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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

Surviving Naples, Part 1: Staying Alive

ITALY | Sunday, 12 July 2015 | Views [401]

We got a bus from Bari to Naples for the sake of our wallets. I watched out the window as the golden fields grew more and more fertile and the great Vesuvius grew closer and more imposing. Our first view of Naples was a city of skyscrapers, construction and industry. I felt so comfortable going there, I felt sure everything people said about Naples was exaggeration. It was far more urban than any other place we’d visited, not so much of the historic as in Rome or Florence. When we reached the bus stop at the train station my confidence started to get knocked. From the safe, confined comfort of the air conditioned and free wifi-ed bus to the bust heat of Napoli Centrale.

Taxi drivers yelled at each other aggressively and paced along the pavement outside the train station as a group of people who seemed homeless or drunk leant against the glass doors. Everyone suddenly walked at a rushed, city pace. The Piazza in front of the station was boarded up and the main road was busy with fast traffic. I didn’t really know where to go. Our hotel was supposed to be close by. I had booked it. I’d never booked a hotel on my own before. We needed to get to Via Novara. The sun beat down. My heavy bag made me slow, my resistive friend made me slower. We found the street, the busy main road right in front of us. We followed the hoards and walked further down. People stared, or seemed to, from shop doorways as we walked by the streets that we crammed with street stalls. These were not the street sellers of Rome or Florence, no official green gazebo type things. These had dingy looking crap on blue polythene sheets. An asian woman blared music from a speaker as she sat on a chair beside a box full of phones. The majority of sellers were African migrants.

I remember in Poligiano a guy had come up to us on the beach, he looked exhausted and desperate, trying to sell people water and towels. Me and Leona talked about it. So many came each year on those death trap dingies. The trips were arranged by people traffickers, they were offered the chance of a new start in Europe, if they risked their lives to get there, but when they arrived they found themselves sold into slavery by the people who brought them over, demanding their debt be repaid by selling tat to people who refused to buy it. This was the worst-case scenario, the best was that this was the only kind of livelihood they had access to. It wouldn’t be too far to call this part of Naples a ghetto. Every time I looked behind me my friend wasn’t there, she was always a few metres behind. I didn’t want to stop walking. I was irrationally frightened.

Now we had to find Via Firenze- there were no skyscrapers or polythene sheets in Firenze- We found it. It looked exactly like Via Novara. The actual buildings, behind the shanty town of stalls, were all dingy hotels. It dawned on me that one of these was ours. Finally we needed Via Torino- Oh Torino! Calm, pleasant Torino, where are you now?- A pretty black woman with a fed up look on her face walked through me. A creepy Italian on the corner gargled something at me. My friend was 10 feet behind. My ears were muffled, they must have changed pressure as we went through a tunnel on our way here and hadn’t popped yet. I didn’t have my glasses on so my vision was slightly blurry. My handbag had no zip to close it. My rucksack was heavy. I suddenly felt 19 years old. When I saw our hotel I was struck with relief and despair at the same time. Our hotel was here. Amongst it all.

The young man at reception told us to leave our passports at the desk whilst we took our bags to our room. I almost said no. When I went back down less than two minutes later he said he’d be another 5 minutes yet so I could go back upstairs. My friend told me to make sure I got the passports back asap, so I said I’d wait. There was a leather sofa in reception that your sweaty body stuck to like Velcro. Three guests, each one alone, passed me to leave the hotel as I sat on the sofa. A middle aged European man, a pretty Italian woman with obviously fake breasts, and a young black guy in a colourful designer shirt. The man who had been on the sofa when we came in was still sitting there next to me, staring silently at his phone. There was no wifi in the rooms. I stared at a mosquito on the wooden reception desk and twisted the key in my hand anxiously. My thoughts raced alone with my heart. Why did he need 5 minutes? It had already been 10. Where has he gone? Has he gone somewhere with our passports? What if he’s scanning them to sell the info to someone? What if we were stopped in Naples airport and couldn’t get home? He gave me back the passports with a sort of disappointed look. I ran back upstairs and voiced my concerns to my friend. She had been silent up until now. She looked mad. She told me she already knew I had booked a terrible hotel from the start. She thought it would be counter-productive to tell me. She told me not to worry, that the reviews said bad area, nice hotel. Her tone was not soothing, her tone was angry, full of ridicule. Her eyes glared, with every word she seemed to judge me. Why was I so afraid really? I felt suddenly overwhelmed with shame and an urge to go and apologise to the man on reception.

