Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive

For the many of you who have asked me about my family and friends after Hurricane/Megastorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast of the United States and my home state of New Jersey, I'm happy to say that everyone is safe.  Cold, in the dark, and unhappy, but safe.

Most of my family lives in Manhattan and Bergen County, NJ, which means that they either evacuated to the long off land of "Midtown" or, like some wonderfully feisty Great Aunts, stayed put.  They are getting power back, one by one, and now it's just some Aunts and Uncles and my parents who are left, quite literally, in the dark.  Some won't have electricity until the 12th or so.  After seeing pictures of friend's homes, destroyed, foundations blown out, roofs swept off, or thinking about unreachable elderly relatives with no heat and a snowstorm approaching, or others needing non immediately essential medical care that can't get treatment, I think they are the lucky ones.

After finally getting in touch with my parents and friends a few days ago, who lost telephone service and were keeping cellphones off to save battery power, I was able to exhale.

This year, weather wise, has left me on the receiving end of a devastating flood and mudslide, Hurricane Irene, 7 earthquakes, and a freak beachside blizzard.  As I've settled into my newly rebuilt life in Liguria, this news that my old home (where perhaps my heart always will be) is the victim of another brutal, ugly, and deadly natural disaster is bordering on incredible.  The odds are, as my boyfriend noted, astronomically low that these things would keep occurring in places where I live, lived, or am planning on returning to for Thanksgiving in a few weeks, electricity or not.  Is Mother Nature mad at me?  Is that undergrad paper I wrote examining the "myth" of global warming turning into a sick joke? (Note: it was for a debate class where we were assigned sides, not necessarily a viewpoint I share - and if I did, it's one I'd be rethinking seriously).

Italian news can be remarkably New York focused, and in the days leading up to Sandy and the days after it, there were photos of my demolished home state everywhere.  The Jersey Shore, something close to my heart, went from being something of an MTV-induced joke to something of a tragedy reminiscent of the floods here last October.  Seeing pictures of towns destroyed and livelihoods wiped away, hearing stories of lives lost, is reminder of the incredible destruction that Mother Nature can wreck closer then close to home.  It has happened, in fact, in my home.

As I've lamented many times, New Jersey gets a reputation it doesn't deserve.  When looking over the incredible vista at the outdoor tables here in Monterosso, squinting into the sun and smiling at Corniglia, perched on her throne, or Manarola hugging Riomaggiore and Vernazza smiling back from just a boat ride away, the Cinque Terre and the long stretch of pristine beach is paradise.

Tables sharing the same view ask where I'm from, and looking out at the villages remark, sarcastically, laughing, sometimes meanly"It's no Jersey Shore, eh?"

"No," I responded many times, seriously, quiet.  "And I miss the Jersey Shore".

That always shuts people up, dumbfounded that I would confess something that is so clearly a joke on my part.  Some laugh, assuming I'm joking along too.  Some just stare.

Like many New Jerseyans, I can make fun of my state, Bar A, Belmar and the Seaside Heights boardwalk trash (not garbage, grimy people) all I want, because it's mine - for better or for worse.  I can crack jokes about gum-snapping accents that make your ears painfully ring, or the stench by exit 15 on the Turnpike because it's my accent to make fun of and my state that has that quirky and disgusting smell for 5 minutes.  I can yell "fuggetdabawdit" while passing a car on a 5 lane highway next to a Sopranos set.  And along with these stereotypes that people want to think encompass my state, I can relish the sweet flavor of a Jersey tomato, warm from the sun and juicy as I sit in a field in Central Jersey surrounded by clean, green air and open farmland.  I can walk down the ivy dripping streets of Princeton, enjoy the view from a car ride up Skyline Drive, and snap pictures of lacy Victorian houses catching the last rays of the summer sun in Cape May.  I can eat cotton candy and popcorn on a boardwalk full of the smells of suntan lotion and childhood, and try and get the last of the sand off my feet before getting into the car to drive home on the Parkway.  I can search the boardwalk of Asbury Park for the sounds of music and a story from decades ago, chase the dreams of winning and the perfect night out in Atlantic City, or simply sit in a porch swing, huddled up in a Ron Jon hoodie and look out on the dunes in Long Beach Island.  I can drink a Corona after a day at the beach in Belmar with friends, walk the dunes at Sandy Hook, and have a backyard barbecue in Wildwood before hitting the Ferris Wheel, again, as always, envious I can't eat the grilled clams.

Seeing pictures of New Jersey is such devastation hurts in a different way then living through what happened here in Monterosso.  Though maybe I didn't live in LBI, Ortley Beach or Manasquan, I spent some of my most vivid memories there.  Many of the scenes that shape my life take place at the Jersey Shore, and, for better or for worse, all 180 something miles of my state is built on it, meaning I'm not the only one.  The Jersey Shore is a shared memory for us, a collective sigh of summer relief that we can all relate to, and look back with a nostalgic smile.

The Cinque Terre has a different view, a different charm, and is, by all accounts, the exact opposite of the other beach close to my heart that was destroyed last week, but the famous resilience and hard-headedness of the people here means that they have something very important in common with the people of my Garden State.  Having thick skins after being made the punchline of every joke in the United States, New Jerseyans know that we are actually holders to the best secret - we are incredibly lucky to live where we do.  We are tough people underneath the stereotype and the joke, and made of stone.  Like my little village here, we are people who do not back down to a challenge.

Getting from the bed and breakfast to the restaurant normally takes less then a minute.  In the past few days, it would take ten, fifteen, as people stopped me and asked how we were doing in New Jersey.  I was proudly surprised they even knew where it was, as it normally gets swept into the category of New York.  As I chatted with our local handyman, who is 110% Monterossini, he asked if there were people in my state that still lived there, and I responded, confused, that of course they were.

Then you will be ok, he said, firmly, assuredly.  If it is someone's home, no matter how destroyed, you can always rebuild.  Look what we did, he laughed, throwing his hands up to the sky.

He is right, of course, and it's true.  Where there are stubborn people with a deep love for where they live, where they grew up, and memories that run through their veins, you will always, sooner or later, be alright.  Come hurricane, flood or earthquake, with power or without water, hard headed people who love where they live will always have an dogged fire to survive and rebuild.

In the end, perhaps Monterosso and New Jersey aren't all that different after all.


  1. So very glad you hear your family is safe and doing ok. It's always nice to make that call and hear the good new's.
    enjoy Thanksgiving with your family. xo

  2. I just posted on the previous page. I was worried about your family in Jersey. We're on Long Island and also got hit hard. The destruction is mind boggling. Luckily, our house is secure. We lost power and heat for thirteen days. Just got it back last night.

    You and your neighbor said it best. Support from neighbors has been fantastic. And the support from out of state people has been so unbelievably generous. We come out with whatever we can as they work - snacks, drinks, even just a grateful smile and a hug of thanks. I hear all different accents on the streets - long southern drawls, punctuated with lots of 'ma'am's that make me feel ancient, western twangs - some of these people have driven for days just to come and help us rebuild. Gas is still tight, but getting better now that we've moved to odd/even rationing.

    The beach communities will come back. The landscape may change, but the people remain.God bless us all.<3

  3. I love this posting. I am a Jersey-Expat. . .exiled to Oregon, but I still call Jersey home.

    Megastorm Sandy broke my heart. . .all the images of the damage on the Shore and inland. . .I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

    Take care in Jersey. . .you are all in our prayers.

  4. Thank you everybody! NJ (and NY) pride sticks with you forever, eh? :)