Soul of the Heel

On 4 April, 2012, with a distinct sense of trepidation, a racing heart, and sweaty palms, I clicked on the “Publish” button that made public the first post on this blog. It was titled “Puglia Bound” and was a brief introduction to our decision to move to the “heel of the boot.” As the blog evolved along with its readership, it became as much dialogue as diatribe. I heard from many of you, some simply appreciative of the stories of how an American couple copes with the expat life in southern Italy, but a number who aspired to trying something bold in their own lives. They spoke of being inspired by our story and some have even taken the step of acting on their aspirations and making their dreams of moving to Puglia come true.

Not a single reader ever wrote to me and asked me to write a book based on our story. Undaunted by the lack of demand (or even interest), I have published “Soul of the Heel.” It’s not just a compilation of the blog, although you’ll recognize some of the stories, but is a more intimate telling of the story of Jessica and me and how we came to make our home in “the heel of the boot.” Here’s the synopsis of the book that I sent to a whole bunch of agents, all of whom summarily rejected my proffer. (Can you believe that?)

 

Soul of the Heel

There is an old Yiddish proverb that Scott and Jessica would have done well to heed.  Mensch tracht, und Gott lacht.  Man plans and God laughs.  They thought that quitting their jobs, leaving a comfortable penthouse in Pittsburgh, saying good-bye to family, friends, and their mother tongue and moving to a little olive farm in Puglia, the “heel of the boot,” would be as easy as breaking a really expensive wine glass.  And God laughed.

So begins The Soul of the Heel, the story of an American couple that dreamt of an idyllic life in Italy but found that getting there would require patience (little of which either of them had), perseverance (which they both had in abundance), and money (of which they barely had enough).  At age fifty-eight, Scott felt bone-weary of the corporate life he had endured for over half of his years.  He took a leap and suggested to his wife, Jessica who was twenty-three years his junior, that they consider leaving their lives behind and move to Italy.  Their jobs were wearing them away much like a chisel wears away marble and they had been talking about how the next chapter in their lives would read.  Jessica bought the idea of moving to Italy like it was on sale at Barney’s.  They jumped on a plane to Puglia, a place they had never been, visited thirty-three properties in four days and picked one to be their new home.  Like a raft on Class 5 rapids, events moved from there at high speed, sometimes out of control, and frequently encountering obstacles that threatened to dash their dream to splinters.  Fortunately for them and their vision, they met Colleen and Francesco.

Colleen was born in Ireland and had lived in England, Canada and France before finally settling in Puglia.  Francesco, on the other hand, had spent his entire life in the “heel.”  Tall, blonde, and lissome, Colleen seemed to glide from one thing to another.  Francesco’s staccato movement and tendency to freneticism was a stark contrast, as was his dark hair and matching complexion.  But, in all ways important, they were of like mind and spirit.  It was Colleen and Francesco who introduced Scott and Jessica to the property that they would call Villa Tutto and were the Virgil to their Dante, guiding them through the circles of Hell currently referred to as “Italian Immigration,” “the Italian banking system,” and virtually every other Italian institution.  It was they who dedicated themselves to the goal of making sure that these naïve Americans, these two brave and silly souls, saw their dream of living in Puglia become a reality.

On the two-year journey from making the decision to move to Italy and Scott and Jessica’s first night together as residents of Cisternino, they encountered a cast of characters that taught them that Puglia is not just about delectable food, voluptuous wines, and astounding scenery: Michele, the rotund, ever-smiling contractor they hired to do the renovation they swore they would not undertake; Pierino, owner and executive chef of Il Capriccio, a Cisternese icon who occasionally serves up porcupine for dinner; Roberto Angelini, one of Italy’s most erudite wine merchants; Pietro, the former owner of Villa Tutto who continues to believe that the place is still his; and, a parade of Italian bureaucrats hell-bent on preventing Scott and Jessica from fulfilling their dream of abiding blissfully in bel paese.

As the story of their quest to move to the heel of the boot unfolds, Scott and Jessica, with Colleen and Francesco at their side, take on the challenges set before them, one-by-one overcoming them until they are finally together at Villa Tutto beginning their version of la dolce vita.

And there’s a little video of the introduction to the book on my YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcwUV9UElaw. You may even want to subscribe to it.

 

If you’ve enjoyed the blog, you’re going to love the book. You can find it in both eBook and paperback versions at Amazon.com.

