The Puglia Diaries

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


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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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Easter in Molfetta: Passion, Processions and Pizzarelli

At school today, students and teachers alike heaved a collective sigh as normal duties resumed. The five-day holiday flew by like the traditional Easter dove (colomba): it’s back to school for two days, before a long weekend commemorating the Italian liberation. Needless to say, there was a restless atmosphere this morning as the teenagers are all very much looking forward to sleeping all morning again.

I’m very glad I stayed to see Molfetta’s Easter festivities, even if a spell of horrible weather interfered with my plans somewhat. After having been promised great things, I finally got to see some of these processions everyone was talking about and ate plenty of traditional dishes and desserts, as per usual. It seems that for the Apulians, traditions and holidays have to involve food in one way or the other. That’s just fab, but it does nothing for your figure. I was told yesterday that my face is definitely more paffuto, which is a cute little term to mean plump or chubby. Great. In response, I whacked out my new muscles. Yeah I’m no longer a weakling:

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The first experience I had of the religious rites of Easter was the procession of the Madonna Addolorata, on the Friday before Easter. The statue of the suffering Virgin Mary was to leave the church called the Purgatorio, at 4 in the afternoon, to be carried around the city for eight hours and then come back round by the port and ‘retire’ into the church again. The idea is that the Virgin is looking for Christ, knowing that something bad is going to happen, and then coming home without having found Him. I headed to the final stretch in front of the Purgatorio, just in time to see the statue make her slow approach. The statue is carried by select memebers of the Confraternita della Morte (the Confraternity of Death, which in English sounds like a terrible horror film). Following the statue of the Virgin was a black cloth, carried by more black hooded figures. They wandered in a deathly swarm, some carrying candles and some encouraging little children who were also taking part in the procession. This macabre group was followed by the band, who were playing very moving funeral marches, with brass instruments and drums. We couldn’t help being involved in the experience: even if not to the same extent as some of the molfettese gathered there in tears, I certainly felt compassion growing with every note they played. Here’s a link to one of the funeral marches composed by Amedeo Vella. Be prepared, it’s called ‘a Tear on the Grave of my Mother’ and so might kill your mood just a bit.

What impressed me was the atmosphere in the crowd gathered there. There was a kind of subdued buzz as the Madonna approached but when she was in the vicinity, a veil of sombreness fell over the street. This continued until the Virgin had climbed the steps and was safely inside the Purgatorio. Then, in true Italian style, the crowds fanned out to the various gelaterie in the vicinity to get their late night ice cream fix. The children of the procession were given juice cartons and the band stopped playing. The next processions would arrive the weekend afterwards, when we would see the statue of Jesus Christ on Friday, and then of the Madonna carrying Christ in her arms on Saturday.

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On Thursday, I made plans with my friends to go and see the sepolcri. On the day before Good Friday, all the churches in Molfetta set up candles and flowers around statues and crosses to represent the tomb of Christ. Each one is different and it’s traditional to go and visit an odd number of them (not an even number) with family and friends. As the evening approached, the clouds darkened and by the time I arrived at the Liceo Classico, it was already raining. I had to wait a little while: being infernally punctual, so unlike the majority of Italians, I always arrive ahead of everyone else. I huddled in a doorway for a while breathing in the smell of foccaccia, before I saw my friends arriving. We exchanged news and they explained the customs of the Easter weekend, including the Confraternita of Santo Stefano, who would lead the next day’s procession. It has some kind of crazy initiation process ie. you have to be related to at least 10 people who have been in the group for 10 years, be relatively high up in society and maybe even sell a kidney, who knows. In any case, it’s something taken very seriously in Molfetta, as I saw from the sepolcri.

