Giovanna was still cross with me the next morning. “If the English find people being cut up funny, then there must be something wrong with them.” I wasn’t putting up with that. “Excuse me, but in that room there was also a German and an Austrian. And they were laughing too. And it would have been the same with Americans and Australians and Scandinavians … Have you ever thought it might be you lot that are suffering from a sense of humour failure?” But Giovanna was immovable. Custard pies were a laughing matter. Blood and guts were not and that, as far as she was concerned, was that. We were on our way to Caserta, not because we had any particular desire to see the city itself, but because we wanted to see the Royal Palace. The city of Caserta didn’t even exist when, in 1751, Charles of Bourbon commissioned Luigi Vanvitelli to design a grand palace that would rival Versailles, and the city, while by no means unpleasant, is hardly worth a visit. It’s really well-known as a centre for military schools and is also the location of Campania’s foremost military hospital. For a day out, you’d be better off making your way up to the delightful medieval village of Casertavecchia at a distance of 11 kilometres. But the Royal Palace is an absolute must. Construction started in 1752 and continued until 1774, when Vanvitelli died and his son, Carlo, took over. The original plans proved too complex for Carlo to follow and one can only wonder how the Palace would have turned out had Vanvitelli’s design been followed to the letter, with angular towers and central dome.
The Royal Family were, needless to say, delighted with their new palace, and resided there in spring and summer. It remained the property of the crown until 1921, when it passed into state ownership. The Palace was badly damaged in World War II, but you certainly wouldn’t know that from looking at it today.
Giovanna had, of course, been to Caserta’s Royal Palace before, and was itching to show me the treasures within. A magnificent staircase led us up to the second floor vestibule and to the Palatine Chapel that was inspired, as was so much else in the Palace, by Versailles. There were the usual columns and apses, apartments, libraries and art galleries. The Seasons’ Halls, with their frescoed ceilings portraying the different seasons, and the Royal Crib, which is made up of 1200 figurines, were particularly lovely. And there was a Vanvitelli museum with drawings and plans, and even wooden models of the Royal Palace, made by cabinet-maker Antonio Rosz. Perhaps the most fascinating part of all was Queen Caroline’s bathroom, from which, by means of a complex network of mirrors, the monarch could spy on what was going on in various parts of the palace.
But it was a lovely day, and where I really wanted to be was out in the Palace’s glorious gardens, having a picnic. The gardens stretch out over three kilometres and there are buses to take you to the top and back down again the other side should you so wish. We did not so wish and so we set out on foot. I was determined not to miss a single statue or fountain of this lovely Italian garden. An English gardener of my acquaintance scoffs at the idea of an “Italian garden”. “No imagination,” he sniffs. “Too geometric; square lawns, square flowerbeds. As if, unable to discipline themselves, they attempt to discipline nature.” I couldn’t agree less. With its immaculate tree-lined lawns, water spurting, gurgling, jetting and cascading from flawless dolphins, nymphs and goddesses, and playing tricks with the light in the caves in which they are set, the gardens of Caserta’s Royal Palace are, for me, as close as I will ever get, in this life, anyway, to the Garden of Eden.
There is even an English garden with exotic plants and greenhouses that would have made my grandfather green with envy. What a shame, then, that, as so often is the case in this part of the world, visitors have seen fit to scribble on the pristine white sculptures in felt-tip pen, and to leave the by-products of their picnics – plastic plates and cups, serviettes, beer bottles, aluminium foil, not to mention dog-ends and fag packets – blowing around in the breeze. It would certainly be hard to imagine the same thing in Versailles or the residences of other European sovereigns.
Giovanna and I found a place for our picnic in the shade of some trees, and set about demolishing the mozzarella cheese, bread, pasta “frittata” and bottles of wine that we had brought with us in our hamper. Then we lay back, smiling contentedly, and dozed off in the late spring sun. We awoke to the sound of helicopter rotor blades whirring furiously and found that we were being buffeted by blasts of billowing wind. A helicopter was landing in the grounds of the Palace! No, wait a minute; it wasn’t landing. It was hovering above one of the pools and scooping up enormous quantities of water in a vast bucket. What in God’s name was going on? As the helicopter took off again, I saw fish leaping from the bucket, back into the pool in a desperate bid for freedom. The helicopter disappeared and another one descended right behind it. “Look!” said Giovanna, pointing upwards behind me. Smoke was pouring in thick, black clouds from the side of the hill. “A mountain fire!” Mountain fires are very common in Italy and, indeed, throughout the whole of Southern Europe at this time of year and all through the summer. A few of them are natural disasters, some are caused by carelessly discarded cigarettes, but a depressing number are actually deliberate. It took the whole of the afternoon to get this one under control and Giovanna and I watched, spellbound, as helicopter after helicopter descended to scoop up water from the pool, before following its precursor up to the hill, as in a scene from “Apocalypse Now”, and fish after fish opted for life over instant incineration. Gradually, the smoke began to subside and we made our way over to the Fountain of Diana and Atteon at the very top of the gardens, from which we could see the whole of the plain of Caserta and beyond. Without the litter and graffiti, it would have been perfect. But even these could do nothing to spoil a wonderful day. As it began to get dark, we made our way back down to the Palace and boarded the bus back to Naples.
