Summer Vacations: Then vs Now

Italy: the New Camp Dearborn

Robert McKeon Aloe
11 min readJul 7, 2020

Almost every summer, my family would trek up from Houston, Texas to Detroit, Michigan, and then drive to Camp Dearborn. Have you ever seen Dirty Dancing? Like that but tents in cement and public showers. The nostalgia of the place is better than actually going, and I certainly have fond memories. That’s probably, at least in part, why I love going to southern Italy so much. It has replaced Camp Dearborn, but the two hold many similarities.

An old picture from quite possibly my first Camp Dearborn

Camp Dearborn

We would go to Camp Dearborn at the same time of the year in June, and we would rent two rows of tents (about 20 tents). My grandma had 10 brothers and sisters, and then she had 14 kids who had 44 grandchildren; so there were a lot of people gathering. Each tent was a heavy tarp tent with six to 8 beds in bunk bed styles. It had a table outside as well as a stove, oven, and fridge. All of this for each tent was on a cement pad. In between the rows were areas to hang dry clothes, hang out at tables, and make camp fires.


We’ve gone to Italy 9 times in 10 years, and it’s become nearly a yearly trip. We go for a few weeks to Amantea, which is on the ocean. So we can go to the beach everyday. We go to Amantea because my wife’s grandparents emigrated from there 70 years ago. She is related to half the town, and we have a wonderful time staying with family and hang out with her family throughout the trip. Half of those trips occurred in June, and typically we like coming in June because of la Festa Sant’Antonio who is the patron saint of Amantea. It means a lot making a little alter with family for the celebration when the whole town shuts down. June is also a good month because airfare is a bit cheaper too, the weather is a little cooler, and there are a few less people.

The sunset in Amantea

Weather Similarities

Both Italy and Michigan have a warm June with a bit of humidity. Italy has winds that come up from the Sahara, but typically, in June, the weather is in the 70’s and 80’s. The days are sunny, and storms are infrequent.

Typical housing at Camp Dearborn

The other similarity with respect to weather is the lack of air conditioning. In America, AC is pretty standard especially in the South. I grew up in Houston, and the only way we survived 100 F with 100% humidity was AC. Every building was cold and dry, so even when transitioning between buildings, you knew you were going to cool down fast when you got to the destination.

In Italy, Italians don’t like AC, at least in Calabria. They don’t like something blowing on them or the dryness of the air. Some claim you’ll get sick if you have air blow on you. Camp Dearborn didn’t have AC because it’s not that kind of experience. So both places were hot and sweaty, which normally isn’t an issue for a few hours, but all day, it’s tough especially at night.

Dining room at la Pensione

The result of the heat is that you had to find ways to stay cool, and in a sense, relax. The other result is that I don’t shower everyday in both places. I find it disconcerting when I get out of a shower, and within ten minutes, I’m sweaty all over again. Taking a shower can be difficult because showers in Italy aren’t like America, in general. The shower at Camp was a public shower, so again, it took time to take all your stuff there, wear the sandals, fear the warts, and get clean only to get gross again.

Sunrise over the city

Without AC, you have to rely on wind and open windows, and there in lies the rub. Both places had a lot of mosquitoes, so you had to pick between bug bites and feeling cool. Yes, you could use bug spray, but even that would wear off in the night. Often in Italy, I have woken up due to the zanzare (mosquitoes in Italian), usually in my ear whispering sweet nothings. Unfortunately for them, I used a flash light and my shoe to hunt them down at 3am.

The Beach

Camp had a small beach on a small lake, and we would go everyday, a few times a day. Usually, we would put suntan lotion on, but as our excitement grew and our parents let us do whatever, we would invariably forget.

Camp Dearborn from Maps

The problem is that I come from a family of potatoes. I’m fifth generation Irish, and I tan very slowly. I’m a Fitzpatrick II, which means I usually burn and some times tan. My mom is a Fitzpatrick I, which means she always burns and never tans. My wife on the other hand is an olive. She’s mostly 2nd generation Italian, and she rarely burns. Usually, if she burns, she is fine the next day. When I burn, it lasts for a week.

Amantea beach

In Italy, we’re on the coast, so it’s beach as far as the eye can see. We have had the issue of suntan lotion some times, but as an adult, I’ve been much more careful. We also have umbrellas to keep us in the shade.

Both beaches provided a great place to cool off and have fun. The Italian beach is far nicer, but growing up, the beach at Camp Dearborn was my beach experience. As an adult, I’ve been to Ocean City Maryland, a few other beaches in Michigan, beaches up and down the coast of California, and beaches in two other regions in Italy. My standard beach is still the one in Amantea. Both places have the balance of sweat and suntan lotion that has become the symbol and smell of family trips for me.


Camp Dearborn was when we saw our family. My parents moved south before we were born, so our childhood was lacking of local family support. This was not uncommon amongst my childhood friends. We all had some other place we considered home. So we saw our family twice a year, but some times just once a year. Flying was expensive, and my parents had children young.

Italy is where my wife sees a lot of her extended family. She has a few first cousins, but nothing like me. However, in Amantea, her family has been there for generations. Some parts of her family can be traced back hundreds of years. Even growing up, she had her grandparents and most of her aunts and uncles close-by. She also grew up in only two houses, five minutes away from either other, which contrasts the 6 dwellings I habited across 3 states and one other country.

