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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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: Jeff Matthews


Strikes are common occurrences in Italy. Generally, they are not the tooth-and-nail labor/management battles to the death that they are elsewhere. More than anything else, they last a day and are meant to disrupt the economy just enough to provoke some sort of settlement, even if it's just a quick fix. 

Nevertheless, the term "general strike" has an ominous ring to it: factories closed, public transport at a standstill, helmeted and betruncheoned  police holding the line against the onlaught of banner-waving, oppressed workers singing The Internationale in all major and minor keys at the same time, etc. There was a general strike yesterday in Naples.  Yesterday also coincided with one of the "Green Days", those days on which you can't drive your car unless it is equipped with a catalytic convertor. Thus, it was pretty much of a stay-at-home day for me unless I --shudder-- wanted to walk to the post office to pay some bills via the handy postal money-orders that everyone now uses. 

Wait. The post office is a state entity, and postal workers belong to the same great umbrella labor union that just called a strike. Call up first and ask: 

"Yes, most of the post offices are closed, but we're open here. We don't belong to that union." 

Good news -- the post office is open. Bad news -- everyone else in Naples will be in line trying to pay bills in that one post office . Even worse, they will all be driven to some ecstatic degree of consumer rage by the fact that they have to walk to the one open post office in the neighborhood and wait an hour in line. I take a chance. (A fistfight with a queue-jumper in the post-office is a small price to pay.) I walk into the post office and it is absolutely Twilight Zone empty. The only one in the building is Post Office Lady behind the glass window -- and she might be an alien. I carefully step around the crop circle in the middle of the floor, walk over and pay my bills in no time flat. 

(later that evening). The TV says that the strike was only a partial success since it was boycotted by two other big labor unions. Nevertheless, in spite of my success at the post-office, I went for a forced march in the afternoon because there wasn't even one-third of scab strike-breaking bus to be seen anywhere. 

Russo, Ferdinando

I came across a short selection of items by Ferdinando Russo (1866-1927), a Neapolitan journalist primarily remembered today as a dialect poet and composer of song lyrics. In any event, the small volume is called La Camorra, and the five separate items in the book appeared as separate articles from January to May of 1897  in il Mattino, still the largest Neapolitan daily newspaper. 

“Camorra” is the Neapolitan name for the local version of the Mafia (itself, really a Sicilian term). The articles were meant somewhat as an expose of the life-style of organized crime in the Naples of the day. The first one is called: Le Donne dei Camorristi (Women of the Camorra). Here is some of that article [the translation is mine]: 

Mothers and wives are most often the victims of these picturesque scoundrels. These women are brutally exploited in every possible way. Dominated -- I dare say “hypnotized—by their own sons and husbands, these unhappiest of women are put through great hardship and sacrifice.

The mothers, of course, are much less scorned and ill-treated than the wives. You know that from the very songs you hear improvised in bars and prisons, the really true folk music –of the people. In that brand of intensely sentimental, but sincere, music, they only sing about two kinds of women: mothers and lovers. Find me just one song about a wife! – I mean a real song, not one of these ditties turned out by paid hacks for the music festival of Piedigrotta. No, wives are held in lower esteem – and this is no exaggeration--  than women sold at Arab slave markets. Mothers, on the other hand, have their little delicate, sentimental niche in the hearts of these cynical scoundrels.

Recent plaque to Russo at the entrance to the port of Naples
Russo goes on to cite, in Neapolitan dialect, a few popular verses in which camorra jailbirds sing the praises of  their wives and lovers on the outside. As for the lovers, themselves: 

It is impossible to describe the enormous power of these vile creatures, so bound as they are to their vampires, how these witches will even cynically commit crimes just to please their masters. The more they are abused and beaten by men, the more they come to view such treatment as a natural sign of love; that is their understanding of tenderness. They are not sure of being loved unless that love is shown to them in its own very special way – with a club or a razor… The man who doesn’t beat them is destined to betray them – that is how they feel. They laugh at such a fool and go on to the next lover. ‘A man has to be a man,’ I heard one of these pathetic creatures say, as she talked enthusiastically of her new lover, who beat her, and heaped scorn on the head of the man she had just left – one who never touched a hair on her head.

The last paragraph is given over to the long-suffering wife as she witness from afar the other women taking gifts and food into the prison for the husband: 

And the poor wife –-who has been unable to scrape together anything for her husband— watches forlornly from a distance, through the gates, not daring to approach for fear of the insults. She bears the sight of the other woman walking in like a queen to console him with her gifts, the results of a week of her own shame and humiliation.

Motorcycles (1)

The son of the mechanic who works on my car got in a traffic accident the other day. Nothing serious, but he did spend the night in the hospital for observation because of a minor concussion. He went off his motorcycle and into a car. Of course, he was not wearing a helmet -- this in keeping with the proud skull service that Neapolitans pay to their well-known streak of suicidal anti-authoritarianism. My own unscientifc surveys (I stand on the corner and count) show that only about half of those who ride on scooters and motorcycles bother to wear helmets. 

One of the most popular TV programs in Italy is Striscia la notizia. It does everything from poking fun at Freudian slips of the tongue by newscasters to exposing corruption involving the black market sale of residence permits to illegal immigrants. Periodically, they dwell on the fact that so few two-wheeled motorists in Naples (and Palermo, where the situation is even worse) wear helmets. (They even have a few choice video clips of motorcycle cops (!) down here cruising around bareheaded. 

