Thursday, May 02, 2013

Italy V - Couchsurfing in Barile and the Remarriage Proposal

Made up my mind. At around 9pm, I decided to go Barile by myself the next day. I called Francesco to inform him that I will be coming alone. He was very delighted and asked my location. He checked with a friend who works for the train company on how to go Barile from Praja A Mare and the train schedules.

I had to catch a 7am train so I had to trouble Martina to drive me to the station early in the morning.

"Is everything ok?" Martina asked.

"Everything is ok. I just want to visit a friend in Barile,"I said.

"Oh my god, are you guys in love?"

"No, he's just a good friend," I retorted with a frown. Kay po. Francesco is old enough to be my dad.

"Un biglietto per Battipaglia, per favore," One ticket to Battipaglia, please, I said to the gentleman at the coffee counter. He winked as he passed me my change.

My eyes also was winking with happiness because that was the start of a solo liberating experience. I felt like I could do anything I want, like what the girl at Giovanni's Home said. It was going to be a 5 hours train ride. The less liberating part, I had to be mindful of my water intake so I did not have to leave my luggage for the toilet too often.

Away from touristy areas and to the country side.

Got off at Battipaglia to switch to another train that goes to Potenza, capital of Basilicata. I had a quick breakfast at Battipaglia and explored the place a little before the train came. I was doing whatever I want! It was a quiet little town to just loll around.

It was going to be a 5 hours train ride. I passed time by striking up an conversation with an Indian sitting across me. He had been working in Italy for 7 years as a tailor. A lady who was sitting with her husband in the next row offered us some coffee. It was really sweet of her, but we politely declined. I told him about my vacation in Italy and that I was going to meet a friend.

Francesco called periodically during the train ride to check my location so he could plan his drive to the station. He said he would just pick me up from Potenza train station itself so I did not have to change train to reach Barile.

The announcement for the next station 'Potenza Centrale' sounded, I was nearing the moment of meeting my Italian teacher after 8 months of Skyping each other.  I was really excited and nervous at the same time.

I stood at the carriage door as the train rolled into the station, trying to spot Francesco. In my brain, I was trying to form an image of him real life. I finally saw him, a clear view of him without all the rough image pixels and the occasional freezing of screen from bad internet connections. This was real-life!

I got off the train and he came towards me with arms open.

"Ciao bella!!!" he said. "Sono molto felice che tu vieni." I am very happy that you come.

He showered with me lots of hugs and kisses. I think I heard him said, "Sei come mia figlia." You are like my daughter. I was overwhelmed with the Italian way of affection, still trying to get used to it. He hugged me so tight that I gasped. My Italian friend back in Singapore told me, it is like that. 

"Very sorry you take train long time. I cannot pick you up because I was in Matera."

"Nah nah, it's ok," I assured him.

Behind him was Amy and Jin, the two couchsurfers from Guangzhou who arrived in Barile two days before. I was really thirsty so I had my first drink after 5 hours of train ride at the cafe.

Amy, Jin and Francesco had just returned from Matera. They stayed over at his brother's place which is nearer to Matera. In the car, Francesco handed me a small clay wall decoration depicting Sassi (dwellings carved into rocks) of Matera.

"You did not go Matera, so I buy you this."

"Grazie!" I thanked him.

"When you are here, we speak only italian, ok?" he said.

"Va bene, Provo, Provo," OK, I try, I try.

"Provo ah, hahaha," he laughed in delight as always whenever he hear me utter a new italian word.

Matera is renown for an ancient town called Sassi di Matera. Sassi are house carved into limestone rocks. They have been in existance since BC period and are believed to be first human settlement in Italy. The town has been used to shoot many films depicting ancient Jerusalem, for example, Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. I have seen photos of the place. It looks beautiful especially at night. Unfortunately I missed it.

I asked the ladies about the place.

"It was beautiful. There was an event, like a ball going on last evening. Every man and woman were decked out in their best. The people are are very handsome, beautiful and elegant," Jin said in Chinese.

Francesco asked me how was my time spent in Italy so far, and was anything stolen from the pickpockets. I thought something was but it was actually misplaced. I asked him, if there are pickpockets in Barile.

"No, no, not in Barile. In big cities, there are many. I don't understand big cities," he said, shaking his head.

We drove past another town called Rionero. Francesco pointed out to regional cancer hospital.

Finally, we arrived at his home.

"You remember my house?" asked Francesco, as he helped my remove my luggage from the boot.

