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.
Now that I’m back in the United States after living in Italy for nearly a year, I am reflecting on my time abroad. It was an adventure from start to finish. I never wanted to go for so long, but I can definitely say I’m stronger and wiser for it. I’m also pretty proud of myself for sticking it out on a small island with few conveniences, where I lived with 12 other people (all in-laws and my husband and son), and where I kept American hours (which meant working in the wee hours of the morning). Of course, I accomplished all this with the pitter patter of my 2-year-old son’s feet under my own. Out of my own sheer embarrassment, I’ll refrain from sharing the number of times sources I was interviewing for stories heard his cries or mischievous laughter and yelling in the background.
Still, I trudged forward. Recently, I compiled a list of the greatest lessons I learned during the experience for ItaliansRus. You can read about them for yourself in “What I Learned Living in Italy.” What you won’t learn from the story is just how bad I had it. The fact that I muddled by without the ability to watch any Real Housewives episodes – not even the crazy Italians in my Jersey – or eat a decent burger the entire time makes me a friggin’ hero if you ask me.
Sometimes, dinner in Italy seems like an afterthought. I mentioned yesterday how lunch is the star of Italian meals. As a result, sometimes people are so full that they barely even think about what to eat for dinner. Unlike those of us in the United States who eat dinner around 6 or 7 in the evening, Italians won’t even consider sitting down for a bite before 8 or 9 at night. Those young folks, who go out to restaurants for dinner, might not even make it there until 10 o’clock. I, an American, never did get used to this schedule. I still find myself starving at 7, unable to wait that other hour, for the nightly meal. Back when I was dating my husband and we’d go out to eat in Ischia, I would be falling asleep over my mussels in white wine sauce.
Now, the photo above features bruschetta, which is toasted Italian bread with olive oil (and sometimes cut garlic has been swiped across the toast for flavor) and is topped with toppings, most commonly tomatoes with basil, salt, and olive oil. This is basically the same thing as tomatoes and bread (just swap toasted bread for fresh), which I’ve mentioned my people, who work the land, eat for breakfast often. Well, Italians also eat this for dinner. The reason is that it’s light and refreshing. And the bread makes it filling. They might pair it with some fresh mozzarella or prosciutto di Parma. Or they will have a panini – a pressed sandwich – and a light salad for their meal. Still, there’s always bread.
If you haven’t noticed, Italians are carb-a-holics. Bread is always on the table. If you didn’t have pasta as your primo at lunch, you’ll probably have a dish of some sort of pasta for dinner. It’s usually something simple to make and a little lighter than what you would eat at lunch. You’ll skip the secondo, unless you’re going out to eat or it’s a holiday of some sort. Another favorite at dinner is pizza. In Ischia, right outside of Naples, which is pizza’s birthplace, you can get individual pies that have been cooked in a wood-burning stove that taste nothing like you’ve ever had before. Each bite of that thin, crunchy, perfectly charred crust is pure Paradiso. Pizza is the one meal that Italians believe calls for beer or Coca-Cola instead of wine, by the way. So, whip out the Peroni or Nastro Azzurro (depending on your preference) and chow down. Buon appetito!
Lunch in southern Italy is nothing short of a revelation. Unlike those of us in America, most Italians in the south get three hours off for lunch and it is an event everyday. School closes in time for the kids to go home and eat with their families. Stores close, even the supermarket. They won’t be open again until 5 or 6 in the evening. Everyone has to spend quality time with their family, take a rest (people even nap from 3 to 5), and mangia, mangia. As an American, I’m still shocked to see the locks on all the stores starting at 1 in the afternoon.
While I’m used to scarfing down a sandwich while sitting at my computer working during the lunch hour (how very American of me), the meal in Italy often consists of a “primo” and a “secondo,” which refers to a first and second plate. The primo is either soup, risotto, or more likely pasta of some sort. The second is either a fish or meat with a couple of side dishes (often a mixed, green salad and another vegetable). Many Italians finish off their meal with a piece of fruit that they chase with an espresso.
For special occasions, such as holidays, you’ll have antipasto (appetizers) before the primo and a dessert after the secondo. Recently, my husband, Baby Boy, and I went out to eat at Ischia Porto’s Baia del Clipper restaurant. There, we had antipasto of smoked swordfish and salmon, shrimp in a light lemon sauce, octopus salad (my favorite), and seaweed zeppoles. Then, we had linguine with mussels and clams. Our secondo was the baked fish in acqua pazza that you see above. Yes, it does translate to crazy water. And, yes, even the names of food are cool in the Boot.
Of course, we intended to stop there. But we passed by Bar de Maio, and its fior di latte gelato was calling our name. So, we picked up some fior di latte, vanilla, and Kinder cereal ice cream for the whole family – all 13 in-laws back home – and called it a day. Well, not until after we finished off that kilo of ice cream with the help of our loved ones, of course.
There is a limited number of acceptable breakfast foods in Italy. Italians don’t eat much first thing in the morning. One thing they never miss is their espresso. They might take a shot of it in a cup of warm milk (as in the photo above) or straight. Either way, they’re using the strong stuff to wake themselves up. Some of them dip day-old Italian bread in their espresso. Or they pick up one of those crunchy biscotti we’ve all come to know and love. Now, my family – contadini, who worked the land from the wee hours of the morning, – serve tomatoes and bread (with olive oil, salt, and basil) for breakfast regularly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either. I indulge more than I care to admit. My father, who is now an American, has taught us to live on the stuff.
