• Jill

Tales from Salento

We live in an incredible era. Honestly, nothing has struck me more during our time in Italy than the fact that we arranged to come and stay on a a little family farm, knowing that our Workaway hosts spoke zero English and we spoke zero Italian, and we are leaving at the end of our three weeks with true friends and jokes and genuine connections. I can't speak for what it was like to communicate through a language barrier before the age of the Internet, but I am truly grateful for Google Translate--we have been allowed the privilege of chatting and laughing with people for whom there is no language overlap with us. It is amazing!

We've had to pick up some Italian vocabulary, naturally, but where the basics don't cut it, the app has a function where you can speak into the microphone and it will immediately translate; while it isn't perfect (language is complex and nuanced and we have all kinds of words with multiple meanings) it has been quite effective. Tiziana can give us work instructions, let us in on what's happening on the TV, make fun of her friends, etc. Andrew has gotten to learn how many American sayings and idioms do not translate at all. (He gets a lot of quizzical looks, and unfortunately, we have no idea what he just said in Italian...)

However, we've also realized just how much we receive information from each other through language outside of direct conversations. Because every sentiment has to go through the app, we are required to be just a little bit thoughtful about questions and statements, and we aren't following each other around recording and translating conversations with other people. When Tiziana and Lucio, one of the part-time workers, stand nearby discussing the best way to complete a task, we have no idea what's going on until Tiziana translates a two-sentence synopsis into her phone. When Tiziana and Sandra and Mimmo, the friends we see most frequently, make plans for the afternoon over little cups of espresso, we only know what they choose to share.

This means when things happen here, we perceive them as totally random and unexpected (though it is very likely they aren't). Everything feels like freshman year of college when nobody knew what was going on but everybody was down for anything!

Dusk at Porto Selvaggio.

Not quite a week into our stay with Tiziana, a Saturday, she told us we were going into Gallipoli with some friends to "beve e beve e beve!" (Drink and drink and drink.) Sounded good to us. That afternoon, she was hanging out with a friend and around 6:00pm they left the house...without us. We weren't sure if we'd been left behind, or if they were coming back, so we hung around the house and waited. The Italians eat dinner pretty late, but by 8:00pm we were hungry and there was no sign of our host. It was just as we were discussing making some simple pasta that Tiziana texted that she was on her way back to pick us up.

"Ok... are we going to eat in Gallipoli?" Andrew texted back.

"Sí, we can eat there!"

But it wasn't until after 9 that Tiziana, Sandra, Andrew and I finally made it into the town of Gallipoli, which is about 30 minutes away from our place in Nardó. By this point we were starving. Along with a new friend Monica, we all set out in search of a restaurant (though this venture had several pauses--once at the cigarette vending machine, once at an ATM, and once when we found our first-choice restaurant had an hour wait). Eventually we arrived at a little pizzeria that smelled amazing. Like most places in Italy, it had a dome-shaped ceiling with exposed sandstone, lots of old bottles on shelves, plants with dangling vines all over the place, and the tables all squeezed in close together. It took a little while to get our order in, because it was unclear if the others were eating as well, and then it was unclear how large the pizzas are, but eventually Tiziana gestured that she would take care of it, and we just sat back to see what would happen.

Blurry, but you get the idea.

First arrived a porcelain pitcher filled with red wine. It contained more wine than our table of five could reasonably drink, but no complaints from us. Next, three little plates of different meatballs; two were beef, but one was fish. They were delicious. A platter of french fries also showed up, and then garlic bread that seemed to be just pizza crust for dipping. By the time our two pizzas to share arrived, we'd had plenty to eat, but to use Tiziana's words, nessun rimpianto! No regrets in Italy! We ate everything. This was also the time we learned that if you empty your wine glass at the table, it will be refilled--thank goodness that pitcher was so huge--which we didn't figure out until we had a healthy buzz going. The other women were definitely not pulling their weight on the drinking front.

The norm in Europe is that one check is brought to the table, and it's up to everyone else to figure it out. I don't think they use Venmo or PayPal though; it's very much a cash economy. We were absolutely floored to find that our bill for two large pizzas, three plates of meatballs, fries, garlic bread, and a ridiculous amount of wine was just over 50 euros--roughly $60.

