The Beautiful Side of Notorious Naples

I am in love with the world. I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met. Exploring culture moves me, challenges me and no matter how long I sit in trains and planes, culture can never be exhausted. I could wander my entire life and never know it in it’s entirety. It’s thrilling, at times can be heartbreaking and for now when I am young, ambitious and free, has kept me engaged.

I am a perpetual runaway. Born with a wanderer’s heart. Nothing permanent. Nothing too familiar. In the times I’ve lived in a place for more than a few years, each day I worked and lived to leave. Always in the forefront of mind was the distant reprieve of departure. Even in my happiest, most content situations. It is not because I am comfortable with change or that I don’t miss those I have left behind – I am always missing someone, somewhere. My mother believes this facet of my character to be a form of sabotage – running away from the good in my life when things get too close. She may be right but for now, coming into contact with people whose social, ethnic, religious and political values and traditions are so vastly different from my American sensibilities has given me something to hold on to.

A few days ago, I entered Rome’s Termini train station as my tired heart started to pace. I knew I needed to runaway, if only for a few days, from a situation that has lately seemed to plague my mind’s landscape. As I approached the entrance of the station, I felt the sad coldness melt slightly to the sights and sounds surrounding me.

People moved at what I call the “traveler’s pace”. Half lounged casually around, perched on their rolling suitcases or strewn across the platform floor on alert for their train dock to appear on the board. Others, much like me, danced around the symphony making our way towards our vessel, ready to take us away, near or far. The pulse of the station beat rapidly, giving away to notes and tempos so familiar, so needed to this restless mind of mine.

I haven’t always been so aware that this compulsion of mine was a form of escape. I’ve spent the better part of the past two years exploring the curious question as to the why’s of my peculiar need to remain mobile, detached from people and places. I believe I have become quite self aware in the past two years and I am engaging in a healthy practice to better understand the waves of my character. As with everything, wanderlust definitely has its downfalls and benefits. And as I continue to explore, I find the smallest flicker that I may, in time no longer wish to runaway.

As my train departs the station, I flip through my music selection settling on Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism (this poeticism doesn’t write itself) and become engrossed in a self evaluation of my current state. I tell myself this is a healthy excavation from the Eternal City. I reduce my assessment down to my inclination towards the aesthetics. I love being in the company of beautiful things, no matter how ugly others may believe them to be – cities, landscapes, art and people. I know where I am headed as I barrel through Lazio, headed south, is both beloved and despised for it’s aesthetical qualities (or lack thereof).

She’s a teenage girl in a fit of madness, driven to chaos in the midst of an unfair disadvantage. She is the Cheshire Cat, hanging in a state of mischievous taunting. She’s chock full of all the urbanity I adore. She’s gritty and mad all in one. And I live for the mad ones. The ones who demand you notice the world around you. Demand not to be ignored. Make you feel hatred and love in the very same instant.

She is auditory above all other things. She is sight and smell. This, for me, is Naples and this city is not for the faint of heart.

We pull into the station as Vesuvius sits in the background, a grim admonition of Mothers Nature’s dominance on the human condition. I am thrown into the madness. Pigeons fly at my head. Loose pieces of paper tangle between my ankles as they flurry down the boulevard. And just as I consult my google map, headed in the direction of my hotel, I hear the Cheshire Cat state to Alice, “It really doesn’t matter which way you go!”

I wait for street lights that never change. I narrowly miss screeching motorino as their engines purr and grumble pass. Paying no attention to crosswalks or even the sidewalk for that matter. I am forced to dart from here to there. I watch groups of men sitting in front of dingy cafes, pulled together at little tables in erratic conversation that all but halt when I pass by. It is a safe sense of danger.

The noise can be overwhelming and even for me settles deep within my nervous system. Everyone here talks at a higher decibel than in any other city I’ve ever been in. There are no rules and if there are, nobody in their right mind thinks to abide by them.

I dangle my feet through the railing of my third floor balcony. The city lights flicker on as the city embraces the night. I’ve slept through my first few hours after my arrival, unable to confront my troubles. I think to myself, perhaps Naples was not the city to try and rebalance my emotional state. The streets, still alive are elegant as the sun no longer exposes every flaw. What is left is a romantic city under the cast of glowing yellow lamps. I eventually pull my legs back through the railing, giving myself a pep talk to get properly dressed and go out into the night. I know I will greet things here that I thought were only inventions of the imagination.

On my second day, I wander down back alleys. I observe people and their interactions as I perch myself upon a marble staircase. I try to make sense of it all. There is none. And that may be the most beautiful thing about it.

The Napolitani are a religious but suspicious people. You almost suspect the city froze during the inception of Christianity from its pagan roots. Cornicello, the red horn amulet worn as protection from the evil eye swing in the shops next to statues of the Madonna. Youth crawl the streets everywhere. Even though Italy is experiencing the lowest birthrates since the inception of the modern Italian State, Naples seems to be in no lack of bambini. Babies and toddlers are kissed, held, adored and greet my travel companion, Weezer with enthusiasm. Teenage girls weave their way through traffic upon their scooters, chatting with their friends on nearby vehicles in the shortest shorts and tightest tank tops with seemingly no regard for body consciousness – considered inappropriate in other regions of the world but embraced here in sweltering Napoli. The boys travel in packs of 3-10, kicking a ball around in the shade. At one point I observe a group of adolescent boys, caught in a game of rough-housing that ends with a loud slap across an unsuspecting boy’s chubby face. I can’t help but smother a giggle. The state of shock and natural consequence of being the groups most mischievous player has been brought down upon him. The boy holds his face with one hand as he wildly gestures with the other to express his anger. Napolitani have no sense of boundaries and personal space is as atmospheric as air. They are like packs of wolves, vultures in the kind of way you viciously admire.

Somewhere along my way, I find myself striding down a main artery through the city – narrow, hectic and at the complete center of the madness. I realize I’ve been here before or I at least think I have. I find myself caught up in a spectacle developing nearby when a hand grabs my arm and pulls me to face him. For a split second I think I am going to have to slap someone myself. I cannot stand to be touched by strangers on the street. Often times it is to gawk at my tattoos, inquire about who I am or where I am from but I am greeted with the worn face of a man I feel I had met in another lifetime somewhere. As my eyes dart to the vibrant granita cart behind him, I remember. Carmine is the granita vendor and we met briefly on a trip I took to Naples a few years ago. I had ordered a few granitas from him for myself and my friends during a scorching July weekend and while he prepared them, we began a conversation that lasted through my entire lemon treat. It was a lasting interaction but one I had forgotten until that moment.

Carmine said to me in his broken Napolitano English, “Your hair is now the color of strawberries!” I genuinely smiled and felt a bit off in a favorable kind of way – one of the driving forces behind my perpetual runaway syndrome is the complete autonomy of it. Carmine and I spent the next ten minutes speaking about the what’s and where’s of my life, I asked of his and then, curious as to how a man who stands year round in such a densely populated thoroughfare would remember me. His response was, “Yours has been the kindest face I have seen on these streets in years.”

Naples is the culmination of human capability. It is a testament to success and failure in the same moment. As I lean over the stone wall on the Capodimonte under the late afternoon heat, I take in Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples and the crumbling, decaying city before me. In this moment, I think to myself how lovely the talents of man are. How capable we are. The world is so incredibly beautiful even if others disregard it as so. And I decide that I am not running away from it, but running away to it.

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