The Puglia Diaries

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


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A Mini-update from Molfetta

I can almost hear the tumbleweeds drifting across my neglected little blog. Blogging about your year abroad requires a fine balance between writing and doing. Of course you can fill pages and pages with new photos and chitchat about the customs of the country you’re falling in love with, but not at the expense of going out and living in it. This week has been one of my busiest times since arriving in Molfetta. Since I wrote about my trip to Giovinazzo on that sunny mid-February weekend, I have:

– Been to Rome for the second time. I was unexpectedly invited on a school trip dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and discovering the history of the Jewish community in the capital city.

– Visited a Norman castle in a town called Sannicandro di Bari, and then eaten my body weight in Puglia’s culinary delights

– Tried Aquagym for the first time and almost died

– Been to Bari to see Saving Mr Banks: how bizarre to hear the songs of Mary Poppins sung in Italian

– Picked a load of oranges in the sun, spring is officially on the way.

All of these experiences have been great and soon I hope that I’ll have a spare moment to document them properly. Tomorrow morning, I’m off to Venice for a potentially rainy Carnival weekend: masks at the ready, it’s going to be a great trip. And THEN, the very afternoon I get back to Molfetta, my family will be arriving. They’ll tumble out of the car after a 13 hour trip from Mondovì, dogs and all: the following days will be my chance to show off how beautiful this region is and to spend time with them all.

Until then, here are some photos of my every day life in Molfetta:

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Giovinazzo in the Sun

I’ve told my friends, I’ve told my family, so I might as well make a general announcement: this weekend has been beautiful so far here in Puglia, with temperatures climbing up to 21°C. I am allowed to gloat a little bit about the sunshine since I spent my last two Februarys testing how many jumpers a person can physically wear at the same time and/or reigniting a rebellious boiler.

Sunny weather has a serious impact on my mood. On Friday, by the time I’d got home from school, dying of heat exhaustion, and changed out of my duffel coat and knitwear into a short-sleeved T-shirt, I was feeling extremely happy. I threw open all the windows and sat in a chair outside with a basking cat at my feet, alternately reading Charles Dickens and shoving Toby off my lap.

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Today, the warm weather was back, blinding me out of my Saturday morning stupor. Me and Katie decided to go to Giovinazzo, a small town just south of Molfetta, for a look around. At around 4pm, the small southern Italian towns lazily rouse themselves from post-lunch relaxation, and people wander about again and go for coffee. In the main square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, clusters of local people sat around the fountain, some speaking in dialect. There is a ‘village’ feel to Giovinazzo, from the children playing in the park to the compactness of its historical centre.

The harbour of the town and its old part were really beautiful in the sunshine. The Cattedrale Santa Maria Assunta, missing one of its towers, shone white against the blue sky and all the little boats were lined up in greens, reds and blues. I looked for Molfetta just up the coast and then we wandered through the interconnected streets until we made it back to the main square. There are not a million things to see in Giovinazzo but it is perfect for a pleasant afternoon walk, made even better by gelato.


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How to ‘Cooke’: Tagliata di Manzo

My last name is ironic. Ask anyone. It’s not that my food tastes terrible or is always burned; I just do not enjoy the whole cooking business. I get stressed when my practical skills are pushed to the limit or when I have to watch more than one pan at a time. Between my mum, my sister and my best friend, I have been teased a lot for not even being able to butter toast. I CAN butter toast, but soft bread is a bit more problematic. Having said that, I am able to feed myself: I make a good salad and can cook pasta perfectly al dente. As to the dessert part of the meal (which to be honest is the best bit), I am not bad at baking: my cakes, biscuits and even botched macaroons usually taste quite nice.

