Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day 33 Dog days

All day I've been thinking about how much I miss my dog, Oscar. Everywhere I looked I saw dogs. Dog barks seem to fill the air. One little puppy named Jody, 10 months old, strained at the leash to get to me. His patient owner let me pat him.

There's a gorgeous German Shepherd and a sappy Yellow Lab that used to come running up to the gate to bark at me when I passed their house on the way to Calimera. I guess they're used to me now because although they still bark, they do it from the comfort of wherever they happen to be standing -- or lying. They don't run up to the gate now even if I stand there and call to them.

I haven't seen the nearly-blind old woman, Assunta, and her Dachshund, Topia, for quite a while now. I guess our walking schedules just haven't meshed.

Lots of the neighbours have dogs here. That surprised me a bit. I had supposed, I suppose, that country people wouldn't be as sentimental as we North Americans about pets. My thinking, however, has been coloured by my relatives back home, most of who wouldn't countenance or dog or cat hair inside their homes.

I got so desperate for a friendly dog that I went looking for the two strays that hang around Danilo's bar.  So while Barbara and Shay went chasing after the horse-drawn carriage clopping through town to take pictures, I looked for some doggie love.

Elio said these two dogs are not strays. Rather, they belong to the entire town. If I heard right, they're named Turbo and Laboro. Elio said there have been times these two creatures were the only attendees at some of his early poetry readings in Piazza Palmieri's courtyard. Attentive and cultured creatures, he said.

I like Turbo best. He's a fuzzy-faced grey thing that sometimes follows me around. He lets me pat him on the head. But when I went looking for him today, he was nowhere to be found. 

It was getting dark. I went to my room and opened the big old doors that face the street. Behind the doors sits a screen that moves up and down. The blinds, oddly enough, are on the outside of the house, behind the screen. I had just bent down to push the screen up so as to shut the blinds when who should I see go by but Turbo and Laboro.

I called him and he came right over and stuck his head between the wrought iron bars that guard against people stepping into the room when the door is open. Laboro was right behind him. I had a little package of bread sticks, and fed it to them.

Turbo let me pat his head one more time before the pair of them trotted off.



Oscar and Daisy (in back)

Day 32 Night out

Have stopped incessant sneezing. That makes it possible for me to join our hostess Paola, who is driving Barbara and Shay and me to Lecce for a big Saturday night out. Barbara and Shay are both painters and Paola’s friend runs a gallery in Lecce's centro storico and she's having an exhibit opening tonight.

Not that I  don't care for art but to be honest the real draw for me is going to dinner  afterward. So we're on our way out and I'll report later.

The gallery itself was gorgeous.  But  I  didn't  understand  the exhibit, what artist  Domenico  Uccio Biondi was trying to express. I counted three life-size naked women, and a woman’s head and chest affixed to a canvas wearing a floor-length red skirt. Two of the sculptures wore funny goggles.

I tried getting a clue from the written material but couldn’t make heads or tails of that either: “il tempo vuole un bacio.”(Time wants a kiss). What the hell does that mean? Sometimes “art” is just too precious for my taste.

I tried reading the glossy program.  I really intended to try to understand but I guess I'm  not over my cold altogether because when I came across words like “incandescent,” “immortal” and “inexorable” I just didn't have the energy to continue.  

Much more  fun  was our  dinner, although we had a hard time finding a place to eat.  The old town was jammed.  In Lecce you need a reservation on a Saturday night.  But at 8:30 p.m., we finally found seats at a place called Amici Miei, where both Barbara and Paola had eaten before.  They did us a favour and let us in but there was a catch: We had to vacate the table by 9:30.

Appetizers for two, two pasta dishes, a salad and a bottle of rose wine called Five Roses and the four of us listed out of there exactly one hour later. Not even I had the nerve to utter the word “gelato” as we fought our way through the still growing crowds toward home. 

I didn't get what the artist was driving at but dinner (below) was a work of art.

Our pasta dishes included orecchiette with rapini and linguini with muscles and clams.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day 31 Waiting for drugs

Had planned to go to Roca Vecchia today but cancelled due to nasty, nasty cold. Have spent two of my 31 days here in bed. Went to pharmacy mid morning, which I can practically see from my window, to get something to help with plugged nose but found it closed. On the way back, stopped at the dry goods store for very large package of very small packs of kleenex. Paper tissues do not come in boxes here.

Stood at the cash, wondering out loud about the pharmacy being closed. The woman behind me looks at me like I'm nuts. Seems it's closed every Friday morning. Something about an itinerant doctor and a weekly medical clinic "over there."  I didn't have the strength to ask her what that had to do with the pharmacy being closed. In any case, "over there" could have been anywhere in the Salento.

She took pity on me, though. Said it would open nel pomeriggio. I went back at 5 p.m. and got some drugs. 

I'll go to Roca Vecchia some other time. Francesco promised. You might remember Francesco Aprile, the young author involved in this New Page project, 100-word narratives that are printed on posters and displayed in store windows. Roberta Gaetani, his girlfriend, studies archaeology at Lecce University. She's the one who told me about this ancient place.

It was built in the 1400s on the bones of an earlier civilization. (The Messapi tribes, populated this region a couple of thousand years B.C. before everybody in the then known world got sucked up by the Romans.)

Archaeological digs are ongoing. (This is in Italian. If interested put it through Google translate. It's not perfect but you'll get the gist.)

 Roca Vecchia sits smack on the Adriatic coast

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day 30 Case of the blinking cursor

Have not gone out today. Spent day with nose to grindstone at work on would-be mystery novel.

