Ciao, Grecia Salentina

Today I returned to Brindisi after a week in Grecia Salentina, which is the Greek-influenced part of Puglia, just south of Lecce. It was an amazing week, not only to dip in to their music, myth, and history for an article (upcoming in Afar, www.afar.com), but to become acquainted with an often neglected part of Italy and some of its people.

Salentino is becoming chic, which surprises the people there. For most of history, Salento has been so poor that, as one resident put it, even the mafia didn’t bother with the area. People worked in tobacco fields and harvesting grain. They were so hungry that while today , if you ask for a fig from someone’s tree, they will not only say yes, they will pick you the best one, years ago someone could be killed for picking a fig. The area is full of cactus blooming with what they call “fichi indi,” or “Indian figs,” which they eat alongside regular figs, which are also abundant.

Driving in Salento is difficult. You have to aim for the next town in the direction you’re heading, go through the middle, negotiate lots of turns, and hope to come out the other side of the centro going the direction you’d like to go. I got lost every day, but in the meantime saw so many of the town’s treasures–medieval churches, fountains, squares. At night, it was impossible to believe that the ghost towns I saw during the day were the same crowded shopping and dining districts of the evening. The rhythms are very set here, both in the music and in daily life.

During the day it was so hot there was nothing to do but head for the sea (the Adriatic). Salento is crowded in August, when everyone has vacation, and everyone crowds to the mare. My friend Giovanna stayed with friends near the mare and they invited me to dinner a couple of nights; it’s nothing for them to have 18 people for dinner every night, so 19 is fine. After dinner, they put on pizzica music and danced.

In Salento I stayed in Le Pezzate, a masseria, which is a former medieval fortified farmhouse, typical of the area. The owners, Benedetta and Mario, have done a gorgeous job of restoring the place and making guests feel welcome. Mario described how human beings like to have a closed-in place where they can feel safe, and yet the courtyard makes it feel open. I felt like family there, and went out to dinner with other guests; when I was alone at pranzo Benedetta and Mario insisted I eat with them. Mario called me “Laura Adorata” and made hilarious attempts at English; they went to great lengths to help me with my story. My room was tiny but lovely, and the stone pool was a refreshing refuge in the heat. It may be my favorite place to stay, ever.

Last night I went to Lecce, which is one of the beautiful towns in the world. They call it the Paris of Salento, and the Florence of the South, but Lecce is Lecce, an astonishing Baroque town, with a Piazza del Duomo in the centro that makes me cry every time I see it, especially in the evening, the blonde pietra lecchese glowing in the twilight. On this visit I had only a short time, since I was doing an interview, but while we were talking an old man came up to me and offered me a fan, since it was so hot. I refused at first, but he told me he was offering it to me with all his heart. The fan came in useful since it has been as hot as 40 degrees centigrade, i.e. too hot to do the math.

I was sorry to leave, and today travelledMaglie by day, desertedNewlyweds in LecceMasserie Le PezzateTrulliLocorotandonorth to the district of the trulli, the teapot-shaped houses with domed roofs made of rock (since there was only olive wood, which is not good for building) and walls of plaster. I got completely lost on the roads, but loved wandering around narrow streets with rock walls and these trulli poking up in the hills.

I had lunch in a town called Locorotondo, which has a central pedestrian area full of white houses and balconies dripping flowers. I found a restaurant there that had a Slow Food sign and also a sign for Gambero Rosso’s inexpensive restaurants, and went it. The food in Puglia has thusfar been disappointing at times, but lunch made up for a lot. I had a fava bean puree with chicory that was divine, with the local olive oil, and then a simple salad. When I asked the cook, the mama, how to make the favas, she offered me a bag of the dried beans, which unfortunately I can’t take back. I was so enchanted with the place I forgot to write down the name. Ma che shema sei, Laura! Veramente una cretina!

I am leaving tomorrow for Palermo, but know I am going to be back to Grecia Salentino. I have been speaking only Italian, which makes me feel like my English sounds translated.

