Wind and Walls Made of Stone

Today is the most beautiful spring day that I could have ever asked for. Cherry trees are blossoming, windows are open, people are drinking wine in the sun. It is perfect. Yesterday however, was a different story.

I wasn’t really prepared for the winds that sometimes whip through the heel of the boot but I am finding that at times, this is the case. Yesterday began with a wind that back home would have sent warnings and most definitely dramatized the evening news. Regardless, at around 10 am I found myself on a country road walking to Gelso Bianco, Southern Visions’ soon to be opened cooking school. The wind raged on and I, well….just buttoned up. After a few minutes I simply felt invigorated and slightly reminded of one of those late season hurricanes that has lost its umph by the time it reaches the North Atlantic. But mostly, I was completely captivated by the stone walls that were all around me.

As a native New Englander I am quite used to the site of charming stone walls that roll along side the roads and through fields. I have been enamoured by the presence in the landscape for some time and have even built one with my own hands. In part, I am sure this is why the landscape of Puglia speaks to me. They are everywhereThe dry-stone walls of Puglia are made of the limestone rocks that have been dug out of the soil. You will see piles of these rocks lying here and there at the edges of fields. The sheer number of them gives you an idea of just how carefully this land has been worked. And the stones actually leach nutrients into the soil, raising its PH and making for healthy agricultural fields. Farmers in Puglia grow just about everything that the climate supports.

Sometimes tinted with the rich red of the soil, the walls run along roads, create property boundaries, surround vineyards, single olive trees, or just seem to meander off into the distance and keep going and going forever. Every step I took on this very windy sort of rainy morning I was distracted by another wall, another enchanting view and another sign of spring.

In the Morning

Beautiful morning in Monopoli. Woke by 6:30 am to the sound of church bells in a bright and sunny apartment. I am finding my feet here in this Southern Italy gem of a town. After scoping out the view and making some plans for my not one but TWO decks, my first task was to find my local tabbachi to add some minutes to my cell phone, which had suddenly disappeared after a call last night. Quick stop around the corner from my home on Vico Amalfiatana and that was done. Scoped out the closest farmacia and then I thought I might take a stroll through the port to see what happens here on Friday morning. Lots of men about. Fishermen getting their boats and lines ready and small groups of older men chit chatting by the sea. And this guy selling produce out of his truck in the middle of my little piazza. I told him I would be back often. He is my first friend in Monopoli.







Home in Monopoli

I arrived at the Bari airport minutes before I was scheduled to return my rental to Maggiore. Laura and Arien picked me up and we loaded my bag into the Southern Visions Audi and headed directly to Monopoli. The final leg to my long journey south. Very fitting on the day that celebrates women across Italy (feste delle donne) my luggage was lugged down 7 flights of stairs and up some very steep and narrow ones by women (thank you Julie and Laura). My next home will be on the ground floor. Bags dropped we quickly turned around and headed first to the office to get Antonello and then to the bar for an apperitivo. A campari spritz, panzerotti (fried tomato and mozzarella) and some fabulously fresh Pugliese almonds was about all I could handle at the moment but there was plenty to choose from.

Head hit the pillow in my new home at midnight. From here my Puglia adventure begins…….

In giro in Molise

After a two day journey covering six regions of Italy I have arrived at my new desk and home in Monopoli. I set out on Monday morning from Florence in a rented Fiat Punto packed full of my things (a few more bags than I arrived with 4 months ago) and headed south. Finding my way out of the center of Florence by car was perhaps the most difficult part of the entire journey. After that I settled in, gathered my thoughts and drove, Through Tuscany, through Umbria, through Lazio through the snowy mountains of Abruzzo and finally into Molise where I took a 24 hour detour in Montelongo, the town of my grandfather.

I had been to Montelongo before, once in 2002 with my mom and then again in November. We had somewhat maintained a connection to our friends there (cousins of distant cousins) and of course, nine years later they were eager to host us and hopeful for our return. I had called Pepino, my main contact and also somewhat of the town mayor, a few days before letting him know that I would be passing through and making a stop at the police station in Campobasso to pick up my permesso di soggiorno. He told me not to worry about a thing and that he would be there whenever I arrived. And he was. Right there by the fountain in the town piazza in the freezing cold. I followed him to the bed and breakfast of a friend (who had heat–this was a key factor) where I rested while the small heater in the corner of the room with enormous ceilings began to warm the place up. After a little rest I went back downstairs where it seemed the locals gather for drinks and to play video games to wait for Pepino. We went to one of the two restaurants in town for dinner–a small pizzeria–where the only other diners were Pepino’s 11 year old nephew and his friends. Road weary and cold I ate well. Pizza, bisteca and red wine. Off to bed.

