Anyone who has visited me in Italy knows that you should not go shopping for anything on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, without a native. You need to go with someone who “has a guy” for whatever it is you need to ensure you get the proper treatment (read: best price). This is a fact in most of southern Italy as I understand it. And I recently described the phenomenon, which I like to call the “culture of scratching your back,” in an Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus. Check it out and decide if you’d like to live where everyone who knows your name gives you a discount.
After Baby Boy had his umpteenth tantrum of the day – and it wasn’t even noon yet – I sent my husband to take him for a walk. You see, today was my husband’s day off and I was planning to use the time to finally catch up on work. From my mother-in-law’s kitchen, I could hear Baby Boy shrieking with displeasure. His shrieks soon turned to hollering. I watched from the window as he kicked and screamed at his father as though he was the Boogie Man himself. I went outside and decided we should all go for a walk together. It worked and after a little while Baby Boy fell fast asleep.
In that moment, my husband’s shoulders relaxed, he turned to me, and said, “Let’s go to Zi Nannina for lunch.” After I said, “Oh yes please,” he had to find out if one of the most romantic and praised restaurants on the island would be open in the next 10 minutes at noon. Otherwise, we’d go home. Who wants to risk waiting around for Baby Boy to wake up and lose his mind at the restaurant? We were fortunate that it was open and since my husband knows the staff there well, we were welcomed with open arms – even after Baby Boy woke up and started running around on the patch of grass, one of the few lawns on the island. Regardless, I decided that these impromptu dates when the stars align (read: hubby has off, I’m working late afternoons, and Baby Boy is initially sleeping) are something we should make part of our routine more often. I was all the more convinced after eating the divine seafood (see photos below). By the way, we sat on the porch with the view above at our disposal throughout the meal. Sigh.
There are no boardwalks at the beaches on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. But many restaurants and pubs, with owners who hope to quench the hunger and thirst of beach goers, line the sand. Many of them look like the stands and shacks that are typical of an American boardwalk. While I indulge in frankfurters, fries, fried oreos, or homemade ice cream back home at the Jersey Shore, I will find almost none of that on these here shores. In Ischia, even the beach stands feature home cooking – the kind your mamma would be making for you. The other day, when my husband, teenage niece, nearly 2-year-old son, and I pulled up to the Bagno Corrado stand at San Pietro Beach, we had bruschetta – toasted Italian bread with tomato salad on top of it – for antipasto and the surprising pasta dish in the photo above. The sauce featured fresh tomatoes, chunks of swordfish, and the flower of the zucchini plant. Of course, since it is a fish dish, there was plenty of fresh parsley to boot. It was sweet and savory. And the swordfish melted in your mouth. It is hardly the kind of thing I’d order down the shore, but it was perfect for a beach day in Italy. Still, my niece dug into a Nutellotta, which is a cookie bowl dressed in Nutella and filled with three scoops of vanilla gelato that are covered in more Nutella and whipped cream with a few more cookies sticking out of it. She loved every bite. Who can blame her?
Discover the 5 beaches I think you should visit in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors, my husband, and for the time being me. While the beach in the photo above – the one we go to most often out of convenience – is briefly mentioned in the story I wrote for ItaliansRus and Las Vegas’ La Voce newspaper, it is not among the 5 best. It is, however, among my personal favorites because it brings such joy to Baby Boy. He merrily spent one day last week at San Pietro Beach throwing sand in the air as though it was confetti and investigating and throwing rocks and pebbles into the water to see how big a splash they would make. It is days like that one that make being away from home far more tolerable.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
Now that school is out in Ischia, Italy, kids are at the pinete (pine tree forests) if they’re not at the beach. The towering pine trees are surrounded by all sorts of plants, including wild sage and flowering bushes. There are pathways for those who want to walk and take in the scenery. Of course, some of the paths lead you up mountains that can be difficult to navigate with a stroller or a bum leg. Don’t expect any sort of warning about this. You should know by now that when in Ischia, you are walking at your own risk (writes the girl who has come back from three knee surgeries, a result of an injury she picked up on the island in 2004). No warning signs about the difficulty level of the paths means there are also no signs for the entrance and exit. My friends and I recently got lost in the pineta while searching for a way out.
