The Puglia Diaries

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


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From Puglia to Piemonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Carnival Weekend in Venice and Verona

As early as January, I made plans with language assistant friends to visit Venice for the February festival that is Carnevale. Venice is well known to the best place to celebrate carnival: the masquerade tradition involves pretending to be someone else amidst music, dance and hedonistic processions. We knew that we would encounter crowds of tourists going nuts over masks and costumes as well as the usual gondolas but with a four-day weekend off work, it was the perfect opportunity to take a trip up North and experience the party atmosphere.

Day 1

Saturday the 1st of March saw me tiptoeing through the sleeping streets of Molfetta, trying not to roll my suitcase too loudly. I got the train with Katie to Bari airport and boarded a flight to Venice-Treviso airport, Treviso being the actual city of arrival (sneaky old Ryanair). To be fair to my least favourite airline, they have started allowing you to take an extra little bag on board, jazzed up their website and even (good gosh) allocated seats! Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this last fact until I had tried to get on the plane at the wrong end, and had to burrow back down the stairs through a crowd of sighing passengers.

We boarded a bus that would take us from the Airport to Piazzale Roma in the centre of Venice, and ate a whole bag of Apulian taralli between us, as a consolation for the awful weather lashing against the windows. We couldn’t see anything as we drove onwards, and when we arrived, we had to grab our suitcases and run through a downpour to try and catch the right water taxi to our hostel. We bought a three day ticket, got on the right Vaporetto, thought we had got on the wrong boat, got off and then got back on the right one again. It was cold and people were taking pointless pictures of water, but we kept our spirits up because Venice was still impressive as we pulled up to the Zitelle stop to check into the Generator Hostel.

The Hostel is pretty swish inside, all black and white floors and carefully chosen mismatched furniture. The rooms were also modern and very clean. I would recommend it as a place to stay for a few nights, the only drawback being the slightly unfriendly staff (Izzy would have things to say about our reception). We met up with Charlie and Sophie, dumped our stuff, said an awkward hello to the girls sharing our room, and then trotted back onto the Vaporetto to have a look around the main island.

Even if I had received some odd looks in sunny Bari for wearing wellies, it was entirely justified that day: people were gliding around like fluorescent ghosts in waterproofs and umbrella wars were breaking out in the streets. We wandered in the rain, looking around until we found a weird little lunch place in a backstreet, that sold gnocchi and tigelle, tiny sandwich specialities from Modena. We then tracked down some masks for the Masquerade ball that was being held at the hostel that evening. Bombarded with the choice of colours, glitter and feathers, I eventually chose a black and cream one with gold trim.

Then the weather got worse. So much worse. Suddenly, the vicious weather gods decided we were in for some misery: torrential rain started, whipping us horizontally with freezing water. We hid in a doorway but to no avail. It started hailing so much that it physically hurt your thighs when you walked. We were desperate to get back to the hostel, but it was what Italians would call a ‘casino’, a total and utter confusion of soggy people and water taxis ploughing through rough waves. We struggled to find the right station to get on the boat, split into two groups and finally got onto the crowded Vaporetto bound for the hostel. I looked like a drowned spaniel and wanted the ground to swallow me up and take me to the Bahamas. The weather can really have an impact on your appreciation of a city, and the four of us were not impressed with the situation, at all. However, our mood improved once we had temporarily changed into pyjamas, dried our hair and filled the radiators with sodden coats and socks (wellies only do their job up to a certain point, then it becomes a squelch fest inside them).

We made friends with an American room-mate, and prepared for the ball. Not knowing what to expect from the dress code, Katie and I had had a stressful dash round Bari’s shops the evening before. Luckily we both found some black dresses, which matched the other girls’. In fact, Katie and Charlie had even bought the same one: this can easily be explained by the ubiquity of Zara here in Italy.

