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.
The summer heat always brings out the Latin lover in us all. So, it’s the perfect time for the release of my latest Our Paesani column on ItaliansRus.com. This one is about the facts of dating in Italy. Before you book a ticket to the Boot in the hopes of meeting Mr. Right, get your facts straight about dating customs and real Italian men. Trust me, there’s more to them than those firm bodies and bedroom eyes. As my zio tells my single sister, “Don’t trust the wooden nickel.” Ok, so I don’t really know what that means, but I know that you should be cautious about trusting Italian men, who I’m assuming are like wooden nickels. Good guess, right?
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.
Italians don’t know of cupcakes. They are simply not among the menu of desserts that Italian mammas whip up in their kitchen. But who doesn’t like a cupcake, right? So, on the 4th of July I introduced my Italian relatives to the wonders of biting into an icing-laden, moist funfetti cupcake. And last weekend – oops – I did it again. Only this time around, I made some with vanilla icing, some with chocolate icing, and all with way more decoration. I used rainbow sprinkles, Oreos for Mickey Mouse ears, and white chocolate shavings (those are not in the photo). Since this was my third attempt at making cupcakes and icing from scratch, I had gotten significantly better at it. No one in the house seemed able to resist ’em, least of all me. (I used the same confetti cupcake recipe as last time, the same chocolate frosting recipe, and this super easy vanilla frosting recipe.)
Cupcakes are every American moms go-to treat. It is what you make for your kids’ birthdays and holidays. And there’s something about cupcakes – tiny individual cakes – that makes you feel special and cozy and loved. Well, I was happy to share this bit of Americana with my Italian family. I owe them; after all, they provide me with authentic Neapolitan pizza, homemade tomato sauce, and all the home-grown fruits and veggies I can eat. Indeed, my favorite cultural exchanges are the kind I can bite into. And boy, I could go for a cultural exchange right now. How ’bout you?
Well, the heat has finally descended upon southern Italy, and it is brutal. Before having a baby, I could handle the hot days without much air conditioning. Yes, I am an American who comes from the land of 24/7 AC. God bless America! But I understand that electricity costs are triple in Italy what they are in the States. So, I reserve AC use here for a couple hours in the evening, so we can fall asleep more easily or in the afternoon if I have to turn on the oven to cook something. The homes in Ischia are built of cement with tile floors and there’s always that precious sea breeze, so with the windows open, you can usually survive, especially if you are sitting at a computer with a fan under it most of the day. Plus, on your days off, you can always go to the beach.
Still, now that I have Baby Boy by my side, the heat is getting to me. We don’t make it to the beach nearly as much as I would like because of my insane work hours, and Baby Boy doesn’t allow for the sedentary lifestyle of yesteryear in Italia. He’s always running and jumping, so I’m always running and jumping after him. At the moment, he is sleeping (with a bit of AC on in his room), and I’m in the kitchen typing away as beads of sweat crawl down the small of my back despite the fan pummeling me with air. By the way, the Italian mammas might run me out of the country for leaving on the AC for my sleeping babe; they believe air conditioning is terrible for your health. It’s something about crooked necks and arthritis and pneumonia. I’m not sure. All I know is that with the heat wave, I am once again longing for a ticket to air conditioned U.S.A. Instead, I’ll have to settle on sneaking the AC for Baby Boy and letting him puddle jump after one of his outdoor showers to keep cool. Take that anti-AC Italy!
When the son of ItaliansRus editor Anthony Parente wanted to know about the kinds of clothes Italian teens were wearing, I decided to turn my answer into a story for the site. After all, when in Italy, I live with three teen girls. So, I know the kinds of clothes they like to wear (and what they ask me to bring them from the States). One thing Italians have been liking lately are clothing items sporting the American flag. As a patriot, I’m happy to drape them all in the red, white, and blue. Check out the story, “Inside an Italian Teen’s Closet,” to find out what else the young people of southern Italy are wearing these days.
