Memories from Monopoli, a first year of 'la dolce vita'
By PAMELA HASTEROK with photos by DON LINDLEY
It’s rare that a spontaneous thought to radically alter my life turns out well. But when Don, on the cusp of retirement, told me a Florida newspaper had offered him an intriguing new job, my brain froze.
“Let’s move to Italy,” I blurted.
It was a harebrained idea hatched from the twin motivations - escaping a declining industry and fulfilling our desire not just to travel overseas, but to live there. Greater financial security or more fun? If you know us, you know the answer. (A green light from our investment manager helped move Don over the brink.)
Monopoli, a seaside town in Puglia, is our home.
We spend our days like retirees everywhere, I suppose, walking along the ocean, taking jaunts to neighboring cities, reading and writing, and gathering with friends.
But we do it in a place with thousands of years of history. The first settlements at Egnazia, a sprawling archeological park just south of town, date from the 13th Century B.C.
What are Puglians like, you may ask. The relationship-first traditions of ancient times remain in place here. The level of service and caring we find in everyday life reminds us of our childhoods. When was the last time a shop clerk accompanied you for a few blocks to help find what you need, a bus driver stopped to pick you up mid-block, a merchant let you go when you were 50 cents short? That’s the norm here. And that’s kindness from strangers.
The kindness of friends we’ve made is boundless. They vouched for us with the authorities, took us to the immigration offices half an hour away, stored our belongings while we were in Sicily for the summer, included us in many social activities and spoke for us at the infuriating cellphone company (despite years of it in school, few Pugliese speak English, or will admit to it).
When we returned from Sicily, we arranged to meet a friend for coffee at a favorite café. But when we arrived, he ushered us into his car and drove off towards the low hills outside of town. We asked where we were going, but he said he wasn’t allowed to tell. Soon we turned into a quiet driveway that led to a cottage. Our friends were waiting to welcome us back, the hills behind us, the sea and Monopoli in front, and in between a feast of special dishes to accommodate my no-meat, no-wheat diet. That’s what Puglians are like.
Family is the focus of all things here. The highlight of the week is Sunday lunch, when extended families gather at home or fill the town’s restaurants. It’s nothing to arrive at a small trattoria and find it filled with tables for 20, grandma at one end, the two-year-old birthday boy at the other.
The busiest times of the day are the hours before lunch, especially on weekends. You’ll often see people strolling through the main square with wrapped packages, bringing sweets to the cook.
On Sunday everyone dresses up, women in skirts and heels – rare during the work week – men in sport coats and scarves, children in the latest fashions, from tulle overlays to Spiderman masks. Families of the under-6 set cluster around the carousel in the town square while those with older children gather by the bumper cars. Middle-aged men take up the benches, often playing cards, while their wives linger just outside the rides.
Monopolitani share an intense sense of community, of belonging to one place and one place only. They appreciate the sweetness of their lives, from the clean waters of the Adriatic Sea to the fresh food on their plates. They nurture and protect their city’s beauty and assets, and devote themselves to the community’s well-being.
That’s hardly a sacrifice, as celebrating is intrinsic to Italian existence. Religious and social life are one and the same. Every town observes its patron saint’s day and suddenly parades, concerts, lights and food booths spring up, producing a veritable county fair on any given day.
We woke up one March morning to find workers building fire pits with stones and olive wood in piazzas all over town, traditional for the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day, which is also Father’s Day in Italy. When we went to bed in the wee hours, families, friends and children were still laughing and chatting around the fires.
Easter soon followed and Monopolitani engaged in two full weeks of masses, processions and feasts. One June night after dinner we heard explosions. We rushed to the window and saw … fireworks falling over the medieval castle. We still don’t know why.
The Christmas season in this most Catholic of countries is a nonstop series of celebrations beginning Dec. 8 with the Annunciation.
On Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, we joined friends for finger food, beer, wine and bingo. Our favorite game was tombola, bingo played standing up, rotating right or left around the table depending on the number called. Americans wouldn’t have thought to honor the three kings with penny-ante gambling, but it makes for a jolly evening.
Our Italian friends are enthusiastic even about holidays other than their own. They were eager to experience an American Thanksgiving and they participated, too, going with us to order a whole turkey, a novelty here, and bringing table, chairs and a cutting board to our apartment. They photographed the turkey as it was roasting and posted on Facebook “the beast is in the oven!” Sweetest of all, they continued our family tradition of sharing what each of us is grateful for, and included us in their list.
O.K., you may wonder, is life really as idyllic as all that? Does a man stroll down our street every Tuesday morning playing the accordion? Do the gruff fishermen, the “gladiators of the sea,” unload their catch in the small port and pause to offer tips for how to cook it? Will the cheerful staff at the hotel next door fax pages from a forgotten passport to the authorities? Yes to all.
But yes also to bureaucratic madness at every level, beyond the comprehension of even the well-traveled and well-informed. It took weeks to gather the information needed to apply for visas, nine months and multiple trips to the provincial capital of Bari to get our first permits to stay, and two more months of official harangue to renew it. Acquiring European Union pet passports for our two Siamese cats was equally as frustrating.
Yet, these are quibbles. The beautiful setting, the charming people, the ease of travel, and especially our amazing friends make an unimaginably lovely life. The only egregious flaw we’ve found in the Monopolitani is this – they adore sappy music, the more sentimental it is, the louder they play it.
Otherwise, no complaints. We’re thrilled to be spending another year in Monopoli, our hometown.