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Chapter Two – Sharing My Story with Ischia
It all began in 2003 with a weeklong visit to my cousin’s house in Ischia. The island was calling me. I hadn’t been back to Ischia since 1999. And one of my best friends from college, Samantha*, was teaching English in Europe. She would meet me in Rome, we’d travel to Ischia together, and celebrate Easter with my Italian cousins. A dream it would be!
Actually, the trip was better than Samantha and I had imagined. The sun was exceptionally warm and welcoming for the end of April, which can sometimes be rainy and cold in Ischia. We spent one afternoon on the beach embracing the rays, and many an afternoon lunching with my relatives and indulging in the island’s exquisite cuisine – from the signature dish of rabbit in white wine sauce to fried calamari and salad fresh from the garden.
One evening we spent shopping in the island’s main hub, Ischia Porto, where we picked up trinkets for our friends and family. I chose a magnet each for gli zii, who had left the island for America years ago, a bottle of Vecchia Romagna for my papa’, and Ischia’s famous ceramics for mamma. As I walked down Via Roma with my cousin and Samantha, gelato in hand, we noticed the rainbow-colored flags for “pace” or “peace” waving from the balconies of shops and homes. They were shouting hello to us and telling us Americans that the Italians had a distaste for George W. Bush’s America and its aggression in the Middle East post-9/11.
Everywhere Samantha and I went, people wanted to know where we had been on 9/11 and why we elected such a fool as our president. We didn’t pretend to understand America’s recent foreign policy decisions (in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else). But we shared our 9/11 stories. Samantha was traveling with her family and was about to get on a plane when the terrorists struck. She and her family ended up in Europe for a week before they could return home.
I, on the other hand, lived in northern New Jersey, right over the bridge from Manhattan all my life barring the four years I spent in college in Washington, D.C. from 1996 to 2000. And on Sept. 11, 2001, when those planes struck the Twin Towers, I was at work in midtown Manhattan. As I described taking my heels off and running past historical landmarks, from Rockefeller Center to Central Park wondering if there were other planes rocketing toward us like bombs, my new Italian friends hung onto my every syllable. They asked so many questions. “How did you finally get home to New Jersey?”
“How far were you from the Towers?”
“Were you afraid to return to New York after the attacks? Why go back at all?”
“What’s going to happen to New York and America now?”
Some of the questions were easy to answer. I made it home to New Jersey at 6 a.m. the next morning via ferry. I slept – or rather watched CNN – on my friend’s floor in Manhattan the night of 9/11. There was too long of a wait at the ferry, which was being used to transport the bodies that could be recovered from downtown. And I was afraid to walk across the George Washington Bridge, which was a terrorist target and rumored to have had a truck bomb on it earlier in the day. The office I worked in was outside Grand Central Station, which is far enough away from the Towers that I was not in danger but close enough that the ash-covered people who got away and survived ran toward me. The stench of the burning fuel and flesh lingered in the air for weeks afterward and reached as far as my home in New Jersey. It was the smell of death, and it still haunts me nearly 10 years later.
Other questions were not so easy to answer. Of course, I was afraid to return to New York after the attacks. But I had a job and this had always been my home. The gaping hole in the Skyline, which we still view from New Jersey, brings a deep ache to me. But it also serves as motivation to fight back by working in New York and making sure life all around us continues on. Still, I had no idea what the future would hold for the United States or me. The fear I learned on 9/11 is still a burden I carry in my heart and have to combat daily.
Some of the hardships that would bombard the United States and its people because of 9/11 I couldn’t even imagine in 2001 or 2003 when I was visiting Italy. All I could say was that 9/11 changed my life in ways big and small. Security at the airport was different, police in Manhattan often stopped me for identification because I looked Arab to them, and I waved hello to the National Guard soldiers who protected the George Washington Bridge every night as I drove home from the ferry parking lot.
In a way, 9/11 was the reason I was in Ischia. Besides bringing on a stirring inside me to travel more and take a vacation now and then, it also forced me to change jobs. When the economy tanked following the attacks, the famous women’s magazine for which I worked made sweeping changes in its editorial department. Many of my friends were laid off around Thanksgiving. Then, my direct boss beat the new regime to the punch line by quitting. And I started looking for a new job, which I found at a promising women’s Web site. Almost as soon as I started the new job, I realized the site was drowning since the dot-com bust and 9/11 just made matters worse. Before I knew it, the site’s creator – a true mentor and feminist visionary – was leaving. Others were laid off or quit. I, who had been trained as a political journalist in college turned women’s magazine writer, was hocking women friendly porn and accoutrements, the site’s attempt at making ends meet. With every vibrator shaped like a rubber duckie that I sold, I came ever closer to realizing this was not the work of a nice Italian girl, nor was it what I signed up for when I took the job.
This vacation in Ischia – a return to my roots – was as much about taking a break from that crazy job as it was about questioning my life choices and finding myself again.
In addition to finding myself, I was hoping to find an Italian man, even if but for a distraction…
*Some names have been changed.
Tune into this Web site, Two Worlds, every Monday for the latest installment in my blog about my experiences in Ischia, and every other Monday to ItaliansRus.com for the latest Our Paesani column about all things Italian. Di Meglio is also the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.