We visited a church on Corso Umberto with a very simple layout, lilies and gold cloth, before making our way towards the central cluster of churches. We had to queue up outside Santo Stefano, because that’s where the statues would be coming from that night. After almost being murdered by a lady’s wild umbrella, we stepped inside and saw several statues of Christ, made by the sculptor .. along with incense, candles and flowers, this was a pretty elaborate sepolcro. Then we went inside the Purgatorio, where the statue of the Madonna was sitting, dressed in velvet cloth. Apparently there is a whole series of rites to prepare the Virgin for her outing, only known by a small group of married women. And she has real hair.

At this point, it was around 10pm and absolutely freezing. I was actually shocked by the sea wind that buffeted us around ,and the on-off icy rain. The weather last week was enough to make me get my thick jumpers and duffel coat out again, when I had been wearing sunglasses and reading outside just the week before. The streets of the centro storico were like wind tunnels and I got caught in the rain on the way to the gym, turning up to do exercise like a drowned mouse with a broken umbrella. My friends reassured me that it wouldn’t last and that soon I would think back to the cold longingly, as temperatures climb to unbearable levels of heat.

We tried to warm up by eating a Molfetta must-have of the Easter period, a pizzarello. Some people don’t see the point in a pizzarello and I can sort of see why: it is basically a tuna sandwich, maybe with capers and tomatoes, inside a kind of huge crunchy roll. I would agree that you can make the same thing at home, but what I find special is the tradition of it: everyone eats the same thing on Venerdì Santo, all the bakeries sell the bread, you can buy them in the street of dubious quality and every paninoteca offers its festive wares with signs in the window.

We sheltered by taking a look at the Duomo’s sepolcro, a very simple layout of white and gold. It was a nice chance to take a look at the inside of the church too: usually I avoid visiting churches in case I accidentally interrupt a service or a wedding or something. I could not deal with that level of awkwardness. When we regrouped outside the Duomo, we made a plan to get away from the sea edge because a chill wind was whipping round our ears. Someone asked where my red hat was and I had to explain the tragic fact that I cannot find it anywhere. We went to hide in a café, where I had a hot chocolate and tried to reassure the others about their level of English. This means…that we visited 4 churches, which is an even number. I can’t believe I’m still alive.

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RIP red hat, wherever you are.

The statues were due to come out of the church at 3am. But it was just. Too. Cold. Instead of self-imposed torture of kicking around in the wind for another 3 hours, we decided to reconvene the next morning to see the end of the procession. Unfortunately, the weather was against us once again and our plans were cancelled as the Madonna was taken back into the church early. The rest of my Easter weekend was to involve food, food and more food. Stay tuned to find out what specialities Puglia had to offer for Pasqua.