Okay, here's the entire truth: I sat here, inside my pretty room, from about 11a.m. to 5 p.m. but my fingers were not busy every moment fashioning a whole big world for my heroine sleuth.  If I believed in God, I'd say at this point that I now understand why it took Her seven days to create the world.  Creating something from nothing is a real bitch.

I'm remarkably good at finding reasons to stop writing. There are myriad facts to check on the Internet. I wouldn't want to make a mistake, would I? Hunger is an excellent excuse to walk away. It calls often, and so does nature, especially if you take a sip out of the two-litre bottle of water every time you hit a snag. There's also gmail to read and answer, mosquito bites to scratch and so on and so forth.

I could have taken a bus and gone to Gallipoli for the day, which housemate Frances visited yesterday and encouraged me to see. In fact, during my 60 days in Italy (half of which I've already consumed), I could criss-cross this glorious country twice over. I could visit the artwork in the shrines of every major saint the Catholic Church hasn't struck off the record. I could eat Milanese in Milan, Bolognese in Bologna and Florentine in Florence. Hell, I could jump on a ferry from Bari or Brindisi and spend a week in Greece.

But will I? Well, I’ll visit Gallipoli but “no” to the rest. ART calls bloody hell.

So I here in front of my computer, spending as much time staring at the blinking cursor as I do advancing my story letter by letter, word by word, page by page. At this pace, I hope to finish writing this baby before I'm too old to remember what a cursor is.  

Maybe I should write a book about masochism instead. It sure would be easier than writing a literary mystery. 

In truth, I have seen a few lovely churches on the way to my blinking cursor curse. This one is in Martina Franco.

La chiesa del Carmine
Built between 1727 and 1758 in an elegant baroque style, the church has a fine polychrome statue dedicated to Santa Maria della Misericordia, attributed to Stefano da Putignano. (

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day 29 The lavendar fauteuil

The idea of 31 more days stretching out ahead of me sends waves of pleasure shooting through my body. Like on the last day of elementary school when you knew you had the whole, hot summer ahead of you, a whole eight weeks to do nothing but play.

Today I had my hair cut. Barbara found a salon on via Europa in Calimera that impressed her. She'd been going elsewhere in the town but they didn't handle very short hair too well. But Stella did a good job at Cerise Parrucchieri.

Stella and her business partner Isaura opened the place less than a year ago.  It's going well, she said, better than they’d expected in so short a time.  

Stella did, in fact, do a stellar job on my cut. But the piece de resistance was definitely the shampoo experience.

Imagine you sit down on this sleek lavender fauteuil, a few shades darker than the walls. Isaura puts a towel around your shoulders and invites you to lie back. As your neck settles into the little grove in front of the sink, she flicks a switch and the chair comes to life. While she messages your scalp thoroughly in the course of two shampoos and a conditioning treatment, the chair does nice things all the way up and down your back.

Then Stella took over. We chatted as she snipped away with a pair of feathering scissors, snipping no shorter than I'd asked her to, by the way. She told me she's something of an anomaly in these parts: unmarried but living on her own. Her leaving created a real family scandal, she said.

Her mother didn't understand about wanting independence, and refused to have anything to do with her for two years.

I told her about the first time I left home. I was 21 and just out of university. A girlfriend and I decided to sublet an apartment together in downtown Montreal, where I then lived. My bone-deep Italian immigrant mother was not in favour, to put it very mildly. At that time, proper Italian girls, proper daughters, did not leave home unless they were, you know, loose.

As I carried out my few plastic bags to a car waiting for me at the curb, my mother stood inside and gently banged her head against a wall in time with innovative lamentations aimed at the Almighty.

By the end of the summer my friend and I were at odds and I returned home. A few years later when I left for good, I think my mother was secretly glad to be rid of me.

Stella says her mother has come to terms with her departure and quite pleased to see she's set up a nice life for herself. Stella yearns to get to New York for a professional course she wants to take next year.  But she can only stay one meagre week, she says regretfully. Can't close the salon longer than that.

Stella co-owner of Cerise Parrucchieri salon starts work on her next customer

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 28 Girl with pearl earrings

Today, a clump of clouds, low and smoky, played tag with me all the way to Calimera. I was of two minds whether I should risk getting caught in a downpour. But when I left Martignano around 2 p.m. the sky looked promising.

Still, I headed out armed with a raincoat that has a hood, and an umbrella with a leopard spot pattern. (This is the third umbrella I've bought in the few weeks. (See a previous post for full complaint.)

But rain or no rain I had no choice but to go to Calimera. Martignano has no bank machine and I found myself sans funds. 

As soon as I hit the provincial road I saw the clouds. I watched them get ahead of me, then behind me, then to the right of me and so on, as I hurried along the now familiar road.  The wind made a haunting sound as it whistled through the olive trees. More birds than I've ever heard in one shot in these parts chattered and took flight, making crazy circular patterns against the clouds.

I knew this bird behaviour did not auger well for keeping dry. So I walked faster and prayed for the best, although I did stop by the roadside to admire a strangely beautiful clump of perfect, tiny yellow wildflowers.

I made it to the bank machine quite dry. But my luck was about to change: the machine refused to give me my money. I went to another machine further down but it wasn't at all like the other one and I couldn't figure out which buttons to press.  I went back to the first one and finally figured out what I'd done wrong. I’d asked for too much money in one shot.

Relieved I went up the street to Cafe Vitoria wondering which two flavours of gelato I’d try today. But it was closed. Disappointed, I turned for home. Just as my feet hit via Roma, the sky opened up. 

