Now, let me give it to you straight. I’m an Italian American (heavy on the Italian) and I have only been to the Olive Garden twice in my life. Once I was in high school, and the highlight was Howard Stern dining at the table next to ours. The other was with a colleague, who wanted to go there. Both were many years ago now. The only part of the meal that I recognized as being good and Italian enough was the salad and bread. I have made a copycat version of the bread at home, in fact. But I’m a mom and I know how expensive it is to eat out and how much fun my son has when we do something – like eating out – that breaks us out of our traditional routine. So, I have to applaud Olive Garden’s efforts to support families and the development of our children. The restaurant will be offering one free children’s menu item (children under 12) with every purchase of an adult entree purchased that day in honor of Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day April 24. You’ll have to print out a coupon from the OliveGarden.com site. (The coupon should be available later this week.)
I’m trying to raise my son to be a man, who takes responsibility, has ambition, and strives to make the world a better place through his work whatever that turns out to be. Since I work at home and he’s not yet in school, everyday at my house is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. Lots of other people have just one day a year to expose their children to the secret world that they enter when they leave their houses every day of the work week. And it’s an important day. It’s not just about getting kids to think about the future. It’s also about showing them just how hard you have to work to put food on the table and give them that stuff they are always asking for, not to mention the stuff they need, such as medical insurance, retainers and braces, shelter, and the like. You and I know this isn’t magic. Making money is about work, hard work. It’s about time we teach our kids to have a work ethic and to realize that money has value because of the sweat you put into earning it. And if Olive Garden wants to show its support for us as we take on this challenge by giving our kids a free meal and the chance to show off their etiquette skills in a public restaurant, then I’m all for it. Just make sure to enjoy that bread and think of me.
NOTE: I have no affiliation with the Olive Garden, nor am I receiving any kind of reward, financial or otherwise, for sharing this post.
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.
The pace of life in southern Italy is traditionally slow. The people go home for lunch and stay for three hours. They nap in the middle of the afternoon – as I’ve mentioned before – to the point of snoring. And they actually refrain from calling or visiting friends from 3 to 5 p.m. because it’s nap time for kids and adults alike. As an American (and not just any American but one from the tri-state area, where slow doesn’t exist), I have always found this very slow rhythm of life annoying and inefficient. My frustration with this slow pace only gets worse in August. On Aug. 15 Italians celebrated Ferragosto, a pagan holiday that goes back centuries. This celebration is an excuse for the country to go on a month-long vacation. Seriously, many people get off from work for an entire month. In recent years, especially with the economic crisis, the vacation time has been cut, so some only have the last two weeks of the month off. But this is still in addition to whatever vacation time they have coming to them during the rest of the year. Crazy, right?
Now, here in Ischia things are a little different. This is a tourism mecca or trap, depending on who you talk to. If the rest of the country is on vacation, then islands like this are working overtime. The tourists come here in droves. In fact, my husband tells me that the island’s population triples in August. Even in this economic crisis, the streets are crowded, the gypsies are out in full force begging tourists for money, and the thieves taking advantage of unknowing tourists are making the rounds. And the natives are working day and night, which is wonderful for them because most of them only work for six months when the weather is warm and the beaches inviting and then they are usually unemployed for six months. This time of year is what counts for their pocketbooks and wallets. While they’re not really experiencing the siesta on steroids like the rest of the country, you shouldn’t feel too badly for them. Come November, they’ll all take off on their own vacations. And the island will hibernate.
In the meantime, these stinkin’ tourists strolling down the streets with their gelato in hand and sleeping on the beach with nothing to do are getting on my nerves. Don’t they have e-mails to send and phone calls to make? Diapers to change? Babies to feed? What about deadlines? How do they get them to simply go away? Arrrgghhh. I want to be an Italian on August holiday in my next life.
Every time I return from Italy to the United States, I practically kiss the ground. I love being an American. And I really love my home, New Jersey. Rarely do I get to sing Jersey’s praises. Often I find myself having to defend the state to outsiders, who simply do not know of its riches. Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to show off New Jersey’s most educational, entertaining, and fun sites as author of the book Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, August 2012).
I began working on this book from the hospital on the day that my son was born. He was two weeks early, and I was aiming to have the outline completed within a week of his arrival. Needless to say, the book became my other baby. And I’m super excited to be sharing it with the world now. If you’re interested in getting hundreds of ideas for day trips that will have your kids loving Jersey as much as I do, then hop onto Amazon.com and order your copy now. I promise even the haters will find something they like about New Jersey. Really. If you do pick up a copy, please write a review for it on Amazon, too.
Get the truth about one of Italy’s most popular islands – and its people – by reading my new weekly blog installments (every Monday morning right here on this site)
Chapter Five – R.I.P. Ambition
Roberto is my cousin and when Samantha and I went to Italy in 2003, we were all single and free. It was a beautiful time when the three of us waxed philosophical about love and our future as if we were back in college huddled in the hallway of our dorm. We were hopeful and romantic; in front of us, we saw only wonderful prospects – a kaleidoscope of bright colors that represented our successes in career and, most importantly, a true love that would help us each forge our own families. We were ready for something more for ourselves, and we each seemed ready to take action to bring those colors into focus.
For Roberto, who was finishing college at the time, this meant giving in to the charming, adorable, younger woman who had been wooing him. He had been reluctant to date Lisa because their grandparents had feuded over property, a national pastime in Italy that takes on significant profundity in Ischia, where further construction is scarce and space is limited. In addition, Lisa’s family owns three of the most popular restaurants and bars on the island, whereas Roberto’s family was just a couple of average Giuseppes.
In Ischia, class status is a big deal. If you or your family own a hotel or nice-sized piece of property, you are among the big fish. If you are a worker bee with nothing more than a monthly check, you are under everyone else’s feet. As someone who grew up with her sights set on the American dream just outside of the concrete jungle that is New York, this entire culture is laughable. After all, those worker bees in America could become president – or at least governor. And if you dropped any of these Ischitani big fish in our pond, they’d be minnows.
That’s probably why many of the big fish never leave Ischia. Out in the rest of the world, they might be judged on something more than the piece of property they inherited from nonno. They might even have to pave their own way. And the worker bees might have a chance to outsmart them or at least get ahead on merit alone.
Still, everyone in Ischia – perhaps, in all of Italy – seems to accept what they’ve been handed. They just accept that they’ll forever be answering phones in a travel agency or hocking thermal mud to the tourists in the farmasanitaria next to their house. That’s the way life goes. That’s all right by them.
We Americans are constantly in pursuit of happiness, whereas Italians, at least the southern ones I know, are born happy. We Americans are constantly trying to improve ourselves – our look, our career, our love, our life. These Italians I speak of are simply born satisfied, whatever their lot. Maybe they’re more easily fulfilled by simple joys – a sweet peach from their tree or a kiss from the girl next door. Maybe, they know of this dolce vita we hear so much about. Maybe it’s real for them. Or maybe they just lack the gene that wants something more, something better for themselves. After all, on Ischia anyway, there’s something about the combination of hot sun, ocean breeze, salt water, and humidity that killed ambition a long time ago.
Some names and identifying characteristics of the real people involved have been changed.