Anchovies in Italy

In both places though, there is/was lots of family hanging out with no other agenda then to lounge around, eat, and drink. My family drinks a lot; her family like most Italians, is into eating great food.

Unfortunately, the Irish aren’t known for great eating or epic meals. On the other hand, if you get to go to an Italian wedding, get ready to eat like you never thought possible. You stomach will say “stop”, your tongue will say “STOP!”, so will your brain and your butt, but your family will tell you to eat.

Eating with other families has been a staple of both places. When I was little, I used to go to my mother’s first cousin’s tent to eat breakfast. I don’t know why. I’m not sure if it is because nobody was awake at my tent or not. Maybe they had better cereal. In Italy, her family cooks for us because we don’t yet have a place of our own to cook and eat at. One day, that will change, but for now, we are frequent guests of family.

Preparing to make pasta dough

Ice Cream vs Gelato

Superman ice cream was the dream of childhood. I only ate it at Camp Dearborn, and it was just so amazing. Sorry to ruin Superman ice cream for you, but it’s just vanilla. However, taking a break from the beach to get ice cream or going at night to the little dance thing to have an ice cream was so essential to those good times.

Gelato has thoroughly been a part of my Italy travels, especially in Amantea. Many here find one gelateria that’s their place, and they stick with it. I try them all, and I know where the best place is depending on the flavor. I’ve even done a Tour del Gelato where I went to three or four places all in one outing.

An affogato!

I cut most sweets and added sugar from my diet starting five years ago, and it has done wonders for my energy levels. However, in Italy, I still eat a bit of gelato. Usually, an affogato with pistachio and extra dark chocolate (called Extra Dark, but you have to say it with the cool Italian accent). I know when I go back to the States, I won’t have much ice cream or sweets for the rest of the year, which further cements how special gelato is in Italy.

Special Events

Camp Dearborn would usually have a few films we would go see or something special. Usually on Friday night, there was something to do that wasn’t everyday.

We started coming in June to Amantea because Andrea was pregnant one year, and we couldn’t come later in the summer. So we happened to be here for la Festa di Sant’Antonio di Padova, and we fell in love with the festival, the preparation, and how it brought together the family.

The band for la Festa di San Antonio, the patron saint of Amantea

Sant’Antonio is the patron saint of Amantea, so on June 13th, the town shuts down and celebrates with a procession, a band, food, and some fireworks. Usually, there is a huge fireworks show on the beach at 1am, which is pretty intense even if experienced indoors as I have twice now.

More of the festival

Fireworks were not standard at Camp Dearborn. I think they once had a big thing of them but nothing after that, so instead, we would bring fireworks. We would blow them off here or there, but the staff (aka the Greenies) would try to catch you if you set them off. Some times, we would ambush their little trucks with a powerful squirt gun of water right into the window. Looking back, it’s probably not something even legal to do, and we shouldn’t have done it especially with ice water. Like anything dumb in life, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The lakes of Camp Dearborn

We would daisy chain fireworks together and use a sparkler as a delayed fuse. We setup a bunch of fireworks that way on the old playgrounds (since torn down), and we would have enough time to get to a safe spot to watch them go off. There was always a moment of tension as we did not know if the delayed fuse had worked, and we would have to wait it out.


One component of Camp Dearborn that isn’t in our experience in Italy is Buck Up. Buck Up is a card game involving three cards each, a trump card, and money. Usually, the game gets heated and exciting. We had a kids table and adults table, and we were all so excited to play at the adults table until we lost a bunch of money to our aunts and uncles well versed in the game and luck.

One time while playing Buck Up, we had a bug candle explode as the result of multiple coincidences. The candle had a small flame and didn’t do much for the bugs. Cousins had tried to make the flame bigger using pennies or nickels. The flame was only slightly larger, and the wax around the flame had melted down a half inch.

We were dealing cards over this candle, and it started to become bothersome as the flame was a bit bigger and the container was hot. Then, someone asked me to put out the candle with some Brisk Ice Tea. So I poured it on the candle. We didn’t expect the candle to blow up, but there in lies the excitement. The whole candle turned into a jet flame shooting up four feet to the light bulb above the outdoor table of the tent. All twelve of us flew off of the table faster than anyone could have imagined and watched with amazement as all of the wax burned away. Luckily, we didn’t burn the tent down.

In Contemplation

We stopped going to Camp Dearborn after 2003, which was most likely tied to my grandparents dying because their kids decided we should vacation in better spots even if it costs more money. They all had good paying jobs and didn’t really like to go “camping” but did out of reverence for their parents. My grandfather was very thrifty, so the low cost of Camp Dearborn was appealing to him.

Amantea at night

While I’ve increased in age, Italy has certainly become an upgraded version of Camp Dearborn. At times, I feel the nostalgia of the good times from those hot summer days, and I’d prefer for my kids to have similar nostalgia for Italy instead of Camp Dearborn.

Ti amo Amantea, ci vediamo dopo.



Robert McKeon Aloe

I’m in love with my Wife, my Kids, Espresso, Data Science, tomatoes, cooking, engineering, talking, family, Paris, and Italy, not necessarily in that order.