ITALIAN MEMES – POSTCARDS FROM ITALY / LE FESTE – HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS
The Italian holiday Ferragosto couldn’t be celebrated anywhere but Italy. In fact, it’s the only country I know that marks Aug. 15 as still having significance. The festivities date back to 18 BC and the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus for whom the whole month is named. He declared August to be for revelry. The high point in those days was Aug. 13 when women made offerings to the goddess Diana in hopes of having safe labor and delivery.
Italian Holiday Ferragosto – Sun, Sex, and Rock n’ Roll
In general, the celebrations were all about excesses – gorging, orgies, and imbibing. I’ve written about this before for ItaliansRus. Christianity comes around and makes Aug. 15 about the assumption of the Virgin Mary in an attempt to change the rituals. But we’re talking about Italians here. Do you really think you could take away their wine and sex and delicious food and still call it a holiday? C’mon now.
Obviously, the Church needs a reality check. Indeed, my friends and family will be indulging in food and wine and whatever else today. Some of them will say a little prayer or even head to church, too. Right at this moment, most of them are sleeping off the celebrations that began last night as they ushered in Aug. 15.
To be fair, here on the island of Ischia, most of my people were not getting to enjoy the holiday. They were making the holiday for the guests at hotels, bars, and restaurants throughout the island. And they’ll continue to do that today. Making sure others have a good time, after all, is their livelihood.
What will they be doing exactly? Well, carving watermelons into gorgeous flowers is one task. Another is setting tables for multi-course meals full of Italian hallmarks, such as fresh mozzarella, la parmigiana, shellfish fresh from the sea, and pounds of pasta. Chefs will be cooking all that. Someone will be on hand to make sure the wine is ever flowing, never an empty glass. Someone else will cue the music at the discoteca.
Glistening cabana boys will help beachgoers open their umbrellas and snag a drinks on the beach. Of course, there will be natives flirting with the tourists in the hopes of a little something something on Ferragosto. Wink. Wink. I guess you can say Ischia, with its slogan “where you eat, drink, and ‘whistle,'” tries to meet all your needs. Buon Ferragosto to all!
A walk in Ischia, Italy, a small island off the coast of Naples, is often remarkable. The cobblestone streets you still find in many places stands as a stark juxtaposition to the yachts in the port and the designer clothes on display in the stores. Whenever I’m walking around, I find myself wondering what this world must have been like for my ancestors, even my father who spent his childhood here. They lived without the luxuries the natives of today know. Yet, they still have much in common with their modern counterparts.
For one, the “bella figura” lives on. I’ve tried many times to explain “bella figura” to non-Italians. And I’m not sure I have the right words. But here I go again. First, it literally translates to beautiful figure. People say they want to “fa bella figura” or “make a beautiful figure.” What they are really saying is that they want to make a good impression. They want others to perceive them in a good light.
They Judge the Book by Its Cover
Sometimes, they are referring to avoiding embarrassment, such as a slip of the tongue or falling in front of everyone. Other times, however, they are simply referring to looking good while walking around. Every hair needs to be in place. Their shirts must be crisply ironed. And they would never walk around in sweats. Flip flops are only permissible if they are walking that one block to the beach here in Ischia. Breaking these rules could mean failing to make the “bella figura.”
So, when you take a walk in Ischia, you have to be perfectly coiffed and wearing your best clothes. You don’t always have to be dressed for a formal wedding. But even your relaxed look should be planned out and designer if possible. This is the reason I am often recognized as an American. I used to wear flip flops everywhere. And I still don’t mind going outside the door in a comfortable T-shirt and lounging pants.
Still, when in Ischia, I try to conform. I’m more aware of what I’m wearing, what I look like. In addition, I’m careful about what I say and to whom I say it. Sometimes, I fail at the bella figura. I chalk it up to my Americanness. I always feel relief at returning home to America, where few care this much about this stuff.
Castello Aragonese is connected to the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, by bridge. In fact, the town around this medieval castle is called Ischia Ponte, which translates to Ischia Bridge. It is a stunner. You simply can’t take your eyes off the place. From afar, some will mistake it for a mere cliff. But it’s an actual castle carved into a cliff, and it’s full of history and stories to tell, if you just listen closely.
