Mezzogiorno

ORIGINALLY POSTED JULY 18, 2011

Yesterday the thermometer clocked in at 41 degrees Celsius. This translates to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature I have experienced in my 35 years. Yes, it’s a different kind of heat….less humidity, but the sun just beats down differently here and I witness as the world around me adjusts.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way in which climate affects the culture of a place and the way people interact with one another. But I am from a cold climate and so I understand about the culture snow removal, navigating icy roads and generally the way people react to long drawn out winters.

But here in Puglia I am learning a different kind of climate culture. That of extreme hot and blaring sun. I’ve learned (the hard way) that leaving your laundry out in the middle of the day in July will bleach out your clothes. I’ve learned that 8 am is already much too late to go for a run. I’ve learned that my hair turns a bit red under all this sun—who knew? And like everyone else around me, I’ve adjusted.

Around 1:00 in the afternoon we break for lunch…..this is a given, but after the meal, in the sweltering heat of mid afternoon in Puglia there are really two options—get in the water or go to sleep in the coolest, darkest place you can find. Nothing else is all that plausible. Working in the tourism industry and communicating with other parts of the world who operate on different schedules, I do not always have this luxury. But even still, July and August things slow down even for us and these days I begin to feel this automatic pull towards slumber around 2:00 pm. Like the moon controls the tides, the high sun steers me to my bed. It is just what is meant to be done.

If I do happen to be out and about during these mid-afternoon hours among the deserted streets, empty piazzas and shuddered windows  I get this strange feeling. It’s as if this mid-day quiet is part of the larger story of this place, deeply rooted in the past and for a moment, I feel part of it. It is a similar feeling I get when I hear a fog-horn sound on a stormy night on the Atlantic. It’s a bit inexplicable, but the feeling comes from the same place.

This is a year of adjustments in many ways. Adjustments to a new way of living, shedding some habits (good and bad) and picking up some news ones (also good and bad) and generally changing the way I move through my day. For now, deep in the Puglian summer, it seems to make some sense.

Phase 2

Back to Puglia after a month long respite in the U.S. The break was great……needed I’d say. I toured New England and New York in my little black Toyota that sat piled under snow last winter in my father’s Boston driveway. It wasn’t so much a whirlwind but a series of rock solid visits and a few exciting business meetings thrown in. With the exception of one earthquake and one hurricane it all went off without a hitch as I visited with friends and family and had those deep, comfortable conversations about the twists and turns of life with all the people that know me best. These are the conversations I’d been missing and I found an extreme amount of familiarity and groundedness in these moments. It hasn’t been easy but it seems we are collectively breaking through to our dreams and finding out who we really are. Launching businesses, writing books, having babies via surrogate moms , getting sober, getting married, coming out, building houses with FEMA funds, divorces, dissertations, downsizing, it seems my people are doing it all…. It’s complicated man, but we’re doing it.

I don’t know if I feel more or less Italian or more or less American that when I left for the States in early August. I suppose I’m still feeling like I float somewhere in the middle. I do know that when I tell people I meet that I live in Italy, I like the way it feels. I do know that I am appalled at an $8 breakfast (coffee and scone) and that the locally made burrata I used to think was quite good, does not even come close. I know that I missed hanging my laundry to the sound of church bells, I know that the lifestyle that I live here in Puglia costs a hell of a lot more in the United States and I know that the rhythm of life here suits me more than the lack of rhythm in the U.S. I noticed that my driving habits have changed a bit (for the worse, which is pretty bad coming from a Bostonian), I noticed that my definition of a line has shifted mean a haphazard jumble of people hoping to be the next one served. And I noticed that as soon as I was back in America, I wanted to buy “stuff” that I hadn’t even given a thought to in the last year.

On the other hand I reveled in quality live music, creative cocktail menus, actual customer service, ethnic diversity, that we can get this done attitude……and baseball.

Italians are known for their spontaneity and I have always marveled at their ability to handle a situation gone awry on the spot with the right amount of grace and light heartedness. As it turns out, this these traits are rubbing off on me. Traditionally overly obsessed with plans, keeping to them, and doing things the right way, without so much realizing it, I think these last 10 months have taught me to let that go. Things in the end work out and I am learning to trust in this.

And so I am back, but I am not home here yet, not quite. Upon my return I have entered phase 2. I am not exactly sure of all the details but it certainly will contain elements of digging a little deeper. A second chapter of a longer story in which the mundane things of living in Italy will come to the forefront. Car ownership, citizenship, health insurance, home decorating, some kind of a language break through, as well as sorting out the details that make living in two countries a reality and a possibility. Storage units, frequent flyer miles, seasonal car insurance. It’s a lot to sort out but this has always been my intention, so onwards. But phase 2 will also be about sinking in a bit further and really finding a home and a community in Puglia. Professionally speaking phase 2 involves bringing some exciting new programming to the table and continuing to build a cultural bridge between Puglia and the parts of the U.S that I feel most connected to. As they are teaching me everyday, these two places have so much to learn from each other.

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. (www.pugliaitalytravel.com) 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 southernvisionspuglia.wordpress.com 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

Southern Visions and Monopoli

I returned last night on a flight from Bari to Pisa (first experience on Ryanair) after spending 3 days with Anontello and team in Monopoli. The days were a blend of meeting and planning sessions, getting to know the (many) projects of the company and of course eating and drinking.

Basically it breaks down like this……Antonello owns Southern Visions Travel (google it) which started as a bike touring company throughout Puglia and is now growing to incorporate more “cultural” travel which includes food and wine. My job with the company is to basically do their marketing, but not only for the company but for life in Puglia–an emerging destination for Americans. You can check this out too on the Google–true story. So I’ve been outfitted with a camera and telecamera (video) and will facebook, twitter and blog my head off about my life as an American living in Puglia. Look out for my NEW blog, Southern Visions Puglia, daily life on the heel of the boot. The two might eventually merge in some cases. The other part of the job is doing a little PR….story pitching, press releases and the like. Can’t seem to get away from this but it’s part of the game I suppose. And then some work on the culinary end of things like connecting with US chefs and the whole localvore thing stateside.

So in two weeks I pack up and move down there–hopefully into what feels like the Puglese version of my Marblehead apartment…..just add two huge decks with a sea view. No joke.

I didn’t have my camera, for fear of exceeding the strict Ryanair weight limits so I just have a few snapshots from the cellulare.