I guess an illustration of the Zeitgeist is that now a popular feature in the New York Times is their weekly “36 Hour” travel feature. Why should I be surprised when, instead of actually reading War and Peace we now just read the Cliff Notes or rather than the entire concerto, we are lucky to hear just the adagio or better yet, in lieu of flying an F-16 we do it “virtually.” So why, with only a two week annual vacation, should I expect people to want to spend more than a day and a half in a particular city? Especially a city in the midst of a garbage crisis warranting international alarm?
Naples, Italy is a desperate metropolis in the parochial throes of arrogance, anger and frustration, which, the old Neapolitan sage Giambattista Vico said 300 years ago, inexorably coalesces into “corruption, incivility and recklessness”. However, in 36 hours you can stay in a 5 star hotel, pay ten dollars for a small cup of coffee while looking silly in a pretentious café, have a custom suit made for $3,000 and eat the “best” pizza in the world. I didn’t realize that that was why one travels; to go abroad, eat pizza and have expensive clothes made. Although I have never stayed in a five star hotel I can imagine it might be nice once in awhile but to say that Neapolitan pizza is the best in the world is like pretending that a Big Mac is gourmet cooking. A piece of diaphanous gooey dough with some red sauce and mozzarella cheese and a cup of olive oil poured on top and warmed for five minutes in a wood-fired oven is not something to pine for in New York…where you can get a really good hot dog!
Naples is, by some accounts, as densely crowded as Calcutta and Shanghai. This fact alone is worth a few moments of cogitation. Since 1994, the garbage situation in Naples has been an emergency health crisis grave enough to warrant multiple citations from the European Union; including right now. For the past nine months during which time I have lived in Naples I have not seen or smelled any change in the habits of Neapolitans regarding detritus: it is still thrown in the streets with reckless abandon by homeowners and businesses alike. Cats remain the city’s mascot for good reasons; Naples is the only European city to have had a cholera outbreak in the Twentieth Century. But, if you stay in a “five star” and get taxied to the pizza hut and the museum and take a tour to Pompeii you might not get an opportunity to walk past six foot high piles of rubbish stretching for entire blocks and experience the quotidian fetid aroma of this city. Another thing you might miss in the “five star” is the ubiquity of doggie droppings all over the place. Apparently, a city which takes particular pride in sartorial hyperbole finds it inconvenient to lean down and wrap its fingers around the warm moist evacuation that Lassio just deposited on the sidewalk. The other day I counted 47 such deposits on the sidewalk in the three blocks from my apartment to the bus stop.
New Yorkers have heard about the mischief the Mafia caused with their own garbage a few years ago what with Manhattan refuse washing up on the Jersey shore. Here, the Camorra, as the local thugs are called, control EVERYTHING from garbage and guns to drugs to prostitution to fish and produce. The “five star” pays them handsomely so you don’t suffer any inconvenience but for those of us who live here this means a radical behavior adjustment. As a tourist you are probably not inclined to joke around with anybody anyway but looking at people, smiling at them and repartee with these people is strictly forbidden by the inhabitants of this city in the deadly grip of a gang wider and deeper than anything you can imagine. The result of course is that you do not need to worry about parking or speeding tickets. You do not need to worry about the safety of your children or your property. And, best of all, if somebody does mess with you Luigi or Guido will take care of the problem for you, terminally. All you have to do to live here peacefully is have “friends” and pay and pay and pay. An acquaintance of mine didn’t realize he had to pay once to hold a big party for his students and Dino showed up on his Moto Guzzi and very calmly informed my friend that for a hundred Euros he would let “this one slip”. It is amazing how the handle of a 9mm sticking out of a guy’s belt can accelerate the decision-making of a rational human being. The tourist probably never sees Dino packing heat; the tourist sees guys in blue costumes with white belts with white holsters inside of which are probably toy guns. These guys pretend to be policemen but, if you look closely, say on a busy street with lots of double-parked cars, people speeding by without helmets, cars and trucks going through red lights, motorcycles driving on the sidewalks and across pedestrian-only plazas, you will never see these people in their police costumes move from their stools where they sip coffee and smoke cigarettes while talking to girlfriends on their cell phones.
