The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


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Elly, from Yorkshire to Molfetta for her Erasmus experience

A blog post I wrote on the ‘Wanderlust’ Travel Blog to remember my time in Molfetta. Nostalgia!! (also a chance to try my hand at blogging in Italian…)

WANDERLUST my travel blog

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Ho conosciuto Elly due anni fa a casa di amici, era l’8 Dicembre e lei era appena arrivata a Molfetta. Come da tradizione si preparavano le frittelle, lei era perfettamente a suo agio e sembrava apprezzare questa specialità tipicamente pugliese. Molfetta è una città di porto, la gente va e viene, ma non capita tutti i giorni di sedersi a tavola con una ragazza dello Yorkshire. La cosa mi ha entusiasmata immediatamente, soprattutto perché ho un debole per l’Inghilterra e per la gente dello Yorkshire in particolare, così spontanea e friendly. Loro avevano fatto sentire me in famiglia, qualche anno prima, e mi piaceva che anche Elly, si sentisse a casa. Era la mia occasione per rendere ciò che avevo ricevuto. Ancora una volta, questo blog mi dà l’opportunità di far conoscere anche voi l’esperienza di Elly che ha deciso di trascorrere il suo anno di Erasmus in una cittadina…

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La Festa della Madonna

My last week in Molfetta coincided with the Festa della Madonna, the annual festival to celebrate the Virgin Mary. I’ve already written about how the Molfettesi go all out for their saints at Easter time but the 8th of September is the biggest day of the year.

The Madonna dei Martiri is apparently the protector of fishermen and therefore everything is done to give her the party she deserves. The festivities go on for three days, huge light structures are mounted and market stalls selling every imaginable product extend along the port. A Ferris wheel and other fairground rides are set up near the sea and flocks of people flood into the city. Celebratory cannon fire also sounds from approximately 9 in the morning, tough for you if you want a lie in.

From the 7th to the 15th of September, a statue of the Virgin Mary travelled around the town a fair bit. Unless I’m mistaken, on the 7th she was taken from the Madonna dei Martiri Basilica over to another church on the other side of the port. Then on the 8th, some mariners go and knock on the door to collect her. The church members inside do not open the door straight away, supposedly reluctant to let her go, but then they finally relinquish her to be carried away to the sea.

There, she is loaded onto a wooden board laid across three fishing boats that must sail together to carry her around the harbour on the sea. There are flags, more cannon fire and crowds. I didn’t go to see this part of the festival: instead, we chose to go out in the evening, around 8pm, to witness her being disembarked and taken to the Cathedral. We wove between pushchairs and crowds, stalls selling t shirts and cleaning products, nougat and coconut pieces. Above our heads, the illuminations glittered in different patterns and colours. A bit of gossip for you: the people of Molfetta were very unimpressed with the lights this year, especially the switching-on ceremony that was accompanied by a Pitbull track. Perfectly tasteful for a religious festival…

We moved down towards the port and lined up along a path where the procession would be passing, carrying the Madonna. Soon enough, we saw people approaching. All the different religious confraternities of Molfetta wandered past in different coloured robes, swinging candles and golden decorations. Every now and then there would be a halt and the Ave Maria prayer would be bawled out through a megaphone to the chanting devout crowd. By the end of it, even I knew it by heart. Then the procession went ahead, only impeded by people blundering across its path or accidentally joining the parade in an ignorant attempt to get somewhere else. There were a fair few disgruntled priests that evening, as well as my personal favourite, a little boy in religious dress walking along playing on a Gameboy.

Then the Virgin Mary arrived. She was mounted on a golden structure surrounded by glittering jewels, money and even silver fish to represent her maritime protection. She extended her hand in a benevolent gesture and had an altogether happier demeanor than her Easter time counterpart. A team of men hoisted her along and then the Bishop of the city came along dressed in purple and gave everyone his blessing. Then the town politicians and the mayor came along followed by flags and a brass band.

We went for a walk along the sea, dodging small children and imitation shoes. We arrived at the disembarking point, where we found an apartment block strung with flags of the world and the connected boats that carried the Madonna on her travels. Apparently these fishermen pay around ten thousand euros each to have the honour of bearing the statue and have to steer very carefully to bring her home. Imagine if they dropped her.