For a long time I was too afraid to leave the room. But as the hours started to pass I felt bad wasting the finite time I had left. I decided to leave the room and go back down to reception. I sat on the sofa and used the wifi as the other man had done earlier. I chatted in a little Italian with the receptionist and hummed along to his music, watching him obsessively reclean the shiny desk every five minutes and greet each guest in a friendly manner. The hotel was a lot busier than I first thought. All manner of people are staying here and each one returns in a happy mood. I heard the receptionist speak to people in English, French and Italian. If he realised I mistrusted him earlier he had risen above it. My attempts to speak Italian and nod as he replied too quickly seemed to have made him forgive my prejudice. The streets outside don’t seem so hectic now and people seem perfectly happy to navigate Naples, and via Torino, alone at night, so it can’t be so bad.

I didn’t pluck up the courage to leave the hotel until the next day. It was almost 2pm and my friend still wasn’t awake. We only had 3 days left of our trip. At first I was too terrified to leave on my own. I was used to receiving a free map with all the sites of the city helpfully circled but I didn’t have that here so I started googling things. I wanted a guide for Naples. Inside it had an warning about a man who died in 2011 after thieves on mopeds tried to steal his Rolex. Apparently moped gangs were a common problem. I looked down at my watch and thought about taking it off. Was this a matter of courage? Will courage make it less likely you will have all you money and your passport stolen? Is it worth the risk? Just to see one city? Is it cowardly to stay in your hotel for 3 days? Probably. Will holding on to your bag really tightly make you more of a target or less? Is it all a game of chance you have to play, and no one can help their odds at all? What if I stay in my hotel for 3 days and then when I leave to go to the airport I get robbed and stranded anyway? All my fear and caution was for nothing. How did something so trivial inspire such a deep crisis about the fate, chance and the universe.

In the guide there was a particularly terrifying, or rather ridiculous, bit. I didn’t know quite what to do with the information. It was titled “Signs you are about to be or already have been robbed” Already have been? How is this information useful then? The ‘signs’ are so innocent they will make you absolutely paranoid. “if you’ve just been bumped into, if someone offers you a flower, if someone comes up to you with an empty box, if someone begs, if someone stops to ask you directions with a map, if they are friendly and offer to help you with your bags. Be aware of children playing tig at the train stations and airports” What kind of world do we live in if every nice gesture was now suspect. I’ve stopped to help people on this trip, carried their bags, asked and given directions. I’ve been bumped into more times than I know. I feel like whoever wrote this article was trying to instigate hysteria within me. I felt like everyone in Naples was more trustworthy than this person.

The realisation that I’d succumbed to some bizarre tourist paranoia made me brave. I woke up my friend, told her I was going out and then left. The street seemed a lot clearer today but I still wasn’t confident. I walked quickly, too afraid to hesitate, but soon realised I had no idea where I was going. I finally got free of the polythene sheets but somehow this new area seemed worse. Everyone looked me up and down like I was prey. I followed behind some women and their children, assuming I’d be safe with them, but soon they turned down a residential side street. Dammit. I saw three middle aged French tourists with maps. They must be heading somewhere. They seemed to realise I was following them because they slowed down and fell behind me. Where the hell was I now? There were tram tracks on the street, maybe I should follow them? I came to a big square. There was rubbish lining the streets. A big building was in the middle of the square, it was covered in graffiti all along the bottom, up to the head height of a teenager. The dome I had spotted over the tops of the buildings was a dilapidated old church down an unquestionably dodgy side street. I decided to cross the road. There was a café on the corner full of locals. They looked safe enough; casalingas and a woman reading a book. Plus the young woman with the fan I had followed across the zebra crossing went in there. I had become a stalker in order to feel safe, what irony.

I bought a water and sat down outside. The boy who served me looked at me with a completely blank expression. He was dark skinned, skinny, with slightly protruding teeth. He looked like he had never seen a girl before, and quite frankly never wanted to see one again. I sat outside looking around, trying to figure out where I was. There was a tower in the middle of the road, two in fact, either side of a corner that looked like old city gates or something. There were two main roads and a road sign pointing to a piazza that seemed far away. The waitress put an ashtray on my table. Smoking was a very good idea. The portly man who said ciao to me as I bought my water seemed to be watching me from the doorway. I thought it was strange, so I tried not to make eye contact.

He brought over a tray with a coffee on and asked me a question, I thought he was asking if I wanted one which in hindsight is really not how cafes work, I said okay then and he started putting it down, I realised my mistake and informed him I didn’t order one. The boy yelled at him that it was for the other woman with the book and he went to her instead. But he came back to me after. “But you want one?” he seemed to gesture. “Latte?” he asked. I said “no, caffe” -in the north that means espresso, I hate coffee so if I have to drink it I want it over quickly and with the benefit of some instant caffeine- “But without milk?” he stumbled in English. “Espresso” I said smiling. He seemed surprised but said okay. He came back with an espresso and a glass (an actual glass not a small plastic cup like most places) of water with ice (ice! What a luxury!) in it. There were three different types of sugar. He tried to explain each one but his English was extremely limited. I laughed and thanked him and put ordinary white sugar in my espresso. He stood a little off watching me. He has deep brown eyes and a worried expression on his face. Suddenly there was shouting across the street. Everyone turned to look. The man, who I assume was the owner, took a step forward, so that he was slighting behind my chair, closer to the edge of the street, as if he was getting me behind him protectively. Across the road, a group of scrawny men in ragged clothes were pushing and punching each other. They looked like mangy dogs fighting over a bone. “Very bad” the man said. I agreed. The flailed for a while and then dissipated as the man gossiped with the other customers, still beside my chair. The man paced for a while, he tried to laugh it off with the other customers but I could see he was worried. A worrier knows another worrier. He looked at me, asked me if I was alright and refilled my glass of water. This time sparkling with a slice of lemon.

