Ischia is very much like the Matchbox 20 song, “She’s So Mean.” The island is just so good looking that you can easily overlook all her obvious flaws – and get sucked back into loving her no matter what kind of wrong she has done you. The views on the island, including the one above, transport visitors to another time and place, when nature was left untouched and history was the present. If you want to know where are the best places to take in this tall glass of water, then you’re in luck. Check out the “5 Best Views in Ischia” on ItaliansRus.com. But be warned: that pretty face will break your heart over and over again.
I know what you’re thinking. We are living on the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples in Italy, which is an important tourist destination (at least for Italians, Germans, and some Russians). So, why do we need a staycation? Well, when you live in a tourist destination, the wonders of the spot tend to lose their shine after a while. Sometimes, you just want to huddle in the house, far away from the world. Baby Boy and I did just that over the Labor Day weekend. Ischia’s August tourists still hadn’t completely gotten off the island, so we avoided the crowds, put up a tent in Baby Boy’s playroom (see photo below) and camped out at home.
My own childhood memories inspired this staycation. Whenever my sister and I (we’d leave my brother home) would spend a few days with our cousin at my uncle’s house in Long Island, he would pitch a tent for us in the backyard, so we could “rough it.” Roughing it meant that my uncle would haul an air mattress, TV, and cable box outside. He would also make us popcorn and peach cobbler (after we already ate dinner in the house with him and my aunt mind you). Then, I would fall asleep in the tent, only to wake up in the morning and find my sister and cousin had hauled themselves in the house and into the bedroom while I was snoring.
In any event, those are some of the best memories I have, so I couldn’t wait to recreate some of the magic for my son. He’s not even 2 yet, so I didn’t think he’d really appreciate sleeping in the backyard, especially since the backyard is made of cement here and not grass like back in Long Island. No one around these here parts would be bringing us an air mattress or TV, not to mention peach cobbler. So, the tent, a gift from his American nonna, went in the playroom on his soft, foam tiles. I filled it with pillows and joined him. I also made him a dinner of chicken breast, homemade rosemary focaccia, and homemade, hand-cut French fries with parsley and salt. Of course, if we were home, I would have either made peach cobbler or s’mores for dessert. But we are not in the States, so we made due with Oreo cookies. (Yes, you can buy them here in select locations, but nonno sends them from home on occasion. And we know how bad they are for you, so don’t bother writing to tell us. We eat them in moderation as a treat once in a blue moon and it hasn’t killed us yet.)
When the sun went down, I closed all the lights in the apartment and the TV, and I turned on Baby’s Boy’s turtle, which projects stars and the moon onto the ceiling and walls. Frankly, anyone could make this staycation a reality. Make your favorite meal, purchase an affordable tent (this one came from Michael’s and was originally about $15) and buy a star projector (that could cost anywhere from $20 to $30). You can also buy a flashlight and tell scary stories or make a paper campfire and sing songs around it.
Baby Boy and I actually looked up at the “sky” from our tent and took note of the crescent moon and pretty stars. I asked Baby Boy what he was wishing for, and he babbled on and on. I wish I could understand what he was saying. For now, I have to settle for his nods and smile of delight – and a staycation that was better than some of my real vacations have been.
All it takes is one little hand to color a house a home. It’s easy for me to be sad right now on this Italian island far from my friends and family. It’s easy to get down when you have to keep American hours (which means working nights) to keep your American job that you need to support your family. It’s easy to moan and complain about how hard you have it when you’re not resting comfortably in your own king-sized bed with the Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy pillows you bought when you wed. It’s even easier to lose your cool while hanging one more stinking towel you’ve just washed on the line outside while Baby Boy throws yet another fit because you told him to get his hands out of the dirty, standing water that piled up in the planter overnight.
Others hear that you’re on an island in Italy and think you are on one long vacation, even if you’re working every day pretty much, even if every household chore is 10 times harder here, even if you mostly hate it. You walk into the house and think, “This is not my space. This is not my home. This is God’s punishment for whatever I’ve done wrong in this life and others.” Your home is in New Jersey, where you picked the paint color and the flooring, where you snuggled with your newborn when you brought him home from the hospital, where your cousins gather for pumpkin decorating parties at Halloween and cookie devouring parties at Christmas, where your father serves you tomatoes and bread like he did when you were little, where your mother helps you with your son when you’re working long hours or have the flu, where your niece and nephew join your son in building forts and pretending to be pirates, princesses, and dragons.