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Public English Educator N°1

So you may think from all my recent blog posts that I spend all my time travelling around Puglia and not doing a single day’s work. Not so. I’m still at school every morning, (admittedly not always at 8am) in front of a class, getting chalk all over myself and trying to instil phrasal verbs into 16 year olds. 16 year olds who are getting more excited for the summer holidays by the minute. Now it’s the Easter break: Italian students are generously concede 5 days of full relaxation, before going back to complete the final month. Meanwhile, I’m drawing closer and closer to the end of my placement: “finito”, 31st of May…I’ve already been promised a party and group photographs. Lately, I’ve been covering a variety of topics with the 3rd and 4th classes. My favourite thing to teach is the same old literature, including Restoration history that keeps cropping up at university every time I turn around. I’m quite happy reading poems aloud and making approximate quotes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can easily have a chat with them about the symbolism in Geoffrey Chaucer and listen to oral presentations about the Canterbury Tales. I’ve also prepared lessons about Australia, health, school life and Easter in the UK that stimulated some sort of discussion about kangaroos, penguins and school uniforms. These lessons run quite smoothly in general and may or may not include laughter. My jokes are still being under-appreciated. Image I’ve also had to face more challenging topics due to the fact I’m in a Technical and Industrial school. My technical and industrial knowledge being close to zero, it’s not surprising that sometimes I run into trouble. Recently, I was asked to prepare a lesson about maths terms in English. My guidelines were short ‘oh, addition, multiplication, stuff like that’. Right. I dutifully wrote out some sums, fractions and then taught them how to read mathematical operations. I encouraged them to do some listening by reading out English sums and asking for the answer. It transpired that some of them were really rubbish at Maths. Also, I had to stress the difference between ‘sixteen’ and ‘sixty’ after several moments of extreme confusion. The third class seemed to appreciate this game, although I gave up scoring after things got heated. The fourth class was another matter. “How do you say | x – 1 | = – (x – 1) ? » « What about ‘x tendente a… » I stood there, stunned. I had no idea what they were talking about. When they asked me about geometry, I forgot how to say ‘radius’ and also accidentally taught them how to say ‘cosine’ etc. in French. But this maths…I had absolutely no idea. A boy came to the board and wrote all this calculus, limits, functions…In the end, I said ‘sorry mate, can’t help you. Do you want to talk about Shakespeare now?’. The look of disgust I got shows that we belong to two different fields entirely. Another aspect I’ve had to learn about is technical English: electromagnetism and more recently, machine tools. I don’t know what an upright drill is, or a lathe, but I’m there to help with pronunciation and to explain what chips and shavings are. A side project I’ve got going on at school is a film screening in Bari, due to take place on the 9th of May. I’ve had to go round the classes finding out who is interested. The main question is ‘is it in the morning or the afternoon?’ ie. ‘can we miss school?’, and with the answer that it will happen in the morning, I receive cheers and applause and a resounding yes.

All in all, I like teaching English. Having learned languages for a long time, since the age of 7 in fact, I find it interesting comparing words and structures, and explaining them to other people. I must admit that at times it is a challenge to make rules stick: sometimes correcting tests makes me want to bang my head repeatedly against a hard surface, or better yet, the head of the boy committing the horrendous grammar mistakes. But that would never do. It does take patience and commitment and a tolerance of high decibel levels. I’ve gained a lot of experience this year, no longer will I be shy doing presentations, no longer will I be fazed by people not understanding me: it’s given me confidence. Even if I don’t end up in education, at least I’ve got some skills to bulk up my weak little CV now. And I’ve had a very good time, the kids aren’t half bad.


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Introducing Castel del Monte, Trani and the Boyfriend

The third day that my family spent with me in Puglia was also action-packed. I worked for two hours in the morning and left the school with a headache brought on by chalk dust and twenty students shouting ‘beach’ in unison. Never mind – my parents picked me up, we chased a half-ready Izzy out of the house and headed towards Castel del Monte.

Castel del Monte is one of Puglia’s top attractions. It’s even on the back of the Italian one cent coin. Translated literally to ‘Castle on the Mountain’, it wasn’t a surprise that we had to head inland towards Andria, through the sunny olive trees, deep into the countryside to get there. We saw it in the distance as we were driving through the greenery: Dad said that it looked like a power station or something (romantic…). When we arrived, we did the compulsory ‘are-dogs-allowed’ check and with an affirmative answer, walked up towards the castle.

It was fairly windy up there but apart from almost losing my scarf and keeping my dress in check, it felt amazing to look out across the Apulian countryside. The Castle rose up in its precise hexagonal structure, overshadowing us with a certain stately quietness. We were the only people on the hill, walking around the castle. The air felt fresh and the atmosphere tranquil. Of course, I wanted to visit inside.

Me and Mum paid a small fee to enter the castle while Izzy and Dad stayed outside, lounging around on the rocks and shirking cultural improvement. We read (I translated) panels explaining the history of Federico II, the great King who came and took over Apulia, filling the territory with such great relics. Castel del Monte was built in the 1240s and it’s a World Heritage site. It’s fairly small, but its geometrical structure inside was just as impressive as the external view. All the rooms were connected: built in the same light stone with vaulted ceilings. We went to the upper floors and imagined what it must have been like furnished in its time of use. Apparently it was a refuge from the Plague and a prison before it fell into disuse – cheery. We ended up going round and round in circles looking for the exit, a tiny spiral staircase. Mum threatened to fall down but luckily she didn’t and we came out into the sun alive.

