These figs were a delightful and unexpected addition to the first meal Antonio and I served to his family in our completed kitchen in Ischia. (You can join us for the typical Italian lunch at the “Our First Meal and Figs” photo album.) My cousins from Testaccio, Ischia brought them to me to share with my in-laws. What’s so special about these figs? Well, my Nonno Giovanni, who passed away in 1992, planted the tree on which these figs grew at the home in Buonopane, Ischia, where my father grew up.
My in-laws couldn’t get enough of them. We enhanced their flavor at lunch by serving them with prosciutto. And we finished them in less than a day. And everyone wants to know when Nonno Giovanni will be sending more from Heaven. It was great to have him with me for a bit here in Ischia.
The people of Ischia are sighing with relief because the month of August is swiftly coming to an end. For Ischitani, August means work because the rest of the country heads to the beaches and mountains for vacation. That’s right. Just about the whole country, except for those who work in tourism like most of the Ischitani, have at least a few weeks off in August if not the whole month. If you can’t take off in August for some reason, then you usually get to take time off in July. Unbelievable, right? As an American, who barely gets two weeks of vacation per year, I can’t fathom how Italians can ever get work done with all their vacation time. How can the country earn anything if everyone takes off for the whole month at the same time? I guess that’s what “la dolce vita” means.
For me, August in Ischia wasn’t much different than June or July in Ischia. I work for American publications, and therefore I’m always on call and on the job. But I did get to see more of my relatives in my down time. One cousin, who lives in France but married a woman from Ischia, spent a couple of weeks on the island — and we all got together to break bread one night at another cousin’s restaurant (see photo above). And cousins from Australia and the United States are headed to Ischia at the end of the week for a long weekend that will have us all bidding farewell to yet another August in Italy.
I think Ischia, perhaps myself included, will need a vacation to recuperate after the August summer vacation.
In all my years of visiting Ischia — I visited for the first time when I was just two years old — I had never heard of Bagnitiello in Casamicciola, Ischia until the summer of 2009. (For photos, visit Francesca’s Tour of Bagnitiello.) This year, my husband Antonio and I spent two days with friends at this thermal pool park and bay. The affordable entrance price — 10 euro per person — combined with a spectacular view that gives creedence to Ischia’s name, “The Green Island”, and the delicious bruschetta with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella served at the snack bar are reason enough to keep returning.
Much smaller than the three major thermal spas in Ischia (Poseidon Gardens, Negombo, and Castiglione), Bagnitiello also offers unmatched tranquility. With a hot tub and thermal pool and non-thermal pools for the kiddies, there is plenty to do besides laying out in the sun. The owners also built stairs over the rocks, so people can walk right into the middle of this bay in the ocean, which is the origin of the healing thermal waters. There are boogie board-type mats in the ocean for people to lay out there, too.
Difficult to get to Bagnitiello because there is nowhere to park and you have to walk down a winding, bumpy path, you might consider taking a motorino (think Vespa). But if you’re like me, you’ll have a heart attack on the motorino — not that it has stopped my husband from taking me to Bagnitiello on one. Still, there is some convenience to this location. Bagnitiello is close to the larger thermal spa Castiglione, which is also more affordable than the other two big spas and more conducive to families because of its non-thermal options.The bottom line is that Bagnitiello is not quite the tourist trap that some of the other spas have become, so the atmosphere and the activities are still pleasurable and offer the kind of peace you’d like to have at the beach or spa.
As someone who grew up in northern New Jersey, I can admit that mallrats are my people. When I am in Ischia, I’m a little lost because there are no air conditioned shopping centers replete with movie theaters and food courts. People watching, although an art invented by the Italians, is limited to the piazza, which just isn’t the same as the mall. Who needs a centuries old church and trees when you can grab a Jamba Juice, have your haircut, and buy new kicks all at the same time?
You could move into the Garden State Plaza in Paramus (you could definitely live there), and security would probably take a week to notice because it’s so big. In fact, Ischia itself might be the size of the Garden State Plaza.
