Maurizio and Mauro had had a bit of a tiff.
“Under no circumstances,” Mauro announced over the telephone, “are you to pay Maurizio the rent when he comes round for it. From now on, you pay me directly. OK?”
“Fair enough,” I said.
No sooner had he rung off than Maurizio was on the line.
“Mauro’s trying to rip me off. That money is mine and he knows it. Under no circumstances are you to pay Mauro, if he comes round asking for it. OK?”
“Just a minute, Maurizio. What in God’s name is going on? Mauro says I’m not to pay the rent to you. You say I’m not to pay it to Mauro. Just who am I supposed to pay it to?”
“To me,” said Maurizio.
“To me,” said Mauro, when he phoned back again later that evening.
“No, no, no,” said Maurizio.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Mauro. “It’s my flat and it’s my money.”
It went on for days, this squabbling over what must, for them, have been a pretty insignificant sum of money. I couldn’t understand any of it. It seemed to be a classic Neapolitan tale of puffed-up emotions and petty betrayals and, in the end, I told them that nobody was going to be getting any rent until they were both in agreement as to who should have it. Finally, it was Maurizio who caved in.
“Pay Mauro,” he phoned and told me one evening. The whole thing had got on my nerves and I wondered whether a peaceful existence was possible in a city like Naples.
As the weeks wore on, I began to forget why on earth I was in the city in the first place. I had seen most of what it had to offer, and what I hadn’t seen either wasn’t worth seeing, or was impossible to access. The weekly transport strikes were getting to me, as were the noisy marches and demonstrations that seemed to block one road after another every other day. I detested the graffiti and the litter, the general contempt for any public space or public property. Go into someone’s home or shop, and everything was neat and spotless. But stay for any amount of time with that same homeowner or shopkeeper, and you would see him drain a plastic cup of coffee, take the last cigarette from his packet, and simply hurl cup and packet out into the street.
I hated the vandalism, the provincialism, the oafish pride that everyone took in their brutish dialect – the more incomprehensible, the better, as far as they were concerned. I hated the fact that everyone claimed the sun always shone, when it was manifestly untrue. I hated the fact that it took so long to perform the simplest of tasks – buying a mobile phone, opening a bank account, wiring money back to the UK … There were always bureaucratic hoops to jump through and they multiplied in number if you happened to be foreign. Most of all, I hated living in this part of town, where everyone was well-to-do, but nobody spoke to anybody else, and where the general idea of a lively evening was a take-away pizza and a rented video cassette. If I were going to be honest with myself, the only reason I was still there was Giovanna. She was a good reason indeed, but I was fast approaching 30 and I really didn’t want to get old in Naples. I certainly didn’t want to bring up kids there.
I was grateful to Naples. The city had taught me a great deal. It had hardened me considerably, but I didn’t want to go any further down that path. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. Whereas just a few years previously, I had been the sort of person who found it difficult to tell people to “fuck off”, I was now the sort of person who found it difficult NOT to tell people to “fuck off”. On a recent visit to London, I had shocked myself by barging my way onto the Tube before the other passengers had even got off. All around me had come cries of “Excuse me!” and “Basic manners, please!” and I had sat shame-faced, unable to look anyone in the eye until I reached my destination and got off. As someone who had always prided himself on good manners, I found it difficult to accept that the Neapolitan “me-first” culture had taken over my being so entirely.
It was time to move on, perhaps to a different part of Italy. I loved Emilia Romagna. Bologna was a pleasant enough city and the little towns around it – Parma, Modena, Ferrara etc. were adorable. Ferrara, in particular, was like a real-life version of Trumpton or Camberwick Green. Perhaps I could look for work up there? And yet I loved my job. I would miss Giovanna’s family and our evenings together terribly. And would it be fair to take Giovanna away from everything she had ever known? I would really have to have a serious chat with her. As much as I loved her, I knew that I would go stark, staring mad if I stayed in the city of Naples.
The decision to leave the house was made for us by Mauro. “It’s being sold,” he said. “So you’ll need to clear off within three months.” Everyone around us gave us sympathy. “Never mind,” they would say. “You’ll find somewhere else.”
“Why don’t you buy the house?” several of them suggested. “A mortgage wouldn’t cost you much more than the rent you pay now.” Implicit in these comments was the conviction that we couldn’t possibly want to leave such a luxurious house in such a respectable area, and I decided that a smile and a shrug was a rather more tactful answer than, “You must be bastard joking! I’d rather have a rusty metal spike shoved up my arse than live in a dump like this for the rest of my life!”
The following Sunday, Giovanna and I went to Salerno for the day, to meet some friends who had promised us a lift back to Naples that evening. Salerno is one of Southern Italy’s most important university towns. Etruscan in origin, and later on an important Roman settlement, my guidebook described it as “unattractive”. But I wanted to take a look at it anyway, even if it only meant a cursory visit to the duomo, dedicated to St. Matthew the Evangelist, and the obligatory tour of the well-known Provincial and Ceramics museums.
