The Puglia Diaries

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


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Rounding off the First Semester

The end of January disappeared in a gust of wind this week: I am now exactly half way through my contract at Ferraris school. This means that I get to meet the other 300 pupils that I haven’t seen yet, leaving the older classes to work hard towards their exams. I’ll be chatting to younger students this term; fresh faced 16 year olds who might be more pliable than their elders. Perhaps I can inspire a love for the English language in a few of them, ever the optimist! Next week will bring a series of introduction lessons: the photos of family, friends and Leeds will come off the dark and jumbled shelf that I call my filing system.

Despite the weather getting a bit colder this week, I’ve been out and about in my free time running errands and seeing friends. It has been a busy and fulfilling week: exactly what you need in winter to avoid those evenings indoors, watching the rain against the windows and hearing the wind knock things over on the terrace above. My mood has always been influenced by the weather: in Leeds, my tendencies for homesickness would hit hardest when temperatures were sub zero or when I got soaked to the skin walking home from university. This week has been one of personal development and experience:

On Monday, I first experienced a cardio session at the gym. In my twenty years on this Earth, I had never set foot on a treadmill. It wasn’t until I had to get on one that I realised what a scary and potentially harmful experience it could be. I spent the eight minutes time on a walking setting, gripping the bar with terrified fingers and watching my feet, willing them not to stop. I imagined myself falling off in front of all the seasoned gym goers, including some of my students from school. I decided a while ago to stop being ashamed of my gym incompetence: I stick out like a scrawny sore thumb and own it.

Tuesday is a rubbish day really. It doesn’t have the fresh new week factor of Monday but neither is it remotely close to the weekend. It drifts in the beginning of the week, dull and unsatisfying; so I decided to do something about that and went to see a film in Bari with Katie. Before the show, we went to have our usual espressino (such a delightful little milky coffee) and a pasticiotto, a cute oval pastry with cream and cherry inside. We chose an Italian romantic comedy, which we both enjoyed and understood. Oh, and I have never seen such cheap popcorn: 2 euros will get you a decent sized pot. If only for that reason, I can see cinema trips becoming a more regular occurrence for combating tiresome Tuesdays.

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Wednesday was also a super fun day: I made guacamole, then me and my ‘host mum’ decided to skip the gym that evening and go to Trani to buy a present for her friend. We wandered about arm in arm, window-shopping, before reaching our destination: a handbag boutique. At the moment, some designer shops are offering a 50% sale on fancy scarves, clothes, shoes, so if you want to spend a semi-reasonable amount on an Italian made luxury item, the time is now. We browsed for a luxuriously long time. Fashionable Italian ladies do not impulse buy. They do not rush when choosing handbags. They tour the shop, ask the shop assistant’s opinion, ask the other customers’ opinion and study each one in the mirror. They assess each merit of each bag, its size, its colour, its decorative quality, the effect it would add to an outfit, if it looks youthful or distinguished and all the other qualities a handbag could have. Through this process of collaboration, we settled on a bright blue handbag with a gold chain, as well as a turquoise clutch, two scarves and a raspberry handbag for a future wedding. We chatted to the shop assistant about where to get custom shoes made, exchanged contact details to make further enquiries and left the shop with two big white bags. This was followed by more window-shopping in the wintery weather, and then on arrival back in Molfetta, another delicious ice cream. On the threshold of this favourite gelateria, I felt another sudden impulse to live in Italy in the future. These emotions occur whenever my happiness reaches a certain peak: funnily enough, it seems like going back to Leeds will be a ‘year out’ from my life here in Italy. With my parents living in Piedmont, my friends in Puglia and so much more to explore, I feel that it makes sense to return.

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Guacamole – how un-Italian of me

On Thursday, I saw turtles and fresh vegetables at the market in the morning, then tagged along on some more errands. Even though I might not have contributed much to proceedings in the bank and the travel agent, it was a pleasant outing in Molfetta once again. In the jewellers shop, picking up a repaired watch, I was approached for conversation lessons that would help with a practical aim to make airports/restaurants/hotels a bit easier to navigate. We’ll see how that pans out. Before going home, we popped into the supermarket to buy artichokes for Sunday lunch. That’s the day when families usually cook something a little different for the first course: for example pasta al forno, lasagne or cannelloni.

