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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

In the Company of Strangers

UNITED KINGDOM | Monday, 6 July 2015 | Views [340]

Driving down from Rome I was again mesmerised by the mountains of Lazio. I never thought of Italy as so mountainous or hilly. Then we entered Puglia, the land of my foremothers. Fields, golden with wheat, endless grapevines and olive trees as far as the eye could see on the flat horizon. This was exactly like my dream of Italy. Maybe it was genetic memory. Maybe my grandma had told me about home when I was younger and though the conversations had been forgotten the images they stirred had not. We arrived in Bari in the evening. We had ordered a blablacar, like a long distance uber from Rome to Bari. It only cost something like 10 euros each for petrol money. The Italian autostrada is a mess of potholes and Italian drivers evidently don’t care about their suspension. But we got there in under 5 hours so it was for the best really. Along with me and my friend, there was another guy in the car getting a lift home from University in Rome. He didn’t understand why we were bothering to visit Bari, but everyone thinks there home is boring. For most of the journey I just sat and listened to him talk to our driver, trying to pick up what they were saying.

We didn’t really have a plan when we got to Bari. We had 5 days free before we had to be in Naples, our last stop. We purposefully didn’t plan anything past the first few nights in Bari, thinking that we would just check where someone was driving too and catch a lift. But the spontaneity had drained right out of us, and 3 weeks of continuous moving around had caught up with us. We decided to just stay in Bari for the whole 5 nights. That wasn’t such a terrible idea, since its well connected by train to the rest of Puglia, and has cheap direct buses to Naples. The city itself is a nice place to visit, similar to Edinburgh in a way with its historic old town and bustling new town standing opposite each other. Bari is a port town on the Adriatic. It was once the capital for the Byzantine (Greek) Empire’s holdings in Italy, but it was taken over by the Normans in the middle ages. This means it’s influences, specifically religious and architectural are unlike the rest of Italy.

It’s patron saint is Saint Nicholas, who is a more important saint in the orthodox church than he is in the western (except when he takes on his alter-ego of Santa Claus), his tomb lies in Bari and many orthodox Christians hop on the ferry from eastern Europe to make their pilgrimage to him. The ferry to and from Croatia leaves very regularly and so Bari is used as a stopping off point before leaving or entering Italy. This means the kind of people you meet in Bari is extremely varied. In our hostel room alone we met some people we would never forget. A young 18 year old Chilean girl about to start studying Anthropology and travelling around Europe for 9 months on her own, was staying in the bed underneath Kate. She was leaving in a few days but we spent some time with her. She was wise for her age and fun to be around (I have a very high opinion of Chileans after this trip). We went for lunch in the old town with her but the restaurant we were looking for was closed so we ended up just sitting outside a bar playing cards as we listened to a very loud argument between two bawdy women going on down a side street, trying to decipher the pugliese dialect to see what it was about.

Fran had temporarily attached herself to a man everyone nicknamed “Crazy” and his 15 year old son who were also staying in the hostel. Me and Fran were the only people who listened to his rants. He was a cliché. A 52 year old American guy who had evidently never left the 70s. He told us he had a spiritual awakening after a massive dose of LSD. He was temporarily a shaman but according to him got shut down by the FBI, who were still following him to this day. He is weather worn and perpetually talking. I listened for half an hour about his theories on reality; how all this was an illusion and really we lived in an Attack on Titan style universe where invisible giants ate us. There’s something harmlessly ridiculous about him, as he sat on the balcony, his leathery chest on show, smoking weed with his silent, always sleepy son, calling himself enlightened. On the other end of the scale was Anthon, an ex-Mormon who was in Bari updating a travel guide on Puglia. He was a much more intriguing and likable character. He told me about leaving the church, how hard it was to leave his family- he hadn’t spoken to them for 10 years, how his dad was pretty high up but that he couldn’t live with his doubts anymore. But now he was happily married with a child, lived in Copenhagen (or somewhere) and secretly called his brothers every now and then to check on them. He was gentle and open and honest.

Fran left the day or so after we arrived so most of the time we had two other girls as our companions. One was a 29 year old Australian writer living her own Eat, Pray, Love fantasy. She was cheerful and peppy and fun. She told us about how she had met her Italian prince charming on her travels. For real he owns a castle in Florence. I’m sure Hollywood would really buy the rights to her story. We went to dinner with her to this traditional local restaurant where you got a huge selection of antipasti, wine and pizza for 10 euros and she told us all about herself. She got on well with my friend, they had a lot in common. Our other friend, and companion on a few day trips, Leona, was an artist who worked in fashion from Manchester. I admired her a lot. She used to live in Switzerland, spoke 4 languages one of those being Italian (fluently), and was currently in China learning mandarin. She wasn’t quirky, neither did she have any mad opinions or personal stories to tell me, but I was more grateful to meet her than anyone else, especially at that time when my friendship had disintegrated and I was feeling alone. Companionship, whether it’s for a week or an hour, can save you.

One morning I wanted to go and explore some of the towns outside of Bari but my friend didn’t want to. Luckily Leona wanted to go too and invited me to join her. We caught the train along the heel of Italy to Poligiano, a little beach town. It had a very small beach in a cove, that was already packed with locals from Bari and the surrounding area by the time we got there. Instead of sand there are smooth, yet still pretty sharp pebbles, but that doesn’t stop the droves of leathery bodies basking on the rocks like lizards. My almost luminescent, pale body drew many gasps. It might not be a good place to sunbathe, but it is a great place to swim. The water is a beautiful shade of turquoise from a distance, but up close its perfectly transparent all the way down to the seabed. The cove, with its cave and rocky ledges, protect swimmers from any forceful waves or deep waters. On a boiling day, when the temperatures were nearing 40 degrees, swimming in those waters is like experiencing heaven. I wish I’d just swam around all day but we had more to see. The old town, very like Bari, is made up of narrow winding streets, close to the cliff edge, so that at the end of every street there was a spot to look out across the perfect Adriatic Sea. One alleyway was graffitied with quotes from lots of different poets; Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Italian poets I’d never heard of. Italy shows that graffiti is more about adorning a place than it is about vandalising it.

Next we hopped back on the train another stop down the track to Ostuni. It was nicknamed ‘La Citta Biancha’ because from the foot of the hill that its perched upon, in the glaring Mezzogiorno sun, the whole buildings glow the purest white. Up close they are a lot duller and more brown, but still pretty. The city itself is pretty far from the train station, and the sun was pretty unbearable. Luckily a kind bus driver stopped, picked us up and took us to the city for free. The town is pretty small, and apart from a few cute restaurants and pretty churches there isn’t much to see close up.

When we got back to the hostel we made plans with some of the others to go out for dinner, but our restaurant of choice had a long wait and no one wanted to walk across town. My friend was being impossible again. Most of us just gave up and went back to the hostel. I was hungry and I probably should have just gone with one of the other girls who decided to risk the walk to find some food, but I was angry at my friend for still being so uncooperative and I just wanted to go back and sulk. But I grew sad and lonely very quickly. A while later I ventured into the kitchen to find some company that didn’t hate my guts. Leona was snacking on some fruit and a friendly Argentinian chef called Sebastian was cooking a cheese and tomato risotto, and after making too much, and seeing I was hungry, he kindly offered some to me. It was delicious, and as we sat around the table and chat I was grateful again for the company of strangers.

Tags: bari, ostuni, poligiano, puglia, strangers



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