An old photo from Leeds: proof of my cake making skills

An old photo from Leeds: proof of my cake making skills

What I tend to do is find a recipe that even a child would be able to follow if health and safety allowed it. I then make this recipe on a weekly basis until I’m sick to death of it. My evening meal of choice here in Puglia, when I have a little more time on my hands, is Nigella Lawson’s ‘Tagliata’: sliced steak with cherry tomatoes soaked in a red wine vinegar, olive oil, chilli and oregano marinade. It is the BOMB and takes about five minutes to make: excellent, seeing as I usually start cooking when I urgently want food. Read on for the recipe:

1)    Get out your ingredients. I find this method reduces stress and the risk of spilling something fumbling in a cupboard while something is starting to burn.

For a decent one person portion, you need:

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            – 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

            –  ½ chilli flakes

            – 1 teaspoon oregano

            – ½ teaspoon of table salt

            – 2 teaspoons of red wine vinegar

       – a little piece of meat, I just get a thin  steak from the  supermarket

         – a handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered

 

2)    Hokay. Next, heat up a grill pan/non stick frying pan with a bit of olive oil.

3)    In a small dish that your steak can sit in, mix together the extra virgin olive oil, chilli flakes, oregano, salt and red wine vinegar. As you can see, I have used an old ice cream tub because it’s the perfect size and it is easier to wash up.

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Mmmm appetisinggg

4)    Cook your steak for 2 minutes each side, it should be nice and rare. But if you like it well done, it’s your call. Put your steak in the spicy marinade and let it relax there for 2 minutes each side, then take it out and slice it.

6)    Now put the cherry tomatoes in the marinade. If you have the time, you can put them face down one at once, but I find that slooshing them around freestyle works just as well. Pour the tomatoes and the marinade over the meat and ecco una buona cena.

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I usually have mine with some courgettes because I’ve no patience for cooking potatoes. Chips soak up the marinade deliciously though and salad would also be a good side. I usually put quite a lot of tomatoes on to keep up my fruit and vegetable count.

This is the easiest recipe ever: even I can’t get it wrong, it’s sufficiently Italian and plus it shows my support for Team Nigella. The olive oil here is quite spicy, so it goes with the chilli flakes to give the meat some heat. Plus the tomatoes actually taste of something in Puglia: rejoice!


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New Students, New Topics

Meeting a new class is an interesting experience. You are placed in front of twenty-five brand new people, with different names and faces. In the transition from my older classes to the younger ones, I’m going to have to create some more brain space to remember them all. I would try and forget useless information like how many children the Beckham family has, but that won me a quiz last night.

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Quiz Duello: the latest app craze that has got Italians shouting at each other :)

In these first lessons, my students and I spent most of the time talking about ourselves. This eased any nervousness and allowed me to discover new things about them (mostly, what football team they support and how many times a week they go to the gym). The average age of my new pupils is 16: they seem much more eager than their fifth year counterparts and with their final exam a whole two years away, they’re not feeling the pressure yet. Some of them actually had quite a good level of English so let’s hope that I can teach them something interesting. 

I’ve actually been preparing a lesson about football: all the vocabulary and phrases needed to read a match report. I have a feeling that there will be an exchange of knowledge; I don’t know what the offside rule is or the dictates of extra time. Judging by the enthusiasm that swells the room when I so much as mention Juventus or any football team for that matter, I will have an interested audience. Thank goodness for premierskills.britishcouncil.org/ 

As much as I try to spread the love for British cuisine, I can’t help conceding that Italian food is just…well, better. It seems healthier, fresher and more diverse, and I was never a fan of shepherd’s pie. My duty as an ambassador for the UK compels me however to mention the multiculturalism of food in Britain: you can have tapas, Chinese, Indian or Thai food wherever you are. Also, there are some little luxuries that I miss from the UK, like scones. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll remember the horrendous kitchen disaster circa October 2013 and understand my reluctance to try baking them again. But the craving for a good scone, with jam and clotted cream and a cup of tea with milk in it…it’s still here and is only partly satisfied by a good piece of tiramisu. I also explain the phenomenon of fish and chips, and do a survey of the radically differing opinions of the English breakfast.

