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27 August 2012

‘The other ambassadors warn me of famines, extortions, conspiracies, or else they inform me of newly discovered turquoise mines, or advantageous prices in marten furs, suggestions for applying damascened blades. And you?’ the Great Khan asked Polo. ‘You return from lands equally distant and you can tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits on his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then of all your traveling?’ Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino.

You arrive at a city called Napoli where the trash is piled as high as your shoulder. Organized crime is to blame, they tell you. Dead birds litter the street and vile-looking dogs skimp about between the zips of mopeds carrying women who clutch babies in one arm and their boyfriend’s back with the other. The streets of Napoli are so black that on narrow streets you must look up to be sure of the sun’s existence. No one looks before crossing these streets, where a discordant symphony of cars and people and mopeds and elderly women dragging shopping trolleys behind them plays in endless repetitions. In Napoli, everyone, everywhere is involved in the fiercest argument you have ever seen, acted out in intense pantomimes. The old men sit on benches in front of shops that sell long, tight rolls of pink sausages, waiting for someone to join them, and the young girls run by in high heels outlined in diamantes.

In Napoli, a city spilling its ugliness right out to the sea, you will also eat the best pizza you have ever tasted and you will vow never to leave this city of traffic exhaust, garbage, and shouting men. The crust is more like naan bread, you think, and it is topped with a sauce so sweet and rich that you begin to ponder on climate and soil types and family secrets because you know this taste cannot be reproduced anywhere else in the world. You will dream of abandoning your family, selling your possessions and signing up for a course at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – the True Neopolitan Pizza Association – to become a pizziola. This is the effect of Napoli, the birthplace of pizza and chaos: it is a city of repulsion and desire.

When you have traveled for five hours from this city, heading north and northeast, you will come to another sea, one lined with perfect cliffs just like the ones you have seen on postcards from exotic places. Its beaches are made of stones so smooth you will lie down on them and feel as though you are swimming in sand. You will fill your backpack with them and insist on carrying them through two airports and all the way back home. At home you will arrange them carefully on a ceramic plate under your window so that you can see them and touch them and be reminded of what it was like to lie on that beach in the pink light of early evening, when smiles appeared without even a thought to precipitate them.

There along the Adriatic, in a town called Sirolo that was built along the beach before the sea became a thing of pleasure, are family-owned beach huts that look like a long row of garages. Painted in pale blues, pinks, and greens, they mark the spot where generation after generation has come to fish and cook their catches. One of them is open and you dare to peek inside where at first you see nothing but a picnic table and a camping stove and an orange and brown bead portieres. Looking more closely you notice a pasta strainer hanging from the wall, and next to it a framed, black-and-white photo of il nonno. This is a place painted so thick with tradition it threatens to smother you, but you are still envious.

By now you know that the special quality of Italy is to be fabulous even when it isn’t: a carpet of ants blackened the floor of the bathroom in your hostel in Pompeii; bees came to drink at the Tuscan farmhouse where you spent a week, and then hid in the grass from unsuspecting bare feet; in the hills outside of Perugia draught and water shortages offered a choice between flushing the toilet or showering just long enough to get wet.

All sins are forgotten, however, when holding a glass of wine made from grapes that grew just at the edge of the garden where you now sit. In the newly darkened sky you gaze at the golden glow of Montepulciano, rising above the vineyards like a crown on a king’s head. You suspect that it cannot be just good wine and good food and good weather that has enamored you with this country. Other countries offer these joys as well. What exactly is is, though, remains Italy’s secret.

Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me. “You may have the universe, if I may have Italy,” wrote Guiseppe Verdi.

In the space of one breath – for that is all it takes – you realize that Italy is the country of all your dreams, both past and future. You know you will travel again, take new vacations to new places, or maybe even return to this very spot next summer. You will always be searching for a way back, not to this place, but to this moment.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 August 2012 13:53


  2. Anne permalink
    27 August 2012 14:06

    Nice! Next year Italy for sure 🙂 !

  3. 27 August 2012 14:41

    A nicely painted portrait of Italia. The pizza alone would be enough for me.

  4. Teresa Owens permalink
    27 August 2012 15:37

    wow, Jena, great content mixed with great writing…..almost more heavenly to read than eating the pizza!

  5. 27 August 2012 18:03

    We spent a week in Cinque Terre this summer, so I know exactly what you mean.

  6. 28 August 2012 01:46

    What a stereotypical description of Naples.

