One man’s California is another man’s Khe-Sanh: summer in Puglia.

Heat-struck cat in Specchia, 14 July 2021

Saturday 10 July 2021

The temperature here in Tricase today is 32 degrees Celsius – “feels like 36 degrees” – according to Google Weather. Last week the temperature reached a high of 36, so this is a reprieve, of sorts, but still, it’s hot enough to make the tiles in my courtyard fairly sizzle and even the ants and mosquitoes seem to take a long siesta between mid-morning and late afternoon. Every summer I realise, when it is far too late to do anything about it, that I am not a summer person, and should probably not be living in a region of the Mediterranean famed for its long hot summers.

That same frazzled cat, close-up

I look forward to summer through the cold winter months (because it does get cold here, with strong biting sea winds and even, in recent years, the occasional snowdrift around December/January), and I tend to view spring as a prelude to better things – the Purgatorio to summer’s Paradiso – when in fact, for me, physically and mentally, it really is the other way around. Spring is the best time for me, and I tend to romantically imagine summer – because summer is when, as an English language teacher, I usually have a lot of time free – as simply a longer version of spring.

I tend to romantically imagine summer – because summer is when I usually have a lot of time free – as simply a longer version of spring

I fool myself into imagining the same kind of comfortable temperatures as spring, somewhere between 24 and 28 degrees Celsius, weather that permits me to go cycling, or out for a drive or walk at any time of the day I have free, visiting two or three different towns on a Saturday, maybe a trip as far up as the “white city” of Ostuni, the elegant inland towns of Mesagne, Martina Franca, or Ceglie, or closer to home (or what I call home for now, here in Tricase) up to Porto Badisco, Castro, the sea caves of Zinzalusa or Grotto Verde ( “Green cave”) or down to Santa Maria di Leuca, the vertiginous seaport village at the very end of the peninsula.

However, with the arrival of a heatwave in June, I remember all this becomes impossible for me. My 2009-model Fiat “Grande” Punto, an aging vehicle of modest dimensions, despite its name, but nevertheless – so far, anyway – responsive and willing, my steed, the Rocinante to my Don Quixote between late September and the last weeks of May, becomes in June a seething and unapproachable megalith of black metal under the blazing sun (I do not have a garage, and have yet to discover where one purchases a sun tarpaulin for a car),  and with an air conditioning system more decorative than functional, driving anywhere before the hour of dusk becomes an insupportable concept, like going on a voyage through the desert without water. Road journeys become a thing only of dusk and night.

Although it would be appealing to complete the allusion to Dante’s trilogy by calling summer here in Puglia “the Inferno”, it seems unreasonable to do so, when so many are clearly enjoying it. The various pages I follow on Instagram devoted to Puglia show delightful photographs taken each day of teenage friendship groups, young romantic couples, budding swimwear models in their early twenties, and young parents in their late twenties or thirties with their small and adorable children, all frolicking, swimming, sunbathing, paddle-boarding, pouting for the camera or picnicking by the natural pool at Marina Serra or the Grotto della Poesia (Cave of Poetry) at Rocca Vecchia, or the small sparkling cove of Cala dell’Aquaviva, all within a stone’s throw – or a short drive – from  where I’m sitting, writing this is my shaded apartment, caressed by the artificial breeze and made slightly tense by the propellor whirr of a high-powered electric fan, like a displaced character from a story by Poe or Kafka.

I notice however that in the main the cut-off point of the age range in these photos seems to be around forty. There are exceptions – sun-lovers in their forties or fifties or even beyond. I notice these tend to be either Danes and Hollanders, or Americans. I sometimes wonder if they are genuinely enjoying it, or simply feel that being in the Mediterranean in summer, they have a responsibility to those they left behind to try to enjoy sitting out on the beach half-naked, turning a crisp golden brown in temperatures that could never be imagined in Roskilde, Denmark, or Minneapolis, Minnesota – and of course, post the photos.

Then again, perhaps they really do enjoy it, and perhaps they are made of tougher stuff than I, or are in better physical condition. Probably that’s it. It’s true that, imagining as I do summer as a mere extension of spring, I usually make no preparation, in terms of lifestyle alterations, in that ideal season for the harshness of what is coming, and the experience of the sudden arrival of summer is always for me something like that shocking “direct cut” in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”(1978) where Mike (Robert de Niro) and his friends have just finished a day’s hunting in the cool mist and green ferns of the Allegheny mountain range in Pennsylvania (where Mike, captivated by the beauty of a deer in his telescopic sight, can’t bring himself to shoot it), and the next moment they’re covered in sweat, blood and grime, fighting their way through a burning Vietnamese village. Okay, perhaps that comparison doesn’t quite hold up to intense scrutiny, but subjectively speaking, it seems pretty accurate.