 

Oh, and check out our latest adventures at www.worldwideeyed.com.

Homecoming & Homegoing

To say that a great deal has changed for Jessica and me in the last six months would be an underexaggeration of epic proportion.  During that time, we spent a month in Thailand, took an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and traveled to such eye-opening places as Myanmar, Nepal, Indonesia and other parts of Malaysia.  We participated in Chinese New Year celebrations, ate wonderfully exotic foods, and made many friends.  But now it was time to go home, back to Puglia, to Villa Tutto and our little olive farm, our friends, and our cats.

After not having driven a car for six months and thirty-hours of travel between Kuala Lumpur and Bari, I felt less than comfortable in the driver’s seat of the rental that we collected at the airport but, after a few minutes of dodging demonic Italians behind the wheel, I became re-accustomed to the chaos that reigns over the Pugliese roadways.  Jessica wondered aloud whether the cats she adopted as three-month-old kittens, Espressino and Caffe’, would remember her.  As soon as we turned into the driveway of Villa Tutto, our home near the town of Cisternino, our furry felines wandered casually over to the car and greeted us as though we had just returned from a trip to the fruit seller’s.  Even Shakespeare, the thirteen-year-old cat who came from the US with us deigned to welcome us back.  The cat sitter who came to the house every other day while we were gone must have treated them well because, except for Shakespeare who suffered from an autoimmune disease that was beginning to overtake his ability to fight it, they looked fat and happy.

Our homecoming was sweet even if we would only be tasting it for five weeks.  We had given up in the battle against the Italian bureaucracy, refusing to yield to its whim in demanding unobtainable and irrelevant documents from us to justify why we were worthy of remaining in the country, and allowed our residency permissions to expire.  Thus, we could now spend only ninety days during any six-month period in the European Union and we had much to do now that most of our time would be consumed elsewhere.

The reunions with our much-missed Italian friends were sweet.  Silvia, our Valle d’ Girl, Davide and Katia of Giardini 36, Erika and Luano of Bel’ Italia and, of course, Colleen and Francesco were sights for sore souls and we overjoyed to reacquaint ourselves and drink wine with them.  We also got to spend time with our expat friends.  Jennifer and Joe, along with their daughter, Natalie, our dear Los Angelino friends shared dinnertimes with us and Tom and Joe, two retirees who recently moved to nearby Fasano from Boston, joined us for an evening at Giardini 36 where we had a wonderful evening of Katia’s amazing cuisine and Davide’s wine selections.  We ate lunches at the sea, walked the acquedotto bike trail, drank too many campari spritzes, visited an ashram between Cisternino and Martina Franca, and relished the spectacular sunsets from the roof terrace of Villa Tutto.

Silvia and Jessica at the Sea

Silvia and Jessica at the Sea

Walking the acquedotto

Walking the acquedotto

Making the spritzes

Making the spritzes

Cisternino ashram

Cisternino ashram

Sunset from Villa Tutto

Sunset from Villa Tutto

Caffe' at sunset

Espressino at sunset

Fortunately, Jessica had held on to her cell phone sim card.  Unfortunately, I had not.  Have you ever arrived in another country, walked up to a kiosk at the airport or into a mobile phone store, had a sim card installed in your phone, and walked away able to make a call or check your email?  Well, I’ve had that experience everywhere we’ve traveled and I expected to have the same one in Cisternino.  I forgot: this is Italy.

At around 12:30pm, after driving into Cisternino and finally finding a parking spot, I went to the shop where one can buy a sim card and activate cell phone service.  By 1:10pm, I had selected a short-term plan from Vodaphone, paid for it, and received the sim card which the raven-haired young girl who was helping me kindly installed in my phone.  She then told me that I had to come back after 5:00pm to sign the contract and that the service would not be activated until I had done so.

“Why can’t I sign it now?” I asked in halting, rusty Italian.

“It is lunchtime,” was her answer as though that’s all that needed to be said.  We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I dutifully obliged, driving back into town later that day, finding parking once again, and walking back to the shop.  The clerk printed out the contract and showed me the five places I was to sign.

“Cinque volte?”  Five times, I asked incredulously.

“Si,” she said, and in response to my doubtful look, added, “E’ l’Italia.”  It’s Italy.  Then she proceeded to inform me that the service would not be activated until the next morning since the people at Vodaphone who execute such tasks are in the north of Italy and end their workdays at 5:00pm.  Note to Self: only purchase cell phone service in Puglia between the hours of 9:00am and 1:00pm since that is the only period during which both the people who sell the service and the ones who provide it are working.

