PUZZLING DAY IN PUGLIA.

6 Nov

I was in a place that I had not intended to go to. I was alone, surrounded by a cacophony of foreign voices. Why was I here? Like Clint Eastwood, I was the stranger who had just rode into town. I was in fact in deepest Puglia, towards the southern end of Italy. The town was Foggia and I had never planned to go there. Why? Here’s the story. it’s true!
My wife Chris and I were in Termoli, a small town on Italy’s Adriatic coast. It was October, 2011 and we were visiting her daughter and her son-in-law, AND — her first grandchild: Gio.
While Chris was on Grandma duty, I decided to take the train about 2 hours south to Bari. I had read that Bari is a fascinating port/city with a slightly racy but evocative old town. It was to be an exciting adventure into the province of Puglia which I had only previously read about in Geography textbooks.
I set off early at 7am. It was still dark and relentless rain was bouncing off the pavement. However, my spirits were not dampened as I was off to Bari in the sunnier, drier and more exotic south. But I was not to have the day I had expected.
Arriving at the station soaked ( luckily, I had my quick-drying trousers on), the sour-faced lady at Termoli ticket office informed me there was NO train to Bari! There was no train at 7-42, as it said on the departure board or at any other time for that matter. She could not explain why as she couldn’t speak English and I cannot understand Italian.( I must get myself to that evening class that I’ve been putting off for years!)  I was completey deflated, having seemingly got up in the middle of the night for nothing! Then the ticket lady offered a glimmer of hope. I could always get the 7-58 to Foggia, which was halfway to Bari and which I had read had onward connections. But no sooner had hope been raised than it was dashed in the very same sentence! Sour-face said that she didn’t think I could get to Bari even from Foggia. What was happening? She was supposed to be a TrenItalia employee so why didn’t she know? It was a mystery. Despite this I decided to take a chance and catch the Foggia train. At the very least I could have a look round Foggia even though our relatives informed us that it wasn’t worth visiting.
The train was slow. It stopped at tiny places where hardly anybody lived. Once it stopped at a station near an abandoned quarry. No building and no person was in sight. No one got off and no one got on. Then, after an hour and after passing some low mountains mostly shrouded in cloud, we reached Foggia. For some reason I half expected it to be foggy there — how else did it get that name? However, it was clear and the early morning rain had disappeared.
I quickly checked the departure board. Was I to make it to the exotic attractions of Bari, or have to make do with the apparently mundane Foggia, a town described by one relative as “not nice” and another as “a hole”? I was in luck. In 50 minutes there was an express to Bari Centrale. It was even on the electronic departure board — Bari C -10-10. I joined the ticket queue and confidently asked for “Bari, per favore,” But to my surprise, the ticket man said there was no train to Bari! He tried to explain and I thought I heard a word that sounded like “strikes”, but basically I couldn’t understand why I was being prevented from getting to Bari. It seemed like a conspiracy. The trains seemed to be running but I wasn’t being allowed to catch them! If only I had gone to those Italian lessons — I might have understood what was happening instead of developing a persecution complex. Just because I’m not paranoic it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me!
So Foggia it was. I have always maintained that any place is interesting if you approach it with an open mind. ( though I’m not so sure about that lonely station by the deserted quarry.) Now was the time to put my theory to the test. How would I cope with 3 hours in Foggia, without a map, without a guide-book and without a plan? At least it was dry here and I soon took off my coat.
I walked into a fairly normal- looking Italian town. It wasn’t ravishingly beautiful or fascinatingly historic — just a normal town. I found the main square which was yet another Piazza Cavour. Who was Cavour anyway? I dimly remember him being something to do with Italian independence or unification or both, along with Garibaldi, the one who had the squashed-fly biscuits named after him. This Piazza Cavour was actually a big roundabout, busy with traffic. It had a broken fountain in the middle of it. Unlike the Trevi in Rome, no tourists were posing to have their pictures taken in front of this fountain. Along one side of the piazza was a collonade of creamy coloured columns. They weren’t ancient but had been put up in the late 1800’s to form the entrance to a park. I entered the park and strolled round it. It was a slightly desultory experience. I only met 1 dog-walker and a small group of giggling teenagers. The rest of the park was empty. Autumn leaves swirled around my feet and a small fountain spluttered sporadically into life. The refreshment kiosks were closed and boarded up and so were the toilets, which was a bit of a problem as I was hoping to visit them!
Back in the town, I spotted distant stalls and was soon in the midst of a busy, colourful street-market. You see — I told you every place has something to offer! A potentially bad morning in Foggia was turning into not so bad afterall. Clothes stalls merged into colourful food stalls, piled high with fruit and vegetables. Then came the fish stalls with ranks of poor silver fish, their eyes bulging and their mouths gaping. They jostled for space with unmentionable piles of squishy squid and tiny octopi. The stall holders announced their presence with long, drawn-out cries, like commercial Imans calling the faithful to their wares ( not prayers!) On the edge of the market, inching ever closer to a second-hand clothes stall, was a “down and out” man. I noticed him because his torn, tatty trousers appeared to be made exclusively of poultry feathers!