That said, there is nothing like the narrowing of pleasant options to finally get down to some writing. As I am now, from around 11 am to 6pm, effectively trapped indoors (by my own human limitations or even weakness, you could say, but trapped nonetheless) there is little to do, besides the usual domestic and professional chores – doing the laundry, responding to invitations for job interviews – but turn to writing, that task that – like summer, in fact – I always imagine to be all roses and flowers, as the Italian expression goes (“Essere tutto rose e fiori”), but in reality is more reminiscent of the summer I spent, almost a decade ago now, digging out the tough and seemingly endless roots of a bamboo tree in my parents’ backyard – a task where an objective must be held in mind, but also to an extent forgotten, for the sake of one’s fortitude – a task which requires great patience and forbearance, as well as single-mindedness, to achieve.

Perhaps it was the limitations the oppressive heat put on daytime exploration that permitted Paul and Jane Bowles to while away the afternoon hours in shaded rooms, carefully crafting their stories

Perhaps it was the limitations the oppressive heat put on daytime exploration that permitted Paul and Jane Bowles, living in the Moroccan city of Tangier, to while away the afternoon hours in shaded rooms, with writing pads or typewriters, sipping mint tea under ceiling fans, carefully crafting their stories, and developing their distinctive themes and literary styles. The optimum conditions for the task of writing, it seems to me, are ones where there is not only nothing that has to be done (or that cannot be put off for another day, or at least for a few hours), but where there seems nothing more interesting or enjoyable to do: a situation of near-zero need and near-zero stimulation – of course, life is not generally like this for most people, and so the effect has to be artificially created – you pretend there is nothing else beyond the limits of the room you are writing in.  As a parallel thought, I’ve decided that my vague romantic notion to try living in Tangier for a period might be best, considering the difficulty I have with a Pugliese summer, remaining a vague romantic notion.

This is in fact my fourth summer in Puglia since arriving in October 2017 – though in the summer of 2019 I spent several months working as an English language teacher for the summer academic programme at Reading University back in England, where the main weather condition that summer was “mild but persistent drizzle”, which could also be applied to the deportment and personality of most inhabitants of that town I encountered, except when drunk (a state of mild euphoria everyone there had to reach determinedly, before last orders at a quarter to eleven, which were always called promptly and with visible relief, if not relish, by the manager or his/her hired hands). When there, apart from the enjoyment of getting to see old friends I had not seen in the flesh for several years, I mainly longed to be back in Puglia.

If that sounds strange or paradoxical, I should say that my affection for Puglia is not for the same reason most tourists come here – that is, for the long hot summers and the impressive beaches. I can’t really summarise such a profound and mysterious feeling, but one element of that affection might be the feeling that I’ve discovered a treasure of a region which, while not unknown to the outside world (to pretend so would be absurd), is less known and travelled than other regions even here in Italy -less than the more famed Veneto or Tuscany, for instance.

Puglia still retains aspects of an older, more traditional and self-contained culture…something increasingly difficult to experience in the Western world….

Another reason for my attraction to the region might be a feeling that though Puglia is certainly connected to the modern world – even here in Tricase you can find a tattoo parlour, natural foods store and frozen yoghurt outlet, for instance, along with all the more basic services – it still retains aspects of an older, more traditional, and self-contained culture – something increasingly difficult to experience in the Western world, where everywhere seems like it wants to be taken for someplace else. For me, the scorching summers here are not the best part of living here (as it is for the sun-lovers), but the price you pay for the cultural and spiritual rewards of living here. Were I not to experience the severity of the summer – if I had the luxury of just relocating to a cooler country or region for the entirety of this season – I feel I would lose something of the authenticity of the experience of Puglia (but don’t tempt me). As Robert De Niro put it in “The Deer Hunter”: “This is this. It ain’t something else.”

***

2 thoughts on “One man’s California is another man’s Khe-Sanh: summer in Puglia.

  1. Captures a rare mood in which a harsh environment also feels like home. I love the way you write about Puglia and would love to read more about those caves, especially the poet’s one. Also enjoyed the humour and eruditon, both of which I’ve come to expect from Jay Clifton. There is a drama in putting down roots in a foreign land, especially when the locale is little frequented by Brits. Your quest for the perfect coffee spot, long illustrated on Instagram, deserves a wide audience and many plaudits.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much, Mark, both for reading and your thoughts! I am setting myself the goal of at least one article a month but am aiming for two. I have a range of ideas inspired by my Instagram photo-diary. Jay

      Liked by 1 person

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