I trotted the three kilometres (going home, it's uphill) back to Martignano and got back just in time to change out of my wet clothes so I could catch a ride with Stella to Lecce at 4:30 p.m.

As recompense for my travails today I bought myself to a pair of silver and pearl earrings. A girl's gotta be good to herself after such a difficult day, eh? 
 I ignored the ominous dark clouds because I needed to go and get money. Isn't that always the reason?


But the threatening storm didn't stop me from stopping to admire these glorious, miniscule yellow wildflowers

Here I am, the girl with the new pearl earrings

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 27 A little history

San Pantaleo is the patron saint of Martignano. Every year, they have a great big celebration on his feast day, July 27.  I confess, I'd never heard of this guy. According to, he was a young doctor from Nicodema, beheaded for his Christian beliefs in 305. His earthly remains, it seems, are scattered in churches all over Italy, including his blood, which is preserved in Ravello's cathedral. A reliquary in Martignano's Santa Maria dei Martiri contains some of that blood. It's kept in a glass vial within a wooden shrine covered in silver.   

The townspeople believe S. Pantaleo saved Martignano from a "tremendous" hurricane on Nov. 16, 1718. Every year on that date (I'll be here!) they build a big bonfire to commemorate their narrow escape.

These folks here take such good care of their church and the huge statue of S. Pantaleo in the church square. So I find it hard to understand why they've allowed another church and attached convent to fall into dereliction.

The convento di San Franceso was built by the Franciscans in the early 16th century, the attached church in 1770.  But the whole shebang shut down in 1809 when a nasty bugger by the name of Giocchino Murat ordered all monastic orders to disperse and confiscated their property. Today, the municipality owns the church building but the convent eventually fell into private hands. It's for sale!

Murat is an interesting character. He was born Joachim Murat in France, the son of an innkeeper who got kicked out of the seminary for brawling. He went into the army (eminently reasonable for a born brawler) and shot up through the ranks in Napoleon's army. He made it all the way up to King of Naples (1808 to 1815). History says he was a gifted and daring leader, which no doubt contributed to his meteoric rise in the army. However, the jet fuel provided by his marriage to Napoleon's youngest sister Caroline, couldn't have hurt. 

But as Bonaparte's empire started to crumble and so did Murat's, and so did their relationship. He tried to find allies among other Europeans, hoping to keep Naples but failed. He had the nerve to run back to France to ask for Napoleon's help but his brother-in-law kicked him out of the country.

Never one to take no for an answer, he tried to recapture his kingdom with a handful of men. He was promptly arrested sentenced to the firing squad. 

Murat had had a reputation as a dandy dresser, and he remained a vain creature to the very end. On Oct. 13, 1815 before he gave the order for the soldiers to fire on him, he’s is reported to have shouted: "Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face."

What a swell guy!

The towns owns the church (left) but the convent, which is actually attached to the church itself is is private hands and currently for sale. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Day 26 Gelato heaven

Okay. I'm going to come right out and say it: I had gelato again today. (Needless to say, I'm feeling much better,) In my defence, however, I want to add that Shay and I did have to walk three kilometres to Calimera to get it. I had one scoop of Chantilly and a scoop of cioccolata. (Give me a break! There’s only one size.) I can't tell you what Shay ordered because I was too busy scarfing down the delectable stuff in my hot little hand. 

Replete, we both opined that the gelato in Calimera is much tastier than the one we had in the big city of Lecce -- and cheaper, too.

It'll be pizza at Berlino’s tonight or maybe I'll have the tripe, a la casareccia (home style), again, that is, if the cook decided to make it today. I know, tripe sounds gross but it's really soooooooo good.

Berlino's is casual, and I mean casual. The owner is a guy named Rosario, whom I've never met. His brother, Gino, is the one that seems to run the place (He's married to Adelina, who has a fruit and vegetable store on via Roma), and Alessia, his daughter, is the waitress.

Apart from thinking about and eating food, I spent the early part of the day reading some of those 100-word narratives that are part of the New Page project (see previous post). Quite beautiful. I'm working on a submission myself, and that may be the culmination of my work in Italy.  

The artists that come to MIRA have an exhibit at the end of their stay. Barbara and Shay are painters; Frances is a photographer. Their images will be shown at the Accademia in Lecce at the end of November.

But I have nothing so tangible to present so Paola decided to organize a series of performances on opening night. She's invited poet Elio Coriano to give us one of his bracing, thought-provoking readings, and his wife, Stella Grande and her group, to sing from their roster of folkloric songs. 

Will I have the nerve to stand up and read my meagre little 100-word New Page narrative, which may end up on a poster and displayed in some Apuglian store window like the New Page works?

Hell, yes. About 80 per cent of the people likely to attend won't understand English. I couldn't put a foot wrong if I tried.

 Berlino's did have tripe tonight, and I enjoyed every mouthfull.
 Barbara's ultra-thin crust pizza had bresaola (salt-cured beef), rucola and grano. She tried her very best but couldn't  finish it.
The view just as you enter Berlino's

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 25 Museums and outdoor markets

I think I've picked up some sort of bug. Spent the entire day in bed reading and dozing.  Sweet Barbara, brought me a tiny bouquet of wildflowers, which she picked on her walk today. She arranged them prettily in the tiny liqueur glass to cheer me up. They did.