You can still visit the castle and walk through it to see what life inside may have been like for its various inhabitants. When you step inside, you’re entering another world. The hard rock facade, the ancient walls that whisper of the past, set the stage for the island outside its gates. Mainly built between the 14th and 17th century, the castle has ghosts as far as I am concerned. And every so often I get the urge to visit them. They are deliciously haunting.
The castle had served as fort, love shack, church, and prison. Historical figures, such as Vittoria Colonna, resided there. So did monks and nuns. In fact, you can still see the catacombs, frescoes, and altars of another time. And there’a Torture Museum featuring all sorts of devices that had been used to wear down humanity; I call it the dungeon. You can see ancient winemaking tools lying around. You can only imagine what went on here.
History swallows the island. And the juxtaposition of a monastery next to the Torture Museum next to a love shack is fitting for Ischia. After all, Ischia is everything and nothing at once. Most are swept away by the headiness of this place. The scent of the flowers growing in every nook of the castle is intoxicating. Then, there is the vision of tomatoes growing in one of the gardens. But the view of Ischia Ponte and the sea is enough to move you into a fantasy.
Of course, there’s no denying the beauty all around you. Pastel homes dot the lush hills nearby. Waves crash on the rocks agains the bridge. Often, you’ll find sunbathers perched on the rocks. Boats rock feet from the castle. A coffee bar at the feet of the bridge buzzes with tourists and natives alike; some say it’s the best espresso on the island. Every so often, newlyweds come to take their wedding photos out front. (My husband and I did.) You will feel invisible when the sun sets and sinks into the ocean, and you’re standing toward the top of the castle.
Today, you can stay at the castle as a hotel guest. If an overnight stay isn’t in the cards, you can also visit the museum. I’ve done both, and it’s always a true journey. But you don’t even have to enter the gate to take in the “bellezza.” It’s a must stop for tourists because few photo backdrops compare.
Biting into Ischia Italy peaches is like tasting a little piece of Heaven. That sounds like an exaggeration. But words can hardly describe the sweetness of the fruits you’ll find on this little island off the coast of Naples. Indeed, the island is known as L’Isola Verde or The Green Island for its lush vegetation. All around you in Ischia, you see green hills and the emerald sea. The island is an inactive volcano. As a result, its naturally thermal soil and waters draw tourists. But it’s the soil that counts when growing delectable fruits and vegetables.
What You’ll Find Here to Eat
As a result, you won’t want to miss these peaches. Lots of people eat them just like this. There are actually three varieties in the photo – red, yellow, and white peaches. Another favorite way to enjoy them is in Italian wine, which soaks in the fridge all day. Then, natives drink the wine with dinner and eat the peaches for dessert. I think of it as Italian sangria.
But peaches are not the only stars of the summer season. Soon, you will also find figs, which pair nicely with prosciutto. It’s a good alternative to cantaloupe and prosciutto, which has become popular even Stateside in recent years. In the early summer, the natives enjoy apricots. They’re actually a pretty big deal around here and seem to be much more available than in New Jersey, the Garden State. You won’t find many blueberries. But wild strawberries and frutta di bosco (fruit of the woods) are widely available in early summer. When fall hits, the grapes become abundant. With the grape harvest comes winemaking, which is actually quite celebratory here. People gather for picnic meals and to harvest the grapes. They call it the vendemmia, and it’s like a holiday around here.
Fior di latte gelato is a creamy base flavor ice cream in Italy. Well, I guess I should not classify it as “ice cream.” Anyone who has read my recent article for the Our Paesani column at ItaliansRus.com knows there is a big difference between ice cream and gelato. In any event, it’s a cool, delectable treat. In my opinion, it’s much better than vanilla gelato because it’s lighter and fluffier. Oh yeah, gelato can be fluffy.
Gelato is my drug of choice whenever I’m in Italy. I should just get it injected in my veins. I. just. can’t. get. enough. So, I decided a long time ago to learn how to make the stuff in my own kitchen, even when I’m home in the United States. Seriously, I’ve become an expert at making French vanilla.
