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.
MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA / FAMILY TRAVEL – VIAGGI
An Ischia Italy beach day can change the way you think. The intoxicating scent of the sea lures you like the sirens of Greek mythology. When you first squish your toes into the hot, soft sand, you think you’re walking on fire. So, you get your ballerina on and tip toe, tip toe, tip toe to a lounge chair. A tall, dark teenager leads you to the perfect spot nearest the sea. Exhale.
Your son is ready to jump in. But you’re l’Americana. So, you first cover him in cream and sheathe him in a rash guard. Then, you warn him of the dangers of going too deep. You tell him to stay close to his father and never go past the buoys. Just then, your husband whisks away your baby and takes him past the buoys. Inhale.
Who cares? You’re at the beach…on an island…in Italy. Pull up a lounge chair. Exhale.
Other children are running in the sand. Or they’re trying to catch waves. A few are making rocks dance on the water. An Italian mamma in a skinny bikini is bouncing a naked baby on her hip. She covers him with a blanket in the hopes that the sound of the sea will help him drift off to sleep.
Teenagers are finding excuses to climb on one another, forming human pyramids in the sea. They are young and pretty and seem to know it. Bronzed and carefree, they are like the personification of hedonism. For a moment, you are both nostalgic for your own youth and jealous you never experienced being a native of an island. Then, they topple and crash onto one another with a thunderous flop. Suddenly, you recall that youth truly is wasted on the young. And the island limits where you can go. Next, one or two of the young couples steal a salty kiss. You lean back and the mind wanders.
These are not the youth of your America. They are distinctly different. Italian children are less tame, far less controlled. Many of the babies – boys and girls alike – are nude. They splash and pee with wild abandon. Little girls as old as 8 wear no bathing suit top. An American lawyer I know once visited and would not allow his wife to photograph the beach for fear it would be considered child pornography Stateside.
Still, one of the little girls toddles over to your son and asks to borrow his shovel for building palaces and pools in the sand. He gleefully obliges. A friend for a moment is better than none at all. Despite the language barrier, they get along well. Pointing and hand gestures work. And they look at each other in wonderment.
Then, of course, the place is teeming with adults. The amount of flesh on display takes some getting used to for those of us from comparatively puritanical America. The natives, in fact, mock your one-piece bathing suit and shorts. You once wore skimpier swimsuits. But now you’re a mamma of a certain age. You like your cover up covering up things. Of course, the damage the sun can do is another excuse – err, reason – to hide skin. But the sun is life in Italy.
So, natives have a different take. Some of the men, especially the older ones, still wear speedos. It’s hard to avert the eyes. The image of a banana hammock burns into your memory much like Vesuvius at Pompeii. More modern men wear a regular bathing suit. Of course, theirs are shorter than yours. This is not the place for board shorts. While Jersey Italians are spraying on their tans, Italian Italians are doing it old school. They drench themselves in sun. Many still use oil. They shimmer like diamonds. Nearly naked diamonds. They jeer you for your milky white skin and 50+ sunscreen. Don’t even get them started on your kid’s rash guard and long swim trunks.
Even the nonne (grandmas) wear two-piece bathing suits. Many don bikinis that leave little to the imagination. Let’s just say you are seeing more than just the cheeks on their faces. The foreign women are even less reserved than the Ischitani. Finding tan lines intolerable, they go topless. Some are old and wrinkly. Others are young and perky. They all take your breath away.
Ischia Makes You Feel Sexy
Even among those who work on the beach – delivering drinks or renting umbrellas – there’s a casualness. It’s as though the heat makes it all right to be in various stages of undress. While closing your eyes, you have a revelation; what’s beautiful is the acceptance of all shapes and sizes. Because it’s hot, everyone can uncover herself. It’s permitted. There’s a freedom that comes with this acceptance. Removing shame of the flesh is actually empowering in a way. But your Americanness prevents you from fully appreciating it. And you can’t bear showing too much of yourself in Ischia. It takes a kind of courage you’re not sure you have.
