One of my lasting memories of Naples is of my wife, Susanna, standing in the middle of the street, cars whizzing past, and shouting at the top of her voice: "What the hell is wrong with this place? And what is the matter with you friggin' people?"
Her initial reaction to Naples, three years prior, was only slightly different. Shortly after arriving at the Navy lodging facility she was in hysterics, cursing and screaming: "I hate this @$^#@ place."
Those stories provide a matched pair of bookends for our time in Naples, Italy. Neither of those stories, however, makes much sense without their back stories. And what is life anyway, but one long back story? The question, then, is where to begin.
I'll choose June, 2000 as a place to start. My wife had a good job with a bright future. After nearly 20 years of following me around, I had promised her I would retire so she could pursue her career for a change. Unfortunately, this was not to be. 39 days before I was eligible to apply for retirement, I received orders to work with NATO in Naples, Italy.
Naturally, this did not sit well with either of us. I had plans of my own for my retirement, which included getting my MBA from UC Davis in California. Susanna was working for Verio's web development division, and was looking forward to the date when her stock options vested. She also had plans to upgrade her skills and move up in the company. None of this was to be.
The trip from Norfolk to Naples was via military charter. Our two cats traveled in the cargo hold. Military regulations stated that if the ground time at any stop exceeded two hours, the animals were to be downloaded so the people could care for them. Our stop in the Azores was nearly three hours, but the ground crew decided not to download the pets.
Our next leg was diverted to Moron Air Base, Spain due to high winds and rain at Rota, Spain. We arrived in the early morning hours. Moron AB is not manned for round-the-clock operations, so no ground crew was available. They could not find the person with the keys to the stair truck, and the weather was too bad to allow us to deplane using aircraft maintenance stands. So we waited in the airplane for a couple hours.
Once the stair truck arrived, we asked after our pets, as we were waiting in Moron until the weather cleared. We were told the weather was too bad to allow them to take the animals off, so once again we had a long, (six hour,) layover without being able to take care of our pets.
We arrived in Naples and debarked at the military terminal, an old, crowded and dilapidated facility. (Since we arrived a new modern terminal has opened, and the old terminal was closed, has gone through an asbestos abatement procedure, and is now office/warehouse space.) Our sponsor didn't show up at the airport, but instead sent one of his subordinates, a person who arrived in an old, subcompact Fiat. It was too small for our luggage, but after asking around he found some security police who were also headed to the hotel. We put our luggage in their truck, and we stuffed two cat carriers and three people into the ancient Fiat and headed off to the hotel.
Our guide decided not to take the front way out of the base due to the traffic congestion, but instead go out the back gate. From there he drove through what looked to be a slum---tiny, potholed streets, unkempt buildings, and trash everywhere. If that wasn't enough, he drove his Fiat like a Formula 1 car, making us both a bit carsick.
We arrived at the hotel which was located in Pinetamare: a former seaside resort area, but now a rundown area where the sea is colored with surreptitiously dumped sewage, and the streets are lined with prostitutes imported from North Africa and the Balkans. Once there, we were directed to put our pets in the kennel. So far, so good. But the kennel facility was located in the parking garage, with only a flimsy partition wall between the cats and the dogs. The dogs, as you might expect, missed their owners, were upset, and barked constantly. Their barking echoed off the concrete walls. The din was deafening, and the cats curled up in the farthest corners of their kennels in an attempt to escape the noise.
So after being awake for over a day, experiencing what my wife still calls "the trip from hell," being driven as warp speeds through Neapolitan slums to a seedy hotel, and seeing how little thought went into arranging for our pet's comfort, my wife lost it, screaming: "I hate this @$^#@ place."
And then life went on. Some of it good, some of it bad, and nearly all of it in the Naples area. To an outsider, Neapolitan culture is inscrutable. Outsiders stand at the windows, looking in. No matter which window you look in, you only see what is immediately in front of you. You see a bit of action, but can't make sense of it. You hear sounds, but can't tell what people mean. You move from window to window, looking in, but each room is different, and what you see often conflicts with what you've seen before. You focus on the sensational, the bizarre, and the merely different. But making sense of it all is difficult, so you remain not only an outsider, but truly apart from everything going on around you.
One day towards the end of our time in Italy, we ended up in the city of Aversa, looking for a bed and bath store called "Pasha." We had shipped our truck and were driving a borrowed car. Neapolitan streets, even the newer ones, are heedlessly narrow and wind aimlessly from place to place, so finding the store was difficult. We worked our way through the traffic when we turned a corner, felt a sharp lurch, a scraping sound, and the car quickly ground to a halt. We had turned the car into a large cobblestone lying right in the middle of the street. I looked around and no cobblestones were missing from the street, no curbstones were missing, so no obvious reason existed why a cobblestone should be lying in the middle of the street, lodged firmly underneath our friend's car.
I removed a metal bar from the car and used it to lever the car off the stone. Susanna gradually worked the stone loose from out under the car. I barely managed to pick up the stone and carry it to the side of the street, while cars whizzed past. People barely glanced in our direction as this scene played itself out.
The traffic, the noise, the trash, the pollution, the general lack of citizenship behaviors in the Neapolitan culture, the bizarreness of a cobblestone in the middle of the street where no cobblestone should be, the possible damage to a good friend's vehicle, all this was summed up in Susanna's frustrated cry: "What the hell is wrong with this place? And what is the matter with you friggin' people?"
Bookends. Two isolated, yet similar incidents which frame everything else we experienced in Naples. We've had some good times, and some bad. We've made some good friends, we've seen some interesting places, we've filled our house with Italian hand-crafted products. Sometimes we've really liked living here, and sometimes not. But we've always remained on the outside, looking in. We've never really been able to understand Neapolitans.
We judge Neapolitans by our standards, and by our standards we find them wanting. And yet Neapolitans have much to recommend them. They are devoted to their families and good to their friends. They live out their lives in poverty, yet remain good-spirited throughout. Yet we could never fit in, we could never be one of them. We remain forever on the outside; forever, in one form or another, asking the question, "What is the matter with you friggin' people?"
Last edited on December 31, 2005