkish gay man, in English and Turkish

    The message and “feeling” of Istanbul Pride was also different — in a sense, more basic. Rather than the highly commercialized bacchanalia of San Francisco Pride, Istanbul Pride was a demand for acknowledgment (and a celebration of sexual identity, being queer and having fun!).

    My friend

    My fabulous former flatmate, Angela, from Barri, Italy. I miss her lasagna with all my heart.

    As I mentioned, the public reaction interested me the most, so here are some photos I took of confused, “every day” Turks:

    Looking down at the parade, in amusement

    Disapproving glares from the mosque

    I wonder what is going through his head...

    Shoppers at the mall

    And, here are some more general PRIDE PHOTOS — enjoy!

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    I took so many great photos at Carnival last year (see last entry for more info). So, I’ll just post a few more… Today, I’m hopefully going to a barbecue in Cihangir — my flatmate is an English teacher at a school here, and he has organized an English-language get-together for them. Anyway, enjoy the Carnival photos!

    Every parade needs an Asian drag queen in historical costume.

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    A young girl at Carnaval, San Francisco 2010

    This is Carnaval Weekend in San Francisco — a spectacle of sequins, feathers and Latin American culture. In celebration, I’ve posted some photos taken from last year’s festivities, parading down 24th Street in the Mission district.

    This (chubby, older) guy was really excited about dancing with this (young and cute) girl. It was his lucky day.

    Unfortunately, SF Carnaval is not nearly as bawdy or playful as it once was. It has been replaced by a “family friendly” alternative — which, as someone who *grew up* with the risque carnival (in my family-oriented youth, I might add!), is not something I’m crazy about… But it is still Carnaval …a time to go to Victoria’s Bakery …to eat enchiladas and get drunk and flirt with Cuban and Honduran guys… to laugh at people even more drunk than you are…

    Everyone knows Brazilian Carnival — the hedonistic celebration before Lent. People dress in masquerade costumes, cover their bodies with jewels, sequins (and not much else) and dance atop monstrous floats. There’s also New Orleans Mardi Gras — the beads, the boobs and the Southern-ness.

    San Francisco Carnaval is uniquely “San Francisco.” Established by hippie-ish artists in the late ’70s as a way to “connect with the ancestors,” it has evolved into a city-wide celebration. Really, it is a hodgepodge of Latin American/Hispanic cultures — “The four Carnaval Cities with the greatest influence and presence in the San Francisco Carnaval are Port of Spain, Trinidad; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Salvador, Brazil; and Oruro, Bolivia.”

    Bringing on the party...

    When I was a kid, I remember being happily scandalized by Carnaval — topless women, men with painted bodies, tiny g-strings on both sexes. And, just in case you missed the flesh show, Mission Street stores pasted photos of the naked/mostly naked people on their windows, which stayed up for months (sometimes, all year-long!).

    This was one of my favorite parts of Carnaval last year -- these fantastic headdresses.

    Of course, Carnaval is not (or was not) only about sex —  just mostly about sex! But there’s also a strong cultural element. Actually, I was really impressed by these dancers from last year. They wore these magnificent, feathered headdresses, shaped as if to capture the sun or the heavens. The dancers twirled with their headdresses (with one hand up, to support their heavy load!). The dances were mesmerizing; I wish I could remember where the dance & costume was from… Does anybody know?


    Last year, Benjamin Bratt was also promoting his movie about the Mission District (and low-riders), appropriately called “La Mission.” So, a series of low-rider and cholo cars were also featured in Carnaval… which, I guess, they always are… but, this time, Benjamin Bratt was inside, in case anybody notice or cared… He wore a t-shirt that stated “Stay Brown” (in other words, “We’re not into white hipster/yuppie gentrification”).


    cool wheels

    The cool thing about Carnaval is the inclusion of the SF dance studios and cultural organizations. For months, dance studios work on their choreography, costumes and music — a huge process with, usually, fantastic results. Meanwhile, Brazilian drum ensembles will prepare, capoeira fighters will train and young children will learn traditional Aztec, Mayan or Caribbean dances.

    Pure joy

    Again, it is not what it used to be. I know I may sound old (or old-er) — but I mean it! When I was a kid, dance troupes came from all over the world for the San Francisco Carnaval. I remember seeing troupes from Latin America, Europe and the farther reaches of the States. They were announced with pomp and celebration — “and noooowwwww, the XYZ troupe frommmmm Belizzzzzzzeeeee!”

    But now? No way.

    What a shame.

    And you know what? The city did the same thing with the Castro Street Halloween Festival! It used to be a late-night, costumed, gender-fluid, city-wide bacchanalia extravaganza. Then, some people ruined it for everybody — brought guns and shot people. I still remember that Halloween …I was 16 years old (but not in the Castro that night). So, the city got involved and, basically, stopped the whole damn thing.

    Anyway, that was a tangent!

    Here are some more photos of Carnaval — which is still wonderful (just less sexy, less big and less cool). But, still, it is CARNAVAL!

    I love the guy on his cell phone.

    Definitely the coolest dancer/coolest costume/coolest person at Carnaval 2010.

    Welcome to San Francisco!

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    January 24th, 2011adminIstanbul, Parties & Night Life

    Jihane in Nişantaşı, New Year's Eve 2011

    I know it’s a bit late. But I never acknowledged it. So, I will now: Happy New Year everyone!

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