I was waiting on platform #7 at Lecce’s train station when the train to Martina Franca pulled in. I had to blink a couple of times and make sure I was on platform 7 and not 7 ¾. The “train”, which consisted of only a couple of cars, looked like it had been teleported directly from the 1950s! Walking inside only confirmed that impression: brown vinyl seats, linoleum floor, and dusty windows that actually opened!

A middle-age man sat across from me, and noticing my dismayed look, started saying something to me in Italian. I told him what I had been repeating pretty much every day for the last two weeks, ever since I started travelling in Puglia: “Non parlo molto l’italiano”. (I don’t speak much Italian).

Old-fashion train in Puglia (meeting locals in Puglia)

The train!

Puglia (or Apulia in Italian) is a region in the southeast of Italy, occupying the heel of the “boot”. This area had been on my bucket list for a while, so when I found a house-sitting opportunity in Manfredonia, I jumped on it. My hosts, a couple of American expats, had warned me that people in the region didn’t speak much English. “No problem” I thought, having just returned from Taiwan (another area with little English), “I’ll just review my notes from that Italian beginner’s class I took 11 years ago”. Ha!

Meeting locals in Puglia with almost no language skills

That’s how I arrived in Puglia with a vocabulary of about 50 words (which progressively grew to perhaps 100) and not a care in the world. Having been to Italy three times before, I had learned that Italians usually spoke a second language which was either English, French, or Spanish. This worked out very well for me, since I speak all three. But although this was the case in Rome, Florence, Venice, even Verona, it wasn’t so in Puglia. Here, the vast majority of people were unilingual.

The guy in the train

The fact that I spoke only a modicum of Italian didn’t seem to deter my train companion as we pulled out of Lecce. For the following half hour, we carried on a “conversation”. Our chat consisted mostly of him asking me questions, me squinting while my brain tried to analyze what he had just said, and then answering in my new Italian “pidgin”, a mixture of Italian and Spanish words accompanied by ample gesticulation. That seemed to do the trick though. The man appeared trilled to have an international visitor to talk to on that old relic of a train.

Friendly coffee shop in Manfredonia (meeting locals in Puglia)

Friendly coffee shop in Manfredonia

The friendly coffee shop owner

The week before, while house-sitting, I had discovered a pleasant little outdoor coffee shop by the sea where I started coming down around 10:30 AM every morning to drink a cappuccino. On my second day, I met the owner who asked me where I was from and what the weather was like at home. Having then become his “friend from Canada”, the price of my cappuccino instantly dropped from 1.50 Euro to 1 Euro for the rest of the week! Mind blown.

The tech-savvy B&B owner

In Lecce (and Matera before it), I was surprised that the owner of the B&B where I was staying could only speak Italian. This was a tourism business after all. Undeterred, the lady used Google Translate on her phone when she needed to talk to me. She even invited me to partake in a communal dinner she was cooking the following night for a crowd of card players that were meeting in the B&B’s dining room. Never mind that the app translated “beets” as “red carrots”. 🙂

Communal dinner at Lecce B&B (meeting locals in Puglia)

I was invited to this communal dinner at my Lecce B&B!

I believe the lack of English in Puglia can be partly explained by the fact that most of its tourists are Italian. Another reason could be that, located as it is in a poorer agricultural part of Italy, Puglia may not have put a big emphasis on language learning in the past. This seems to be changing however, as the younger generation appears to have some skills in the English language. Young people are often the ones who will communicate with you through email or WhatsApp when you book accommodation online.

The concerned landlord (who should have WiFi next week…)

Sebastian, the owner of the apartment where I was staying in Martina Franca, couldn’t speak any English either. Here the problem was compounded by the fact that there was no WiFi at the accommodation  (probably my mistake when booking) and I had no Italian SIM card in my phone. Being “off season”, the tourist office was also only open on weekends, making information gathering quite a challenge.

Martina Franca old town centre (meeting locals in Puglia)

Ristorante Garibaldi (right) in Martina Franca, where I hijacked WiFi for 3 days

Nevertheless, Sebastian insisted on knocking on my door every morning to make sure I had everything I needed. Somehow, I could understand most of what he was saying. When I was in town, I would hijack the WiFi of a restaurant or cafe I had previously eaten at. Standing against a wall within “range”, I used Google Translate and then WhatsApp to communicate with Sebastian.

The history professor

Not everybody is Puglia was language-challenged. That first evening in Martina Franca, as I was exploring the narrow pedestrian streets with my paper map, an old gentleman tried to point me in the right direction. When he realized that I spoke French (through my accent no doubt), he told me that he also spoke French! He said that he could show me around if I was interested. “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” he liked to repeat, quoting the French Revolution motto. I thought to myself: is he just bored or is this going to cost me? My intuition told me I had nothing to worry about, so I followed him.

Giorgio showing me around Martina Franca (meeting locals in Puglia)

As it turns out, I had stumbled upon the town’s historian, born and bred in Martina Franca, and author of four books on the area! He told me his name was “George” (Giorgio). I followed him around for over an hour, during which he pointed out tiny sculptures, religious images, and other ornaments on the white walls and doors of the town’s buildings, and told me where to stand to take the best photos.

He was quite a character, but really knew his stuff. Every so often, a local would greet him with “Buona sera professore” (Good evening professor). What were the odds that I would get a local history professor as my impromptu guide?

We eventually arrived in front of a small locked chapel. Without missing a beat, Giorgio knocked on the neighbour’s door, and an old lady appeared on the second floor’s balcony. After he asked, she lowered him a key attached to a rope, which he used to unlock the chapel (picture above). He then proceeded to describe every single mural that adorned the walls! And when we finally parted ways, no money changed hands.

Easier to meet locals as a solo

To me, some of theses experiences reiterate the fact that locals are more likely to talk to you when you are solo. I’m not sure if Giorgio would have toured me around Martina Franca, or if the guy in the train would have engaged me in conversation if I had been with somebody else.

It was also quite remarkable that nobody ever got mad or impatient at the fact that I couldn’t speak Italian. Despite the language barrier, I managed to get everything I needed plus the friendship of many unilingual Italians!

Having said that, those 50-100 words of Italian I knew turned out to be invaluable. I wish I had known 1000 more. If I ever decide to seriously study Italian, Puglia would be a good region to practice the language. If you decide to visit, do yourself a favour and learn some basics first.

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