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When I applied to a writers’ residency in Otranto, Italy, I did not even know where the town was. I filled out the paperwork half-heartedly, not sure if I wanted to go. So, when I got the letter of acceptance, I reviewed a map and located the place, a tiny dot on the southern tip of Italy’s Adriatic coast.
I decided to let myself be surprised. After all, a web search had produced only a scant description, leading me to imagine Otranto as a rustic backwater, windswept and rural, with perhaps only a shop or two to boast of.
Riding the train from Rome, I watch rolling hills covered with vineyards. Hay bales are arranged in a geometrical pattern in farms stretching for miles. This is an agricultural country, a producer of some of the best wines, cheeses, olives, olive oils, and sausages. I note that the fruit here taste the way fruit once tasted in California, not like cardboard, but with a flavor that winds its way deep into your soul.
When the landscape slowly gives way to pale ochre earth cradling pink lantana blossoms and acacia trees reminiscent of my native India, I am pleasantly surprised. Then the train begins to hug the blue Adriatic along a flat peninsula and my excitement mounts.
Arriving in Otranto, I discover a place straight out of an Italian film; cobblestone alleys twisting and turning around yellow and white buildings; windows with blue and brown wooden shutters; cast iron balconies overflowing with flowers. The old town is encased inside a fortress complete with a moat, creating a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, a fantasy kingdom protected from invasions by sea or by land.
In my apartment, which I share with two roommates, I walk out on to the terrace overlooking the finger of land jutting out to the blue sea in an arc, with a tiny, white lighthouse at the end, and my breath stops.
Before the advent of jet travel, the Adriatic was a gateway to the East. You can see the mountains of Albania from here and a ferry will take you to Greece. An ancient Greek community still survives here in small pockets, its dialect far removed from its parent country, its music rustic and haunting. There are Messapi ruins here, left by the aborigine inhabitants of the peninsula that date back to the eighth century BC. Paola, the program’s founder, takes us on a walk to some pre-historic ruins at sunset on June 21, the summer solstice, which also happens to be my older son Ravi’s birthday. We enter a long tunnel, and as the clouds lift, a shaft of sunlight enters underground, and reflected by the strategically placed walls, illuminates the prehistoric burial chamber in a golden light.
In the 1400s, a Turkish invasion killed eight hundred men of Otranto. The town’s cathedral still keeps their bones on display in glass cases. It was only in 2013 that Pope Francis canonized these martyrs. This fact troubles me; I recall George W. Bush invoking the crusades in a speech justifying the invasion of Iraq. Can’t bygones be bygones, I wonder.
Or should we display the bones of those killed in the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in a temple somewhere too? But then again, Catholics think nothing of preserving body parts of their saints; I still recall my shock and revulsion at the sight of Saint Theresa’s finger in a jar in a church in Avila, Spain; Hindus on the other hand, would find such an act too macabre.
Notwithstanding its bloody history, Otranto is one of the most peaceful and friendly places on earth. Passers-by greet you with a Buona Sera or just Sera, and strangers give you a hand with your bags. Maybe it is the siesta everyone has every afternoon during la pausa, the break, that keeps people so mellow. Or maybe it is the pleasant sea breeze that lulls you into a feeling of harmony. Whatever the reason, one is unable to rush around here.
Every meal is served slowly and with care, and educated Italians like Giuseppe Conoci, who owns a local publishing company for music and books, sit in cafes, discussing philosophy.
The shallow bay is calm and warm to swim in the summertime and Italian children are in evidence everywhere; American tourists have luckily not discovered this place yet. Riding around the countryside in an elegantly decorated auto-rickshaw locals call the appetino, I see olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see. When I dip a piece of fresh bread—which goes hard in a day indicating a lack of preservatives—into the oil and take a bite, my throat tingles. It is the oil’s anti-inflammatory property that causes the itch, my roommate Sophie says. And sure enough, within days, the sore throat and congestion I have had for months in drought-ridden California is gone.
Vegetarians would have no trouble surviving here; pasta and sauces are of course ubiquitous like everywhere in Italy, but beans and nuts are in abundance too; chick-pea pasta is a local specialty and so is breaded, fried zucchini, marinated or grilled eggplant, a kind of fava bean paste which is served like a soup, and tarelli, a spiral bread stick.
Ordering the vegetarian antipasti—appetizers—of the house in a restaurant with my fellow writers, I stuff myself so that I can hardly touch the pasta and there are two more courses to go.
I sit on the terrace in the morning sipping the Red Label tea I have brought with me and admire the view. All of life’s traumas melt away, dissolve into the sea breeze. I have come here to write, but words seem to fail here so I am glad I have taken up watercolor painting lately; I sit on the terrace painting the scene.
It is the art in the day to day things that takes my breath away, not the statues and paintings stored in museums.
On my last evening, I persuade my young roommate Sophie, who is a lithe dancer and an artist, to walk with me along the coast toward the other lighthouse. The cliffs, the fields marked by medieval stone walls, the fresh sea breeze, the blue, blue waters, mesmerize us. And I marvel that only a month or two before, I had not even heard of Otranto.
At the residency show, I share my paintings and my writing. As I read aloud my essay about my solo travels, I begin to shake, my voice fails, I am on the verge of tears. Otranto has made me vulnerable, raw, brittle. It is the most wonderful feeling on earth, as if all restraints have been removed.
And I am free.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.