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Puglia: Homeland Nostalgia

(What you love but haven’t loved)

I was never attached to my homeland as a child. In fact, I hoped to escape it as soon as possible. Many have protested against this sentiment: “How can you say that? Puglia is heaven on earth!” But they have never known the real Puglia.

Lately I’ve noticed–and I’m guilty of it myself–that a rather superficial narration of places and territories, subject to fads and easily digestible tourism, is in fashion. This trend is both produced and reinforced by social media. I do not mean this to be a demonizing article, but I speak from a perspective only those who have left that oft admired and instagrammed land see.

At the beginning of this story, I used the term “escape” on purpose. As a child of the late 1980s, I didn’t have much to do in Puglia, especially in a small and dull village like mine. It’s easy to proclaim yourself proud of a city like Lecce or Polignano, of their crystal clear seas, bragging to friends about that beautiful spot here, that hidden treasure there.

Where I was born there were no gems. There were traditions, slow Sundays, four cats who knew the life and times of your family, a lot of churches (even a sanctuary), and endless fields of olive trees and wheat. Nice in some ways, for sure. But for the more restless and vibrant characters such as myself, that beauty felt like a prison.

From an early age, my parents encouraged me to read, write, and explore and introduced me to culture and art. In my homeland, I couldn’t find this type of beauty–the creative and artistic kind that I researched and read about. However, I can’t blame the suffering of my adolescence on my parents. My brother adores everything of our homeland, adores the ruffian welcomes, the tight spaces, the comfort of the known, the bonds with old friends, the certainty of never having to find himself one day wondering What am I doing here?

So in my case, my hatred for my home wasn’t a question of education, but of personal attitude. If “home” and the “world” are ideological opposites, I have always wanted the world, so much so that for a long time, I couldn’t call any place home. Maybe it can just be boiled down to my character or my predisposition, but Puglia was constricting.

Telling stories of the Italian south is not easy. There is the threat of a thousand clichés, sterile and insubstantive narratives, which barely scratch the richness, contradiction and harshness that this land hides. Yes, the region is not all festivals and glamor, and it’s more than just the sea.

Often, indeed almost always, when I say I’m from Puglia, people look at me as if I were confessing to being a millionaire. In most cases, the word “Puglia” is automatically associated with its beautiful seaside towns.

I’ll give you a little spoiler: Puglia is made up of more than 800 kilometers of coastline, but these kilometers are just the tip of the iceberg. Inland Puglia is a whole other world,  a world that doesn’t know what to do with the sea, of which it only hears about. This is precisely the case of my village, lost in the heart of Gargano, almost engulfed by a forest with a name that says it all: the “Umbra Forest”. Now, be honest, how many of you knew that there was a luxuriant forest in Puglia? I bet only a few. How many of you have ever seen it on social media? Perhaps even fewer.

Speaking and writing about Puglia is hard and hurts my heart. It’s a bare, ancient, and wild piece of land, made up of old whitewashed houses and dark old ladies, bells tolling and slow days, really slow, different from the “slow tourism” of which society has been talking lately. For me, this slowness led to numbness. I wanted to leave and at the same time, did not know where to go. I was forced to remain still.

My childhood and adolescence were marked by traditions at which I look now with affection, though at the time, they relegated me to sadness. Homemade tomato sauce; Sunday morning mass (I was obliged to go); the harvests in the countryside and the taste of bitter almonds picked directly from the trees; holidays in Vieste, in touristy villages where I was bored to death; the daily route to school, on the other side of the village; the songs of All Saints and ice cream at the kiosk, a meeting place for all the kids in town.

I dreamed of places where no one knew me, where I could dress as I pleased without being stared at or misjudged, where I could smoke freely on the street, or have a beer, or anything completely normal like go to a show or the theater, and stop looking at those golden fields wondering what was beyond.

My university years in Naples were my salvation. When I finally left, I felt liberated. Space was made in my soul. I was free to explore, to go where I wanted with whom I wanted, and thinking about home was no longer so painful. I discovered that being away from Puglia made me love it more than if I were stuck in it. Those memories lived and re-lived became sweet, losing their bitterness, and my suffering and restlessness subsided.

The first time I came home after leaving, the reunion was strange: everything was still familiar and yet so foreign. Nothing was actually different there: the change started with me, with my renewed way of looking at the world and therefore, my home. This awareness gave me the maturity to overlook my childish suffering, putting peace in my heart. The specific moment I felt the bitterness of my youth melt away was when I realized I had an alternative: I could stay, I could go. It was up to me. And I chose not to choose: I would leave again, but I would come back, and with happiness. 

Puglia is truly a paradise, a paradise made of curves and edges. Now that I live elsewhere, I can understand that what I love today is exactly what I have not loved before: isolation, slow relaxation, meeting with the elderly for anthropological research, culinary traditions (these are resources we need to protect!). Doesn’t it often work like this, as with the paintings of the greatest? The farther you go, the more you are able to perceive the beauty as a whole.

I have discovered that what is right for me is this compromise: don’t get too close, but come back, just enough to feel the sweet nostalgia when I leave, when I don’t know if I will come back, and why, and with whom.  

It’s true, Puglia is heaven and perhaps if I had been born in a different historical period, I would have fallen in love with it sooner. Instead, I now appreciate the region as if it were not mine, as if I were born elsewhere. I feel a bit like a tourist and a bit like an outsider, even though I’m not at all a foreigner. Puglia has become a home by choice and not by obligation. The moment my obligatory ties fell, I saw the real magic of Puglia.

I have returned to my origins, free from burdens, free to enjoy beauty.

Puglia is beautiful, very beautiful, even more when experienced occasionally so as not to get too used to the surprises of the first few moments.