Of course, when I tried to use the phone the next morning, niente.  Back I went into Cisternino, cruised the town for parking, went back to the shop.

“Did you put the pin code in?” the clerk asked when I complained that I still did not have service.

“What pin code?” I asked in response since, as many times as I have gotten temporary service I have never had to put a code in.

“The one that was attached to the sim card,” she said and I heard her add the word “stupid,” although she didn’t actually say it.  I punched in the code and, lo and behold, found that I had service and it only took twenty-four hours and three trips to the shop.  E’ l’Italia!  And don’t even get me started on our attempt to have some money wired from our Italian bank to our account in the UK.

But there was even harder stuff to do before we left Puglia.  Since we really didn’t know when we would be returning, we had to find a new home for Espressino and Caffe’.  Thanks to Silvia, we found an ideal situation for them.  Pierluca had recently lost his father and his elderly mother was now alone and lonely.  The “boys” would be perfect company for her.  And, with Pierluca’s girlfriend being a veterinarian, the brothers would be well looked after.

As for our transplanted cat, Shakespeare, his health had deteriorated significantly since we arrived in Puglia and, when the vet who had been treating him for a while looked at him, she just said, “It’s his time.”  I watched him close his eyes for the last time, comforted by the knowledge that the last thing he saw was me, the thing he loved most in the world.

We left Villa Tutto with hearts heavy with loss: loss of the ability to stay in Italy, loss of the company of friends, and loss of our “kids.”  Thankfully, we have memories and for now that will have to be enough.

Rest in Peace, Little Guy

Rest in Peace, Little Guy

Ciao, Italia: What We Will Miss

Those of you who have followed this blog (You will be rewarded in heaven.) know of our insatiable passion for travel.  Since moving to Italy, we have been to such places as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Barcelona, and many other intellect-stimulating, tummy-satisfying, eye candy places.  In yet another life-changing decision, Jessica and I have decided to spend less time in Italy and more of it in pursuit of quenching our thirst for worldwide experiences.  That pursuit will begin with a month in Thailand followed by some time in Malaysia and travel around southeast Asia.

Puglia is trulli beautiful

Puglia is trulli beautiful

While we will certainly be returning to our little olive farm in Puglia for the summer season, most of the year will find us moving around, taking in the sensations of the globe and sharing with you our experiences through the launch of a not-yet-but-soon-to-be-online blog called “World-Wide-Eyed.”  This blog will be a joint effort of Jessica and me, featuring her amazing photographs and my quirky, sometimes cynical, always twisted take on what I see.  We hope you’ll check it out.  Just don’t do it yet.

Farmer Scott

Farmer Scott

As we prepare to take our extended holiday and a pausa from Italy, I can’t help but think about the things we’ll miss.  First and foremost, we will have a hole in our heart for our friends and will miss their company, their support and their smiles.  We will surely yearn, from time to time, for authentic pizza, the robust wines of the Salento and having olives with every meal.  We will regret no longer having the roadway company of the jagoff drivers who tailgate close enough to lick our bumper and take their half of the road out of the middle.

Tasting the wines of Puglia

Tasting the wines of Puglia

And then there is the vaunted Italian bureaucracy with which we have spent so much of our time since moving to Italy.  Difficult though it will be to leave their dour faces, sour dispositions, lackadaisical attitudes, nicotine-dependent disappearances and minimal competence, we will just have to cope with the loss of their company for a while.

We are used to taking a short drive to one of the white-sand beaches of the Adriatic and getting lost in the white towns of the Valle d’Itria, treats that we will be giving up with our new approach to life.  In Kuala Lumpur, we will have to park our car in a designated space, no longer able to simply leave the car wherever it’s most convenient, as people do here in Puglia.  We will miss the multi-hour opportunities to get to know our neighbors while waiting to be abused at the post office and to be treated with the warmth with which one invites an itchy rash into his drawers by the post office staff once it was our turn to be “served.”

Cruisin' in Bangkok

Cruisin’ in Bangkok

And, though we will occasionally lament the loss of these things, we are looking forward to cilantro and sushi, to Thai massages and temples, to kimchi and curry.  And, we look forward to eventually sharing all of it with you, our readers, at www.worldwideeyed.com.  Soon, but not until I tell you.