Remember the last time you were in Puccini’s or Leonardo’s and the waiter made you feel irrelevant and your dinner and a bottle of Chianti cost several hundred dollars? That waiter was from Naples. The palpable contempt he displayed toward you is genetic; every Neapolitan knows how to treat people like that. And you want to blow several thousand dollars just to be treated like shit for thirty-six hours? Included is my e-mail address to which you can mail me some money and I will be happy to insult you and then you can go to Switzerland or Norway where everybody will smile and treat you wonderfully and then you can go home and just buy another suit from Brooks Brothers.
A friend of mine says he likes living here because “you can do anything you want here in Naples”. And there is a lot of truth to this. Naples might be the only G-8 city in which there are neighborhoods in which the police are forbidden to enter by the local gangs. If you drive to Naples for your thirty-six hours of third world fun you might experience another free spirit thing when you park your car and put three Euros in the meter and think you are finished. Before heading off to the pizza hut you will have to pay a couple more Euros to Luigi who has appropriated those particular spaces for his job as “vigilante”. You might find it difficult to drive back to your hotel without wheels if you do not pay Luigi. The stories are legion. Another free spirit thing happens in some of the quaint Neapolitan restaurants. They will have a menu for pizzas with regular prices. But you have been told that these quaint restaurants prepare anything you want so you order the “menu di giorno”. When the bill comes you will understand why they pretend not to have a regular menu. And why they don’t speak English. Forty bucks for a plate of pasta with some canned red sauce on top. Mama mia!
One of those famous Neapolitan pizzas made me sick for a week. If you are lucky you will save this gastronomic experience for your last day here and by the time you are vomiting you will be back in good hands at Sloan Kettering in New York. Getting sick in Naples, Italy is not recommended unless you would find it quaint to lie there puking your guts out from a cot left over from the Allied forces moving north as the doctor and nurse consult your chart while they exhale clouds of smoke in your room and then you get up to use the toilet only to find no paper, no soap or no towels; that will be a clue about WHY you are sick now. The relationship between what happens on a toilet and how food is prepared has not been fully appreciated in southern Italy. In nine months here I have eaten in dozens of restaurants, been to every museum, I have visited schools, hospitals and public buildings and I have rarely, and I repeat rarely, seen any paper of any kind or surfactants to prevent the convection of microorganisms from the arsehole to the maw here in Naples.
Most of us have long since abandoned sartorial, eco-sensitive flimflamery such as small animal fur, ivory and unregulated diamonds and coral but Mr. Warde-Jones of “36 Hours” recommends buying some coral in Naples. First, he says we can “get the real feel” for Pompeii by going to a second rate museum to see a diorama and then he suggests we buy an endangered species bauble. I guess he thinks Mr. Bush’s snorkel park atoll in the South Seas is sufficient to restore the balance of oceanic depredation. And I like the way he describes Naples, a community which sees driving any vehicle with an internal combustion engine as an “extreme sport”, as a “walking city”. This city is so bereft of civic comity it couldn’t even get its act together this year to string up some Christmas lights much less set up a tree!
From your five star you probably will not be taking public transportation and experience Naples’s nimble fingers relieving you of some of that cash you were going to spend on a new hand-made shirt. In your trim three thousand-dollar suit you will not be stared at as though you are an immigrant threat to the local work force like some of us in our Gore-Tex mountain parkas. Other than the vein-clogging pizza you might eat for lunch just before flying out you will not be preparing any meals and so you won’t get to enjoy the quaint custom of Neapolitan shop owners of treating customers with enthusiastic disdain. If you were lucky when flying into Naples your airline steward alerted you to the rules here. Don’t expect hellos, thank-yous or smiles for the duration of your stay in Naples once you leave the two boutique streets which are off-limits to locals. There are a plethora of books extolling the mythical wonders of Italy and its inhabitants as though this were a vacation utopia, a huge Disneyworld of Etruscan burial sites, Roman ruins, viaducts, art treasures and super-imaginative, cheerful people. Some of that might be true north of Rome but not one shred of it is true in Naples. These people are still angry about Garibaldi and unification, WWI, the allied invasion, the Germans and Mussolini and they are angry about the Camorra and the European Union and the garbage! Frustrated, angry people are not going to smile at you and wish you a good day. I read recently in the New York Times that Italians are the least happy people in Europe. Among those unhappy Italians Neapolitans are petulant adolescents! Don’t waste your time coming here. There are lots of other third world cities where people really need tourist dollars and they will smile and appreciate your interest in their culture.