The Puglia Diaries

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


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!


Leave a comment

Easter in Molfetta: Passion, Processions and Pizzarelli

At school today, students and teachers alike heaved a collective sigh as normal duties resumed. The five-day holiday flew by like the traditional Easter dove (colomba): it’s back to school for two days, before a long weekend commemorating the Italian liberation. Needless to say, there was a restless atmosphere this morning as the teenagers are all very much looking forward to sleeping all morning again.

I’m very glad I stayed to see Molfetta’s Easter festivities, even if a spell of horrible weather interfered with my plans somewhat. After having been promised great things, I finally got to see some of these processions everyone was talking about and ate plenty of traditional dishes and desserts, as per usual. It seems that for the Apulians, traditions and holidays have to involve food in one way or the other. That’s just fab, but it does nothing for your figure. I was told yesterday that my face is definitely more paffuto, which is a cute little term to mean plump or chubby. Great. In response, I whacked out my new muscles. Yeah I’m no longer a weakling:


The first experience I had of the religious rites of Easter was the procession of the Madonna Addolorata, on the Friday before Easter. The statue of the suffering Virgin Mary was to leave the church called the Purgatorio, at 4 in the afternoon, to be carried around the city for eight hours and then come back round by the port and ‘retire’ into the church again. The idea is that the Virgin is looking for Christ, knowing that something bad is going to happen, and then coming home without having found Him. I headed to the final stretch in front of the Purgatorio, just in time to see the statue make her slow approach. The statue is carried by select memebers of the Confraternita della Morte (the Confraternity of Death, which in English sounds like a terrible horror film). Following the statue of the Virgin was a black cloth, carried by more black hooded figures. They wandered in a deathly swarm, some carrying candles and some encouraging little children who were also taking part in the procession. This macabre group was followed by the band, who were playing very moving funeral marches, with brass instruments and drums. We couldn’t help being involved in the experience: even if not to the same extent as some of the molfettese gathered there in tears, I certainly felt compassion growing with every note they played. Here’s a link to one of the funeral marches composed by Amedeo Vella. Be prepared, it’s called ‘a Tear on the Grave of my Mother’ and so might kill your mood just a bit.

What impressed me was the atmosphere in the crowd gathered there. There was a kind of subdued buzz as the Madonna approached but when she was in the vicinity, a veil of sombreness fell over the street. This continued until the Virgin had climbed the steps and was safely inside the Purgatorio. Then, in true Italian style, the crowds fanned out to the various gelaterie in the vicinity to get their late night ice cream fix. The children of the procession were given juice cartons and the band stopped playing. The next processions would arrive the weekend afterwards, when we would see the statue of Jesus Christ on Friday, and then of the Madonna carrying Christ in her arms on Saturday.


On Thursday, I made plans with my friends to go and see the sepolcri. On the day before Good Friday, all the churches in Molfetta set up candles and flowers around statues and crosses to represent the tomb of Christ. Each one is different and it’s traditional to go and visit an odd number of them (not an even number) with family and friends. As the evening approached, the clouds darkened and by the time I arrived at the Liceo Classico, it was already raining. I had to wait a little while: being infernally punctual, so unlike the majority of Italians, I always arrive ahead of everyone else. I huddled in a doorway for a while breathing in the smell of foccaccia, before I saw my friends arriving. We exchanged news and they explained the customs of the Easter weekend, including the Confraternita of Santo Stefano, who would lead the next day’s procession. It has some kind of crazy initiation process ie. you have to be related to at least 10 people who have been in the group for 10 years, be relatively high up in society and maybe even sell a kidney, who knows. In any case, it’s something taken very seriously in Molfetta, as I saw from the sepolcri.

We visited a church on Corso Umberto with a very simple layout, lilies and gold cloth, before making our way towards the central cluster of churches. We had to queue up outside Santo Stefano, because that’s where the statues would be coming from that night. After almost being murdered by a lady’s wild umbrella, we stepped inside and saw several statues of Christ, made by the sculptor .. along with incense, candles and flowers, this was a pretty elaborate sepolcro. Then we went inside the Purgatorio, where the statue of the Madonna was sitting, dressed in velvet cloth. Apparently there is a whole series of rites to prepare the Virgin for her outing, only known by a small group of married women. And she has real hair.

At this point, it was around 10pm and absolutely freezing. I was actually shocked by the sea wind that buffeted us around ,and the on-off icy rain. The weather last week was enough to make me get my thick jumpers and duffel coat out again, when I had been wearing sunglasses and reading outside just the week before. The streets of the centro storico were like wind tunnels and I got caught in the rain on the way to the gym, turning up to do exercise like a drowned mouse with a broken umbrella. My friends reassured me that it wouldn’t last and that soon I would think back to the cold longingly, as temperatures climb to unbearable levels of heat.

