Whenever you visit us- either a week in Lecce at la casa di Silvestro (Silvestro’s home) or a week at the il castello (at the castle)- you’ll meet my staff, a group united by a love of the region, and the local food and wine.
Giuseppe has been with us longer than anyone else on staff, that is, seven of the nine years we’ve been open as a school. From the southern part of the Salento, Giuseppe left Italy for both Spain, as a student, and New York, as an economic emigrant, working as a waiter in number of Italian-themed restaurants there. And he uses this seemingly in-congruent skill set at the school all the time: when two large dogs began a bloody fight one day in front of the school, Giuseppe leaped from the window with a kitchen chair, borrowing a page from a lion tamer’s manual (‘si blocca la testa con la sedia’). When we needed red soil in the school’s garden, he had buckets of it within the hour, no questions asked. Need something fixed? He’s your man. And it is the daily challenge of running a cookery school where he really shines. Each week’s canning project, each time we forget the eggs, each time we change the menu to reflect the seasons, it’s Giuseppe that has figure out how to make it work. That he does this with a smile and a fun story about his time abroad makes him born to this job.
I’ve heard it said, There was art before Caravaggio and there was that after Caravaggio, but they are not the same. Anna’s effect is like that: it would be hard to think of the school today without her. While not that much older than me, Anna still comes from that generation here in Italy that seems biologically driven to maintain a household with the power and urgency of sumo wrestlers. Cleaning for Anna means rigorous scrubbing with steel brushes and buckets of boiling water, with the quantity of elbow grease used to maintain and repair battle ships. I swear I’m not making this up, but the towel in her hand can actually move faster than human sight, the blur of humming bird’s wings. She’ll have mopped up the ring from your teacup before said cup even arrives at your lips. Under normal conditions all of this would be impressive. That she maintains this quirky 400-year-old aristocratic palace that is our Lecce school, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. You’ll likely only get a sense of this though during your visit, as unlike the rest of my staff, Anna doesn’t speak English. She’s uncomfortable joining us at the table, partially because of the language, partially because her need to clean is bigger than she is, the expression unmistakable there on her face. She’ll drift off with dreams of finding maps to the sewer system below the school, Anna in her helmet and jumpsuit, the local fire department lowering her down below street level, her sponges and wire brushes already whirling in a scream as she disappears from view. Those that know me, know that I am, the worst sort of bachelor, rendered unhouse-broken by years of Neanderthal-like, hermetic seclusion.
She keeps my linen suits ironed and impeccable, my personal kitchen knives honed like razors, my bed sheets ironed and stacked as if they were office supplies. On your visit, it will be Anna herself that will have polished your wine glass to speck-less perfection, Anna again that will have scrubbed away the carbon from the pan where you burned the rabbit last night. She’s a force of nature, Anna, and I’m lucky to have her, both at the school, and as the governor that keeps me from reverting back to wearing a pelt.
For starters, Giulio isn’t really named ‘Giulio’, he’s Giorgio, it’s just that students got his name wrong for so long that we changed it for him, a fact he seems to enjoy as much as we do. Like all of us on the staff, Giulio moved abroad at some point, living and working in Ireland, Scotland and all over Spain, each location leaving a lasting impression on his speech (he speaks Castilian with a Southern Spanish accent, English with a brogue, as thick and sweet as stout). But it’s probably his love for animals that impresses most about him. Forever taking in strays of every species, his success rate for rehabilitation enviable by those in the field, Giulio talks with birds, dogs and cats the way that you and I do with one another. (His ability to imitate their voices will certainly come out, especially when the wine starts to flow). And his love for animals isn’t limited to just those that are alive. When not working Giulio spends hours on his draft board drawing dinosaurs and entering them in international competitions. ‘I know it makes me a big geek’, he says with a shy smile, ‘ but I find them so rather fascinating’.
Like many language students here in Italy today, Emiliana not only studies Mandarin, she actually lived in mainland in China for a while, working in a factory there. ‘’Chinese food comes in two flavours’, she says. ‘Really, really good. And really, really weird’. The only staff member not actually from Puglia, Emiliana is from Basilicata, the stunningly beautiful mountainous region that borders the Salento to the North West. ‘It takes me only an hour by bus to go home for the weekend but it never fails to surprise how different the food is’, she says. ‘What you do miss about the food of Basilicata’, I ask. ‘Horseradish and pork’, she says. ‘And what do you miss about the food of the Salento when you’re home’? ‘Everything. I just wish my mother would let me into the kitchen every now and then’!
You’ll love Emiliana, and no, you can’t take her home with you
Annina is from Taranto, a pugliese town an hour north of Lecce, which at one point was one of the most important cities in all of Europe, when Greece relocated its capitol, from Athens to Taranto. Since then though, the city is best known as producing the best mussels in all of the Mediterranean. And to me, the cutest accents all up and down the Italian peninsula. When folks talk about having a ‘gift for languages’, this is what they mean, I think, which of course is not a gift at all but a series of pragmatic acquisition skills. Annina has them. Mention a new word in English and she’ll study the context, without it ever even becoming apparent that that is what she is doing. She’ll then use it in a sentence a few times right away, cementing it into her active vocabulary without the need for pens or paper or hours locked away alone in a room with computer programme. Around the table at the school, she’ll often tell the story of how she came to work at the school. ‘Silvestro asked me if I wanted a job where I eat for free, drank for free and was paid to speak English with interesting folks from all over the world who just happen to be mother tongue English speakers…..Naturally I said, Yes! Of course I couldn’t believe it! No student is that lucky with a job. After four years working now at the school….well, I’m starting to believe’, she says laughing.