At midnight that evening, there was a firework display to round off the celebrations. Watching from the sixth floor of an apartment block, we saw every red, green and blue without having to crane our necks.

I left Molfetta early on Saturday morning so I missed the final journey of the Madonna. That evening, she was taken back to her home in the Basilica until next year, accompanied by another firework show at nighttime.


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School’s Out – Ciao Ragazzi

I’ve been on holiday for more than a month now, soaking up the sun and occasional thunderstorms, since my contract as a British Council Language Assistant ended on the 30th of May. Eight months of correcting the same mistakes, of delivering lessons and racking my brains for interesting activities came abruptly to a close. It felt like no time had passed at all since I first stepped in front of the first class, the 5°AS, to introduce myself and give a lesson about Red Nose Day.

After I got back from my weekend in Turin, the days rolled by alarmingly fast until I was into my last week as an assistant. The stage of saying goodbye to the classes was dragged out for a whole week as I announced that it would be my last lesson and that I’d be going back to the UK next year, not teaching there again. The classes all reacted differently, some totally unconcerned, some with applause (ok) and some wanting group pictures. Here are some of the results:

I did my rounds and did recaps on the material studied over the year and surprisingly enough, some things did stick with the students. Not a huge amount, but at least something went into their memory and stayed there for a few months. I corrected the last bunch of tests, thanked the teachers and closed the school door for the last time as a member of staff on Friday morning at 11, leaving the situation to degenerate into inevitable pre-summer holiday chaos.

About a week later, I went back to the school to say goodbye again, this time to the headmaster and the administration office. The custom in Italy is that if it is your birthday, saint day, leaving day, whatever, you bring the cake. So I prepared a bunch of tea biscuits. I iced them and transported them as well as I good, but even if they were a bit smudged, they were still good enough to pass around.

This was not even the final goodbye. On the 14th of June, I attended the final Saturday morning staff meeting, which was to be followed by a little buffet of croissants and panzerottini. I arrived after the boring bits, took a seat for about five minutes and was then called to the front to say my farewell into the microphone. I was told to do it in English, so with a flashback to my first hello right back in September, I spoke to the vast roomful of staff and said how fast the year had gone and how great it had been. Then, as usual, the emotion got too much for me. The retiring teachers beside me were tearful, the head teacher was looking moved and when I relinquished the microphone, it happened. I cried in front of everyone – how humiliating but in their opinion, endearing.

I made my way back to my seat, was given a squeeze by a couple of English teachers, a tissue by another and a liquorice sweet by the Italian teacher (for old time’s sake). People came to me left, right and centre to offer me somewhere to stay if I wanted to come back, to ask when I was leaving, to give me encouragement. It would have been quite heart warming if I could have stopped blubbering. I took some photos with the English teachers, which I am quite happy not to see because no doubt my face is a pink, watery blotch-fest in them. I chatted to lots of teachers and secretaries before really leaving the school for the final time, trotting off into the sunshine knowing that I’ll be back there to visit some day, no doubt. After all, my time at I.T.I.S. Galileo Ferraris has been important in shaping my career prospects and my language skills, as well as giving me much more confidence in all areas of public speaking. Presentations next year, no problem. I won’t have twenty-five pairs of probing eyes watching me explain the present perfect.

After working with 7 of 8 different teachers and encountering 700 pupils, it’s been a chance to meet lots of new people and to really see how a school works from a teacher’s point of view. Let me tell you, it’s not all fun and games and you get fewer holidays that you imagine. I’ve decided that teaching in a secondary school probably isn’t the job for me, but teaching English as a foreign language really has its interesting elements, so taking a qualification might be an option for the future. Aside from that, it’s time to use this experience for thinking about what I really want to do as a career: a bit of a daunting prospect. Perhaps if the Internet hasn’t been taken over and modified by robots yet, I will look back at this blog post in five years time and think ‘oh how things have changed, I have all my questions answered and a path planned out’. I doubt it though – different things happen and new questions always appear. Closing a chapter of working at the I.T.I.S. will lead to a new part of life, third year at university and then who knows… Wish me luck!