"I remember, on Google Map!" There was once, we exchanged the street view of our homes on Google Map. I jokingly told him I stay on the 14th Floor and he has to count. His apartment building was only 3 storeys high. There are no high-rise buildings there due to earthquakes. It felt very surreal to be looking at the real building. 

He showed me around his apartment, the living room, the familiar kitchen which had always been the backdrop whenever we Skype. He sometimes Skypes while he was cooking or cleaning his kitchen. Out of amusement, I tried to recall and identify where he kept his pots and pastas. Italians love to cook. Francesco even has a diploma in culinary.

He brought me up to the second level bedroom where Amy and Jin were staying. There was a big spacious bed.

"That is where I work and that bed is for you and your friends but I give to Amy and Jin." I felt bad that he had prepared all these for my friends and me but they did not come. Usually he host only 2 guest at a time, for my case, he made special arrangement for 4 of us, plus Amy and Jin, 6 guest!

"You sleep in Paolo's room." He carried a stack of bedsheets from that room down the stairs again. Paolo is Francesco's son, he works and studies in Rome and only comes back home occasionally.

"You put the bedsheets, I cook lunch for all of you."

I flipped the entire mattress and tried to slot the mattress into the sheets. That was how it was usually done in my house. Francesco heard all the shifting and shoving and came to the room.

"What are you doing? No need. You just put the bedsheet on top, like this."

He helped me to neatly line the sheets on the bed, just like that! The room was like a typical boy's room, a bit messy, and the drawings on the wall evinced the artistic eloquence in Paolo. I saw the a collage of many photos of a cute little boy, some of them in costumes.

"Is that Paolo?" I asked Franceso.

"Yes."

"He was very cute."

After I was done with the unpacking, I returned to the kitchen and found Francesco blending tomatoes.

"Our tomato sauce are fresh!" he proudly announced. Amy and Jin were already setting up the table.

We had simple Pomodoro pasta for lunch, accompanied with some wine. There was something different about having it with freshly blended tomatoes. The sauce carried a lightness to it and was not too salty. I bought 3 pairs of chopstick for Francesco, one pair was the long one for cooking.

"You can use this for cooking spaghetti," I told him.

3 of us Chinese tried to teach Francesco how to use the chopsticks. It was not easy for him.

I asked Amy and Jin, what they had for dinner last night?

"We ate lots of fish. Because those fish were supposed to be for your friends," Amy said. I felt guilty again. When all of us spoke to Francesco on Skype, we told him that we do not eat meat but seafood and fish are fine. He actually went all the way to buy us fish so he can cook for us.

Before I left Italy, Francesco asked me to help him buy a white Kurta. Once we were finished with lunch and washing, I passed him the Kurta and he returned lots of hugs and kisses again. When he tried to pay me the money later, I could not accept it. He was hosting me and also a good Italian teacher for the past 8 months. I could not take anything more from him!

He introduced me to his little niece, Ludovica and twin nephews, Luca and Carlo, who lives on the floor below. I have seen them running round Francesco during Skype before. I gave his twin nephews some styrofoam planes and his niece the pink 5-stones I made. She looked very shy yet amused as I showed her how to play 5 stones.

Francesco looking good in the Kurta.
We sat and talked. In my best attempt of Italian with bits of English, I shared with him what I learnt about travelling, it is important to travel with people of the same frequency. He then showed me photos of his family and his late wife. His daughter Rosangela also had the same collage as Paolo in her room.

Later in the afternoon, Amy and Jin went on their own to explore Barile while Francesco bought me out on this Vespa.

"I haven't started my Vespa for a long. The insurance is not ready but near by is ok. We bring one helmet, just in case," he said. So there was no intention to wear helmet in the first place.

"Won't you get caught for not wearing helmet?" I asked.

"Nobody checks, but maybe if we go on big road, yes."

Ok, we were breaking a few laws - riding without insurance and not wearing helmet.

We went to the cemetery to visit his wife's tomb. As he approached his wife's tomb, he made a sign of cross. He talked to her and introduced me. I noted the year she passed on. It has been 10 years.

"Do you still miss her?" I asked.

"Yes, I always come here."

Outside the cemetery where he parked his Vespa, he told me to ride instead.

"You ride. I show you where to go."

It was nerve wrecking, Italian roads are left-hand drive! Fortunately, in contrast to Singapore, Barile is a sleepy little town. There were not many cars on the roads. We rode past tractors and Francesco would give a friendly wave to the driver.

"Piano, piano. (Slow, slow) Brava, Juvena," he sounded really excited as I pillioned him.


