Any attempt to describe Naples in words is destined for failure. It is a city that is simultaneously decadent, decaying, beautiful, gothic, filthy, thriving, and vibrant, all in its own comical way — a way that most Western cities would consider a failure. Everywhere you look clothes are hanging from the buildings to dry. A city without dryers. Garbage is everywhere, even taped to street signs. Beautiful, grand chapels are caked with dirt and decay, so much so that you might not even notice them if you don’t look closely. You could get lost in the dark, ominous, alley-like streets making up half of the city and never see the sea from where the Sirens lured Odysseus. The museum holding some of the world’s greatest archeological masterpieces is full of dust and cracks, and somewhat ramshacked. Nothing is protected from your touch. Naples is the Cairo of the West. It is, quite simply, fabulous.
Over the last month, much of the dinner time conversation with my host family has involved stories of Naples. I had visions of the Wild West, a lawless city ruled by organized crime, if organized is even a word that can be used to describe anything in Naples (I am still not sure about that). Once, my host’s father went down the wrong street while visiting Naples and was beaten up by a gang of children. He continued to love the city. Another time a friend, who lived in Naples, had his car stolen. When the police were useless and couldn’t find it, the man took matters into his own hands and went to speak with the “right person,” explaining that he was not a tourist, that he lived in Naples despite his BMW, and, the next day, the car was returned. The police were angry. Because one third of the population is unemployed, Napolitanis are artists in creating jobs. For example, if there is a long queue at a bank, there will certainly be someone standing in line, solely for the purpose of selling you his spot. Men demand payment for your parking spot just because they were standing there, even if the spot was public. I am sure you have experienced those annoying guys who try to wash your car windows when you’re stopped at a traffic light? Here, drivers say no and often turn on their window wipers to halt the efforts of the washer, but it doesn’t matter. The guy just says “no problem, no problem” and washes the windows anyway.
Napoli is a huge theater, showcasing a grand comedy that you shouldn’t miss if you are cut out for it. Some may not be. I was picked up from the airport by Maria, the woman who runs my bed and breakfast. From the time Maria met me to the time we arrived at the B&B, she never stopped speaking on her phone while also acting as my tour guide, driving a manual car, and cursing out other drivers in cars or on motorbikes. She assured me, mid-phone call, that I shouldn’t worry– in Naples, it is normal to talk on the phone while driving, at least until you see a police officer. As if that makes it safe. The traffic here is like nothing I’ve seen outside of Cairo or Marrakech (though nothing can beat Cairo). Whole families share one motorcycle. Cars drive in both directions, on both sides of the road. If you look one way, the correct way, and it seems safe to cross, you must remember to look the other way too, because nine times out of ten, there will be a car or motorbike going the wrong way down the street. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights are merely a suggestion, not a rule. The trick is to just take a deep breath and go. The cars will stop if you’re in front of them, but never if you’re not.
People in Naples have heart. They are full of expression and emotion, screaming, touching, crying, cursing, selling, all the time. One night as I was walking home, I saw a commotion ahead in the street. A woman was standing outside of her car, in the middle of the street, wailing. There were police officers. At first I thought she hit someone or had a bad accident. There was no ambulance, no one else seemed involved, and I didn’t see any damage to the car. A crowd started to form. Not the type of crowd that rubbernecks from afar. No, the Napolitani gathered right around, practically on top of, the car, as if they were waiting for a ride, as if it was their business, as if they couldn’t bare to miss a tiny detail of what ensued.
Every night there are firecrackers. Not the odd firecracker here or there. But one big celebratory display that goes on for minutes. Yesterday morning I was getting dressed and I heard someone on a loud speaker making an announcement while driving past. He seemed to be going through all the streets saying the same thing. I was a little concerned something was wrong (Naples is not the safest place in Italy). I asked Maria, and it turns out he was just selling potatoes.
My first night in Naples, I ate at a typical Napolitana restaurant (more on that and the food in another post). There is a ridiculous looking basket in the middle of the restaurant that is lowered for you to place the money into if you would like go leave a tip. When you do, the waiters all stop, cheer and clap, scream out grazie (thank you), make you blush, and then turn back to work. It is embarrassing, corny, and endearing.
Yesterday, I experienced one of the funniest things that ever happened to me; only in Naples. Literally it should have been a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode if Larry David was a woman. Unfortunately, it is not appropriate to write about on here, so if you want to know, ask me when you see me and I will share if you are an appropriate audience.
Sorry this post got sappy and romantic. Because it is already so long, and they are so worthy, I am writing a separate post to share some of Napoli’s epicurean delights, to be uploaded shortly.