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From Puglia to Piemonte

In the beginning of May, school was out for few days of holidays. I decided to go and visit Mum and Dad at their new flat in Villanova Mondovì, a little town in the mountains pretty much as far away from Molfetta you can get while still remaining in Italy. That’s what we have low cost flights for, even though I must say travelling with a planeful of Italian can sometimes be a chore. It seems to be a universal understanding that no one takes hold luggage, instead choosing to cram as many items as possible into a suitcase that is clearly too big for the cabin. And they clap when you touch down, which British people would never do.

Landing in Turin, I had a big hug from Mum and Dad, along with the usual complaint that I am always the last one off the aeroplane. Lily and Cassie were obviously head over harnesses to see me, wagging their tails and covering my coat in little white hairs. I was taken back to the quiet little village, the brand new apartment and shown my bedroom, where about 1/5 of my stuff is kept.

I had a chilled time in Piemonte, in terms of relaxation and temperature. I went out without a coat on the 2nd of May and shivered all the way around Cuneo. Thank goodness there are so many arcades because it tipped it down. This didn’t impede the typical mother-daughter activities of shopping and lunch out, as well as shopping for sweet souvenirs for Antonio from the best chocolate shop in town.

The weather got a lot better the next day and even allowed us to go shopping for tomato plants and read in the sunlit garden. It seems very unfair to the occupants of the other flats that they have tiny triangular gardens while my parents have possession of a long lawn where Lily and Cassie can career around playing football and flattening herbs. Anyway, it works for my father’s gardening habits.

On Saturday we also hosted a dinner party: my dad’s colleague and his family came over to eat. The whole morning was spent shopping for the starter, wine, cakes, breadsticks, meat until we were quite worn out already. I spent most of the day cutting the tops of beans, burning my fingers on roasted peppers and cutting up strawberries. My job was also to ascertain which moka made the best tasting coffee because one of them was really appalling, sorry Mum but you need to throw that one away.

The evening was very busy for me from start to finish as I entertained two very active little girls, aged 6 and 2. I found that my Italian had improved a lot since the last time I saw them; really I spent an awful lot of the time answering two sets of inquisitive questions about nail varnish and Finding Nemo. There was a fight about who would sit next to me and a drawing workshop that continued all evening. I did manage to chat to their parents for a while, who teased me for the Southern Italian accent that I have apparently developed over the year. They did say that I spoke well though, so I have confirmation that the year abroad has been useful in that way.

On Sunday we went for a drive among the vineyards over the mountains, towards Barolo where we had lunch in a little Osteria that we had visited two years before. The meal was obviously accompanied by the famous red wine, the meat itself was braised in wine and I tried some other Piemontese specialities like ‘bagna cauda’ and hazelnut cake with zabaione. We chatted about the future, the dogs stayed silent under the table and we just felt the lack of Izzy, our fourth member, as we wandered around in the sunny streets of Barolo. Dad tested out his flashy new iPhone on the views while we were driving over the hilltops.

In the days I spent with Mum and Dad, I enjoyed the things that I always do at home, spending the whole of Sunday afternoon baking biscuits, playing Mum’s new piano and driving the car (probably the second time this year). It really is an impressive part of Italy: Villanova is nestled in a bowl of mountains, still topped with snow and clear against the blue sky and the trees. It’s a landscape entirely different from that in Apulia, but no less beautiful.

 


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Elly at Teatro Petruzzelli

The sun has finally arrived. This means more time outside in sunglasses, less time inside, especially since I’ve been on holiday for 2 weeks. This is why Apulian updates have been few and far between, but I still have some memories of Bari and Molfetta I’d like to get down in writing before they disappear into the abyss of unrecorded time. Not that that would happen, I’ve got a pretty good memory.

April was a pretty cultural month for me: I went to the theatre three times within the space of four weeks. By ‘theatre’, I don’t mean just any poky little building, but the grand hall of the Teatro Petruzzelli, in the city centre of Bari. I watched a varied bunch of shows: a film festival screening, a ballet and best of all a work of absurd theatre.

