Leaving Tricase (part 4)

In which we return to the subject of the fair hamlet of Tricase, its manifold charms, and why I must leave despite them, in the final part of this discursive (but hopefully interesting) essay.

Thursday 16 September, 2021.

A sight particular to this region – a neighbour fills a water bottle from a drinking fountain, just outside my apartment and “Cafe Freedom” in Piazza Castello dei Trane, Tricase, Thursday 16 September 2021.

“There is something sad and melancholy about trips,” says Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker) in the cult film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), “I always hate to go away. But one has to find some new place, or it would be impossible to be sad and melancholy again”.

A few seconds later, the film’s femme fatale, Friday (Marian Carr), perhaps irritated at such showy meditations in what is supposed to be a Mickey Spillane adaptation, puts a bullet through his heart, ending all future trips for him, melancholy or otherwise.

Those lines came back to me as I prepare – well, prepare mentally, anyway – for leaving Tricase. I found, with some help, a decent flat in Lecce – expensive, for an English language teacher, but it can be done. The deposit is down. A job awaits me there. I’m leaving.

There is something sad and melancholy to me about leaving Tricase. I lived and worked here here for two years, from September 2019 to this month of September 2021. I experienced the atmosphere of anxiety and depression that pervaded the town during the worst period of the Covid pandemic here, from March 2020 to May of the following year.

From March to June of 2020, the “lock-down” was so strict that for those four months it wasn’t even legal to travel the four kilometres from my location in Tricase to Porto Tricase, to look at the sea. Fortunately, that only happened once, and from then onward even in the strictest lock-down – of which there were many – it was possible to visit Porto Tricase, because it is officially part of the same comune or municipality.

But apart from those four grim months, when the only trips permitted were essential ones and all non-essential services were closed, including cafes, it really wasn’t a bad place to be isolated in. Tricase is surrounded by countryside, and it was possible to nip out for a solitary walk through the country pathways, usually seeing no one around, or just one or two people. For the majority of the period between March 2020 and May 2021, it was possible to visit the Adriatic coast at the points of Porto Tricase or Marina Serra, and enjoy the expanse of sea and sky. Cafes were allowed to re-open, though for the most part only until six PM. Work continued, either online at home or in the classroom, depending on the decrees from the regional government of Puglia. It wasn’t easy (for one thing, general student morale was at an all-time low), but it was possible.

I was experiencing one of the weirdest and most monumental global catastrophes of my lifetime from a small, almost forgotten, almost paradisial corner of the world

I was experiencing one of the weirdest and most monumental global catastrophes of my lifetime from a small, almost forgotten, almost paradisial corner of the world. I felt, in this regard if no other, a little like the protagonist of Cesare Pavese’s novel The Political Prisoner (1955), a novel I had read in English translation a few years before arriving in Italy. We were affected by Covid, but not nearly to the same degree as the cities, and certain towns particularly in the north of Italy. For Tricase, a modest, cheerful town of a population of approximately 17, 600, that relies a great deal on summer tourism for its economic well-being, the Covid crisis was mostly an experience of isolation, depression, and financial hardship (particularly if you ran a small business or worked for one). However, it escaped the high infection rates and manifold Covid-related deaths that beset other, more densely populated regions in Italy. In the summer of 2021 the tourists returned in droves, and those small businesses able to survive – which was nearly all of them, I’m glad to say – seem to be doing well at this time.

Bona Sciana bar preparing to re-open for the summer, Marina Serra, 18 June 2021

During my time here I became a familiar patron of the local cafes, of which, for a small town, there are many. In fact I just discovered a new one (to me) only a few days ago. My usual places to go, where I was given the warmest welcome, were the small neighbourhood café next door to me, “Freedom Café” (on Piazza Castello dei Trane), run by the married couple Vito and Anna-Maria, and “Golosa” (which means both “delicious” and “greedy”, depending on context), a family-run business. At Golosa (on Via Lecce), which is primarily a pasticceria (bakery/cake shop) but which also serves as a café/bar, I am always greeted with a friendly, “Ciao, Prof!” (for professore, the Italian word for teacher), which makes me feel almost part of the community, at least for the time I am there. I favour the independent cafes (which is all of them excepting the Martinucci chain cafes); some others in Tricase or outlying places I like include the “Café Racer” (on Via Luigi Pirandello), with its motorcycle theme, the “BonaSciana” at Marina Serra, with a fantastic view of the Adriatic sea (though it is only open during the summer), and the “Mename” bar at Porto Tricase. I should also put in a word for Caffe Chinaski (on Corso Roma) which is, as some of you might have wondered, really named after the protagonist of Bukowski’s early novels. It is a small but interesting bar owned and managed by Fillippo, a friendly and charismatic kind of guy, and it is one of the few bars in Tricase where the background music is kept low enough that you could, if the place is not too busy, read a book.