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Outside of school, this week has been fun and full of more shopping errands. I’ve been to a fashion warehouse called ‘Business’ to browse through discounted brands of some nice and some frankly hideous clothes, I’ve helped select a new set of crockery, a cake tin and a hob. I’ve successfully fought off a cold with pig-headedness, a couple of paracetamol, getting some fresh air helping in the garden and of course, with some hot chocolate. On a side note, Cameo is the best Italian brand: it brings you instant panna cotta, psuedo-healthy chocolate cereal and this sweet deliciousness.

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The Liebster Award

Who doesn’t love awards?

Yesterday, I found out that my little year abroad blog has been nominated for the Liebster award! From what I remember at school and a quick double check on the trusty online dictionary, Liebster means ‘favourite’ or ‘beloved’ in German. I’d like to thank Lorena for nominating me, it definitely put a smile on my face.

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This award is designed to boost new blogs, the ones with fewer than 200 followers. I think for ‘travelling abroad’ bloggers like myself, it’s an especially good idea because you can find out about other people in your area and get ideas for making the most of your time wherever you have ended up. It makes me happy reading about the experiences of other language assistants, students, tourists or expats who have taken time to put their lives into words.

So here are the rules of the award, if you’d like to pass it on:

1. Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog.

2. Answer the 10 questions given to you by the nominee before you.  

3. Nominate 10 of your favorite blogs with fewer than 200 followers and notify them of their nomination.

4. Come up with 10 questions for your nominees to answer (below my nominations!)

These are the questions that Lorena asked her nominees, and my answers:

  1. Why did you decide to create a blog?

I got into blogging a couple of years ago because I love writing. I always have three notebooks on the go, I keep a journal, a film and literature blog and now my year abroad blog. It seemed a natural medium to document my time in Puglia: my friends and family can access it (my Grandma says it’s like getting a weekly letter) and when my time here comes to end, I will be able to look back on all that I have seen and done.

2. If you could eat only one meal a day for the rest of your life what would it be? 

This is a sacrifice because I love breakfast. Espresso and something chocolatey is what gets me out of bed in the morning. However, I have been won over by the Italian lunch, ie. a pasta or rice dish, then vegetables/meat/cheese/frittata, then fruit, then dessert, then coffee. It would keep me more than happy for the rest of my life.

3. What’s you favourite book ?

Another head scratcher. I would say The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, because it’s brilliant and it’s remained with me a long time after reading it.

4. Do you have a pet peeve? If so what is it? 

My pet peeve is people picking their fingernails and making that horrid clicking noise. It makes me skin crawl for some reason.

5. What is your favourite quote from a film and why? 

This quote is from As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson’s character finally manages to give Helen Hunt a decent compliment :

I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you’re the greatest woman on earth. I think most people miss that about you, and I watch them, wondering how they can watch you bring their food, and clear their tables and never get that they just met the greatest woman alive’.

That’s a pretty good compliment.

6. What is your favourite ice cream flavour? 

I used to think it was cinammon but I recently tried lemon nougat and it is my new favourite. I did  try Panettone flavour in Rome though, and that was delicious. 

7.When visiting a new city, do you prefer to wander around and get lost or have a set itinerary of things to do? 

I usually plan a loose itinerary but it undergoes lots of changes as the day goes on. Wandering around is the best way to visit a new city: you need the right balance between good sense and spontaneity.

8. Do you prefer living in your home country or abroad? 

I consider both the UK and France my home countries for different reasons, and have enjoyed living in both. Having said that, at the moment, I love the adventure of living in Italy, so I would say abroad :)

9. What’s your favourite blog? 

Ahhh my indecision has got the better of me. I’d say there are some equally stellar posts on all my favourite blogs.  

10.Share one item on your bucket list and explain why it is on your list. 

An item on my bucket list is to go Island hopping in Greece. I’ve never been and I love experiencing new and beautiful places in the hot summer.

So now, my nominations in no particular order :

Do Your Thing Travel: a blog where you will find perspectives on food and travel to inspire others, including top notch posts about Bari and Lecce

Mixing Oil and Water: Frankie and Giuseppe are an Anglo-Italian couple exploring the regions of Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia.

