Archive for November, 2010

Piccolo Napoli (part 4)

Posted in mean streets with tags , on November 18, 2010 by cockroach1

The station policeman looked back at us impassively as though our story could not possibly have interested him any less than it did at that precise moment. He was playing the part of the bored, tired-eyed night-duty policeman. In fact, everyone in Naples seemed to be playing the part of some pantomime Neapolitan. He was short of stature, with grey hair and an oversized moustache, from the same mould as the old bird who’d given us directions to the first mythical trattoria, and, more relevantly, the same as the left luggage man, who was now nowhere to be seen, his handy kiosk currently no more than a metal box with the lid pulled down on the front, securely locked and padlocked. With our precious bags inside.

‘But he didn’t tell us it closed at eleven!’ insisted the Ponce, ‘and our luggage is in there and our train goes in…. oh bollocks…. twelve minutes. Is there no way to contact him to get our bags back? I can’t believe this! It should be open like the one at Rome station, all night- twenty four hours!’ (As if the policeman needed reminding these were the same thing). ‘How can he just shut the office like that? What are we supposed to do now?’

‘He didn’t say he closed at eleven…’ I echoed. ‘We can’t stay here all night, we need to get the train. And we haven’t got any money.’

The policeman glanced from one of us to the other and shrugged. He was a strange half-pressed, half-crumpled little man- it was as though someone had run an iron carefully across his uniform, rendering it neat and perfect in every way, and all that care that had gone into ironing out the creases in his clothes had not been extended to his face, which sagged over his collar like a cartoon bloodhound’s.

‘There’s probably a notice on the door with opening times.’ he said, stifling a yawn. ‘You’ll have to come back tomorrow morning and get the first train.’

‘So there’s no way to contact the left luggage guy? Can’t somebody call him or something? Get him to open up for us?….’

This time he merely shook his head wearily and glanced over behind our backs at something fascinating going on the other side of the station concourse.

‘So what are we going to do until then? We’ve got nowhere to stay and we haven’t got any money…’

Shrug. The long, slow, expressive Neapolitan shrug that says –well, there you go, nobody ever said life was going to be easy. It’s tragic, but… what can I do? What can any of us do?…

We might have just made it, had the Ponce not dithered over coffee at the restaurant. Had he not veered off into the bakery as we hoofed it back to the station, so we could stuff traditional Neapolitan pastries into our faces while we walked, giving ourselves indigestion. Had we not lost our sense of direction and had to stop and ask the way several times. Maybe it would have helped if I hadn’t had a hysterical giggling fit in the restaurant and had been able to eat faster. I’d started to get the giggles after the waiter asked me to move to the opposite side of the table, to allow him unimpeded passage past us, between the tightly arranged dining tables. They were big tabletops, placing me so far away from my dining companion that we had to shout across the expanse of white tablecloth to each other, prompting him to urge me at the top of his voice,

‘What? Tell me in English!’

‘I am!’

‘What?’

‘I said I am! I am speaking English…’

‘Sorry? I can’t hear a bloody word. What’s so funny? Come on, let me in on the joke.’

But then I couldn’t holler at him what I was trying to communicate because then the whole restaurant would have heard us, including the objects of my mirth, and that was highly undesirable. How could I tell him that just to the left of his face, in my line of vision every time we tried to hold a conversation, was the enormous backside, clad in dragon-scale green, of the matriarch of a caricature hoodlum family seated at the table behind him? That she sat with her legs planted firmly apart either side of her seat, spreading her wide bottom sturdily across it, almost crouching, when seen from behind, like a massive brooding frog. I began to worry that if the Ponce carried on eating the way he was, he would end up like her very shortly. I couldn’t shout any of this across our conspicuous centre table at him, neither could I tell him that the rest of the family comprised of balding, menacing men chewing toothpicks, bursting out of their cheap suits, and eyeing the rest of us with bored, toad-faced languor. So instead I cried laughing and shrugged helplessly at him across the table.  Then I tried to eat my way through the second pizza of the day. We might have made the left luggage office on time had we not done these things. But the truth was we had. So we’d got here about thirteen minutes too late to reclaim our bags.

And now, twenty minutes after our train had left, here we were in a seedy side street by the station at midnight, me clutching nervously at the passport and handful of banknotes in my pocket which seemed to have grown conspicuously so that they bulged and weighed my trouser leg down as if they were a bar of gold bullion. There was a woman the other side of the street; she was large and seated on a small chair, which you could hardly see beneath her. The effect was somewhat like that of an elephant perched on a circus stool. She sat by a dank building with no discernable windows or doorways, illuminated by a feeble splash of light from the streetlamp overhead.  She glanced at us, huddled in a doorway opposite her, then her gaze, the empty, bright stare of a lighthouse beam, swept slowly past us and down the narrow street.

‘So if this guy doesn’t call me back in the next fifteen minutes, he’ll know somewhere, he’s Napolitano, then we just find a cheap hostal round here somewhere for the night.’ suggested the Ponce.

