The Lonely Planet Guide, which I have come to understand is written by and geared for a very different sort of traveler than I am, has this to say about Foggia, Italy: “Other than the 12th Century cathedral, there is little to detain you here.” Be that as it may, I paid an inconveniently steep ticket price and traveled 11 straight hours on an overnight bus to wind up being detained here. Foggia is located in the heel of the Italian boot, way down south in the Puglia (or Apulia) region, which I have heard referred to as the “bread basket” of the country. Apparently Puglia produces more olive oil and pasta than all the other regions of Italy combined, and waking up just after dawn following a night of weird, semi-conscious quasi-sleep in my bus seat, I gazed out the window upon endless, silvery groves of olive trees reaching down towards the edges of the sea as the bus rolled south through Molise into Puglia.
For me, Foggia is an obscure way station on a pilgrimage to an even more obscure destination. About 25 miles north of here is a small, little-known (even to Italians) village called San Paolo di Civitate. 85 years ago, a teenaged lad named Guiseppe De Santo left San Paolo with his family to set sail for America by way of Ellis Island. In America, the lad would be called Joseph DiSanto, and he would eventually have a grandson who would grow up to be me. As far as I know, nobody from my grandfather’s line has visited his home town until- if the Fates and Furies allow- tomorrow, but that’s a yarn the world has yet to spin, and as usual, the my verbal cart is getting ahead of my rational horse (the most insufferable kind of horse, incidentally).
The buses don’t run to San Paolo di Civitate on Sunday, which left me a night to spend in Foggia, where I honestly get the impression that I am the only tourist in town. As I trudged through narrow alleyways between peeling stuccoed apartment houses festooned with hanging laundry and window-boxed rosemary plants, dragging my guitar and cartoonishly large rucksack, the few townspeople who didn’t look right through me regarded me as they might regard some slobbering, tentacled mutant loosed in their quiet streets, their only recourse being to remain vigilant and make sure the beast isn’t an immediate danger to their children or pets.
The absence of tourists equals the absence of tourist infrastructure equals the absence of cheap backpacker lodging, so I was forced to savagely eviscerate my poor, anemic wallet to spring for a room in a little bed and breakfast in the old market square, one of only a handful of accommodations for miles around (good thing the passers by in tourist-infested Florence tipped me so generously yesterday). This is a somewhat embarassing thing for an enthusiastic tent dweller to admit, but after 2 1/2 months of tramping all over Europe, I’m bone-tired enough to really appreciate the comforts of a nice room with my own queen sized bed and coffee with biscotti and a private bathroom and not having to bunk dorm-style with a bunch of snoring, farting dudes or- mixed dorms being common on a continent still striving to reach the bar we Americans have set for sexual neurosis- with a bunch of young girls who might class me with the bunch of snoring, farting dudes.
With a day to spend in a town where “there is little to detain you,” I went ahead and did what I normally do, which is wander aimlessly around with my guitar on my back, gawking at things. Foggia on Sunday afternoon seemed not so much sleepy as ghostly. I wondered if the Roman Catholics had been Raptured just before I arrived, relieved but befuddled by the discrepancy with their own doctrine, never suspecting until they were hovering ass-over-halo that some gazillionaire American Evangelical writers of pulp fiction had been right about the end times all along. 90% of the businesses were locked and barred and gated, and though I could hear the lively, noisy sounds of Italian family life spilling out of doorways and shuttered windows, there were very few people on the streets. I played my guitar for a little while in one of the piazzas with my case closed, just for fun- the idea of busking seemed absurd- and returned to my cushy room for a few hours before dinner.
Friends, please believe this: if I never return, it is not because I don’t love you or America. It is because Italian food made my guts explode and I am very, very dead. I’m not exaggerating when I say that since arriving in this country, I routinely count the hours between the time I finish one meal and the time I can sit down to the next without fear of being damned for a glutton, ironically by the same Almighty Gourmand who created the humans who created Alfredo sauce, gelato, and prosciutto crudo. If you’re reading this, please send help, napkins, and several jars of decent peanut butter, for fuck sake.
I had noticed that many of the restaurants in town seemed to open after 8pm, which would seem odd on a Sunday but for the fact that the Italians eat dinner much later than most Americans do (especially in my home, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where tradition holds that if you haven’t finished your last bite of shoofly pie before ante meridiem time rolls over a river witch will place a bowel-obstructing hex on your livestock). I stepped out of my room at 8 hoping to find something cheap and delicious and nearly leapt out of my pants at the sight of the tumbleweed- haunted streets of a few hours earlier now inexplicably teeming with literally thousands of people out on the town. I looked around for a circus or a carnival to tie the whole scene together, but there wasn’t one. The farther down the street I walked the thicker the crowds became, and since a busker sometimes has to make hay while the sun don’t shine, I dashed back to my room for my guitar and tambourine, threw my hat down on a street corner in the middle of the throng, and played for 45 minutes while crowds formed and dispersed and hyperactive little kids jumped spastically around, slam dunking coins into my rumpled, crumpled straw fedora.
Since the citizens of Foggia had been kind enough to pay for my dinner, I decided to pay them back their money to cook it for me. I had been looking forward to tasting a regional pasta specialty called orecchiette, and I found a nice restaurant with layered red and brown burlap tablecloths where I swallowed pasta and red wine with the heedless, happy abandon of a guy who hadn’t spent the afternoon counting change to make sure he could swing a bus ticket back up north.
Sometimes, friends, you have to eat your losses. Other times you have to eat your wins, and I’ll raise a glass to spending a night someplace where “there is little to detain you,” and where the people who are busy with the business of living there might just as soon you not be detained.