1) Bari Film Festival: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The main square of Bari came alive in the first week of May when a film festival took place. The space was filled with posters, booths and exhibitions, advertising all sorts of different films: me and Katie were intrigued. We decided to go and watch Wes Anderson’s new production, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’d seen several stills and images offering the same attention to detail and colour palette that defines Anderson’s films, so I was interested to see what the story would be. We made our way into the grand hall and were told to head right to the top of the theatre. Spiralling up the many staircases, we saw the inside of the theatre for the first time. The grand coral coloured exterior conceals a scallop shaped theatre, adorned with gold on the ceiling and furnished throughout in red plush and gold banisters. It’s a truly grand place, but we headed right up to the least grand bit, with plain seats, the last level before the ceiling. In fact, it was a bit frustrating because the screen was sectioned by an annoyingly placed gold bar which meant you had to slouch or sit upright like a poker to see properly. In the end we found a happy medium and managed to watch the film, in English wow! Ralph Fiennes and the supporting cast gave a great performance but I must say that the plot was a bit too fanciful for me and I ended up just looking at the camera angles and the pervading pastel colours.

2) Giselle

I had an impromptu trip to the ballet in mid April, to see the final performance of the ballet Giselle. I vaguely remember watching Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake on a primary school trip, but this was the first ballet I really could appreciate. We were sat about mid way up the theatre and arrived perfectly on time for the first act. It’s a good thing that we searched for the story beforehand, because as ballet is a great deal of leaping around and not so much plot explanation, a bit of forward planning is necessary to catch the narrative intricacies. Basically, Giselle falls in love with a nobleman who she thinks is a peasant boy. On discovering that Albrecht is actually betrothed to a noble lady, she goes mad and dies, something quite spectacular to see. The dancers were really excellent, the set quite simple, nothing over the top. The second act was particularly striking: Giselle rose from her grave to protect the grieving Albrecht from the ghosts of dead brides. The lighting was done beautifully in this part, and the orchestra was fantastic throughout, playing music composed by Adolphe Adam. I’d love to see other ballets in the future: the Petruzzelli was a great place to watch it, but I’ll keep a look out at the Grand Theatre in Leeds too.

3) Histoire du Soldat: absurdity in Italian

My third and final time at the Teaatro Petruzzelli was a surprise. Antonio invited me to Bari with little hint at something special, so I wore my best dress and turned up at the station around 7pm. He soon revealed that we’d be going to see a play at 9, an absurd piece of theatre called Histoire du Soldat, conceived by the composer Igor Stravinsky. We walked around Bari Vecchia for half an hour, while he explained the story to me. The play would relate the story of a soldier who gave his beloved fiddle to the Devil for a book providing him with unlimited economic gain. As we can imagine, this doesn’t exactly end well for the soldier and the play shows the results of his choice and his bargaining with the Devil. The interesting thing about the play was that it was performed by one actor, who used a green coat with a red lining, to play the role of both the soldier and the devil, and even an old lady at one point. The performance also involved a doll, which he danced with to the discordant and anxiety inducing sound of Stravinsky’s music.
Antonio led me inside the theatre up to the 3rd floor, where we had a place in a booth right above the stage on the left hand side. We could see everything perfectly and even had a little view of the actor when he had to change his clothes for each different part. It was perfect to lean on the gold bar and look over all the stage, to hear the musical instruments right underneath our seats. Although the language was very hard to understand (due to the theatricality of tone and the fact that the Devil shouted pretty much everything he said), I was captivated by it: the music and the story. Antonio explained the parts I had missed in whispers and I managed to follow quite nicely until the play ended. It also felt nice to be dressed up, whereas the other times I had not made a real effort, this time we were both dressed properly and it added to the occasion. It’s a good thing my heels were comfortable because we went for a long walk around the illuminated centre of Bari, including Piazza Garibaldi, a lovely park with a fountain, and then Piazza Ferrarese where we had some really good pizza. Katie was having me to stay over, so Antonio walked me home along the seafront (I have to admit I put my trainers on for that!). All in all it was a perfect evening, and the next day we travelled back to Molfetta together leaving Bari behind in the pouring rain.

Which picture is scariest, the Devil or me in the kitchen? :P


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Foreign Fruit

We all know our apples, bananas and pears, right? I came to Puglia thinking that my fruit and vegetable knowledge was pretty on point, but it seems I was wrong. The Italians around me have been attempting to educate me by plying me with seasonal produce. Here are some new fruits that I’ve discovered while living in a countryside villa in the South of Italy:

Cachi (Persimmon)

It took me ages to figure out what a ‘caco’ was, since apparently persimmons come in different varieties. I discovered the soft kind in early October when I first arrived in Puglia. I’m not a fussy eater but I must admit that I can really only handle a small amount of this fruit: its sugary flavour quickly gets too sickly for me and the texture can accurately be described as gloop. Nonetheless, it was good to finally try a fruit that I’d previously only heard of in the Sims Playstation game (Sims have eclectic taste in food it seems).

