Posts Tagged ‘ischia’

A Walk Around the Edge

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Beach Blossom

The man draws a circle around the whole island with a blue ballpoint pen. He says, “Ischia is good for swimming.”

Two months before, I had never heard of the place—a tiny lump of volcanic ash nudging out of the Bay of Naples. And then I stood on it and I swam.

I lay facedown on a tiny towel, the only person without an umbrella in the burning July sun. I’m so dark at this point that it hardly matters, that I only use dime-sized drops of sunblock for my nose and cheeks.

There is a single road that loops around the edge of the whole island, a way to get anywhere and back again. And maybe all tropical places are like this, a protective circle where you can never get lost. There is a similar circle on Oahu, around the edge of Sicily, a line drawn by a finger in the sand.

They tell me I can walk to the beach, and I do. I follow the road along the edge of a cliff. The busses zoom by, make the hem of my skirt flutter. Every once in a while, I turn my head around and watch the line of footprints my sandals have made in the gravel and I think.

Every second of my life so far has been in preparation for this. Everything that seemed so awful—my sick dad, my thrice broken heart, a masochistic former boss, a pretty water glass kicked over and shattered—was what culminated and bore this. Take away a single thing, an instant of that distress or struggle—putting my arms around my sobbing mother one morning when I was 12—and I never would have stood on Ischia. I would have skipped it entirely, headed to Sorrento three days early. I would have never left New York.

Beaches switch on all of my senses, make my nerve endings shiver. That’s why I spent a whole summer floating from one to the next.

The man is right about Ischia. It’s good for swimming. The white sand at the bottom is soft on the soles of your feet until it drops out entirely, leaving you to tread against the waves, which are gentle—just a nudge in either direction. The water is warm. No assimilation necessary, no standing on your toes to save the two inches around your navel from the freeze because even that would be too much to bear. On Ischia, the easiest thing is just to dive.

The water does not shimmer like diamonds, not like Sardegna. The sand is not entirely free of cigarette butts, a single unbroken curtain, like Crete. The color near the shore is a mucky blue. A snarl of weeds occasionally floats by. A lazy cloud or two blocks out the sun sometimes, sends a chill through every peeling back. An ice cream wrapper flutters by and the sand bakes so hot that I can hardly bear it through shoes. To have it differently, though, would be to have someone else’s life. To have somewhere else in summer.

Island of Islands

Friday, October 10th, 2008

On Ischia, island of flowers, garbage piles in the streets. In some places, it has not been picked up in a week, in two. It is not so obvious in the places that are frequented by tourists, but if you wind down the backroads, stepping careful on the wide black paving stones, you’ll see it — trash — wedged behind grates and bursting out of double-ply plastic bags. You will certainly smell it. The island is separated from teeming, stinking, wonderful Naples by stretches of blue water, by ferry boats, but Ischia is still Naples, and if Naples has a garbage problem, Ischia has a garbage problem. And by garbage problem, I mean that Naples has a problem with organized crime.

On Ischia, island of flowers, I swim every single day. Floating on my back under jewel –toned sky, I think about how I want to swim every single day of my life, and not in a pool. In Lap Swim. In a single lane. At that point, you might as well not even swim.

I take the bus on a sweltering, cloudless day to the tiny town of Ischia Ponte which has one street, one church, two open-air restaurants, a fountain in the square, pastel tile, fishing nets, a store selling English-language books, and a castle.

The castle is built on a rock that is connected to the island by a narrow strip of pavement that I walk, heavy-shouldered and sucking down bottle after bottle of water. On either side of the pavement in the water, people swim. Families in tattered swim suits shout at each other and splash, hop off the rocks and squeal, or just sit in the sun, motionless, dripping with sweat. There isn’t even breeze.

I pay admission and pack into an elevator with six German tourists and an instant later, I am at the top. The universe spreads itself out below — Naples in miniature, Sorrento balancing precarious on its cliff, Vesuvius looming dark under its veil of smog and clouds — and blue water between.

I am not sad, but something settles, a kind of malaise. I want to see the castle because you can’t come here and not see the castle — this tiny dot that’s been wrested from hand to hand, from nation to nation, since people walked upright and could string a bow. But at the same time, I want to maybe go back to Naples to wander in its seedy little souvenir shops, to use my fractured Italian with its amiable fish sellers, to sit quiet and lazy and still under the gilded arches of its churches, to flirt with its ever-game population of excitable young men. Or maybe I just want to swim, to take the bus around the tiny ring road, to get off where it seems calm, to let the tangle of kids and day trippers and locals swarm around me, to get more tanned, more burned, to trace new stripes across my body. But I stay at the castle. This is, I tell myself, today’s civic lesson. Today’s attempt at Travel as Education.

I am an unwilling student and the sun does not help. I walk the tiny paths around the castle, sweating through the layers of my clothes. I stop to rest in the chapel, under the branches of an olive tree, behind a low stone wall, in any shady spot that will have me. Finally, I reach the convent.

The dormitories have been converted into a luxury hotel and are closed to the wandering public, but the place I want to see has not. The convent was once home to an order of nuns who believed that the living should be continually reminded of their journey back to the earth. When one of the nuns died, the others would place the body in a cell sitting upright on a special stone seat that had been fitted with a hole for drainage. Then the nuns would pray in the cells, day after day as the body decomposed. The rotting corpses often spread disease, leading to more deaths.

Of course, these cells are all I want to see. Because I want to see proof that such mania, such pure human nuttiness, was real. Using the printed map, I make my way down a narrow staircase into one of the cells. It has been whitewashed and swept and whitewashed again, undoubtedly to reassure squeamish tourists. It is lit with a single lamp set into the ceiling as though it were a designer kitchen showroom and is, by all accounts, hygienic. So there is nothing, really, to account for what happens next.