Every year for Halloween, my cousins expect me to make pumpkin and for Christmas, I better have the gingerbread. Fior di latte, however, was always the goal. And I kept getting it half wrong. Then, one day the stars aligned and fior di latte happened. Miracolo!
Now, I want to share the recipe with you. This is based on the recipe provided by Misya.info, an Italian site. I’ve adapted the recipe for Americans who know nothing of the metric system measurements. And I’ve also provided my own explanation.
Recipe for Fior di Latte Gelato
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 cup of whole milk
1/2 cup of sugar
1 stick of vanilla (or 2 tsp of vanilla extract)
Put all the ingredients in a pot under medium heat on the stove. Stir until the sugar melts. I like to use a whisk to get some air into the mix. Then, shut off the gas. Let it cool. Remove the vanilla stick (if that’s what you used). Place the mixture in the refrigerator for eight hours or overnight. Finally, mix it in your ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Editor’s Note: I have found that it is really important to freeze the base of your ice cream maker well to get best results. I use the ice cream maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid. I try to keep the freezer less full when I’m freezing the maker, and I might even lower the temperature on the fridge.
One of the biggest joys of spending months at a time in Ischia, Italy, an island off the coast of Naples is the beach. Wherever you are on the island, it’s basically right out your door. Walk a few steps and you find the sea and sand. I’ve already described how the heat and the scent of the sea can cloud your judgment. Seriously, it can make you crazy if you let it. But it can also bring a tranquility that is hard to find elsewhere.
Give Me Peace, This Peace I Give
As a mom of a 6-year-old, I experience the beach in Ischia differently than when I was in my 20s. Back then, I was dating my husband. We were young and in love. And the beach was the sanctuary of our relationship. We made weekly dates to lie in the sand or exhale on a motorboat or drown worries at the thermal spa.
Now, we go to the beach to play with our son. We watch him roll in the sand. Then, he splashes in the water. He gives us salty kisses and begs for an ice pop. For a moment, I don’t have to think about work or the fact that I don’t spend enough time with him. The guilt can fall off my shoulders. Instead, the sun can bathe them, us. Everything is all right but for a moment.
I have been enlightened during back-to-school shopping. Some of the T-shirts on sale for little boys make me downright mad. If my son uttered the words on some of those shirts, I’d put him in time out. Or sometimes it might spark the need for a serious conversation with a nearly 6 year old. I’m not particularly fond of either scenario.
So, what T-shirts are on the back-to-school chopping block? Well, I’ve seen quite a few about being lazy and not asking kids to do stuff. See the one above in the photo. My parents actually bought that for my son, but they didn’t understand what it said. They just knew he likes poop emojis. Really, what nearly 6-year-old boy doesn’t? A few of the shirts are mean, such as one that sports an image of George Washington with the text, “I cannot tell a lie, I ignore your texts.”
Certainly, not all shirts are created equal. There are quite a few that are funny and fairly innocent. For example, my son likes one that reads, “Mondays, let’s get this over with.” Who can’t relate to that? Indeed, I’m relating to that message right now. Another one I can get behind is his “Circle of Life” tee featuring an emoji pizza pie. Yes, pizza really is the circle of life, especially for an Italian boy. And that one of a dinosaur driving a bike and wearing shades is a favorite in our house.
We Could Not Always Get Away with This
What’s most appealing is that they are age appropriate. Those three shirts seem right on a kindergartner. But the ones that are dripping with sarcasm don’t. Look, I expect 13 year olds to have an answer to everything and wear their cynicism on their sleeve. I don’t expect that from a 6 year old. When the heck did it become in vogue to teach our sons to do nothing?
If I told my Italian immigrant father not to ask me to do anything, he would have told me to get up off my lazy culo. As Sebastian Maniscalco points out in his stand-up routine, Italians won’t tolerate that kind of talk. He describes watching cartoons when he was 8 years old. His father walked in and asked him what he was doing. When Maniscalco says he’s watching TV, his father retorts with something like, “What are you lazy? Go out and start a business.” Indeed, that was the way in our home, too. I think Nonno would rip the shirt off my son’s back if he realized it read, “Don’t ask me to do anything.”
