Monday, June 8, 2009

Naples: Where you get road rage just standing still

Here's the photo album of Cinque Terre and Naples. Pompeii will get its own album. Enjoy clear views of the ocean coupled with the cramped urban squalor of Naples!

Whoever invented the train compartment should be shot. Okay, that’s a little severe, but they should at least be strongly reprimanded. The people who perpetuate the design hung. Or at least sent to the time-out chair to think about what they've done.

Being shut into a sound proof room with five close friends can be a blast. You don’t need to worry about bothering the other passengers, and you can get comfortable by weaving legs and knees together in the free space between the seats. The problem is that I rarely travel in a group of six. When I wind up in a compartment, I’m usually locked into the soundless room with complete strangers. You can hear every gum crack and heavy sigh.

The ride from Cinque Terre to Naples took nearly seven hours. Josh and I were cooped up with four of the most stoic Italians on the peninsula. None of them brought anything to do and spent most of their time staring into space or at whatever Josh and I were up to (quietly trying eat our sandwiches, reading or talking in whispers about our itinerary). Mark Twain complains about the cabin in The Innocents Abroad and Bill Bryson whines about awkward stranger footsie in Neither Here nor There. Decades separate each of us, but the cabin somehow survives.

When we finally disembarked in the Naples Main Station and could breath deeply and without scrutiny, we were confronted with a protective moat around the station. We were impervious to attack thanks to a massive stream of careening cars and kamikaze Vespa scooters. There were no crosswalks and no traffic lights. Okay, there were some, but they were pure decoration. The only way to cross the street was to wait for a small opening, step onto the street and pray the break pads on a dozen scooters wouldn’t fail.
A flotilla of scooters ready to leap into homicidal action.

I had a similar experience in Cairo - the city with one traffic light - but that was Egypt. I expected a little exotic chaos and traffic lawlessness. But Naples is part of continental Europe, the home of “community thinking,” “environmental policy,” and other Utopian values. I never thought I would find a place that worshiped the motorized vehicle with the reverence of America. But now I’ve been to Naples.

After wading across several streets and managing to survive the motorized onslaught we started walking in the direction of our hostel. We passed a fashionable sunglasses shop when I heard a motor close behind us on the sidewalk. I turned and saw a woman in the latest fashion - but maybe not the right size – hop off the back of a scooter that had just jumped the curb so she could examine the glasses in the window. She moved to the next pane and squealed in delight. Her friend on the scooter revved the engine and drove to the next window. They decided to keep moving and blazed down the sidewalk, weaving past heavily laden backpacking Americans and 85 year-old women.
This is a quite street where I was finally able to get out my camera. Note the little girl in front of the moving red car. I don't know how the population sustains itself.

There is a word in Italian for “Chaos.” The word is Naples. A couple years ago the mob stopped collecting the garbage. Now the city tries to get the job done, but can’t muster the infrastructure. When pigeons take off, twenty cigarette butts scatter under their pumping wings.

Even the map was chaotic. I said we were hiking in the direction of the hostel, but the street it sat on wasn’t marked on the map. In fact, half the streets and alleys of the city were blank on the sheet. I’m sure there’s a kind of exciting Naples joie de vivre that the constant noise and movement might inspire in me, but I wasn’t feeling very joie-y as I sweated under my pack on the filthy streets.

Finally we found our destination thanks to a Dutch couple that was also staying at the hostel and recognized bewildered expressions when they saw them. It was lucky they found us, too since the hostel was on the seventh floor of an industrial office building out of Men in Black.

We dropped our stuff and went in search of pizza with a wealth of information in hand thanks to an excitable desk attendant at the Hostel of the Sun. Naples is home to pizza and we wanted an authentic experience. We wandered down side alleys filled with quaint shops and vegetable stands. Every now and again a scooter would rocket down the alley. One came upon us so quickly we could barely get out of the way. The driver turned to look at us, giving us the evil eye and a rude hand gesture. I was ready to drag him off his scooter and down an even narrower alley. Naples must be one of the only cities where pedestrians get road rage. I don’t think it’s possible to enjoy a relaxing walk. Setting food to the street is a mortal undertaking in the city where you have to drive like there’s no tomorrow and walk like you’ll live forever.

The calmest citizen on the street watching the craziness of pedestrian and motorized traffic from the one safe spot he will ever find.

We grabbed some lemon ice, and continued the pizza hunt. I didn’t think about it until we ordered, but Italian Ice and Lemon Chills are some of my favorite summertime treats, and we were in the land that invented the brilliantly simple idea. We soon discovered our restaurant destination was closed until 9 PM. The bodily functions of the Italians continued to baffle us. We then amended our path and walked by the Theatro San Carlos, the oldest opera house in Europe (1716). They had a ballet performance and rush tickets. We would be back at 7:30. Hopefully we would have found some calories by then.

At long last, after getting the map oriented and figuring out the correct street through a process of elimination we finally found La Antiqua Pizzaria. After all that stimuli and chaos it was a slice of heaven. The restaurant is one of the oldest pizza joints in the city. Two kinds of pies are served at the two sizes: Enormous and Monstrous. These are topped with fresh basil, quality mozarella, and perfect tomato sauce. The beverages are beer, water, and Coke. The whole meal cost 5 Euro. From the Inferno on the street to Paradisio. I almost didn't want to leave, but we had tickets to buy.

Back to San Carlos for our ballet tickets, the only pair of males in the city with this goal. The cashier seemed incredulous at our enthusiasm, concerned about our shorts and maybe our sense of class. We explained we would change, but he remained skeptical. When we returned, clean and pressed we tried to find him to demonstrate Americans really can follow directions. He was nowhere to be found.

In Naples we discovered a steeper language barrier than we had encountered elsewhere. We didn’t know where to go as our tickets were a cryptic mash of numbers and the cheerful usher staff that looked like it had just stepped from the interview line for Conair in 1962 could only offer smiles and enthusiastic hand gestures “thatta way.” The smiles would have sufficed.

We were led to our box by our flight-attendent/usher. I’ve never sat in a box. For 15 Euro it was the best seat in the house. The interior was a sumptuous red (the best kind, really) and gold leaf. The ceiling was frescoed with Olympian gods and our box sported several mirrors for amplifying candlelight. Josh looked appropriately critical:

The performance was a complete mystery. It was called “Napoli Zampa e Vola.” The dancing was fantastic, including a scene with a group of washer women on point with flowing sheets, a group number with Mozart in the background and oranges in the air, and a powerful, haunting, stylized rape. After the large dance numbers were duets with intricate lifts and couple pretzeling I never could never have imagined the human body attempting to music.

The problem was figuring out how it all connected. There were clearly characters that didn’t include the dancers who would speak and sing (poorly, actually) to advance the plot, but it was incomprehensible. This is why the internet was invented…and Italian classes.

After the best espresso I’ve ever tasted and a pitching some theories about what we had just witnessed, we decided to call it a night. We needed all of our energy if we were going to make it through the ashes of Pompeii…

The photos one more time for the kids.

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