My heart fell to my stomach and then did the backstroke for 10 minutes while I was stuck in an elevator from the Dark Ages with my 20-month-old son and my friends’ nearly 2-year-old daughter when we recently visited La Mortella Gardens in Ischia, Italy. The baby girl’s parents had gone down the stairs, while I attempted to take the kids down in the elevator because they were in strollers. I should have known better than to even attempt this because 1. we were in Ischia, a small island that lacks many conveniences and 2. I had to hold down the button – per instructions that were handwritten on the elevator wall – for the entire ride up or down and 3. we were in Ischia. I pressed the button to go down and it moved the elevator just enough that we could no longer open the door. It also would not continue to go down or up. The kids started screaming, and I banged on the glass to my friends below. “It is not moving anymore,” I shouted. “We’re stuck.”
A group of senior citizens below were trying to help my friends, who speak Italian and could understand them. Only problem was that these people couldn’t agree on what was the right thing to do. One said to keep pushing the button and the other said to pull the emergency lever. I had my doubts anyone would come even if I hit the alarm, so this mamma kept pushing. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the elevator moved up enough that we could open the door and get out. By then, my friends had come back upstairs. One of them was able to take their daughter and her stroller in the elevator. Then, we tried to have me do it with my son, and we must have been too heavy. We never made it down – at least not in the elevator. Having to carry the strollers down all the stairs in the mountainous gardens was a big pain, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on taking your little ones to Giardini La Mortella, the subtropical and Mediterranean garden, which the late Susana Walton, Argentinian wife of the British composer Sir William Walton, began cultivating in 1956. You just have to be prepared to carry your babies or have them walk. Realize it might be challenging. I’ve been to the gardens sans baby before and it makes for a lovely day.
There are gorgeous orchids, tons of tall bamboo, and fountains that will have you de-stressing both by their site and sound. The views of Forio from atop the gardens is also worth the visit. You can see San Francesco Beach with its pristine ocean water in all its glory, while discovering the reason Ischia has earned its name as L’Isola Verde or the Green Island for its lush landscape. The gardens include a bird sanctuary, which had our babes spying parrots and other little chirpers. Sometimes, concerts are held on the grounds. And on other trips to the gardens, I have eaten at the bar. The light, lemon caprese cake was sweet and tart in the most perfect way. If the bar still has it on the menu, that alone would make La Mortella worth the stop. Just avoid the elevators. Please.
Before my husband and I brought Baby Boy to Ischia for nine months, I gave a lot of thought to how he would adjust. What I did not think about was my own adjustment. Parenting in a different country – especially when surrounded by natives with different cultural ideas about how to raise a child – can be a challenge. I wasn’t anticipating that. Not at all. Trying to be a perfect mom is even more impossible in the Boot than it is in the United States. Recently, I wrote all about my struggles in “A Day in the Life of an Italian Mamma,” an installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus.com. Read it. Some problems are universal.
Pinch me because I still feel like I’m dreaming after an amazing time in Ischia (yes, for those of you who know my true feelings for the island, you read that correctly) with my friends and their daughter, who is just about three months older than Baby Boy. They left on Friday, and I have had that twinge of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, the one I always get when I say good-bye to the ones I love, ever since. Still, I have the memories of their vacation. And Memorial Day weekend allowed me to make like a tourist myself for a bit. One of the best experiences we shared was a tour by Franco of Ischia Taxi.
Even though I’ve been visiting Ischia since I was 2, I always seem to learn something new when I head out into the island. This time was no different. Thanks to Franco, I learned the overlook, whose view is in the photo above, is a hot spot for guys to bring the ladies with whom they’d like to share a kiss (and something more, but they must feign being gentlemen). This was educational to me because my husband brought me here the first time I visited Ischia after we started dating. You can bet with that beautiful setting, he snagged a kiss – nothing more than a kiss, though, so no worries mamma and papa.
Franco also taught me that there’s a museum in Ischia featuring fish fossils, which were found on top of Mount Epomeo, Ischia’s highest point. You might be wondering, as were we, “How on earth could a fish end up on top of a mountain?” Well, Ischia was a volcano. When it erupted, Epomeo was elevated above the ocean. Those fish that were swimming on what would become Epomeo could not survive without the ocean water, they died, and presumably time and the lava, preserved their remains, thus the fossils. It’s not quite the scientific explanation, but it makes perfect sense, no? Indeed, you do learn something new everyday.
What was so lovely about this two-hour giro dell’isola (island tour) were the visits to various landmarks. While the babies slept – cozy in their car seats in the van taxi – my friends were able to stop and see another overlook that had them view Naples and Mount Vesuvius from Ischia, Forio’s Soccorso church made famous in the movie Avanti and by Pope John Paul II’s visit about a decade ago, the famous Lacco Ameno fungo, a giant rock that naturally formed and juts more than six feet out of the ocean and looks like a mushroom, views of thermal spas, Giardini Poseidon and Negombo, and Sant’ Angelo, an old fishing village turned tourist must-see.
Of course, they also stopped at make-out point, where Franco insisted they share a smooch. When our camera broke and we lost almost all the pictures from the tour, Franco, who drove us to visit La Mortella Gardens the next day, brought them back to make out all over again. This time he had them pose Titanic-style to boot. It was all very Italian. Is that service or what?
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.
I love America. And one of the reasons I know I love America is because I’ve spent the holidays in Italy. I hated Christmas in Italy. It’s subdued and rather boring. The big holiday meal is great, of course, but when you get three hours for lunch everyday, that big holiday meal seems the same as any other day. Yes, the American version of Christmas is all about material things and glitz and I’m supposed to hate it. But I love it. I love it in spite of the materialism. I love the way we all believe in Santa and there is something magical in the air. I love the lights on all the houses, singing carolers, egg nog, and Christmas cookies. I love the holiday music and the holiday movies. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a viewing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer. Since I have my own little elf now, I want him to cherish American Christmas as much as I do.
Being a New Jerseyan – born and raised – I want him to feel the spirit in his home state most of all. So far, this season we have had breakfast with Santa at the Park Ridge Elks (see “AFTER” photo below), exchanged cookies with some of our cousins, baked cookies with the elf’s cousins, and decorated the house with the miniest of trees and put it far out of reach because my elf is also Mr. Destruction. He nearly pulled the heavy, metal stocking holders on his head. Those are gone, too. But we will not shout, “Bah humbug!” On the contrary, paper decorations are yet to come. And we’re planning on baking a cake in the shape of St. Nick and attending Van Saun Park’s annual train ride with Santa event. Of course, there is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to celebrate. ‘Tis the season to enjoy New Jersey, its people, and its Christmas spirit, so get out and support local businesses and attend local events, like your neighborhood tree lighting, caroling, or dreidel spinning. Happy holidays to all and to all a good night!
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.