I first went to Naples for three months in the spring of 1982. I was 23, and this was my second year as a graduate student. It was the Biblioteca Nazionale that drew me there—more precisely, the unique collection of papyrus rolls that was discovered by accident in the middle of the 18th century in the ruins of ancient Herculaneum and that—after several moves, including one in 1805 to Palermo to keep them out of Napoleon’s greedy hands—is now housed there. I’ll talk about them in another post. This is more about Naples as a city and what it was like for me then.
OK. What it was like for me then was like landing on another planet where you don’t speak the language and you find the air hard to breathe. Where there don’t seem to be any rules, except really obscure ones that you don’t know you’ve broken until someone tells you, pitying your ignorance. Where no-one even notices traffic lights (where they exist, which is rare), let alone observes them. Where “No Stopping” and “One Way” signs are purely for decorative purposes and speed limits a joke. Where smoking isn’t allowed on buses, but people smoke in the Library, in lifts, in churches, and even in hospitals. Where it’s impossible to buy pure fruit juice or plain yoghurt or muesli, but fresh fruit and vegetables are astonishingly cheap and delicious. Where all the shops close on Saturday afternoons so everyone can go to the beach (these are still the summer opening hours for many stores; in winter they stay open on Saturdays and close on Monday mornings instead). Where churches (I had never seen so many churches!) have a Mass early on Saturday evenings so that—you’ve guessed it—everyone can go to the beach on Sunday. I was brought up Catholic and for me this phenomenon came to sum up Naples, and maybe Italy too. ‘Yes’, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church says, ‘You have to go to Mass on Sundays, only we’ll pretend Saturday is Sunday and everyone will be happy. We’re sure God won’t mind.’ If God is Italian, I expect He doesn’t. He probably goes to the beach on Sundays Himself.
This is also a world in which there are no cash machines. If you want money you have to go to a bank and wait in the line (if there is one: usually there’s a scrum and then one of those invisible rules is applied to select the winner) for a bored clerk to fill in lots of unnecessary forms and apply stamps to them in about fourteen places. (There’ll be another story about one bank in particular later. I am looking at you, Banca Commerciale d’Italia.) It’s a world where young people of my age are attending university yet still living at home with their parents, with no place to make out—except for the long row of cars that begins parking up on Via Posillipo around 7pm on Saturday evenings, newspaper plastered over the windows on the inside, which are usually so steamed up you can’t see anything anyway. I had in effect been living away from home since I was 17, and I think the friends I made found me enviable and rather sad at the same time. Which, all things considered, I was.
It’s also a dirty, rubbish-strewn, uncared for world—though people’s houses are spotless—and washing is hung out in the streets to dry in the often filthy air. The women who live in the bassi, tiny homes before there were such things, squeezed into the façades of older palazzi next to the large entrance-gates, have it worst. Unless they’re lucky enough to have an upper floor crammed into the same space, with a tiny balcony uptop, washing has to be arranged on stende right out in the street, with cars and motorini zipping by no more than a foot or two away. Life must be one long cycle of cleaning and washing for these housewives. And all around rubbish accumulates at terrifying speed, especially near the many small street-markets. Every night the dustbin men, as I once called them, or garbage trucks, as I call them now, come round to collect the munnezza (Neapolitan for immondizia), and I came to think of them as King Canute, trying ever and again to stem the rising tide of refuse. They still are. At least the towering chimney in eastern Naples rising out of the facility that once burned some of the rubbish no longer spews God knows what into the air. It made me think of of the giant 312’ chimney known as the “Audley Destructor” which towered over my home town between 1888, when it was built (the year of Jack the Ripper) and 1959, when it was demolished, and which also belched incinerated refuse into air already thick with smoke and soot from coal fires and factory chimneys. At the time it was the tallest chimney in the UK.
Naples, and indeed the whole of Italy, is still working out what to do with it all that munnezza. The camorra doesn’t like the new termovalorizzatori (waste-to-energy plants) because it doesn’t control them, and there are reports of sabotage and of orchestrated strikes amongst garbage workers. Organized crime is also happy to make money off the wealthier north of Italy by importing refuse from Milan and Turin and dumping it illegally in disused mines and quarries around Naples, or just spreading it on fields right next to growing crops. The worst stuff percolates into the ground water. Not so many years ago an entire tanker-lorry full of toxic waste was discovered buried in what is now called the “Triangle of Death” for its abnormally high rate of cancers, especially in children, and of pulmonary and coronary disease.
And yet you can see this sort of thing (photos taken in January 2015, but the scene hasn’t changed much in the intervening 36 years). A storm is moving from north to south across the Bay; on the left of the second picture, Capri is completely hidden from view by the dense but shifting cloud.