Culture Cocktail: Annie is studying abroad in Oviedo, Spain, and making everyone jealous with her photos of sun and snow

I Tre Amigos: Three Italian friends blogging about food and reviewing pubs in the area of Naples and beyond.

Nuovastoria: a blog about moving from the US and starting a brand new life in Puglia

She Dreams of Travel: a blog by Jessica, who has ‘a serious case of wanderlust’

A Carr Journey to Florence:  Henry is a British Council Assistant too, blogging about his time in the beautiful city of Florence.

Italy: EXPLORED: Beth is a teacher living in Bari,  getting started blogging about  Southern Italy and beyond.

Foodie in Italy, about Italian food and culture

Delightfully Italy, discover how to travel Italy off the beaten track

You don’t have to take part in the award if you don’t want to: this is just my way of saying, nice work, I like your blog :)

Here are my questions, if you’d like to participate:

  1. What is your main goal for 2014?
  2. Which city do you dream of living in?
  3. If you had an unlimited travel fund, where would you visit first?
  4. What’s your favourite song?
  5. What’s your favourite sandwich filling?
  6. Which book are you reading at the moment?
  7. Favourite place you’ve ever visited?
  8. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
  9. Which historical event do you wish you had witnessed?
  10.   Do you send postcards?

 

That’s it! I had some delicious mushroom and salsiccia di Norcia pasta today, followed by cake so I’m off to the Palestra. Ciao ragazzi  :)


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The Italian Rom-Com

So this post is a little different from my usual ramblings about pizza and the sea. I do occasionally remember that I’ve been sent here to enrich my knowledge of Italian popular culture: this makes me spontaneously buy a magazine or plan a trip to the cinema. I love a good film, so what better way to improve my listening skills than to go and test my understanding by settling down in front of a real Italian movie? That way, I can also avoid the ‘out of sync’ dubbed effect that invariably makes American or British actors look like goldfish.

My genre of choice is something light and easy, essentially the romantic comedy. You can’t get lost in elaborate plot twists, the ending is basically programmed from the start and there’s usually no specialised spy/superhero/bank robber lingo to contend with. Instead of being just vacuous entertainment, watching an Italian ‘romcom’ gives me an insight into tropes of family life and relationships here. And even though sometimes I miss out on the cultural references, the comedy I’ve seen has relied more on visual humour and misunderstandings than sarcasm or wit. Let’s leave that to the British.

So far, I have seen two different romantic comedies, which were both set in Rome, involved men with beards and pretty women with wealthy lifestyles. Here are my reviews:

Stai Lontana da Me (Stay away from Me)

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I went to see this film in November with another girl, while the boys went to see Thor (such a stereotype, but I wasn’t really interested in axe throwing superheroes). Even though my friend wasn’t impressed with the film, I had a great time.

The story: Jacopo (cool name for a start) is a counsellor for sparring couples. He starts going out with an architect called Sara but soon things start to go wrong. Sara starts becoming incredibly unfortunate, falling over, embarrassing herself, setting houses on fire etc. and that’s when we find out that Jacopo was cursed by his primary school girlfriend. This ‘curse’ has made all his past girlfriends unlucky and sooner or later they have all left him. He really loves Sara so he tells her to stay away from him, for her own good (aw). The end of the story is as far-fetched as the premise: Jacopo seeks retreat from the female population on a remote Greek island, only to meet the girl who cursed him all grown up. She removes the ‘curse’, Jacopo runs back to Sara as fast as he can, they get married, have a baby, the end. The plot is ridiculous but Sara’s misfortunes were certainly entertaining to watch, especially when she accidentally showed a porn video to members of the clergy instead of a design project for a new church. Swapped discs were involved, obviously.

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Tutta Colpa di Freud (It’s all Freud’s fault)

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I went to see this film only last week in Bari. As it has only just come out, the room was full and people had taken our allocated seats: to cut a long and awkward story short, we ended up not comfortably in the second to last row, but craning our necks in the second row.

