The Puglia Diaries

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

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Public English Educator N°1

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

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


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Lecce, Brindisi and nearly Greece

And it was back on the Apulian road for the Cooke family, early(ish) on Thursday morning. Of course I was up first to take care of Lily and Cassie, who from 6am onwards demand breakfast, exercise and attention. I also made sure that Izzy had enough croissant and Nutella inside her to last until lunchtime. Although judging by this photo, you wouldn’t think so.

We drove southwards again, this time hugging the coast and following the signs to Bari first, then Brinidisi and finally arriving at our destination, Lecce. I’d been told by travel blogs and people around me that Lecce was like the ‘Florence of the South’ with its beautiful baroque architecture. The Salento is certainly a part of Puglia that I would like to see more of when the weather gets warmer. On the day we spent there in early March, the sun shone through the streets of the Centro Storico and I even had to borrow Mum’s sunglasses which went great with my thick duffel coat.

As usual, our first thought when arriving was ‘where can we get some good Italian food?’ After almost two hours drive, we parked near one of the arches entering the old town and wandered through the stone streets, coming across a different church and ornate balconies on every corner. We happened across Piazza del Duomo where we stood in the sunshine for a while and bought a map of the main sights of Lecce. Dad and Izzy generously agreed that we could see everything I wanted to look at, provided that they didn’t have to go in any museums. Some things never change.

As luck would have it, Antonio had recommended a restaurant that we should try in the Centro Storico of Lecce. It was simply called ‘La Vecchia Osteria’ and we found it quite easily, using my shiny new map. Three pairs of puppy dog eyes (Lily’s, Cassie’s and mine) succeeded in getting the owner’s permission to bring them inside. So far, so good.

In fact, the meal was excellent. We all had some antipasti to start: mine was Anitpasti della Casa, a perfect mixture of all the Apulian things I love the most. If I could put together a personalised antipasti platter, that would be it. There were roasted peppers, capers, cime di rape, courgettes, ricotta, olives and more. Next we decided to have a pasta course: Mum went for some ravioli, while Dad, Izzy and I all followed Antonio’s special advice and ate ‘Ciceri e Tria’, one of Lecce’s specialities. This was essentially tagliatelle pasta with chickpeas in a sort of thin spicy sauce, with pieces of fried tagliatelle on top. We all enjoyed it very much: I’d definitely have this Salento special again. It was extremely filling though, so we were happy to walk off our meal afterwards. It had also become warm and crowded in the Osteria because a family party had turned up to squeeze onto one long table. An Italian family party is usually composed of lots and lots of people: this group was sat elbow to elbow, feeding children bread and tucking into the food being brought out every five minutes by hot-footed waiters. It looked like this banquet would last all afternoon.


Ciceri e Tria

We wandered around the old town in a slow loop, passing through Piazza Sant’Oronzo to look at the coat of arms of Lecce on the paving stones and the column with Sant’Oronzo, the city’s patron saint, perched on top of it. Dad went in a bookshop and bought a map (we would NOT be having a repeat of the day before) and we made our way back to the archway through small quiet streets glowing bronze in the sunlight. It was interesting for me to see the differences between the many old buildings of Lecce and the ones I have seen scattered across the province of Bari. I’ve grown accustomed to bright white stone cathedrals and Romanesque towers against blue sky but not so much that their beauty is lost on me. We also went to the Castle of Lecce but instead of looking round it, we chased pigeons by the fountain with Lily and Cassie, terrorising the neighbourhoods of Italy as usual.

This was plenty of exercise for us and also for the dogs, whose tiny legs are about ten times shorter than ours. I said arrivederci to Lecce’s baroque façades and we clambered back into the car to drive back up North. We would be taking a detour however, to find the vineyard producing the red wine that we had tasted on our first meal together in Molfetta. Of course. It wouldn’t be a family holiday without hunting for a vineyard in the middle of nowhere. Many hours of my life have been spent in a car, trawling across green nothingness and miniscule villages in France or Italy, searching for ‘Domaine so-and-so’ which doesn’t even seem to exist. And then a sign appears out of nowhere, with curly handwriting and a nonchalant little arrow, beckoning us to a country house and cool cellars, usually complete with a dog to stroke. This scenario repeated itself many times during my formative years but now that I’m older, I can at least have some wine when we finally arrive.

