Piccolo Napoli (Part 1)

Places, like people, have a reputation to live up to, some more colourful than others. They can disappoint you when you actually visit them, or they can be exactly as you imagined them to be. Naples is one of those places that has quite a reputation. Think of Naples and you probably think of pizza, pickpockets, Neaoplitan songs, mopeds and maybe ice cream. A few years ago, I was working as a tour manager and accompanying a group in Tuscany, staying in a very chi-chi little hotel in a seaside resort full of Russian oligarchs. I was informed by its owner, an eccentric, opinionated and slightly mad hotelier, that I should go upstairs and have a look at his terrace, his lovely, elegant terrace above the entrance of the hotel. He had given the upstairs room to two elderly brothers from Manchester. I took the lift up to their floor and stuck my head out of the window to look. They had rigged up various washing lines, and hand-washed pants and vests, towels, socks, t-shirts and cotton handkerchiefs were strung all along the terrace to dry, like faded bunting.

‘Piccolo Napoli!’ exclaimed the hotel owner,, shaking his head in disgust behind the reception desk, when I came back down. ‘Little Naples, they’ve turned my beautiful hotel into a Little Naples!’

The day we went down to Naples had already taken a vaguely comical turn by mid morning coffee. Federico accompanied us to Sperlonga before heading back to Rome while we caught the train. We had a little free time and decided to go for coffee and croissants. As we crossed the road to go into a café, the Ponce stopped a man on the street to ask him directions to the nearest cashpoint. After they had chatted amiably for a minute and he had given us directions, the man, who was grey-haired, stout and smartly dressed, embellished his goodbyes, as if he had a God-given right to comment, with,

‘And why don’t you sort your hair out, eh? Get a serious haircut? I mean, what is going on there? Call that a haircut?’

As Federico dropped us off at the station he called out to the Ponce through the little dusty window of the canary yellow car,

‘Have a good time. And make sure you don’t miss the night train! You know what you’re like!….’

‘Miss the train?’ I scoffed, ‘He’s travelling with me now, there won’t be any trains missed. I’m an ex tour manager, and I’m English, for God’s sake! I don’t miss trains.’

Coincidentally I was to spend much of our time in Naples eating, stuffing local delicacies into my face. But my words were the least appetising thing I was to eat later that day.

On arrival in Naples we left our small bags at the left luggage in the station, a prefab hut with a roll-down metal front, manned by a short wiry man with a big moustache. The Ponce’s mother, on the telephone that morning had warned him yet again,

‘Be careful there, be really careful, both of you. And don’t eat the whole of Naples!’

I had been clever, oh yes, no moped-riding, bag-snatching hustler was going to drag me along the pavement by my bag strap. I had stuffed my handbag into my hand luggage, and was only carrying my mobile, passport, and cash. Everything else was in the bag safely locked in the station. I had worn utility Capri pants with various buttoned pockets up and down the legs, so had no need of a handbag.  My hands felt unusually empty, my pockets heavy.  The rest of the day I spent patting my pockets automatically at regular intervals to check the buttons were still done up, like someone absent-minded searching about her person for her keys. There is a joke about someone asking an Argentinian if he has a light, and he starts patting himself up and down, searching his pockets and person in great detail, until he eventually says,

‘No, lo siento, no tengo fuego….. pero que bueno que soy!’ (No, sorry, haven’t got a light, but… my God, I’m fit!…..’

Our loins girded, the Ponce and I struck off for the centre of town. The first thing I saw on leaving the station was a group of swarthy young men, one of whom caught my eye and held it with what could have been arrogance, aggression, lust, naked curiosity or a combination of the four. Either way I thought –I’m going to like it here. I like anywhere where people stare at you. To look is human. People used to stare at me all the time in Madrid, a full radiography from head to toe. Nowadays they don’t do it, or I don’t notice any more. This could be because people or social mores have changed and Madrid is becoming more cosmopolitan, and it’s considered rude to stare, or it could be because I’ve changed, a woman of a certain age slipping through the cracks of society to become almost invisible.

‘Hello…..’ said the Ponce, ‘did you see him? Pretty fit.’

‘I saw him.’

‘The men in Naples are to die for. Dark skin and green eyes, or pale blue eyes. Beautiful. Hung like donkeys as well, from my limited experience.’

‘Shame I’m with you, then. If I give you ten euros will you bugger off to the cinema and I’ll meet you later at the station?….’

Wide, traffic-clogged avenues became narrow, moped-clogged streets, winding round and round, punctuated with piazzas and churches. Roads snaked uphill then down again; there seemed to be steep streets everywhere but you never really arrived uphill. People scuttled by and mopeds weaved in and out of the pedestrians. Nobody was going anywhere slowly; everybody seemed to be in an almighty rush. I stepped off the pavement to cross the road and the Ponce grabbed my arm in a chivalrous fashion and told me,

‘Listen, you have to be really careful of the traffic here. In Naples they’ll run you over then come back and resuscitate you so they can run you over again and kill your mortal soul as well, just to make sure. So be careful.’ We forged on, further and further into the dark heart of the city.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

‘I dunno, think this is Baby Jesus Street or something, Or Jesus and Mary Street, something like that.’