Last night in Lecce was sweet. We took the bus in early evening and arranged for our neighbour, Rosario, to pick us up at 11 p.m.  At that hour, the place was only just starting to come to life. People everywhere, filling the cafes and restaurants, people out walking their dogs. In fact, I met a couple walking a five-month-old miniature pincher named Gerry. They were kind enough to stop and let me pat him and make a fuss over him. I miss my dog, also a min pin, although he can be a little bastard sometimes.

In Lecce we wandered through an outdoor market around the centre storico, rows and rows of tents selling everything from batteries to shoes to books. We spent a lot of time at one stall, each of us trying on just about every hat they had. Shay looked fetching in a cream-coloured fedora -- like a New York mafioso. They almost talked me into buying a lavender cap studded with sequins. Luckily, I resisted.

We visited a painting exhibit at the Charles V museum, which didn't impress me much. But their paper mache gallery was really beautiful. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a life-size bust of a bloody Jesus, in full colour. Kindda takes you aback. The detail on all works, which were all religious figures, was truly astonishing. (The town is famous for its paper mache works.)

For a change, we didn't eat Italian food last night. We went to a wine bar in the old city centre, where a young painter that had visited MIRA a few weeks ago works. The evening was cool, but the majority of our group wanted to sit outside. I wasn't feeling 100 per cent and felt the cold, so the waiter brought my a big red blanket to wrap around me. Perfect.

But either my housemates, too, began to feel the cold or they were just being thoughtful because after I returned from the washroom, they'd decided to move indoors. 

I had vegetable couscous. My friends were in their glory with their pick of a long list of local wines. But on the way to meet Rosario, we stopped at a cafe/bar and each had a gigantic gelato. Oh my god, the gelato is so good here, and every cafe sells it. I had a cone, half with Bailey's and half with some kind of hazelnut flavour.  There's nothing like a wonderful sweetness in your mouth to make you feel better.

Alvino's is where we had our gelato. They also offer an impressive array of pastries.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Day 24 Blues under blue skies

There isn't a single cloud in the sky today. But it's after 4 p.m. and I haven't left the house at all today. I've sat in the courtyard and worked on my novel.

How is it possible to feel -- well, flat, as housemate Frances calls feeling down -- when the sky is so very blue?

In a little while the four of us will be taking the bus to Lecce. We're going to go and visit a few art galleries (two of my housemates are painters, and one is a photographer) and then have dinner somewhere in the city. We've arranged for a neighbour, Rosario, to come pick us up at 11p.m. so we don't have to hurry to catch the last bus back to Martignano.

Maybe the change of scene will awake my my senses. It seems wrong to be turning inward when there is so much beauty around.

Scenes from Lecce's centro storico (historic centre)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day 23 Mothers

Yesterday, an elderly woman across the street died. It's a small town, and many of the people are older and elderly. Just about every other day the church bells start that crazy, angry clanging to announce the departure of one of their own.

I was sitting in the courtyard writing. The door to the street was open and I saw three or four of the neighbouring women hurrying toward her house. I knew it had to be bad.

The last time I saw the deceased, Carmela Lizzi, was last week. Usually, her door stayed tightly shut. But that day it was open. She sat in a wheelchair inside her courtyard waiting to be led out. Her caretaker stood beside her. Her children, I'm told, live and work elsewhere. They'd hired someone, an Albanian immigrant, to look after her.  

A few drops of rain had already come down, and the sky was darkening. The caretaker stepped out on the street, arms crossed at her chest, looking gloomily toward the sky.  She turned to look at the old woman and shook her head. 

"I want to go to the piazza," the old woman begged. But the caretaker only shook her head again. "It's going to rain," she explained and they went back inside, the old woman on the verge of tears. The piazza is where all the old people gather in the evening. She was desperate for the company of her friends.

Today, Maria, another of my neighbours, told me Signora Lizzi often sat alone in the shade of her courtyard watching and waiting for people to go by. She'd wave to them and invite them in, Maria said, wanting to chat.

"So sad," Maria said, clutching her toddler son. "A caretaker isn't family, is she?"

 And then I called my own mother, who is unwell while I'm so far away across an ocean. She immediately launched into a host of complaints, which reassured me in an odd way. But before I hung up she wanted to know when I'm coming home.

 Mourners begin to gather at the home of the deceased, Carmela Lezzi 

In the region, signs are placed in front of the home of the deceased. They are offered by members of the family and others in the community. Carmela Lezzi seems to have had many friends, judging by the number of declarations she received.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 22 Uphill with a melon

After tussling uselessly with the main character in my novel for hours today, I threw in the towel and went for a walk toward the end of the afternoon. I ended up in Calimera, yet again.

The sky was a gorgeous blue with gossamer clouds. After almost a week of heavy rain, it felt glorious to be moving. I walked fast, spurred on by the fact my jeans fit more snugly than they did three weeks ago. 

When I reached Calimera, I saw a brown sign with an arrow indicating a museum nearby. I followed it. I walked for about 10 minutes on viale Bari until I reached a major intersection -- well, major for Calimera. Blue signs there pointed to ways to reach neighbouring towns but nothing for the museo. 

Keep walk straight ahead or try viale Napoli. Napoli was wider so that's where I went until it's name changed suddenly via Salvemini at the next intersection and to via Torricelli at the one after that. But it struck me as a pretty avenue. It even had a median dotted with baby trees. The houses looked larger and more prosperous there than those I'd seen on my usual route.

Nevertheless, the sidewalks were as abysmal there as everywhere else. They're narrow, no more than a couple of feet wide, which wouldn't be so bad. But I swear using them can make you seasick -- up and down, up and down every few yards where driveways drop or light poles suddenly stand in your way. But if you walk on the street and you risk being mowed down by a Smart Car.

