If you’ve ever traveled overseas, you probably have a good understanding of life outside the bustling and overrated country that we call home. But there’s one place that stands out, unique from the rest. This is the story of the island of Ventotene, Italy.
Growing up under my grandma’s roof, I have become very accustomed to many Italian traditions, foods and most importantly, attitudes. Let’s face it, Europeans are up front. You simply cannot be offended by their remarks. The best example of this is one summer day at West Meadow beach, the only suitable place to roller blade on Long Island. My mother, pregnant, and I were skating when our friendly European acquaintance Ivan, whom we only know from this particular beach, comes skating along. He abruptly says “Nadia! You’ve lost everything!” Any other person would have abruptly slapped him across the face, but growing up with Italian family, my mom was not, in any way, offended.
During the summer of 2010, my “training” was put to the test. I was going to Italy. At the time, my only experience in another country was in Croatia the year before where I was ridiculed and permanently scarred. I was in a small bar in some coastal city in Croatia when I took a Fanta out of the fridge and brought it to the counter. The man behind the counter babbled something first in Croatian, then in Italian, and finally in English. Once I could understand what he was saying, which was "left," he began to mock me by saying to his friend (in English, mind you), "One to the left, and one to the right,” or at least, that’s what I hope he was saying. His snickering made him sound like a 5 year old child. It turned out that he was making fun of the way I looked all around for the object that I finally figured out was a simple can opener. Lesson learned. For my trip to Italy, I wore flip flops that had a can opener on the bottom, to prevent that from ever happening to me again.My journey to Ventotene seemed long and drawn out, for Italians savor every moment, sometimes to the extreme. Everywhere we went, we had to wait. The line to board the plane, the trip across the Atlantic, the line to go through customs, the wait for our taxi driver (Bruno), the wait for the boat, and most eagerly, the wait for the boat to arrive. Once the plane landed, as in any flight with Italians, they all traditionally clap, as if they thought the plane was going to crash, which was not an absurd expectation after hearing the pilot turn his mic on, while he's playing Glee, shut it off and say "buona sera... Uhhhh......" and then return to his music, forgetting about the mic.
When we finally arrived on the island, I looked around in amazement. Initially, I was awestruck by the architecture, but as we walked to our villa, I learned that there is more to this island than that. The community that I encountered was nothing lass than a culture-shock. Instead of walking past the few dozen people we saw, as I would have in any other town I've ventured to, each and every person above the age of 40 stopped us, greeted us, and talked for a solid 3-5 minutes before going on their merry way. Anxious to explore, we cut the conversations short, and went on.
Once my cousin Cale and I finally hauled our luggage to the house, a hike that was torturous with my grandma's toiletries in tow, we were free to explore. Freedom in Ventotene has a whole new meaning. Here we were completely unrestrained. My grandmother had full confidence that the island was safe, with the exception of the fast moving cars down excessively narrow roads and the cliffs carved out by the Romans over 1000 years ago. We could stroll in at midnight with no repercussions. Besides, any shenanigans would surely be reported to her at the market the next morning.
To celebrate, Cale and I went straight to the nearest cafe for an ice cold Fanta (for the culturally challenged, it’s pronounced FOnta, not FAnta.) It was quite possibly the first carbonated drink I’ve ever had that actually included juice. No longer would I wonder if I was ingesting sodium benzoate, sodium phosphates, glycerol ester of rosin, yellow 6, brominated vegetable oil, and red 40. Not that I knew those names off hand, but from the moment I took a sip, I knew there was something missing. No longer did a Fanta taste like sugar and orange flavoring. The cafe staff must have questioned our sanity as we cherished every sip.
From there, we quickly discovered where the life of Europe is centered: Piazza. Unfortunately, there aren’t any real piazzas in the United States, which in my opinion, is the reason why a large percentage of Americans don’t know their next door neighbor’s name. Here, kids meet and play a variety of games, many prohibited by signs, but encouraged by police. Here, teenagers meet and greet, but only to leave shortly after to venture off to the nearest disco or club, since they currently resent the concept of “Piazza” because it’s the place where they spent their childhood. Here, the elderly talk, watch, and ramble on about the latest insignificant bit of news which they impulsively blurt out to the next person. But it’s the kids in Piazza who really complete the atmosphere, since in reality, a piazza only consists of a slab of concrete and chairs. The only downfall of having dozens of kids at free will is their popular belief that that putting an empty water bottle on the back of their tire is cool. It actually creates an unbearable noise that it seems only the kids enjoy.
In America, if a 6 year old wants to hang out with one of their friends, a phone call is made, planning is discussed, and driving is a must. But because of the concept of piazza, along with a tight knit community such as the one on the island, parents in towns like this can say to their little child, in Italian of course, “Just don’t drink or drown in the sea! Have fun!” Free to do what we wanted, Cale and I wandered aimlessly until there wasn’t a street we hadn't covered. The next morning, we would finally swim in European waters, but first, a much needed rest.
Our villa, which was split in two, my family on the bottom floor and some crazy and often screaming family above, was modestly furnished with a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a patio. There were no electronics, but what more does a person need when they’re on an ancient Roman island? A Frisbee, that’s what; luckily, we had one. I had also noticed that the house, and many others I visited, all were missing light fixtures. Instead, lights hang from the ceiling. Literally, lights, hanging by the power line. But the lights were now off, and it was time bed.