While New Jersey will always be my home sweet home like no other, when I walked into the house in Ischia this morning, while my son continued to throw a tantrum about leaving his bath of dirty water in the garden where it belongs, I noticed the artwork he had colored on the wall in his playroom/our living room shortly after we arrived in April. The magic eraser takes off the paint that my brother-in-law painstakingly put on the wall before our arrival, so I haven’t touched it.
I saw Baby Boy’s scribbles in a different light today. I thought, “Home is wherever my son is dawdling and doodling.” In fact, I’m writing this as he takes breaks from pushing his toy cars along the tile and kitchen chairs to gently tug at my hair and squeeze me with all his surprising might. Even if he is getting drool all over my face with his wet, wet kisses (which he has pretty much reserved exclusively for mommy), Baby Boy is my true home for the moment and nothing else should matter. Nothing.
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.
After nearly five months in Italy, it has finally happened. I have officially turned into an Italian mamma or nonna or zia. Take your pick because the transformation for all of the above is the same. The first sign you are an Italian mamma or nonna or zia is the scent of your hands, which constantly smell of garlic and bleach. Sometimes, lemon gets in there, too. I first recognized this as the “perfume” of the Italian women in my family when I was a kid. No matter the time of day or the event (even at black-tie weddings), when my nonna or zie squeezed me hard, I caught a whiff of that garlic and bleach. At first, it made me gag, especially first thing in the morning. But now I associate the scent of garlic and bleach with admiration, strength, and most of all love.
Yesterday, in the shower, I noticed that I could not scrub enough. The garlic and bleach sticking to my skin wasn’t budging. The transformation is almost complete. Here are the other signs I’ve turned into an Italian mamma (or nonna or zia):
1. I wash my dishes with scalding hot water (by hand) every day. This one isn’t really my choice. We have no dishwasher in Italy. Still, I have a history of this behavior. One of my college roommates used to call me Teta (referencing her own grandmother) back when I was performing this trick at university. Listen, they just wouldn’t be clean without the suds and nearly boiling water. If my hands get red and the heat makes the garlic/bleach perfume stick, so be it. I also often wash clothes by hand, and this goes back to my college days and early 20s as well. I like pretty things, and they need to be cleaned, and sometimes the washing machine is your enemy. Oooh, did I just say that? Despite this, I will be kissing my dryer when I get home to the States because I HATE hanging clothes outside to dry and taking them inside to fold and folding them. (This and the fact that I don’t really iron might be a setback to the transformation.)
2. I cook everything from scratch. Again, this isn’t my choice. Here in Ischia, there are few shortcuts. There are no already-made pie crusts or Pillsbury biscuits that pop out of a carton and into the oven. And they don’t have the boxed cake mixes that I’ve often relied on in the States. So, I’m left with doing my cooking and baking the old-fashioned way. The good news is that everything tastes better, way better. Some things ended up being easier than I imagined. Chocolate and vanilla icing had always intimidated me and now I’ve made both with great success. I’ve had some failures, too, including my first attempt at cinnamon buns. But they became challenges that I worked hard to overcome. Eventually, I had success. Score for the Italian mamma!
3. While doing all this cleaning and cooking, I’ve worn a headscarf – close to a babushka – to keep my hair back, the sweat off my face, and as a preventative measure for headaches (my zia told me it would work, so there!). I think this says it all. I wore it with no shame and I really believe it prevents headaches, even though medical science repeatedly tells me that’s hogwash. Wait, this might be two signs I’ve entered Italian mamma-dom.
4. I have pope towels. Ok, this one also goes back some time. What are pope towels you ask? They are the kind of towels you reserve for when the pope is coming for a visit or that you use just for decoration and not for actual use. You don’t use these fancy towels for your average Giuseppe. I also have pope sheets, pope glasses, and pope espresso cups. I’m sure my collection of pope pieces will only grow over the years. When the collection is full, my transformation will be 100 percent complete. I wonder if some Italian nonna will then present me with a diploma that I could put on my resume.
Just about every Italian (at least the ones in Ischia) I have ever known has told me he hates cinnamon. “Non mangio cannella,” they say as I add cinnamon to all sorts of stuff I eat. I tell them most Americans love cinnamon. Haven’t they heard of the saying, “American as apple pie?” Well, cinnamon is a main ingredient in our national dessert, people. Since I’ve been in Italy for nearly five months now I have been starting to have cinnamon withdrawal. You can get cinnamon here – in tiny little packets similar to Sweet’N Low. I started to deal with my symptoms by eating whole wheat cinnamon toast with my son for breakfast. But it wasn’t enough. I decided to pull out the big guns and make cinnamon buns. The first time I made them was a disaster. I overheated the milk and water before adding the yeast, and the dough came hard and heavy. The next time, I nuked the milk and water for 30 seconds, rather than heating it on the stove (a tip from my mamma), before adding the yeast. And what I got was cinnamon perfection (as you can see in the photo above). For those who are interested, I used the Food Network Magazine’s recent recipe for cinnamon buns.