The story: Francesco is a psychologist who was left by his wife to raise three daughters alone. These three daughters are going through various hurdles in their love lives: Marta is chasing a deaf-mute guy who has stolen things from her bookshop, Sara is a lesbian who was left by her girlfriend just after she proposed to her, and 18 year old Emma is seeing a fifty year old architect called Alessandro, who is already married.

Drama ensues when Francesco tries to counsel Alessandro to concentrate on his marriage and not Emma, before finding out that Alessandro’s wife is the lady with a spaniel who he has been crushing on for ages. What a coincidence! Marta struggles to communicate with her new beau and keeps offending him, while Sara determinedly tries to go after men instead of women to see if she has more luck.

Each story has it’s own quirks and differ from the usual boy-meets-girl framework of the romcom: this film is as much about family as it is about romance. The three sisters and the father support each other, and the final scene is not a couple kissing, but a father and daughter walking off to get Mexican food together. There were some cute moments, some times when you wanted to shake the characters to their senses, especially Sara who at times acted like she didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. I must admit I fail to see why everything is being blamed on Freud. There is very little psychoanalysis involved but plenty of loving feels to fit the romantic comedy bill. 

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All in all, as well as a bit of uplifting fun and a look inside designer apartments in Rome, watching these two films made me feel good about my ability to understand Italian. By the end of each film, I had forgotten that I was hearing Italian and, instead of making language comparisons in my head, experienced the story almost as if the dialogue was in English. That is a nice feeling to have and I think I could handle more complex plots. The next challenge is understanding the political segments of the TV news: the commentary is delivered so fast and involves at least five different cabinets. I have to ask for a summarised digest to find out what the ‘thieving’ government has done now. 


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Rounding off the First Semester

The end of January disappeared in a gust of wind this week: I am now exactly half way through my contract at Ferraris school. This means that I get to meet the other 300 pupils that I haven’t seen yet, leaving the older classes to work hard towards their exams. I’ll be chatting to younger students this term; fresh faced 16 year olds who might be more pliable than their elders. Perhaps I can inspire a love for the English language in a few of them, ever the optimist! Next week will bring a series of introduction lessons: the photos of family, friends and Leeds will come off the dark and jumbled shelf that I call my filing system.

Despite the weather getting a bit colder this week, I’ve been out and about in my free time running errands and seeing friends. It has been a busy and fulfilling week: exactly what you need in winter to avoid those evenings indoors, watching the rain against the windows and hearing the wind knock things over on the terrace above. My mood has always been influenced by the weather: in Leeds, my tendencies for homesickness would hit hardest when temperatures were sub zero or when I got soaked to the skin walking home from university. This week has been one of personal development and experience:

On Monday, I first experienced a cardio session at the gym. In my twenty years on this Earth, I had never set foot on a treadmill. It wasn’t until I had to get on one that I realised what a scary and potentially harmful experience it could be. I spent the eight minutes time on a walking setting, gripping the bar with terrified fingers and watching my feet, willing them not to stop. I imagined myself falling off in front of all the seasoned gym goers, including some of my students from school. I decided a while ago to stop being ashamed of my gym incompetence: I stick out like a scrawny sore thumb and own it.

Tuesday is a rubbish day really. It doesn’t have the fresh new week factor of Monday but neither is it remotely close to the weekend. It drifts in the beginning of the week, dull and unsatisfying; so I decided to do something about that and went to see a film in Bari with Katie. Before the show, we went to have our usual espressino (such a delightful little milky coffee) and a pasticiotto, a cute oval pastry with cream and cherry inside. We chose an Italian romantic comedy, which we both enjoyed and understood. Oh, and I have never seen such cheap popcorn: 2 euros will get you a decent sized pot. If only for that reason, I can see cinema trips becoming a more regular occurrence for combating tiresome Tuesdays.