"Ok, now we go to music," Tiziana translated into her phone. She likely tried to convey more information than that, but like I said before, Google Translate isn't perfect, and it got missed. We followed them along the streets of Gallipoli, and there was much laughter--some if it we were clued in on (the Italians love dramatic gesturing and silly faces, it translates without a problem) and some not. At one point, Tiziana made scissor motions with her fingers at Andrew.

"Ahh, it's true," he said, tugging at his excessive locks. "I desperately need a haircut. If you know anyone who can give me one, let me know."

"Lucky thing we are going to a salon right now!" Tiziana laughed. (Just picture the whole conversation being read aloud in the monotone woman's voice on the app, because that's what happened.)

We laughed, because that seemed absurd. Surely a joke.

But then Tiziana led us down some stairs to an underground establishment that had no signs whatsoever, and suddenly we were inside a straight-up prohibition-themed speakeasy, complete with American headlines from the 1920's framed on the walls and a very trendy-looking bar. A live music group was performing (almost exclusively alternative-indie songs in English) in front of a large glass wall that partitioned the room into the bar space and... a hair salon.

Sure enough, a flamboyant man with long, silky-straight black hair and Doc Martens was snipping away at another guy's head while dancing along to the music and taking breaks to sip at his fancy cocktail. Tiziana immediately made her way over and stepped through the door into the salon to speak with him. They were friends, it was easy to see, and judging by his exclamations when she pointed eagerly at Andrew, he was delighted to cut my husband's hair next.

We got another glass of wine each, because we needed to keep this buzz going though the turn of events, and the music was really good. We probably outed ourselves as foreigners from an English-speaking country as we sang along heartily to Oasis's "Champagne Supernova" but it didn't really matter, and before we knew it, it was Andrew's turn for a cut. I was also allowed in the salon room, which seemed like the "cool kids" area to us, and the barber spoke a tiny bit of English. He was tipsy, we were tipsy, and one look seemed to tell him what kind of cut Andrew wanted, because very few questions were asked, but off he went and everyone had a great time. Tiziana took a lot of blurry pictures, and between pauses for the barber to receive another cocktail or for him to shout insulting jokes back and forth with the bartenders, Andrew got a decent-enough haircut.

The night of the haircut in Gallipoli was the first of what ended up being many social events with Tiziana's group of wonderful people. A few days later, we were given the heads up that her Buddhist friends would be coming over to meditate at her house, and we would eat dinner after. That vague plan did not prepare us for the stream of about almost a dozen people who filed into the kitchen close to 10pm that night, everyone with some food to share, or the flurry of energy as everyone got to work setting the table and pouring wine into more pitchers. Several of these friends spoke English, including Alessandra and Tommaso, who sat across from us. Sandra and Mimmo were a part of this group as well, at the other end of the table. We passed around crostinis, salami, polenta, leftover pizza and a cheesy-cauliflower-pie thing. One woman had a little dog sitting on her lap the whole time, and he probably ended up consuming more food than I did.

Andrew had also been asked to make American buttermilk biscuits--his contribution to the cultural exchange and a huge hit wherever we go--but the Italian language doesn't have a good translation of what they are. "Biscuits" is the word the rest of the world uses for "cookies." Biscotti is the Italian translation, but buttermilk biscuits are nothing like biscotti. Our biscuits also aren't necessarily sweet, though we enjoy them with jam, and they are not quite bread, either. Anyway, Tiziana has taken to calling them pane dolce, "sweet bread," and nobody at the table knew what to do with them. We take it for granted that we automatically know how to eat a biscuit. We watched with great joy as some people at the table just took a bite out of their biscuits, like an apple. Tommaso had seen Andrew and I gently pull ours apart in halves and apply butter and jam, so he followed suit, but added probably half a jar's worth of jam to each side. (He was later spotted eating jam with a spoon so this was likely not due to confusion.) Mimmo, all the way at the other end of the table from us, sniffed his biscuit suspiciously. Scowling, like it was about to personally offend him, he took a knife and sliced a small sliver out of it, as if it were a pie or a pizza. He then balanced some salami on his little triangle of buttermilk biscuit and ate it. It is true that when you are in a foreign place and constantly surrounded by new words/foods/customs, it's incredibly satisfying to provide something equally confusing to the locals.