The blessing of a Buddhist monk

The blessing of a Buddhist monk

Chillin' at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

Chillin’ at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

In the meantime, there are stories yet to be told about our incredible life in the heel of the boot like the one about when we went to pay our 2015 rubbish tax on December 1, only to be told that the amount we owed would not be calculated until sometime in 2016, so stay tuned.  I will also be using this blog to shamelessly and unabashedly promote my new book (as if I had an old book) that will be available before you go to the beach this coming summer.  It will make you laugh (at the stupid things I’ve done), cry (especially if you paid for the book), and slobber (because there’s a lot of stuff about food in it).

Sawadee

Sawadee

Ciao!

Hello, Dali

One of the perks of being retired in Europe is having the time and easy, cheap access to some pretty amazing places.

“How about Spain?” I asked Jessica one morning as we savored our cappuccino.  “We could leave on the 28th and travel around for a couple of weeks.”

“Spain sounds great,” she said, “but we can’t go then.  “You have to present yourself to the immigration office in Bari on the 30th for your permesso di soggiorno renewal so we can keep living in Italy.  And we have a cookout planned with Henrik and Sharon before they go home to London and don’t forget that Cher is coming to stay with us for a few days that week.”

“Right.  I forgot.” I said and then immediately forgot again and booked our flight to Barcelona for the 28th.

Jessica had spent a month in Spain as a high school exchange student but it was a country in which I had never set foot.  Our two-week itinerary would begin and end in Barcelona with stops in Madrid, Sevilla and Bilbao and a few side trips thrown in.

Vueling Airlines deposited us unceremoniously, but without incident, at the Barcelona airport and we took the airport shuttle into the center of the city.  It was then that I made my first mistake.  Armed with an inadequately detailed map the deficiencies of which were enhanced by a lack of street signs, we set off on foot from the shuttle stop to the hotel in precisely the wrong direction.  At the outset, the large backpack strapped over my shoulders didn’t seem so heavy but it contained two week’s worth of clothing for the both of us and, after an hour or so of wandering about the streets of Barcelona in 100+ degrees, I was becoming cranky.  Fortunately, a kind, English-speaking soul approached us and offered to help us find our way.  The young man was in Spain on an internship in furtherance of his degree from Carlow University, a school in, of all places, Pittsburgh, our home town in the US.  It’s a small world after all.

We spent the next day strolling the streets of Barcelona, staying out of the direct sun whenever possible as the temperatures again breached triple digits.  The heat begged for a large pitcher of sangria and we obliged, sitting at a large square just off The Ramblas, Barcelona’s pedestrian-only boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, hotels and markets.  Jessica’s lunch started with a gazpacho that was herb-laced and just spicy enough to bring out the richness of the thick soup.  After a full and completely satisfying lunch in a very touristy area for which we paid only €30, we went back to our street walking.  Had I known what awaited us the next day, I may have chosen to spend less time on my feet that first day.

The alarm was set for 5:30 am so that we could catch the three subway trains that would get us to the train from Barcelona to Figueres, site of the Salvador Dali Museum.  Before visiting the museum that Dali himself designed, however, we would be taking a bus from Figueres to the seaside town of Cadaques.  From here, we planned to take a leisurely walk to Portlligat where Salvador Dali and his muse/wife, Gala, lived for most of 50 years.  The walk was necessary because, despite the major tourist draw of the Dali residence, no train, bus or taxi serves the Portlligat Bay.  Rick Steves, our travel guru in all things Europe, advised us to take the walking route across the peninsula, a 20-minute stroll.  Unfortunately, doing so required that we find the beginning of the path, something that we were never quite able to do.

We had given ourselves a full hour to make the trek to Portlligat, a luxurious amount of time we thought, so it should be no problem to get to the artist’s house in time for our 12:10 tour reservation.  Having taken note of the warning that failure to report for tourist duty 30 minutes ahead of our appointed time could result in forfeiture of our tickets, we gave ourselves some extra time but it soon became evident, even to us, that following the “Casa di Dali” signs in Cadaques was ill-advised.  Our leisurely stroll became a 4-mile mad dash in triple-digit temperatures up well-endowed hills, along crowded, verge-free highways, through forests and fields.  From time to time, I would spot a building off in the distance.

“That must be it,” I would say.

“No,” said Jessica who had actually done some research on the place and seen photos.  “It isn’t.”

