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 ESSAY - ISCHIA


     I have left Ischia many times over the course of many years. But this Italian Island, much like a devoted lover, has never left me. My parents married on Ischia, and my mother lives there to this day. I was closing in on 14 when I crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the summer of 1968 and set foot on the sleepy 18-square-mile sanctuary that was slowly becoming a tourist gold mine roughly 18 miles off the coast of Naples. It was my first time away from New York and the first time I would meet my mother's family, who all vacationed on the island during the unbearably hot summer months when Italian cities up and down the coast are abandoned like unwanted pets. I stood against a railing of the hydrofoil and stared at the houses, then as now pink and blue stucco structures wedged in against the rocky terrain. I glanced at the open-air bars that littered the crowded streets, filled with tourists eager to spend money and locals looking for shade and a cool drink. As the boat docked and the passengers milled about, speaking in the choppy dialect of Ischia I had grown up with, I knew I had found the place I would always call my own.
     During the many summers I spent there, my history took shape. I first fell in love with a local girl while walking on the white sandy beaches of Il Maronti. We were bold enough and young enough to pick out a church in Forio where we might one day marry -- the Soccorso, with its magnificent white terrace that stood defiantly with its back to the sea.
     After mornings spent on one of the island's many beaches, in the late afternoons I would sit on a stone seat in front of the Church of San Pietro with my Grandma Maria and learn to love an old woman I would know for too short a time. My cousin Paolo and I would listen as she spoke about her life during the war, about our Grandpa Gabriel, who died before either one of us was born, and about the customs of a place so deeply ingrained in its past.
     She also taught us how to drink coffee.
     Grandma Maria made her espresso strong, black, and hot, lacing it with a thick shot of Stock 84 -- Italian brandy, two heaping teaspoons of sugar, and a small piece of milk chocolate. She expected us to drink it in three gulps or less, which was the best antidote for a broiling summer day and a solid remedy for a frail heart.
     "It will help cool your body," she would say.
     "If it doesn't kill us first," Paolo replied.
     "There are many things in this life that will kill you," Grandma Maria said. "But my coffee will not be one of them."
     My time with her ended in the summer of 1975, when I stood in front of her bed, in the house she lived in for most of her life, and watched her breathe her last. I've never really had a good cup of coffee since.
     Ischia's 60,000 people are spread across six municipalities. At the height of the season -- mid-July to late August -- as many as one-and-a-half million visitors crowd its shores, hotels, restaurants, and shops. Many come to enjoy the mineral baths and spas for which the island is renowned. Even more flock to the crystal beaches of Il Maronti and Poseidon, where the sun burns hottest and the water is clearest. Quite a few come for the food. Rabbit cooked in a thick red sauce and served over pasta is the island specialty, and the pizza at La Terrazza is the best on Ischia.
     A lucky few come for love, and leave content. Some such visitors are famous. In 1962, while filming "Cleopatra" here, Elizabeth Taylor left her husband, Eddie Fisher, for her co-star, Richard Burton, and caused an international sensation.
     Always an island adored by filmmakers, Ischia has lush gardens and panoramic views that romance the camera's eye. The colorful locals, always loud and eager for good conversation, are a storyteller's dream. Billy Wilder filmed "Avanti!" there with Jack Lemmon. Vittorio DeSica both worked and vacationed along the beaches of Lacco Ameno. Three years ago, Anthony Minghella filmed parts of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" on its shores.
     This past summer I returned again to Ischia with my son Nick, who is now the same age I was when I first visited. We took long walks and passed the places that gave me so many fine memories. I showed him the spot in Ischia Ponte where my grandparents first met and the church where they married. I watched him spend time with my mother, Raffaela, and her three sisters, who we call the Four Queens of the Port -- it seemed whenever something needed doing they would be involved -- and I knew it would be the last time we would see them all together. He went for evening strolls with his Uncle Benny, then sat and listened to his other uncle -- Zio Cicco -- speak in broken English. He discovered pasta aglio e olio e bistecca alla pizzaiola and asked for it at every meal.
     Ischia is where my bloodlines begin and where all I need to know about my family can be traced. It is where I discovered love and lost it. It is where the people who matter the most to me in this world, aside from my wife and children, can be found. It is a place I think about every day of my life and always miss the most when the weather turns warm and the flowers begin to blossom. Ischia is as much a part of me as my own skin.
     America is where I work and live, where I have raised a family and make my life. It is my home.
     Ischia is where I am from and where I long to return. It is where I belong.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER magazine.
 


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