Still in the dark about the which way to the bloody museum, I finally stopped a hefty woman riding by on a bicycle. Ah, I had just passed it, there on via Europa, just behind me. I turned and there it stood mocking me.

Of course, it was 5 p.m. and it didn't open for another half hour. I left, walking along via Europe. With an important street name like that, I had no doubt it would lead me straight to via Roma and the main square.

It did.

Before taking the road for home, I stopped at the Supermercato. I thought it would be nice to have prosciutto and melon as a first course for dinner. After all, I'd had plenty of exercise.

But I don't know why I had to buy the melon, along with dishwashing detergent, a ricotta made of sheep and goat's milk and a few other things in Calimera instead of picking those things up in Martignano.

I climbed the steep hill along road back (it's probably the only hill in Puglia) at a steep angle, as though my body were pushing against a strong wind. I held the grotesque melon against me with my right arm while the loaded plastic bag dangled in the crook of my left arm. 

Sidewalks are hazardous to pedestrians 
A house on via Europe with the sides of the house painted different colours
An abandoned house stands side by side with a lived-in renovated residence 

 A butcher sign lists an array of meat, including horse meat, which is popular in the region

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Day 21 Tired by association

Stella Grande looked pityingly at me as she drove us back from Lecce: "You’d never be able to keep up with us," she said.

Quite, correct. In fact, I'd be dead after a single week if I had to live her life.

Stella is married to Martignano poet, Elio Coriano.  They live in a wing of what was once the baronial palazzo in Piazza Palmieri.  She has two children, a boy in his mid-teens, and an 11-year-old girl. She has the usual motherly duties of cooking (which she considers playtime), laundry (no dryers here), and cleaning.

But she has also made quite a reputation for herself as a singer of Pugliese folk music, called pizzicata. Her group, Stella Grande e le Anime Bianche, travel all over the region, especially in the summer, giving concerts. They also do a weekly local weekly television program and they have several CDs out. 

Stella also owns and operates a day spa in Lecce.  Her professional certificates and diplomas cover an entire wall of the reception area.

I had made an appointment to have a facial at her spa for 11 a.m. this morning. We had agreed to meet in front of her apartment at Piazza Palmieri at 9 a.m. so I could get a lift into Lecce with her.

I struggled to get out of bed at 8:30, just in time to brush my teeth, get dressed and walk a few hundred feet meet her. She'd been up since 6:30. Had made breakfast for the family, talked a local electrician into coming over to repair some damage caused by last night's thunder storm, made beds, got herself glammed up and met me outside.

"Let's stop for a coffee," she said. And we did -- at the local bar, where we had a serious argument about who was going to pay. (I won.) We arrived in Lecce shortly before 10 a.m. She went to work, whereas I sauntered across the street from her spa and had a cappuccino and a cornetto filled with custard cream. Then I wandered up and down Via G. Arditi looking inside the shops until it was time for my appointment.

Along the way I had a chat with a spectacular Macaw hanging on to the insides of a large white cage, which stood on the sidewalk in front of a pet store. He muttered something so I went over.  His intelligent eyes assessed me as I spoke to him, and he came closer to get a better look. He stared at me and blinked. When I said nothing more, he screeched (in disgust, I think), turned his back and cracked a pumpkin seed.

I went to get my facial (glorious! I feel asleep on the table), having bought a small bottle of vincotto (a condiment made from concentrated, unfermented grape must) and a wedge of pecorino cheese, typical of the region, which the merchant swore had been aged 16 months. Little did he know I couldn't tell 16 months from 16 years.

Stella goes home every day for siesta so I came back with her to Martignano.  She had prepared the family meal the day before, greens in broth with polpettine.  But before we got on the road, she stopped at one store to buy noodles, a second store to buy warm bread and a third to get fruit. Then she stopped to pick up her son, who goes to school in Lecce and, finally, we were on our way, the back seat overloaded with teenagers.

At 5 p.m., Stella went back to work in Lecce. When that finishes at 8:30 p.m., she has rehearsal with her band.  Elio and the children will be in bed by the time she gets home, although Elio, she says, rises at 4:30 a.m. to write.

Stella told me last week she's a bear if she doesn’t get in at least a half-hour in bed every day during the siesta period. Now I understand why.

 One of Stella's CD covers
 The Macaw parrot doing his thing on via G. Arditi in Lecce

Monday, October 18, 2010

Day 20 My beautiful tomatoes

I bought the most beautiful bunch of tomatoes today, perfect little orbs no more than an inch in diameter and still on the vine. We'll have some of them in a salad for dinner tonight.

My three housemates and I gather at dinner time daily. We never talk about whose turn it is to cook but, somehow, a lovely dinner always appears on the table. In the afternoon someone decides to make something and does it. Around 8 p.m. we all show up in the kitchen from our separate rooms to see what else needs doing.

One of the oenophiles (not me, I swear!) pours some rich red stuff into long-stemmed glasses (they pour mine into a liqueur glass so I won't feel left out) and somebody else does the salad, and so on. Although we bitch and complain that there's no more room, usually someone has bought dessert.  Roxy's makes the most delectable almond paste cookies, and macaroons and little things shaped like Hersey's kisses with fig hidden inside.  There's always room for a tiny cookie, isn't there?

Frances, who claims she is no cook, has been cooking up a storm. Yesterday, she surprised us with a pot full of lentils flavoured with garlic and wild rosemary. This afternoon, she made a tomato sauce with fresh sausages spiked with lemon rind. I can't wait.

