I’ve never been a great fan of Naples for various and complicated reasons. Ours has been an on-again, off-again (mostly off) relationship for many, many years. Neapolitans are convinced that theirs is the most beautiful of all cities, that everyone’s goal is to see Naples and then die. In truth, I’ve also heard many stranieri (people not blessed to be born there) sing the praises of this once grande dame, now tarted up behind a crumbling façade in a vain effort to conceal the ravages of the unkind passage of time.
For me, Naples is chaos— complete anarchy. Traffic regulations, such as the rare red light, are for others to obey. One-way streets, no parking zones, bus lanes— these are merely suggestions, to be followed at will. Entrepreneurship reigns— it’s the only way to survive when real jobs are scarce. In shopping areas, for example, it’s impossible to find a parking spot, but some enterprising fellow will have donned an official-looking white cap, and for a slight fee, he will watch your car to make sure it isn’t ticketed or stolen.
Neapolitan songs – and the classics are beautiful indeed – celebrate the essence of Naples. In a song written towards the end of WW II, the singer sees all around him the devastation left by the relentless Allied bombing. He points to a pile of rubble, saying, “This once was my home. No one’s left but me.” But then he looks up and gives thanks for the precious constants that do remain. “As long as there’s the sun, as long as the sea remains, as long as I have a song to sing and a woman to embrace … Let’s forget the past — we are Neapolitan.” A philosophy to live by — or to make a woman scream against her equal ranking with the sun and the sea as pleasures men take for granted.
Basta ca ce sta ‘o sole,
ca c’è rimasto ‘o mare,
na nénna a core a core,
na canzone pe’ cantá
Chi ha avuto, ha avuto, ha avuto…
chi ha dato, ha dato, ha dato…
scurdámmoce ‘o ppassato,
simmo ‘e Napule paisá!
This nostalgia for a place that evokes very mixed emotions was kindled by Rachel Donadio’s article in the New York Times. “Seduced by Naples” caught my attention because Donadio is clearly fond of the city, warts and all. She captures Naples and its contradictions:
From the garden [of San Martino, once a monastery, now a museum], there is a stunning view of the sweep of the bay — the crumbling, close-packed houses, satellite dishes, the spires of churches with plants sprouting from their cupolas, the industrial port and, in the distance, Vesuvius.
The food to die for, the treasures hidden in the most unlikely places, the politics and the Camorra — Donadio captures it all. Warning: you’ll be wanting to visit after reading.