By 8 o’clock that evening, they had obviously decided to give me a second chance. Pete knocked on my door. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to show you the real Naples.” The crowd I had met earlier were milling around outside, some of them already in a state of advanced refreshment. As we joined them, they started to shuffle off up the road, and we followed. The daylight was dying, and Naples was bathed in that beautiful sandstone light that you only find in the Mediterranean. It was certainly an eccentric city. Its disastrously dilapidated buildings seemed to defy gravity. It was almost as if only the graffiti held them together, and there was certainly enough of that. Stray dogs romped in the street.
Fat old ladies in black sat on precarious wooden chairs, never designed to take their weight, and shouted at other fat old ladies sitting on equally precarious wooden chairs on the other side of the street. Despite the omnipresence of huge metal rubbish bins, there was litter everywhere. It fluttered in the evening breeze, got kicked around by gangs of bored youths or driven into the melting asphalt by passing cars. Good grief, if this was the glittering suburb, what would the rest of the city be like? But there was no denying that that the place had a certain, lazy charm, almost a dark romanticism. Had someone described Naples to me in those terms just 48 hours earlier, I would have cancelled my flight and phoned Karen to thank her very much for her time, but due to unforeseen family circumstances etc. etc. But I was surprised to find that I actually quite liked the place.
The shuffling crowd of ex-pats came to a sudden stop around an old man with a flat cap and a white moustache, who was standing beside a tine wooden stall on which packets of cigarettes of various brands were stacked. One of the teachers said something to him and he dawdled off towards a Telecom maintenance box, looking furtively around him all the time. He opened the Telecom box and took out a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, which the teacher immediately put in his bag. Money changed hands and the group shuffled on. “What’s all that about?” I asked Pete. “Contraband cigarettes. Cheaper than at the tobacconist’s. It’s a Camorra racket. And one of the most lucrative, as well.” “The cam-what?” I asked, unsurely. “The Camorra. Local branch of the Mafia. Nothing gets done in this city without a nod from them.” I was speechless. I had, of course, known that the Mafia was present in Southern Italy. But I hadn’t expected to come into such close contact with their dealings just a few hours after landing at Capodichino Airport. This was marvellous! What a story to write home about! I strolled happily onwards, absorbing the colourful chaos around me. Naples was an assault on the senses, but not in the way that most big cities are. It was deafening. The air tasted of acrid smoke. And it stank. It stank of petrol, of rubbish, of uneaten clams and mussels left out to rot in the sun. And then my breath was knocked clean out of me by what lay before my eyes.
“Oh, my God! That is just … amazing!” The word “amazing” just did not do it justice. I hastily tried to think of another one, more fitting for the occasion, but the best I could manage was … “Bloody hell!” Not much of an improvement. The Bay of Naples stretched out below us, bathed in that twilight of a Campanian sunset that can still move me deeply today. Street upon street, apartment block upon apartment block, no doubt soulless, ugly buildings when viewed from street level but, seen like this, as a single entity, truly magnificent against the backdrop of the mighty Vesuvius. The other teachers gazed, transfixed, as they had most certainly done many times before. Time, nor familiarity, had diminished the effect that this profoundly southern landscape had upon them. Neither was it to do so with me. Even during those occasional dark moments, in which the city drove me so mad that I couldn’t bear to see it on television, hear anybody speak its dialect, or listen to the sound of its music reach me from across the piazza, the view over the bay from San Martino had the power to melt my icy heart and make me love it again.
But tonight I loved it. It was a wrench to leave San Martino that evening but, as day gave way to night and the buildings disappeared to be replaced by a sea of sparkling lights that lapped at the very slopes of the glowering volcano, the city below began to rumble with the noise of a million cars and as many Vespas, and excited, excitable voices, calling to each other and to us, enticing us down to the centre to see what was happening there. I realized, as I clambered onto the bus, that I didn’t have a ticket. “Jeremy,” I hissed at an older teacher, who mistakenly attempted to disguise his balding pate with long, straggly locks and a baseball cap. “I haven’t got a ticket.”“No one has,” came Jeremy’s reply. “Do we buy them from the driver?” I asked innocently. Jeremy gave a nasty laugh. “Just don’t worry about it. If an inspector gets on, just pretend you don’t speak Italian.” “I don’t speak Italian.” “There you are, then. No problem.”
I needn’t have worried. The bus was packed to the extent that only the most suicidal of inspectors would have risked getting on. And, if Jeremy was right, and not even the Neapolitans bothered with such niceties as buying tickets, then there would be plenty of indigenous folk to dish out fines to, and argue vociferously with, before he got to us lot, and we would have plenty of time to scramble out the back door. I began to relax and enjoy the ride. Off we trundled. At every stop, an almighty row erupted between those trying to alight and those trying to board. There was none of that lily-livered, Anglo-Saxon “after-you” nonsense. These people seemed to consider it a matter of honour not to yield right of way. Or perhaps they hadn’t yet realised that two people cannot occupy the same position on the space-time continuum. Whatever the reason, it all became highly vocal and hugely entertaining. On several occasions, I thought that a fist fight might ensue but, to my mild disappointment, it never did. “It’s all to do with the Camorra,” explained Jeremy. “Neapolitans never punch each other, ’cause you just don’t know who you’re punching. Hit the wrong person and you’re toast.”
I liked that. It had a certain self-regulating balance that appealed to me. Down the hill went the bus, over cobble-stoned streets, past butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers. There didn’t seem to be any chain shops or supermarkets; just open-fronted stores like workshops, where old men plied their trade, helped by their families, and outside of which they would sit and smoke contentedly when there were no customers around to bother them. The bus journey went on forever, but just as the odours of human exertion seemed set to overpower me, the doors spluttered open again. “This is where we get off,” Jeremy told me, and barged his way through to the door. I was truly stuck. “Er, … excuse me …, would you mind …? I really need to … er …”. But nobody was taking a blind bit of notice of me. “You’ll never get off like that, you twat!” shouted Jeremy from the street. “Use your elbows, man.” In a burst of desperation, I closed my eyes, stuck out my elbows and thrust them down and back, propelling myself towards the door. There were howls of protest and arms waved in indignant gesticulation, but I was almost out. With a final spurt of energy, I hurled myself in the direction of the street, knocking an elderly couple, who had been trying to get on, clean out the way. More howls; more indignation. But I was on my feet on the pavement and the other Brits were laughing at me. Jeremy patted me on the back. “That’s the way to do it. Come on. Let’s go and get a beer.”
Minutes later, we were in Piazza Dante, one of Naples’ most celebrated piazzas which had, like most of the city, seen better days. “Wait here,” said Jeremy, as he turned into a side street. 50 metres up the road was a shuttered window. He knocked on the shutters and they immediately opened. A grumpy-looking old woman stuck her face out, listened to what Jeremy had to say and then handed him two heavy-looking carrier bags. Jeremy paid and the shutters rapped shut again. When he came back to the piazza, he began extracting ice-cold bottles of beer from the bags, opening them expertly with his cigarette lighter and handing them round. I took mine gratefully and lay back, like the others, on the grass in the middle of the piazza. The anti-language school conversation took up where it had left off earlier than afternoon. “What these people don’t understand is …” “It’s fucking criminal, that’s what it is …” “Yeah, well she can kiss my arse if she thinks I’m working …”
I didn’t care. I’d make up my own mind about the school and those that worked there in my own good time. For the moment, I just wanted to reflect on what had happened over the last 12 hours. Naples wasn’t at all what I imagined it to be; I had an absolute pig-sty of a bedroom that was going to need some serious attention to render it fit for human habitation; and my new colleagues were all bitter-and-twisted ex-pats who really didn’t want to be there at all, but who were all too idle to get off their backsides and change their situation. I should have been feeling thoroughly miserable. But, strangely, I felt completely carefree. I lay there and gazed up at the outline of two bandy-trunked palm trees against the moonlit, starry sky. I finished my beer and dozed off.