The journey from Naples to Salerno was scheduled to take a mere 50 minutes. That would give us plenty of time to do some sightseeing and have a leisurely lunch with Alessia and Mimmo, our two friends, in one of the charming restaurants in which Salerno no doubt specialised. We arrived bright and early at Naples Central station and made our way down to the Piazza Garibaldi platform, from which the train was due to depart. One hour and fifteen minutes later, the train, a regionale, chugged in, over an hour late. No announcements, no apologies, no explanations. We boarded and sat for a further quarter of an hour, staring out at the squalor of the station, our spirits sinking rapidly. The train reeked of urine and disinfectant. The other passengers looked decidedly unsavoury and were eyeing us up and down as if they were simply waiting for the train to chuff far enough out into the countryside for them to slit our throats, steal all our money and throw our bloody carcasses out of the window.
After what seemed like an eternity, the train started to move, slowly at first and then even more slowly; I was convinced it was being pedalled. I was, by this point, feeling too despondent to concentrate on reading my newspaper, so Giovanna and I sat in silence and watched the south go by. We rolled through open countryside, through hills and valleys with sumptuous, but probably illegal, villas built up on high. We passed the sort of unappealing satellite towns you find all over Southern Italy, made up of soulless concrete high rises which the planners remorsefully, and misguidedly, saw fit to paint in shocking shades of pink, duck-egg blue and sunflower yellow in a vain attempt to cheer everybody up. The strange thing about these towns was that they all seemed to have magnificent cemeteries, with bombastic, elaborate mausoleums that contrasted starkly with the rubble-strewn quarters in which the living were forced to exist. I was bad-temperedly wondering whether I wouldn’t rather be dead than alive if I were an inhabitant of this part of the world when, suddenly, the horrors of these urban prole-holes gave way to the splendours of the Amalfi Coast resort of Vietri, and our moods lifted considerably.
The first thing that strikes you, when you arrive in Salerno, is that this is a place in which those with an obsession for geometrical symmetry and order do daily battle with vandals. And, unlike many other places in this part of Italy, the lovers of law and order seem to be gaining the upper hand. From the train we could see row upon row of neatly – no, obsessively – parked cars in methodically laid-out car parks. We saw shipping containers stacked in neat piles, all of equal height, awaiting collection. Even the cranes looked sparkling. Boats, both pleasure-craft and industrial transporters, were moored in an orderly fashion along the sea-front. From up here, Salerno didn’t look at all unattractive. We stepped off the train into a bright and breezy station that couldn’t have been more unlike the damp, dank disgrace that was Napoli Centrale, had it been thousands of miles away.
The interior was pristine white enamel and there were even ceramic tiles depicting local scenes. Salerno station opens onto Piazza Vittorio Veneto, an unremarkable but pleasant little piazza, and we headed straight down to the communal gardens for a stroll along the seafront, which again reinforced our impression that this was a well-to-do, formerly opulent little town, that had seen better days, but was still doing the best it could to keep up appearances. A sort of Italian Morecombe, if you like. The obsession with geometry continued throughout the gardens. The monuments, statues and cobblestone paving patterns looked as if they had been designed by mathematicians, or by whoever it is that is responsible for corn circles, and the wave breakers were cubic blocks of concrete that the sea had not yet managed to smooth into a more natural form.
It was too late to visit the duomo or the museums now, and I didn’t want to spend all afternoon in a restaurant, and so having met up with Alessia and Mimmo, and apologised for our late arrival, we decided to buy a selection of street food and a bottle of beer or six, and sit in the communal gardens to enjoy them. If ever a place was made for sitting, then it is the communal gardens of Salerno. They go on and on forever, right back towards Vietri and the aqueduct and bridges set in the craggy mountainous terrain as testimony to the engineering prowess of those who once lived here. And they are flanked, along their entire length, by wooden benches. I am convinced that the entire population of Salerno could come down here, sit side by side on the benches to watch the sun go down, and there would still be room to spare. And I can imagine that, in summer, they do just that.
I was, in all honesty, quite glad not to be spending my day in musty museums and stuffy churches, as I very much liked Salerno and I was quite happy just to stroll around, in good company, soaking up its atmosphere. The driving here was as disciplined as the lay-out of the city suggested it would be. Drivers even stopped to let us cross, something quite unthinkable in Naples. There were people cycling, promenading, eating ice-creams, even jogging, and a man with a sandwich board informed us that, that evening, on this very spot, there was to be an “acrobatic pizza show”, whatever that might be. Sadly, we would not be able to find out, as we would be heading back home in just a couple of hours.
Yes, there was a little graffiti in Salerno, but much less so than in Naples, and although the people of the city seemed, by one consent, to have decided to use what could have been a pleasant little beach as a rubbish dump, the streets themselves were very clean. We allowed ourselves to be carried along by the flow of people to the end of the communal gardens, and then drifted back towards the station through wide-open, cobbled avenues with Parisian-style street-lighting, criss-crossed with side streets that seemed to be filled with cozy pubs, elegant pizzerias, chrome-covered ice-cream parlours, and the sort of coffee bars that make your glasses steam up on cold mornings, the minute you open the door.