More driving took us from Castel del Monte, through Andria and towards Trani. By the coast, the sun had appeared in all its glory: I stole Mum’s sunglasses again while we walked by the port. We sat down and ate pasta with mussels and some focaccia, followed by an ice cream for Izzy and the usual argument when I wanted to try a bit. It’s my vice and she hates sharing yoghurt ice cream (“You can’t buy it in France! She can have it all the time! I never get it!”). I did have a coffee and a zeppola, a little doughnut filled with custard, with a cherry on top.

We went to the beautiful Cathedral of Trani and looked out at the sea, while Lily made friends (sort of) with a red English setter. It’s one of my favourite places that I’ve seen so far in Puglia: by day and by night, the Cathedral is stunning. The port curves round in a sweeping semi-circle, with lined up boats, giving off the smell of fish, opposite cafés and bed and breakfast. Trani is more popular with tourists than Molfetta, and also with young Italians for its lively evening atmosphere.

Taking advantage of family time, we all went shopping together at the Città della Moda, an outlet village just outside of Molfetta. I’ve been there several times, mainly to go to the cinema but also to buy my entire gym outfit last time Mum and Izzy came to see me. This time, my purchases were better: I bought a jacket and shirt, while Izzy bought a shirt and Dad got some long needed jeans. It’s incredibly rare to get him anywhere near a shopping centre so thank goodness he bought something. Of course then we headed to Decathlon, the sports shop where he buys all his multi coloured T-shirts. He loaded up his basket good and proper while me and Izzy messed around taking selfies by canoes and horse vitamins. The hilarious thing was that when he got back to the hotel, Dad discovered he had in fact accidentally bought…tank tops.

Friday evening was a pretty important event for me because it was to be the official meeting between my family and Antonio. I was excited to see my boyfriend because having been up and down and around to Venice and Lecce and back, it had been quite a while since I’d seen him. We were going for a meal all together and my English family would be conversing with my Italian Antonio. I felt a bit squirmy and nervous worrying about the language barrier and first impressions.

I really didn’t need to. Antonio arrived wearing his best shirt and I made introductions and Dad spoke Italian and Antonio spoke English (which he speaks really very well), and everything went swimmingly. The restaurant we chose was a bit quiet, ie. we were the only ones there, but we ate reasonably well, with antipasti and a primo and then even a dessert. The waiter was quite eccentric, balancing two forks on a bottle to impress my sister (he failed on his first attempt, embarrassing…) and putting roses on the table, one of which Antonio gave to me (aw). Then we walked along the port for a bit, I had to go quite slowly as I’d put on my heels. When will I learn that the old stones of Molfetta and high heels don’t match? There are a lot of circular holes in them. Mum and Dad drove Izzy back and we arranged a departure time for the next morning: then I had Antonio all to myself, sitting on our favourite bench by the port and talking until it got cold. It was a sweet evening, a lovely mash up of English and Italian.


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Rome Again: ‘Viaggio della Memoria’

I’m back. This is the first afternoon that I have spent at home in three weeks. Between the trip to Rome, a weekend in Venice and a visit from the family, I’ve seen a good deal of Italy recently and very little of my sofa. On top of this, there’s been the usual work that comes with being a language assistant (ie. trying to avoid the sinking feeling of being totally unprepared in front of thirty blank faces) and last but definitely not least, getting to know a special new Italian named Antonio. More on this to follow.