We tried to warm up by eating a Molfetta must-have of the Easter period, a pizzarello. Some people don’t see the point in a pizzarello and I can sort of see why: it is basically a tuna sandwich, maybe with capers and tomatoes, inside a kind of huge crunchy roll. I would agree that you can make the same thing at home, but what I find special is the tradition of it: everyone eats the same thing on Venerdì Santo, all the bakeries sell the bread, you can buy them in the street of dubious quality and every paninoteca offers its festive wares with signs in the window.

We sheltered by taking a look at the Duomo’s sepolcro, a very simple layout of white and gold. It was a nice chance to take a look at the inside of the church too: usually I avoid visiting churches in case I accidentally interrupt a service or a wedding or something. I could not deal with that level of awkwardness. When we regrouped outside the Duomo, we made a plan to get away from the sea edge because a chill wind was whipping round our ears. Someone asked where my red hat was and I had to explain the tragic fact that I cannot find it anywhere. We went to hide in a café, where I had a hot chocolate and tried to reassure the others about their level of English. This means…that we visited 4 churches, which is an even number. I can’t believe I’m still alive.


RIP red hat, wherever you are.

The statues were due to come out of the church at 3am. But it was just. Too. Cold. Instead of self-imposed torture of kicking around in the wind for another 3 hours, we decided to reconvene the next morning to see the end of the procession. Unfortunately, the weather was against us once again and our plans were cancelled as the Madonna was taken back into the church early. The rest of my Easter weekend was to involve food, food and more food. Stay tuned to find out what specialities Puglia had to offer for Pasqua.

Leave a comment

A Blues-Busting January

January can be such a bummer sometimes. After the excitement and indulgence of Christmas, our daily routine resumes, bringing with it dullness, dieting and doomed resolutions. Not to mention for Leeds University students, a horrendous exam session that takes up half the month with New Year revision. And it’s still as cold as it was in December. 

I’m feeling rather smug this January. I gather from various social networks that exams are well underway in my university city and that they are even more tasking than usual due to most of my friends being third years. I came to the joyous realisation that in the whole entire year of 2014, I will have absolutely NO EXAMS. My next season of painful academic testing is scheduled to take place in January 2015. This thought made me feel light as air, even while holding a tome of Italian poetry. Boasting over. 

 Another element that usually makes my January a bit miserable is the weather. This time last year, the heating wasn’t working and my house was like a roomy and carpeted igloo. Me and my housemates would each spend approximately 15 minutes per day holding down the ignition for the pilot light and we had to come up with a rota of when to wash our hair to avoid icy showers. This year, I have strolled around in the day brazenly wearing my ‘light’ coat, although I will concede it does get chilly in the evening. On Wednesday, I sat on a bench to write letters and Snapchatted pictures of the port left right and centre. Today though, I only went and discovered that there are chemical bombs in the port of Molfetta (!). Due to language barriers, I am not certain of all the technicalities but basically they are there, thousands of them, chilling under the sea. An interesting development to be sure. 

Want more info? Here you go:

I’m now in the third week back at school and activities have resumed as before with added things besides. I’ve chatted to the students about their hobbies and interests, about Romeo and Juliet and about false friends that it’s best to avoid. I was in school on Saturday, helping out with a translation project, AND on Sunday for the institution’s open day. It was a good turn out: the room was full and the deputy head delivered a convincing speech. I was there as an asset, essentially: all I had to do was look pleasantly English when she introduced me and carry a thermos of tea around (how apt). I spent most of the morning chatting to the students that were there to serve orange juice. 


‘Next stop, your future’ brochure

Today at school, there was another exciting event. I had just got back from having coffee with one of the teachers, expecting to conduct a lesson in the language lab, when I was informed that the police were coming to speak to my class and that I could go along to listen too. Going with the flow, as per usual, I found out that the officials present were in fact members of the Guarda di Finanza, a law enforcement agency whose job is to chase down tax avoiders to try and remedy the terrible mess that Italy currently finds itself in. Financial crime of massive proportions is an extremely hot subject at the moment, and the informative videos we were shown ignited the teachers’ fury in the front row and caused general uproar in the sea of teenage boys behind us. One countess in Rome apparently owned around 1,800 apartments without paying tax on any, and one woman was arrested for claiming benefits for being blind – when she could see! These stories are almost impossible to believe but certainly the Guarda are trying to chase down the offenders and at the same time, raising awareness in schools of tax avoidance and drug smuggling. They also went through a slideshow in an aim to convince the young’uns to enlist in the academy for the Guarda di Finanza. I was surprised to find out that they only started allowing women to enrol in 2000 (I mean…come on). I smiled over my shoulder at my students when the timetable came up: with three hours of language lessons a week, they wouldn’t be escaping English just yet (hehe).