These days I find myself much more interested in food than in working on my novel.  Well, if I'm truthful, it's always been that way. I can just image how many novels I would have written if things had been the other way around.

Actually, I haven't eaten much today. Maybe that's why I managed to produce a half dozen written pages this afternoon. I even did some exercise. Shay and I shared a yoga session. In the middle of it, Frances left to go and see a tree -- yes, an olive tree, which is so old and so big it can shelter four people from the rain.

Frances is a professional photographer and she's in Martignano to put together a book on ancient olive trees, which will include recipes and ghost stories as told by local Nonas. She'll photograph them using black and white film, and old-style cameras. The other day a courier arrived with a big box containing the special equipment she'll be using: a pinhole camera and a big black one, the kind a photographer has to put a towel over her head to use, like in the old, old days. She's also trying to raise funds to help her complete the project:

As for me, it's half an hour to dinner time, and I can hardly wait to try France's sausage-spike sauce.

 Little tomatoes are delectable in salad

Shay, Frances and Barbara waiting for a taste of Frances' sauce.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Day 19 All bran

I breakfasted on a small bowl of All-Bran per la mia regolarita (don't ask!) as the box promises, and followed that up with one of the remaining sfogliatelle housemate Frances brought back from her trip to Naples.

Afterward, I thought I'd go to the store and get a few things, thinking they'd be open in the morning on a Sunday (wishful thinking), if not in the afternoon. But I was wrong, as Frances had warned.

On Via Roma, Martignano's main street, everything but the four cafe/bars, Roxy's rosticceria and the church were tightly shuttered. (Just about every one of these towns around here calls its principal thoroughfare Via Roma. Who know? Maybe a thousand years ago, the roads really did lead to Rome.) 

At the intersection in front of each of two cafe bars, situated kitty-corner to each other, stood a throng of middle-age and older men. You'll find such men there just about at any time of the day and late into the evening, hovering around the doorways or sitting on chairs at tiny bistro tables, which they occupy smack on the narrow sidewalk so you can't get by.

They've seen me and my three housemates walking around for several weeks now. If they haven't seen us they sure know about us. In a place where fewer than 2,000 people live, word gets around about strangers pretty fast. Nevertheless, once again they stared at me as I went by, as though ET had suddenly appeared among them.

In the past, I have turned in their general direction and called out a cheery buon giorno or buona sera. Some returned the greeting, others didn't.  But today their rudeness just pissed me off. What's even more annoying is that I recognized one or two of them as people from whom I have elicited a greeting and a smile when I've crossed them by themselves on the street.

What I'd like to know is what goes wrong with their brains when men gather in groups?

I came back to my room and buried myself in a book, waiting for the grumbling thunder, thundering under bright blue sky, mind you, to morph into a downpour. It never did here, although it flowed heavily all day for Frances and Shay, who'd gone to Otranto.

But by 4 p.m. the sky was silent, and Barbara and I took a walk through some back roads. It's strange how nature, even cultivated nature like olive groves, can chase away the Sunday blues and restore the quiet inside.

An ancient olive tree stands by the roadside watching  the world go by. I bet it could tell some whoppers.

Day 18 New Page

A whole story, a whole world contained in 100 words?

It's becoming the rage in Lecce -- at least that's the hope of the man who dreamed up the idea. You'll find these stories, these works of word art printed on posters big and small all over the city -- in the windows of storefronts, in exhibit halls, wherever there are people who might be intrigued enough to stop and be held in thrall by a particular story.  They're written by many different authors.

Each work is unquie, complete unto itself as a poem might be. But they're not poems. They're narratives. 

The project is called New Page and the brain child of the literary mentor of my friend, the Martignano poet Elio Corian's. It pains me to admit that I met The Mentor today and that I have now forgotten his name! But I haven't forgotten his striking, angular face or the force of character he exudes. I plan to see him again.

Elio brought me to Lecce to meet him, and to see an exhibit of such works by two young writers at a small exhibit hall on Fondo Verri, in old Lecce. Between them Teresa Lutri, 26, and Franceso Aprile, 25, had about two dozen such works on display. I read a few of them as best I could. I didn't understand every word, of course, since they're written in sophisticated Italian, but I absorbed enough of what I read to pick up the tone and the direction.

Elio has invited me to try my hand at writing one. I'll give it a shot.  

Elio told me a story about one of the ones he wrote: A big poster of the work, which had been on display in a store window, caught the eye of a passing woman. She came back the next day to read it again. And yet again. Finally, she went into the store and begged the owner to find some way to get her a copy of it. She said she had to have it because the piece had haunted her.

And that's what happens when a good writing meets an open mind.

 Francesco Aprile, The Mentor, and Teresa Lutri in Lecce

 Francesco and Teresa had some of their New Page works on display at Fondo Verri in Lecce's historic centre

A work by Francesco Aprile

Friday, October 15, 2010

Day 17 Wet laundry

My housemate, Shay, told me there was 20 per cent chance of rain today. He's proved a decent, reliable fellow so far and I took him at his word. So this morning, I left my my clothes hanging on the clothes lines, on the roof, a little longer than I should have. 

As you've likely already surmised, that was an error in judgement. It poured. Rivers of rain rushed furiously past my open door and down the stone streets as though eager to get somewhere. My pajamas and sundry other items received the kind of rinse I wasn't able to give them in the courtyard sink when I washed them.  Come to think of it, in that regard, the downpour was a blessing.