It’s All Our Fault
A few of the shirts are on another level. They make me cringe. I really hate the one about ignoring someone’s texts. It is just plain mean. I suppose this trend is a long time coming. Truth is that people have not exactly been speaking kindly to one another for a while. To say the level of discourse has diminished is an understatement. These T-shirts are just reflecting bigger societal trends. At some point, we gave up on etiquette. Then, we tossed it into the time capsule. I’ve been waiting for someone to dig it up. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Grown-Ups Fail to Set the Example
Truly, it begins with the grown-ups. Recently, I visited the Motor Vehicle Commission in New Jersey. (I know I was asking for trouble.) I politely waited to be called up to the desk. When my number was called, I walked up to the counter and began to speak. Only, I was wrong. The staff person was talking to a different group to the left of me, so I wasn’t the No. 12 he intended. Instead of just explaining that, he yelled at me to get back in line. Then, he had his colleague repeat it in Spanish. He didn’t realize my husband and I had been speaking in Italian previously.
A day later, I was driving my son home from school. There was an elderly woman walking to the school to pick up her grandchildren. She was a little unsteady and there are no sidewalks. So, I was driving extra slow and more toward the center of the road to avoid hitting her. Some guy turned the corner and shouted at me, “What the bleep are you doing?” Actually, I was trying to avoid running down grandma. This is how we act as adults. Why shouldn’t our children’s T-shirts have the tinge of snottiness?
Let Me Explain
All right, some will argue that these shirts are meant to be humorous. They might say I’m taking it all too seriously. Humor, in general, has become a little meaner over the years. Just think about Seinfeld and more recently Modern Family. Yes, the characters still display love, the characters can be nasty to one another. They might laugh at each other’s expense. None of them comes off as saintly.
While I get the sassy movement or whatever you call it, I am not sure we should just accept it. Yes, hearing little kids talk back like an adult can by funny, even cute. But it’s not something we should encourage or let go. These kids are going to grow up eventually. I for one can’t afford for them to be lazy bums who don’t want us to ask them to do anything. I don’t want them to ignore anyone’s texts, least of all mom’s. I want them to understand real feelings rather than hide behind emojis.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like children’s clothing stores are splashing four-letter words across white cotton. The one above uses “stuff” instead of what the image implies. Some of the messages are only subtly troublesome. When compared to the ones on girls tees, however, they seem more inappropriate.
Girls Versus Boys
Actually, what gets me really fired up is the fact that we no longer want to encourage our sons to be smart and hard working. Somewhere along the line, we decided as a society to instill confidence in our girls. We still aren’t doing enough. But we’ve made a concerted effort as evidenced by the T-shirts for girls. “This Girl Can” and “Girls Totally Rock” are among the shirts available at the same store selling the ones described for boys.
I have to admit that my son and my niece have both worn shirts describing them as geniuses. While that’s a lot of hyperbole and you could argue we’re making them arrogant, I think it’s also about aspiration. My son “can,” my niece “can,” we all “can.” And our shirts should say that.
Fresh mozzarella, as Americans know it, is not even close to the real thing. For starters, it is sold in plastic wrap in the refrigerated section of your supermarket or deli. The real stuff comes in a double plastic bag and is filled with water that turns white from the milk leaking from the mozzarella. It’s nothing like the traditional mozzarella (think Pollyo string cheese and the like) used in the United States.
How to Tend to Your Fresh Mozzarella
You’re never supposed to refrigerate it. First, you open the bag and pour its entire contents into a bowl. It sits in the liquid. Then, the bowl remains on your table or counter until you finish eating it. Some Italians (myself included) own a special ceramic bowl. It is a regular bowl on the bottom, but the cover looks like a half moon. It sits on top of the bowl, so that you can see the drowning mozzarella underneath. The half moon cover has holes in it to drain the liquid when you lift the mozzarella on top to cut it. Many of these bowls are handmade and hand painted. Mine comes from Ischia, of course, and it features the island’s famous lemons.