And how could I feel the January blues when there’s still so much delicious food around ? When I got back to Molfetta, I was happy to try new and tasty recipes for stuffed peppers and to help finish the Christmas desserts that were left over from the holidays. One of these sweet specialities is the cartellate, which are these kind of weird crinkled fried pastries cooked in sticky wine and other stuff. They taste strange but good. There was also dried fruit, some of it covered in chocolate and sprinkles, and little almond pastries that are also typical of yuletide in Molfetta. On Sunday, I was told to make the final remainders disappear once and for all, a task which I obviously accepted. 





Another sweet discovery were chiacchiere, brought to school by a secretary and then brought home for me to try with my coffee. They are typical of the carnival period and apparently take their name (which means ‘chatter’) because they are crunchy in your mouth. I took the empty plate back with a happy smile and found out afterwards that the secretarial staff had discussed the opinion that I had gained weight since starting at the school, and that I look better for it. I’ll choose to put it down to my new habit of exercising regularly and muscle weight rather than the fact that I eat pasta every day and probably have too much cake for my own good. The people around me took a ‘We did it!’ view of this, happy to be feeding me up it seems. Ah well, as long as my clothes still fit me, I’ll enjoy the Italian cuisine as much as I can and try everything that is offered to me because it’s very rare for me to dislike something. After all, I’m only here for a year.


So that’s that, January contains no more blues than any other month and I’ve got into the swing of 2014. The deputy head told me that the English teachers often ask how I am doing here in Molfetta, worried about my general wellbeing. She told me that she answers ‘Elly is always happy’. That made me glad because 1) it is more or less true and it’s nice that other people know that, and 2) there are worse things to be known for than smiling all the time. 

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

The Italian Job (I HAD TO)

Up until now, my posts on this blog have mainly been concerned with how much fun I am having gallivanting around in a region where November is like the British summer. When I’m not meeting new people, seeing new places and eating Italian food, I do have to go to work. Even if it’s only for twelve hours a week.

I can’t really tell you what a typical week at the school is like, because there is no typical week. Because of class tests, assemblies, strikes and timetable changes, I adapt my schedule weekly. So far, I have worked with five teachers and perhaps twenty classes, meaning that I’ve encountered a fair few new faces and tasked with learning over two hundred names. I have a pretty decent memory but it has quickly become saturated, especially since some teachers call the students by their last names and others by their first. The names I remember are usually those belonging to the students that talk to me most, or alternately the ones that sound cool. Because let’s be honest, Italian names just sound nicer than English ones.

With each class, I help with a different topic. The Mechanics and the Electronics section are covering economy, globalisation and the job market. I also did a lesson yesterday about Electromagnetism, which reminded me why I hated physics so much at school. I have read texts aloud about the invention of paper, ‘supervolcanoes’, Google and more. In some of the classes, I get to help with English literature. One group is studying Shakespeare and another the Romantic period. It is slightly disconcerting that they are learning about the same things I studied in a second year university module at Leeds, but at least I know enough about the Ancient Mariner to be a credible teacher.


My Romantic pals Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge will follow me forever.

Public speaking was never my forte but I now feel comfortable walking into the class and facing twenty-five expectant teenagers. I have mastered the art of looking grave and disappointed when they are noisy, and can deliver a reading in a decidedly frosty tone to silence them for a few minutes. Let’s just say that English isn’t their favourite subject, so especially near the end of the school day, a lot of shouting and running goes on inside the classroom. I nearly lost it one time, but generally my patience goes quite a long way.

The language lab is an especially exciting event for them. I have taken a few classes there to play songs by The Lumineers and Bob Marley. Often, the listening exercise degenerates when they figure out there is a microphone attached to their headphones, and that if they say rude words, all the others can hear them. Sigh. Today, three students explained the meaning of No Woman, No Cry to me, while the others wailed the chorus in the background.

 Every morning, I wake up a whole hour before leaving so I can slowly enjoy the best part of the morning: breakfast. I have a leisurely half hour walk to school. On Thursdays, I can weave my way through the weekly market, packed with shoes, bags, household things, clothes…Sometimes I go out for a coffee with the other teachers, other times I stay in the staff room and prepare lessons. This week, I have had actual tests to correct: having the students’ marks in my hands makes me feel like a proper teacher. I now empathise with my language teachers at school. There is that feeling of satisfaction in ticking a right answer and the desire to shake their little shoulders at the truly awful mistakes. I can feel my facial expressions altering with each different test I mark.


This is me looking happy because BREAKFAST

All in all, this language assistantship job suits me fine. I work for two or three hours a day and never finish later than 1pm. I know where to make photocopies and how to work the coffee machine. I even got a round of applause from the students once, yay me.