Usually, there is a total lack of convenience on the island. Even the supermarkets close at 3 p.m. for the siesta and many of them are closed on Thursdays and Sunday afternoons, too. Getting milk in Ischia is often harder than getting an organ donation from your cousin Luigi. Forget about finding a new purse at an affordable price or picking up a book on tape in the middle of the afternoon.
But once a year in August, stores from the Naples area — and some b-list celebrities — come to Ischia and set up booths to sell necessities — from furniture and pots and pans to clothes to sausage and cheese. Ischia is still in Italy, so you had to expect food to be sold, too. This flea market/sidewalk sale/show is called the Expo. (For more photos of the Expo, visit Francesca’s Expo Photo Album.)
The Expo opened in early August, and Antonio and I were among the first ones there. We purchased odds and ends for our apartment in Ischia, including a cheese grater and a rolling pin. And I picked up a lovely clock for 8 euro for our kitchen in New Jersey. I also bought these amazing paintings of Vesuvius — one for me and one for my mom — directly from the artist, Antonio Attanasio.
As a mallrat, I wasn’t quite at home at the Expo. The stores were mostly under a tent and some of them were actually outside. But the reality stars who made appearances and the ladies from Naples with the big hair and tight clothes in a rainbow of colors were the closest to Jersey folk I can find without going home. The Expo might only last a month, but it brings a bit of convenience — and color — to the islanders.
Italian kids have a fascination with all things American. They watch the Disney channel and Cartoon Network and see all of the wonder of American pop culture. They are particularly fascinated by the concepts of American high schools and the teen scene. One of the traditions my Italian nieces, Francesca and Giulia Buono and Laura Porraro, noticed most of all was the pajama party concept. After they asked a million questions about pajama parties and heard that my sister and I had hosted one for our cousin Nina in the United States, they wanted me to host one for them, too. I happily obliged.
We ate popcorn and played Trivial Pursuit Disney (in Italian, of course) and Sorry Express. I filmed them as they pretended to rescue their stuffed animals and played vets in our kitchen. And then I let them put on lip gloss and do their hair while I gave them manicures and pedicures replete with hand and foot soaking, a moisturizing treatment (note the gloves in the photo), and white nail polish. They fell asleep around midnight while watching Never Been Kissed starring Drew Barrymore in English. The next morning, I made them pancakes and scrambled eggs, and we drank orange juice as if we were in the United States. It’s a great way for girls in any country to celebrate — and I’m sure they’ll remember the pajama party for years to come. You can read all about our cultural exchanges in the bi-weekly “Our Paesani” column on ItaliansRus.com.
I’ve been traveling to Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples in Italy, which is the home of my ancestors on both sides of the family and birthplace of my father Pasquale, since I was two years old. But I never dreamed I would end up marrying an Ischia native and spending half my time living on an island. That’s exactly what has happened.
Although Ischia is beautiful — known as l’Isola Verde for its lush vegetation, has gorgeous beaches everywhere you turn, and some of the best food you will ever eat — it’s still an island, which means there are limitations and inconveniences. While Americans see me as a Italian, as I live in Italy, I still experience culture shock because the truth is that I was born and raised in the United States. As a result, I’m an American first. And I’m a Jersey girl at heart, so it’s hard to be away from fair Fort Lee, N.J., my hometown, for long periods of time.
Still, having family in both places has always had me feeling torn. When you’re in one place, you miss the other because of the people you have to leave behind. The emotional roller coaster of living in two places makes for great stories.
On these pages, I hope to share with you a bit about how I live and work as a journalist with my feet in both of these distinct worlds — Italy and the United States. It’s never easy, but it’s always interesting. There’s lots to learn about both of my homes, and I hope you will join me on the journey by entering this site frequently. Like a good Italian American girl, I always leave the door open and offer guests a bit of refreshment. Benvenuto!