At 7:15 in the morning on the dot, on a warm June day, a train arriving from Rome stopped at the Stazione Napoli Centrale. I set foot out of it knowing only rumors I’d heard about Naples from Italian friends, and only having seen a couple pictures of the city on the Internet. The air was thick with humidity, and the rising sun announced a hot weather to come. My friends and I began walking towards the center. Soon enough we had left the crowded train station and were walking down littered, deserted streets, where we would only see small groups of locals in old clothes, glaring at our clearly foreign outfits. The streets smelled, and I began feeling a familiar sense of alarm that I had often felt in various Costa Rican cities, but only seldom in a European one. In retrospective, this was the calm before the storm.
Eventually, we reached busier streets, and as time passed more and more people, as well as vehicles, began swarming out. We arrived at a 4-lane main street with a crosswalk right in front of us; however, no car seemed interested in the slightest reduction of speed. We looked closer while we waited to, maybe, get a nice driver who’d stop for these three tourists. We then realized that close to us there was an uncontrolled intersection with 4 lanes perpendicular to the main street, with cars transiting just as fast. As a group of cars crossed the intersection, we began crossing as well. A few cars on the main street managed to cut through anyway and at our sight decided to swerve rather than slow down. After crossing, I began seeing several motorcyclists with no helmet, large construction zones that seemed abandoned and the huge residential buildings with drying laundry covering most of the windows. I began getting an idea of the kind of place I was in.
The trip to Naples had been spontaneous. We had been staying in Tuscany and had already seen both Rome and Florence. After having had nonstop Italian food for over a week, visiting the birthplace of Pizza seemed appropriate. Thus, we decided to stay a night in Rome and part on a daytrip early the morning after, with the main objective of seeking the best pizza we’d ever tasted. Train tickets were relatively cheap, and the ride was only slightly over an hour.
The pedestrian center had a whole different, yet equally muddled aesthetic. We paced down narrow streets between large housing structures, where, at the base, many homes had their doors open, with no one inside; presumably, because there was not much to steal. We reached a major plaza and, finally, we were surrounded by tourists as well as hundreds of street sellers and artists. The lack of care for public infrastructure, the utter disregard for basic laws and the steering-wheel locks in parked cars all pointed towards the poorness and, frankly, the dangers of the city. My feeling of discomfort, however, began to disappear and it slowly turned into an adventurous and curious sensation. Particularly because I was astonished by the city’s disorder that contrasted its ancient richness, seen through its astonishing architecture and monuments, as well as its natural beauty of coasts, mountains and surrounding islands. It felt like Naples fate had taken a wrong turn at some point in its history.
Neapolis, the city’s original name meant new city. It was founded around 600 BC as a Greek settlement and taken over by the Roman empire a couple hundred years later. It changed hands various times during the middle ages, belonging to both France and Spain at separate times, becoming a duchy at one point and eventually joining Sicily to form a kingdom. Considered a powerful city, it was an area of dispute and power for centuries. During the Renaissance, Naples was the home of various celebrated artists, symbolized by monuments, architecture and literature. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the capital began to see trouble: at the time of its unification to Italy. Naples was no longer the capital. For the first 10 years of the Kingdom, it was extremely far from the centralized government, located in Turin first and then in Florence. Massive emigration, government negligence and a cholera epidemic were all factors of the city’s slow fall from grace. To top it off, during the Second World War, Naples was the city to receive most bombs in the country. The city’s postwar recovery was slow and is yet another cause of the city’s present state.
Even understanding the historical background, the city’s environment is something to admire. It gives off the impression that the city was abandoned, and the inhabitants now populate its ruins. The city’s ordered chaos was what I imagined Northern African cities such as Marrakech or Tripoli would look like, and as the day advanced, I wanted more of it. It reminded me of how various American friends had mentioned that visiting Costa Rica gave them a sense of adventure and danger that they didn’t get back home.
Given that I already came from such a place, it hadn’t crossed my mind that visiting other poor/undeveloped (for Western standards) area would give me the same feeling. It definitely did, and, ever since, I’ve been contemplating at the amount of ways of living humans have. The average Neapolitan lives a life of much more insecurity than I have (I haven’t even mentioned the Mafia yet), but what I have been accepting is: that is all that it is, a different way of living. And that was exactly the core of my amazement. The fact that these people’s way of living: dealing with danger, noise, heat and much more was so distant to the way I live my life currently. The trip was a reminder of how most of the world lives in that situation: uncertainty and struggle. Now, knowing that Naples is only the tip of the iceberg, I crave to see more of this, more places, more people, more dangers that show the diversity and the resilience of our species. I crave to see how my fellow human beings deal with the challenges of nature, of ourselves and of everything that we have created.
PS. We most definitely found the best Pizza we had ever tasted in Naples.