An ad once suggested Ischia was where you eat, you drink, and you “whistle.” The latter is in quotes because it is a euphemism for sex. Some, however, say it just points to the laid-back vibe of the island. The heat and scent of the sea and all that natural beauty certainly have their influence. You’re suddenly lightheaded. You notice your husband swinging your son into the sea for one more run. The sunlight is bouncing off his curly locks. Sure, he’s gotten older as have you. But his midlife paunch and a few gray hairs don’t change the fact that his green eyes are twinkling. He’s Italian. He’s yours. And he’s friggin’ sexy.
When he comes over and brushes your hand as you offer him his towel, you still feel electricity. It’s time to head for the restaurant on the beach, just behind you. Tonight your son demands a chicken cutlet and fries. And you’re having linguine and clams. The Ischia sun is setting in the background. The sea breeze lightly caresses your face. Your husband gives you the look. And your son begins to fall asleep in your lap while twirling your hair. It is the end of a perfect day.
Something about the sunshine, the bronzed bodies topped with big gold crosses and even bigger hair (male and female alike), the scent of fried clams and fried Oreos drifting from the boardwalk, and lying in that soft sand down the shore makes me feel at home and on vacation all at the same time. I’m a bonafide Jersey girl, and I always have been. I’ve been to the more sophisticated shores of Long Island, my mom’s home turf, and the elegant seas of my family’s native Italy. Both have their merits, but they are missing that kitschy, cool vibe that makes the Jersey Shore embody summer and childhood and all that is right with the world.
Like the Jerseyans who came before me, I want to share the shore – and all that sentiment – with my son, not to mention my native Italian husband. For the first time in many summers, we have found ourselves Stateside, so we recently headed down the shore. My husband and I have a tradition of going to Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. during the winter months. Back when we were dating, we had picnics on the sand even though we were bundled in winter coats, played old-school arcade games, made out in the car, and strolled hand in hand sipping on hot chocolates while browsing the gorgeous furniture and funky souvenirs at shops in town.
Now, however, we were able to see the town and that lovely beach at its most alive – in the summer. From northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is about 1 hour and 20 minutes away…without traffic. During the summer months on the weekend, there’s almost always traffic, so be prepared. My family definitely has had to pull over on the side of the road for a pee-pee stop, and I may or may not have had to do my business on the road while my cousins held up towels to cover me. (Don’t judge when nature calls.) Anyone with an Italian father taking charge of the trip will be leaving home before the sun rises, and returning home right after lunch to make sure you don’t have to sit on the highway with the “lazy bas…..” who wait until 7 or 8 a.m. to leave and have the gall to stay all day and go home after dark. How dare they!
Besides the traffic, you have to keep in mind the cost. Now, you won’t go broke, but it ain’t cheap. To start, after fighting traffic (and Nonno’s road rage – oh yeah, the struggle is real), you will have to pay for parking. We ended up spending $20 for six hours of parking. Then, we walked to the beach, where we had to pay to get on the sand. This is when Nonno will start cursing about how Americans are crazy to think they own the beach and can force people to pay to sit on the hot sand. You may have to cover the kids ears when he starts in with the Vafa… Napoli. Adults 12 and over will pay $10 to enter on the weekends and $9 during the week. Children 5 to 11 will pay $2.50 weekends or weekdays, and children under 5 are free. My son has a few more months of being free, which was nice. Beach chair rentals cost $8 each and umbrella rentals cost $10 each. But you rent those items at your own risk, because that’s when Nonno will start laying into you for not bringing your own chairs and umbrellas. You’re letting the thieves steal from you, he will say. “Disgraziati!”