But I digress. Pretty much all my Italian family members, especially my husband, claim that they hate cinnamon. It makes them sick. They hate the smell. It’s disgusting. Yet, my husband couldn’t get enough cinnamon buns. He ate three in one sitting. Hellooooo, cinnamon is the star of cinnamon buns. The name gives it away. How can you hate the stuff and then eat three buns? These are also the same people who ask me to make apple pie every Thanksgiving. Yes, they know of and want to celebrate Thanksgiving, where cinnamon often makes numerous appearances. All this leads me to believe that Italians don’t hate cinnamon as much as they think they do. I think it’s high time giant Costco canisters of ground cinnamon become available in Italy. Bring it on.
The pace of life in southern Italy is traditionally slow. The people go home for lunch and stay for three hours. They nap in the middle of the afternoon – as I’ve mentioned before – to the point of snoring. And they actually refrain from calling or visiting friends from 3 to 5 p.m. because it’s nap time for kids and adults alike. As an American (and not just any American but one from the tri-state area, where slow doesn’t exist), I have always found this very slow rhythm of life annoying and inefficient. My frustration with this slow pace only gets worse in August. On Aug. 15 Italians celebrated Ferragosto, a pagan holiday that goes back centuries. This celebration is an excuse for the country to go on a month-long vacation. Seriously, many people get off from work for an entire month. In recent years, especially with the economic crisis, the vacation time has been cut, so some only have the last two weeks of the month off. But this is still in addition to whatever vacation time they have coming to them during the rest of the year. Crazy, right?
Now, here in Ischia things are a little different. This is a tourism mecca or trap, depending on who you talk to. If the rest of the country is on vacation, then islands like this are working overtime. The tourists come here in droves. In fact, my husband tells me that the island’s population triples in August. Even in this economic crisis, the streets are crowded, the gypsies are out in full force begging tourists for money, and the thieves taking advantage of unknowing tourists are making the rounds. And the natives are working day and night, which is wonderful for them because most of them only work for six months when the weather is warm and the beaches inviting and then they are usually unemployed for six months. This time of year is what counts for their pocketbooks and wallets. While they’re not really experiencing the siesta on steroids like the rest of the country, you shouldn’t feel too badly for them. Come November, they’ll all take off on their own vacations. And the island will hibernate.
In the meantime, these stinkin’ tourists strolling down the streets with their gelato in hand and sleeping on the beach with nothing to do are getting on my nerves. Don’t they have e-mails to send and phone calls to make? Diapers to change? Babies to feed? What about deadlines? How do they get them to simply go away? Arrrgghhh. I want to be an Italian on August holiday in my next life.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for flowers. The bright colors that spring from the bud, the lovely perfume that most send into the air like cupid shooting his arrow, and the symbolism of love and friendship get me every time. This might have something to do with being a landscaper’s daughter or it just might be the romantic in me. It’s no wonder my husband won my heart; one of his first grand gestures was sending me a bouquet of roses in my favorite color, pink, for my name day back in 2004. Yes, I know flowers – live ones anyway – are impractical because they wilt and die. But for the moments they are perked up, they bring me peace, comfort, and even joy. There’s nothing like a newly cleaned room with a bouquet of fresh flowers on the table. It might very well be my nirvana.
One of the benefits of living on the island of Ischia is that there are always some sort of plant in bloom. After all, this joint isn’t called L’Isola Verde (the Green Island) for nothing. These gifts from nature are not limited to gardens, such as La Mortella. The natives tend to have gardens, replete with veggies and flowers in their homes, even if they have only a window box.
On a recent walk in our town, Ischia Porto, which is the hub of the island, I came across these lovely red bougainvillea growing on an iron gate. Who can ignore bright red? It shouts to you without any words. The delicate flowers contrast beautifully with the cold, hard iron. It’s like the softness of a woman and the stoic nature of a man. While this image couldn’t be more traditional, that pop of color makes it modern. Woman, especially the Italian variety, might have a softness about her, but she sure isn’t a pushover. She will be heard. In fact, her voice is red and loud. Bougainvillea told me so.
One of the best aspects of living abroad for a bit is getting to go to a foreign supermarket on a regular basis. True, I’ve been coming to the ones here in Ischia since I was 2 years old, but they remain foreign and never cease to amaze. Besides always seeming to find treasures, such as the green apple juice above, which tastes like sour apple candy, it is also always an experience for the senses and the memory bank. For starters, these supermarkets are not super at all; they could be closets in the giant American ones I frequent back in New Jersey. This is an island, so the stores are pretty tiny. It’s hard to even get Baby Boy’s super-sized American stroller inside a few of them, including the one closest to our house.
