[7 minute read]
It’s dirty. It’s congested with outrageous traffic and littered with abandoned construction projects. Short-tempered motorcyclists consistently redefine the meaning of “close call.” Locals know, of necessity, how to parallel park in the most impossible (illegal) spaces. They will also talk on the phone, fix their hair in the mirror, and tune the radio while doing so, and you will be amazed when you can’t find a scratch.
The crosswalks are not to be trusted - they don’t take personal responsibility for getting you anywhere safely. (See the colors red, green, and yellow as decorations.)
Like a contagious disease, the graffiti only knows how to spread. Nothing is safe nor out of reach. ATMs. Dumpsters. Sidewalks. Trash bins. The garage-style doors that cover the shops when closed. Windows. Statues and fountains. Entire facades. Even the most ancient, well-known monuments have been afflicted - innocent victims of a continuous protest against the historical majesty they represent. So what about their “cultural importance.” We live here. Notice us.
Most of it seems like unreadable lettering. But a closer look (and some knowledge of Italian, although it's common to see some in English) will show you it’s also motivating calls to action, and statements of plain truth – the kind that is rebellious simply because it is presented; the kind many wouldn't dare speak aloud. If it can’t be heard, then it will be seen.
Personally, I've never seen any efforts to scrub it away or paint over it. Such organization would be strange, but in this case would also prove pointless, as new graffiti would quickly take the place of the old. The city, as if ashamed to find its intimate parts exposed, would hastily dress itself once more.
The graffiti is just one being that makes Napoli, Napoli. It's a part of the city itself, along with the more-often-than-not closed metro, or the men who try so hard every night to sell some red roses to loving couples, or the boisterous pizzaioli (pizza makers) who expend more energy arguing with one another than they do making the best pizza in the entire world.
The Neapolitan dialect is indeed fit for disputes, as it's spoken with a harsh, in-your-face purpose. I once witnessed a pair of elderly men - arms spiraling, hands in constant, changing gestures I had never seen before, faces screwed up in an impressive, wrinkly rage, each vowel sound longer and more exaggerated than the last, as if ready to cut the other’s throat. Later, I was told they simply disagreed on who was the best player of the Naples soccer team. Not a discussion for the fainthearted, apparently.
Now, to avoid turning a blind eye to some more serious on-goings, I will state plainly: there is so much crime – but also, so much big, organized crime. More than you could ever (want to) imagine. Unfortunately, I can’t write a true description of Naples without mentioning this. Most people have heard, but they don't really know. Because to the outside, this is underground. Hidden. Unseen. In short, they know who the tourists are.
They are, as it has been said, "everywhere and nowhere." They're nothing short of masters – great magicians, their audience the citizens, who have no choice but to sit back and watch the tricks unfold before them, and to respond only with silence. The fear of a loved one becoming the next body on the street surrounded by a group of valid witnesses, who wear blank, unknowing faces, like mandatory masks at some enforced masquerade ball, shrugging shoulders and empty remarks of: "We didn't see anything," is paralyzing and irrepressible, because at the end of the night, no one is allowed to take off those masks. If you do, you'll be next.
These criminals are experts who have imbedded themselves so deep within the frameworks, they are not the veins, but the heart which pumps the precious blood. They have overtaken everything. They are responsible for everything. Since "they" are not one organization, but a multitude of clans (who are are usually at war with themselves), "they" are referred to as "O Sistema," Neapolitan for “The System." In Sicily, there's la Mafia a.k.a. Cosa Nostra, in Calabria, there's La 'Ndrangheta, and in Naples, there is la Camorra.
If cold-blooded murder has become a norm, petty crimes like pick pocketing, illegal parking, and consistent disobeying of traffic laws have become almost justified. (I suggest reading Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano if you’re curious on the subject of IOC - Italian Organized Crime.)
To the average visitor, however, the stuff remains unseen. It becomes a myth, which therein lies a choice – you can choose for yourself whether to believe it or not. For some, it becomes easy to sweep aside, as other, more admirable quirks of Naples win you over:
Venerable women on balconies belt old serenades from their time as they shake out dusty rugs, leaving the debris to fall where it may. Long, narrow streets allow the light to hit just the right parts of its large, rectangular basalt stones, no matter the time of day. The refreshingly spacious Piazza del Plebiscito. The view of il Vesuvio from the coast. The deep cerulean waves crashing against the base of Castel dell’Ovo. The heavy, underlying sense of history – everything is worn and so, everything is wise. The wafting smell of espresso that travels so determinedly through the air, it hits you right in the face and wakes you up. The quiet - perhaps only present just after lunchtime. The pizza. The pizza. (There’s nothing else to say about that, except: You haven’t eaten pizza until you have eaten pizza in Naples, Italy, the place where it was born. Just get here, have some, and you'll understand. I suggest Da'Michele or Sorbillo to get you started. The best pizzerias, like these two, don't accept reservations ahead of time. Elbow your way inside to put your name down as soon as you arrive, and expect to wait at least a half hour. Don't get discouraged - it is so worth it!)
What else? Young boys and girls who never stop running, who push and shove and yell in a dialect that seems too old for them, who have intense games of calcio in the middle of crowded piazze. The complete lack of walking etiquette on Via Toledo. The speeding vespa drivers who know no boundaries, and consider it polite to honk at you at the last second to get out of their way. The closeness of the apartment buildings, stacked on top of each other in ways that must be breaking some safety laws. The colorful, swaying laundry hanging from every balcony. The long chats neighbors have with one another from said balconies, while leaning against their railings. The pecking pigeons who have learned how to beg like dogs, and who coo from somewhere above, responding to your echoing footsteps. The bright, natural light cast from the high, glass ceilings in Galleria Umberto I.
Naples certainly doesn't lack beauty. It is also certain that general rules followed in most cities have been thrown out the window in Naples. A lot of things are thrown out of the windows in Naples… Mind your heads.
Its systems, and lack thereof, would never be accepted or acceptable in most places. But Napoli is just that – an acceptance of every exception. That which has plagued it should not define it, and for the most part, does not. For this, Naples is more than beautiful. It’s a dark beauty, sometimes a hidden one. Perhaps one that not all will appreciate, or even recognize, given its history of violence and crime, past and present. But I can tell you with utmost sincerity, it's a city unmistakably worth visiting, as a similar place does not exist - could never exist.