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:
Forget the reindeer. On the small island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy, Babbo Natale (a.k.a. Santa) drives a motorino and sports a backpack in place of a sack. After all, these adjustments make it much easier to navigate those tiny cobblestone streets on Christmas Eve. I myself have fond memories of walking down the streets of Ischia, only to have to lean up against the wall and suck in my gut to let a car get by without running me over. I can’t even imagine how a sleigh and eight reindeer would manage. And there are other signs that we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto (or my native New Jersey for that matter). Here is a photo tour of the signs of the season you’ll come across should you walk around Ischia nowadays:
Some Italians have a Christmas tree, but all Italians have a presepio or nativity scene. Here on the island of Ischia, which is a province of Naples, the nativity scene is elevated to art. Naples’ sculptors create pieces for the presepio that truly are magnificent and unique. And people don’t just put the traditional scene of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus in their presepio. Their presepio features intricate towns, fantasy lands, their favorite soccer players, historical figures, lights, music, live plants, anything you can imagine. My own father creates one every year that features fountains, live plants, grass, hundreds of figurines and ceramic houses, lights, and music and takes up an entire room in his house. (You can check out his 2009 version in a YouTube video.) Each presepio is different and features the signature of the artist who created it.
Well, my presepio this year says that I care about the environment and want to be playful. I also really wanted to create something that was appropriate for my kid (read: not breakable). Those hand-carved Neapolitan statues are gorgeous, but my son would throw them around like they were G.I. Joe figures. So, I settled on using toilet paper tubes, construction paper, the remnants of a bomboniere (a party favor that consisted of a cloth pouch tied with silk ribbons and filled with Jordan almonds), and a gold tray from the local pastry shop (leftover from one of my husband’s macaron runs). Here is the final product:
If I was home in the States, I would have included hay or grass. Here, I had to settle for a green, plastic tablecloth featuring leaves. But I did pick up some gorgeous pine cones in Ischia’s pine tree forests.
All the figures are made of toilet paper tubes that I covered in paper. Jesus is an exception. He’s covered in pieces of one of my son’s old onesies (and his body is half a toilet paper tube, in case you were wondering). His manger is made of part of that pastry shop tray and is sitting atop a plastic ring that once held Scotch tape. That ribbon around Jesus’ blanket is from a gift we received. And Joseph’s head covering is part of that bomboniere, while Mary’s is another piece of onesie.
These three really steal the spotlight because of their bright colors and details. Their sashes are part of that bomboniere again, and their crowns are the rest of the pastry shop tray.
The shepherd’s sash is another ribbon from a gift. The lamb is covered in cotton stuffing that also came in that bomboniere. And I had pipe cleaners leftover from those Halloween spiders I made, which came in handy for that thing the shepherd holds and the legs.
My mom had sent my son craft kits to make foam tree ornaments in the shape of Santa and a reindeer. She also sent that snowflake star, which is supposed to have a picture in it. I opted for some yellow paper because we didn’t have any stars (which many Italian presepio feature) or lights. I put these foam crafts together – with Baby Boy, of course – and attached them either to toilet paper tubes (in the case of Santa and the reindeer) or directly to the kitchen towels covering the top of the presepio (in the case of the snowflake star). That angel, by the way, is made of paper scraps, more ribbon from a box of chocolate we received as a gift, and an old doll’s braided hair. I’m pretty proud of myself, and I’ve been enjoying taking in my work every morning as I get my clothes out of that dresser. Baby Boy is constantly trying to rearrange the pieces. No worries, the worst that can happen is he’ll get a paper cut.
Ok, so it’s not Rockefeller Center. Not even close. But once again for a small, Italian island Ischia is doing all right for itself. In honor of the holidays (and as a way to draw in the crowds during an economic crisis), the town of Ischia Porto has become home to an ice rink. For 6 euro per half hour in the rink, you can glide, spin, and fall just as you would in New York City’s world famous Rockefeller Center at the holidays. And there are crowds every night. My nephew waited in line for nearly two hours to take to the ice Saturday night. There’s music and, for the natives, a slew of family and friends chatting and sipping on Coca-Colas while trying skates on for size and getting familiar with ice, something islanders know little of. It’s the spirit of Christmas and it’s beautiful…until you slide across the cold stuff on your fanny. Buon natale!
Visitors of Ischia Porto have been heading to the Bosco Incantato (which means Enchanted Woods) to walk among the creatures made of lights in honor of the holiday season for the last week. There are reindeer (see photo above), butterflies that hang overhead in the trees, flamingos by the man-made pond, and pegasi (that’s the plural of pegasus for those, like me, who might be confused). As you enter, you hear the sounds of nature, and the lights are so bright that you feel as though it might be daylight in some parts. It’s the perfect combination of technology (Christmas lights and audio) and nature (the Green Island’s pine trees and verdant grounds). The bosco brings together the wonders of Christmas and had my little guy mesmerized, at least the first two times he went.