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Nespole

This is a fruit that I’d never even heard of before: nespole translates as loquat or medlar. They look a bit like orange plums, like cousins of an apricot. The taste is sweet but also slightly sharp at the end. They’re quite fun to eat as well, by chopping off the end, you can pop out the two flat brown stones and eat it whole.

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Gelso (Mulberry)

The mulberry is currently in season, with the tree in the garden shedding loads of little white fruits looking somewhat like elongated raspberries. Another fabled and untasted fruit in my mind, I was told that the mulberry only grows in places like Southern Italy and Uzbekistan (?). The tree apparently also hosts the cocoon of the silk worm: the whole process was explained to me over lunch one day. My host family often engage in the argument of whether the tree is supposed to bear white or purple berries: both colours taste lovely, and can be added to my list of “fruits that double as sweets”. This also includes strawberries, raspberries, grapes and cherries.

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Down here, getting your 5 a day is not a chore, its yet another cultural experience. Let me remind you about turnip tops.


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Pets in Puglia

Anyone who knows me even a little a bit is aware that I like animals an awful lot, especially dogs. A Jack Russell or a whippet in the street is likely to make me lose track of engrossing conversations and regress to a childish state. Let’s not even get started on puppies. When saying my goodbyes before coming to Puglia, the canine members of my family were almost harder to leave than the human ones. After spending all of last summer receiving boundless love and playing football with my dogs Lily and Cassie, I just wanted to pack them into my suitcase and bring them with me.

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I’m not entirely destitute of animal company here in Puglia as it turns out. I’ve got a fair number of four-legged friends running about, a head count that has recently grown due to the expansion of a certain cat’s family tree.

First there are the dogs. Nera is an excellent guard dog. She announces any intruder and protects the house with quite the fearsome bark. I had to let her get used to me at first, to realise ‘Oh OK, this person lives here now’. It took quite a lot of time before she stopped going mental every time I tried to climb the steps. She’s a beautiful dog though, and now I get the privilege of only being barked at a couple of times a week, and even sometimes tickle her tummy.

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Toby on the other hand is a huge softie. A darling. Where Nera is a bit suspicious of strangers, Toby doesn’t care as long as you’ve got two legs. He is in equal parts trusting and lovable. He’ll throw his considerable weight onto you at any given opportunity and wag his tail, looking in through the window. He plays fetch with lemons, carries away plastic dishes in front of his face and curls up to sleep in the tiniest spaces possible. He’s always a happy presence trotting around innocently, or lying in the sun like a furry pancake.

The feline situation here has been getting a bit out of hand since the family found a little red-gold stray about two years ago. She was named Ariel, but after quickly getting pregnant and giving birth to three kittens, she soon received the honorary title of ‘Mamma Mic’ (oddly pronounced ‘meech’ and meaning kitty). So the little green eyed cat has since then been defined by her maternal functions, the mother of Pallina. The favourite of the litter, Pallina is yellow eyed and long tailed, and teased as the stupid and trouble making cat, a defect blamed on the fact that she was brusquely washed and blow dried a few days after birth. In the months of February and March, we began to notice a certain ballooning of Pallina’s svelte figure until it was unmistakable that she would be reproducing any day soon. Sure enough, on a day where she was looking so remarkably podgy with her back legs thrown out behind her, she popped out five kittens: four female black, white and red ones, and one little male boy, recently named Mufasa.
So for the sake of clarity and to take into account the rapidly expanding dynasty of cats in the garden, Mamma Mic has been renamed ‘Nonna’ (grandma) and Pallina has gained the Mamma accolade, although frankly she doesn’t seem to give two hoots about her children, and would much rather be fed herself than give them any milk. One morning, she took off for a bit of a holiday, coming back just in time for lunch.

Of course, it’s great to have these animals around to stroke and talk to in stupid voices but I do miss the one and only dynamic duo, Lily and Cassie. By now, the pair are very well travelled, having toured Puglia in the car with us. Here they are in Alberobello. And also, the best photobomb on record (that photo of Lily? yeah, it was meant to be of Cassie).