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Happy New Year!

Christmas was everything that a good English Christmas should be: friends, family and parties; fairy lights everywhere; santas with crap cotton-wool beards and West Country accents in every shopping precinct; choirs of angelic children massacring carols outside Woolworths; Salvation Army bands; Slade on every shop stereo. It was a false and commercial festival, little more than an excuse for over-indulging. And I loved every minute of it, just as I always had done. 

And then suddenly, I found myself back in my room in Naples, quite alone, for although everybody had told me that Neapolitan New Year was something that I should not miss, they had all decided to spend theirs getting Brahms and Liszt somewhere back in Britain. Not that I minded. Although Jeremy in cynical mood might have been quite fun, I had no desire at all to spend New Year linking arms and singing “Auld Lang Sein” with any of the others. In fact, I wasn’t sure how I was going to spend New Year at all. I had simply decided to wait and see what happened. But I was certainly going to need some supplies, and so a trip to The Miserable Bastard was called for. It was reassuring to note that no one had attempted to clean Dog Shit Bridge during my absence – I had grown too used to the name to start calling it anything else – but I realised that something was wrong the minute I stepped into the shop. The Miserable Bastard was grinning from ear to ear. I looked around to see who could possibly be the recipient of such unaccustomed bonhomie, but I was alone in the shop. No doubt about it, he was grinning at me. What on earth could be the matter? I grabbed a few bottles of Peroni and went up to the counter to buy bread and mozzarella. 

“Buongiorno,” said the shopkeeper formerly known as The Miserable Bastard. “Bella Giornata!” A lovely day. I conceded that it was. It almost seemed like summer, in fact. Only hours before, I had been feeling my way around outside Gatwick Airport in a thick, white soup that seemed to freeze the lungs as you inhaled. And yet I was now facing the prospect of spending the rest of the afternoon feasting on mozzarella sandwiches out on the terrace. But, for the moment, I was more preoccupied with The Miserable Bastard’s miraculous conversion. Had my Italian been up to it, I might well have asked him whether, per chance, he had been haunted by three spirits on the night of the 24thDecember. I was in for an even greater shock, seconds later, when I pulled out a wad of notes to pay for my purchases and The Ex-Miserable Bastard gave a dismissive wave of the hand, as if money were not an issue between such good friends as we had evidently become. “It’s no problem,” he was saying, still waving dismissively, preposterous grin on his physog. “Let’s call it a little present for the New Year.”

As I went back over Dog Shit Bridge, pulling off chunks of warm bread and stuffing them into my mouth, I was feeling decidedly unsettled. It was all too strange. If The Miserable Bastard were no longer miserable, then we would shortly have discord in the spheres. Besides, I wasn’t sure I liked The Cheerful Bastard. All in all, I found him much more amusing when he was miserable. Suddenly, I heard Colonel Jim’s cautionary voice echoing around my head: “If any of them wants to do you a favour, ask yourself one question. ‘Why is this bastard being nice to me?’ There’s always a reason. Always something they want in return.” Of course! That was it! But what could it be? I’d almost finished the bread, for heaven’s sake. My mozzarella sandwiches were going to look pretty meagre, but I really didn’t want to go back and find out what it was The Miserable Bastard wanted me to do for him. That could wait until after New Year. 

I had expected to feel drowsy after the beer and mozzarella but, instead, I felt wide awake, perhaps because I could not rid my mind of The Miserable Bastard’s moronic grin. I decided to go for a walk. A strange thing had happened to the streets of Naples. Lurid stalls had been set up on every corner selling what looked, from a distance, like brightly-coloured candy sticks, but which proved, on closer inspection, to have blue fuse paper sticking out the end. Good grief! I certainly didn’t want to be around when one of those went of, but I had a sneaking suspicion that, very soon, I would be. According to what I had been told, fireworks played an important role in celebrating the Neapolitan New Year. The atmosphere was one of remarkable gaiety and the streets were filled with music; not the dreadful Italian easy-listening schmaltz that they seem to play on every occasion these days, but the eerie whine of what I took to be bagpipes, but which were, in fact, zampogne, a traditional instrument very similar to its Scottish cousin, and which is played by zampognari who go from building to building at this time of year making their music in the hallways and collecting donations. 

