Gooey, chewy chocolate chip cookies, paired with an ice cold glass of milk, are almost as comforting as mamma’s warm embrace. When you’re jonesing for one on a small island off the coast of Naples, Italy and your mamma is nowhere to be found, you end up agreeing to a hug from some large-breasted zia – who is really your neighbor and not a blood relative at all – and in whose chest your nose ends up getting stuck. Instead of feeling warm and fuzzy, you usually just feel violated. And you still want that dang chocolate chip cookie. Alas, Chips Ahoy are hard to come by here. Let’s face it, nothing beats a fresh-from-the-oven, homemade cookie anyway.
You think, “I have an oven, two hands, and my recipe on this Godforsaken island, so why not make the cookies myself?” Well, it’s the ingredients that get you. Classic chocolate chip cookies require brown sugar. When you ask people on Ischia for brown sugar, they hand you raw cane sugar. It’s brown, but it’s not brown sugar. Next, you begin dreaming up ways to make your own brown sugar. But that requires molasses. The reaction from the natives when you ask for sweet, sweet molasses is, “Molahhhsss, che?” It basically translates to, “Mole ass, what?”
So, I never realized how American chocolate chip cookies were until I spent even more significant time with Italians. Bet you didn’t think that was possible, right? After all, I grew up with a father who grew up in Ischia and a mom, whose father grew up in Ischia. Still, I never knew that my deprived ancestors – on top of having to climb out of poverty, go to school only until the third or fifth grade, and pee and poop in an outhouse – only learned of the sacred chocolate chip cookie when they moved to the States. I took the cookie for granted. The islanders had no idea what they had been missing.
When my husband and I got married nearly five years ago and his family came to the United States for our vow renewal ceremony (shortly after we married in Italy), my mother would serve up Nestle chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven after dinner every night. My in-laws had never seen or eaten a chocolate chip cookie. But it was love at first bite. Now, they wanted me to make the cookies when I was in Italy. But I didn’t know what to do without brown sugar. A few of them attempted to make them with white sugar and failed miserably.
For the first time last week (as a Mother’s Day gift to my sisters-in-law, who craved the chocolate chip so), I made the chocolate chip cookie successfully without brown sugar. I can not take any of the credit for it was another blogger, who came up with the recipe that saved us from our cookie-free life on this isolated isola. If you want one of the best chocolate chip cookies ever, make the recipe at How to Simplify. We Italian islanders are forever in your debt, Jen Tilley.
Baby Boy’s little cousin calls him Dragon because he’s usually a spitfire without words. She builds tall towers with blocks for herself because she’s a princess, and Baby Boy comes running to knock them down. She yells, “Dragon, Dragon!” Then, the two of them giggle and fall to the ground together before arguing over one toy or another. It’s love and hate – but mostly love – with those two. On the day we left New Jersey for a nine-month stay in Italy, they had one last battle in which he tore out a chunk of her beautiful blond locks and she bit his back – and left a mark to remember her by. In the end, they hugged each other tightly. Baby Boy screamed when we tried to put him in the car headed for the airport. It was as if he understood he’d be leaving behind his best friend and worst, but favorite, enemy.
On the plane, the kind stewardess, who is a mom to a three-year old, tried to give him the kind of milk that comes from powder, so it lasts longer. He spit it in all our faces. Then, he cried – yelled actually – for about an hour while everyone else was trying to sleep. I could get him to calm down for a moment or two in the restroom, but we couldn’t stay in there forever. Finally, he cried himself to sleep. It wasn’t so bad after that. He drank water, not milk to which he has a serious addiction.
When we arrived at my in-laws’ home in Ischia, he was greeted by his three aunts, their husbands, his four cousins, and Nonna, all of whom live in the same house with us. Even though he met everyone and spent three months in Ischia last year, he wouldn’t greet them. He stayed in my arms, hesitantly smiled when one of them tried to kiss or hug him. He was, however, keen to grab the ball and start kicking it to everyone in the garden out back. And he really appreciated the colored pencils that his relatives had put in the playroom they set up for him, replete with kid-sized table and chairs, a toddler bicycle, and other various toys. Still, this 19-month-old wasn’t quite the Dragon yet. He wasn’t knocking anything down, and there was no fight in him.