I freak out.

The feeling that rises is not so much one of panic, but of shear terror, as though I’ve just emerged into a torture chamber with blood splattered across the walls and not an entirely neat little room that could double as a cheery wine cellar. I have trouble breathing, thinking. All I know is that I must get out. I scramble up the stairs as though I’m being chased and am spit up into the sunshine, safe.

Disoriented, I follow the signs toward the exit, canceling my plans to see the other side of the rock, to chase more sun-drenched views, more cascades of flowers. I am grateful when I am joined by other tourists in the elevator, when I walk back to Ischia Ponte, surrounded by cloudless sky, by shouting children, by the stink of garbage, proof of life.

Taking the Waters

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Sorgento Hot Springs Cove

The Canadian woman and the Spanish woman and I make our way past swaths of bamboo and lemon trees and trees full of fluorescent blossoms, following the signs and hardly believing that we are going to the right place, because we seem to be walking away from civilization, from reality. It is dusk. My towel has not dried in three days.

We walk downhill, toward the cove, which we can see in the distance, the two tall ends of it poking into the sea. Then we come to the steps which twist along the rock face, all the way down to the shore below, the tiny lapping waves. There is no one but us.

I am first into the water, fast. A huge plunge. Not even thinking.

Along the edge, steam rises from the rock which is tinted a sour yellow from the sulfur. Signs warn: The water is boiling. Your own risk.

It comes in stripes, a warm one when the waves pull back and a cool one when new sea water rushes in, but moving closer to the edge, it just warmer and warmer. The rocks, green with algae, slide under our hands. It’s good for the skin, they say. A wave from a boat hits the shore and water from the edge splashes up and drops burn across my back.

I face the gaping mouth of the cove and watch as the ferries glide by, silent, their lights blinking in the growing dark. I am more tired than I have maybe ever been, my limbs like lead. I have walked for three hours already today, swum for two, in baking heat. I hardly have enough energy to rearrange myself to avoid getting burned.

A big wave crashes against the shore, sends me sliding off my algae-slick rock. I get a mouthful of seawater and gasp. It is sharp and metallic on my tongue, all strange volcanic minerals.

I rearrange myself toward a warmer spot near the edge. I can take it, I think.

The women and I marvel. We watch a tiny crab perched on a rock a few feet away, waiting his turn. On the shore, we change in the darkness without looking for rocks to hide ourselves. The air is warm. No towel necessary. No one will come along to disturb us.

I try to think of what this means, how to arrange this in the Stuff I’ve Learned file, but it doesn’t fit. It is not catastrophe, no moment of brilliant strength or insight. That will come twenty minutes later when, truly exhausted, I genuinely have trouble staggering back up the hill. I worry about collapsing in the dark, being a burden on these women, on some poor person passing on a scooter, their night interrupted by a fluid-deficient American. But for now, it is me, floating, enjoying the warm. Watching the mouth of the cave again, the open sea beyond it, the last streaks of dim orange in the sky, my impulse says. Go for the literary.

The world makes a space for you, an opening between two cliffs. Go through.

What You Think You Are

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Wedding Blossoms

There is something I hate about this hostel and I cannot put my finger on what it is, because it is clean and spacious and blue and up a tangling little street and situated in a former convent and the owners are kind and they like to organize trips to eat pasta and lounge in the hot springs and I am mostly comfortable here.


Because while I know rationally that this is one of the top-rated hostels in Europe and the tangle of dorm-room-chic graffiti on the walls in reception extols all the fun of this place, I have trouble seeing it.

I see twenty of us sharing two bathrooms. I see breakfast where there is only hot milk for Corn Flakes. I see huge signs above the sink saying that we are to BOTH WASH AND PUT AWAY DISHES when there is no soap and no towels. I see other signs in the bathrooms telling us to KEEP SHOWERING TIME TO A MINIMUM SO WE CAN ALL ENJOY THE HOT WATER, except one of the bathroom taps is clearly leaking… hot water. I see the adorable house puppy — we are all expected to love him, clearly, as no one attempts to restrain him — whose messes of every sort wind up in our bedrooms, in the front hall, in the kitchen twenty minutes before breakfast.

(The management’s amazing solution to a particularly smelly mess in the main dorm? They locked up the room, not the puppy.)

But it’s not really any of those things. Clearly, there are disorganized, sub-par hostels everywhere in Europe, and I’ve stayed in at least four of them. It is something else. A thing running under the surface. And I only realize what it is when I see the hostel’s brochure.

It is printed in tropical blue and yellow and plastered with photos of former guests. Hugging. Drinking. Kissing. Laughing. Having a GREAT TIME. On the cover, letters proclaim, “Ischia: The Island,” except that before the word “island,” a karat cheekily inserts the word PARTY on the line above.

And it hits me. It’s the marketing, stupid.

An American did this.

An American with a marketing degree has branded this hostel. Like The Pink Palace in Greece or The Flying Pig in Amsterdam. This hostel has designs on the Top-Tier Party Hostel Circuit. There is even a sign behind the desk I had not noticed before: WE ARE ON FACEBOOK. ADD US AS A FRIEND!

All of this is fine, except that this hostel is on a tiny island in the middle of the Bay of Naples — a place that, thanks to the piles of garbage in the street, has a bit of an image problem at the moment — and your dog just shit on the floor.


Later, I am not even remotely surprised to see the American in the flesh. To hear a guy talking about her in the common room.

“Yeah, she’s from New York. She’s the owner’s girlfriend. She used to be in marketing… somewhere.”