Now is the time of year when Italians the world over insist that their tomatoes are redder and bigger than yours. My father will bring relatives in his New Jersey garden, show off his tomatoes, and take down anyone who puts down his pomodori. He is certain to harvest his treasures before every chance of rain to ensure none of them split or rot. And he’s even hidden them from guests, who might want to take a bite out of one of his tomatoes. The eggplant and zucchini he is happy to give away. But the tomatoes are his pride and joy. Italians reading this are thinking, “So what? Doesn’t everyone act like this?”
At the moment, I’m living in Ischia, where this competition is almost an art form. Giving someone tomatoes from your garden is a way of both demonstrating that you should win the contest, but it is also a great honor for the recipient. Since I don’t grow tomatoes myself, I often get to be a judge. This means that people bring me their tomatoes, and I have to make the sacrifice of eating them. Boo-hoo, I know. My husband and I have decided that we could live on only tomatoes and bread (bathed in great olive oil and basil fresh from the garden, of course). This is our way of saying to the tomato growers of Ischia and elsewhere, “Bring on the competition, baby! Yes, we’d love to help you discover if indeed your tomatoes are redder and bigger than everyone else’s.”
I never know what time it is when I’m in Ischia. I have six clocks on my kitchen wall here and none of them work. Not one of them. I don’t own an alarm clock in Ischia because I keep American hours for work, which means starting the day at 2 in the afternoon, and I’d never sleep that late. Never. So, if I don’t have my computer booted or my cell phone on and in front of my face, I have no idea what hour of the day it is. I know it’s time to start work once lunch is over. My in-laws with whom I live are in charge of lunch, so when we’re all done, I run to the computer, start the day, and know what time it is until about midnight when I shut down. I never know the time on holidays or weekends.
While my friends were staying with us in May, they kept asking, “What time is it?” None of us ever seemed to know. In addition, everyone in Ischia – maybe the whole of Italy, I’m not sure – keeps weird hours. We eat lunch between 1 and 2 p.m. Then, everyone (except me because I’m working and an American who knows nothing of the siesta) sleeps from 3 to 5 p.m. Yes, they sleep, sometimes to the point of snoring. It’s like night time all over again. Shutters and doors are drawn and barely a soul – except for a tourist or two – walks the streets. You are expected to refrain from calling people, out of respect, in the middle of the afternoon. Then, at 5 p.m., people with traditional full-time jobs return to work, where they stay until about 8 p.m. And no one starts eating dinner until 9 or even 10 p.m. That’s crazy time if you ask me.
So, when my friends saw the above ad in one of the storefront windows, they snapped a photo just for me. They realized that this goes beyond the hours the Ischitani keep, too. Ischia time really is crazy time. “Ischia dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which means “Ischia, where you eat, drink, and whistle” is a popular saying on the island. It’s what makes this place perfect for a luxurious vacation and not so hot for a normal life.
Most of the time when you’re on the island, especially if you know the natives, you’re doped up on heavy, delicious southern Italian fare, including tomatoes and bread, fresh peaches, and every pasta you could imagine, all cooked like mamma made it (because she usually did). This food high clouds your judgment. In the summer, the heat smothers you and you wanna lightly swing in a hammock as the sea breeze caresses your skin. In the winter, you are cold to your bones and you want to curl up in front of a fire and under an enormous blanket filled with feathers or rather the entire goose because you’re that frozen. There are really only two seasons here – summer and winter – and both are extreme.
All this breeds laziness. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to give up all ambition and bum on the beach or make heat with a sultry islander (there are a few of those here as well and I should know because I married one and that’s how I ended up on crazy time). The next thing you know, you’re eating, you’re drinking, and you’re whistling. That mortgage you have? Don’t worry about it. That high-power career you were developing? Forget about it. Family and friends back home? Who remembers them? Move in with the islander, lounge in the sand, invest in a hammock. This is all sounding very appealing to you. You’re about to jump in head first. After that last bite of homemade gnocchi, you gotta say yes to giving it all up to live on a small island…that never appears on a map…where everyone will know your name and your business…where dreams go to swim in the ocean. Then, you wake up and realize that Ischia time is indeed crazy time. And you just want to quit the gnocchi cold turkey and go home. Still, you might put a hammock in your living room.
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.