Overall, it was a high-spirited evening. We went through pitcher after pitcher of wine, and then the grappa came out. Grappa is a grape-based brandy originating from Italy, that is distilled from the leftovers after winemaking. It's at least 70 proof, but seems to vary and can be up to 120 proof according to Wikipedia. The grappa this night was very popular, and while I only had a little bit, quite a bit was consumed by Tommaso and Tiziana's father, Lino.

With Chris, Sandra, Mimmo, and Tiziana in Otranto, posing with grappa.

Grappa, it turned out, is either very popular in Italy or just a favorite amongst this group of friends. A fresh bottle appeared on the table at lunch on our last day, courtesy of Mimmo, and another afternoon, when we were taken to the coast on the other side of the boot's heel, we shared two rounds of grappa with Tiziana, Sandra, Mimmo, and Chris (an English workawayer who joined about halfway through our stay), served in champagne glasses. That was a silly afternoon, with howling wind and sideways rain, but Tiziana was determined to show us Otranto.

Meanwhile, there was one more liquor we were introduced to with this cohort, but we still don't know what it's called, or exactly what it is made of. The glasses of this (possibly fennel-based) beverage arrived after a late dinner of what we would describe as Italian tapas. We were again with Sandra, Mimmo, Alessandra, Tommaso, Chris, and another friend Emilio, and had passed around eggplant "meatballs," marinated bell peppers, fried polenta sticks (that looked like mozzarella sticks), cipollina onions, and more. This green liquor was extremely sweet, and tasted a little like fennel, but we didn't get a complete explanation of what it was. (A lot of vino rosso had been consumed by this time.)

Sandra and Tiziana take photos of Mimmo with our fennel booze.

Tommaso would never leave a drop of wine in the bottle.

Besides random outings that resulted in alcohol consumption, plenty else went on at Casato Calabrese with very little warning or complete explanation. One afternoon, Emilio asked for Andrew's help with the foster dog, Maureen. (Shortly after we had arrived at Tiziana's, Emilo and his wife brought Maureen to stay as Tiziana's property had plenty of space. She had been found abandoned, and while Emilio desperately wanted to take her, she wasn't meshing with their other dogs.) Maureen is a Cane Corso, a breed originating from the Nardó area of Italy. Emilio wanted her microchipped. Andrew ended up on a multi-hour excursion to the police station, which for some reason took an excessive amount of time. Another day, the barn manager Arturo came into the kitchen and exchanged some words with Tiziana after lunch. She suddenly asked me if I wanted to go for a horseback ride, right now, in that moment. Of course I said yes, but did not expect to be taken all the way to Porto Selvaggio, the nearby national park, on a head-tossing and jigging Ashar, until the sun went down.

Andrew and Maureen, wondering when they'd be taken home...

Ashar and a view of the Ionian Sea

We are deeply saddened to be leaving Salento already; it feels like we only just arrived. As I write, we are on a 9-hour train to Venice, a destination that will of course be incredible, and from there we move on to Croatia. But I think I speak for both Andrew and I when I say we already miss haphazard dinners of leftovers with Lino, watching an Italian game show, and rubbing the belly of rotund Laika. We take with us an appreciation for the classic ma che vuoi hand guesture (performed most often in Andrew's direction) and the spontaneous nature of Italian living. It is likely that we will find ourselves back at Casato Calabrese someday.

- J

One of many fresh fish markets in the area; this one is in Porto Cesareo.

Mimmo pours olive oil on the fire-toasted bruschetta to go with lunch on our last day. Note the pitcher of wine and grappa.

Sandra de-boning the fish that were grilled whole in the fireplace!

Ercole's routine of begging for food and pats.

Laika with her perfect belly and perfect smile <3 


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