We figured he was desperate for a fix of milk. When we handed him his cup full of fresh milk that my mother-in-law had purchased just for him, he took a sip, spit it out, and threw the cup at us. He did, however, eat up the yummy Nutella filled cake with a Toy Story design on it that his aunt made just for his arrival. But it wasn’t enough of an effort for him to go to her, even though she had bathed him a hundred times the year before. In fact, she was the one, who helped him – not to mention me – get through a month-long plight of diarrhea that he faced on our last trip. He didn’t seem to remember or he remembered and wanted to forget.
Maybe he was tired. It was a long, long trip, after all. So, we went to sleep. And Baby Boy slept an unbelievable and unprecedented 16 hours. This is the Dragon. He has never slept 16 consecutive minutes, never mind 16 consecutive hours. By the next week, he still wasn’t coming around. Whenever his relatives tried to make a move toward him, he would hold onto my husband and I as if his life were in danger. He would sometimes smack their shoulders or faces to get them to move away, and he would always say, “No, no, no, no, no…”
I was getting embarrassed and hurt for the in-laws. I could tell they were disappointed, too. They kept saying that he should be used to the Old World again already. I knew different. He was in a different country, where everyone spoke a different language (even if it is one he has grown up around), and he left behind all his stuff in his house where only three of us lived, and I was certain he missed his American relatives, too. It would take more than a few days to get used to so much change.
At the end of the first week, Baby Boy and I curled up in bed for a Sunday afternoon nap, and he began burning up. It was day one of a week of fever. The Dragon was on fire himself. As it turns out he had an ear infection. His eyes seemed to be infected, too, and he had puss on his throat. He began taking antibiotics, which would give him – you guessed it – more diarrhea. His bottom turned as red as the tomatoes that rise like Jack’s beanstalk around here. Now, he wouldn’t even get in the bath tub because it burned to the touch and especially when washing with soap. The only person he wanted, of course, was me, his mommy.
Despite having to work nights (keeping American hours for my editors), I was happy to hold him in my arms and dote on him. He seemed to need some coddling and cuddling. And I was sad, too. I missed our home for just the three of us back in N.J. I missed working days. I missed my own mommy and papa’, not to mention the princess and the rest of the gang in our American fairy tale. But I didn’t want him to suffer, and I was worried this would turn into another month – or even longer – of sickness in Italy. We were both heart sick enough. We didn’t need an actual ailment, too.
There was some good news. Baby Boy started to take to the Italian milk and we were putting probiotic in it to help his stomach deal with the change in country and antibiotics. Soon, he was drinking milk with pleasure, relishing every sip as he had the American version. A week later when the Giro d’Italia came to town, we took him outside for the first time since he fell ill. He had gone a whole day without fever. I put him in his Dragon shirt (see above) and we first headed to church to say a prayer for him and for us.
In the photo above, he was still a sad, little boy. Every once in a while, he would have a tantrum, and he would throw himself onto the cold tile floor with tears streaming down his face and scream. Then, he’d jump up, run into a dark room, lay his head on the bed, and cry some more. Often, nothing seemed to lead up to one of these episodes. We’d have no idea what set him off. Sometimes, he’d look as pensive as an adult trying to decide his future. Once he asked for Nonna and ran to the computer, signaling he wanted to talk to his American nonna on Skype. When she wasn’t available, he got angry. When she finally arrived, he wouldn’t talk to her and yelled, “No, no, no” to her, too. When his cousins, the princess and her baby brother, came to visit him on the computer, he would cry and run away or just ignore them.
Yesterday, we had a break through. He still won’t take a bath, so we’ve had to fan water from the bidet onto his fanny. While the odor he is now giving off is starting to get to us, he doesn’t seem to mind. But he offered a piece of bread to his zio and giggled when he tickled him. He played with his older cousins and aunts for hours and even let them feed him. And he let all his relatives kiss him good morning today. He ran through the house and laughed and babbled. Now, he sleeps peacefully in his stroller after a long walk in Ischia. The Dragon seems to have made a comeback. If only we could get the princess over here to build a tower!
The one plus to living on a small Italian island is that the beach is always moments away. In fact, we just have to walk a couple of blocks from our door to arrive at the beach here on Ischia. That’s a big deal for a girl from north Jersey, who is used to at least an hour in the car before hitting the ocean. I’ve enjoyed photographing the ocean and beach ever since I came to Ischia with my parents when I was 12. I had been to the island before, but at 12 I wanted to bring back images to share the trip with my friends. Ever since then, I’m always snapping away.
