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.
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.