Eat It Fast
Now, the mozzarella won’t taste fresh unless you eat it right away. You risk the mozzarella souring if it is left out too long. If it gets less than fresh, most Italians will put it in the fridge and then use it to cook. They’ll add it to baked pasta or la parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana). Frankly, any recipe that calls for melting mozzarella is going to include the fresh stuff. That other stuff we call mozzarella does not exist here. Indeed, the fresh mozzarella is a big difference between pizza in Italy and pizza in the United States, even New York.
Truthfully, however, most pieces of fresh mozzarella never make it to the point of souring. They’re just too irresistible. When you cut into one of those big balls of fresh mozzarella, the milkiest cream oozes out. The texture is soft and even somewhat creamy. And the taste is slightly sweet with a touch of tang. It is best served on its own with a hunk of bread. Or you can pair it with deli meats, such as prosciutto crudo. Of course, the most popular way to eat fresh mozzarella is in a Caprese salad. This is a salad of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, and salt.
Where Does It Come From?
Also, in the United States, we classify mozzarella as cheese. In Italy, it is not considered cheese exactly. It’s in a class by itself. Many distinguish between mozzarella and cheese, in fact. The best fresh mozzarella is believed to come from the Campania region, specifically Naples. Artisans make the fresh mozzarella largely by hand, and it’s truly considered an art.
In the United States, at least in the Northeast, you can pick up some decent fresh mozzarella in Italian specialty stores. I hear it’s near authentic at Eataly. Also, local Italian American delis often make the real fresh stuff. Personally, I can attest to the authenticity of what you’ll pick up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Still, most of the time what you’re getting is a cow’s milk based fresh mozzarella. Occasionally, it’s the real deal with buffalo’s milk.
Another Story in Italy
See, mozzarella in Italy comes from buffalo’s milk, not cow’s milk. In fact, you’ll read “mozzarella di bufala” on the package. There are some variations worth sampling. You can get smoked fresh mozzarella, known as mozzarella fumigata. Or you can taste fior di latte (flower of milk) mozzarella, which offers the same creamy, milky deliciousness. But it comes from cow’s milk. Often, this version comes braided and is therefore known as treccia. Whichever version you choose, it’s all delicious.
This Italian proverb about sunken ships makes the same point as the saying, “backseat driver.” Another familiar similar one is “Monday morning quarterback.” And how many times have you said, “Hindsight is 20/20”? The point is that it’s easy to tell the future after it has already happened.
While I shared this Italian proverb here, the photo has nothing to do with sunken ships. Indeed, it’s a beautiful sailboat. I photographed it many summers ago while lying on the beach in Ischia Porto, the capital city of Ischia. On this Neapolitan island, you will often spot lovely sailboats and luxurious yachts. Sometimes, a VIP shows up on shore, too. Still, my favorite spot to be is right on the sand taking it all in.
The need for environmentalism or going green is evident once you step on an island driven by tourism. What’s the allure of such an island? The natural beauty all around you. That’s what brings the people to the yard. If you lose that shine, you are left with nothing. While my arguments are based on the time I spend in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples in Italy, this is probably true for any island or anyplace of the sort.
For starters, you need to understand the climate of the place. Of the four climates represented in Italy, Ischia falls into the “Mediterranean climate,” according to climatechangepost. It is joined by the country’s other islands and southern Italy. This climate is “characterized by mild temperatures and moist winter,” the site adds.
The entire country is facing challenges. “Because of its geographic heterogeneity, Italy has seen a diverse set of events linked to the recent changes in global climate levels,” according to Italyun.esteri.it. “In some areas, there has been an increase in natural catastrophic events, such as landslides in mountainous regions, floods, and rising sea levels in areas…”
Another website, the Local.it, outlined in 2015 all the ways Italy is already suffering from climate change and how it could get worse. Three of the challenges directly relate to the islanders in Ischia. Here are the dangers the outlet warned about that are already influencing life on the island:
Rising Coastal Waters
Conservative estimates suggest that sea levels could rise by 1.5 meters by the end of the century unless people take action, according to the report. The article goes on to suggest that Pompeii and Herculaneum, Unesco World Heritage sites not far from Ischia, could be wiped out. Presumably islands could drown, too.