There were sweet stalls and stalls selling huge live eels. I saw one large housewife buy two of these together and ask the stallholder to despatch them, there and then. This he did, with a large cleaver, severing both heads with one mighty, satisfying thwack that sent their heads spinning off in either direction, one of them landing right by my feet. “Scusa!” he shouted to me, as he wrapped the eels’ still writhing bodies in yellow paper and handed them to the signora, and I chuckled as I wondered how the more militant vegetarian teachers would have reacted if they had witnessed what I had just seen. In a moment of madness, I even came close to buying an eel myself, but quickly came to my senses, realizing that I wouldn’t have the first idea what to do with it, except leave it in the fridge, and that it really was not worth spending so much money, simply to get an anguished shriek out of a vegetarian.

I began to wish that I were spending New Year with a Neapolitan family. The food on offer, mostly seafood-based, looked delicious, and I had no idea how to cook. For the first time since I had been in Naples, pizza did not seem a particularly attractive prospect. There was one tradition that I had been especially eager to try: it was, in fact, a tradition of Emilia Romagna, not Campania, but was, and is, popular throughout all Italy, and it involved consuming a pig’s trotter or zampone, which is boned and stuffed with ground snout and various other ingredients. The zampone is accompanied by lentils, which are said to represent money – the more of them you eat, the richer you will be over the coming year – and the whole lot is washed down with a bottle of Lambrusco. I liked the sound of that but, despite protestations from my Italian friends that commercially packaged zamponi were excellent and easy to cook – you just followed the instructions on the box, and not even an Englishman could fuck it up – I didn’t trust my level of culinary expertise. It would have to wait for another year. 

Back in my flat, I lay on my bed and dozed off. It was dark when I awoke and Naples was spookily quiet. I wandered out onto the terrace and looked over the railings. The streets were deserted. Not only were there no people, there were no cars. Not even parked cars. Where had they all gone? I began to feel that the others had been pulling my leg and that the Neapolitan New Year was going to be one great letdown. I sat on the terrace and cracked open a beer. Silence. The calm before the storm. 

An explosion had me running for cover, my heart thumping against my rib cage. What in God’s name was that? Then another. And another. Car alarms started to scream and suddenly the city was ablaze. Fire dripped from every window, buildings shook, ambulance sirens blared. Rubbish bins burned in the streets. It was like being caught in a medieval siege – apart from the car alarms and ambulance sirens, that is – and it must have gone on for half an hour without letting up. Once I had got over the initial shock, I felt euphoric. Now this was what I called a celebration. Some company would have been nice, but it still beat sitting round the telly watching jocks jump into fountains, hands down. From that day on, I have never spent New Year anywhere else, and all my recent New Years have been spent embraced in the warmth of an extended Italian family, where there is as much decapitated eel and pig’s trotter as my perverse little heart could desire, and where we all retire to the balcony afterwards to hurl fireworks and other exploding devices into the street.

Sometimes it all gets a little out of hand and one of us will have to run down to the street with a bucket of water to extinguish a blaze that is threatening to get out of control. And, despite public health warnings, injury tolls that are triple those of Milan, Euro-induced inflation and the misguided attempts of a well-meaning nanny state to ban the fireworks one year – it didn’t work, of course; the Neapolitans just made their own even more lethal versions – it has remained the most unbelievable good fun; the only time of the year in which the whole city is enveloped in a truly magical atmosphere of hope and expectation, despite the fact that the coming year will, in all likelihood, bring greater hardships and tribulations than its predecessor. A moment of precious happiness in a city that has little inclination, and even less cause, to be happy. And this one night of the year, even now, I always find that I too am happy to find myself in the city of Naples. 

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2 pensieri riguardo “Happy New Year!

  1. Hope you make it back! Lots of things have improved since the 90s, which is the period I am writing about here (I arrived in 93). Or, at least they had before Covid! A great pity as tourism had really started to take off at the end of the decade.

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