By some miracle, we came across the Tormaresca vineyard fairly easily. Once there, however, it proved very difficult to get inside. It seems that this site takes care of production and logistics more than sales to the public because there were two different entrances. We first went down a bumpy dirt track with puddles on it, spraying a poor scruffy dog that was wandering by the side of the road. This was definitely not the way in: warned off by signs of private property, we tried the next one. This didn’t look right either, but approaching the metal, factory-like structure ahead of us, we found an intercom and eventually gained access to the building. We headed down a long corridor with a thin window into the cellars: barrels stood lined up in rows, at least three deep, presumably with wine maturing inside them. We were received into an odd meeting room, told that we could buy some wine but not taste any. I suppose they didn’t want to open a bottle, but my parents are used to the generous French wine sellers of Languedoc Roussillon, who let you try so much that you can barely drive home afterwards.

It was around half past four by this time and still a pleasant afternoon. We followed signs towards Brindisi, planning to look at the port before heading back to Molfetta. It was not the nicest route I’ve ever seen, although by heading through the industrial area of the city we came across the long searched for Audi garage, only to find that they didn’t have any cables for iPhone 5s. Doh. The next misadventure was a wrong turn at a roundabout, which took us on a slow downwards incline towards a ferry. That’s right, we almost ended up on a boat to Greece, maybe even Albania. This provoked a swift reverse back up the hill and another bout of laughter. Eventually we made it to the seafront of Brindisi, which is actually fairly modern and well-kept, in time to have a walk in the fading pink light by the harbour.


Man, were we tired by that point…on the way back we stopped off at a big supermarket in Bari to buy some things to make a meal at home that evening. We shared a big salad and some of the wine that Mum and Dad had purchased, taking a break from incessant visits to restaurants and letting Lily and Cassie get some rest. There would be more walking to be done the next day.

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Teaching Bambini in Bisceglie

I’m definitely spreading the English love down here in Puglia. I spend my mornings at the school, doing reading and speaking activities with 16-18 year olds and saying ‘hello, hello, hello’ as I pass them all in the corridors. One of the English teachers said that she likes the way they look at me when I speak: I’m not sure whether she meant admiration or complete bewilderment.

Besides my job as a language assistant, I offer people words in English now and then as points of comparison when someone teaches me new things in Italian. It must be pretty annoying actually. I now know how to say ‘scalpel’, ‘wisdom teeth’ and a variety of vulgar expressions in Italian. I’m absorbing slang and vocabulary like a sponge.

Thursday is a particularly full day as English educating goes because I give private lessons in Bisceglie, a town I have mentioned before, just North of Molfetta. Every week, I hop on the 17.42 train for one stop, and spend an hour and a half in the company of four primary school boys who are having a sneaky bit of tuition with me on top of their official English lessons. I have been informed that their teacher is none too pleased about this but oh well. I follow their school book but also make my own worksheets


An excuse to draw stuff.

These lessons are overall a pleasurable experience due to the sheer enthusiasm of nine year olds, in comparison to the lethargy of high school students. We’ve talked about Halloween, prepositions, the weather and time. Often, we start from a clean slate: they are always asking me for new words. Yesterday we did all types of food, including mussels and octopus. In the first lesson back in October, the boys were unexpectedly docile but now they have lost that initial shyness. As their concentration span begins to wane, the decibel levels soar. Usually, drawings and activities that they can all do together keeps things under control, but I have been caught in the middle of a paper war before now, and witnessed a full on wrestling match at the stroke of half past seven, when the lesson officially ends. Also the sentence ‘Enrico magic pig’ seems to have stuck as an insult.

As well as giving me a little extra experience and income, these lessons are a way to meet new people: I visit four different houses because they take turns hosting the lessons. Sometimes I have found myself in riotous situations, like being punched by a little brother running round with an iPad and dealing with a terrier that jumped on the table halfway through the lesson. The families are all breathless with shepherding young children around, but for the past two lessons I have been offered home made focaccia, which is my favourite type of bread ever. Sure, eating it impedes the speaking English part a little bit, and I leave with greasy photocopies, but these lessons are supposed to be friendly and fun after all. I have been told that the boys are all fond of me and proud when they know all the answers in their English lessons at school. I always leave Bisceglie happy, having done something constructive and satisfying with my otherwise quiet weekday. I go home and relax watching terrible Italian soap operas, or their version of Deal and No Deal, which bizarrely sometimes includes a box with a crocodile toy inside (I mean, what is up with this) and the weirdest song and dance interludes since the 1980s ended. Noel Edmonds, take note.


I will not boast about the weather anymore because it’s cold and I spend the afternoon working like this.

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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?


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.


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.


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!


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.