Masks on, we took a few photos and went down to experience the revelry of Carnival. The evening was a dark blur of loud classical music, American accents, the freakiest masks I’ve ever seen (including a dragon), prosecco, half-naked dancers, creepy finger puppets and fruit lying around for show. There was next to no actual food, which was very disappointing: the table that was supposed to be “groaning with sweetmeats and delicacies” according to the party’s advert, was actually quite able to support the measly array of cheese chunks, bread and gherkins that we were offered. Seriously. It was soon cleared off because the aforementioned dancers had to do a dance and take even more of their clothes off to reveal gold body paint. One of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a while.

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Day 2

Day 2 started late, and gingerly, as prosecco on an empty stomach does not make for a fun morning after. The weather was improved however: we watched some music and magic acts in Saint Mark’s square under grey skies, went for lunch and then strolled on to the Rialto to look at the bridge. We got to appreciate the views of Venice from the water taxi, as the sun came out to shine on the water. All the walking and crowd jostling can get quite exhausting however, so we headed back to the hostel for a rest before going out for the evening. We all felt like eating a big pizza and then ice cream, so that’s what we did before going back to Piazza San Marco, taking bad pictures and trying to avoid being hit on the head by those glow-in-the-dark things that street sellers push on you. What would possess anyone to buy one, I don’t know. We were glad to get back, because the next day we’d decided to visit Verona: a relatively early start for a Monday morning.

Day 3

Over a muesli breakfast that we probably should have paid for, we had more conversations with American travellers. The Generator seems to attract a lot of people from the US, who take advantage of time in Europe to see loads of cities: we met some au pairs, some free spirits and a snowboarder. We didn’t hang around long, because we had to board a train to get to Verona: a journey that takes an hour and twenty minutes, more or less. It was such a beautiful day of sunshine that I felt rather silly in my wellies, which, apart from heels, were the only shoes I had packed. I almost broke my neck in them about five times, tripping over the pavements in Verona. With this natural clumsiness, all the bodies of water and with Charlie nearly pushing me in a canal, I’m surprised I came back to Molfetta unharmed.

Verona was really lovely, the façades bright and colourful as we went through the arch into the old centre of the city. We had a picture next to our fellow countryman Shakespeare, then wandered towards the Arena, before heading to Juliet’s house. We were feeling very happy with the pretty surroundings and the sun on our faces, and even more so after our stop at the famous balcony by the door covered with coloured padlocks professing people’s love for each other. The walls were also lined with spots of chewing gum, which made quite an interesting effect, but was also pretty disgusting in my opinion. We went to find somewhere to have lunch, singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ on the way.

We ate pasta in this dark little restaurant in a side street, very rich but interesting combinations. I had leek, cheese and speck pasta, while Charlie had some pumpkin ravioli with chocolate shavings on it (crazy, a very weird flavour). After eating all this food, what we did next was a terrible idea. We decided to go up the Torre dei Lamberti, the clock tower in the main square of Verona. The choice to face the 386 iron steps instead of taking the lift was something I regretted about a quarter of the way up. At the top though, once we had caught our breath from the climb, it was taken away again by the lovely view over the city and the hills in the distance. Luckily we decided to go down again just before the clock struck four, or else I think our eardrums would have had a shock from the massive bell tolling the hour.

We rounded off the trip with a bit of shopping and, as per usual, got lost next to a main road on the way back to the station. At least the way back was quiet, except for a Venetian man who wanted to practice his English by asking invasive questions, and we spent the evening walking on the island of Giudecca, marveling at how weird Venice is to be floating amidst all that water and watching distant Carnival fireworks from a bridge.

Day 4

On the Tuesday, Charlie and Sophie had an early morning flight, so we said our goodbyes bleary eyed and, for me, still in stripy pyjamas. After breakfast, Katie and I headed out again to fit in some cultural fun before our impending return to the South. I went into the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) alone (Katie had already been the year before) and wandered around taking in the regal atmosphere of the courtyard. I almost injured myself yet again on the Golden Staircase, craning my neck so far back that I almost fell over, and looked through all the rooms of stern looking Doges and artefacts. The residence of the Doge was impressive, but the main institutional chambers were even better, the ceilings so ornate, the floor space so wide and in the huge Senate Chamber, the enormous painting by Tintoretto was really wonderful to see. I then went into the Armouries, which impressed me less because I imagine that the weapons killed people, and then down to the Prisons, an experience which was slightly marred by loud French people making annoying comments up front.