The other night, while walking with my husband and son, I took this shot above and the ones below of San Pietro beach, which is in Ischia’s main hub, Ischia Porto. I’m no professional photographer, so I realize these are not very special pics. The sun’s glare as it descends is too overpowering. But I still love the look of these pictures when I set them to sepia as you see here. It definitely makes me think about an old-fashioned summer – girls in one-piece ’50s bathing suits, guys in vintage board shorts, ice cream cones, hanging under the boardwalk, and cruising with the songs of summer blaring from the radio. Too bad I am too young to have ever experienced such a memory and that Ischia – like the rest of Italy – does not even know what a boardwalk is. You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the girl. I have a funny feeling, I’ll be writing that a lot over the next eight and a half months on the island.
Yesterday, the Giro d’Italia, which is Italy’s Tour de France, returned to Ischia after 54 years. The last time these competing cyclists came to Ischia, my father was present and still living in Ischia. In fact, it was his last hurrah before moving to the United States in 1960. This time around, I was present, having recently arrived from the States for a nine-month stay on my ancestor’s island. Because the irony was not lost on me, I wrote a story about it that was posted today on ItaliansRus.com. Check it out and see more photos from the Giro in the story and below.
On July 2, Enzo and I – along with my sister Rosaria, who had joined us in Italy just a few days earlier – headed back to the United States after three months in Italy living with my husband and his family. We had a bit of a heavy heart since Antonio, my husband and Enzo’s papa’, was staying behind. But we were looking forward to Enzo’s first fourth of July in America (which turned out to be beautiful despite the jet lag). Returning home was also a relief to me. Enzo had been sick for an entire month in Italy, and it is much more difficult to work from the remote island of Ischia, which is six hours ahead of most of my colleagues and sources in the States. Plus, I’ve had my fill of Ischia in general. I have very, very few friends there nowadays, and I haven’t kept up with most of my relatives. Other than my husband’s family with whom we live while in Ischia, I’m a bit isolated. Thank God for the beach, where Enzo and I spent the warmer days, and my in-laws, who shed more than a few tears bidding farewell to little Enzo. You can check out all the fun he had with Zia Rosaria and our Italian family in the photo album, “Ciao Italia 2012.”
Enzo has been a beach bum of late. I’ve been taking him to the beach near my mother-in-law’s house in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. A trip to Ischia is incomplete, after all, without a few days on the beach. Since the first time we went a few weeks ago, Enzo has been fascinated by sand. He looks at it on his hand as if he’s a scientist making a completely new discovery that will enhance humanity. We brought a Winnie the Pooh bath tub with us and filled it with ocean water, and he enjoys sitting in it, splashing water onto his sunbathing cousins, and dragging sand into it. He also likes digging into the sand with a shovel and sand toys. He recently tried to sweep the garden, too. While his cousin was carrying him, he picked up the broom in the garden and started dragging it back and forth across the patio. He definitely has some of nonno’s landscaping genes. In fact, if it were up to Enzo we’d live in a tree in the backyard and eat all day there. Sounds like nonno has found someone to move with him to Buceto (the woods in Ischia). If you want to join Enzo on the beach, you can check out the “Beach Baby” photo album.
Baby boy can hardly wait to eat grown-up food. Whenever we’re eating, he can’t take his eyes off the table. He tries to get his hands into everything. And he eats his own food as if it were the most delicious thing he’s ever had (and I suppose it is, for now). His meal times come replete with the noises of pleasure – mmmmhhhmmmm, oooohhhh, aahh. After about one month of diarrhea and losing weight in Ischia, he is back to his old self and we can finally feed him his faves – sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, turkey, and the rest – again. He can’t get enough of it. And if he could, he’d probably eat us, too. In fact, he sometimes tries to bite his cousins’ arms and legs, which is only fair because everyone gives him love bites. His cousin Giulia calls him a cuginavore (eater of cousins). Now, if only he would get a tooth – at least one – he’d be all set for chomping the good stuff, including pizza and tomatoes and bread, all of which he seems to long for. Teeth or no teeth, he’s still trying to get at the pasta (see photo above when we visited our friend’s restaurant Trattoria Il Focolare in Cretaio in Ischia). For more fun photos of Enzo from the last few weeks, check out these photo albums –
Enzo at San Francesco Beach – This is Enzo’s first time in the sand and really getting to see the ocean. This is also my new favorite beach in Ischia. It was always in the running, but now I’ve decided to give it top billing for its sunshine, ambiance, and view of Forio in Ischia. We had taken Enzo down the shore in Jersey during the winter, but it was so cold and rainy that we spent most of the time in a restaurant on the Boardwalk and we never went on the sand. He still hasn’t dipped into the ocean yet. Maybe next week, depends on the weather.