    • 28 August 2012 05:51

      Of course it is, but I was a only a tourist who visited Napoli for 3-4 hours and this is what I saw. It was my first time there and I wish I had seen more of the city because I did not see a single beautiful street or building there. I suppose I entered the city from the wrong end.

      One cannot know a city as a tourist, one must live there, walk its streets every day, look its inhabitants in the eye, and read its newspapers. Marco Polo’s descriptions of Xanadu were probably also terribly stereotypical… but this does not mean that what he saw and described was not true or did not occur.

      I was a tourist. I touched the surface.

      • 28 August 2012 06:04

        On second thought, Marco Polo was certainly the wrong example to use there as he was put in prison for his lies. 🙂

      • 28 August 2012 09:16

        Ok fair enough. I’ll be honest with you, I’m a Neapolitan who is not willing to live in his city. Every time I come back I have to reckon that its downsides are still there. The political class is incompetent and a part of the population can’t keep up with the most basic civic rules. But every time I come back I cannot but notice its everlasting beauty. Did you have the opportunity to have a stroll down the sea promenade? Did you see the castles, which account for centuries of history? Did you see the city from the heights of Posillipo and its Parco Virgiliano, while staring at the blue sea dotted with isles? I bet you did not see the veiled Christ at Cappella Sansevero. I’m sorry but 3-4 hours are really not enough to have an accurate opinion on a city, whatever it be. And having come this consideration from someone who pride herself on being a traveller (I suppose, by having a look at your otherwise interesting blog) and not even a tourist, is not acceptable to me. You were not a tourist, just an occasional wanderer who had a delicious meal in a foreign city.

      • 28 August 2012 09:33

        I can accept your criticism – an occasional wanderer, yes. And no, I did not get to see any of the wonderful places you mentioned, and I regret that. And, uff (as they say in Norway), to be honest, we spent 3 weeks in Italy this summer, but on that day in Naples we were dragging 2 small children around in 37 degree heat and 3 hours with a stop for pizza was all we could manage. Even so, I chose to centre this post on Naples because it remained the place that fascinated me most, even as a wanderer.

        What I intended here was to use Naples (perhaps unfairly) as a microcosm for Italy as a whole: so much to complain about, but so much that I fell in love with. And I was willing to accept all of Italy’s ills for all of its splendor because its splendor is so tremendous. I think this is why people fall so madly in love with Italy, even if our Italy is based on stories and dreams and stereotypes.

        I was also having a bit of fun with trying to describe a city solely from the impressions of one passing through, as Calvino does in “Invisible Cities,” but maybe that connection does not come through well enough. I thought “Invisible Cities” was fitting for this post because it is a book about cities as dreams, about a crumbling empire that is nonetheless beautiful and wonderful when described in the stories of Polo.

        Thank you for your comments – I always appreciate being made to think and rethink and defend (or alter) my positions.

  7. 28 August 2012 08:30

    I loved reading this. Bellissimo!
    I will spend the rest of my day fantasizing about running away to Napoli, eating pizza as it should be made, people watching and wishing I could contribute to the debate, and soaking up red wine in the sunshine.


    • 28 August 2012 08:33

      Thanks, Kimberly. And it’s the last day of the SAS sale! You could go this weekend! 😉

  8. 28 August 2012 09:27

    Ahhhh. . . . although I’ve never been, you captured the description of the dreams of a tourist well.

  9. 28 August 2012 16:46

    I post another comment here following our exchange, for the sake of readability. Your association with Le Città Invisibili was totally appropriate, and even if you didn’t manage to be involved in reading essays and articles on the topic, the assumption of Napoli refecleting in its microcosm the whole Italy’s shortcomings is true as well. What makes me sad is that nowadays tourists only stop in the city for a little while, and then they head for other destinations. A shame because the condition of being a traveller – tourist or wanderer – is the optimal one, because one can enjoy the beauty without being too bothered by the evils. Napoli is a perfect city for a holiday, not for a living. I wish you could come back in the future, it will be a pleasure to show you around. PS Is the pizzeria on the background the “pizzeria del Presidente” or “Sorbillo”? If yes, you chose one of the best. At least you don’t have to come back for a better pizza. Ciao!

    • 29 August 2012 08:46

      I would love to return and see the sites you mentioned earlier. We spent much of those 3 hours terribly lost. But yes, we did eat at Pizzeria del Presidente and I don’t think I will ever be able to eat mediocre pizza again. What Italians get right – consistently right – is translating passion into joy. Thank you for the enjoyable discussion!

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