Barile

No helmet, no insurance, scooting around, just don't get caught.
So Francesco directed me to his vineyards which were not too far away. We tried some figs. Being a city dweller and a civiled-minded citizen, I had the inclination to find a rubbish bin to throw the fig skins before I realised they were all over the ground. So I nourished the soil with my saliva-tainted fig skins. Francesco also showed me the grapes and the olive trees there, then we headed down to his centuries old cellar.

Selecting a good ripe fig.

Looks like multiple alien-like tentacles inside, but it taste good.
An olive.
Olive tree
Grapes that haven't ripen. It will turn black later in the year.
Scorching summer sun above Mount Vulture.
All those little doors on the hill sides actually leads to cellars belonging to many families in Barile.
Francesco's cellar has been passed down a few generations since 1700s. He is the first to bring his wine to online business.

The big drums were maintained at 20 degrees celsius. Thus, the cellar was very cool.

Barile means "Barrel" in Italian.

The white wine.

Place for wine tasting and for chilling out with his friends.

The bigger bottle of Aglianico del Vulture. Too bad I could not bring that home.

Francesco relate to his wine as symphony.


His other bigger vineyard.
His trusty 30 years old PX Vespa that carried us up steep and narrow roads of Barile.
We took turns to ride the Vespa. After the tour of his vineyard and cellar, we went back to get the car in order to pick up Amy and Jin at a near by supermarket.

"We were lost," Amy said, "A gentleman drove us here. He asked who we are staying with. He said he knows you."

Would you actually hop into another person's vehicle when lost? Would you actually drive a lost person to his/her destination? To a city dweller, one can easily feel dubious about any kind intention or simply has no time to help someone. Barile is a small town. I reckon everybody knows each other with some kind of mutual trust, the ilks of the kampong spirit.

"Now I bring you to see my red Ferrari," Francesco said.

"Really?"

"Yes, red Ferrari."

I was skeptical. The roads there are so windy and narrow. Other being a ostentatious display of wealth, a white elephant, I could not think of any other reasons to own one there.

He brought us to a garage and proudly introduced his red Ferrari that wore oversized tyres.

The red Ferrari, the tractor.

The emblem of a tiger instead of a horse.
"Let's go find my friends, they never see Asians! Hahaha."

I came to Italy to see attractions and meet people. Never did I expect myself to be attractions to the locals because I look different from them.

Francesco drove us to a bar nearby where he always chill out with his friends.

He introduced us to Michele, the owner of the bar. When I said I am from Singapore and the two other ladies are from China, he said he could tell because I looked very different from them. Oh really?

I was significantly darker than Jin and Amy.

Francesco's friends
A little boy on his bicycle approached and kept looking at us inquistively. I guess probably he has never seen Asian before. High chance that is true because Barile is a small town, tourists hardly come by.

I overheard the boy asking Francesco if he speaks English. Francesco said yes. The little boy looked at Francesco and us in awe. I think he wanted to practise speaking English but was shy. In the cities, finding someone who can speak English is not that difficult. However, in small towns like Pontedera and Barile, I realised that not many can speak English.

When I met Francesco's daughter, he told me that Rosangela does not speak much English. She learnt English in university and after that, it is hardly spoken. Gradually, she forgets. On the other hand, Paolo, who lives and studies in Rome, is very good in English, he can read and write in English.

Rome is a cosmopolitan city with immigrants and tourists from many different countries. Since Paolo works and studies there, opportunities and the need to speak English are there. Therefore, one can pay lots of money to attend language lessons but if he does not use it after that, he will gradually forget. When I did not speak to Francesco for more than a month, I admit I could not recall some common words.

Italian usually have their dinner at 8, 9pm. At that time, I still saw children playing at the playgrounds. In the cities, at that time, we did not even dare to go out. We had dinner at a pizzeria of Francesco's friend, Martino. He seems to know everybody in the town. Francesco told us that the food is good because Martino personally oversee the running of the pizzeria. The ingredients are all fresh.
The pizzeria is called Old Stories.
Nice interior.

The pizzas are named after famous people, the Chinese ladies found the Mao Tse Tung pizza amusing.
Bruschetta without the parma ham for me.
John F. Kennedy Pizza. Francesco said fish, seafood pizzas do not go with cheese.
Italian breakfast is simple, usually with coffee and some pastry. We had Matera bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar plus some cheese. Francesco let us samples two types of cheese, one of them was Parmesan, not the powdered form but the entire block, and another type cheese. I cannot remember the name of the latter cheese but it did not appeal to us. It smelt like vomitus to me probably like how durian is to a foreigner. It is an acquired taste. Francesco enjoyed the cheese a lot, taking in many slices at a go.

