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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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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Eating Easter: An Ode to Ricotta

As Easter approached in Molfetta, people began to get excited not only about the impending processions, but also at the prospect of eating their traditional Easter food. I’ve already talked about the chunky “pizzarello” sandwich, so now it’s time to turn to the various delights that sweeten up the Easter weekend.

I was told about the ‘scarcella’ at least ten times over the course of April, by my host family, by friends and by students. It took me that long to memorize the name: without seeing Italian names written down, they seem to go in one ear and out of the other. The ‘scarcella’, I’ve been told, varies depending on the tastes of the person who makes it but it can be loosely placed on the border between the categories of cake and biscuit (a bit like Jaffa Cakes, I suppose).  At Antonio’s house, I ate a fairly simple kind: a thick crumbly biscuit shaped like a big heart, or even like a dove, with a white sugar glaze and coloured hundreds and thousands. The lemon flavour was quite subtle, these were delicious with milk at breakfast time. I later sampled other ‘scarcelle’: one made by Antonella’s friend, this one softer with a lemon marmalade/jam/curd/whatever in the middle, and then one made by a local pasticcieria with the full Epicurean works. This masterpiece was filled with cherry jam and a layer of marzipan, then covered in an egg white glaze and chocolate piping.

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Another sweet discovery I made this Easter was the Neapolitan “pastiera”. The pastiera is a kind of wheat tart, made with a cooked grain, ricotta, egg and candied fruit filling. I’d never heard of such a thing but I helped Antonio’s mother make not one, but two tarts over the Easter period. Number one was consumed over a week or so in little aromatic squares: I suppose it could be described kind of like a solid rice pudding flavoured with some special essence called ‘Millefiori’ or ‘a thousand flowers’. Number Two was baked a couple of days before I went to Mondovì, up North in Piemonte, to visit Mum and Dad. The pie, 50cm in diameter, was sliced and packed with care in Tupperware and cling film and a big box with Botticelli’s Venus on the front. Then it was slotted into my hand luggage, all four kilos of it, and smuggled through security at Bari airport. I looked back at Antonio with an OK sign to show that the operation had been successful. But then, nowhere in Ryanair’s Terms and Conditions is there written ‘no food, no tarts’. Had they opened my suitcase, they might have thought I was some kind of dealer for Italian baked goods. Do they even exist? If so, someone get me in touch with one, I need my ricotta fix next year.

Italians take their love of gastronomy to an extreme level on national holidays. At Easter, families gather together around a table laden with food, wine and water, for a meal lasting three hours plus, bringing together several generations. It’s great, but really not healthy or reasonable at all. Still, it only happens a couple of times a year and at Easter, any guilt that we feel should go towards the Passion of Christ, not our waistlines. Let’s forget about gluttony, just for argument’s sake…

On Easter Sunday, Antonio invited me to have lunch with his family at a restaurant in the countryside near Ruvo di Puglia, a town near Molfetta. It was an “agriturismo”, a kind of farm located up in the Murgia, the gently hilly Apulian fields lined with olive trees and vines winding up tall stakes. The landscape is full of undulating yellows, greens and browns, the hills topped with a line of hazy light. We drove along the country paths from Corato towards the Coppa Agriturismo, and when we got out of the car, I was instantly reminded of Scuderia Castello in the hills above Lake Garda. That  eternal smell of horses, reminiscent of early morning feeding time, trotting after a wheelbarrow at the age of 9, almost getting our hands bitten off by a rogue piebald. Then a donkey rolling in the sun reminded me of the famous trio of placid animals that let us brush them the wrong way for hours at a time.

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At Scuderia Castello in 2012

We headed inside the restaurant, which was a refurbished stable with cool light bricks and a high arched ceiling. There were six of us around the table: Antonio’s grandfather was particularly jovial, calling me by a different name each time (Marilena, Gioconda, Josefina, Silvia and Silvana among the many) until I just looked his way every time a girl’s name was mentioned, just in case.  There was a lot of laughter and a lot of dialect and a lot of food, but that goes without saying. It started with at least eight different types of anitpasti, including roasted vegetable skewers, meats, freshly made ricotta and mozzarella, a variety of focaccia and fritelle. The highlights were some cute little toast canapés with designs of ladybirds and bumblebees. We took pictures to show Izzy, for inspiration. It was delicious but we were apprehensive about the shedloads of food still to come. The next courses were orecchiette with a lamb sauce and then some kind of crêpe stuffed  with the classic combo, spinach and more ricotta. Then it was time for a walk to try and make some room for the rest, fennel, grilled meat, and finally dessert and coffee. The chocolate biscuits and scarcella remained lonely and untouched as we reached maximum capacity.

Despite this calorie explosion, Mother says I haven’t gained weight; that I’m just toned.  I’m inclined to believe her rather that admit that I’m on a one way street to “paffuto”. But ah well, no one can say I’m not making the most of the local cuisine. Especially ricotta.


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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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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.