My cousin Amanda recently turned 13, and her birthday brought back a flood of memories. (To join the party, visit “Amanda’s 13th Birthday” photo album.) I remember the day she was born. I had already left for my women’s studies class, and my roommate was running late. She got the call from my mom that Amanda had been born, and she announced it to our class when she arrived. The whole room started applauding because yet another woman was born into the world. And I remember distinctly wanting to meet her as soon as possible. At that first encounter, I sat on her parent’s couch and held her in my arms for the first time. She was so tiny and sweet. Now, she’s already taller than all of us, but she’s still sweet as ever.
I only hope that she can hang onto that sweetness and innocence. She’s a teenager now, and even though we all long to reach that milestone in life, it is a tough moment. There are hearts to be broken, classes and tests to be taken, and questions to ask about the kind of person you want to grow into. She has wonderful parents and a loving extended family, so I know she has the tools to carve the right path for herself. Amanda is a strong and beautiful young woman, and she’s already wearing 13 well. She’s sure to make us all proud. We love you, Amanda!
Get the truth about one of Italy’s most popular islands – and its people – by reading my new weekly blog installments (every Monday morning right here on this site)
Chapter Two – Sharing My Story with Ischia
It all began in 2003 with a weeklong visit to my cousin’s house in Ischia. The island was calling me. I hadn’t been back to Ischia since 1999. And one of my best friends from college, Samantha*, was teaching English in Europe. She would meet me in Rome, we’d travel to Ischia together, and celebrate Easter with my Italian cousins. A dream it would be!
Actually, the trip was better than Samantha and I had imagined. The sun was exceptionally warm and welcoming for the end of April, which can sometimes be rainy and cold in Ischia. We spent one afternoon on the beach embracing the rays, and many an afternoon lunching with my relatives and indulging in the island’s exquisite cuisine – from the signature dish of rabbit in white wine sauce to fried calamari and salad fresh from the garden.
One evening we spent shopping in the island’s main hub, Ischia Porto, where we picked up trinkets for our friends and family. I chose a magnet each for gli zii, who had left the island for America years ago, a bottle of Vecchia Romagna for my papa’, and Ischia’s famous ceramics for mamma. As I walked down Via Roma with my cousin and Samantha, gelato in hand, we noticed the rainbow-colored flags for “pace” or “peace” waving from the balconies of shops and homes. They were shouting hello to us and telling us Americans that the Italians had a distaste for George W. Bush’s America and its aggression in the Middle East post-9/11.
Everywhere Samantha and I went, people wanted to know where we had been on 9/11 and why we elected such a fool as our president. We didn’t pretend to understand America’s recent foreign policy decisions (in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else). But we shared our 9/11 stories. Samantha was traveling with her family and was about to get on a plane when the terrorists struck. She and her family ended up in Europe for a week before they could return home.
I, on the other hand, lived in northern New Jersey, right over the bridge from Manhattan all my life barring the four years I spent in college in Washington, D.C. from 1996 to 2000. And on Sept. 11, 2001, when those planes struck the Twin Towers, I was at work in midtown Manhattan. As I described taking my heels off and running past historical landmarks, from Rockefeller Center to Central Park wondering if there were other planes rocketing toward us like bombs, my new Italian friends hung onto my every syllable. They asked so many questions. “How did you finally get home to New Jersey?”
“How far were you from the Towers?”
“Were you afraid to return to New York after the attacks? Why go back at all?”
“What’s going to happen to New York and America now?”
Some of the questions were easy to answer. I made it home to New Jersey at 6 a.m. the next morning via ferry. I slept – or rather watched CNN – on my friend’s floor in Manhattan the night of 9/11. There was too long of a wait at the ferry, which was being used to transport the bodies that could be recovered from downtown. And I was afraid to walk across the George Washington Bridge, which was a terrorist target and rumored to have had a truck bomb on it earlier in the day. The office I worked in was outside Grand Central Station, which is far enough away from the Towers that I was not in danger but close enough that the ash-covered people who got away and survived ran toward me. The stench of the burning fuel and flesh lingered in the air for weeks afterward and reached as far as my home in New Jersey. It was the smell of death, and it still haunts me nearly 10 years later.
Other questions were not so easy to answer. Of course, I was afraid to return to New York after the attacks. But I had a job and this had always been my home. The gaping hole in the Skyline, which we still view from New Jersey, brings a deep ache to me. But it also serves as motivation to fight back by working in New York and making sure life all around us continues on. Still, I had no idea what the future would hold for the United States or me. The fear I learned on 9/11 is still a burden I carry in my heart and have to combat daily.
Some of the hardships that would bombard the United States and its people because of 9/11 I couldn’t even imagine in 2001 or 2003 when I was visiting Italy. All I could say was that 9/11 changed my life in ways big and small. Security at the airport was different, police in Manhattan often stopped me for identification because I looked Arab to them, and I waved hello to the National Guard soldiers who protected the George Washington Bridge every night as I drove home from the ferry parking lot.
In a way, 9/11 was the reason I was in Ischia. Besides bringing on a stirring inside me to travel more and take a vacation now and then, it also forced me to change jobs. When the economy tanked following the attacks, the famous women’s magazine for which I worked made sweeping changes in its editorial department. Many of my friends were laid off around Thanksgiving. Then, my direct boss beat the new regime to the punch line by quitting. And I started looking for a new job, which I found at a promising women’s Web site. Almost as soon as I started the new job, I realized the site was drowning since the dot-com bust and 9/11 just made matters worse. Before I knew it, the site’s creator – a true mentor and feminist visionary – was leaving. Others were laid off or quit. I, who had been trained as a political journalist in college turned women’s magazine writer, was hocking women friendly porn and accoutrements, the site’s attempt at making ends meet. With every vibrator shaped like a rubber duckie that I sold, I came ever closer to realizing this was not the work of a nice Italian girl, nor was it what I signed up for when I took the job.
This vacation in Ischia – a return to my roots – was as much about taking a break from that crazy job as it was about questioning my life choices and finding myself again.
In addition to finding myself, I was hoping to find an Italian man, even if but for a distraction…
Get the truth about one of Italy’s most popular islands – and its people – by reading my new weekly blog installments (every Monday morning right here on this site)
Chapter One – Ischia as Island Paradise
We were born of rock into a fountain of youth. But we must pay the devil for our paradise and eternal beauty, and our debt never ends.
Ischia is the place of dreams. Clear blue skies blanket lush mountainsides and the Mediterranean beaches filled with beautiful people, natives and tourists alike. At Maronti, Ischia’s largest and most popular beach, the setting sun’s rays dance on the ocean like diamond ballerinas on their tippy toes. At nearby Sant’ Angelo, an old fishing village turned tourist trap, a wealthy German woman in her mid 50s in a gold lame’ bikini and hooker heels pays 50 euro for plastic flip flops with a crystal flower in the center. Meanwhile, behind the Church of Soccorso in Forio, you are as likely to find a stray dog on his hind legs as if praying as you are a couple making out at full force, always with an old lady crocheting or making straw baskets in the corner.
Senior citizens flock to Ischia in search of the fountain of youth. They soak themselves in the thermal waters and mud, hoping to preserve their skin and physique for all eternity. Some of them line the beach outside the “fungo,” a naturally occurring rock formation that is in the shape of a mushroom and sits tall and proud in the ocean in Lacco Ameno. They wear the kinds of bathing suits and caps that Sofia Loren might have worn in the 1950s. When you pass by them, in fact, you are half expecting that they’ll jump up and start belting out, “Vuoi far l’Americano.” When you arrive at Ischia’s second port in Casamicciola, you often hear the buzzing of Vespas and smell the sweetness of wine and tomatoes smothering coniglio, or rabbit, which is a specialty dish in Ischia. Families, after all, eat long lunches at home because everything closes for the siesta every afternoon. All the while, pastel houses dot the island like sprinkles atop a fluffy vanilla ice cream cone that you just can’t help but devour.
In Ischia Ponte, Castello Aragonese, a castle connected to the island by a cobblestone bridge, is a testament to Ischia’s ability to lure the fabulous people. The castle was once home to royalty who used Ischia as both fortress and love shack. In the 1960s, the royalty were replaced with celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, who romped on the island with wild abandon. There is a hedonism that hangs in the air. Tourists often buy T-shirts that say, “Ischia – dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which means, “Ischia – where you eat, you drink, and you whistle.” Indeed, the islanders eat, drink, and have fun – and always at a slower pace than the rest of the world.
Still, the island has two faces. While the new royalty – those whose families own hotels and restaurants and thermal spas – still exist and rule the island, there has always been a peasant culture in Barano and Buonopane, the Ischia towns of my ancestors. In the mountains of Buceto, a wooded area where many of the contadini (peasants) and zappatori (diggers) once worked the land and now have barbecues and hikes, many of the natives know how to seek porcini mushrooms. They pick chestnuts and have sing alongs around a campfire. Some of them ride into the mountains on horseback. Every so often, you’ll find one of the older men planting something there, taking advantage of the rich soil their ancestors once relied on for both food and a few bucks. He’ll wipe his brow with a linen white handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket and offer you a quick, “Buon giorno,” while leaning on the handle of his shovel.
Nicola ‘u pazz’ (Nick the crazy guy) was once a fixture up there. With a mane of wild, wavy, gray hair and a long but thick, gray beard that looked like a Brillo pad that had been torn to shreds, black linen pants with holes at the seams, Nicola ‘u pazz’ would hike Buceto day and night. His shoes had no bottoms because he had worn them out long ago. In the humid cold of February, I would see him with nothing more to keep his chest warm than a striped T-shirt and black linen jacket with sleeves that were too short. As a child I found Nicola ‘u pazz’ terrifying, and whenever I would hike to Buceto with my parents, I dreaded seeing him. I imagined that sack on his back was filled with rocks and he’d use them and the stick he carried as a cane to kill us and leave us for dead in Buceto. It seemed like an episode of Dateline in the making. In reality, however, he sometimes would sing songs and always said, “Ciao,” to us. Even though as a kid, my father also ran like he was in the Olympics whenever he encountered Nicola, as an adult, he would sometimes shake his hand. Years later, my maternal grandfather finally confided that Nicola was actually a cousin of mine on my mother’s side. You can still feel the spirit of Nicola u’ pazz’ in the woods of Buceto.
There was a simplicity to life in the Ischia of my father and Nicola ‘u pazz’. But things have drastically changed since then. Now, there’s a sinister cloud hanging over Ischia. I tried to ignore it, but the cloud has sucked me in, and I now I float above the island and I see it in a whole new light. And my life will never be the same. It all began in 2003 with a weeklong visit to my cousin’s house in Ischia…
Recently, we celebrated my Goddaughter Amy’s birthday two times – once at my place and once at hers. (The photo above is of her (far right) and her sisters.) It might seem like overkill to recognize your ninth birthday twice, but I think it’s just proof of how much family means to us. We can’t seem to get enough of each other. We’re always there for each other through difficult times (of which we’ve had a lot lately), so why not be there for the fun and joy, too? Besides, Amy deserves the attention. She’s sweet and lovable and she’s one of us. In fact, with her devotion to her cousins and her sisters (at least most of the time), she already knows the meaning of family.
To join our celebrations for Amy, visit the “Amy Turns 9” photo album. And celebrate your own family as much as you can.
My husband Antonio and I spent a week in paradise with my niece Maria, her parents, my parents, my sister, and a bunch of good family friends. Now that we’re back home – with the snow sitting out my window and the temperature dropping every evening – I am nostalgic for our vacation. But Maria is definitely what we all miss the most. Even though she hated to have the sun in her eyes, she was ever the fashion model sporting this yellow polka-dot bikini and white sun hat. She loved frolicking in the ocean with her new best friend, a plastic turtle float that we all tugged her around in. And she danced for us – and all our waiters – at dinner. Although she was often drunk with sleepiness, she was all smiles and hugs the entire trip. Indeed, you couldn’t ask for more from a baby. You can join in the fun with the family, by visiting the “Cruisin’ in 2011” photo album.
I’ve been dabbling with the idea of writing a book for sometime now. And I even started one that would be a compilation of the Consiglieri columns, samples of which you could find on this site. Basically, my crazy relatives would be giving us all life advice. But a few other interesting stories have crossed my path since then, so I’m wondering what I should actually write about. I decided to pose the question to all of you. Do me a favor and take the poll in the right-hand column of this site’s homepage to tell me what book I should write.
I kicked off the new year a few weeks ago with my parents and grandparents, and to celebrate we played bowling, ping pong, and sword dueling on the Wii. (To join the rockin’ party, visit the “New Year’s Eve 2011” photo album.) We have to turn my rug around to make an alley for my father to get a running start. He has to bowl as though he actually has the ball in his hands, as opposed to the Wii remote, and he took a major spill on my hard wood floors the first time he played on Christmas. The traction from the rug helps, but he jumps so hard at the end of each run that the house shakes. Still, he usually wins. But on New Year’s Eve, Grandma was the big winner of the night. She was pretty great at bowling strikes and popping the ping pong ball to win points. I, however, earned the title of sword dueling champion. I credit all my pent-up anger for those wins. I just pretend the avatar I’m facing is one of the many enemies I collected like bottle tops in 2010. (Shut up, you all know who you are!) All those enemies sunk into the virtual ocean, baby, and it felt oh so good. Although we were all sore the next day, we had so much fun that I’ve been continuing to Wii with my husband Antonio. I can be a sore loser, however, so I sometimes get a time out. Still, a good time is generally had by all, and my time is better when I win.