‘Okay, sounds good. I’ve only got about for-‘

He jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow.

‘Yeah, you told me, keep it down. Let’s ask her, hang on, she might know somewhere. Scuza?-‘

The woman turned to look at us slowly, very slowly, her head revolving like a stand-alone fan. Her face in the dim yellowy light was as weary and sluggish as hot candle wax.

‘Yeah?’

‘Er, do you know of any cheap hostals round here? Like, thirty euros or something?’

Her face twitched without mirth but I could tell it was meant to be a smile.

‘Thirty euros? You’re joking, aren’t you?. Not round here, Love’

She spoke as slowly as she moved, as though she was talking to us through a mouthful of treacle, with great effort.

‘Nowhere at all?’

She shook her head, her expression tragic.

‘Ok, thanks.’

She gave us a torturously slowed down version of the Neapolitan shrug, As if to say- you really shouldn’t be hanging around the station at this time of night, you’re probably going to get raped and robbed out here, and you seem like such nice people. That’s a shame, but there you go, nobody ever said it was going to be easy… As we thanked her she was joined by a small figure, stooped, with nervy mannerisms, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his neck twisting this way and that, rotating his small head to observe the street and the corners nearby like a prairie dog scouting for predators. He had narrow shoulders, saggy clothes, and a face like a chimp.

‘Come on, let’s go….’ I said quietly, ‘Not really a good place to be hanging about. Why don’t we try calling him back? Or just walk till he rings us. But let’s go to the main square or something?…’

‘Yeah, you’re right.’

We rounded the corner and headed back to the station.

‘What on earth can she be doing sitting there in a side street at this time of night by the station? A woman on her own?’ I mused. The Ponce turned to me with a contemptuous look- the one he uses just before explaining how to cook an egg, metaphorically, and replied,

‘You know, for someone highly educated and with a fair bit of life experience, you can be a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. Haven’t you just answered your own question?’

‘Oh….. right. Poor thing, she didn’t look very enthusiastic about it.’

This time I got a double helping of that patronizing look.

‘She was off her head on smack.’

With that he grabbed his pocket suddenly and I heard his mobile ring. He answered, and as we wandered through the dim streets I caught snatches of the conversation.

‘Yeah?…. Right, uh-huh…. Just me and my friend….. Are you sure? Really? … yes, we missed the night train…. Ok… about fifty minutes…. Taxi, all right.’

Clipping the phone shut, he turned to me triumphantly.

‘He says we can stay at his on the sofa, he’s got room. We’ve got somewhere to sleep! It’s a bit of a way though, the other side of town. He’ll come and meet us at the piazza just by his house. All we have to do now is find a taxi.’

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Piccolo Napoli (part 3)

Posted in mean streets on November 8, 2010 by cockroach1

‘Pasta? A cuesta hora? (Pasta? At this hour?) The little man shrugged until his head disappeared into his chest like a bird’s, and he was nothing but shoulders, his wispy grey hair sticking out, his eyes wide and tragic with regret.

‘A cuesta hora? That will be very difficult, my friend. Let me see, let me think…..’

Then he began gesticulating up and down streets, round corners, turn left here, follow this, stop when you get to… and then it’s up there. Past the piazza with the church, turn left. Nice little bistro, they should see you right. The old bird looked happy with himself. He was going to help us find not only a place to grab a bite to eat, he was going to send us to the best little bistro in town, which would cater to our bizarre, Hispanic desire to have pasta, At This Hour. It had occurred to us that it might be time to find some dinner. It was only about nine o’ clock at night. That gave us two hours to eat and get back to the station in time for our night train. I was starting to check my watch compulsively every so often now. Time to get organized, if that is ever possible with the Ponce in tow. We thanked him and wandered off in the general direction he had indicated.

‘I just don’t think I can eat another pizza.’ I reiterated.

‘No, me neither, I want pasta. Okay….’ muttered the Ponce, so it’s up here, up a bit, turn left when you get to the piazza with the church… oh for God’s sake, but which piazza, which church?…’

Every piazza in Naples has a church on it, and there is probably a great little bistro if you turn left and go up a bit. Always up, never down, although you never ended up anywhere higher than you were before. It defied gravity and logic. We wandered the streets in approximate circles as the colour seeped out of the buildings with the onset of dusk, like old photographs turning sepia. Mopeds with wonky lights chased us. Gargoyles grimaced down at us, water dripped from open pipes, and side streets and alleyways vanished into slivers of blackness strung with invisible washing and cables, as if they had slipped behind a thick, velvet curtain obscuring backstage from view. In the wings, in the silent rat-runs, the bit-part actors waited for you. These rickety, medieval slivers of darkness were the perfect environment to get your wallet lifted or worse, your throat cut softly.  In the busy Baby Jesus street, where we had seen Mother Teresa holding hands and dancing with the children, we passed restaurants suddenly sporting queues of people, most of them dressed up like gypsies, plenty of sparkle, bright colours and tight clothing. The main streets were well-lit, with garish colours and washed out shop fronts, and if you walked quickly enough past the light and dark contrast of these and the thin black alleyways you gave yourself the impression of watching an old, stuttery film reel.

