Napoli, Mi'Amore

A Gaul, a Kraut and an Italian are traveling Europe by rail. They agree to a game in which each has to guess where they are over just by reaching their hand out the window.

The Frog reaches outside and says, “We’re in Paris.”

The others exclaim, “You’re right! How did you know?”

“I can feel the rain.”

The German reaches outside and says, “We’re in Berlin.”

The others again exclaim, “You’re right! How did you know?”

“I can feel the pollution.”

The Italian reaches out, jerks his hand back in and yells, “We’re in Napoli!”

You’re right! How did you know?”

“They stole my watch!”

As I write this I am but a few days away from leaving Ramallah and returning to Rome, which is alright. For a lot of people Rome may seem exciting, but what excites me is that I am going to be reunited with my wife and that I am going to be close to Napoli.

The thought of again walking down the streets of Napoli turns my mind wildly. The shattering criminality, pollution and wild dogs around the central train station. The flower-laden arrogance of Vomero, the wild decadence of the sea.

My wife and I left Napoli at the end of November 2002, and since I have been attempting to deal with that reality. Leaving Napoli was the one of the most traumatic acts of my life.

Like no other place I have ever been, the city takes a hold of you, all of you. It is a city of incredible beauty, with the most magnificent looking people I’ve yet seen. It is also the most irritating and difficult place in the world. It is a city large enough to encompass contradictions.

We first came to Napoli to study Italian at the Centro Italian, where the teachers where excellent. The horrible things I do to the Italian language are no fault of theirs. The class on hand gestures has been my Rosetta Stone ever since.  

The school, though, was almost entirely populated by the Japanese. Sitting in a circle speaking Italian with a room full of Japanese hipsters is beyond any act of description. The Japanese have fallen in love with this city because of a near unlimited supply of extraordinary sea food, because of its pizza (the best in the world), because of the cheap, hip clothing and cafes, and — don’t let the teenagers riding Vespas haphazardly on jam-packed sidewalks fool you — because Napoli is possibly the most laid back place in the world, and the Japanese really need to relax.         

Here’s a great conversation, translated from Napolitani for your convenience:
Student: “Last week I saw Sicily.”

Me: “Really. What parts did you see?”

Student:  “No — I saw all of Sicily last week. Monday Trapani, Tuesday Palermo, Wednesday Argrigento, Thursday Catania, Friday Taromina, and Saturday Messina”

Me: “That sounds… exhausting. What did you think?”

Student: “There were too many prostitutes.”

There was this guy, S, who had been a waiter in Tokyo. S was attacked every morning by a gang of small neighborhood children, all below the age of ten. Sometimes water pistols, sometimes water balloons, sometimes even fire works but one thing was always the same. They would pull back their eyes into a slant and yell: “CINESE, CINESE.”

To S it was obvious. These children were attacking him because they thought he was Chinese. And he was right.

One day I asked him how his war was going. S smiled and pulled a water gun out of his jacket. Napoli devours everyone.

Pasolini thought of Napoli as a fragment of the Pagan world. Pasolini is always correct.  Catholicism there has this extraordinary pre-Christian cast. You feel it in the Duomo. Beneath it are the ruins of both a Greek villa and a Roman Villa. Inside the hotel are on display; the bones of San Genaro (a complete set), two vials of his blood, a ceiling full of astrological symbols, walls covered in silver offerings to the saints, the first Baptistery in Europe. Around it is a neighborhood cramped and squalid and wild. You can get the best damn cheese in the world there…
Napoli was settled by the Greeks, who called it Neopolis (the new city), and it has existed continuously since then. Invaded by the Romans, by the Normans and by the Spanish, the Napolitanis have taken each wave and devoured them. They have captured every invader. But at first glance this is all hidden, especially if your first glance is at the train station in Piazza Garibaldi. This is perhaps the most criminal and intimidating place in Europe.

When I first saw it six years ago, it struck me as a mix of the worst of Mexico City and old Times Square; pornography everywhere and thousands of Italians, selling every kind of counterfeit clothing and brand of bootleg cigarette imaginable. Along with electronics, pizza and coffee. And that’s not to mention the prostitutes, many of them African and Brazilian.

Today the same things are still for sale but the sellers are a new bunch. Hardly an Italian is to be found. Instead it is Africans, Chinese, Latinos, Philippinos. It is one of the great examples of how drastic globalization has been.