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Surreptitious shot of the Thursday market. I know my finger is in the way

On Friday, I attended a meeting in the afternoon between all the English teachers about language courses that needed funding. After quickly establishing common opinions, the meeting was over. All I did was read the brochure. Then it was off to the gym for more cardio but the carrot on the stick this time was a meal out in Bisceglie with two other language assistants. I took it as an opportunity to try something special: the waitress recommended the seafood antipasti, so I ordered some insalata di polpo. I was expecting a small plate to taste, but two dishes turned up with little fried squids in one and purple tentacles in the other, dressed with parsley and oil. A tasting session went down and it transpired that I was the only one who could deal with the texture. Fair enough, let’s say that the appearance of the things can easily put people off, and the different parts of the squid can be chewy or gelatinous. I’m not selling the idea too well, but with a drizzle of lemon and eaten whole, the little squids were really delicious. They didn’t leave much room for the pizza I had also ordered, I had to leave half of that after eating all the toppings. After the food, accompanied by a very reasonably priced and slightly ‘vivacious’ white wine I felt happy and sated. We also had a tasty chocolate liqueur on the house, which was like alcoholic Nesquik. With the others heading back to the station, I went to meet my friends who were in a pub just down the road. We stayed for a while listening to Oasis covers before heading back to Molfetta. One of my favourite songs was on the radio, which rounded off the evening nicely. On Saturday, we went off to Trani despite the icky February rain. It was a lovely evening, with truly good pizza in a restaurant tucked inside an arch with the region’s typical white stone and warm lighting. I was indulgent this weekend, eating out twice, but there are so many good restaurants around here to try and you only get one year abroad!

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L’Antico Granaio, Bisceglie

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Il Covo delle Chiacchiere, Trani

And that is this week’s round up. I wanted to record it because I feel that it was a perfect end to January: keeping fit, getting closer to the people around me and making the most of Italy. Roll on Part 2.

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Why I Love Italians

This weekend, I paid extra attention to what makes the Italian people around me so special. Sometimes cultural stereotypes are nonsense: the French are no ruder than any other population and not all British people need extensive dental work. It seems to me though that the common perception of Italian people is not so far off the mark. Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule but my stay here so far has shown me that…

1)    The Italians DO have amazing food

What I love about Molfetta is that things grind to halt around 1pm so that families can have lunch together. This weekend, I was chatting to my friends about what we had for lunch, and every one of us had eaten pasta or rice. Of course every day there is a different sauce or a different accompaniment but this primo (‘first course’) invariably keeps you going all afternoon. It’s a shame that the concept of ‘Italian food’ is sometimes reduced to spaghetti and pizza. The Italian diet is so much more varied and uses loads of fresh vegetables. On Friday, I made myself a frittata con zucchine and although I spent the best part of the evening cleaning the tin, I was very happy with my efforts. Other culinary highlights include fresh fish and little pieces of knotted mozzarella that actually tastes of something. Oh, and the deliciously thick hot chocolate, best shared on a rainy afternoon, with biscuits and apricot jam.

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2)    The Italians DO love fashion

On Sunday morning, we went to look around the big shiny shopping centre in Molfetta called La Mongolfiera (which translates as hot air balloon – an interesting name for a supermarket). It was packed with shoppers and excitable children in Disney costumes. We browsed Zara and then looked at the range of six inch heels in Primadonna shoe shop. One of my favourite shops there is Oysho, a ‘loungewear’ shop that could satisfy the wishes of any pyjama seeker. It seems that the Italians are even stylish lying in front of the TV eating Nutella with a spoon. They are ready to dazzle unexpected visitors with their cashmere cardigans and lace-sleeved pyjamas.  I could spend a great deal of time and money in that shop: I almost went for some slippers that would perfectly match my giraffe onesie, which alas I have left in Leeds. All to say that Italians love fashion and usually dress well (apart from the teenagers at school who go around in track pants and trainers 24/7). Both women and men appear to have an extensive collection of shoes, and don’t even get me started on coats and handbags. Meanwhile, I sometimes dress like this:

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CUTE

 

3)    Italians ARE extremely expressive

There is a running joke that if you handcuffed an Italian, they would be unable to speak. Hand gestures are used ALL THE TIME. Some of them have specific meanings like ‘what?’ or ‘look at that asshole’ and some are just to give emphasis to their already emphatic speech. I now think that British people are creepily calm. They stay still when they speak and keep a regular tone in their voice even when they get angry. Italians are very quick to shout and throw their arms up in the air. Interjections make up a whole lexicon that I am slowly growing to understand.

