“I can’t take much more of it, either,” said Thomas, as we sat together over a quiet beer in a bar that had been done out to resemble the inside of a railway carriage. “I’m thinking of looking for somewhere on my own.”
“Pricey, though. That’s the problem,” I said, pushing an olive around my plate. “But if we were to get somewhere together, that might be more affordable.”
Thomas was a straight, solid sort of bloke, who kept himself to himself. And, like me, he was in Italy for the long haul. I could imagine sharing a flat with him.
Over the next week, we pored over copies of Bric-a-Brac looking for suitable flats. The cheapest ones were up in the higher part of Vomero, and so that’s where we concentrated our attention. We buttered up the school secretary and asked her to make the necessary phone calls, for Neapolitans seem to have one of two reactions when they hear a foreign accent on the end of a telephone: either they immediately hang up, wanting nothing to do with anyone who isn’t a nice, clean Italian and, preferably a Neapolitan or, a little bell goes off in their heads, alerting them to the fact that here is someone who can be fleeced with impunity. An appointment was made for us to visit the first apartment on Saturday morning at 10 o’clock.
At 10 o’clock sharp, Thomas and I presented ourselves on the doorstep of the proprietor, dressed in our best clothes. We wanted to make a good impression, as we were now desperate to get out of Napoletano’s flat. Nobody home. 10:15 came and went. Then 10:30. I called the school secretary and asked her to find out what was going on. Minutes later she called me back.
“You may as well go home. She’s not coming. She forgot all about the appointment, so I told her where to go, You don’t want to live in a house belonging to someone like that.”
Sweating in our heavy suits, we made our way dejectedly back to the flat. It was in a disgusting state, but neither of us saw why it should be up to us to clean it for the umpteenth time. The stench of stale tobacco smoke was overpowering. I grabbed a bottle of chilled wine from the fridge, uncorked it and drank it out on the terrace, feeling wretched. It was gone before I knew it, and so I went to fetch another one and drank that too. And then, head spinning, I went to bed.
I had made an appointment with Giovanna for the following morning and, in my hungover state, had only just made it on time. What a stupid way to react to the disappointment of not finding a house! I would have to be thicker-skinned than that, for decent, affordable accommodation did not grow on trees. I would have to resign myself to a few more weeks at Napoletano’s while we looked. I could always spend the weekends exploring.
Today we were off to Avellino, sitting in a cramped but mercifully clean bus. The driver had thoughtfully left the radio blaring atrocious Italian pop and neither that, nor the Irish priest sitting in front of us and constantly using his mobile phone, did my mood or my headache any good at all. We had often been taken by friends to various remote hillside restaurants in the Avellino region, to sample the local specialities. The province of Avellino, being inland, rather than coastal, specialises in meat dishes, as opposed to fish ones, and we had spent many a snug Sunday afternoon over a mixed grill of goat, lamb, rabbit and chicken, while the mists swirled outside, a local soccer match was broadcast on the radio and the house red flowed in intemperate quantities.
We had never, however, been to the city itself, and my desire to spend as much time as possible outside of Napoletano’s flat had seemed a good opportunity to rectify this. But now, as I sat listening to an Italian man and women wailing and shrieking a duet, to the accompaniment of Father O’Friggery’s ramblings, I began to wish that I had stayed in bed – or at least brought my Walkman. The bus was hurtling at quite a speed along a smooth, recently resurfaced motorway, past mountain villages that looked almost German in their layout. “The first thing you’ll notice about Avellino is the fog,” various students had informed me, when they heard of my plans to visit the town. I hadn’t taken them all that seriously, for Neapolitans claim that everywhere outside of Naples is foggy. But as we got closer and closer to our destination, there was no denying it. That was definitely fog out there. The sun was but a distant speck, as if someone had cut around a penny in a sheet of grey felt and shone a feeble torch through the hole.
We were coming into Avellino itself, now. I could tell by the increase in the number of shops – generally butchers’ shops advertising goat and lamb, or shops selling gaudy but expensive silverware, typical of this part of Italy and a true triumph of money over taste. Southern Italians love to give this sort of bling as wedding presents, and they love to receive it too. Not that they would ever display it, mind you. They have far too much taste for that. But it can be stored away and given as a wedding present to future brides and grooms who will now doubt believe – or pretend to believe – that the giver has spent a preposterous amount of money and will be – or pretend to be – eternally grateful.
Avellino was cold. Very cold. Stray dogs and gypsy beggars shivered on every corner. I was glad I had my gloves in my coat pocket. This was not a city to inspire affection, that much was clear from the start. Yes, it had some nice architecture, and some of the villas on the outskirts were stunning but, as a whole, it was nondescript and grey, and even the elaborate street lamps could do nothing to detract from the impression that here was a town of which Joseph Stalin would have been proud, so dull and drab were its buildings, its unimaginative fountains, and its sculptures that represented the very worst in 20th century bad taste.
There was nowhere to sit and enjoy a drink, to watch the world go by, nowhere at all. We found a park with hideous orange and green metal benches covered in graffiti and bird shit, and sat staring at a children’s park where all the swings, slides and climbing frames had been vandalised, and where a number of dog owners were allowing their dogs to shit, in great comfort, on the padded foam tiles that had been installed to break the potential fall of any children mad or desperate enough to attempt to use the facilities. When this got too depressing, we went for a stroll around Avellino’s streets, to see if there were somewhere we could sit to have something to eat. We noticed how grey and pasty-looking the people seemed, and wondered whether that might explain the inordinate number of tanning centres, and travel agents offering the chance of escape to somewhere warm and sunny. God knows the people of Avellino looked as if they could use a little sun.
We came across a mini-pizzeria, the sort that sells pizza by the slice, and chose one with courgettes, aubergines, tomato and cheese. The girl who served us was unfriendly without actually being rude. She didn’t offer to warm the pizza up for us, as was usually the case in these places, and so I assumed that they were fresh from the oven and still warm. We went outside, sat on a bench facing a horrible, modern church, the bell-tower of which would not have looked out of place in a Nazi death camp, and bit into the pizza. It was cold, greasy and tasteless.
“I don’t know about you,” I said to Giovanna, “but I reckon this place sucks.”
“You have to remember, though,” Giovanna replied, always willing to see good in everything, “that it was badly struck by the earthquake in 1980. A lot of Avellino was destroyed. Many people were killed and, even now, lots of people in the area are living in temporary accommodation and tents. So much of the money that was sent down here as aid was siphoned off by the you-know-who.” Maybe Giovanna was right, but that wasn’t really my problem. To look at the faces of these people, you’d think that the earthquake had occurred last week. Avellino wasn’t a horrible place. It wasn’t a town in which you felt threatened, in danger. It was just sad. And sad was how I was beginning to feel.
“Come on, Giovanna, let’s go,” I said.
We made our way back to the bus station. A grumpy and obese driver sat reading the paper at the wheel of a double-decker with “Napoli” written on the front. That didn’t mean anything. If you pay attention to what is written on the front of buses in the South of Italy, then nine times out of ten, you’ll end up in the wrong place.
“Does this bus go to Naples?” I asked him.
“What does it say on the front?” he answered, ill-naturedly, without deigning to look up from his paper.
“That doesn’t mean a thing. We are in Italy, after all,” I said provocatively. He didn’t take the bait but carried on reading his newspaper. We climbed aboard, sat down and waited as the bus filled up. The journey back to Naples was just as noisy as the journey out had been, although Father O’Friggery had been replaced by an annoying little Neapolitan girl behind us, who insisted on singing at the top of her voice along the motorway, and providing her own percussion by kicking the seats.