The next day my host Maria served me a breakfast while she and her friend, also Maria gossiped about the local goings on. They asked about me and my life and before twenty minutes were up we were Facebook friends. From there anything is possible. The Italian was flowing but the local dialect tripped me up a bit. We were on our second macciato when Pepino arrived to tour me around a bit more. We went to the house he had inherited from his aunt that he is currently renovating. It is old and beautiful and will be even more so when it is finished. We stopped in to see his mother and aunt who were busying themselves in the kitchen pouring olive oil into jars and finding telephone numbers written on scratches of paper. From there we went to the other restaurant “La Nostrana” a beautiful trattoria in the Slow Food guide book that I had eaten at in November. Maria Concetta does it all herself, cures the meat, makes the cheese, makes the pasta, the whole thing. She had two big groups coming that day and was just lighting the fireplace when we arrived. She desperately wants me to help her spread the word about her in Italy and North America. And I want to help–she is incredible. I told her I’d be back soon. After Maria Concetta is was time for lunch so back to the house with mom, aunt, both brothers and nephews.

Then to Campobasso where I’d been told I could pick up my permesso di soggiorno between the hours of 3-5. Having heard horror stories of this experience in Florence, the one person ahead of me in line was a pleasant sight. 10 minutes later I was walking out of there, totally legal in Italy for one year.

The ride back to Montelongo to pick up my car was a long and windy one through nowhere Molise. These roads twist and turn through the mountains as little villages dot the hill tops. Nobody talks about Molise, including Italians. It seems that they don’t even know where it is. However everyone who lives there wants me to come back to live, for good.

Back to the house to collect a gift bag of olive oil, homemade wine and biscotti. Set the GPS to Bari, said my goodbyes and off I went winding back down to the autostrada and further south.

Email to Friends and Family

For posterity. Sent February 27, 2011 Dearest friends and family, It’s been a little bit since my last official update from Italy. But today, a rainy Sunday afternoon, seems perfect for writing. Today is also exactly one week before I pack up some kind of rented Fiat, leave Florence and head back down south. I have been offered a job with Southern Visions Travel. ( a small travel company based in Puglia–the heel of the boot. They do cycling tours for mostly Americans and Canadians and are amping up their culinary offerings. They just now restoring this beautiful farmhouse into a cooking school and culinary retreat. Should be open by May. It’s a team of Italians, Americans and South Africans in the town of Monopoli….on the Adriatic coast. My job is to handle their marketing for the season–through October. After that we’ll see. I’ll basically be helping them tell the story of the company and the area through the eyes of an American, as Puglia is just now getting on the travel radar. One of my big projects is writing a blog (now that I’m a blogger) about my day to day interactions as an American (the only American) living in there. I will be really forced to get out and talk to the locals, in Italian and sink in to the local scene. Should be fodder for some great experiences. I think the blog is going to be but I will let you know for sure. It’s an exciting change. And for sure a change. I look forward to the new adventure, to getting to know an amazing part of the world and to doing what it is I came here to do. But at the same time I will miss the comforts of the life I’ve created here. No more small group of girlfriends, 4 am pasta with my housemates or quiet evenings with a sweet guy. The transition feels a bit strange as transitions often do, but soon enough I will wake up in sunny southern Italy with a sea view from my apartment in the center of the old city. I’m not an Italian citizen yet, still waiting on that. But I am legal, which is something. More than a lot of Americans living and working in Florence. Next hurdle is opening a bank account. Another delicate issue with a lot of bureaucracy attached. These days I miss scones (from Sherman) and oysters. And all of you. Good news is that I’ve negotiated 4 weeks off in the summer to come home. Likely August so mark your calendars. By the pool, in the ‘ville, in the berks, on the island…..I can’t wait. Good luck getting to spring. I’m pulling for you. And I am ALWAYS open for visitors. First one gets a prize. May and June are lovely in Puglia…… All my love, Leigh