After hopelessly trying to figure out where I was for ten minutes I gave up and asked my guardian what the street was called. I showed him the half loaded google maps I was trying to navigate with. He fumbled over my phone, constantly correcting himself. He hardly seemed to know. I tried to explain that the map was bad because I had no wifi so I couldn’t search or zoom in too far, but he didn’t seem to understand me either because the concept was alien or my Italian was too bad.

Over the next ten or so minutes he kept coming back to reaffirm or correct his directions. Via Carbanara was there. Chiesa di Santa Caterina a Formiello, qua, pointing to the dilapidated church. That’s via Cesare Rosaroll. I smiled and thanked him again and he finally felt satisfied so he started chatting, or at least he tried. “Inglese?” he said, more a knowing statement than a question. I was happy, he didn’t assume Americana like everyone else. “Du?” he asked. Du? What is du? I looked puzzled. He helped, “Londra…o…” Oh! Like di! Wow Neapolitan wasn’t an accent it was a language. This explains why I couldn’t understand the receptionist or the cleaner who came in to make our beds this morning angry to find us still in them. Surely they must know I’m not going to know the local dialect? But people in Barcelona don’t try and speak Spanish first, and Glaswegians don’t start with standard English so I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s their native language at the end of the day. I tried to explain I was from a small town in the middle England but the word for town, paese, also means country and I just confused him. He understood, I think, when I said “mezzo, mezzo di Inghilterra”. When I asked for the bill he said “un’euro trenta” but when I gave him 1.30 he said okay, okay like I hadn’t given him enough but he was letting me off. That really confused me but I was grateful and didn’t know how to argue. I said ciao, a little sad to leave my sanctuary but he seemed eager for me to get out of this neighbourhood and go back to somewhere more central.

I panicked again at the corner and decided maybe I should keep going rather than turn. I needed to find Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. I kept walking until I saw that the road ahead looked even worse than where I’d come from. Oh god, this was via Casanova. I felt in my gut as soon as I saw via Casanova on my map to stay away from it. Instead of turning back the war I came I panicked and turned in the wrong direction. I used to have such a terrible sense of direction and getting lost in Italy had almost become habit. I came to a street almost empty of people. I felt safer. I took time to look around. Even at 3:30 most things were closed. Rubbish lined the gutters and teenagers professed their love on shop walls. There was a general smell of rubbish and piss. Betting shops were every ten feet, discount clothing stores and the lotto advertised in every tabbachi. I never saw one single betting shop in the North or lotto sign. It reminded me of my home town. I realised the place I came from was as poor and dingy as this and I had survived there for almost 20 years. I began to feel a sort of warmth for this rotten city. Somehow, I ended up on via Ettone Bellini and then Martiri D’Otranto. I really was going the wrong way. I was even more lost than before.

The route I took, I can’t remember. But bakeries began to look fancier and there was less garbage so I took it as a sign I was going the right way. I followed a smart looking middle aged woman for a while but she turned down a side street which had a shrine to Jesus crucified before a park. A sign said “Giardino e Cimiteri di Inglese” I was intrigued but didn’t stop. I saw ‘Garibaldi’ on the top of a bus stop and decided I was on the right track, this must be Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. For once I wasn’t wrong. A colomn with a beautifully serene Mary perched on top with a halo of stars crowning her head, held out her arms to welcome me to safety. I walked down to the very end. Piazza San Carlo III. Ah. There were maps on the street but why look? I knew I had walked the wrong blood way down Garibaldi. I trudged back the way I had came. Mary’s arms now looked like an uncaring shrug. I walked past the toy shop I had seen as a good omen a few minutes before and the bakeries full of tastey cakes. This was obviously the right way. People began to appear, groups of people. I thought I saw the American woman who was walking behind me earlier and I tried to catch up to see- I don’t know why. Then I realised I was back at the corner of via Casanova. I could see the café. I wondered if he’d seem me, trudging, sweating profusely, going in the wrong direction. Suddenly more appeared in front of me. Lots of people, streets sellers, idle people leaning on corners, the train station, via Firenze. I had made it. I felt relieved and safe to be on via Torino again. I may not have seen or done much on my first day in Naples but at that moment I was relieved just to have survived.

Tags: naples, napoli, napoli centrale



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