WHAT I REMEMBER about Bari Centrale is the tall palm trees outside, even in November, and the graffitied frescoes of the saints on the walls outside the tall apartment houses. I remember the carabinieri milling about outside the doors, and that smell, that awful beautiful smell of life and filth that is everywhere with you when you go to Italy, and I remember the girls with the black hair and black jackets. I remember the fresh fruit markets, where they sell juicy persimmons, and the roast chestnut sellers. Bari is just one port city, and nobody really goes there on purpose. Italy for outsiders is Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, maybe Palermo. Italy is the blue grotto, Italy is checkered tablecloths, and the singing gondoliere of Venice and famous nude statues. Bari is on nobody’s list. But I have to go to Bari, because Bari is where my cousins live. I cannot go to Italy and not go to Bari. Sometimes I take the train all the way from Rome to get to Bari. Sometimes I fly. In the airport, you can buy mafalda and red wine. For me, it’s like home.
This is the food I grew up eating, these are the manners I learned from my elders. When someone says the party starts at 2 pm, that means it really starts at 4 pm. When someone says goodbye, they don’t mean it. For Italians, or at least southern Italians, saying goodbye is a lengthy process. It can take an hour for the goodbye to fulfil itself. I forget these things when I am away, but it always comes back to me here. Once an Estonian girl complained to me that she could never live in such a place. “All they do is sit around and eat and do nothing and nothing happens,” she said. I thought, what’s wrong with that? That sounds like the ideal way to live. That sounds perfect.
But what to eat? In the evenings in Bari, you can hear the fishermen in the ports calling out their daily catch. Customers huddle around and go home with some dead fish. Some of the fishermen play cards while they are waiting for clients. In the cafes in the evening, you can buy anything, so long as it is dripping in marinara sauce and stuffed with cheese. In one cafe, you can even buy baked octopus, and see the tentacles emerging from a mountain of sauce, cheese, and pasta. I think at some point, you just have to stop worrying about what you are eating in Puglia. You just have to eat it. There are the small mozzarellinis, and then the large loaves of mozzarella. There are the small cubes of polenta baked in sauce, and then a custard-filled pastry that my cousin Michele calls sporcamuss, “because it makes your mouth all messy.” The dialect around Bari has Greek, French, and even Arabic influences. Phrases and words you learn in Puglia are totally useless outside of Puglia. If you try to speak Barese to someone in Rome, they will blink at you. Younger people speak Italian, but the older people here retreat into dialetto at the kitchen table. This is one reason why Italians in New York and other places switched to English so quickly. They could not understand each other’s dialects.
Down the coast from Bari, there are some real gems and pearls hidden in the coastline. Places that time forgot. Places like Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. Ostuni, the white city. Boats sleep in the harbors. Castles bear witness to the waves and winds of the sea. On the other side of the water is Albania, Greece. Sometimes ships go there. Here you are free to wander. Here you are free from the noise of the world. Here there is always something good to eat and people wave to you from balconies. Here the old men stand around eating gelato, sipping espresso, with their hands in their pockets. Somewhere the tricolore is fluttering above. Whenever I am down there, I always think, this is the place. This is the place that made us. This is where we all came from.