Barile's sunrise at 4.30am.
That morning we had a good long chat. Our conversation led to the regional cancer hospital that he pointed out in Rionero yesterday. After losing his wife to stomach cancer, Franecsco set up a foundation to help cancer patients even overseas one. It was difficult for foundation to always rely on donations because there is a lot of bureaucracy involved in receiving donations. So he set up a cafe at the hospital where the profit funded the foundation. In that way, the foundation was self-sustaining. However, the cafe was later closed.

"Why?" I asked.

"Vaffanculo!"

I gasped and later smiled to myself, not sure if he knew I understood the profanity that just slipped out of his mouth.

"Hai capito 'Vaffanculo'?" You understand 'F**k it'?

"Si."

He laughed it off. That caught me by surprise because I have never heard him cuss before. He is usually a genial person. That incident must had pissed him off.

"The management changed. They only want money," he retorted.

"When I was in Milan with my wife for her cancer treatment, many times, I was alone in the hotel. I can't cook, I can't do anything in the hotel. I think a lot of things. It's not good for the mind. I know how the family feels. I used one of my apartments as a guesthouse for patients' family when they come to Rionero for treatment. When their family member is in hospital for treatment, the rest of family member can stay in the guesthouse. They can do things like cooking or talk with other patients' family so they don't think so much."

We asked how he got into couchsurfing. Francesco is twice the average age of couchsurfer which is around 28 years. A quick search for couchsurfers in Barile showed that he was the only one there. How did he know about this and got started? Why?

"I know about couchsurfing on television. I think it is very interesting. I like to meet new people. So I asked Paolo to help me make an account. Paolo think nobody come because Barile is so small, nobody knows Barile. But after a few month, I am surprised I have request. My first couchsurfer is from Turkey. And then, from Hungary, from Norway."

And about him being able to speak English. Did he go for lessons?

"No, I learn English from people in Couchsurfing."

Through this conversation, I developed a whole new reverence for Francesco. Unlike many elders I know who have aversion towards technology and the mentality of "I'm too old for this and that", Francesco has a great acceptance of technology and is not resistant to changes and developments. At 57, he learnt English, how to use Skype and couchsurfing. Generations before him, the family wines were only for their own consumption. He is the first in the family to sell them and even has an online shop to do so. He always say he is young at heart, this conversation and the bright neon green Nike trainers he wore briefly evinced his youthful nature.


His passion to learn, to improve and to help people is very palpable and commendable.

Francesco made sure his guests never go hungry. Our last meal at his place, he cooked two pasta dishes. From the bottom of my heart, I swear it was the best meal I had in Italy. The creamy pasta with salmon was heavenly.
Chef Francesco at work.
Salmon, onion
The tomatos were oval in shape and the cucumbers were surprisingly sweet!
Falafel with cream sauce and salmon - the best dishes I have tasted in Italy
Falafel pesto.
Francesco was very particular when it comes to enjoying the pasta. We, the three Chinese used the same plate to hold different dishes out of habit and also because we did not want to wash too many plates. But Francesco was adamant on using a new plate for each dish. He wanted us to enjoy each dish entirely, using the same plate will mix up and taint the taste.

Just before we left, Francesco gave us each something from his company. As Amy and Jin still has to travel to other parts of Italy, they only took a small bottle of red wine. Francesco gave me a 750cc bottle of Aglianico del Vulture, Olive oil and Vinegar. Whoa, I asked if I can have another bottle of wine for my friend back in Singapore.

"Sure, for you. No problem," he said.

His wine, Il Barile, Aglianico del Vulture, the Olive Oil, and the Balsamic Vinegar.

Rosangela happened to be back home and gave us lots of farewell hugs and kisses. We went down to the second floor to bid farewell to his niece and nephews. I think I heard Luca or Carlo (could not tell them apart) said the styrofoam plane I gave them yesterday was broken. It happens a lot.

"When are you coming to find us again?" one of them asked in Italian.

They are so sweet and cute. I wish I could have spent more time there and just play with them. I said I will definitely return.

Older sister Ludovica and her younger brother.