It turned out to be a fun adventure because Baby Boy was napping in his stroller and their daughter was sitting nicely in hers. We carried the strollers up these stairs made of dirt and grass with wooden frames, and we saw a giant dog (looked more like a horse) try to eat a giant rock. We also caught a couple making out by the children’s swings. They were not at all fazed by our presence, and the guy had no problem rounding second as we were walking by with mouths agape. This is what happens when everyone lives at home with their parents well into their 30s and even 40s. Even the playground seems like an okay place to get some action.
I guess you could argue that Ischia is doing visitors a favor; if there were indicators about where to go, you would miss out on exploration. A trip to the pineta does not have to be so exhausting, however. There are also sitting areas with benches or chairs. As mentioned above, some of the pine tree forests have playgrounds, replete with a slide for the little ones. One near our home has a man-made pond full of croaking frogs, who even let you touch them.
Since the forest is an enchanting place for kids, you will also hear the sounds of childhood – giggles, shouts of joy, and the pitter-patter of little feet. On any given afternoon, you are likely to find a group of children gathered to play a pick-up game of soccer or just chase each other around the trees. Sometimes, the natives hold childrens’ dance and music recitals on a makeshift stage in one of the pinete. Even if you are just sitting by yourself amid the lushness, you will be delighted. One look at these pine tree forests and a visitor understands just how Ischia came to be known as L’Isola Verde or the Green Island.
Right about now, you are either disappointed or relieved because the headline had you thinking this was a whole other kind of blog post. C’mon people, you know who I am. This is about an actual babe, my almost two-year-old boy, of course. I mentioned to you that I love taking photos of the beach. Now that we’re living literally steps from the beach, I am constantly snapping pics.
What I love nearly as much as pictures of the beach are pictures of my son on the beach. But getting a normal toddler to stay still is impossible, let alone Baby Boy, who has outpaced the Energizer Bunny on occasion. At first, I was blue because I had no pictures – or at least no good pictures of Baby Boy on the beach. Then, I had a stroke of genius. Ok, maybe it was just a stroke of common sense.
Instead of trying to pose him or waiting for the moment he stood still (read: fell asleep) to photograph him, I started to just follow Baby Boy’s every move with the camera. The more pictures I snapped, the more likely I’d get something worth framing (or at least worth using to decorate my Desktop or cell phone screen). When my American friends, their nearly two-year-old daughter, my son, and I headed to the beach on Memorial Day, we were armed with a camera – and we all snapped, snapped, snapped as many photos as we could of the kids.
When the two babes toddled over to the spogliatoi (locker rooms), we were swelling with joy. The graphic element of the locker rooms contrasted by their sweet faces, while they were exploring this new terrain, was pure perfection. Once you turn the photos black and white, they look like something out of 1950s’ Italy, which is special for me since that was the era my father was still living in Ischia. It also happens to be the moment in history when Ischia stopped being reliant on an agricultural economy and started focusing on tourism. Regardless of what history the black and white images spark for me, they are worthy of a frame and look good in color to boot (see below). In fact, this second picture would be great blown up as a poster for our home in Ischia. Not surprisingly, you can expect more beach photos on this blog throughout the rest of the year.
With its cobblestone roads, quaint shops, fresh seafood restaurants, and pastel-colored houses – not to mention its crowning jewel, Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle) and the bridge that connects it to the island, the town of Ischia Ponte in Ischia, Italy offers peace, quiet, and a bit of that Old World so many people talk about when reminiscing about Italian travel experiences. That is all true, unless you visit Ischia Ponte while Baby Boy is there.
Dozing off in his stroller, he somehow caught a second wind, screamed, and woke up my friends’ daughter about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to have lunch at one of those lovely restaurants I was talking about above. First, he ran on the bridge screaming and crying as though I was kidnapping him. In fact, in the photo above I had just caught him and turned him toward the boats and scenery in the hopes that the tears would stop. There was absolutely no explanation for this sudden fit of rage. I’ve learned that this is perfectly normal behavior when you’re two years old and have parents who each speak a different language and you can’t communicate anything in either one.
