Nervous in the southern Italian city of Naples
I come from a family of anxious travellers. My father was the sort of man who would spend the first day in any glamorous destination regretting he hadn’t taken out windscreen insurance when he had the chance. Anxious travellers see difficulty at every turn. They start worrying about roadwork on the way to the airport a week before they leave. They’re convinced they have printed out the wrong barcode. They’re sure they’ll be given seats near the toilets. They worry their train will crash and here they are, in the most fatal carriage, statistically. They suspect everyone of being up to no good.
In contrast is the trusting traveller. Trusting travellers believe people are decent and honest. They believe strangers really do just want to help. They believe it’s possible to drive out of Florence without spending the night before in a sweat of pre-emptive anxiety. They are sure all will be well, never thinking this might be because an anxious traveller has done all the worry on their behalf, thus unhexing the hex. My husband is a trusting traveller.
It is true he was once done over by a blackmarket money changer in Prague, but he didn’t let that sour his optimism. Buoyed by goodwill and his own genius, it took him a while to realise the trick. He only discovered he hadn’t got an exceptional exchange rate after all when he handed the banknote to the ticket seller at the Jewish Museum. With a sad shake of his head, the ticket seller asked if my husband had been changing money on the street: “You see, sir, this particular note is Bulgarian and has not been in circulation for 10 years.” He didn’t feel it necessary to add that it had only ever been good coin in Bulgaria, and we weren’t in Bulgaria.
My husband was embarrassed, of course, but he didn’t let it defeat him. He told me it could have been worse: he could have given the trader even more money. It was a redistribution of wealth, really. We imagined a poor Gypsy family now able to make their final payment on a plasma TV, thanks to our crisp American dollars.
This is why I had some concerns when, after we had spent a week in exquisite idle luxury at a house in Umbria last year, he suggested we go on to Naples. Naples? Granted, it’s not Liberia, but it is the city run by the Camorra, famous for its pickpockets, its garbage, its graffiti and a nearby volcano. A sucker for disaster news, I had read a report only the month before that observed Mount Vesuvius could erupt at any time. “Even if we cannot predict when,” the volcanologist had said helpfully. Pompeii, the sequel.
None of this bothered my partner. Part of his calm comes from selective research. He’s the kind of person who skips the warning paragraphs in guidebooks where they mention Ebola or having your kidneys stolen while you’re asleep in rural Peru. He’s the kind of person who, in preparation for our visit to Naples, read Goethe’s Italian Journey, written in the 1780s.
I read Goethe, Shirley Hazzard’s The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples, and TripAdvisor. Goethe was the only one not to mention bag-snatching.
Hazzard, who had lived on Capri and knew Naples intimately, wrote at length about its history, its grand villas, the pale, pearly sweep of the Bay of Naples; about the islands, about the ancient stones of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The chapter that lodged, however, was by Hazzard’s late husband, Francis Steegmuller. Called “Incident at Naples”, it detailed how Steegmuller was robbed by a thief on a passing motorbike and seriously injured.
The moral of the story was the unwavering helpfulness of other Neapolitans. As Hazzard later wrote, with characteristic eloquence: “There was loneliness, loveliness, grace, grief, a prevalent civility, and when misfortune struck, a prompt humanity.”
Naturally, the magnificence of humanity is not the lesson the anxious traveller draws. It’s “beware of people on motorbikes”, which means almost everybody in Naples. Hazzard herself warned several times against carrying a handbag or anything with straps that could be snatched or cut. Cut! The way she put it, even carrying something that didn’t look like a handbag wouldn’t do.
As usual, TripAdvisor and other forums were alive with alarmist posts, as well as a batch of hygiene alerts from people such as Mikie of Minneapolis or Trudyjudy from Kent. It seemed the Neapolitans were so busy dreaming up ways to rob and con tourists they didn’t have time to disinfect the skirting boards.
So instead of compiling a list of classical villas to visit, I spent my time secretly concocting ways to carry necessary items – guidebook, Kindle, umbrella, phone, hat, lipstick, wallet – without having to resort to body cavities. My companion, serenely unconcerned, perilously unaware, checked the train timetable.
We arrived at Napoli Centrale railway station on a warm day in October. I scanned the foyer for thieves, checked the zip on my luggage, checked my husband wasn’t carrying his wallet in his back pocket as he usually did. I was ready.
The surprise came on the taxi ride to our apartment – and yes, we were overcharged by the driver. I noticed a woman carrying a handbag over her shoulder. Then another, and another. Just carrying them naturally, as if this were a city in which you could carry a handbag. There were men carrying backpacks, briefcases, manbags. Naples looked, well, perfectly normal in the matter of small hand luggage.
By day two, I was so relaxed, I was carrying several bags at once. Nothing even mildly threatening happened, even on the train to Pompeii, supposedly the epicentre of pickpocketing activity. We even had to ask the African umbrella seller to sell us an umbrella.
As for the reports of graffiti and the garbage, they are true. The concept of picking up dog shit has also yet to reach the southern capital. Naples is where the First World meets the Third, but with marble and monuments. It is poor, seedy, loud and messy, like a distressed, slightly hysterical relative of Italy’s more sophisticated cities. It has pockets of grandeur and faded loveliness. It is alive and thumpingly chaotic; real in a way that the more tourist-infested cities are not, which is presumably why some tourists don’t like it. We liked it a lot.
In Naples, no one seems to give a damn about the usual things. The National Archaeological Museum, for example, houses a collection of vivid frescoes and mosaics rescued from Pompeii and Herculaneum, an immense grand ballroom, tons of statuary, a curious collection of erotica, yet its grimy exterior is wreathed in graffiti and the interior feels dusty and abandoned, as if it has forgotten it houses priceless national treasures. The girl at the gate couldn’t muster the energy to ask us if we had tickets and simply gave a bored wave of the hand. It was the same on the trains.
It was something of a relief, all the same, to spend a night outside Naples, in Ravello, an absurdly gorgeous town perched on rocky hills that plunge down to meet the silvery Gulf of Salerno on the Amalfi Coast. Wagner’s Parsifal is said to have been inspired by Ravello’s villas and gardens and scenery. Their beauty is so overwhelming, you want to weep and write an opera yourself.
We caught the ferry and train back to Naples for one last night and felt a sentimental fondness for its battered resilience. None of the mountains of garbage had moved. The dog shit hadn’t disappeared. The Indian fakirs were still on the streets. Men were still arguing and tossing pizzas; old women were still pinching children’s cheeks and hanging washing. Workers were still striking. Mount Vesuvius had not erupted. And I felt foolish for having wasted time thinking about handbags.
Not that I could tell my companion that. You can never confess to the trusting traveller that he was right. Anyway, we still had two weeks of travel to manage. Anything could happen. It was even possible all would be well.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "Nervous in Napoli". Subscribe here.