It’s the Festa di San Nicola. The town is decked out like a Christmas tree (appropriate, given the saint we’re celebrating – yes, it’s that Saint Nick), and there are food stalls at every corner. Sweet stalls selling foot-long black ropes of liquorice and enormous slabs of golden peanut brittle jostle for space with vendors hawking buckets of salted anchovies and bright yellow couscous. The air is heady with the toasted sugar smell of candy floss, and stallholders banter as they toss almonds in sticky caramel before dropping them with practised deftness into paper cones for waiting children.
The lights that have been put up in town are amazing. I’ve been watching their slow unveiling over the past few weeks with interest. First came stout wooden poles, painted in the colours of the Italian flag, trailing wires from the top. Then came the frames for the lights, which look like snowflakes in the daylight. How pretty, thought I, until I got up close to them and realised that the bulbs were all manner of different colours. Expecting something along the lines of these shrines to tastelessness, I was pleased to discover that, in fact, they all looked rather pretty when lit up. OK, so they were a little gaudy, but this is Italy, and they do love their bling here. It could have been an awful lot worse. Alex and I amuse ourselves for an hour or so, taking photographs from various different angles. At one point I remove the camera from my face and realise that I’ve been shooting straight over the head of one of my students for the past five minutes. The same one that I ran into in Otranto the other week. This is becoming a habit. We grin and wave at each other and I return to my photography, only to be interrupted by someone shrieking my name. I look up and am practically knocked flat by another of my students as she greets me joyfully with a kiss on both cheeks. She’s with a friend who is mortally embarrassed at being introduced to The English Teacher. Oblivious, my student, E, chatters away about her evening at breakneck speed, asking questions without waiting for the answers and thoroughly enjoying herself. As always, it takes me a moment to translate what she’s saying, but I work out (after I’ve nodded in assent to her last question and received a horrified ‘No!’ from her, that what she’s actually asking is if Alex and I are leaving now. Oh. Er – no. We’re going for gelato. Yes, I know it’s only 10.30. No, it’s not my bedtime yet. No, Alex isn’t my boyfriend. ‘But he want to be future boyfriend of Kate, no?’ She gives me an arch wink as Alex melts into a puddle of embarrassed Englishman in the middle of a very Italian piazza. E shouts with laughter. ‘I must to go to look for the boys rich now. With the cars big! Is good idea, no?!’ She kisses me goodbye. ‘Hello baby!’ As always, I correct her, but as always she ignores me, too excited about whatever she’s doing next to concentrate on the here and now.
Exhausted and laughing, I flop into one of the plastic chairs ranged in the square to listen to the band playing their way through a selection of Turandot highlights. They’ve just got to ‘Nessun Dorma’, and the square is packed with people listening with rapt attention. The conductor plays to the crowd, drawing every ounce of emotion out of his musicians, crouching forward in the quiet parts, then bursting with energy a minute later, his floppy hair flying around his face as he conducts with not just his arms but his entire body. More than one person around me is singing along, and by the time the music reaches its climax I find I have tears in my eyes. There is rapturous applause and then the square clears, straight into the nearest gelateria. I follow the herd. It may be 10.30pm, but this is balmy southern Italy, and eating gelato is a 24-hour pastime here. I gaze in awe at the great mounds of cream, shot through with either brightly coloured fruit syrups or flecks of nuts depending on the flavour, sitting behind the gelateria counter’s polished glass and brass frontage. Amareno and pistachio is my current favourite combination, the dark red of the cherries contrasting with the white of the cream and the near-neon green of the pistachio nuts. I’m very tempted by cassata siciliana, though – it’s just so vivid, with its multicoloured mixture of candied fruit and nuts. The best thing about Italian ice-cream, however, is that it’s not so sickly sweet as the UK versions, and it’s therefore possible to eat an awful lot of it.
I order all three flavours and tuck in with gusto.
Images by Kate Bailward