Our friends in Bari tell us Italy is twenty to thirty years behind the U.S. Things are modernizing, but change is slow in coming. And that’s a bad thing, why? In my opinion they should stave off the malls, bad pop music, and assault rifles in every home, for as long as possible.
As far as I can see, old and old-fashioned is not just charming, it’s life affirming. Traveling to Bari, we got a dose of that affirmation. Life changing affirmation actually. More about that later.
We stayed in the little town of Rutigliano. It’s about fifteen miles from the city of Bari (in the region of Bari) and about five from the Adriatic. There’s a church there that only opens once a year on the town’s patron saint’s day. That’s it. One day. And they can’t ever tear that little old church down. That would be sacrilege. Against God, against tradition, against the Church with a capital C. It’s a tiny, sweet building. Holds only about twenty five people once a year.
We had a jam packed three days of visiting friends and places such as the vibrant fruit market (free bananas), nut stand (That’s Giovanni, my host, smiling for the camera.), the sea by the fishing village of Polignano a Mare. (Note the photo
with the flowers in January), and the just plain weird place called Alberobello.
The homes in Alberobello stand as a testament to the creativity of humanity when faced with adversity. Adversity in the form of taxation, that is. The cone-shaped houses, known as i trulli, were built in the 1700s of bricks but no mortar. Without the mortar they were viewed as temporary and therefore not taxed. The style was wildly popular, no doubt due to the fiscal advantage. Today, well into their third century, these houses are standing strong. So much for temporary. They’ve been modernized on the inside and people still live in them. There are scads of tourists visiting them and buying souvenir keychains by the bucketsful. I have no idea what the current tax code is.
It was in Alberobello that my life changed.
We got there on a cold, windy afternoon. It got colder as we wended our way up the steps past the souvenir shops. About half way up, Gary had had enough. He needed another layer of clothing. I needed a hat. Armed with locals who know the lingo, we entered a trullo. Gary made his purchase, I chose a hat. My friend, Jo, stood behind the saleslady who was going on about how she couldn’t think of charging less than 40 euros (about 60 bucks) for such fine alpaca wool. Jo shook her head no. I put the hat back. The woman immediately said “trenta” (thirty). Jo mouthed “venti.” I shook my head no and put it back. The sales monger said “venti cinque.” We were down to 25 but I was giving up. I’ve never haggled in my life, I don’t have the skill or the chutzpah. I only ever say yes or no when pressured by sales mongers. I have never considered asking for the price I want. I’ve never even so much as registered at Priceline. I hesitated. Asked myself if I was going to continue going through life overpaying for goods and services. I decided it was time to grow up. If I do nothing else in a Mediterranean environment, I must learn to haggle.
“Venti!” I said, surprising myself by the force. I think I was worried the words would get sucked back into my mouth the way they usually do when dealing with fierce entities like salesladies and children.
The woman said “sold” in Italian. I don’t recall the word, but it was obvious I had my price. I had haggled successfully. I stood for a moment blinking in surprise. I paid and then quickly walked out of the little store in case I was mistaken about what I had thought was a successful exchange. Maybe I hadn’t heard right. Maybe my Italian was incorrect. Maybe
I just stole a hat.
Jo, a veteran of the Mediterranean scene, haggles at the drop of a fine alpaca cap and she wanted more. She called me back in while giving the clothes monger her life story. She pressured the saleslady into promising future deals should she happen to swing by with another batch of touristi. And she wouldn’t leave the shop until she got something for free. Apparently that’s how things are done in Bari. She grabbed one of the little key chains with a rubber model of a trullo and told the saleslady it would be good PR if she gave it to me for free. The saleslady agreed. Jo tossed it over and finally allowed me to leave the shop for good. My head was in a tizzy. It was much warmer, though, in the fine, alpaca hat. Venti euro. My price.
I can’t leave a post about Italy without discussing food. We ate well, of course, in Bari. Here are some items added to my list of things eaten only in Italy:
Panzerotto: a type of light calzone. Inside the pocket is a fair amount of mozzarella mixed with tomato sauce. It’s gooey and good. The crust is flakey and light.
Sanguinaccio: a chocolate delight that’s kind of a cross between cake frosting and pudding. Traditional sanguinaccio is made only in the early part of the year at the time of pig butchering because they use the blood for the pudding, hence the name. My host told me she’d once visited London and saw blood pudding on the menu. She ordered it, of course, expecting her home town delicacy. Was she ever surprised.
Leftover host: This is a specialty of Rutigliano. It’s the pasty part of the dried dough that is left over after the nuns cut communion wafers out of it. They chunk the pieces, bag ‘em up, and sell them to the locals who eat the stuff like popcorn as they are out taking the evening air, arm in arm usually, with their pals. They walk up and down the promenade munching their leftover host. No wonder life in Italy is so damn blessed.
Crème di Pistacchio: This is a sick looking thick, green liquore made from pistacchio nuts. I had only a taste of it. It’s very sweet and after an evening of drinking wine, I couldn’t face even a small cordial. It looked like something I’d be throwing up soon, so I passed, but technically I did try it, so it’s included here.
As I write this I am speeding along on a Frecciaargento (high speed train) to Rome. I’ll be home in a few hours, back on the Internet, and plugged into the world. Things will be like they were before I went to Bari and saw the sea and ate the blood pudding and scored a tiny model
trullo for free. I met some fantastic people and had a great time. And I have changed. I have a hat now, Alpaca soft and warm. More than that, though, I have haggled successfully. The world will never be the same.
Thanks for reading,