The younger generation of Ischitani, who are much less likely to be turning over soil at 5 a.m., eat more traditional breakfast foods. For a treat, they head to their local bakery/bar (bars are for coffee, not alcohol, in Italy). There, they will have a favorite pastry and some of that espresso or even a warm cup of milk. During the holiday break, my husband and I walked over to Gran Caffe Vittoria in Ischia Porto for le trecce (the braids) in the photo above. Flaky, braided pastry is topped with cream and sugar. It certainly is a sweet way to start the day.
The new year has begun. And I’m busy making plans for it as I’m sure you are, too. The other day when I captured this beautiful moment in Ischia Porto, I thought I would use it to welcome 2014 on this blog. I thought you would enjoy it, but I also thought it was symbolic of a fresh, new start. You can’t tell if the sun is rising or setting, but either way it fits. If it’s rising, it is taking you to the new heights you hope to achieve in the next year. If it’s setting, it is allowing you to put the past behind you, so you can move forward. Seize the day and start hustling. When you manage to take a gorgeous photo like this one, be sure to post and share it. If that resolution doesn’t work for you, then try reading my latest Our Paesani column, “Italian-Inspired Resolutions.” Whatever you do, don’t waste the year. Do something.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Newlyweds Expert for About.com.
Over the weekend, my husband, Baby Boy, and I walked the streets in the town of Ischia Ponte searching for presepi, nativity scenes. These are not your ordinary creches. These are usually made entirely by hand, feature various scenes besides the Holy Family and Wise Men. And each is as unique as the artist (or artists) who create it. Often, they include depictions of life in the neighborhood in which it was made. My father makes one every year that takes up an entire room in his house and includes fountains, live plants, lights, and music. And the ones in Ischia, his home island, where he learned the art of the presepio, bring this tradition to a whole new level. For example, the photo above is of a folk musical troupe that would also build roofs for townspeople in Ischia. They would sing and keep time with the sticks and tools used to flatten the roof. My own grandfather played the clarinet for the group. Many in the group would also dress in costume for ‘Ndrezzata, a traditional folk song and dance that can only be played by those from the town of Buonopane. Nonno was on board for that, too. And those performers, who continue to put on shows today, also made it into this presepio. See below for this and other photos from other presepi around town. Trust me, the pictures don’t do justice to their magnificence.
‘Twas the day after Christmas, not a creature was stirring, not even an Ischitani. The island of Ischia was pretty much closed today as people continued to revel. Today is Santo Stefano in these here parts, so the holiday continues. And there was terrible weather to boot (not like in the photo above). The streets were empty and the stores were all closed and locked. So, I thought I’d just retire early and leave you this fabulous image of Castello Aragonese in one of its quieter moments. It is the focal point of the island, which is connected by a bridge in the town of Ischia Ponte. And it’s a great place to go when you’re deep in self-reflection, like when the new year is upon us and no one else seems to be around.
We’re on the small Italian island of Ischia and for nearly nine months we’ve been living with my in-laws. And in our little apartment within the house, we have three dollar-store stockings I managed to sneak into our luggage back in April and a couple of Christmas signs and a tablecloth that my mom sent from the United States. Otherwise, we’ve got nothing. My in-laws have their own traditions and their own Christmas tree in a common area of the house. But it’s not the same thing for me. I like to put out my decorations every year, and sit in the house with the Christmas lights on while I sip on hot chocolate and listen to holiday tunes or watch a holiday movie. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t satisfied.
So, I got to work. My first request was that everyone in the family turn over tubes of toilet paper after they were finished. The joke was that I wanted everyone to get a case of the runs. With 13 people in one house we found no problem getting enough tubes for both my presepio (nativity scene) and my tree (above). I know other moms who collect toilet paper tubes for projects year round, so you might already have enough. This is a great Christmas Eve project if you’re at a loss as to what to do with the kids.
Once you have the tubes, you cover them with green construction paper. I used tape to attach the paper. Then, I attached one tube to another with staples to make the rows. I used staples to attach rows as they stacked them on top of each other to build the tree. I wrapped ribbon around the tree and made a knot at the top. Then, I tied another small piece of ribbon to the knot to make the tree topper of four ribbon strands.
Originally, I wanted to put little, red glass balls in each tube for decorations. I expected to have a couple of different styles or designs in the same color. Instead, I had to settle for white styrofoam balls at the hardware/craft/everything store in Ischia. I thought I’d paint the balls but Baby Boy’s water-based paint was never going to stick. So, I just put glue on the balls, wrapped them in red tissue paper, and let them dry. Then, I placed them inside each tube with a bit of tape on the bottom to get them to stay in place. I made the base of the tree with three toilet paper tubes and then wrapped them in the same ribbon as the topper. This is our Christmas tree this year. It works perfectly because my son can’t do much damage to this one. I guess it was a blessing there were no glass balls available on the island.
If you’re in Italy and you forgot to pick up a gift for a friend or relative, you can run to your local supermarket and improvise – even if it’s Christmas Eve. I’ve already mentioned how much of an education it is to walk around a foreign supermarket. Well, it was a joy to do so during the holiday season. Ischia’s supermarkets are full of even more treasures this time of year. On a few of our recent trips, I brought a camera, so I could share the experience with you. Here is what those last-minute shoppers in Ischia might be picking up today: