In my Cabernet-Sauvignon-induced dozy dreams, several thousand feet above the Bavarian Alps, I had a fairly good idea of what Bella Napoli would be like. Jim’s tales and picture postcards had prepared me. I would go through passport control, where a smiling official (he seemed to look a lot like Bernardo, albeit with a Saddam Hussein moustache) would bid me welcome to his country and wink at me as I thanked him and pocketed my passport. Karen would be there to whisk me off to my new home, and we’d breeze along a long, dusty road along the seafront, windows rolled down, wind in our hair, a tomato plant here, a lemon tree there. Perhaps the occasional weather-worn peasant, shirt sleeves rolled up, flat cap perched on his head, pulling an unwilling donkey on a piece of rope.
There would be fishermen casting their nets; young urchins diving off the sea wall; men playing cards and swigging wine from the bottle; stray dogs snoozing. And everyone, even the dogs, would be smiling. When Karen had seen me safely off at my new lodgings, which would no doubt be a room in a spacious, panoramic villa, somewhere up on a hill, and bid me a warm farewell until work commenced on Tuesday morning, I would wander down to the nearest shop, which would, of course, be run by a kindly, fat, old widow, dressed entirely in black, per chance try out some of the Italian that I had been memorizing from my Berlitz Italian phrase book, (“No, but I’ll give you a game of draughts” – I was dying to use that one!), purchase a cold beer and spend the rest of the afternoon on my balcony, enjoying the view over the bay and quietly absorbing my new surroundings. There would be time enough later for a walk down to the bay, perhaps paddle my feet in the water, and find somewhere to order a first portion of culinary heaven.
Ding dong. The B.A. tannoy yanked me from my dreams to tell me that we would shortly be landing. I was surprised to find that I was sweating. Yes, that was definitely Italy below us. And that huge hole must be the crater of Mount Vesuvius. I began to feel nervous, the way you do when you feel that one of your dreams is about to be either fulfilled or shattered. We hit the tarmac with a bump and, to my great consternation, everybody started clapping. What on earth had happened while I’d been asleep? Had we come, unscathed, through an emergency or something?
“Excuse me?” I grabbed one of the stewardesses as she came striding down the aisle. “Why did everybody clap? Did I miss something?” “No, Italians always do that,” she replied in a “can’t-stand-here-all-day-chatting” tone of voice and strode off again. Clearly the real terminal of Naples International Airport was being refurbished or else was closed for some other reason, as we were herded into what looked for all the world like an oversized terrapin, held together, here and there, with string and corrugated iron. There was an official waiting to take my passport, although he bore no resemblance to Saddam Hussein, and he was most certainly not smiling. He scrutinised the photograph.
“Take off your sunglasses,” he barked. He grunted, seemingly disappointed to find that I was, indeed, the person portrayed in the picture, and tossed the passport back to me. It fell to the floor and he and a group of colleagues, who were clustered nearby with sniffer dogs, watched me scrabble around to pick it up, with a combination of irritation and bored indifference.
Outside, Karen was waiting for me and I could swear that she gave a sigh of relief as I came through arrivals, as if she had feared that I might not turn up at all. I later discovered that it was by no means a rare occurrence for teachers simply not to show up at the last minute. “How come we didn’t land at the airport proper?” I asked her as we climbed into the taxi. She looked quizzically at me. “What do you mean? This is the airport proper.” “Oh.”
The taxi driver did look a little like Saddam Hussein and evidently shared the Butcher of Baghdad’s homicidal tendencies. We set off, not along a long, dusty track, but along what appeared to be a sort of motorway on thick, concrete stilts, set above the most densely populated metropolis I had ever seen. Homes were literally built one on top of the other. There was not a single patch of green to be seen anywhere, except on top of the palm trees, which looked like emaciated pineapples. Every few seconds, the driver hit the klaxon. I couldn’t work out why, but every other driver on the road was doing the same. I noticed a rosary and a “sacred face of Jesus” hanging from the driving mirror. Saddam obviously felt that this gave him the protection he needed to drive like a drunken lunatic without coming to any grief. Indeed, he didn’t even need to look at the road, which meant that he could use his driving mirror to eye me, menacingly.
“Your flat’s in Vomero,” said Karen. “Oh, right! I read about that in the guidebook,” I said excitedly. “That’s the part they call the ‘glittering hillside suburb’, isn’t it?”I pushed my face to the glass to see if I could spot a hill, sparkling like a mountain of precious gems somewhere in the distance. I couldn’t. The car pulled off the stilted motorway and we drove up a narrow road. No, my mistake. The road was not narrow. It was just that the cars parked on either side of it, along with the huge rubbish bins that had been shunted out of the way to create extra parking spaces, had drastically reduced any room for manoeuvre on the part of those actually driving. Not that this seemed to worry Saddam, who came screeching to a halt with one long, final blast on his horn for good measure. “Here we are,” said Karen. I looked out of the window. “Animal House” said a sign.
“What, in there?” “No, that’s a pet shop. Above that.” “Oh.” Karen settled up with the taxi driver, who sped off again with just a couple of quick hoots this time, and we went inside.