As February wore on, I started to feel lower and lower. The rain was relentless and I had given up any hope of continuing my exploration of the surrounding area. I had even confided in Jeremy, at the end of one dismal, rain-sodden day, that I was considering jacking it all in and returning to the UK. “That’d be a big mistake,” said Jeremy. “Why?” I wanted to know. Jeremy sighed, and with the strained patience of a primary school teacher attempting to explain the simplest of concepts to a particularly dense child, he expounded his theory.
“Every year at about this time we lose staff. It’s inevitable. It always happens in February. Think about it. The last time you were in the UK, it was Christmas. Everybody was in festive spirits. Everyone was happy to see you. Up the pub every night, no doubt. A good laugh with yer mates, and no one had to go to work the next day. That’s how you remember it. Same as everybody else out here. And then suddenly it’s a piss-miserable February and everyone thought the sun would be shining and it isn’t, and they all think that things were much better back home. Only they forget that it’s February there too, so they jump on a plane and fly back to London, expecting the great party that they were enjoying back in December to pick up where it left off. And what do they find? That the English are just as fucking miserable in February as the Italians were.” Jeremy smiled sadly and paused to let his words take their effect on me. “Weeks later, they’re back on the phone asking for their job back, but it’s too late then. You just have to accept it. January and February are the Monday and Tuesday of the year. Short of moving to Australia for the winter, there’s sod-all you can do about it.”
I thought about all this for a few moments. He was right. Even in England … no, perhaps especially in England, February was certainly one miserable shit of a month. It would be daft to give up now. Much better to hold out until the sunshine came. That was, after all, one of the reasons I was out here. “You’re right,” I told Jeremy. “Thanks. I do feel a bit better now.” “Good. You’ll need to be in high spirits. The worst is just around the corner.” “What do you mean?” “We’ve got Carnival and San Remo coming up!”
I couldn’t imagine what was so awful about Carnival. I remembered Carnival from my days in Germany. I’d had a fine old time in the Altstadt of Koblenz where the beer flowed, music swirled, and the girls were more liberal with their attentions than was normally the case. What on earth did the Neapolitans get up to that made the festival so nightmarish in this part of the world? To prepare myself, I did a little reading. In Naples, one book told me, the beginning of Carnival was traditionally celebrated on the Day of Sant’Antonio Abate, the 17th January. Towards the evening, huge bonfires were lit on the corners of the streets, especially in the small towns surrounding the city. These fires were made from timber, rubbish and, especially, the remains of old Christmas trees that children went around collecting from door to door over the days leading up to the January 17th. The fires were seen as the key to a symbolic transformation. A joyous, profane festival was born from the ashes of a solemn, sacred one. Not only that, but Sant’Antonio Abate was revered as the saint who had been able to resist the temptations of Satan in the desert, and it was for this reason that the fires were held in his honour.
From that day onwards, the book assured me, it was dancing and joking, right up until the period of Lent itself. Curious. I had been oblivious to the Day of Sant’Antonio Abate. I certainly hadn’t seen any bonfires and, as far as dancing and joking were concerned, there had been precious little evidence of any jocularity whatsoever. On the contrary, the Neapolitans seemed tetchier and more short-tempered than ever. Nevertheless, my students insisted that, unless I had experienced Carnival in Naples, then I hadn’t experienced it at all. They scoffed at my affectionate memories of Carnival in the Rhineland. Germans didn’t know the first thing about celebrating, they promised me. Here, on the other hand, there would be processions, masks and costumes that would make the Germans look like complete amateurs. There would be plenty to eat and drink and good-natured practical jokes all round. Both adults and children would be deliriously happy. It was also, they whispered conspiratorially, the best time for brief, but passionate, flings for, in this period, the Church turned a blind eye to all those transgressions that were normally frowned upon, if not outrightly forbidden, a good old-fashioned bit of slap and tickle along with all the rest.
And yet, whenever Carnival was mentioned in front of the other Brits, brows were furrowed, expressions darkened and language turned blue. “It’s just an excuse for vandalism, that’s what it is,” Francesca told me. Claire agreed with her. “It might be quite fun up north, but down here, all they do is chuck fucking eggs about and smash things up. What’s the fucking point of that?” The day of Carnival drew closer and the other teachers were starting to get touchy. I started to notice broken egg shells littering the streets and sliding down shop windows. “Make sure you wear some old clothes tomorrow,” Karen warned me on the day before Carnival itself.
It began almost as soon as I left the house the next morning. As I walked up to the bus stop, an egg whistled past my nose and smashed against the wall behind me, spattering me with albumen. I shrank back. If that had hit me full in the face, it would have bloody well hurt. Thankfully, the bus arrived almost immediately. It was covered in smashed eggs. I got on just as another egg exploded against a window, causing the heavily pregnant girl occupying the seat below it to jump in fright. At least in the bus, however, we were safe.
The business centre was a skating rink of smashed eggs, flour and yard upon yard of that dreadful, brightly-coloured “silly string” mixture that you buy in aerosols and that stains any surface with which it comes into contact. I decided to run for it, to reach the sanctuary of the lifts as soon as I possibly could. This was clearly seen as provocation for, no sooner has I started to move, than a volley of eggs came hurtling towards me. I ducked and, fortunately, the contemptible cowards who had hurled them and who, like all contemptible cowards, remained steadfastly hidden, had overthrown, and the eggs shattered at some distance to my left. With a final spurt, I made it to the office block and dived into the lift, breathing a sigh of relief as the doors rasped shut behind me. Up in the staffroom, I found the others gathered around an older teacher by the name of Laura. She had a nasty cut below her right eye, which was swollen and turning an ominous shade of blue. She was weeping gently and shaking with fear or rage or both. “An egg?” I asked. “Yeah. Right in the face. Bastards!” said Claire.
Nobody left the school that day. Not even for lunch, and I found myself feeling nostalgic for Germany. Ah! Dear, civilised Germany. How I missed her at that moment! If this was the Neapolitan Carnival, then they could keep it, and I would tell them so. I couldn’t care how many processions and delirious kids in costumes there were; this was my idea of hell. I had never been so reluctant to leave the office as I was that evening. But, alas, it could be put off no more. I tried to creep along the walls of the blocks, blending in with the concrete and hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed. But, as I stopped to look at the clusters of children dressed as assorted princesses, pirates and superheroes, all having their photographs taken around the fountain, I lowered my guard and was hit full on the shoulder. That was going to cost me a trip to the dry-cleaners. The egg-throwing seemed to have stopped by the time I got back to my street. Of course it had. It was dinner time. Everything in Italy stopped for dinner, even hooliganism and thuggery. I squelched down the road from the bus stop, trying to avoid slipping on the egg slime that covered practically every surface. Several communal plant pots had been smashed, spilling earth and the remains of hapless shrubs onto the streets. I went into the flat, closed the door behind me and gave a long, deep sigh. Jeremy was in the kitchen.
“You got through it OK, then!” he laughed when he saw me. “Just about.” “Well, just San Remo to go now, and then it’s downhill all the way. That’s when you’ll see the positive side of Naples.” “You mean it has one?” I asked, dubiously, and went off to have an early night. “And what the hell is San Remo?” I wondered, as I drifted unhappily off to sleep.