I arrived in Puglia not knowing anyone. A friend arranged for my trip to a little town in the countryside. On this trip, I experienced regular family life in Italy. I discovered exactly the stuff that I wanted to know—how to shop, cook, eat and live with the Italians.
As I stepped off the plane, I was excited and afraid at the same time. You see, my hosts spoke very little English so it was a week of total immersion. There is little physical resemblance to the Italy I am familiar with—no tourists here. The terrain is flat, the buildings are very square and imposing from the street. There are no romantic decorations, no pretty plantings, just the narrow street crowded with too many cars, a sidewalk and stone walls with doors leading to who knows what.
My hosts led me through a locked gate and I saw their home for the fist time. The colors were warm and the floor was tile. They led me to a bedroom and showed me the bathroom that I would be sharing with their daughter. This is a place where my hosts do not use Facebook and value their privacy, but they are warm and open with others. Since they are so private, I won’t give names or the town.
The mother (who is my age) fusses over me like I am one of her own children. Much to my dismay, I caught a cold while I was there. It was so embarrassing—I was coughing, sneezing and felt like a snot nosed brat. Mama fussed over me, gave me honey infused with some menthol stuff and had me put my face over boiling water for 10 minutes. After a day or so I started to feel better, but she still insisted that I take antibiotics. Since I was in her hands, I did as she said.
We shopped every day and I became familiar with the bread maker, cheese shop, butcher and all of the little places she frequents. They did not speak English and teased me as I picked up the language with my American accent. It is not easy to learn a new language, and to complicate matters, I had a hearing loss.
They showed me the sights of the region, the cities, the grottos, the Ionian and Adriatic seas and the beaches. There are hilltop cities, but most of the region is flat. They introduced me to Puglia’s cuisine and way of life. When we visited their friends, they’d invite us in and offer coffee or something cool to drink. There were always treats, cookies and cakes to accompany our beverage. It was such a gift
Communication got easier by the end of the week and we began to understand each other somewhat. But I still looked like a tourist—I carried a camera and spoke like an alien to them. In the part of Puglia that I was visiting, they do not see Americans very often and could spot me from a mile away.
The home had two tiny kitchens and Mama moved swiftly between them. She instructed me using words, gestures and just doing it herself. As a foodie, I’m usually more comfortable doing the cooking myself, but I was happy to watch her. Surprisingly, what we cooked and ate took on less importance—it was the warmth and personalities of the people that made the moment. I shopped with Mama every day for fresh bread, cheese, meat, vegetables, etc. We walked along the street and she linked her arm through mine and I felt so deliciously Italian. We came home to cook and laugh in the tiniest of kitchens.
When lunch or dinner was served, the tablecloth came out, dishes arrived at the table, and the warmth and closeness that the family shared was so special. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand everything they were saying—they had enough love to share and I felt as if I truly belonged.