Our power walk, interrupted by a few stints of jogging, lasted about ninety minutes.  By the time we finally arrived at the house-now-museum, breathless and drenched with sweat, we had used all of our grace time so we rushed panting and soaked to the ticket window, fully prepared to beg forgiveness and mercy for having appeared just moments before our tour was scheduled to begin.  The woman at the window looked at our tickets, told us to wait for our tour guide at the bottom of a set of steps, and smiled pleasantly as if to say, “Go away now.”  We obliged her.

The mature gentleman who guided our tour of the artist’s home spoke little but gave us the allotted 10 minutes in each of the rooms of the house.  Dali’s studio, complete with an easel that held a room-sized canvas, was my favorite stop on the tour.  His actual paint brushes and other tools of his trade were placed about the room, as were sundry objects of inspiration that included a stuffed polar bear wearing necklaces and holding a lamp.  Seeing this, I began to understand Dali’s work.

Salvador Dali's studio

Salvador Dali’s studio

In the house of Salvador Dali, this was not particularly wierd

In the house of Salvador Dali, this was not particularly weird

Words fail me

Words fail me

The artist’s bedroom bore the mark of consistency with Dali’s persona: Gaudy, eclectic and garish.  I thought I noticed a tongue hanging on the wall but convinced myself that it was not, for my own sake.  Gala’s boudoir, on the other hand, looked more like an homage to her husband.  I concluded that Dali had decorated both of these rooms himself.

The artist's bedroom

The artist’s bedroom

The interior of the home was incredibly interesting but no more so than the grounds.  Pieces of the artist’s work were scattered about the property and we wandered around for as long as our tight schedule would allow.  Having gotten directions to the “shortcut” back to Cadaques, we headed off and soon became lost again, a state which is normally not a problem for us but we had a bus to catch back to Figueres, a museum to check out and a train back to Barcelona booked.  Back into power walk mode, we made our circuitous way back to the bus station just in time for our bus.

Just popped in for a four minute egg visit

Just popped in for a four minute egg visit

The Salvador Dali Museum was designed by the artist himself, a fact that is abundantly clear the instant one enters this mind-bending fantasy world.  While the museum contained less of the iconic Dali works that I had hoped for, it was, nonetheless, a fitting tribute from Dali to himself.

Welcome to the Salvador Dali Museum

Welcome to the Salvador Dali Museum

Odd facade

Odd facade

A quick cab ride to the train station got us there in time to have a relaxing glass of wine which turned in three glasses of wine since the train turned out to be an hour late in leaving.  No harm, no foul.

 

Photos, as always, by the lovely and talented Jessica Coup.  Visit her work at www.jessicacoup.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People of Penang

First, to all of you (well, both of you) who have been asking for a new post to Soul of the Heel, I apologize for the dereliction of duty.  My excuse is that I have been dedicating the bulk of my writing energies to the book version of our Italian experience.  (The book would have made a great holiday gift but for the fact that it won’t be finished in time.  Put it on your summer beach read list, though.)

Now, those of you who have been following along are very familiar with Jessica’s photos.  Since taking up photography in a serious way, her skills have begun to catch up with her innate talent and her perceptive eye.  Her photographs have been displayed at some places here in Puglia and have received rave reviews.

Next week, a new exhibition of Jessica’s photographs opens at Le Capase, a relatively new and smartly innovative restaurants in Cisternino.  The theme of the exhibit is People of Penang and features photos she took during our month-long visit to the Malaysian island earlier this year.  The subjects of the photographs are the Chinese, Indians and Malays who make up the population of the island.  They practice their respective religions–Buddhism, Hinduism and Muslim–with joy and reverence in a palpable sense of peace and harmony.  Jessica has beautifully captured these warm and welcoming people as they go about their daily routines in this series.

If you are around the Cisternino area between November 5 and December 7, stop by Le Capase.  Treat yourself to some of the amazing Pugliese “food with flair” that the restaurant is known for and be welcomed by the friendly and accommodating staff eager to help you select just the right meal for your mood.  And, before and/or after your dinner, or even between courses, stroll around the gorgeous stone interior of Le Capase and visit Jessica’s photographs of People of Penang.

People of Penang: An Exhibition of the Photographs of Jessica Coup

People of Penang: An Exhibition of the Photographs of Jessica Coup

But, if you can’t be in Cisternino to see the exhibition in person, you can always check it out at Jessica’s website: www.jessicacoup.com.