On the penultimate week of February, an exciting opportunity was presented to me at the last minute. As deputy head of the school, Antonella was accompanying four of our students on a trip to Rome to commemorate the Holocaust, “un Viaggio della Memoria’. On the 27th of January, the victims are remembered in Italian schools with classroom activities like readings of Primo Levi. This trip was an opportunity for select students from all the schools in Molfetta to find out more about this period of history by visiting the Jewish quarter in Rome and listening to real stories from survivors of the concentration camps. On the Wednesday, I was offered a place on the bus, on Thursday I paid for my hotel room, and on Friday the 21st of February at 5am, I was on the coach with students, teachers and the mayor of Molfetta ready to set off for the capital.

The journey takes around 5 hours if you count the compulsory break for coffee and cornetti. We rolled out of the bus onto the pavement surrounding the main Synagogue of Rome, where the Jewish museum is also located. After waiting around in the sunshine for a while, we were ushered in and given a whistle stop tour of tapestries, ornaments, traditions and customs. Then, after a quick sit down in the Synagogue, we left our breathless guide and listened to some stories from the daughter of a Jewish woman who managed to escape from soldiers who wanted to take her away. Or at least, I think that’s what she said: my Italian skills are such that if people speak very quietly, if there are too many people around, or if I’m getting hungry, I tend to miss some things.

We took a walk around the Jewish quarter and looked at the ‘stolperstein’, golden paving stones to commemorate individual victims who used to live in those tall and ungainly houses. The buildings in the Jewish ghetto are stacked up high, as floors were added whenever they were needed. In the afternoon, a historian named Anna Foa accompanied us around a building where she used to live and from which a Jewish family was taken captive, children and all. Her research has consisted of finding out the stories of all the inhabitants of the building: the events that she told us about made the rooms feel very cold, even as the climbing plants around us glowed in the sunshine.

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In our lunch break, I ate with Antonella and two other teachers: we decided to try some falafel, hummus, battered fish and deep fried artichoke, as well as the extortionately priced bread. It was all very good and garlicky, taking me right back to Izzy’s cooking: she is the sort of chef who will stick a whole bulb of garlic to bake on a pièce of Brie. But one time she made falafel and it was tasty. At around 4pm, we were back on the bus and heading across town towards the Trastevere area of Rome, on the way to listen to a famous survivor of Auschwitz, Piero Terracina. He has been active in speaking about his experience of the camp, speaking in schools, writing and visiting Molfetta some time ago. He had invited us all to his apartment: bearing in mind that there were over thirty of us, this was no small matter.

After a short but hostile encounter with an appallingly parked car, the bus turned the corner and dropped us off at the apartment building. We climbed all the way to the top and filed into the apartment, each of us shaking Piero’s hand as we went in. We were offered drinks and little cakes, as we all sat on the floor or available chairs and listened attentively in the hot, close air of the flat. There was silence as he spoke. Even if I did not catch every word, the atmosphere was solemn and intense as he spoke about the day that he and his family went into hiding, and then about when he was taken. He spoke about the appalling conditions he lived in, about knowing cold, knowing hunger. The true meaning of suffering that no human should be subjected to. We left after an hour, all of us once again shaking his hand and smiling with respect and gratitude. The mayor of Molfetta expressed her emotion at seeing us all, each with a different expression on our face upon saying goodbye to this man. As she said, we are fortunate to hear the stories from the last remaining witnesses and it’s our duty to internalise this memory and hand it down to future generations.

A bit weary, we headed to the hotel where I found a big double bed all for little old me. The dinner at the hotel was standard school trip catering: decent enough pasta, but meat like an old dog’s ear and shudder-inducing potato purée. A bit giddy with tiredness, we headed out around half past ten for a walk around the city. It was very nice to chat in Italian with the four students from Galileo Ferraris and with teenagers from the other schools nearby. We walked up the Spanish steps and looked at the stars, Antonella sighed at the poorly kept gardens flanking them and then we stopped at the Trevi Fountain before getting on the metropolitana back at Piazza del Popolo. My legs were freezing their tights off by that point so I was happy to climb into bed and sleep in a quarter of the space I’d been given.

