On the EuroStar from Rome to Reggio - we get off in Naples.
I see Roman legions everywhere in the drab fields and sienna hills we are passing. I expect that I would be quite the entertaining lunatic, a sort of benign Alonso Quixana. Like Teddy in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” my shouted commands to various tribunes would echo through the back yard as Hannibal once more threatened the safety of the kitchen and had to be turned back at the deck. Actually, it all sounds rather enjoyable, but an inability to induce madness or to choose its form, as well as some small measure of pity for my family, keeps me from my high command. I’ll content myself with imagination, then, and watch fleeting battles from the window of the train. If I’m lucky, my iPod will play something from the “Gladiator” soundtrack. Speeding towards Napoli, I’m not sure what to expect. From tour guides and guide books, I’ve gathered that it’s either a vibrant bedlam of manic electricity or a hive of scum and villainy like Hockley-in-the-Hole. It’s likely both, an assault on the senses and the wallet from quarters criminal, both petty and organized. We are now rumbling through the last few tunnels before our stop. More later.
Naples has fulfilled neither of my expectations. I spent the first few minutes off of the train scanning my surroundings vigilantly for vagabonds and cutpurses; all I saw was a gritty, oily cityscape that bore an unremarkable likeness to some of those New Jersey Turnpike towns where you roll up your windows and hope that you won’t have to stop for gas. Thus, without so much as one swarthy gypsy, Naples rose before me like a Baroque-era Trenton, and I resolved to give it a chance. After all, it had taken Rome the better part of an afternoon to seduce me, so I would put aside my initial skeptical misgivings and see what Naples had to offer. It is not with pleasure that I congratulate myself for having correct instincts about this place. Walking through the old heart of Neapolis was the closes I have yet come to the Middle Ages. The bustling narrow alleys were crammed with vendors of sundry wares and mobs of humanity. The sky was reduced to a thin and distant stripe of grayish blue between the looming facades of awkwardly out-sized edifices that squatted too close to the roughly-cobbled street. The scene wanted only bucketfuls of shit tossed from upper-story windows to have convinced me that I was in danger of contracting the Black Death. The people, though, are far from Medieval: Neapolitan women are overly fond of make-up and the men look, for lack of a better word, very Italian. It would seem that Italian-American culture has less to do with the intersection of the two paradigms than with the characteristics of the former, in its Neapolitan mode.
The city beyond the old quarter follows suit with an Alex-and-his-Droogs kind of cast. Buildings are tattooed with blue stenciled tags of the “Napoli Mastiffs,” though it is unclear to me whether this is a street gang, a football squad, or something else entirely. Whereas Rome felt Continental and carefree, Naples has a hard edge and an energy that is fevered rather than jubilant. The Archaeological Museum was dim and mostly deserted, with dust in the corners and a small company of loafing personnel who ostensibly oversaw the large galleries, which were organized haphazardly and mostly closed. To be fair, we arrived only ninety minutes before closing, but I was glad to be partaking of a lemon granita at an outdoor café before too much time had passed. As we sat, a group of old men argued over a dramatic card game and a Dalmatian stood on its haunches to drink out of a perpetually-spurting water fountain. The café’s proprietress inquired where we were from, having been privy to our curious dialect of Connecticut-inflected pseudo-Italian. We told her “America,” and she responded “Ciao bella, America! Bella!” In Rome, I had been embarrassed to be heard speaking English, but somehow I couldn’t help agreeing with her. And how could she even known that C______ waits for me there? It’s her birthday today, and I miss her.