If you find yourself at the station, take a train somewhere else. Pretty much anywhere else is infinitely preferable.

When I first came to Italy, about seven years ago, I missed diversity, in the American sense. But now Napoli, Milano and Rome are more diverse than most American cities.

This has happened in an incredibly short period of time and it is a testament to Italian tolerance. They really don’t mind here, but not in the same way we don’t mind in New York. In New York nobody is American; everyone is Chinese-American or Spanish-American or some such. But here everyone is simply Italian.

There is a feeling amongst the natives that those who have come will come to their senses and conform. That it is just a matter of time before they too wear tight red jeans, have incredibly complex hairstyles, and drive too fast down cobble stone streets. That though the women may keep their hair covered, that they too will wear push up bras. And beyond a doubt this is occurring. All throughout the city you see people who at first glance appear to be native Italians, but at second are obviously not. I have seen Chinese Guidos in Napoli, and no one finds them especially noteworthy.

Napoli must be seen, with its magnificent port, orange trees always in bloom, cobblestone streets, and people who treat those streets as a stage.

In a sense it is a city that has been preserved as a work of art not by any plan but rather through a complete absence of urban planning. The glorious food has remained even as the population changes thanks to a fanatical obsession with freshness and purity, the virtues of which are such that newcomers quickly internalize this monomania.  It is also a city obsessed with children.

Beyond a doubt, Napoli has the most spoiled children in the world. We saw one group playing with fireworks one day. First they just threw them into the center of the square, but then they decided to start throwing them at the people. First they threw them at a tour group and scared the hell out of them. Then they decided to throw them at an old man. He was not taking it, and he raised his cane and chased them across the square. They regrouped, plotted and decided to throw them at a Philipino woman who was talking on the phone. Finally an adult went over and ripped the fireworks out of their hands.

My wife and I saw the same group of children another night. They knew we were not from there because my wife’s nose is long, like Pinocchio. They wanted to know what men and women did at night. We told them to ask their parents, a statement greeted with cries of horror. They wanted to know about the Twin Towers, about why we weren’t dead and if we knew anyone that had died.

Then the kids went home, walking up from the square into the city’s Spanish Quarter, an area with the highest asthma levels in Europe and a population density second only to Hong Kong. To survive there you have to be a little bad. I want my kids to be like them.

I’ll mark my return to Napoli by remembering the last time we left.

We decided that we would rent a car, drive to our apartment, pick up our luggage and drive down to Sicily. We hadn’t counted on the Fiat protest. Over 100,000 people arrived in Napoli that day, to protest the coming war in Iraq, Berlusconi’s growing closeness with Bush and the Fiat plant closings. They also decided to go directly past where we lived. It took two hours to get to our apartment. Once there we bumped into the people who lived above us. They wanted to say hello, and talk, so we did. As we were leaving, going down the five flights of stairs, lowered down from the top of the stairwell was a basket on a rope, along with a call to us. In the basket was a small baby Christ in a little manger.

“Por Natale” (For Christmas), the woman yelled down to us.

We got out, and ended up driving directly into the protest, surrounded by flags and banners, Images of Bush as Hitler and Berlusconi as Mussolini, a horde of Communist workers who barely acknowledged us as we slowly drove into the crowd. One who did notice decided to take matters in his own hands. He assumed the figure of a traffic cop, took a second to get his motivation, to build a portrait. With grand authority he held up his hands and stopped the Parade. Everyone came to a halt and slowly parted. He yelled at us:

“Vai, Vai” (Go, Go).

And off we went down to Sicily.

A wild dog followed me and my girl around the city, wanting to be our friend, but too hurt to know how. For hours. A coke can in her mouth, she'd let it drop, savage it with her teeth, and then wag her tale come forward to be petted, get scared half way through her approach (clearly this dog had been beaten by someone) and snarl at us, fangs bared, ready to attack should we come closer. It broke my heart.
10.19.2004 | S. Sylvester

I think, this theme is quite actual now. For hours. A coke can in her mouth, she'd let it drop, savage it with her teeth, and then wag her tale come forward to be petted, get scared half way through her approach (clearly this dog had been beaten by someone) and snarl at us, fangs bared, ready to attack should we come closer.

05.11.2011 | meet people free

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