‘Oh, wait, look at this!’ In a glassed-in niche between the shops there was a plaster figure of Padre Pio. Padre (Father) Pio, as far as I can tell, is Italy’s favourite and most ubiquitous saint. Images of him abound everywhere- smiling down, dangling from taxi front view mirrors, from key-chains and postcard stalls, glimpsed when wallets or front doors are opened, on café walls above the till, in corporate offices behind the boss’s desk, in police station waiting rooms and hospitals. But this was more than an image, it was a plaster figurine, and had to be investigated for its kitschness We approached to take a closer look. Inside the little glass house there was a vase of plastic flowers, dwarfing Padre Pio and his companion, a virgin with bowed head, wearing traditional blue and white. There was something about the tacky, shabby scene made of plaster of Paris, primary-coloured paints and plastic that reminded me of real dolls, of the little houses you used to decorate for Barbie and Ken, or in our case Cindy and her boyfriend whose name has been long forgotten. But on looking up and seeing the shop on the other side of the road Padre Pio was forgotten in an instant.

‘What the- No….. You have got to be kidding me. No way!’ We bolted across the narrow street and pressed our noses up against the window of the shop opposite.

I may have mentioned before that there were some quintessential and just plain weird images during our trip to Italy. This was the One. This was the one I will never forget. In the shop, one of those religious suppliers that sells ecclesiastical robes, candles, imagery and paraphernalia, standing before us was a statue of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. During the flight to Rome from Madrid, with one of the economy airlines, the Ponce and I had started a standing joke about perception and size, repeatedly referring to the thumbnail-high cans of Pepsi, Fanta and tonic water in the in flight brochure with ‘depicts actual size’. (Have you seen how small they are? And they look just like normal cans in the pictures when they’re photographed next to equally tricksy tiny packets of crisps!)

‘That’s larger than life-size, isn’t it? I mean, she was a midget?’ he asked, his breath steaming up the window of the shop, which was, thankfully, closed for lunch.

‘’Kin ’Ell….’ Was all I was able to reply.

He was right, the statue was larger than life, and surprisingly straight-backed and youthful. She was standing holding hands with three children, in a circle, in a ring, and they were all dancing. Yes, dancing. The whole statue must have been two metres across; it was big enough to house a tall virgin statue in the middle like a maypole.

‘But where would you have a statue like that? Under what circumstances….?’

‘A School…. A hospital…..’

‘Jesus….’

He was there too, and Padre Pio, and plaster-cast cherubs, and the Pope. But the old one, not the new one, presumably because everyone liked him more as he had a nicer face, and wasn’t a paedophile-loving ex nazi. They were all there in white looking out straight at us, rigidly posed with arms outstretched to bless us, or folded in prayer, or interlinked with the children, or stretched across the beam of a crucifix, all of them with strangely blank and badly-executed expressions, whether they be grinning, contemplative, or crumpled in agony. The effect was creepy-kitch and delicious. We left Little Shop of Horrors but its wares stayed in my mind for the rest of the day, and at regular intervals one of us would shake our heads and mutter,

‘A larger than life statue of Mother Teresa… holding hands and dancing in a circle with children…’

We spent another couple of hours wandering around until it was time for lunch, which we had planned meticulously well before the trip. In Naples, you must eat pizza, there is no other option than to try it, as this is, after all, its birthplace. We had the address, via a Neapolitan friend of the Ponce’s, of the best pizzeria in Naples, which was also very reasonably priced, apparently. But before lunch there was time for more people-watching. There were people everywhere, rushing around on foot or on the crazy mopeds that weaved in and out of the pedestrian traffic. I could see why a moped would be a great form of transport here. If you are born in Naples, you must automatically know how to ride one, perhaps it is genetically programmed into you, or it could be historical memory passed down through the generations.  Or it could be the fact that the term ‘underage driver’ means nothing here, and they start learning young. I gasped, and had I been Catholic I would have crossed myself, as a man drove past us, driving with one arm, a fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and a two or three month old baby nestling in the crook of his other arm. Vespas screeched and honked past us, often with three, four, and the highest number we counted: five people astride them. It was like some kind of bad joke about elephants and phone boxes. Yes, it’s possible for at least five people to fit on a ‘moto’. And we’re not talking five anorexics either. Some of the vehicles appeared to be transporting entire families: huge, lard-arsed, gypsy-style women bursting out of their clothing, auntie on the back, mum in front with an infant in her arms, a lanky teenager squished in between them, and a boy no older than seven standing on the front board steering. Practically driving it.

The other common sight in Naples are nuns and monks. Being anglo-saxon I find it hard to take them seriously, to me they look like extras from a film about  the Middle Ages, or punters on their way to some drunken Saturday night fancy dress party. But here they were, hurrying all over the city as if they owned it, scuttling like ants around an anthill. The first time our path was crossed by a nun, the Ponce slapped me on the arm playfully and declared,

‘Yours!’

‘What?’

‘Yours! And you can’t pass it back.’

‘??…”

‘If you see a nun or a monk, we have a saying in Italy, that it’s bad luck, so the first one to see it has to say ‘yours!’  And if you say ‘no passing it back’ then you can’t pass it back to me. If I don’t say it, then you can hit me back and the nun’s mine again.’

‘Does it matter what colour they are? Brown ones, grey ones, black, you know… any of them worth extra points?’

‘Yeah, the ones in black, they’re reeeaaaally bad luck.’

I wasn’t sure if this was one of his Calabrian quirks or if it applied to the whole of the country, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that we spent the rest of our stay in the country pelting each other every time a member of the religious orders walked by, and I won several points about half an hour later when a small car cut across our path bearing three nuns, one of them in black.

‘Yours, your, and yours, and no passing them back!’ I exclaimed triumphantly, triple-slapping him on the arm. Oh, we had such fun….

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