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Ischia, Italy: With My Ancestors
Discover how one Italian American is getting through the summer living in Italy where her family was born
by Francesca Di Meglio
The hot Neapolitan sun was beating down on me and sweat slid down my neck toward my lower back. In the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a man. When I turned, I saw a typical middle-aged man from Ischia, Italy, the small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my husband and ancestors. This man was standing in the doorway propping himself up by clutching one side of the door with one arm while the other was resting on his hip. He was built like my father, who has the shape of many a southern Italian man - short and round with broad shoulders, strong, and confident.
Man in Doorway
As the fishermen dropped buckets down into the ocean and swept up fresh octopus for the locals who were arriving to buy fish to prepare their lunch, this man just observed as if he had all the time in the world. This is Ischia Ponte, the oldest town in Ischia, whose focal point is the Castello Aragonese, a castle that has served as everything from prison to love shack to now museum.
A cruise ship was docked in the middle of the ocean and passengers were taking little boats from the ship to shore. Homesick for my United States, I was thrilled to hear buzzing Americans walking up and down the bridge that links the town of Ischia Ponte with the castle. How lovely and easy to understand every word without having to translate from Italian to English in your head first!
I was waiting for friends who happened to be on that cruise ship for their honeymoon and, unexpectedly, ended up in Ischia for a few hours during the five-month period that I'm spending with my husband and his family. When I got the news that I'd see these friends, my heart swelled. Although I've been visiting Ischia since I was 2 years old, I have never been on the island for this much time. As beautiful as it is, I long for my American home, my New Jersey - the fastest Internet service you can imagine, one big supermarket after another with aisles as wide and long as the eye can see, dim sum and kosher hot dogs, the George Washington Bridge in all its glory, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, a little Bon Jovi on the radio in the car, freedom.
Still, as I sat in Ischia Ponte I couldn't help but wonder how many times Nonno Giovanni, my paternal grandfather, had walked this bridge. With whom did he speak? Did he ever watch the fishermen or the docked boats? Did he ever sit where I was sitting in that moment? What did his Ischia look and feel like? What about all the others - Nonna Francesca, my aunts and uncles, my maternal relatives, those whose blood flows through my body and who lived here ages and ages ago.
On a day when I was feeling really low, I sat on the stairs leading to the church, Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Pietro, where I was married in October 2008, and I sobbed long and hard as though my tears were needed to fill the ocean. I couldn't help myself. An elderly woman with white hair that glistened like the ocean at sunrise approached me. She was wearing a dress with pockets in front, much like the ones Nonna Francesca always wore because, as a diabetic, she liked to sneak cookies and bread when we weren't looking.
The woman asked me what she could do to help me. I just said, “I was far away from my home in America, and I missed my parents and family.” She wanted to buy me a sandwich and something to drink, but I thanked her and declined. After a little while, she came back from one of her errands to check on me once more. She gave me a hug and a kiss and when she walked off, it was as though she slipped away and disappeared. She never told me her name. It's been more than a month since our encounter, and I haven't seen her again, even though the town is small and you usually see the same people over and over again. I keep telling my parents that Nonna Francesca swooped in from Heaven for a visit when I most needed to see her.
My father and maternal grandfather, both of whom were born and raised in Ischia, are available for my questions. I have visited the island with both of them. And I walked the bridge from the castle to the town of Ischia Ponte with them. I have spoken with my father about his memories of Ischia for ages – from how he cut school to play soccer in a battle between his town, Buonopane, and the kids in my mom's town Barano (we joke that theirs is a mixed marriage) to the mushrooms he would find for dinner and the nights he spent with his father and sisters camping out in the mountains of Buceto, where folks now go to ride horses or have a picnic.
As I walked the old cobblestone roads in Ischia Ponte, I kept thinking that I was literally walking in the shoes of my ancestors. I was living and breathing the air that they lived and breathed. Although I'm sure the scenery has changed over the years – souvenir shops and restaurants now line the road leading to the bridge and there are cars where donkeys once stood – there are lots of things that are still the same.
Families my father knew as a boy still live here - and they remember him for his blonde ringlets and how he portrayed San Giovanni Battista in the parade on June 24 every year. The woman my maternal grandfather loved as a boy before he ever knew my grandmother still lives in Piedimonti near the butcher. 'Ndrezzata, the folk dance troupe of which Nonno Giovanni was a leader, performs for special occasions – and I can almost hear him playing the clarinet whenever I see them. The island's natives still walk the streets to see and be seen – and they gossip about everyone because everyone knows everyone. Lush hills and blue ocean are still the island's main attraction. And the spirit of my ancestors dances around me whenever I'm out in the sun.
Di Meglio is the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
Photo copyright © Francesca Di Meglio.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Article Published 6/29/09
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