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  • Crisis from an Islander's Perspective
    Learn what Europe's financial crisis has been like on the island of Ischia
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    This is an interesting time in history to be in Italy. While most Italians are looking for an exit plan, my husband and I returned to Italy for at least nine months. We didn't even decide to live in a major city, where the financial crisis and political turmoil might have less impact. No, we decided to take our chances on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and my husband. In fact, my own family ran away from the place in the 1950s and 1960s, just before tourism took off here, because the opportunities for young people amounted to zilch.

    We're returning to this small island that relies pretty much solely on tourism for its economy. I know. I know. We sound like those crazy foreigners who drive down a one-way street in the wrong direction. My husband returned here unemployed and looking for work, while I, a freelancer, am putting at risk my relationship with my most important (read: best-paying) client.

    All the while, we're raising our 19-month-old American son here in Italy. To make things even more interesting, my son is allergic to something – we don't know what – but the doc is blaming it for an ear infection, bronchitis, and a rash. Even with socialized medicine, baby's allergy requires money to treat. He needs medications – cough syrup, antibiotics (two, so far), and probiotic (to deal with the diarrhea, which results from taking the antibiotics). Of course, our son's appetite remains unaffected, which means we have to buy food, lots of food because he eats as much as a 20-year-old with a bad case of the munchies.

    Medicine is definitely cheaper in Italy than in the States, so that's welcome. Back in New Jersey, we only had to buy medicine once, so far, for baby, so it's a cost we don't usually have but at least it's low. The food, however, is expensive. It costs twice as much as in the United States. Using coupons and frequent buyer's cards are becoming more popular, but it's nothing compared to the use in the States. There are certainly no warehouse stores, such as B.J.'s or Costco, to be found. Recently, a one euro store (similar to our dollar store) opened, but it does not have the same kinds of staples that American ones have. To get cheaper diapers and wipes, you generally have to go to Naples on the boat with your car, which isn't cheap either.

    Because Ischia is an island, trucks bringing over products and food have to pay for additional travel on the boat, and that makes the prices even higher here. It's not just food either. Clothes and other necessities cost more, too. I almost never buy clothing here. We bring everything we can for us and baby from the cheaper United States. After all, most of the clothing stores on the island sell designer items. I recently passed by one window with a Dolce & Gabbana dress for baby girls that cost 245 euro. You can imagine in this crisis that the store was completely empty.

    Hubby was lucky to get a job within a month of our arrival. But others we know are still unemployed. The problem is that Ischia's work is seasonal. Generally, people work in a hotel or tourist haven – such as a beach or thermal spa – for six months. Working six months guarantees you will get paid unemployment during the winter months. This year, owners of hotels and other tourist attractions are hiring fewer employees for the season. And the ones who do get hired are not getting to work for six months, so the owners don't have to pay into unemployment. As a result, many of them will make some money now and will likely be broke by winter.

    Of course, they can plan ahead. That means spending less on food, clothes, and necessities (which I've explained is hard to do). Forget about vacations and luxuries, such as indulgences in home renovations or new cars. Life is about getting by these days. Just walking on the street gives you a good idea of just how bad the crisis is. There are closed storefronts, empty tables and chairs at the local bars that are usually swarming with tourists at this time of year, and bored shopkeepers sitting outside their store's doors with nothing to do but gossip with the townspeople.

    One of the local shop owners recently told me that if he didn't own the property on which his jewelry store sits, he wouldn't be able to make rent and he would have had to shut his doors. Things are that bad, he says. He has never seen this kind of crisis.

    Sometimes, when I'm here I think that we Americans from the fancy suburbs on the East Coast are just spoiled. We don't need all these material items. But then I also realize that having little money means having an insular view of the world, too.

    Some of the people I know on Ischia have never left the island. Some never will leave the island. Some, who do leave, go to Naples or Rome and that's it. There are some who visit the United States or South America or Africa or the Middle East. The majority stay put. They can't afford to even dream of a life that would permit such expensive travel. And they learn to fear flying and the unknown. That's when I think having a little extra money never hurts. It gives you the chance to know what you're missing, to know what else is out there. It has given me the opportunity to know just how good I have it.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and you can keep track of her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 5/20/13


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