I should also say a word for the Bar Kollo (on Via Leone XIII). This is the café nearest to the school where I worked. At first, I felt I wasn’t too crazy about this place, and went in only out of need for a quick caffeine-fix between classes; I felt I was received a little brusquely there, but I realised in time that it was just that – brusqueness, not rudeness – and by now they kind of know me, and I know them.  It’s a good honest blue-collar café where you often find the workers or retired workers enjoying a vibrant discussion over glasses of prosecco (prosecco not being a particularly “fancy” or expensive drink in southern Italy).

The essential kindness of the man and woman who work there is evidenced by the four of five cats that treat the terrace of the bar like a second (or possibly third) home- there is always something for them to eat and drink there. I’m not saying it is, for a quick visit to Tricase, the best café to go into, but if you wanted a feel for the working people of this region, without actually walking into a “tough” or insalubrious bar (which also exist, though usually found brooding on the outskirts of towns like this) this is the place in Tricase.

For a more sophisticated experience I suggest Café Pisanelli in Piazza Pisanelli, where you can expect to see sixty to a hundred people sitting out at café tables when the weather is good, or even better, the Farmacia Balboa next door, a former pharmacy turned into a wine bar and co-owned, as locals are fond of noting, by film actress Helen Mirren and her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, who have lived in the vicinity for many years. If you are used to being charged exorbitant prices for glasses of mediocre or even unpalatable wines in wine-bars (as you probably are, if you live somewhere in southern England), the kind of local wine you can have for around 5 or 6 euro here will, should you come, delight you.

Countryside photographed on a walk during strict “lock-down”, April 2020.

Besides the places of respite in town, Tricase also has beautiful countryside. I regularly cycled through it, taking the Via Madonna della Serra route through the countryside, past farmhouses and artesian wells to the crest of Marina Serra, where I would get a bibita (non-alcoholic drink) at cafe Bona Sciana and appreciate the view of the sea, then continue along the high winding coast road of Via Per Marina Serra and back towards town along Via Marina Porto, along which you encounter the Vallonea Oak of Tricase, a beautiful sprawling tree of seven hundred years in age and seven hundred metres in breadth, which was shortlisted for European Tree of the Year in 2020 (if you are interested in the prize, and/or the tree, see the links at the end of this essay).

She knows where every book hides Isabella at Marescritto bookstore, 3 June 2021.

If you visit here you must also take time to visit, at least for couple of hours (preferably at dusk) the hilltop town of Specchia, with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and the tiny town of Lucugnano, primarily to visit and take a tour of the Palazzo Comi, the former home of the modernist Italian poet Girolamo Comi. In both places they offer regular music events in the main piazza during the summer months. Both towns are within a ten-minute drive from Tricase. I must also give special mention to the best bookstore in Tricase, an independent bookstore called “Marescritto” (“Sea-writing”, I think would be the translation, or perhaps “Written on the sea”), just around the corner from Piazza Pisanelli in Via Santa Spirito, owned and managed by the friendly Isabella and her sister. They have an incredible range of books within their small but exceptionally clean and tidy shop. The books are mostly in Italian, of course, but you can find dual-language Italian-English texts in the poetry section – where the poetry was originally written in English – and there are even a few novellas in dual-language (I found a dual-language copy of Conrad’s The Duel there). If you want something in particular, ask Isabella, she knows where to find anything in the shop, but you might not find it so easily.

Girolamo Comi’s study at the Palazzo Comi, Lucugnano, 3 July 2021

So, Tricase has a lot to offer for a small place, and to an extent, it and the surrounding region is almost paradisial, as I said earlier. The landscape and coast are beautiful, and the people generally friendly and hospitable to strangers. That said, after two years, I am still a stranger here, and I do not see that changing. I turned fifty-one in April (my second birthday in a “lock-down” situation). Despite the kindness I have been shown, I feel lonely and isolated, and anxious about the future. I feel, to quote Andrew Marvell’s famous poem, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near/And yonder all before us lie/Vast deserts of eternity”.

The hilltop town of Specchia around dusk, 3 July 2021

As I wrote about in “Leaving Tricase Parts 1 and 2”, I had a friend who on the surface seemed to be handling being alone in her later years, seemed even happy with her life, and had a lot of friends who thought a lot of her, but underneath was so lonely that when her dog died, it caused her to take her own life. It makes me think that where one can, one should take active steps to fulfil emotional needs, rather than simply finding strategies to keep them under control indefinitely. I am not at all sure that moving to a city is going to give me what I am looking for – I am not even sure what it is I am looking for – it might be love, or it might just be a sense of purpose, a sense of relevancy or usefulness or significance or agency – it might just be the ability to live in the present moment – it might be all of these things together. But I feel pretty sure that I will not find any of these things staying in Tricase any longer. So although, to quote Dr Soberin, “There is something sad and melancholy” about leaving Tricase, I have to admit it would be just as sad and melancholy to stay.





Andrew Marvell reference:


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.”