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Wednesday was also a super fun day: I made guacamole, then me and my ‘host mum’ decided to skip the gym that evening and go to Trani to buy a present for her friend. We wandered about arm in arm, window-shopping, before reaching our destination: a handbag boutique. At the moment, some designer shops are offering a 50% sale on fancy scarves, clothes, shoes, so if you want to spend a semi-reasonable amount on an Italian made luxury item, the time is now. We browsed for a luxuriously long time. Fashionable Italian ladies do not impulse buy. They do not rush when choosing handbags. They tour the shop, ask the shop assistant’s opinion, ask the other customers’ opinion and study each one in the mirror. They assess each merit of each bag, its size, its colour, its decorative quality, the effect it would add to an outfit, if it looks youthful or distinguished and all the other qualities a handbag could have. Through this process of collaboration, we settled on a bright blue handbag with a gold chain, as well as a turquoise clutch, two scarves and a raspberry handbag for a future wedding. We chatted to the shop assistant about where to get custom shoes made, exchanged contact details to make further enquiries and left the shop with two big white bags. This was followed by more window-shopping in the wintery weather, and then on arrival back in Molfetta, another delicious ice cream. On the threshold of this favourite gelateria, I felt another sudden impulse to live in Italy in the future. These emotions occur whenever my happiness reaches a certain peak: funnily enough, it seems like going back to Leeds will be a ‘year out’ from my life here in Italy. With my parents living in Piedmont, my friends in Puglia and so much more to explore, I feel that it makes sense to return.

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Guacamole – how un-Italian of me

On Thursday, I saw turtles and fresh vegetables at the market in the morning, then tagged along on some more errands. Even though I might not have contributed much to proceedings in the bank and the travel agent, it was a pleasant outing in Molfetta once again. In the jewellers shop, picking up a repaired watch, I was approached for conversation lessons that would help with a practical aim to make airports/restaurants/hotels a bit easier to navigate. We’ll see how that pans out. Before going home, we popped into the supermarket to buy artichokes for Sunday lunch. That’s the day when families usually cook something a little different for the first course: for example pasta al forno, lasagne or cannelloni.

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Surreptitious shot of the Thursday market. I know my finger is in the way

On Friday, I attended a meeting in the afternoon between all the English teachers about language courses that needed funding. After quickly establishing common opinions, the meeting was over. All I did was read the brochure. Then it was off to the gym for more cardio but the carrot on the stick this time was a meal out in Bisceglie with two other language assistants. I took it as an opportunity to try something special: the waitress recommended the seafood antipasti, so I ordered some insalata di polpo. I was expecting a small plate to taste, but two dishes turned up with little fried squids in one and purple tentacles in the other, dressed with parsley and oil. A tasting session went down and it transpired that I was the only one who could deal with the texture. Fair enough, let’s say that the appearance of the things can easily put people off, and the different parts of the squid can be chewy or gelatinous. I’m not selling the idea too well, but with a drizzle of lemon and eaten whole, the little squids were really delicious. They didn’t leave much room for the pizza I had also ordered, I had to leave half of that after eating all the toppings. After the food, accompanied by a very reasonably priced and slightly ‘vivacious’ white wine I felt happy and sated. We also had a tasty chocolate liqueur on the house, which was like alcoholic Nesquik. With the others heading back to the station, I went to meet my friends who were in a pub just down the road. We stayed for a while listening to Oasis covers before heading back to Molfetta. One of my favourite songs was on the radio, which rounded off the evening nicely. On Saturday, we went off to Trani despite the icky February rain. It was a lovely evening, with truly good pizza in a restaurant tucked inside an arch with the region’s typical white stone and warm lighting. I was indulgent this weekend, eating out twice, but there are so many good restaurants around here to try and you only get one year abroad!

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L’Antico Granaio, Bisceglie

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Il Covo delle Chiacchiere, Trani

And that is this week’s round up. I wanted to record it because I feel that it was a perfect end to January: keeping fit, getting closer to the people around me and making the most of Italy. Roll on Part 2.