Our residence has no washing machine, let alone a dryer. But we do have two big concrete laundry tubs, the one in the courtyard and a smaller one in the ante room between my room and Barbara's, and plenty of detergent. You just have to get used to doing the washing the old fashioned way. The trick is to use just the right amount of soap. It's a skill I haven't mastered yet and I've had a bitch of a time getting it out of my jeans.

At one point, Paula's aunt, who does have a perfectly serviceable washing machine -- and lives nearby -- had agreed to take in our washing for a fee. But later she changed her mind. She said she didn't want the responsibility.

It's early evening and I just went up on the roof to check on the degree of wetness of the clothes. After some thought, I decided not to take it down and wash it all over again. I figure the sun will come out tomorrow and disinfect it. But if I don't get the hang of this soap business, I'll probably have to take my dirty clothes by bus to Lecce -- if there's a laundramat there. 

 We hang our laundry on the rooftop. Perfect, unless it rains.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 16 Wildlife

If you consider flies wildlife, then there's plenty of it in this small part of the Apuglian countryside.  In fact, I'm in the process of acquiring a remarkable ability to hunt and kills them dead.

My favourite hunting ground is the kitchen. I prowl the room armed with a simple orange swatter. When I have one of them in my sights, I watch and wait for the bugger to get comfortable. When it starts rubbing its two front legs against each other -- I strike.  
Today alone, I must have extinguished half a dozen of those tormentors.
I tried using the electrified swatter Paola brought last week. It looks like a tennis racket, and has a built in recharger in the handle. The problem is you can't electrocute the buggers in mid air. You have to catch then between the racket and a hard surface and then zap them. Needless to say, this requires specialized skills. Tennis players would probably excel.
When it comes to fly swatting, I say low tech works best. Once you get the flick of the wrist just right, you have a good chance of being able to eat your lunch in peace.
Besides the insects (mosquitos have turned my arms and legs into red polka dots) you'd think there would be plenty of flora and fauna in this countryside. Maybe it's just that I'm a city girl but there doesn't seem to be much of it here. The villages and small towns are all stone. The stone streets run right up against concrete steps and front doors, leaving no space for greenery. There are few trees, few pots of flowers in public areas, even in the piazzas. What greenery there is, mostly in pots, lies hidden in courtyards behind closed doors.
The wide open fields are cultivated and well tended mostly. There are no squirrels here, no scurrying little creatures making noises in bushes, mostly because there are few bushes.

I've seen a few lizards the length of my index finger. One day I stopped on the roadside to look at one as it sunned itself on a warm ochre stone. I swear, it glared at me as though I had disturbed its afternoon nap. Or maybe it was only that the little reptile had never seen somebody with such red hair as I have.
Anyway, we stared at each other a long time before it finally turned and disappeared between the rocks.
Another day, on my way back from a long hike to Sternatia, I saw a dead rat along the old country road I took. The creature was white with tan markings had been turned into roadkill.

Our electrified fly swatter.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day 15 The olives have it

The olive harvest approaches. On the walk to Calimera today, you can see the olives hanging heavy on the trees. Olive groves line the old road on either side, grove after grove with the trees carefully arranged in rows with plenty of space between each of them.

Our hostess Paola, a natural philosopher, said the other day that Italy has a festival for every food group: polenta, sausages, grapes and naturally, olives.

I'm all in favour of celebrating olives. Apart from the wonderful fruit, olives trees are beautiful, especially those glorious trunks: charcoal grey, and each one a unique sculpture. Some look like long gnarled fingers digging into the earth; some of the very old trees have split themselves in two like Siamese twins, one hoary part reaching upward, the other bending elegantly in some other direction, the foliage rich and thick.

Tomorrow the nearby town of Martano begins the first of many olive festivals with a three-day sagra de la VOLIA CAZZATA. Do not, I repeat, do not plug the words  volia cazzata in Google translator's when children are around. It'll tell you in English cazzata is a four-letter word. After painstakingly reading Martano's description about its festival, I concluded the words are a local patois meaning crushed olives.

Paola promised us a lift into Martano so we, too, can enjoy a taste of their olives, oil and other local agricultural products. They'll have artisanal cheeses, local vegetables, such as a wild green called cicoreddhe. And also, of course, there will be samplings of vino.

Arrivederci, amici.

One of the olive groves on the way to Calimera.


In October the trees are becoming heavy with fruit

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Day 14 All in red

Vanity demands a certain price. Today I paid 20 euros to refresh the dashing colour of my hair -- a cross between persimmon and pomegranate. Truth is I brought the tube of appropriate colour with me from Canada. I didn't have much hope that a town of 1,700 in Southern Italy would carry Schwarzkopf''s dark blonde intensive red extra.

But I didn't go to a beauty parlour, although I gather that one exists tucked away somewhere in Martignano.

No, today I received hair services in my very own bedroom. Paola, our hostess, made a phone call, and presto, Paola (no relation) came knocking on my door with a bag full of professional accoutrements along with her hairdresser's bona fide, having graduated from the appropriate school in Lecce.

Paola has glossy dark brown hair, the same colour as her eyes. She hasn't quite reached her mid-20s and she can't find a job. Luckily, she's still living at home, she says.

Italy is an especially tough place to be young these days. Recent graduates with advanced degrees work as barristas and waiters -- if they can get any work at all.

Paola did a great job on the colour. (Although she did suggest, politely, few Southern Italians would have the nerve to sport such a vibrant shade.) She's so apt at working inside people's bedrooms, she didn't even make much of a mess on the white porcelain sink in my bathroom when she rinsed the blood-red goop from my hair.