A little later the Ponce had to ask for directions again, as all we were doing was retracing our steps. He stopped a large family who were blocking the pavement, and asked politely if they knew of anywhere to get pasta, at this hour. The woman he asked turned to answer him and her first reaction was to veer away when faced with his piercings, tattoos and non-serious haircut, but then she saw his smiling face, and the fact that he was with me, and heard him speak Italian, and she relaxed and engaged in conversation,

‘Pasta? Where can they eat pasta at this hour?’ she asked the rest of the clan urgently, and in less than a second the Ponce was surrounded by a crowd of diminutive grinning people, all of them trying to catch his attention, all of them speaking at the same time, excited and animated at the prospect of being able to help. I had to step back out of the limelight to hide a smile, as looking at them encircling him, all looking up at him with curiosity, civic pride and a kind of glee, it was like watching a children’s orchestra poised waiting for a gesture from the conductor. I couldn’t count how many of them there were, but it seemed to be about fifteen: uncles, grandparents, teenagers, sisters and brothers, the group was endless. What must it be like to come from a family like that? A Southern Italian family. Wonderful and stifling, I can only imagine.

‘Yes, yes!’ a grey-haired member of the clan was describing with his hands where we must go, ‘Yes, that’s right! You go up there, up there, see? Up a bit, keep going, then when you get to the piazza, with the church…. The one with the death’s heads on the columns, that church, then you turn left. Up there. You’ll find the trattoria, no problem.’

‘Grazie, grazie mile, ciao….’

They were still calling after us as we left,

‘-Up the street…. The piazza with the church with the death’s heads on the columns, got it? Left there….’

‘I have no idea what he’s on about. Death’s heads on columns…. oh hang on, I think I know where he means….’

‘They were friendly, weren’t they? What a funny little family.’

‘Yeah, they were nice. After they realized I wasn’t going to stab them.’

‘It’s quite easy to upset you lot, isn’t it? Just grow your hair, refuse to wear Dolce and Gabbana….’

‘Yep. This is a country for old men, my friend, don’t forget that, they run everything. I wonder what they think you and I are doing together. We make a pretty weird couple.’

There was no disputing that. We came to the conclusion that people generally think he is my toy-boy and I’m the one with the money and unusual and perhaps very specific tastes. I like to think they don’t assume he’s my son, although find it hard to decide which would be more humiliating: to be taken for a liberal, young-looking parent with a tearaway son (when he’s only twelve years younger than me), or for a desperate Sugar Mummy who chooses to ignore that her plus one is probably staring at the waiter’s crotch rather than into her eyes.

We never found the piazza with the deaths’ heads on the columns, or the street to the left, or the promised plate of pasta. Time ticked by, darkness seeped down into the old town like a cloud of black ink dissolving in water. I began to feel that non-specific sense of unease connected to the clock as the obsessive-compulsive side of my brain calculated over and over how long it would take to order, eat, pay, walk back to the station, pick up the bags….. our easy two hours turned into an adequate hour and a half, then a pinched and frail-looking hour and a quarter.

‘I just don’t want another pizza, but you know, we need to be eating now fi we’re going to….’

‘Me neither. Oh, sod it, let’s just eat here?’

‘Here’ was a nice-looking restaurant cordoned off from the street in that continental way, with a low wall of potted shrubberies. We checked over the menu, open like an almighty bible on a lectern at the entrance, then winked at the waitress to indicate we’d wait and took our place in the queue. As we waited for a table the diners inside looked up at us with lazy curiosity, chewing and staring, chewing and staring, like a corral of dopey sheep. The young waiter and waitress charged round and round and in and out of the tables like over excited sheepdogs nipping at their heels. Laughter began to rise in my throat but I held it back.

‘Look at them, you’d think we stepped out of a space ship or something. Take a photo, it lasts longer.’ Muttered the Ponce.

After ten minutes or so (ticking clock, ticking clock…) the waitress called out to us. At first we didn’t realize she was talking to us.

‘Here! You two, over here! Two- HERE!’ she shouted, waving and pointing at us over peoples’ heads and hopping impatiently on her heels like a cheerleader on Red Bull.  We jumped obediently and threaded our way through the restaurant to our table.

‘Oh no, no…. not the middle….I hate sitting in the middle, I feel like I’m on stage… shit, they’re all looking at us now.’

The sheep turned blankly, chewing and staring as we walked past them to sit down.

‘Too late now, let’s just get something to eat.’ I said efficiently. ‘We’re running out of time.’ As if to reinforce this I checked my watch again. Another five minutes gone. ‘What’s the quickest thing we can order? What can they make quickly?’

‘Pizza.’

Pizza it was, then. Again.