On Saturday we had to be up early because we had an appointment with the mayor of Rome. That’s right, on a spontaneous trip to the capital, a British girl infiltrates the Campidoglio and gets a handshake from Ignazio Marino. I had breakfast with the teenagers, who were decidedly unimpressed with the coffee from the machine and the transparent apple juice. For the duration of the trip, I fluctuated between getting down with the kids and spending time with the teachers, but I’m pretty sure my youthful complexion and general wide-eyed disposition allowed me to blend in more with my students than with their supervisors.

We went for a walk around the Altare delle Patria, the monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II, before being graciously ushered inside the Campidoglio, the Capitol where all of the important decisions go down. We were shown into the Sala Delle Bandiere, which had a long wooden table running down the centre and walls bedecked with flags. And then the mayor strolled in with his sash on and delivered a succinct but seemingly heartfelt speech to us about the importance of memory, then accepted our gift of olive oil all the way from Puglia. Then of course he had to meet people more important than us, so he shook all of our hands and went out again. We completed our morning with a tour of the official meeting rooms and some sort of antechamber, before getting back on the trusty old bus to head to the Fosse Ardeatine.

The Fosse Ardeatine is the site of a terrible massacre, which took place on the 24th March 1944 as revenge for an Italian ambush against the Nazis. This was another solemn event for us. It started to pour with rain as soon as we arrived, so we were ushered into the caves and told the story of the killings that took place there and then how the terrain was bombed to hide the evidence. The Nazi authorities decided that for every German killed, 10 Italians had to die and so they selected prisoners condemned to death, or Jews, 335 in number. It was chilling to see the tombs of the fallen men: memory hung in the air as it had all weekend. We touched the little silver wreaths, each encasing a photograph, and felt a sense of duty and responsibility towards all of these names. I paid special attention to the tomb of ‘Ignoto’, unknown and unidentified.

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This visit concluded our journey through the traumatic past and so we headed up the mountain to a restaurant overlooking a lake. We ate plenty of food again, stocking up on bucatini and meat before beginning our trip back to Molfetta. At the table, I was taken to be Antonella’s daughter for the twentieth time and then called ‘bellissima’, which is fine by me. After a busy weekend, I was glad to get back to familiar Molfetta at around quarter past nine, where my boyfriend was waiting for me at the Calvario, the little church by the park. He carried my suitcase and gave me dinner, the cherry on top of an emotional, interesting and unforgettable weekend. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to take part in it, and devote some time to remembering an atrocity that is almost too horrific to imagine. The point of all of us travelling across the country was not just for show, but to increase our awareness of the role we have to play in posterity. Being on a year abroad, I learn something every day, not only the Italian language but also about the country’s history and culture.


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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.


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Why I Love Italians

This weekend, I paid extra attention to what makes the Italian people around me so special. Sometimes cultural stereotypes are nonsense: the French are no ruder than any other population and not all British people need extensive dental work. It seems to me though that the common perception of Italian people is not so far off the mark. Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule but my stay here so far has shown me that…

1)    The Italians DO have amazing food

What I love about Molfetta is that things grind to halt around 1pm so that families can have lunch together. This weekend, I was chatting to my friends about what we had for lunch, and every one of us had eaten pasta or rice. Of course every day there is a different sauce or a different accompaniment but this primo (‘first course’) invariably keeps you going all afternoon. It’s a shame that the concept of ‘Italian food’ is sometimes reduced to spaghetti and pizza. The Italian diet is so much more varied and uses loads of fresh vegetables. On Friday, I made myself a frittata con zucchine and although I spent the best part of the evening cleaning the tin, I was very happy with my efforts. Other culinary highlights include fresh fish and little pieces of knotted mozzarella that actually tastes of something. Oh, and the deliciously thick hot chocolate, best shared on a rainy afternoon, with biscuits and apricot jam.

