Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Musings on Monopoli

Looking back on my first stay alone in Monopoli rather than nearby with friends, it's fair to say it had ups and downs.  Downs: a restaurant that majorly failed to live up to expectations set by tripadvisor (and they seemed to be playing an English heartbreak CD: have you ever tried eating alone listening to 10CC's I'm not in love?!), followed by a walk home on a stormy night, followed by a sense of total overwhelm at how long it might take to feel part of this new town and a little cry.  The next day the engineer broke the news that our proposed hot tub on the roof terrace was going to involve a lot of compromising - boh!

But ten days in the south of Italy in May can't be all bad and there's lots of ups and stories I want to share with you too, so settle in: I'm making up for all those quickie posts with this one!

View of Monopoli with its cute beach minutes from my new house
Let me start by introducing you: Monopoli is a beautiful and authentic fishing town, on the east coast of Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, half an hour from the capital Bari, with approximately 50,000 residents.  There are still at least a couple of ports (the street names are a total giveaway - Porto Vecchio and Porto Nuovo!), a seafront ice factory (took me an embarrassingly long time to work that one out!) and many of the restaurants specialise in seafood.  Often just as the last of the sun disappears, you can see a fleet of fishing boats go out.  If you like your fish and seafood fresh, this is the place!

I'm a little averse to eating food that comes to the table with eyes attached, so the big draw for me of living on the coast is the sea itself.  I'm not sure I will ever get bored of it.  The water is so clear and so pretty this time of year, especially when the sun is shining down making its blues and greens even bolder.

And it makes me smile hearing people talk about the sea.  The way the Italian language works the word used for "it is" is the same as for "he is", so when local people talk about the sea I feel it's almost like an extra character in their lives: "it/he's so calm", "it/he's agitated", "it/he's perfect today"!

Beautiful clear sea and dramatic rocky coastline
Still can't get enough of it!
Wonderfully, and predictably given its history, the seafront runs along the edge of Monopoli's centro storico ("old town") which offers a rabbit warren of winding cobbled streets.  I spent a considerable amount of my free time this visit wandering around and around, up and down the streets trying to familiarise myself with my new neighbourhood.  It's kind of embarrassing when you can only find your house from a specific startpoint, even more so when the startpoint is an ice cream parlour!!

Glimpse of the sea

Glimpse of the sun

Glimpse of a fancy building, old man and bike!

I've also been starting to get a feel for the layout of the rest of the town.  It is basically a grid system, similar to many American towns and cities.  So far, my favourite finds include a never-ending Aladdin's cave of treasure in the form of a second hand furniture shop (much rarer in Italy than UK and I made my first acquisition for the new house - yippee!), 2 restaurants serving alternatives to Italian food (a Chinese and an Italian that has a Mexican night - double yippee!) and 2 shops run by Chinese people full of cheap imported goods which I figure are about as close as I'm going to get to an Argos or a BHS out here!  

You don't need molto Italiano to understand this sign!

By the way, something I have totally taken for granted in the UK is how easy it is to shop!  Go in, find what you want, check the price and buy it.  Not in Puglia!  Here the whole process takes so much longer: you walk round the shop accompanied by an assistant, politely showing interest in everything they show you until you find something you like, there is no price displayed so they head back to their office to check the price in a catalogue and tap some numbers into the calculator, before finally you find out how much you will pay!  Some function more like showrooms than shops as they have no stock available to take away.  Sometimes there is a clear price displayed but there is also a discount, and you don't know what level of discount you're going to get, which is why of course, again, you need the assistant.  

In a way, I suppose it's nice - there is still a level of service and expertise and it keeps people in jobs - but I'm afraid I find it limiting, time-consuming and given my lack of fluency, a bit of a pallava!  So the aforementioned Chinese shops with aisles crammed full of everything from light bulbs to cupcake trays to bras to sun cream, all priced up so you can get on with browsing and shopping are more of a lifesaver than you might think!  It's a shame but I can see myself buying a lot from the UK and shipping it.

And incase you're wondering, Italian websites are not any better.  Many shops don't have them and even those that do don't show full ranges or prices, so you can't buy online or get any idea of value for money and still end up having to go into the shops to spend the time with the assistant!  My architect and engineer couldn't believe it when I sent them a link to BHS for a light I plan to send over for the house.  They loved browsing all the departments online and asked if they could get stuff shipped to Italy!

Still on shopping: another discovery is the market just a few minutes from my new house.  I can't imagine I'll ever be like a good Italian woman, there every morning to pick up fresh ingredients for the day's meals, but I will try it out as it's wonderful to have fresh fruit and veg so close.

Huge peppers
Tons of cherries
Daily authentic Farmer's Market without the pretentious pricing

At the other end of the day, fare una passeggiata ("to go for a stroll") is the norm in the early evening before dinner as the heat of the day cools.  According to many guidebooks it's a must to observe and join in what is variously described as an Italian tradition, ritual and cultural performance.  Embarrassingly, my initial idea when I first heard about it was a very British take on it, with everyone following a set route around a town in procession - very organised and prescribed!  I still doubt my understanding on occasion, as I see everyone congregating, seemingly waiting, and start to wonder whether in fact today there is something about to happen, but no, I don't think there ever is!  It seems a great social event and is certainly as much about being seen as working up an appetite!  I read that many years ago it served an essential part of courtship - a town's eligible young women would dress up and be escorted (/paraded?!) by family members for all to see and I'm sure there is still a lot of checking out going on!

All the tiny black blobs next to the white pillars?  People thronging!

