The Puglia Diaries

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


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Rome Again: ‘Viaggio della Memoria’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.