WHAT TO DO
Now, you’ll find yourself on the beach. You’ll leave Nonno in one of those chairs to stew in the sun and his own anger. Then, you’ll take a dip in the Atlantic. Or you’ll build a sand castle. Some of the people near you will have full fledged tents to protect their babies. As long as they are not too big, you can have them. Soon, you’ll start indulging in the snacks you brought in the giant cooler that some people would consider a motor home. You and your cousins hauled it all from the parking lot while melting and taking orders from good ol’ Nonno, so you’re ready for some goodies. Nonna probably made pizza from scratch, sandwiches with prosciutto and tomatoes from the garden and Nutella for the kids, meatballs, melon, and some biscotti for dessert. Of course, if Nonno is with you, then you’ll be heading to your relative’s nearby house to eat pasta with the Sunday sauce and barbecuing chicken and sausage after this “antipasto” on the beach. Oh, yeah, Italians know how to do the beach right!
But if you’re not among crazy Italians, you will head to the Boardwalk to play and eat. There are typical carnival rides, perfect for the little ones and the young at heart (not Nonno). And there are also games, the kind you find at every Italian feast. You can plop Nonno down at one of those guessing games and run away. Run far, far away. Just remember to go back and collect him before you return home. No one else wants him, and you’d be lost without him, no matter how much of a curmudgeon he has become. Of course, all of this costs more. I don’t play much there, although I did once win enough tickets for a vintage glass Pepsi glass at the arcade. There are a few of them, but I usually end up at Frank’s Fun Center.
I’ve actually never gone to the Fun House or the mini golf course, but I’ve heard good things. One good time I can endorse (and have actually brought many a relative from Italy to see) is Jenkinson’s Aquarium. There are penguins and all sorts of fish. While small, it’s an educational opportunity right on the beach, and you can’t beat that. All these individual activities on the Boardwalk have their own fees and hours of operation, so check before you visit.
WHAT TO EAT
Fun and games are nice. But, to be honest, my husband and I are most interested in the good eats on the Boardwalk. We can’t leave the place without a fried Oreo or two or three or six, which are available right on the Boardwalk. Ok, usually six. Joey Tomatoes is considered by many to be one of the best places down the shore for pizza, although I can’t vouch for it. We usually end up grabbing burgers and fries or chicken fingers or calzones or fried clams at either Boardwalk Bar & Grill or the famous Martell’s Tiki Bar. Either is great, but Martell’s tends to be super packed with people. On our most recent trip, my son and I both ordered the value meals, which came with a meal and fries in a souvenir pail and shovel. My cheeseburger meal cost $11.75 and my son’s nuggets meal cost $10.75. My husband ordered the chicken parm calzone, which was something like $13, and he was pleased.
One of my favorite treats is a soft-serve vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles at Kohr’s Frozen Custard Inc., a historic sweet shop that dates back to 1923. This is the best of the best in ice cream. There are plenty of more exotic flavors to sample, and I can also recommend the Oreo milkshake. Overall, a day at Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is yummy, yummy. In fact, it’s so delicious that you won’t even mind the traffic jam – or Nonno’s crotchety comments – on the way home.
With more snow on the way, I’m longing for sunshine and the beach. Bet you are, too, right? Well, before I left Ischia, Italy, where it’s cold and rainy this time of year, as well, I came across a beach-side house decorated with seashells. The shells don’t just cover the outside of the home, they also are put together to form some beachy scenes. Can you see the fish, sun, and sea horse? The entire house was covered in stones and shells. They had even made door mats out of the shells for in front of each entrance. It must have taken lots of patience to complete this project. It seems worth it though. A home like this sure would have you feeling like you are smack in the middle of summer no matter what the weather is doing.
I’ve learned to also keep my digital camera charged and with me whenever I venture out into Ischia, Italy. I just never know when I’m going to stumble upon the perfect photo. I just loved this colorful boat, which caught my eye while I was hanging out on the beach and building sand castles (read: getting sand thrown in my eyes, hair, face, and even mouth) with Baby Boy, who likes to throw the soft stuff around. Despite the tearing, I saw this charming boat, probably giving someone a tour of the island, and couldn’t resist snapping a photo. I have a load of these kinds of shots on iPhoto now. And I hope the collection keeps growing. My new rule is going to be to always have a camera with me wherever I am (even after I leave Ischia). This comes in handy when I want to capture precious moments with Baby Boy, too. Who knows? You might be my next subject. Watch out!
