Travel /
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Campania /

Seeing Naples Through My Nonni’s Eyes

“Naples isn’t as manicured as the touristy Italian cities. It has rough edges, intermingled with some of the friendliest people on earth”

Clotheslines full of bedsheets, beaters, and underwear sagged between the streets, swaying in the humid winter air. The sorbet colors of houses were layered boldly against the gray backdrop. Vesuvius, the ominous volcano, was nowhere to be seen beneath the fog. From the postcards and prints that were scattered around my Nonna’s and Nonno’s house in Massachusetts, I was very familiar with the characteristic soft slope of Vesuvius rising over the calm bay. But even without it, the view was still definitively Naples.

Facing east, it looked like there were valleys between the apartment buildings, but having walked up the Pedamentina steps to get here, I knew better. 

Even on a slow winter morning during the Christmas season, the neighborly and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of Naples was evident. There were car horns and the occasional shouting. A woman planted herself next to me, looking me up and down while blowing smoke in my direction. You can’t help joining the neighborhood of Naples when you’re there, sharing the view with the Neapolitans. 

This Christmas, I’m far from home. I’m living in Italy, something that I’ve dreamed of for as long as I can remember. I’m a second-generation Italian-American, and I grew up hearing story after story of my Nonna’s and Nonno’s childhoods in Naples. Though they immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s, it was like they never left. Their home, in an immigrant-dominated suburb outside of Boston, remained firmly rooted in post-war Naples. 

Joining my extended family for their feast of the seven fishes (though we may have surpassed seven) was something I wished that my Nonna and Nonno had lived to see.

My cousin Luigi took me around Naples to see the family sites, only familiar to me from photographs and stories: the street of Nonno’s childhood apartment in the Mergellina neighborhood, the mere one-room apartment that housed a family of seven, the Pedamentina steps to my Nonna’s house, and the seawall they walked so often. 

Lastly, he took me up the hillside for an insider’s view of Naples. This viewpoint in Naples sits along the hairpin road that most take enroute to Castel San Martino, but it’s worth stopping halfway up. It was not crowded. Most Neapolitans were just passing by on their way to San Stefano feasts. In 1955, my Nonna and Nonno took their wedding pictures on this street in the Posillipo neighborhood. In the black-and-whites, they’re all smiles, despite getting married less than 10 years after the war ripped away their childhoods.  

Naples is a city that has been governed by so many–the Greek, Spanish, and perhaps begrudgingly, by a unified Italy–but this view belongs to Naples herself. 

Teenagers congregated on the walls, limbs and lips interlaced. A fluffy white cat that has managed to stay clean–and well fed—wandered past the teenagers towards the dumpsters down the street. Two nonne trudged up the hill slowly, their heels clicking as they gossiped and gestured to each other wildly.

Despite the gray winter’s day, the city is alive and overflowing with color. The muted scene reminds me of the prints in my grandparents’ house. As a kid, I would try to imagine them as more colorful, placing my Nonna and Nonno within the photographs. But being here, I can see their lives unfold even more vividly. 

While Italians are known for inhaling espresso in two sips, I notice the leisurely pace in this neighborhood. The street directly behind us is dotted with espresso bars. Groups are congregated outside in plastic lawn chairs, their conversations turned towards the view. Their pace is slow and decadent.

It reminds me of lunches–always at 12:00 at my grandparents’ house–when my Nonna would cook with no recipe in sight. I would sit across from my Nonno, a man who commanded a great presence despite his short stature. He would tell me story after story about what he lovingly called the “old country”. 

I mostly heard his happy stories: meeting my Nonna on the beach, teaching his brothers how to swim in the bay. It wasn’t until I got older and moved here that I began to hear more about the darker times in the old country. My Nonno searched for work every day after his father died, taking brutal and undesirable jobs, and raising his seven siblings during a time of so much destruction. The city they loved, bombed and recovering slowly, left them with the most difficult choice: to stay or to go.  

My nonno was a scugnizzo, an (endearing) young street rat, who hitched rides on trains and was resourceful (to say the least). He and some other relatives–some alive to this day–were active in the Four Days of Naples, when the scugnizzi and citizens led the charge to protect their beloved city from the Germans. Their actions, one of the first major citizen-led uprisings, began to shift the narrative in the world war and helped save the city.

Being here, I begin to see the depth of Naples and its history more fully. Naples was heavily bombed during the war, and after the city was liberated, recovery was slow and challenging. Nevertheless, the pitter-patter of the Neapolitan dialect, the culture and the vivacity of the city lived on. The well-loved characteristics of Naples that I heard about growing up–the bright houses, the lively streets, and the sea breeze–outlasted the hardships. 

Naples isn’t as manicured as the touristy Italian cities. It has rough edges, intermingled with some of the friendliest people on earth. I wish I had gotten to see the Naples of my nonni–in both its glory and its suffering. But the perseverance, the history, and passion seeps through the views. From above, I see why my Nonno fought so hard for this place and why my grandparents never forgot it.

Luigi, my Neapolitan cousin and tour guide, gestured to the city below. With a smile he asked, “Can you imagine your life if you were born here instead?” 

I think about that question often. Less than four months after my grandparents’ wedding, my Nonno left for the United States with $200 and two suitcases. I hold so much pride and reverence for this complicated city, defending it against anyone who calls it loud and dirty, even if it might actually be those things. I prefer this view and all that comes along with it–scattered trash, kissing teenagers, the staccato Napolitano dialect–to the grandeur of Florence or Milan.

I am, after all, a descendant of a scugnizzo. I’d rather be a street rat in Naples than anywhere else in the world.