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2)    The Italians DO love fashion

On Sunday morning, we went to look around the big shiny shopping centre in Molfetta called La Mongolfiera (which translates as hot air balloon – an interesting name for a supermarket). It was packed with shoppers and excitable children in Disney costumes. We browsed Zara and then looked at the range of six inch heels in Primadonna shoe shop. One of my favourite shops there is Oysho, a ‘loungewear’ shop that could satisfy the wishes of any pyjama seeker. It seems that the Italians are even stylish lying in front of the TV eating Nutella with a spoon. They are ready to dazzle unexpected visitors with their cashmere cardigans and lace-sleeved pyjamas.  I could spend a great deal of time and money in that shop: I almost went for some slippers that would perfectly match my giraffe onesie, which alas I have left in Leeds. All to say that Italians love fashion and usually dress well (apart from the teenagers at school who go around in track pants and trainers 24/7). Both women and men appear to have an extensive collection of shoes, and don’t even get me started on coats and handbags. Meanwhile, I sometimes dress like this:

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CUTE

 

3)    Italians ARE extremely expressive

There is a running joke that if you handcuffed an Italian, they would be unable to speak. Hand gestures are used ALL THE TIME. Some of them have specific meanings like ‘what?’ or ‘look at that asshole’ and some are just to give emphasis to their already emphatic speech. I now think that British people are creepily calm. They stay still when they speak and keep a regular tone in their voice even when they get angry. Italians are very quick to shout and throw their arms up in the air. Interjections make up a whole lexicon that I am slowly growing to understand.

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I went to see a volleyball match for the first time on Sunday evening. Molfetta was playing Trento and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing. There was a squadron of people in red playing drums and chanting to support our home team. There was a man exuberantly sounding a horn that I could have done without, but in general I enjoyed watching the crowd just as much as the match. At one point, Trento challenged a point that clearly belonged to Molfetta. There was a Mexican wave of Italians up in arms, yelling ‘VERGOGNA’ (or ‘SHAAAAAME’) and making an offensive gesture demonstrating the sign of the horns, which literally means ‘cuckold’ (you’ve been cheated on, man). It was rowdy and lively, and even though Molfetta lost, they put up a good fight and we went for ice cream from my favourite gelateria afterwards. I had cappuccino and lemon nougat flavour (che buono!)

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4)    The Italians ARE very friendly

Okay, so maybe this isn’t just an Italian thing. I’ve met friendly people from all over the world. But generally, Italians are just more outgoing and publicly affectionate than their British counterparts. They talk to strangers on public transport. They stand remarkably close to you in conversation and squeeze your arm for no particular reason. The boys at school are constantly slapping each other on the back and engaging in massive bear hugs between classes, something that I imagine never happens in a British school. On Saturday evening, I went out with friends to a pub in Bisceglie. Four of us squeezed into the back seat of the car, and then in the bar itself, all fifteen of us had to squash up into an impossibly small booth, taking up all the space the benches would offer. The process of sitting down was 20 minutes of chaos and noisy confusion. We were sat practically on top of each other and cut up our pizza with our elbows tucked in. On the way home, we compared an Italian night out with the typical British outing on any given Friday or Saturday. My friends were surprised/shocked to hear of student partying, of us going to the ‘discoteca’ every weekend (sometimes more than once) and told me that everyone knew the British have a reputation for getting horribly drunk. To be sure, pre-drinks and smoky nightclubs are very different from late night pizza, a single beer and then if we’re feeling indulgent a coffee and croissant. Both nights have their very separate merits but I have to say that doing the latter has a lower risk of being sick in a plant pot on your way home.

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(Apologies – due to lack of own pictures, one of these is from a  website called ‘titillate’ and the other from a toothpaste advert with a scary looking man in it)

With my family situation becoming more complicated now that both Mum and Dad are living in Italy, it seems that this country is slowly turning into my ‘permanent’ home, if such a place should exist. I am happy because I feel increasingly that I belong among these wonderful Italians, making eye contact in the post office, raising my voice and catching the smell of freshly baked focaccia drifting from open doorways.