What did I tell you? What did I tell you? In a recent blog I mentioned that maybe Ischia would have a couple more summer-like days in the fall and that they would attract people to the ocean. Well, on Saturday temperatures reached about 80 degrees, and people raced to the rocks to get prime real estate in the sun. As Baby Boy ran freely on the bridge that leads to Castello Aragonese, we took in the view of the sunbathers making the most of these rarer and rarer hot days. In fact, on this lovely Monday morning, Baby Boy was wearing jeans and a jacket to play ball in the garden at home. Right now, I’m wearing sweat pants. Still, how cool is it that we could actually enjoy an 80-degree day toward the end of September at the beach?
Summer left Ischia without even saying good-bye. The tourists cleared out of here in early September. And we went to the beach during the first week of the month, and it was still hot and sticky, perfect for jumping into the ocean for a dip. The next day, I turned around and the cold breeze of autumn had flown through our kitchen. I made a hot cup of apple cinnamon tea (from the States, of course) and threw on a long-sleeve T-shirt, and I haven’t looked back. Baby Boy is sporting jeans and even a cotton jacket over his polo shirts.
Indeed, this was a strange summer on Ischia. I’ve been here before during this time period, and usually we are at the beach regularly from early May to early October. All the Americans who were at our wedding here nearly five years ago can attest to this because we took a swim the day after the nuptials on Oct. 3. The weather is hot, so we can really squeeze all we can out of summer. This year, it was cold until mid June and it’s cold again in mid September. No matter, there are some fun things to look forward to in fall (and which you can expect to read about on this site soon). Baby Boy’s pizza-themed birthday party, Halloween, and Thanksgiving celebrations (yes, I’m forcing these American holidays onto the Italians here), and the vendemmia (grape harvest for wine making) and mushroom picking (both Ischitani traditions). Maybe a hot day or two will visit us in the next month and we can make it back to the beach (and actually into the water). Or maybe we’ll just be hanging out on the sand until winter.
On every beach I’ve ever been to in the United States and Italy, there are always people peddling their wares – T-shirts, beach towels, inflatable toys for kids, sarongs and cover-ups, doughnuts and treats, and occasionally beaded or handmade jewelry. Here in Ischia I’ve even gotten to know a few of the regular salesmen, one of whom recently gave me a bracelet as a gift. Other than the jewelry, the items they are selling on the beach make perfect sense. You might need a beach towel when you’re on the beach, after all. And who hasn’t wished she had a cover-up post swim?
Last week, however, I witnessed a sale I had never seen before on the beach – socks. If you even wear socks to the beach, it is the first item you take off as you hit the sand. It’s usually so hot that you wouldn’t want anything to come between your toes and the ocean, and the sand just gets stuck to it. Yet, there are full-fledged, well-connected salespeople hocking socks on the beaches of Ischia. In fact, my husband only buys his socks for work on the beach because these guys can get him socks in this superfine material that he says helps his feet breathe in the heat.
The sale wasn’t even a simple exchange. The Neapolitan salesperson, who was carrying a duffel bag full of socks and shirts to sell, used his cell phone to call another salesman at a nearby beach to pick up merchandise from him to satisfy my husband, who only wanted socks made of this particular lightweight material. He returned 20 minutes later to make the sale. And we came home from the beach with a bucket full of sea glass, sand stuck to our being, and six pairs of men’s dress socks. Only in Ischia, folks, only in Ischia.
