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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Foreign Fruit

We all know our apples, bananas and pears, right? I came to Puglia thinking that my fruit and vegetable knowledge was pretty on point, but it seems I was wrong. The Italians around me have been attempting to educate me by plying me with seasonal produce. Here are some new fruits that I’ve discovered while living in a countryside villa in the South of Italy:

Cachi (Persimmon)

It took me ages to figure out what a ‘caco’ was, since apparently persimmons come in different varieties. I discovered the soft kind in early October when I first arrived in Puglia. I’m not a fussy eater but I must admit that I can really only handle a small amount of this fruit: its sugary flavour quickly gets too sickly for me and the texture can accurately be described as gloop. Nonetheless, it was good to finally try a fruit that I’d previously only heard of in the Sims Playstation game (Sims have eclectic taste in food it seems).

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Nespole

This is a fruit that I’d never even heard of before: nespole translates as loquat or medlar. They look a bit like orange plums, like cousins of an apricot. The taste is sweet but also slightly sharp at the end. They’re quite fun to eat as well, by chopping off the end, you can pop out the two flat brown stones and eat it whole.

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Gelso (Mulberry)

The mulberry is currently in season, with the tree in the garden shedding loads of little white fruits looking somewhat like elongated raspberries. Another fabled and untasted fruit in my mind, I was told that the mulberry only grows in places like Southern Italy and Uzbekistan (?). The tree apparently also hosts the cocoon of the silk worm: the whole process was explained to me over lunch one day. My host family often engage in the argument of whether the tree is supposed to bear white or purple berries: both colours taste lovely, and can be added to my list of “fruits that double as sweets”. This also includes strawberries, raspberries, grapes and cherries.

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Down here, getting your 5 a day is not a chore, its yet another cultural experience. Let me remind you about turnip tops.


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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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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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The Italian Rom-Com

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

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

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

Stai Lontana da Me (Stay away from Me)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Prepare yourself, Puglia

In one week, my year abroad will finally begin. After months of telling friends, family and strangers what I will be doing, I am going to actually start doing it: I will move to Molfetta, a coastal town in Puglia. On the 1st of October, I start my British Council Language Assistantship at an Istituto Tecnico, a vocational technical secondary school.

So before I start worrying about my role as a teaching assistant, what am I looking forward to about life in Molfetta?

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Living by the sea

Judging from photos and a few awkward attempts at Google Street View, Molfetta is a proper Italian town. With its ubiquitous green shutters, intertwined alleyways and the impressive Duomo right on the water’s edge, it seems to promise eternal summer and lots of fresh sea air. I can picture myself riding about on an old bicycle and never getting bored of the bright blue Adriatic. Cue the classic Italian guitar track.

Meeting new people

On my arrival in Molfetta, I will be lodging with the vice-president of the secondary school. It was my top goal to live with Italians and luckily for me, I have avoided the hassle of an accommodation search and instantly got a link with the locals. As well as experiencing the community of Molfetta, I am also in close reach of the student hub Bari, so I’ll have somewhere to go in search of shops and urban scenery.

Travelling

I have never been to the South of Italy, let alone Puglia, so this will be an opportunity to explore. I could start with the highlights of the area: the Baroque city of Lecce and the famous Valle d’Itria, with its little houses called trulli with conical roofs. Will they be conical and comical? We shall see.

Food

I’m going to pretend that food isn’t the top thing I look forward to. But I have heard such raving about the pasta, seafood and fresh vegetables on offer in Puglia that I believe I might have gone up a dress size by the time I get back to Leeds. Apparently the typical pasta shape of the region is orecchiette, meaning small ears. Lovely!

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Improving my Italian

So far at university I have managed to get by on good written work and the occasional timid oral presentation, but not next year! My first assignment is to telephone the school to make sure they know I’m coming. This already scares me. But I will have to get used to total immersion from my first week dealing with banking, telephone contracts and other administrative thrills. I have a feeling that progress will be inevitable!

My friends are already far-flung, having already begun their adventures in France, Spain, Germany, Canada and Wales, so now it is my turn to embark on my year abroad. Let the final countdown begin.