Once it was done, both the Paolas stood admiring the depth of colour, which will, alas, begin to fade with the very first shampoo. Vanity. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Day 13 Wicked rain

On the 13th day, it rained.

Can't honestly say I was disappointed. It's the greatest excuse in the world not to take my daily hike. I didn't go on my walk yesterday either, but then yesterday was Sunday, right? And that wasn't an excuse since even writers on a writing retreat are entitled to a day of rest.

I did have to fight hard, though, not to crawl under the duvet and take out the Sue Grafton mystery I read before going to bed. I don't think I enjoy a single activity more than slipping into a novel with the hiss and splash of rain as white noise.

Today, I'm proud to report, I worked on my novel-in-progress for many hours. My main character chose to co-operate today. She's something of a bitch -- but in a good way -- but won't always do as I tell her. The poor thing has no idea what I've got in store for her. If she did, she'd tell me fuck-off and walk right out of the book.

Despite the rain, I did have to go to the grocery store. I donned my red raincoat, with hood, and pulled out the umbrella I bought when I passed through Alberobello a few weeks ago during a downpour.

I purposely bought the umbrella in a store near the basilica of Sts Cosimo and Damiano. I figured buying it from a real merchant I'd have a better chance of getting an umbrella that would live through more than a single rainfall. Not like the one I bought in Rome from one of those guys that wander the streets as soon as a single spittle of water drops from the sky. 

I know, I know but Teri and I had been waiting half an hour for it to let up and the cafe we'd taken shelter in was about to close.  The umbrella seller wanted 7 euros. I told him I wouldn't give not one a penny over 5, and the deal was made.

He had every colour imaginable but I chose black for some reason. Anyhow, it barely got us back to the convent where we were staying with the good sisters di Sant'Anna on via Giusti.

The umbrella I bought near the church turned out to be no better than the one sold by the street vendor. The only consolation is that I only paid 4 euros for it. 

Today, by the time I got home -- and we're not talking gale force winds here -- the frame was completely distorted and the fabric ripped from the skeleton on two sides. I hurled the thing into the trash.
The moral of this story is this: Always take a raincoat that has a hood when  travelling to Italy.

 Every year at the end of September, thousands of people from all over the Salento region travel to Alberobello to celebrate the feast days of Sts Cosimo and Damiano.
 Teri and I stayed at this trullo for three nights. Alberobello has thousands of these houses made of overlapping local stone. Their existence dates back to the 16th century.
UNESCO has the city a world heritage site for its trulli.

Inside our trullo.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Day 12 Grasse matinee

Today I gave myself permission to faire la grasse matinee. It's a French expression, which means to sleep in. I hear you laughing, those of you who know me. Yes, it's true I don't shoot out of bed at the crack of dawn, but today I outdid myself. I stayed curled up under my warm duvet until the seventeenth century church bells of Our Lady of the Martyrs announced noon with a flourish.

I feel no guilt whatsoever when I say I enjoyed every single minute of my grasse matinee.

Relax. I wasn't asleep all that time. I woke up around 9:30 a.m. and lay there thinking, surrounded by the heat of my own body under the covers. Despite the wood shutters and the drapes that cover the glass in the doors, some threads of light pushed their way in through the cracks. It gave me just enough soft light to marvel once again at the beauty of the cathedral ceilings.

It's so quiet here. The silence is as palpable as a hum. You can't miss the buzz of a moquito. The slightest movement on the street outside my door sounds like an intrusion. I listened to people living their lives from my bed, the bark of a dog, a car streaking by.

I lay there and thought about so many things and about nothing. I've felt tired these last couple of days.

Last night our hostess Paola took the three of us (Fances, Shay and me -- Barbara has gone to Istanbul for a week) to an excellent restaurant called Arete. It's a former masseria (farmhouse) and beautifully restored. It sits on the provincial highway between Martignano and Cavallino, about a 10-minute drive.

We arrived around 9:00 pm. By the time we left two hours later, the line of people waiting for a table was impressive. We did not have a full-course meal. We MIRA residents don't seem capable of making it through a full four courses without falling over.

We asked Paola to order for us -- she's been there so many times, the owner knows her by first name. They brought an array of antipasti so generous our eyes grew large as children's at Christmas. They brought ricotta made with buffalo milk, zucchini flan, tiny spiced meatballs, braised cabbage, and more. The dishes just kept coming and by the end of the first course we were already satiated.

However, when the second course arrived, like good troopers we pitched in. Paola had ordered two dishes, each of which the kitchen split in four for us.  The first was a delectable fava bean puree served on triangles of fried bread; the second, a pumpkin and truffle risotto that had every one of us floating off the floor over our chairs with pure pleasure.

We eschewed a meat course and a sweet, settling on fruit for dessert. I don't know what kind of wine we drank -- I don't drink much so I forget to pay attention. Paola ordered some kind of digestive liquer made from fennel and had us taste it. I thought it was disgusting.

 Chiesa Matrice di S. Maria dei Martiri (Our Lady of the Martyrs) is a plain church on the exterior that sits at one end of the piazza della Republica. The nucleus of the church was built in the first half of the 16th century and added to over the years. It has the original Renaissance door with typical Salento embellishments of that era but inside is strictly Baroque. 

To the left is the front door of the residence where I live (MIRA, Martignano International Residence for Artists). It's on a corner. The front door faces via S. Nicola. The photo on the right shows the side of the building with two of the four bedrooms door looking out onto via G. Verdi. My room is the door furthest left.