It took me until the following Wednesday to pluck up the courage to phone Giovanna. I was terrified that she wouldn’t remember who I was, or that she had deliberately written down the wrong number, or that she would tell me to piss off or …. 101 scenarios, each one worse than the last, played themselves out in my head. The phone was answered and Giovanna duly summoned. Well, it was the right number, at least. Shit! I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say to her! Oh, God, why hadn’t I rehearsed this? “Hello?” “Hi, Giovanna! Remember me? The English bloke from the par…” “Oh, hi! I was hoping you’d call. There’s another party on Saturday night at my friend’s house. Do you want to come?” “Er, yeah. Sure.” “Great. We’ll meet you at 8 o’clock outside your flat, OK?” “OK, terrific.” She hung up. Great! Another evening of Coca-Cola and schmaltzy music. Still, if it meant seeing Giovanna again, then it was worth the sacrifice. Giovanna and her friends pulled up outside my flat at 8.15, which is almost disgustingly punctual for a Neapolitan. Giovanna leapt out of the car and kissed me on both cheeks. She looked lovely. The last time I had seen her, she had been wearing almost no make-up at all. But this time she had just a little eye-shadow, mascara and lipstick. Italian girls can often go over the top with make-up.
Indeed, gilding the lily is a particularly Italian sin. Nothing is ever allowed to speak for itself. Beautiful girls must be plastered in make-up or undergo the surgeon’s knife to remove any perceived blemishes, and thus they all end up looking alike. “Laurel and Hardy”, already quite amusing enough as they are, thank you very much, must be given silly voices. Amateur video clips of animals and children performing stunts or coming a cropper must always be provided with a slapstick comedy soundtrack. But Giovanna looked fabulous. Just the right amount of gilding. Make-up used to embellish rather than cover. And a tight, black skirt with black stockings underneath did the rest. I was smitten. Giovanna’s friend, Sandra, looked equally lovely. She had a warm, genuine smile, smoky, sexy voice and natural, understated beauty. I fell for her charms right away. The same could not be said for her boyfriend, Guido, who I immediately took to be a total plank. With his constant smart-arse comments, delivered in impenetrable dialect, his inability to walk into anyone’s home without playing with the knobs on the stereo or fiddling with the fixtures and fittings, and his mistaken conviction that driving like a lunatic was big, clever and endeared him to people, I disliked him from the very first handshake and stupid wisecrack. I couldn’t understand what on earth a cracker like Sandra saw in such an uncultured, boorish oaf, and I was secretly delighted when she dumped him some weeks later. At the party that evening, Giovanna and I escaped from the crooning and the Coke and shared one of the beers I had brought along out on the balcony. Again, it wasn’t long before we were deep in conversation. I have absolutely no idea how much time elapsed, but I suddenly realized that it had gone very quiet back in the house. We both turned around to find that everybody had drawn their chairs into a semi-circle facing the balcony; they had turned off the music and were staring at us, arms folded, in total silence. When we saw them, they erupted into cheering and clapping and we both went back inside to join them, to laughter and back-slapping all round. By the time the party ended, Giovanna and I were an item. A relationship between an Englishman and a Southern Italian is by no means plain sailing. There is scope for monumental clashes of culture and plain misunderstandings. We had some fabulous evenings out with Giovanna’s Neapolitan friends, or my English ones. But there were some spectacular disasters as well. And the free concert given down at the sea front by Italian singer Gianna Nannini was one of those disasters. As I have said before, Italian music is not my cup of tea. But if someone were to put a gun to my head and command me to pick one singer from a pretty unimpressive list of Latin “rockers” of the time, then Gianna Nannini would probably be my no.1 choice.