I did my fair share of wandering, but it isn't the same without bumping into people you know for a catch up.  I really want to integrate into the community quickly.  Anyone got any tips as to how to do that?

I did however bump into these guys:

And they say religion isn't terrifying!
This is a small church all lit up at night with this display cabinet next to the window and a box for making an offerring!  I don't think I've ever seen a real life skeleton before.  Certainly never like this, hanging with his buddies in a window dressed up in priests' fineries!

I will tell you about the living Italian men this visit (possibly more charming than the dead priests and a little less creepy!) but you'll have to be patient: they deserve a post all to themselves!

Instead I'll leave with you with some photos of big fancy doors with little regular doors in for everyday use, which can be found all over the place in Monopoli's old town.  I'm strangely drawn to them!

P.S. <whispers> I found a Puglian McDonalds!  (Not sure what a McCafe is though - is there a bar inside where Italians stand and throw back espresso?)  It is across a huge piazza from the main train station in Bari, so now I know where to go if I have a craving for the oh-so-familiar shakes and fries!  (Please don't let it ever get so bad that I'm catching a 30 min train for a filet-o-fish!)

Are Puglians loving it?

Thursday, 23 May 2013

It's official!

Today contracts were exchanged on my house.  This was the last big hurdle and now it's crossed: the last issue that could have got in the way of the move has been handled successfully and it feels incredible!

Italy here I come!

Monday, 20 May 2013

In other news...

A friend of mine travelled to Rome this weekend in order to oversee the transportation of an elephant and other wild animals to nearby Fasano Zoosafari! #jobsyouneverknewexisted

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Tonight someone sent me a rose

I've seen men trying to sell roses in the restaurants of Monopoli centro storico most nights.  They usually don't waste any time avoiding my table.  Ladies dining alone probably aren't their best prospects!

Seeing as I was sat at the very rear of another restaurant tonight I expected the same. Instead he came towards me proffering a rose and while I responded Non, grazie (which I should probably check does actually translate to "No, thank you" and not some confusing mixed message!) he said something about Suo amico ("your friend") while indicating back down the restaurant and giving me the beautiful rose.

Given the position of my table, everyone else in there, including the staff, was in the direction he indicated so I still have no idea who gave me the rose or whether in fact the seller felt sorry for me and thought he'd make up an admirer, but I'm really quite thrilled!  I don't think I've ever been sent anything by another table in a bar or restaurant or been given a flower by a stranger before.

Having felt varying degrees of annoyance at the ways men here typically "show appreciation", this felt like an altogether more subtle and romantic gesture and succeeded in putting a shy smile on my face!

Italian men - not so bad after all!

Monday, 13 May 2013

How to pack a suitcase - alternative version!

I never know what to say when people ask if I'm travelling for business or pleasure when I'm heading to Puglia.  Trips to a building project are different from other trips abroad.  I'm loathe to say there's no pleasure involved, but it's a little different from a typical tourist's experience.  Instead of a week of lazy days on the beach and candlelit dinners, it's pressurised days of checking that what's happening and going to happen on site is what you thought you had agreed would be happening on site, (because of course, nothing is in your native language and cultural norms are not always the norm, even within Europe!) making quick decisions and the occasional compromise (you have to pick your battles on a building site!), all followed by meals at a table for one trying to ignore the fact that everyone is looking at you and wondering why exactly you would come to this nice restaurant alone!

What this means is a suitcase not filled with sexy sundresses and strappy heels but this:

80x50x30cm suitcase borrowed for this purpose!
Yes: that is 2 sets of taps and all waste pipes for a basin and traditional freestanding slipper bath (plus some tile samples thrown in for good measure!).  Very heavy and pointy when digging into your back from a rucksack, but so pretty and so shiny.  My precious!

Mi piacciono! ("I like them!")
I am still working on how I'm going to transport the bath, because as it stands, no joke, the shipping will be just £20 cheaper than the bath itself!  There must be a better way!

Anyone driving a van to Puglia the next 2 weeks?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Like a fish out of water!

Moving to a new country makes you self-conscious. Everyday things you used to do instinctively are now just different enough to make you stop and think, and if you're like me, worry about looking stupid!

Imagine the reassurance then of seeing locals get it wrong!

A friend taking a minute to figure out the train ticket-stamping machine made me feel better about being clueless.  And seeing another friend mistake a fellow driver for the pump attendant and ask him to fill the car up with petrol was hilarious!  I must remember it whenever I'm blushing from a silly faux pas!

Thankfully, my experience so far is that Puglian people have been patient and helpful.  A young man helped me buy a ticket at the machine at the station, (without pickpocketting me, as so many tourism sites would have you believe is the norm) and nobody honked their horn when I couldn't find the gear at the roundabout - yes, I have driven in Italy and no, it wasn't entirely terrifying!

People do stare more than in UK but then I clearly don't look like I fit in here and Italian women are used to being stared at too.  I like to think it's because they're wowed by the statuesque (ha!) blonde walking among them like in La Dolce Vita.
This is how Italians see me, right?!!

In reality, they are probably thinking "Mamma mia! What is she wearing?! Does she not own a mirror?!"

But perhaps best of all for reassurance are the videos of Italian politicians making bad grammatical errors when speaking their own native language.  If they can get ahead in their careers unable to speak correct Italian, I hope I'll go easy on myself when I recognise I am slaughtering this beautiful language!

At least I'm not as bad (I hope!) as these guys from Tarantino's must-see film Inglorious Basterds.  

Altogether now: Bawnjorno!