You have to hand it to the Italians. They really know how to live. Often, they top off one of those three-course, homemade lunches or light dinners with the “passeggiata” or stroll down the street to the piazza or town square. It is where everyone goes to see and be seen. On your way – and once you arrive – you are likely to see old, historic buildings and clock towers, churches with their worshipers, and bars buzzing with people. There is probably a line of Vespas and pretty girls, who look like they have stepped out of a fashion magazine. Of course, somewhere nearby you’ll find gelato if it’s summer. And there will be older ladies and gents dressed to the nines despite their canes and walkers mulling around and talking about the good ol’ days.
When a Jersey girl like me gets an itch to take an Italian stroll, she heads to the mini mall, the American equivalent of a piazza. Recently, I have been appreciating such walks for the opportunity they give you to reflect on the wonders of nature. Few things are more beautiful than colorful autumn. Jewel-toned leaves paint the sky and lift the spirit.
Recently, while the leaves were raining down on us and the crisp breeze caressed our cheeks, I couldn’t help but think that life really is beautiful. Even though Italy has its historic charm, New Jersey is home. Of course, in the Jersey “piazza,” you might still find a pizza joint, an old-school nonna, and pretty Italian boys. Truly, the big difference is the purpose of the piazza. Americans go there in a rush to catch up with errands, whereas the Italians go there to slow down.
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.
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.
Baby boy can hardly wait to eat grown-up food. Whenever we’re eating, he can’t take his eyes off the table. He tries to get his hands into everything. And he eats his own food as if it were the most delicious thing he’s ever had (and I suppose it is, for now). His meal times come replete with the noises of pleasure – mmmmhhhmmmm, oooohhhh, aahh. After about one month of diarrhea and losing weight in Ischia, he is back to his old self and we can finally feed him his faves – sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, turkey, and the rest – again. He can’t get enough of it. And if he could, he’d probably eat us, too. In fact, he sometimes tries to bite his cousins’ arms and legs, which is only fair because everyone gives him love bites. His cousin Giulia calls him a cuginavore (eater of cousins). Now, if only he would get a tooth – at least one – he’d be all set for chomping the good stuff, including pizza and tomatoes and bread, all of which he seems to long for. Teeth or no teeth, he’s still trying to get at the pasta (see photo above when we visited our friend’s restaurant Trattoria Il Focolare in Cretaio in Ischia). For more fun photos of Enzo from the last few weeks, check out these photo albums –
Enzo at San Francesco Beach – This is Enzo’s first time in the sand and really getting to see the ocean. This is also my new favorite beach in Ischia. It was always in the running, but now I’ve decided to give it top billing for its sunshine, ambiance, and view of Forio in Ischia. We had taken Enzo down the shore in Jersey during the winter, but it was so cold and rainy that we spent most of the time in a restaurant on the Boardwalk and we never went on the sand. He still hasn’t dipped into the ocean yet. Maybe next week, depends on the weather.
Enzo on Walk in Ischia – Spending time with his Italian cousins is a main priority for Enzo, which is why he was so happy to take a leisurely walk in Ischia Porto (with Ischia Ponte in the background) with cousins Giulia and Laura. Zia Paola was driving the carriage to boot. And Mamma tagged along.
Enzo at Focolare – Here, you’ll see Enzo loving the outdoors and dreaming of the food he will eat when teeth finally make an appearance at our friend’s fabulous family restaurant in Ischia.