It’s 10:30pm, a few days before the first of July, and Italian summer is in full swing. I come nose-to-nose with my box fan, hoping to get a break from the heavy heat that fills the air. My mind starts to wander: “I need an escape.” Maybe it’s the thought of another sleepless night, or maybe my inner-consciousness is telling me something. I reach for my phone and search for the closest coastal waters reachable by the first train from Rome tomorrow morning. Decisions, decisions. My eye catches the small St. Gennaro prayer card sitting on my bedside table. I say out loud, “Naples…That’s where I’ll go, Naples.”
The thought of visiting the blue city is consuming, a bit intoxicating. Some of my earliest memories are of Naples, even though I had never stepped foot in the city. Growing up, summer mornings were spent around my Uncle’s table as he and my cousins would relive their sweetest memories of childhood amongst the hilltops of Vomero. They all inherited/embodied the Campanian grit, effortless stride, and easy-going mentality, something I had always admired but never had. And no matter how many times I asked the question “but what was it like to live in Naples?”, the simple and brutally honest answer would always be “the feeling of living there was indescribable. Something only you can answer yourself.”
On that first train ride down to the Mezzogiorno, my Uncle’s voice echoes in my head. “There’s that old proverb, you know,” he continues, “In Naples, you cry two times: once when you arrive and once when you leave.” Something most could never fully grasp without a trip south. Why would a city make you want to cry? That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe that’s what we long for when we travel. People, jobs, monuments, and historical landmarks all lead us to places, but so do feelings. And I, for one, was chasing after a feeling.
Emotions were something I tried to swallow and run from for most of my life. To be genuinely vulnerable made me feel uneasy and out of control. However, despite the typical adjectives used to describe the city–chaotic, messy, historical, religious–I soon came face-to-face with reality: Naples is inarguably an emotional world of its own.
As I step off the train from Napoli Centrale, a local Neapolitan strikes up a conversation. He is heading towards his home in the bleak alleyways of Quartieri Spagnoli and invites me to follow him for a quick detour before I head to the sea. Without catching his name, there is immediate warmth, appreciation, and gratitude for my willingness to explore his city, almost like an unsaid invitation that reads, “This is my home and I want you to be a part of it.” The Neapolitan people have a gift for putting strangers at ease.
As we say our goodbyes, I’m led through the neighborhood by the smell–a mix of sea salt, frying oils, and laundry detergent that distinguishes the quarter. Passing an old shoe shop, the sound and soul of Sal di Vinic pour out from the grim walls into the streets, booming from a 1985 radio. Paper hearts–with phrases printed on them like “sei il mio sorriso di ogni giorno” (“you are my smile everyday”)–are strung at the end of the block, slowly dangling in the wind as a woman smokes a cigarette while sweeping her porch. These scenes feel like a mythical romantic film. After a few moments, I come back to earth, catching my breath and objecting to the thought. Naples is not a fantasy. This is what it means to be human. Without thinking twice, the city of Naples effortlessly embraces life in all colors. Romance, hardship, work and pleasure are all part of the reality.
Before leaving the neighborhood, I stop in a bar for a morning coffee: Neapolitan fuel. The barman catches my accent as I ask which way towards the sea. “Pass Piazza del Plebiscito and go straight until both the sea and Mount Vesuvius appear and look for Gabriele,” he instructs, “il nostro pescatore (‘our fisherman’).” Emerging from the shadows of the Quartieri Spagnoli, the sunlight appears once more. I follow his directions closely. Chills travel up my spine as I watch the sun sparkle off the sea, and I lay eyes on the infamous Gabriele. He is a tan man, and he holds a few plastic bags in hand as he shucks fresh mussels and passes them to locals who will later transform the mollusks into spaghetti allo scoglio. Skeptically waiting, Gabriele feels my stares, nods his head, and shouts, “Vieni!” (“Come!”).
I find myself along Borgo Marinari, Naples’s bayside, where there is no sense of time, only the enjoyment of what lies ahead, wishing the moment would never end. Kids laugh as they belly-flop and daringly cannonball into the bay, and words of Neapolitan are exchanged left and right as I’m introduced to the crowd: “l’americana!” As we get lost in the sun’s warmth and in conversation, Gabriele catches me off guard. “Ma Gabri, come ti senti?” he asks, “How do you feel?” The simple question, one I hadn’t been asked in years, almost moved me to tears. There is a brief pause, and unable to find the words, I think of my Uncle and that indescribable feeling he had spoken of so many years ago. Not responding, Gabriele smiles at me as if he already knows my answer: I feel loved; I feel welcomed and whole; and ultimately, I feel alive.
The openness of the Neapolitans showed me that life is meant to be experienced and not passed by: without pain there is no growth, without degradation there is no beauty, and without passion there is no love. They showed me what it means to fully embrace the highs and lows of life. For me, each trip to Naples is an open door for adventure. I chase the feeling I felt that day by the bay with every bone in my body, thanking Naples, the city that always helps set me free.