When I got out of the Doge’s Palace, I saw that Piazza San Marco was full of water. For a second, this confused me because it hadn’t rained, but then it dawned on me: ahhh, the famous high tide was upon us. I felt smug again in my wellies: other people had to fork out 10 euros for flimsy unattractive plastic moonboots to continue their Carnival excursion. Katie had been trapped near the Rialto, and couldn’t make it back to where I was without being ankle deep in water. Another problem was, that the water taxis were being altered because of the high tide, so I had one hour to return to the hostel, get the suitcases and meet Katie at the bus stop to go to the airport. I asked three or four different people which line to take, grabbed the cases and finally made it to my destination, with 15 minutes to spare. We returned to Bari without problems, just slight exhaustion, which I tried to keep at bay with espresso and the thought of meeting my family at the airport. That’s right: the very evening of my return from Venice, Mum, Dad, Izzy and my two little dogs were coming to visit, ready for a fun-filled, jam-packed week of seeing where I live. It was raining when we landed in Bari, provoking comments from my family, which I fully expected (“I thought you said it was always sunny”). From there it was back to Molfetta and out for dinner to celebrate my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Katie and I discussed whether we preferred the North or South of Italy when we were waiting for the plane. She said that she liked the North better. For me, Italy is so varied in all its regions and cities and people that I couldn’t say that I prefer one half of the country or another. What I do know is that I was very happy to get back to Puglia, to the coast, to the people I have met here: this part of Southern Italy has made a strong and positive impression on me.


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Buon Anno 2014

2013 sailed away with rain and reminiscence on the banks of the River Thames, waiting for London’s giant firework display. It’s been a special year for me and my friends, the beginning of our hotly anticipated ‘Year Abroad’ or the start of the final year at university. I always thought 2013 sounded odd and ungainly as a date, but it has turned out to be a wonderful year in terms of events, exploring and meeting new people. I went to the USA, where I took part in a beautiful wedding and spent three days exploring New York with kind new friends. I also saw Pisa, Amsterdam, Rome and Naples. Then of course, I moved to Molfetta and felt part of a new place and gained an insider’s perspective on a new culture.

The time has gone terrifyingly fast. I can remember the anticipation as I boarded the train from Bari to Molfetta that very first boiling day. I can still feel that mix of excitement and fear of the unknown as I looked out of the window at the sea on one side and olive groves on the other. And now, in a blink of an eye containing a thousand images and faces and feelings, it’s 2014 and I’m ready to return, explore and face the wide future ahead of me. But before I do, I’d like to recap my highlights and achievements in Molfetta so far:

1)    Getting better at my job

When I first arrived, I was pretty daunted by the pressure of preparing and delivering a successful lesson. Over the past months I have developed a better sense of what my role is in the school and started to really enjoy my rapport with the students. Well, when I say rapport, what I mean is that I like making stupid jokes and seeing if they understand what I’m saying. Sometimes they do, and that makes for a good atmosphere. Other times, I look like a fool but at least they learn English from it. It’s all part of the process. I also enjoyed doing lessons with 10 year olds because I could use drawings of a haunted house to teach them place prepositions.

Goals for 2014: Keep learning and maybe give some more one-on-one lessons or conversations. Oh and try to memorise some more names, although with 250+ students that is HARD.

2)    Seeing new places

As I mentioned earlier, I have had quite a lot of jet setting opportunities this year. There was my university trip to Pisa in February, which was both lovely and instructive, and a four-day stay in Amsterdam in June. Then of course I enjoyed the French summer in Toulouse before heading off to the States. My year abroad in Puglia has allowed me to see a new place almost every weekend, like Bari, Alberobello, Trani, Bisceglie and Giovinazzo locally, and Rome, Turin and Naples further afield. I feel extremely lucky to be in such a fantastic region and will soon put together a ‘To See’ List for the coming eight months.