The need to visit a toilet was now getting more pressing. I got back on one of the main streets looking for a suitable cafe. However I was distracted again by an interesting leafy square that had an unusual array of bronze sculptures arranged in a circle around a central statue of an important looking gentleman. I guessed he must be one of Foggie’s most famous sons. ( sorry — I forgot to note his name.)  I gathered he was some sort of opera pruducer and the sculptures were depictions of his most famous successes. They all seemed to have been staged at La Scala, Milan and The Metropolitan, New York in the 1920’s. One of the productions was called “Siberia”. I noticed that because the statues wore furry Cossack hats.
In the background was the faded pink facade of an oldish church ( probably 18th century.)  I negotiated the teenage girl begging on the steps and went in. To my surprise,a service was taking place even though it was Friday and not Sunday. I stood at the back for a while. Worshippers came in, dipped their fingers in the Holy water and crossed themselves. Beckoned by the officiating priest, the congregation of about 30 to 40 stood up, raised their hands and spread their fingers. Then they chanted what sounded like the Lord’s Prayer in Italian. I didn’t recognise a word but the intonations and pauses were exactly the same as in my parents’ Methodist chapel back in England.
I slipped out of the church. The need for the WC was now reaching urgent proportions. I went into a cafe where everyone seemed to be drinking shots of coffee in tiny cups while standing up at the counter. But no-one took any notice of me and having little Italian at my command, I got overtaken by nerves and escaped back on to the street again. Foggia is not like Rome, Florence or Venice where English is widely spoken in the cafes, bars and shops because of the tourists. Here, people didn’t speak or understand much English, so to buy something, you have to speak Italian. This is fair enough. Afterall, Foggia is in Italy, not America or the UK.
I consulted my phrase-book, dived desperately into another cafe and blurted out:”Aranja and brioche per favore”, thankfully noting where the toilets were. What I didn’t notice until I got closer however, was a small sign, presumably saying that the WC was out of order, as when I staggered in, I found the flush mechanism had been dismantled! So it was a case of crossing my legs and thinking of other things as I pretended to nonchalently sip my freshly sqeezed orange juice and nibble my flaky croissant. In front of me was an Italian newspaper. I decided to flick through it to perhaps pick up some useful vocabulary. On the front page I was shockingly distracted by the squashed, bloody face of Colonal Gadaffi, who had been shot by one of his Libyan countrymen the previous day ( October 20th, 2011.)
Back at Foggia railway station, I at last found the toilet I had been searching so long for. It was like the “Relief of Mafeking” as my grandma used to say. ( I think it’s something to do with the Boer War.) Then it was back in the queue to meet the humourless official who had prevented me from going to Bari. Ironically, when I asked for a ticket back to Termoli, he at first thought I had said ” Bari” and was actually going to give me the ticket he had denied me 3 hours earlier! Every mystery needs some irony to make it even more mysterious!
When I got my Termoli ticket I brandished it triumphantly in the air as if I had just won an Olympic gold. I had half-feared he would shake his head and say “No train to Termoli.” The train was on platform 5. To rub salt into my wounds, I noticed a train to Bari was waiting on Platform 6!
I approached my train with a sense of relief, thinking my puzzling and frustrating foray into Foggia was almost over. However, unbelievably, 2 dirty- white husky- type dogs suddenly leapt off the opposite platform, bounded across the rails and up on to platform 5. I have always been nervous of dogs, ever since being bitten by one when I was a paper-boy. As I neared these two, they started to bark and howl furiously. Luckily the first carriage of the train was nearer to me than the dogs, so I was able to slip up the steps and sink gratefully into the welcome sanctuary of my seat .I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It was only then that I realized to my horror that I had not validated my ticket! I would have to go back to the station entrance hall — and the dogs were still waiting for me on the platform. It seemed that my adventures in downtown Foggia were not quite finished afterall…!

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2 Responses to “PUZZLING DAY IN PUGLIA.”

  1. Giuliano November 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    The composer was Umberto Giordano. The opera theatre was owned by my grandfather Medoro Pecorella, who had it named after Maestro Giordano and it was him getting the square after him and having the statues that represent the characters of his most famous works.

  2. scrapstu1949 November 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    Very interesting Giu. The square was one of the most fascinating places in the town. I didn’t realize the connection with your family history. Thanks for commenting. Hope you enjoyed reading about my strange adventure.

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