Night of the Tarantula in Puglia

PUGLIA—Scorrano
I am in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, a hot, arid place with crumbling stone walls, olive trees, cactus, and Baroque limestone buildings. The people in Puglia are friendly, open, and don’t have the sense of furbezza—distrust, wheeler-dealer scamming–that is more common in Sicily, Naples, and other parts of southern Italy.
After I arrived in Brindisi the first night, completely tired after three flights and a sleepness night, I went to a simple pizzeria near the airport hotel. I was revived, sitting outdoors, watching people come in for dinner with groups of friends, kids chasing each other around. I ate an arugula salad with bresaeola and a crispy-crusted pizza Napolitano with anchovies and salt-cured capers from nearby islands, with local white wine, and everything was right with the world. Since I was alone, the waiter did what great Italian waiters do, which was to effectively give me company, making enough conversation to put me at ease, kissing my hand and welcoming me to Italy all the way from San Francisco, and calling me “bellisima signora.”
(I wish more American men would realize that compliments are free and don’t necessarily mean they have to have a relationship with the woman, they can just be men appreciating women, and they don’t have to do it in a way that seems aggressive or leering. Last night, for instance, dancing at a concert, an older man smiled at me after the song and said, “Complimenti per la sua eleganza,” using the formal polite address, complimenting me for my elegant dancing. Lovely.)
In Brindisi, I met up with my dear friend Giovanna, from Bologna, and we braved the little streets to find a masseria near Maglie—a reconstructed farmhouse called Le Pezzate, gorgeous little place with a stone pool and friendly owners, Mario and Bernadetta. Giovanna and I accidentally reserved a single instead of a double, so they put two little cots from the pool in the room instead of the bigger bed and I said we could pretend we’re nuns for a few days. The cook at the Masseria makes fresh brioche every morning, with her own marmalade—fig, orange.
Everything is dead here during the heat of the day. The small towns in Grecia Salento are deserted as everyone escapes the heat. They go to the sea or sleep in the afternoon. In the evening, the street come alive, shops open, and the towns are transformed.
I’m here doing research for an article for AFAR magazine, a wonderful and beautiful new magazine about cultural travel. Please subscribe: www. Afar.com. Then you can read my story from Puglia (I’m not going to give it away here!)
Last night was the Notte della Taranta festival in Melpignano. 150,000 people streamed in to this town of 2000 souls for a concert of pizzica, the traditional folk music of the region. It was amazing to see so many people of all ages completely enchanted with the music, the energy, the rhythm. The tambourinists, singers, violinists, accordianists—the orchestra was fantastic, with guest singers including Angelique Kudjo doing traditional feminine songs from her country, and duets with the pizzica singers here. I loved a band called Giro di banda, also Alla Bua…The concert lasted until 4 a.m., after which people gathered in circles with tambourines in the main piazza and either danced or passed out. Giovanna and I got a little lost on the way back to the masseria, where today we can do nothing but repose and recuperate, then make our way to a botanical garden and dinner tonight before I get back to work tomorrow…
Also: I have an article out in Tricycle Buddhist Review, “The Joy of Mindful Cooking,” http://www.tricycle.com/feature/the-joy-mindful-cooking.
Technical note: I bought this cute Internet key from VodaFone in Italy that attaches to my computer; for 50 euros I’m connected anywhere all month, no need to go somewhere with wireless, it uses cell signals…

Carry-on for two months in Europe!

Welcome to my new blog! I’ll be sending dispatches from my two-month trip to Puglia and Sicily in Italy, and then on board a Lindblad National Geographic Explorer ship from St. Petersburg, through the Baltics, then around the coast of Europe to Lisbon.
I’m at the airport, awaiting my flight to Frankfurt, then to Italy. So excited! I was home for only a day and a half after being in New Mexico at Ghost Ranch for the AROHO Writer’s Conference, which was wonderful, especially under those red mesas. Already feeling like a nomad.

CARRY-ON FOR TWO MONTHS
I’m feeling quite pleased that I managed to pack for two months in a carry-on bag. To be fair, I shipped a couple of warm things to Copenhagen to meet me on the boat, and a friend I’m traveling with is bringing me a jacket I fortunately loaned him awhile back. Still. The rest fits in the overhead compartment.
It took me awhile to figure out what to take. It’s going to be really hot in southern Italy and much cooler in Russia. Here’s my packing list:

–Black sleeveless indestructible “Banda” dress from Patagonia.
–Black swingy skirt, Patagonia (otherwise known as PataGucci, but their stuff lasts and they’re a great environmental company).
–White sun dress. Maybe impractical, but it’ll be hot as hell.
–Blue sundress/swimsuit coverup that can also act as a nightie, and was so cheap at Target I can toss it.
–White polo shirt. I’m not a polo shirt type of a gal; in fact they turn me into a suburban soccer mom instantly. But this one is a little more feminine and will be versatile in the heat and on board the ship.

–White blouse you can wear over above-mentioned sundresses

–Black Patagonia “Mystery Pants,” the mystery being how they can look good for every day and then you can go kayak in them.

–Olive khaki cropped pants

–Yoga pants
–Long Patagonia sweatshirt/jacket to wear on the plane
–Turquoise and black silk skirt
–A couple camisoles, 2 T-shirts, 2 sleeveless tops, one long-sleeve T I’m wearing on the plane.
–Super lightweight Indian white shirt
–Pretty Krista Larsen flowered vest that can also be worn as a sleeveless top.
–Eileen Fisher periwinkle shirt dress with a little stretch that can be worn when it’s cold with black leggings and a long-sleeve black top.
–three cardigan sweaters, from really light to heavier, turquoise, brown, and black cashmere.
–pretty lightweight silk shawl
–cropped off-white linen pants with silver thread
–2 swimsuits, one for laps and one cute
–Sun hat, intimates, glasses, etc.
–Electronics: Kindle (no need to lug a lot of books, and no, I’m not giving up on real books), Mac Air, voice recorder, European cell phone, iPod.
–Just a few toiletries, since you can buy that stuff there.
–Collapsible day pack from the deYoung Museum, tiny black purse for night, and black patagonia day pack.
–Shoes (the biggest challenge): black Crocs “Patricia” sandals with a small wedge heel, Naot walking shoes in bronze, and orange running shoes.
That’s it. Everything fits in my hard-sided Samsonite carry-on, with those wheels that glide in all directions.
Almost time to board, so I’d better leave the Red Carpet Club.
Hmmm…. Maybe it was audacious to ask some guy in line for the Red Carpet club if I could be his guest, but it worked, and now surely someone will do him a nice favor…