Located in one of Ischia Porto’s pinete (pine tree forests), this exhibit is a must-do for anyone on the island this time of year. Despite being a tourist destination, Ischia is usually quiet during the holidays. Its high season is from July to September, with the bulk of the tourists coming in August. In December, most of the hotels and restaurants are closed or only open on weekends, and many of the natives have taken off for either warmer climates or other job opportunities. So, there’s not much else going on. Those who are living in Ischia Porto, in fact, bring their kids practically every night. Baby Boy has been to the woods, in all its bright glory, four times now.
Did I mention the Bosco Incantato is free to the public? This is a big deal in the middle of Europe’s economic crisis, when people are watching every euro. To be fair, there are a line of kiosks across the street selling all sorts of stuff, including roasted peanuts, handmade decorations, and the most coveted candy apples (these are a novelty in a country that knows not of this treat). In other words, your kid might catch a glimpse of one of these goodies and there goes that “free” night. Still, it’s relatively inexpensive and it could be completely free.
I have to hand it to Ischia. This is cute. Granted, many Americans have these kinds of light displays on their own front lawns, and the drive from work, as you pass by all the shockingly bright houses, can be like a walk through the Bosco Incantato. But for a small, Italian island, it’s sweet and is definitely drawing the crowds (err, consumers for those kiosks). If you can’t make it to Ischia, here’s a photo tour:
If you’re looking for the freshest fish, then you should just walk right up to the fishermen docked in Ischia Ponte near the island’s historic landmark, Castello Aragonese. I’ve seen them pluck an octopus right from the ocean, put it in a plastic bag, and hand it to a customer. Although I haven’t been the customer myself, I’ve been with family and friends, who were. Whether I’m in the market for the freshest fish (and the most delicious) I’ll ever have or not, I always get a kick out of seeing the fishermen at work (or kicking back) depending on what’s goin’ on. I’m willing to bet that come Christmas Eve, the Ischitani are going to be stalking these guys while preparing for the Feast of the Seven (or 14 or more) Fishes.
Sunday is funday in most Italian houses (even for some of us who usually live outside Italy). It’s a chance to get together with the extended family and talk and eat and eat and eat some more. Notice a theme? Well, last Sunday (yesterday) was a religious holiday in Italy; it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the day set aside for decorating for the holidays. Even though my in-laws live together and eat together every day, yesterday they put out a special spread. The star of the show was the meat we grilled right in the family fireplace. We also regularly char our bread in there. Talk about snap, crackle, and pop!
Sausage and lamb fresh from the fire was an experience. I’m not a big fan of lamb, but that sausage was crispy on the outside and smoky and flavorful on the inside. It was a delicious start to the holiday season and brought me back to childhood. My father would bring us to Italy, have us a hike the mountains of Buceto (a wooded area here in Ischia), make a fire, and cook a picnic for us. The scent of the fire is all it takes to bring me back to those happy moments, and the addition of the meat made those long-ago days seem all the more recent.
The holidays are a wonderful time to pay homage to your heritage. I enjoy participating in both American and Italian traditions. You can be sure that I’ll be baking up lots of holiday cookies like my American friends and family. And I’ll also be taking in the various presepi (nativity scenes) around Ischia this year. Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without fish, which would be the case in the United States or Italy. So, what about you? What Italian holiday traditions will you be featuring in your celebrations? Take our poll to the right of this blog post.
On a stroll through Ischia Ponte on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy, my husband and I spotted this truck turned cart. The bursts of festive red are, of course, hot peppers on strings (like all good Ischitani have in their kitchens, too). And Babbo Natale (a.k.a. Santa) is sharing the spotlight with limoncello in creative bottles shaped like moons and genie bottles. Now, does this mean we have to leave out biscotti and limoncello for Italian Santa? So much to learn, so little time.
On clear days when I’m strolling the beach near my in-laws’ home in Ischia, Italy, I can see Mount Vesuvio (Mount Vesuvius) towering above the homes and touching the clouds. Around here, Vesuvio is looked at with both awe and fear. While the image of the only active volcano on Europe’s mainland makes for a great picture and an interesting skyline for Naples, this volcano is considered one of the world’s most dangerous. It is the one famously responsible for the annihilation of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. The last time it erupted was in 1944, when it killed 26 people. And it is eventually going to blow again. It’s only a matter of time. Geologists warn that it won’t be as kind this time around. This fact has turned guessing when Vesuvio will erupt into constant dinner debate around here. “Povera gente,” or “Poor people,” ends every one of these discussions because there are 18 towns at the base of the volcano and those folks will be in grave danger of losing everything, including their lives. After reading an article on HowStuffWorks about what will happen when Vesuvio erupts, I learned that the Italian government keeps vigil in the hopes that it will be able to evacuate people at least 72 hours before an eruption. Apparently, the government also offered money for people to move away from the volcano, but few people accepted. They live in the shadows of one of the most dangerous volcanoes, and they still can’t be bought – at least not at that price ($46,000). Figures, Neapolitans are so badass they think they can take on a volcano!