“Higher global temperatures cause higher rates of evaporation, change the way air moves, and affect the amount of water vapor the air can hold,” according to the Local.it. “That might not seem like much, but on a global scale it is disrupting weather systems and causing violent and unpredictable events, such as storms and droughts.” Ischia has had its fair share of ugly rain storms. Some of them have caused devastating landslides that have injured people. In fact, one landslide killed an entire family except for the mother, who was badly injured. During the winter of 2016-early 2017, the island experienced a touch of snow that actually stuck for longer than a second. Not normal, not good.
Indeed, we are in the middle of a severe drought in Italy right now. We did have a little rain yesterday in the wee hours of the morning, but it hardly was enough to eradicate the problems. Besides the water shortage extended droughts could cause, they also damage the grape harvest. While Ischia is not completely reliant on its grapes for wine making, the island’s wine business is well known enough. Italian wine, in general, is a cultural staple found on the tables of most homes. But it also is a big draw for tourists. Well, the Local.it cites a 2013 study by Conservation International, which suggests that drought could actually wipe out grapes in Italy “if trends continue at the current rate.” Yikes!
Local Economy Demands Environmentalism
Some leaders in the United States argue that going green comes at a cost to business. They say sometimes the cost is too great to justify. A few still try to say that climate change is a hoax. Ridiculous. Now, some of them are trying to turn back the clock and return to an era of unfettered fossil fuels and the like. But islanders like the ones on Ischia should never follow their lead. They need to protect their turf because it’s all they’ve got.
I’m not sure Ischia keeps stats on how many people survive on tourism. But I can tell you that even the professionals I know here – lawyers, doctors, accountants – would have no work if it weren’t for the tourists and tourism. And the other 90 percent of the people I know are either students who rely on parents who are in tourism or are in the tourism industry themselves. They own hotels or work at them. They own restaurants or work at them. They own stores or work at them. You get the idea.
But Are They Getting the Message?
A few years ago, the island confronted a major scandal. A number of hotel owners were found to be throwing human waste directly into the sea. Often, you would see foam and even garbage washing onto shore. Some people got sick. Some people got in trouble with the law for their part in the scheme. I’d like to believe the islanders have straightened it all out, learned their lesson.
Honestly, I just don’t know. I will say that the water seems cleaner. Most of the people with whom you speak talk a good game when it comes to going green. Nowadays, everyone recycles (by law). But you will see the recycling bins at beaches, hotels, entertainment venues. I know for a fact that it’s someone’s job to pick up those containers and bring them to the town for recycling. So, there’s that.
Of course, everyone around here has been living the organic lifestyle since before it was trendy. Most people have their own gardens. They never use pesticides or anything unnatural. There are no GMOs. Actually, the laws regarding food production are so tough that you won’t find hot dogs or bacon sold in Italy. The preservatives prohibit them.
Also, there’s just a feeling of desire on the part of the people. The natives seem truly sad to hear that the sea that gives them life could be sick or ailing. Anything less than pristine, in fact, seems unacceptable. Frankly, their life demands a more symbiotic relationship with nature. It’s not just about the money. It’s not even just about the future of the world. It’s about their personal present.
To Their Health
The sea is the source of their income because that’s why tourists flock to Ischia. It is also a food source. The delicious seafood is another draw for visitors, but it’s also how the natives nourish themselves. A filthy sea means bad seafood. Obviously, bathing in dirty water could also cause physical illness. For centuries, people have come to Ischia for its thermal waters, which have healing powers. Imagine if instead of healing, the water began hurting. I can’t imagine it either. Or at least I never want to.
Even if investing in green efforts cost some money up front, the business owners in Ischia have to recognize what it could cost them in the long term. Just imagine the scenarios described by those other publications and reports. Climate change could literally wipe out Ischia. The island known as l’isola verde or the green island for its lush vegetation could end up losing its grapes or other crops for that matter. And that beautiful sea, the heartbeat of the island, is at risk.
So, you see, we have no choice but to concern ourselves with environmentalism. The island life depends on it.