While island life in Ischia does not usually make sense to me, it does make lovely scents that are carried through the air like a gift from God. In fact, a walk in Ischia can make you fall in love with the place if for no other reason than the delicious smells that both relax and excite you at the same time. It’s no wonder that Baby Boy has a hard time falling asleep when we push him down the streets of Ischia in his stroller. He’s intoxicated by the scents traveling up his nose just like the rest of us.
Rounding the corner at Dolce Sosta, the coffee bar that takes credit for inventing the Bacio ice cream cone – a scoop of hazelnut gelato covered in a thick layer of firm chocolate – you take in the aroma of the baked rum and cream of pastries that are works of art. Their sweetness is quickly tempered by the ocean breeze that suddenly and unexpectedly dances on your cheeks as you head toward the shore. That combination of salt water, sand, and coconut sunblock immediately brings you to long summer days no matter the season. The salt of the sea hangs in the air just about everywhere you go on Ischia.
Had you walked in another direction, you would have picked up the woodsy scent of pine that washes over the pine tree forests, known as pinete, where children are almost always frolicking and older folks are reading a book or pressing pause on their life for just a moment. Or you might have smelled the sweet lemons that are the polka-dots of the landscape here. Their taste is like no other you’ve eaten. When you cut into an Ischia lemon and the juice squirts in your face, you smell happiness mixed with delight. And you’ll be tempted to bite into it like an apple. That’s not a mistake. People eat some of these lemons with a bit of sugar on top as though they are grapefruits. They’re that good.
When there’s a chill in the air, you will catch the aroma of burning wood coming from the natives’ homes. It’s sweet as honey and makes you feel warm, snuggly, and slightly old-fashioned. Some of the Ischitani will grill bread on that wood they are using to keep warm. The browned pane smell is as comforting as Nonna’s embrace on a winter’s night. The crunch of the bread is a song that will stick in your head as long as the deliciousness – especially if mixed with local tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil – lasts on your taste buds.
Of course, amid all this goodness lie the smells of modernity. The natives scooting along on their motorini, which unleash bursts of smoke and gas, produce charred air that lingers and mixes with the cigarette smoke coming out of the mouths of many of the natives lining the street outside their store fronts and homes. These puffs of gray clouds land on your being in stark contrast to the rest of the island’s perfume. Sometimes, it’s overpowering and depressing but in a second you’ll catch another sea breeze and you’ll forget all about this particular island smog.
Walking past the San Pietro Beach and toward the tennis courts, you will smell the few patches of grass you’ll find on property around here. As a landscaper’s daughter, this is the smell that often chokes me up. Those green blades put out the natural musk of papa’ and home and everything wonderful and special about my family’s existence. If the owners of those tiny lawns happen to be cutting the grass, the scent is even stronger, as is the pull of my American home.
There are no boardwalks at the beaches on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. But many restaurants and pubs, with owners who hope to quench the hunger and thirst of beach goers, line the sand. Many of them look like the stands and shacks that are typical of an American boardwalk. While I indulge in frankfurters, fries, fried oreos, or homemade ice cream back home at the Jersey Shore, I will find almost none of that on these here shores. In Ischia, even the beach stands feature home cooking – the kind your mamma would be making for you. The other day, when my husband, teenage niece, nearly 2-year-old son, and I pulled up to the Bagno Corrado stand at San Pietro Beach, we had bruschetta – toasted Italian bread with tomato salad on top of it – for antipasto and the surprising pasta dish in the photo above. The sauce featured fresh tomatoes, chunks of swordfish, and the flower of the zucchini plant. Of course, since it is a fish dish, there was plenty of fresh parsley to boot. It was sweet and savory. And the swordfish melted in your mouth. It is hardly the kind of thing I’d order down the shore, but it was perfect for a beach day in Italy. Still, my niece dug into a Nutellotta, which is a cookie bowl dressed in Nutella and filled with three scoops of vanilla gelato that are covered in more Nutella and whipped cream with a few more cookies sticking out of it. She loved every bite. Who can blame her?