The concert was due to start at 9.30 and Giovanna’s lot were to pick me up at 8.30. I had volunteered to meet them down at the venue but, no, they insisted that we all make our way down together, and so it was. The evening began to degenerate rapidly when I realized that it was destined to become a motorized “follow-the-leader”, a notte Italiana of the type my former friend Clorinda had introduced me to the previous year. And it wasn’t until 9.30 that we actually began snaking our way down from Vomero to the sea-front piazza where the concert was to be held. My mood improved slightly when I realized that, this being Naples, the concert had only started some minutes before, over three quarters of an hour late. I started to get over the nightmare journey down, promised myself that I would splash out on a taxi to get back up again, and started to enjoy the show.
“Buona sera Napoli, amore mio!” shouted Miss Nannini from the stage. The Neapolitans went nuts and I began to feel good. Sandra came up to us looking worried. “We can’t find Elena,” she said. Elena was one of the girls who had followed us down in a car towards the rear of the snake. “So?” I said. “We’ve got to find her. She’s only sixteen.” I sighed. “What can possibly happen to her here with all these people? She’ll be fine!” “No. We’ve got to find her.” Giovanna and Sandra went off in search of poor Elena who, I thought to myself, had probably just gone off in search of a little privacy. Minutes later, they were back, along with Elena.“Come on,” said Giovanna. “We’re going.” “We’re what?” “Going.” “Going where?” “Back to the car. Guido and Eugenio haven’t eaten. We’re going to a pizzeria.” “But I’ve already eaten.” “Me too. But Guido’s going to drive us home, so we’ve got to go with him.” “We’ll take a taxi.” “Please. These are my friends.” I have seldom felt so cross. Back in the car, it was stifling and the noise of honking and stench of petrol were bringing me to near explosion point. None of it was helped by Guido’s “accelerate-and-then-slam-on-the-brakes” driving style. Sitting at the pizzeria in a traffic-congested piazza, the air heavy with exhaust fumes that would have killed off any appetite I might have had, had I not already eaten, I watched Guido rolling up slices of pizza and cramming them into his contemptible face. Every nerve end in my body was instructing me to punch him right on the nose, but I fought against the impulse, knowing that it would spell the end of my relationship with Giovanna and, most likely, with the city of Naples itself.
“Try some of this pizza. It’s excellent,” Guido was spluttering through mouthfuls of dough and mozzarella. “No, thanks. I’ve eaten.” “You’ve eaten? When?” “Before we left.” “Why?” “I thought we were coming to see a concert.” “We saw some of the concert.” “We saw two fucking songs,” I said tetchily. “This really is good pizza, though,” Guido concluded, pointing at the remainder on his plate. “Go on. Try a slice.” “No, thank you.” Guido shrugged. I sulked for the rest of the evening that dragged on and on and on. The journey back up to Vomero was every bit as hellish as the journey down had been, with the added frustration that everyone decided to stop for a chocolate croissant at a quarter past two in the bloody morning. I didn’t even kiss Giovanna when I arrived back home, and I lay awake until dawn, convinced that that was it: the end of my first, and probably last, Italian love story.
Miraculously, the relationship survived, and we were on our way out for another, far more agreeable evening, with the delectable Sandra and Guido the plank. We were off to Edenlandia, a fun park in the Fuorigrotta zone of Naples. We had bought tickets for the entire evening, allowing us as many goes on the rides as we wanted, We were dropped in cages at breakneck speed from a great height, catapulted through streams of water in plastic logs, and sent spinning this way and that in mini gondolas, hundreds of feet above the ground, as the lights of Naples sparkled, sometimes below us and sometimes above. It was magical, like a flashback to childhood evenings spent at St. Giles’ fair in Oxford.
And then we all made our way to the “Bavarese”, a mock Bavarian pub within the Edenlandia complex, where they sold beer in proper biersteiners rather than in plastic cups, and where you could buy an excellent bread roll stuffed with sausage or cheese, or whatever else took your fancy, and where they had good, live music, more often than not cover bands paying tribute to British or American acts of the 70s and 80s.