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I went to see a volleyball match for the first time on Sunday evening. Molfetta was playing Trento and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing. There was a squadron of people in red playing drums and chanting to support our home team. There was a man exuberantly sounding a horn that I could have done without, but in general I enjoyed watching the crowd just as much as the match. At one point, Trento challenged a point that clearly belonged to Molfetta. There was a Mexican wave of Italians up in arms, yelling ‘VERGOGNA’ (or ‘SHAAAAAME’) and making an offensive gesture demonstrating the sign of the horns, which literally means ‘cuckold’ (you’ve been cheated on, man). It was rowdy and lively, and even though Molfetta lost, they put up a good fight and we went for ice cream from my favourite gelateria afterwards. I had cappuccino and lemon nougat flavour (che buono!)

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4)    The Italians ARE very friendly

Okay, so maybe this isn’t just an Italian thing. I’ve met friendly people from all over the world. But generally, Italians are just more outgoing and publicly affectionate than their British counterparts. They talk to strangers on public transport. They stand remarkably close to you in conversation and squeeze your arm for no particular reason. The boys at school are constantly slapping each other on the back and engaging in massive bear hugs between classes, something that I imagine never happens in a British school. On Saturday evening, I went out with friends to a pub in Bisceglie. Four of us squeezed into the back seat of the car, and then in the bar itself, all fifteen of us had to squash up into an impossibly small booth, taking up all the space the benches would offer. The process of sitting down was 20 minutes of chaos and noisy confusion. We were sat practically on top of each other and cut up our pizza with our elbows tucked in. On the way home, we compared an Italian night out with the typical British outing on any given Friday or Saturday. My friends were surprised/shocked to hear of student partying, of us going to the ‘discoteca’ every weekend (sometimes more than once) and told me that everyone knew the British have a reputation for getting horribly drunk. To be sure, pre-drinks and smoky nightclubs are very different from late night pizza, a single beer and then if we’re feeling indulgent a coffee and croissant. Both nights have their very separate merits but I have to say that doing the latter has a lower risk of being sick in a plant pot on your way home.

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(Apologies – due to lack of own pictures, one of these is from a  website called ‘titillate’ and the other from a toothpaste advert with a scary looking man in it)

With my family situation becoming more complicated now that both Mum and Dad are living in Italy, it seems that this country is slowly turning into my ‘permanent’ home, if such a place should exist. I am happy because I feel increasingly that I belong among these wonderful Italians, making eye contact in the post office, raising my voice and catching the smell of freshly baked focaccia drifting from open doorways.


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Pizza and a Sea Breeze

I made it to Puglia! After two long weeks of preparations and goodbyes, the day finally came for me to get on the plane that would whisk me off to my new Southern life. I have to admit, when that moment came, I was frightened. I sat in Girona airport with that bottomless feeling of flying the nest once again, but when we landed in Brindisi, I was cheered by the dark blue sea. The things I hate about Ryanair (details here) were softened by the infectious jubilation of the young Italian travellers around me, who were enthusiastic and polite versions of the UK ‘Lad’ with longer eyelashes.

My travels took me from France to Spain to Italy, in cars, a plane, a bus and trains. My journey north from Brindisi was pleasant because I inadvertently booked myself on to the fast train (woop, leg-room and slidey-seats) and had the sea on my left and olive trees on my right.

My first evening in Molfetta was a blur of boats, supermarkets and white stone buildings. I was met with kindness and hospitality, which made me feel Lucky and kept homesickness at bay. I saw the most enormous onions ever and bought a double pack of Italian ground coffee. I also ate Italian pizza with Italian people, who were very friendly and taught me swear words.

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This is me in front of the Duomo, most important church out of many in Molfetta.

Today I went to Bari and my Italian pals showed me la Fiera, a huge fair/exhibition/flea market that runs in the city for one week each September. There were crowds and endless businesses, sofas and tractors, silk scarves and sangria. My favourite part was the ‘Artigianato internazionale’, which was made of up stalls selling crafts from countries around the world. This man made little clay pots on the spot and handed them to people : they were done in about three seconds and dried in ten minutes. I loved the Tunisian plates and the Indian rugs.

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I also liked sampling the honey and apple juice in the agriculture section and going round Eataly. Imagine the food section of Harvey Nicholls, quadrupled in size and exclusively Italian products. We saw all the classy chocolate spreads and espresso machines that looked like computers, but ended up roughing it with a good ol’ hot dog after fighting crowds of hungry Italians shouting for a lunch ticket. Terrifying stuff, but I made it out alive.

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So far I am happy. I am by the sea and wearing shorts again. Sunday is a chill day here but tomorrow my administrative tasks kick off and I get a tour of the school where I will soon be teaching. Wish me luck !