Very different expression from the twins, Luca and Carlo. One was more outgoing, the other was very shy.
Francesco drove us all to Candela where we would be taking buses, for Amy and Jin, to Naples, for me, to Rome. Paolo had helped us checked the bus schedule as he was more familiar with it. In the car, Francesco was talking to Paolo and asked if I want to talk to him. Ok.

Here is the converstation and in bracket is the translation from what I understood.

Me: "Ciao, Grazie per tutto. Come stai?"
(Hi, Thank you for everything. How are you?)

Paolo: "Cosi, Cosi, Sono molto stressato con lavoro"
(So so, I am very stressed with work.)

Me: "Allora, devi risposare."
(So, you must rest.)

Paolo: *Broke into laughter* "Va bene! Hahaha! Risposiamo insieme."
(OK. Hahaha! We rest together.)

Me: "Huh? Non capito. I pass the phone back to your dad."
(I don't understand.)

Francesco listened to Paolo intently and then broke into laughter.

"You know what you tell Paolo? You told him to 'risposare'. It means 'remarry'," he said while trying to contain his laughter. "So Paolo said 'Ok, we remarry together'."

I facepalmed. Lost in translation ended up with a re-marriage proposal over the phone! My idiocy probably had lessen Paolo's stress a little.

"Nooo... " I protested. "Voglio dire 'rest'. Come si dice 'rest'?"
(No. I want to say 'rest'. How does one say 'rest'?)

"È 'riposare'," he said.

Gosh, just a difference of  a 's' in 'risposare' and 'riposare' changed the meaning of the entire sentence, from a well-intented advice to rest, to telling him to remarry.

"E non sono pronta per risposare," I said.
(And I am not ready for remarriage.)

Francesco laughed again. Even months after this incident, we still joked about this conversation exchange.

Something about the price difference of food in big cities and small towns. At the Candela bus transit station, I saw the Nutella with biscuit and Lemon tea set for only €2. In Florence train station, the exact same thing cost €3.70! There were 3 remaining tubs of that, I grabbed everything.

Before boarding the bus to Rome, I kept thanking Francesco.

"Grazie per tutto, Francesco."
(Thank you for everything, Francesco)

"Ah... poco poco."
(Little little.)

More farewell hugs and kisses. It was only a short one and half day in Barile but I had received great hospitality and generousity from him. The day in Barile was the day I truly felt I was in Italy as a traveller.

I reunited with the others at the airport. We stay overnight there before our flight.

Francesco called me again the next day.

"I am so sorry you had to sleep in the airport. You can stay at Paolo's place. He lives very near the airport. I never think of that!"

"No, no, no sorry. It is ok," I assured him.

He did not have to apologise. I really appreciate his thoughtfulness. In my warped musing, I thought, we had a 'remarriage proposal' that day, then staying at his place would then what.... confirmed a 'Yes I do' with co-inhabitation?

"You will never know what is there until you go there." Paris advised me back in Naples. For the people who said there is nothing in Barile and I am not sure if they have been there themselves, there are good food, wine and historical wine cellars. They are not as renown as the Canals of Venice, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum. But having someone sharing the history of a place belonging to his family brings about a unique form of marvel and appreciation because it is personal to him and it is his pride. I could see Francesco's eyes gleaming with joy and enthusiam as he introduced his vineyards and wine cellar. It is different from a guide telling you about famous historical monuments as a third party.



I was a bit hesitant about going Barile alone initially. However, I realised breaking out of my security cocoon allowed me to closely meet people from different cultures and understand how they live, what they do, what they think, how they cope with situations that are unfamiliar in where I come from.

Individuals have different travelling styles and tolerance level for risk and unknowns. I could not have known all these about my travelling partners and me while planning for the trip. Or maybe we were reticent about our own opinions. It was the pickpocket incident in Rome and Giovanni's account about couchsurfing that have gradually accentuated the differences between them and me. So from this trip, I realised I am a stubborn lass who is unreceptive to hearsays until I see it or experience it myself. Call me reckless, all I trust are my instincts. Until I have found someone who shares the same approach towards travelling as me, I would prefer travelling alone.

I cannot let others cannot speak for me, just as I cannot speak for them. I just know that if I had listened to what others said about going Barile to couchsurf and let fear stopped me, I would have missed out a very different and enriching travel experience.

Italy Part I - Couchsurfing, Learning a Language, Milan, Venice
Italy Part II - Vespa Birthplace, Pisa, Siena, Florence
Italy Part III - Rome and Vatican City, Encounters with Pickpocket Syndicates
Italy Part IV - Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Plastic bags as Decoy against Snatch Thieves
Italy Trip Aftermath

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