In the Bavarese, a gaggle of Guido’s friends were waiting for us, and we sat down at their table. Guido introduced us to them, one by one. From what I could gather, they were all worthy friends of Guido’s; all the men had punchable, impudent faces, spoke in heavy dialect and seemed to delight in their ignorance and uncouth manners. The women, too, were of a type: bored, vacant expressions, skirts that stopped just short of their pubic hair, prominent, plastic cleavage and make-up that would have had them arrested for soliciting anywhere else in Europe. I gave them all a handshake and a false smile, and perched myself at the end of the table, enjoying the somewhat more gratifying company of Giovanna and Sandra. It was a pleasant evening indeed. Some time after midnight, Guido came swaggering up. He looked worse the wear for booze. “You go and wait in the car,” he said, tossing the keys at Sandra. “We’re going to go and sort out the bill. We’ll settle up later, OK?” he nodded at me. I nodded back and accompanied the two girls to the car, where we waited for Guido to join us. This he did, after some minutes, looking very pleased with himself. “What’s the matter with you?” Sandra wanted to know. “Nothing,” said Guido, continuing to smirk. “Let’s go for a drive.” My heart sank but, luckily, there was very little traffic around and, within very little time at all, we were driving through Pozzuoli. “Where are we going?” I asked Guido. “Lago d’Averno,” replied Guido. Lake Avernus, in the Phlegraean Fields, a lake of volcanic origin, believed by the ancients to be the entrance to Hades. “It’s very romantic,” insisted Guido. He parked alongside thousands of other cars, and we got out and sat on a bench overlooking the lake. Guido and Sandra started kissing, but I was put off by the noxious stench emanating from the lake.
“Excuse me, but has anyone noticed that it stinks here?” “What do you expect? It’s a volcanic lake, porca miseria!” No, this wasn’t the smell of sulphur. There was nothing volcanic about this. This smelt of sewage and of chemicals. I told Guido as much. He shrugged. “We’re not in Switzerland,” he said and went back to exploring the contours of Sandra’s body. Eventually, the pong got too much for the girls as well, and they insisted we got back into the car. Guido still had the same insolent grin on his face that he had had on his return from the Bavarese. “What are you smirking at?” demanded Sandra, more insistently this time. “I’ve got some good news,” announced Guido. “Which is?” “Which is: we don’t have to pay for what we ate and drank back at the Bavarese.” “Why not?” “Well, we all sneaked out, couple by couple, and no-one noticed. So, there you are. A free night out!” He looked mightily pleased with himself. I felt the breath catch at the back of my throat. Sandra was gazing at Guido, open-mouthed in disbelief. “You did WHAT?” “Oh, don’t fret woman! Even if we’d got caught, it’s hardly a prison offence, is it? We’d have said it was a misunderstanding.” But Sandra wasn’t mollified. “That poor waitress is probably going to have to cough up for this out of her own pocket!” “So?” shrugged Guido. “She should be more vigilant.” He was smirking all the more now. Again, I felt an urge to kick seven shades of shit out of him. “Right, I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to drive this car back to Edenlandia, and you’re going to come with me. We’re going to pay the bill and tell them that there was a misunderstanding. Then, tomorrow, we’re going to go round and visit all those arseholes one by one, and they’re going to pay what they owe. Got it?” “But …” “GOT IT?” Sandra shrieked. Only a very brave individual would have dared contradict her in this state of agitation. I would almost have felt sorry for Guido, had he not been such a despicable prick. Sandra, on the other hand, I was beginning to admire greatly. It happened just as Sandra insisted. Back at Edenlandia, she led him into the Bavarese like a naughty schoolboy being led to the headmaster’s office. When they came back, it was Sandra who was looking proud of herself, and I felt truly grateful that my Giò had such a level-headed, strong-willed friend. Guido drove home in total silence and I never saw him again. Shortly afterwards, Sandra saw him for the prat that he was and dumped him. And, to my shame, I admit that I cracked open a beer or two in celebration when Giovanna told me the news.