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8 October 2023

To Puglia, somehow, for sun, wine and a fairy-tale palazzo

Just to set off the plane and breathe the herb-scented air is to feel the burden of the Anglo-Saxon world fall away.

By Nicholas Lezard

I write this under unusual circumstances. I am slightly tiddly, and in Puglia. This is because I have just had lunch, and you can’t have lunch in Italy without a glass or two of the local wine (here, Primitivo). I am also writing this on a computer whose screen is about the size of a Fiat 500 and with a rather adorable dog wandering in and out the room to check up on me and see if I want to play. I would love to, but I have work to do, and this is it.

You may ask what I am doing in Puglia. I have been asking that myself from time to time, as if in a dream, and the answer is that I am in the town of Putignano, where I have been, for a few days, until tomorrow, the writer in residence. Apparently officially. I’ve met the mayor and everything. When I’m done here I shall be putting on my shoes and a clean shirt and going off to look at the archives dating back to the town’s foundation. It is all rather grand. And yet, in the way of things Italian, at the same time rather intimate and relaxed. It is not exactly dolce far niente but it is not far off.

I am here to write the text for a book intended to put Putignano on the map, even though one of its attractions is that it is not exactly overrun with tourists. At the moment it is overrun with me, but I have a modest footprint and, even though my hosts might be beginning to weary of me, the town is just about large enough to contain any collateral damage I might cause by walking around it.

[see also: Cat-sitting has messed with my mind]

But, God, I love Italy. Just to step off the plane and breathe the herb-scented air is to feel the burden of the Anglo-Saxon world fall away from one’s shoulders. And the town itself is magical, its historic centre built almost entirely from chianche, the local stone that, when weathered and walked upon for centuries, looks like vanilla ice cream. The house I am occupying is in the middle of a maze of car-free streets and is itself made of the same stuff. It is like living in a palazzo from a fairy tale.

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The last time I was in Italy was four or five years ago, when I went to visit my friend David in Rome. That was in August and it was punishingly hot but now, at the beginning of October, the weather is simply perfect. In the evening the locals wrap up warmly but for someone from the north it is balmy and during the day, which is cloudless, I sit on the terrace with my caffè and my book and top up my tan. A tan: that wasn’t on my 2023 bingo card, but there it is. With a bit of luck Suella Braverman will decide that I am yet another example of failed multiculturalism and send me back when I try to go through customs at Stansted.

Actually, the thought of returning to Blighty is filling me with a certain amount of gloom. While I have been away the Tory party conference has been going on and someone has sent me a photo of Braverman standing on a guide dog’s tail. I don’t know whether it’s an old photo or not but it does illustrate her callousness and stupidity rather well. And Italy might have its problems but from where I’m standing they are not quite as bad as ours.

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Brighton might be one of the UK’s most liveable cities – as I have made clear many times, I love it – but at least here in Putignano you don’t have to step over the homeless to get to the shops. Things might be different in other Italian towns but that’s not really the point. The point is that when you summon up mental images of the two countries, Britain looks, as my friend Ben puts it, like a country that has been kicked in the teeth.

Meanwhile, I am overwhelmed by the decency, kindness and hospitality of the Italians. A young guide showed me and my host around the local museum in adorably fractured English that would be spoiled if it was more correct. It was her first week on the job and as I and my companion left we heard her fellow workers at the desk give her a round of applause.

This might not sound very Down and Out. Well, it isn’t: but every dog has its day, or, as a language app tells me they say over here, tanto va il cane al lardo. This may not be right but I shrug my shoulders in a Latin fashion and refuse to worry about it too much. It’s the Italian way, and I like it. Even the targeted ads I’m getting on my phone are welcoming. The best one so far is for “divani, sofà e poltrone”, which are all things for sitting down on. It’s as if they’ve read my mind.

[see also: Giorgia Meloni’s long game]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits