(originally written Wednesday, November 29th 2006)
Naples is a shithole of a city.
There, I said it. I should have learned my lesson much earlier but I was seduced this morning by a first class seat from Rome on the Eurostar. Everyone was classy and smooth-looking, so it didn’t hit me that I should take advantage of the amenities that were being offered. You know, things like a fully functioning bathroom. Instead I waited until our arrival, and by then it mean hovering over a seatless toilet, and realizing that a lack of toilet paper would make the entire experience end badly. At least I’d kept the wet-wipe the train stewardess had handed out to the first-class passengers, which kept the trip from being an utter disaster. And so, vowing to burn my boxers when I got home, and listening to broadcasted warnings about pickpockets every thirty seconds, my Naples experience began.
Boarding the Circumvesuviana commuter train that connects Naples and Sorrento (with 34 stops between them), it was a different world than any other train or subway that I’d visited in Italy. On the ride down I’d snapped numerous pictures of the countryside, marveling at the various sights. Here, I was afraid to take my camera out of my pocket for fear of exposure as a tourist. At least with dark buzzed hair, leather jacket, and a Firenze Marathon bag, I could come across as a fellow countryman in a crowd so long as I kept my mouth shut, thus not revealing myself as prey.
On board the train, I watched young toughs with a vague sneer of disinterest on my face, kept half an eye on the hordes of wandering beggars, and desperately wished I could covertly snap a picture of the ever-looming Mount Vesuvius. The two Asian women sitting across from me looked fairly nervous as the Circumvesuviana lurched from station to station, their facial features and skin color making them stand apart from everyone else. I half-expected to see them exit the train with me at Pompei Scavi, or perhaps the lesser attraction of Ercolano Scavi (Herculaneum), but instead I left them to their fate as they rode on the filthy, run-down rail car after I made my escape.
When I returned to the Pompei Scavi station quite a few hours later, I strode up to the ticket seller and firmly stated, “Sorrento.” I had known before I went to the station that Sorrento was the opposite direction of my return trip, but somehow, subconsciously, I couldn’t ask to return to Naples. It wasn’t until I’d sat on the platform for almost 15 minutes that I realized my error. Rather than buy another (correct) ticket and admit my mistake, I merely hopped across the tracks to the other platform and boarded the eventual train to Naples. I therefore cheated the Circumvesuviana of about half a euro, but somehow I didn’t feel so bad about that. After all, I was returning to Naples, that was punishment enough.
Once more in Naples, for several minutes I couldn’t find where the train station’s automated ticket machines were located. “Clearly,” I thought to myself amidst the return of the pickpocket warnings on the intercom system, “this is because someone stole the machines.” It finally turned out that the machines were located in an off-the-beaten-path room, where I discovered I had the choice of leaving Naples immediately for a two-and-a-half hour rain ride (with stops along the way) back to Rome, or I could wait an hour and then take a direct hour-and-a-half train ride back. That’s when I made my second, really bad ticketing mistake of the day. I decided to take the later train and kill an hour by wandering the streets of Naples.
Now I know that it is perhaps not fair to judge an entire city based on one neighborhood. That said? Yuck. What I saw of Naples was run down, filthy, infested with dubious-looking businesses, and—this is the kicker—populated by unhappy-looking Italians. No one wants to be here, it seems. Everyone seems sad about their lot in life, which involves being in Naples.
How depressing must it be to be perpetually surrounded by over a million people who hate where they are? And that, really, is the Naples experience. Nowhere are people standing on the corner and talking, or laughing, or getting a bite to eat. Instead people are charging forward with perpetual scowls on their faces, looking like they’d just seem someone killed in front of them. After a while, it begins to get to you, if the dirt and grime and poor conditions of the buildings hasn’t already.
I was walking by a newsstand and there was a kitten huddled next to it, mewing sadly while everyone ignored it. Now I’d like to say I brought it with me back to Rome and found it a home, but of course I didn’t. The lack of caring, or joy, or basic happiness that permeates Naples had rubbed off onto me. It took me about five minutes to even walk back to the newsstand to get a gift for a friend, because Naples made me hate life.
I ended up only taking one picture of Naples itself. I didn’t really want to remember my trip here, I had told myself. That, and taking out my camera seemed like a quick way to lose it. But alone in a relatively calm section of the city, I ended up snapping my single shot. Looking at the picture now, it’s as I remember it. Featureless, soulless, slightly dirty. Welcome to Naples.
By the time I got on my train I was relieved. I’d left all the garbage and grunge and disdain behind. I ended up closing my eyes and napping for much of the trip. When I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Rome’s Termini station, everything seemed so different. Was it the physical structure of the station? No, it was more than that, I quickly realized. It was that the people in Rome were happy to be there. And so was I.