I was getting fed up with living in Mrs. Napoletano’s flat. Sure, I had had some good times there, but it really wasn’t a dignified way for a man to be living in his late 20s, and I was getting fed up with the constant merry-go-round of flatmates, and with those who failed to understand that, outside the office, I was no longer the boss and that their problems ceased to be my responsibilities. The trouble was that it was very difficult to find good accommodation in Naples. And it was expensive too. Although I was earning more money as Director of Studies, I really didn’t want to be spending half of it on rent.
But, in the end, something happened that forced me to take action to find somewhere else to live. And that something was Daniel. At first, Daniel reminded me very much of Nick. He was in his late 20s, well-dressed and affable, pretty knowledgeable about a great many things, and he liked his beer. We got on well at first. But he proved to be impossible to live with. Daniel did just about everything to excess. He smoked incessantly – at least two packs every day. He filled a 12-cup caffetteria every morning, upon waking up, and drank the lot himself, sweetened with several tablespoons of sugar. And in the evening, he drank beer. Not to the extent that our old friend Kevin had done, but copious quantities all the same. And, with the beer, came the aggression. Daniel was the sort of person who, after five bottles of beer, would take it into his head that someone had been trying it on with his bird, and would decide to make bloody sure they didn’t do it again. He also disliked Italians to the extent that I wondered why he was in Italy in the first place. “Anyone fancy coming out tonight and having a laugh at the Italians?” This was his standard way of inviting the rest of us to go out with him. I twice made the mistake of accepting and never did so again. Daniel was embarrassing when there were Italians around. He was agreeable enough company at first, that was for sure. But after the fourth or fifth beer – he drank three for every one I got through – he became loud, boisterous and provocative. The Italians’ lack of military prowess was one of his favourite topics, and his vociferous monologues attracted hostile attention from surrounding tables on more than one occasion. It wasn’t long before Daniel earned the nickname of “Mr. Gobby”.
He made fun of the Italians love of pomp and ceremony; their abysmal pop music; their unsound sense of humour. He was incapable of keeping such opinions to himself and he also failed to accept Italian superiority in other respects. OK, their music was shite, but their cuisine was sublimity itself, wasn’t it? According to Daniel, it was not a patch on fish and chips or beans on toast. They may be a bit dodgy when it came to fighting wars and the like, but they certainly knew how to dress, didn’t they? No, said Daniel. Their clothes were without any flair or imagination whatsoever. They dressed the same way that their parents and grandparents had. Yes, they laughed at people in silly costumes, falling around and throwing things at each other, but you couldn’t deny that they knew how to enjoy themselves. Nonsense, Daniel maintained. They merely knew how to look as if they were having a good time but were, in fact, frustrated, sexually repressed good-for-nothings who should drink more. The longer Daniel spent in Naples, the more vocal his provocations became. One by one, the other teachers found excuses not to go out with him and, on one occasion, they all waited for him to nip to the bathroom before slipping out the front door of the bar and heading for a nightclub, where they were sure he would not find them. They hid down a side street as they spotted him follow them out of the bar, and watched in horror as, in total frustration, he smashed the wing mirrors of every car in the vicinity.
I was enjoying breakfast out on the terrace one Sunday morning, when Daniel appeared, his fist clamped around a mug of sweet espresso, and his face a mask of cuts and bruises. He sat down next to me without saying a word. “What the hell happened to you?” I asked him. He was silent for a moment and then he began. “I was down in the Spanish Quarter last night.” “Oh dear.” I could see where this was going. “No, wait a minute. It wasn’t my fault. There was this bloke and his girlfriend having a blazing row, and he gave her a slap.” “And you stuck your nose in?” “Well, I pushed him away from her, yes.” “And what happened?” “They both turned on me.” “The girl as well?” “Yeah. She told me to mind my own business, so I told her to go and get fucked.” “And she hit you?” “No. She didn’t. The bloke called his mates over and they all came over and started punching and kicking me. Fuckin’ cowardly bastards! All fuckin’ big and brave when it’s fuckin’ fifty against one!” I fought back the urge to laugh as I imagined the scene. “Well, maybe, in the future, you’ll think twice about getting involved,” I said, knowing full well that the Daniels of this world never know when not to get involved. “I don’t know how you could watch a bloke slap a girl and not get involved,” said Daniel, folding his arms sulkily. “I don’t suppose you do. That’s why you’ve got an eye as black as the ace of spades and I haven’t.” I got up and went towards the kitchen. “That big mouth of yours is going to get someone killed one of these days,” I warned him, and went inside.
The doorbell rang. It was Gino, the house caretaker, and he was apoplectic to the point at which he really wasn’t making much sense at all. But, with a great deal of effort, I managed to work out that somebody had urinated in the communal ashtray out in the corridor, that he had good reason to suspect that it had been one of us, and that this really wouldn’t do. It had been Daniel, of course it had. He denied it, but it was exactly the sort of thing he would do; an infantile way of getting back at the Italians. He had probably been so drunk that he couldn’t even remember doing it. Mrs. Napoletano came downstairs and tore strips off me for not keeping “my people” in line. The following Sunday morning came the final straw. Daniel had not only pissed in the ashtray again, but had dropped his bottle of beer on the floor outside my bedroom door, where it had smashed. Too inebriated to clean up the mess, he had just left it there for me to cut my foot on, as I was making my way to the bathroom in the morning.