Goals for 2014: cf. this To See List, which is still forming in my brain

3)    Language Learning

The whole point of the Year Abroad, as I was reminded by a rather tedious university questionnaire, is to make progress in Italian, in speaking, reading, listening and interacting with people without feeling like a complete idiot. I’d say I’m pretty comfortable now with my level of Italian: obviously I make mistakes, but I can have a spontaneous conversation without blanks and even make jokes sometimes. I cannot wait for the day when my Italian will be good enough for puns and innuendo. Seriously though, being integrated in a family, a group of friends and the staff at school is really improving my Italian. I wonder if I’ll go back with a Southern accent.

Goals for 2014: Try to read more Italian books or magazines. I do own Dante and Petrarch’s works but they have just been chilling on the shelf so far. Memorise some swear words.

4)    Being independent

I moved out of my family home when I was only 17, which seems quite young to me now. I’ve travelled through a selection of airports alone, and generally feel that (apart from buttering bread) I can cope as a human being. I still make the odd stupid mistake but living in a new country without familiar people and places takes courage and I feel proud of my three months so far. Of course, it all depends on the situation, and I have been extremely lucky with the people I have met. Instead of being scared of the future, I feel confident that I can go places and meet people without self-destructing.

Goals for 2014: Not to leave my debit card in a supermarket again. Be safe, and streetwise.

The last I saw of Molfetta in 2013 was a beautiful pink and blue sunset, with a solitary fisherman on the water. I went to say a nostalgic goodbye to the sea because that’s what the Christmas period inspired in me. You may have noticed I’m a sentimental person at any time of year though, so you can no doubt expect more outbursts of feelings on the old blog later on in 2014. Keep reading to find out how I get on with 5 months more work in brand new classes, planning my summer and making the most of my time in Puglia. Happy New Year!


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Winter’s Not Bad when there’s Wine

I am doing a bad job of keeping this blog up to date. Between work, eating, marking tests, more eating, going to the gym and doing other fun stuff, I have let my experiences in Puglia stack up, unwritten, as the time flies by. I can’t believe it’s nearly December: I’ve bought a pair of gloves, the Christmas tree is up and it’s only 27 days until Baby Jesus joins the Nativity scene next to the TV.

Last Saturday, I took to the winding streets of Bisceglie for a wine festival called “Calici nel Borgo Antico”, or ‘Wine glasses in the Old City’. Winemakers from all over the region had set up their collections in rooms dotted around the historical part of town: for 10€ you could buy a glass, enough tickets for 7 tasters and a bag of taralli, which are like curly mini breadsticks. The streets were full of people milling around with Bordeaux pouches around their necks, an excellent idea so that you could put away your glass while you walked between tastings. Maybe not the hottest look of 2013 but all the same a nice souvenir from the evening.

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We tried a good few wines, from sweet syrupy moscati to strong red Pugliese wines, none of which I remember the name. The servings were generous, more than just a sip let’s say. One of my friends got her savvy uncle on the phone to find out the best wine makers out of the 25 in attendance and we weaved our way through the streets to find them, comparing opinions and trying to keep ahead of the pushchairs biting at our ankles. Even if it was based on alcohol, this festival was certainly an affair for all ages, with families, groups of friends and children. I saw a couple of my students from school and let down my I-don’t-speak-Italian façade once again (oops).

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Walking around the streets lit with Christmas lights, I felt that the evening was the epitome of all things Italian. There was the wine of course, strong and dark, but also a variety of food on offer. I bought a plate of orecchiette pasta for 1 euro and helped my friends finish a cheese platter (meaning I ate the plaited mozzarella they didn’t like – I am basically a human dustbin). Still hungry, I got myself a piece of focaccia later on, smothered in roasted tomatoes and olive oil and still one of my favourite foods from around here.