Whether it was the language or something else that took over my son’s body in Ischia Ponte, I’ll never know. But once we arrived at lunch, he had completely lost his mind. I mean it seemed to me that his head was literally spinning all the way around and that he would never ever be able to make a peep that wasn’t at the Metallica level of volume. Every tourist in the joint was staring at us – or at least that is how it seemed to me, the American mamma – even though we were in a secluded room all to ourselves. Banish the people with babies is the philosophy around here (at least during the tourist season and when tourists are around because many Italians do adore children, while other people just don’t). And my son proved why it must be so on that very day.
I picked him up and brought him outside, once again heading toward the bridge, in the hopes that he would either calm down or take that much-needed nap, so I could return to the treats at the table, which included muscles and bruschetta and olives and sardines. When Baby Boy’s making like a lunatic and screaming in public, I like to tell people that he’s training his lungs and someday he will be a serious singer or swimmer. But really he’s just being a pia (it’s pronounced p-ee-ah and it’s my cousin’s word for pain in the a–, which he jokingly uses to talk about his teenage daughter when she’s picking out which outfit to wear anywhere). On this occasion, Baby Boy was being a pia and I was trying to get him to sleep, so I was swaying him on my hip and singing lullabies, such as “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American.” You can see where my head is at. Still, this usually works like a charm. Not today.
So, I returned to the restaurant to see what course my friends were up to. There was a beautiful swordfish, grilled and fried calamari, and my bruschetta and muscles still on the table. I tried to feed Baby Boy the bruschetta. Tomatoes and bread always cheer me up, especially around here. He spit it in my face. I decided to eat it myself post spit and all. All you other parents out there, don’t you dare say, “Ewwww,” because I know you’ve done the same or you would if the tomatoes and bread were as good as they are in Ischia. I gulped down a few of those delicious muscles and a couple of fried calamari as I picked up baby and split again. Again, we headed toward the bridge. I was certain the other people in town watching me with my son were commenting on how the American mom can’t do anything right. They might have a point. Their kids weren’t carrying on and on and on like Baby Boy. And in that moment, like all mothers the world over, I felt guilt and shame rise inside me like a flame in a fire.
Then, when I was holding Baby Boy’s flailing body against my chest, and he was still crying and screaming as though the world was about to literally come to an end, I thought, “Well, at least we’re in a Catholic country. There must be someone around who could perform an exorcism on the spot.” Just as this flashed into my head, Baby Boy let me put him back in the stroller and within minutes he fell asleep. Finally. It was, of course, the very moment that we were leaving Ischia Ponte for my friends had finished the meal. Of course.
Once a landfill, Overpeck Park in Bergen County, New Jersey is now one of my happy places. And before we left fair New Jersey for Italy in April, we took Baby Boy for a stroll there. The charming wooden bridge for walking and autos is now a lovely symbol of the land. Englewood, Leonia, Palisades Park, Ridgefield Park, and Teaneck donated hundreds of acres of land surrounding Overpeck Creek about 50 years ago to create this park. It features walking paths, a dog park, tennis courts, baseball fields, and even an equestrian area with horses for riding. There are tracks, a canoe/kayak launch, and a fishing area, not to mention a playground for kids.
An oasis in the middle of a county that often seems more city than suburb, Overpeck has even recently attracted a pair of American eagles. (I, along with the rest of New Jersey, am hoping the eagles make it.) Bergen County announced May 10 that more improvements are coming to the park. The County is receiving a $500,000 grant to complete a missing link of pedestrian paths traversing the park and will connect all the venues within it, according to the announcement.
There’s so much you can do at Overpeck. But I have to admit my favorite pastime at the park is simple walking. I especially enjoy a visit in the spring, when it is still not too hot and all the flowers and plants are in bloom. I take photos by the pretty trees dressed in pink or white flowers, people watch, encounter the many dogs and babies, and take a deep breath. Bet those who knew the land as a landfill never imagined it could be a place of such peace and beauty.
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.