I’m in dire need of summer clothes and nail polish, so had plans to go to the market this morning. Waking up late and flying through the shower, I grab my handbag and race out of the door to start the 20-minute walk down the hill to the market. It’s *hot* outside, and it’s not long before I’m overheated and sweating. I consider stopping for ice-cream halfway down the hill, but the gelateria’s closed. That’s odd. I shrug and carry on. As I get to the bottom of the hill I glance across at the expensive clothes shop. Also closed. I start to wonder if my clock is wrong and it’s actually lunchtime. I carry on and into the market area. What on earth’s going on? Usually the area is buzzing on a Saturday morning, but today the street is as silent as the grave. Suddenly, the penny drops: today is a public holiday in Italy. They haven’t cottoned onto the excellent UK idea of moving bank holidays to the following Monday if they fall on a weekend, unfortunately, which means that we 9-5ers are doing badly this year. It’s a great year for shop workers, though.
I wander back through town, gazing into every available shop window as I do so. I may not be able to spend actual money today, but there’s nothing stopping me frittering it away mentally. By my calculations I would have spent about €300 this morning, so it’s probably just as well the shops weren’t open. I do, however, manage to get some photos of one of the Fiat 500s that still litter this area. 50 years on and still going strong – must be the Mediterranean diet that does it.
When I get back to the flat, Alex waves a leaflet at me in excitement. It’s for a Medieval fair, apparently. Translating it badly in my head I decide that I *have* to see windy dancing (spettacolo delle danzatrici del ventre – actually belly dancing, although I much prefer my translation) and the Grand Fiery Spectacular at the end (grande spettacolo con il fuoco) and we therefore hop in the car. As we reach the Otranto junction we realise that we may not be the only people who’ve had this idea. The road is nose-to-tail with carfuls of Italians making the most of the beautiful weather. We wind our way slowly down the coast road into the centre of town – and straight out of the other side. I’ve only ever been to Otranto in low season. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be a problem finding a parking space. Bugger. I’m about to suggest to Alex that we carry on driving and go to Gallipoli instead, when the parking angel does some sterling work and a car pulls out of a space right in front of us. Hurrah! It’s even on the right side of town, at the high point above the castle. Perfect.
As we wander out of the side road where we’re parked, I hear a voice saying my name. Blinking in confusion, I realise that it’s one of my PON students, who is out for the day with her family. I think we’re both as surprised as each other, and neither of us knows quite what to say. Do we speak in English or Italian? I have no idea whether her family speak English, and so settle for a somewhat startled, ‘hello!’ and a general wave. There is some rapid Italian between my student and her mother, and her mum’s face, which was looking very puzzled at her daughter speaking to some strange adult Englishwoman, clears. ‘Ah! La professoressa!‘ I smile and nod. There’s some awkward shuffling – do we carry on the conversation or does everyone just carry on as before? I’m about to embarrass myself by attempting to speak some Italian, when thankfully my student’s sister saves the day and carries on walking, bored with the exchange already. With relief, the rest of the family follow. In a moment of sublime comedy, however, there’s only one road into town from here, and pavement on only one side of it …
Finally managing to extricate myself from the convoy of awkwardness and heading down into the castle moat to the fair, I run into yet another of my students – one of my 5-year olds this time. He’s leaping around on straw bales and almost launches himself into my lap. He grins, unabashed, and gives me a wave, but continues his game. I turn my attention to the chickens next to him. Seriously. Live chickens. And, next to them, a man selling broadswords, which are casually plunged into a strawbale. Some kids walking past pull them out and wave them around with gay abandon, and no-one bats an eyelid. I love rural fairs. I’m reminded of one I went to in France as a child, which involved people swimming through peat bogs with a pig under their arm. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Having tired of jousting and medieval singing, we head back into town for ice cream. Perched on the sea wall we watch a football game going on below us. There are 15 or so teenage boys kicking a ball about with gusto. Every so often it gets kicked into the 10 foot expanse of water between the paved front and the breakwater and there is a chorus of ‘porca madonna!‘ They have a long pole which they use to fish it back to the shore, and before long it seems that this has actually become the game, rather than football. The ball spends far more time in the water than on dry land. Their kicks become harder and eventually the inevitable happens: the ball gets booted beyond the breakwater and into open harbour, out of reach of even the fishing pole. One of the younger boys is despatched to wait on the breakwater for the incoming tide to bring the ball back while the rest of them turn their attention to throwing (open) bottles of water at each other and flirting with the girls who sit watching and smoking, while shouting sarcastic insults. When the ball is finally retrieved, there is a loud cheer from everyone, and grins all round. The game now turns to kicking the ball up from the front onto the piazza, 20 foot above, and then issuing imploring shouts for its return. Can we have our ball back, please, mister? Oh, g’wan! The crowd on the piazza are enjoying the game just as much as they are, and there is jovial banter from both sides. The ball is thrown back down a few times and the boys carry on. Finally, however, one of them boots it a bit too hard. What we on the piazza can see is that they’ve kicked it clear of everything, and over onto the flat roof of a building at the far side of the piazza. There’s a collective ‘oooohh!’ from up above. The boys down below, however, haven’t seen what’s happened and are busily shouting for the ball’s return. The shouts become louder and more insistent, accompanied by imploring gestures, until the situation is explained to them. Ah. They come sheepishly up to piazza level and mill around in front of the building, daring each other to be the first to go up the outdoor stairs and collect the ball. One of them finally finds his nerve and swaggers forward. The rest cluster together and charge after him in a crowd. 30 seconds later they all rush back – they’ve been intercepted by something or someone, and have returned empty handed. The ball game is over for today.
Images by Kate Bailward