The Puglia Diaries

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

Turning Twenty in Molfetta

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On Wednesday, I waved goodbye to my teenage years and entered a new decade. I turned twenty in a new country, surrounded by new friends and I have to say that this year’s birthday was very happy indeed.

I kicked off the day at work with three hours of lessons. We discussed Renaissance poetry (my fave) in one class and then I had to engage one of my unruly classes in conversation. Twenty minutes in, they were bored of the photos of Leeds and I had no other material. My birthday became my saviour: I announced it and the boys instantly erupted into a roaring rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, probably to the displeasure of teachers in neighbouring classrooms. I was wished ‘Auguri!’ by some teachers and half the secretarial staff and was offered fennel biscuits. I walked out of school in the sunshine, looking forward to the birthday lunch that had been planned days in advance.

We sat down to seafood pasta, packed with mussels, prawns, calamari and clams. There was also a calzone filled with fish, olives and tomatoes and an octopus tentacle salad. I wolfed those suckers down (ha): everything was so fresh and I was in my element. I turned my head and suddenly, a massive cake was placed in front of me with a flourish. There was chocolate, there was cream and there was custard so naturally I was very appreciative of the surprise. I was initiated to the family tradition of birthday photographs: the tripod came out and after a few questionable candid shots, we set the timer and all smiled for the camera. The cake was beautiful. I was sent back downstairs with a good third of it, which I ate for the following two days for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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The afternoon was whiled away in the sleepy Italian manner I have become accustomed to. Lunchtime usually finishes around three and afterwards, everyone takes a break in the day to rest. The shops close until six in the evening and the town is quiet. On the day of my birthday, we set off into town at dusk, supposedly to look into a Bed and Breakfast for Mum and Izzy’s arrival. We did not in fact go to the B&B: we met up with a group of friends that I had met the Sunday before and settled in a café ‘pasticceria’ for drinks and chocolate biscuits. They bought me a chocolate muffin, which arrived with a lit candle and another chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’. My cake quota well and truly filled, we took photos and I was invited to the cinema to see the new film about Princess Diana.

ImageI went along to the cinema, where the girls bought me a ticket as a present. The film was…OK. Naomi Watts’ valiant attempts at mimicry did not make up for the rather slow plot and the obvious sensationalist exaggeration of Diana’s private life. She may have been dead for fifteen years but her love life is still her own. I enjoyed myself anyway, swapping opinions with the others in the weird little interval and realising that I can watch dubbed films without subtitles and without getting tangled up in the language. I returned home at 1am: the 10th of October had arrived and I was officially twenty years old.

I have always thought that my birthday falls on an awkward date. At the beginning of October, autumn is setting in and if you go to a new place or a new school, you may not know people well enough for them to care about your birthday. I envisioned myself in homesick self-pity, mooning around and eating a whole shop-bought cake to myself. Instead, the day was taken note of and celebrated by the people around me. I received messages and phone calls and cards, giving me the chance to share my news and catch up with friends. I realised that although my friends may be scattered across Europe and abroad, they were thinking about me all the same. I’ll stop before the mushiness gets overpowering but everyone rest assured that my 20th birthday in Molfetta was a heart-warming and wonderful success.

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Author: Elly Cooke

Recent graduate of English Literature and Italian from the University of Leeds. Book lover and part-time Italian speaker.

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