A merry Christmas managed to sneak up on me in 2010. (For photos, visit the “Christmas 2010” photo album.) After one of the worst years of my life, I had zero expectations for enjoying the holiday. But it was definitely one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. The party in Florida was a joy – especially now that we can spoil my niece Maria – and then I visited with some of the most important people in my life and feasted on fish with my cousins Big John, Miesha, and their family, some friends, and my parents on Christmas Eve. Our Babbo Natale made yet another memorable appearance for Big John’s kids, Nina and Marissa. On Christmas Day, my parents came over, and the three of us chowed down on pretzel bread, potato leek soup, and cornish hens, all of which I made with my own two hands. Delish! Following the meal, my parents napped while I cleaned and then we watched some Real Housewives of New Jersey, my favorite guilty pleasure, and played dueling and bowling on the Wii. Papa was the big winner in bowling. We capped off the night with tomato salad atop pretzel bread. Sounds like perfection, no?
There was no way my parents, Zio Antonio, and I (Zia Francesca) would miss 8-month-old Maria’s first Christmas. Although we can’t be with her on Dec. 25, we threw a Christmas bash like no other six days ahead of schedule at Zia Rosaria’s pad in Florida. Zio Antonio and I spent the week having Maria warm up to us – both literally and figuratively — as we forced her and her parents to tour Disney World in the freezing temperatures (I mean even the Disney topiaries were covered in white blankets).
We learned a few things on this trip, among them that Maria looks so cute you could just eat her up whenever she wears any fuzzy outfits that have ears to make her look like a bunny and that she has quite a sense of humor, not to mention a huge appetite. There is also no question that she is related to us. Her belly tells the whole story. The kid can eat, and even when she shouldn’t eat, she does. The other day she ate a chunk of garlic off the floor where her papa’ had been cooking, and she didn’t even wince. But her mother confirms that she was stinky for pretty much the entire day. If she had cleaned the floor with a little bleach after the garlic, she might have smelled like her older zii.
Maria’s role models? Bella and Shilo, the family dogs, which might be why she thinks it’s natural to eat off the floor, sleep on a big cushion or even a tile in the middle of Zia Rosaria’s living room, and she begs for scraps from the table. Although I gest, she does have one helluva time getting into mischief with the dogs. They are her best friends for now, and she is especially cute with Shilo, who lets her pull his tail, jump on him, and chew toys and books with him.
The only way Maria could love them more is if they could feed her. That’s what she likes about all of us, I think. We overindulged her desire to eat more and more tiny morsels of apples, peaches, potatoes, pancakes, chicken, waffles, and yogurt. As a result, the child who never spits up or vomits threw up on us twice. All our fault! I’m actually honored she threw up on me.
Highlights of our time with Maria include Nonno Pasquale demanding that Tigger, who Maria followed all over the room with her eyes while at breakfast at 1900 Park Fare in Disney’s Grand Floridian, come to say hello to us and take a picture immediately, Maria and Donald Duck having matching sombreros in EPCOT’s Mexico pavillion, and the moments she shared with Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), who might have secretly been her Nonno Pasquale, and his reindeer, who might have been Nonna Regina. My personal best memory, however, was Maria curling up under my arm and falling asleep. So sweet!
To enjoy more photos of Nonno Pasquale as Babbo Natale and Maria with all the characters (and some of the rest of us, too), then check out “Maria’s 1st Christmas” photo album. Buon Natale a tutti!
The American Top 40 list features the song “We No Speak Americano” by the Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup, which includes a sample and remix of the Italian classic “Tu Vuo Fa’ l’Americano” by Renato Carosone. My husband Antonio, above, still no speak Americano and neither do most of my relatives, who live in the United States. Ok, maybe they speak it, but it’s their own version that is, let’s just say, very Italiano influenced. That’s what drew me to this song.
When I heard about it – thanks to my 12-year-old cousin Antonio and his mom, who are way hipper than I am, I realized that my family is ahead of its time. My nonni and parents were singing this tune – and dancing to the original – way back in the 1950s before they even left Italy. My father has been known to fist pump to this tune while driving. Yeah, he was fist pumping long before Pauly D. Carosone is my family’s Jay Z. He sang the songs that spoke to the paesani and in their language, the Neapolitan dialect. No shidizzle. On “We No Speak Americano,” that’s not real Italian you’re hearing, people. That’s our street speak. And now folks from Australia to the Jersey Shore are joining my people on the dance floor and speaking our language. Who would have thought my papa’ and nonni were so very cool? First Tony Soprano makes their body type sexy and now this!