On our last trip over the weekend, we went to a supermarket that was completely new to Baby Boy and me. It is considered to be the biggest one in Ischia with two floors separated by elevators. Consider it the penthouse of supermarkets on this here island. Upstairs you’ll find paper and party goods, cleaning supplies, and beauty supplies. Downstairs is all about the food. With more room to breathe, I thought for sure Baby Boy would behave. I think it just made him feel a little too comfortable, like he was back in the States. He began by taking off his shoes and throwing them into various aisles from the seat of the carriage. I picked them up and put them in my bag. I thought that would resolve the problem. Nope.
Instead, he insisted I carry him. Next, he wanted to be put firmly on the ground wearing nothing on his feet but socks. Since he’s heavy as a 30-lb. bag of flour, I obliged just for a minute. He spread his arms out like an eagle and ran down the aisle trying to knock over whatever was in reach. He managed to pummel and stumble over a couple of potties and some baby food before I snapped him up. Figures, he goes right for his own stuff. I thought it was Wal-Mart-like of the Ischitano supermarket to have goods like a potty right next to the food. There were also pots, pans, brooms, and shovels. I found it to be a baker’s paradise with all sorts of neat gadgets – tube pans, tart pans, little metal cupcake pans (which Italians wouldn’t use for cupcakes, but I would) and tons of ingredients for baked goods, including chocolate chips specifically for cookies and muffins (which I haven’t seen anywhere else). Then, there’s shaved chocolate, rainbow sprinkles, decorative marzipan and fondant, and slew of other sweet delights. I picked up some cupcake liners (which are extra small because Italians don’t use them for cupcakes) that look like the skin of a giraffe. Very cool.
When we were finally in line, my husband and I were rushing to pay the cashier and pack up all the stuff in the flimsy biodegradable bags; I know, they’re good for the environment but they barely make it home without a rip. Baby Boy had other ideas. He snatched a giant umbrella that was for sale and with his Hulk-like strength started waving it above his head. I took it away from him and put him back in the carriage for a moment. I turned around, and he began trying to climb out. He had one leg dangling over the side of the cart when my cousin, who happened to be in line behind us, alerted me to the situation. I had to hold him in one arm and pack bags with the other. The lesson: If you’re taking Baby Boy to the grocery store, make sure a relative is always the one behind you in line. Since this is the small island of Ischia, home to pretty much all my ancestors from the beginning of time, that shouldn’t be a problem. Oh, and don’t forget the green apple juice.
We’ve been in Italy for nearly four months, but it is starting to feel as though we’ve been here forever. The first sign of homesickness for me is the cravings I’m having for foods that I simply can’t find on a small island in Italy. I know what you’re thinking. The cuisine here, especially when cooked by the natives is superb, so why am I complaining? You’re absolutely right. When I’m in the States, I sometimes long for those fresh, melt-in-your mouth mussels and clams that I eat here. And I yearn for a Neapolitan tomato or pizza. But while I’m here in Ischia, I want tacos piled high with cheddar cheese and guacamole and lo mein and steamed pork dumplings and – God help me – I NEED a hamburger, a real American hamburger with a hot dog on the side. Of course, who could live without bacon? I know who. The Italians. They just don’t know what they’re missing. Indeed, I want that hamburger and that hot dog wrapped in thick, center-cut, smoky bacon with cole slaw and pickles and greasy New Jersey diner French fries on the side. There, I’ve done it. That’s the menu for my return to America next year. We better book an appointment with the emergency room, too, because if I eat all that I’ll probably go into cardiac arrest.
Obviously, Baby Boy and I are also big fans of bagels from the tri-state area (see photo above). We can’t even get those when we head south to Florida. In fact, it’s the one thing my sister, who lives in Florida, requests whenever she comes home to Jersey. And, in an ironic twist of fate, after having introduced Italian friends and family to the wonders of bagels, they request them when we return to Ischia, too. Yep, we have actually brought a dozen bagels (and come to think of it a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts) in our carry-on luggage as a souvenir for the Italians. We have also brought Italian sausage, marinated artichokes, and imported prosciutto (Italian ham), all of which are super available in Jersey where the majority of Italian Americans live, to my sister in Florida. Why am I telling you this? For Italians, food is home. Even if you are far, far away from the land that you love, you can get a taste of it in every bite of its cuisine. My heart is grumbling with hunger for New Jersey right now.