Enzo on Walk in Ischia – Spending time with his Italian cousins is a main priority for Enzo, which is why he was so happy to take a leisurely walk in Ischia Porto (with Ischia Ponte in the background) with cousins Giulia and Laura. Zia Paola was driving the carriage to boot. And Mamma tagged along.
Enzo at Focolare – Here, you’ll see Enzo loving the outdoors and dreaming of the food he will eat when teeth finally make an appearance at our friend’s fabulous family restaurant in Ischia.
After battling a rash that was probably an allergic reaction to something and a terrible stomach flu that had him going diarrhea for seven days, Baby Boy finally started feeling like his old self again. He’s still dealing with teething, which is keeping us all up at night. But he was able to get out and about again. Our first stop was Ischia Ponte, where his father and I indulged in some fresh seafood before taking pictures of our boy in front of Castello Aragonese. To see the few sunny moments Baby Boy experienced while sick and just after recovery, visit the “Recovery” photo album.
We spent my first Mother’s Day with the family at home, and Baby Boy and his papa’ gave me a lovely bracelet that is pink and looks like rope but is actually copper. Very cool. The best gift came from Baby Boy a few days before Mother’s Day when he said mama for the first time. Finally!
Even though I’ve been visiting Ischia since I was 2 years old and I’ve been married to my Ischitano husband for nearly four years, I still experience some form of culture shock every time I step foot on the island. This time around might have been the worst yet. My seven-month-old son had diarrhea for seven days straight. There was one day that he made a total of 10 poop bombs. He cried. I cried. On top of this, he already a rash of red bumps all over his back and bottom. With the diarrhea came diaper rash. At one point, he had the rash, which we thought was some sort of allergic reaction, and the diaper rash at the same time. His backside looked like a tomato and it probably felt like a hot pepper.
When the pooping first began, since he already had the rash, everyone, including the doctors here attributed it to some sort of allergy. Meanwhile, there was a stomach virus going around the island. After a few days and some cortizone cream, the rash started to go away, but the diarrhea became more intense. We tried one medicine that seemed to put my baby in a catatonic state, which scared the bejeezus out of everyone. We took him to the hospital, where they found that he was hydrated but gave him different medicine to control the diarrhea. On the eighth day, despite still pooping a little too often, the diarrhea finally stopped.
I was worn out from the culture shock. It came in the form of my inability to voice an opinion over his medical care. I don’t know the medications here or the terminology for different illnesses. The doctors were perfectly kind and gave me good direction. (In fact, the main doctor he sees here is my cousin and she’s an excellent physician.) But because you’re in another part of the world with their different ways and beliefs, you’re at the will of others. My in-laws and husband directed me on what to feed the baby. I had little choice because I also have to use what’s available here. He lived on cream of rice, fennel tea, and my breastmilk for weeks. Now, he’s finally eating some good ol’ fashioned American oatmeal again, and he’s just starting fruits and veggies. Even though I’m the mom, I didn’t have much say. I had to let go and trust the folks here. Although I’ll be grateful when I’m back in my own element and can call the shots with my own kid, I’m glad everything turned out all right. And Baby Boy is finally feeling better. Through it all and to his credit, he always had a smile on his face.
During the winter in the States, my niece would always stand by the door or window and say, “Outside.” She wanted us to take her outside like we used to when the weather was nice and warm. I would explain that it was too cold and it became dark earlier than it had during the summer and early fall, and we couldn’t go outside. And she would respond, “Outside.” I’d explain again, and she again would say, “Outside.” I think you can imagine how the next hour would be for us. Well, for the entire time we were in Ischia, Enzo and I were up at the window, saying, “Outside.” We couldn’t go outside either. It was raining, cold, damp – one big mess. But last weekend, the stars aligned and Antonio did not have to work and the sun was shining long enough for us to take a couple of walks. It still wasn’t hot, but lovely enough to finally go “outside.” Join us on our walks outside by clicking on the photo album, “Outside in Ischia.”
Week three also brought a big milestone. Enzo said his first word – papa’. We thought it might be a fluke, but he has said it a million times since. He says it every time he’s crying and annoyed that mamma is trying to change his diaper or clothes. Most of the time, he yells it. Papaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’! My husband is thrilled, but you can imagine how I feel about it.