Piccolo Napoli (part 3)

‘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 it was, then. Again.


One Response to “Piccolo Napoli (part 3)”

  1. Lovely evocative and humorous writing. Really enjoy all the observations. Makes me feel like I’m there in Naples. Looking forward to the next post.

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