Apart from food and drink, there was also an opera performance, with singers belting out well-known arias from a balcony in one of the main squares. Also in attendance were some less conventional performers playing with fire and chains. I love these kinds of events, all about being with friends and bumping into people you know in a crowd of people that mostly look genuinely happy with life.

ImageAfter a 1am ‘cornetto’ and a coffee, it was time to go back to Molfetta. The car journey was fun because we were listening to Fabrizio de Andre, whose music my friends grew up with. They sang the whole song without stopping or missing a lyric while I just sat there smiling. Here is one of the ‘choons’ in question.

The evening was pretty cold, and despite going out with hat and coat and layers, I was told I looked like one of those red-nosed little characters from Whoville, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Appropriately festive, but I did feel a bit of a cold coming on the next day. I fought it off by helping to put up and decorate the Christmas tree, and then picking clementines from the mini orchard right here in the garden. Overall, a lovely wintery weekend.


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The Family and the Beautiful Tree

Last week Mum and Izzy came to visit me down here in Puglia. Their arrival was awaited like a royal visit, the best bed and breakfast selected, the room visited and booked. I was excited to show them around my new town, which although quite small has a particular charm that can easily win over visitors.

Their flight arrived late at night but Ryanair delivered them and all their bags without any issues. They were quick to tell me about all the Italians with oversized hand luggage and the people who were giving them funny looks on the plane, but it seemed that everything had gone smoothly. They brought me a suitcase with winter jumpers that I may or may not need, a thicker jacket, a Kindle for my birthday and a three thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of Picasso’s studio. Izzy has demanded photographic evidence of the finished product, and hopes it will ‘keep me busy’. She must be worried about me pining after her and her cupcakes, not knowing what to do with my days.

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On Wednesday, I was given the day off school to show the fam around. They were not disappointed with the port and the old part of town, but the glaring October sun roused a few complaints of it being too hot for long sleeves (I did warn you, Mum). The tour of Molfetta City was followed by a lunch, where my English family and Italian host family had to communicate without a solid common language. It’s fair to say that there were a lot of facial expressions and compliments on the food, but you can’t go wrong with the Southern specialities, focaccia and parmigiana. The afternoon was also rather productive: I used shopping time with Mum and Izzy to buy a new bag and an entire gym kit, shoes and everything. This is following my Dad’s remark that I ‘can’t run a tap’: I will show them!

Following many recommendations, we decided to go to Alberobello the next day. Literally translating as ‘the beautiful tree’, this town is one of the region’s major points of interest because of its peculiar houses, the trulli. I won’t say it was a stress-free morning: I had a couple of unruly classes at work, walked an old man home who had fallen over with heavy shopping bags, legged it home to change and then joined Mum and Izzy at the station, a little bit flustered. Armed with timetable and map, we pulled into Bari’s labyrinthine station and eventually found the platforms belonging to the Ferrovie del Sud Est. FSE is a crummy little train service that links all the small towns inland between Bari and Taranto. We embarked on an hour and a half of travel on a train that, judging by its interesting rattle and interior, had been around since the 1970s.

I would say that Alberobello is worth the journey: the trulli are lovely and bewildering to behold. You can’t quite believe what you are seeing when you are faced with a pathway flanked by rows of squat little huts like something out of a fairytale. The town was very peaceful but we located the main square with all the restaurants just in time before Izzy went into a full on hunger tantrum. She was appeased by orecchiette pasta and a chocolate soufflé that she was extremely protective of when I approached my spoon (‘She’s taking all the middle bit!’). Here are some pictures of the trulli:

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After an afternoon in Bari, it was time for goodbye in the Central station. I felt a bit sad getting on the train to Molfetta alone but family tourist times had worn me out, so I was glad to rest! Until next time, family: there are still many things to see in Puglia.


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Turning Twenty in Molfetta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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