Sisters of Calcutta, Charity (1)

My friend, Bill, and I never cease to be amazed (itself, an unfortunate comment on the human condition) at the presence of absolute goodness. When we grow weary of reading about car-bombs, snipers and other aberrant human behavior, we drop by the Sisters of Calcutta mission hidden away in a non-descript little church on via dei Tribunali in the old city.

We went there to find Ernesto, an elderly ex-merchant seaman who finished his days there. He was destitute and blind -- and totally well-taken care of by these sisters who carry on the work of Mother Theresa.  They hustle around, chirping out orders in their delightful little butterfly accents, pushing men out of the way who are eight times their size, getting food distributed, bed linen changed, furniture moved, tending to the ill and all the other things one has to do to care for those who simply have nowhere else to go.

At times, they also take over what should be in the hands of the social services in a city of two million. Last Christmas, I dropped by and they were serving a holiday meal to 500 Ukranian refugees, most of whom were young and healthy. The sisters are helped out by a great number of Neapolitan teenagers who pop by to sort clothes, make gift parcels, run errands, etc. 

(The bust of Mother Theresa shown in the photo is on via Tasso.)

Busses (1)

I saw an item on the internet this morning about the psychological profile of astronauts and the mental toughness (if that is the proper term) it will take to put up with even 5 or 6 people you generally get along with -- when that "getting along" has to occur on a 3-year mission to Mars in a cramped space not much bigger than a few rooms in your house. One Russian space veteran said that conditions like that "are a recipe for homicide". One of the abilities required will be  that of "alert withdrawal" into someplace inside you own head --turn off the outside world for a while, including the presence of that flight-engineer with the annoyingly nasal voice-- yet remain tuned in to potential problems that might arise. 

The other solution is to learn to redirect your hostilities to Mission Control. Get your anger off the space-craft and aim it back where it belongs, at the incompetent puppet-master nincompoops who sent you up here in the first place. So, (1) meditative calm, and (2) blame everything on people who are far way. 

The best candidates for such a task are Neapolitan bus-drivers. I have never seen "road rage" in a bus-driver here. Believe me, it is frustrating at times to realize that you are the only person in this city who really knows how to drive, and that you are surrounded by maniacs, most of whom are out to get you. When you are stuck in a traffic jam here (which is much of the time), you feel like a lobster trapped in that  tank in the restaurant, tapping your tied-shut little crustacean pincers uselessly against the inside of  the glass, just waiting for that fat guy at the corner table to point at you and say to the waiter, "That's him. That's the one I want. Kill him." 

At that point, you look up to the front of the bus and the driver has a "ho-hum" expression on his face. He is on some inner Elysian field, idling his mind and engine at the same time. No rage. No beating on the horn. Nothing. Just alert withdrawal, accompanied, no doubt, by thoughts of those really responsible for all this -- the city government or perhaps the mechanic who forgot to fix the brakes on the bus last night. 

Snob club

The paper reports that a group calling itself by the English name "Snob Club" is going to convene at one of the most exclusive hotels along via Parthenope, the seaside road at Santa Lucia near the Castel dell'Ovo. These ridiculous people are going to eat truffles and then --ready?-- shine their shoes with champagne. 

I know two things about truffles: 

1) intelligent German shepherd dogs, yes, may dig them up on a direct order --but they won't eat them ("Pee-yuuu! You must be kidding. There's your truffle, maestro. Gimme a biscuit.) (This, as opposed to stupid pigs, which have to wear snout rings to stop them from devouring the profits.) 

(2) Rossini once called truffles "the Mozart of mushrooms". What can I say? I still like The William Tell Overture. 

I know nothing about shining shoes with champagne, but I am tempted to go down there anyway just to hear these people mispronounce the name of their own club as "znob". This is in keeping with the rules of Italian phonology. (Such rules in your native language operate when you try to pronounce a foreign language. That's why you have an "accent".) In Italian, phonetic assimilation requires that voiced consonants such as "n" be preceded only by other voiced sounds. Thus, an "s" -- normally pronounced as the unvoiced sibilant ("sssssss") becomes voiced ("zzzzzzz"). I realize that if you majored in  ceramics or automotive repair, all this  may be of little interest to you. 

Advertising (1)

billboard adAt times I have taught a college course in The Language of Advertising. I think, however, that it is swiftly becoming a foreign language to me. Many of the billboard ads near my house are so graphically striking that they distract from the product name -- surely a mistake from the advertiser's point of view. 

A delightful example is the one in the photo (left): an infant is nursing at a huge orange that has been graphically stylized to look like a mother's breast. I didn't remember whether it was an ad for milk or orange juice. Now that I look again, it's neither one. It's selling yougurt.

Some of the ads are overtly pornographic. There is no subtle double-entendre in that ad of the woman kneeling astride an ecstatic man and about to descend to do what comes naturally usually only on Neapolitan television stations at 1.30 in the morning (or so I have heard). It is just one big clumsy single entendre Yet, I don't remember what those two are selling. (If I remembered, though, I'd probably buy it.) 

I saw one yesterday that showed a dismembered mannequin -- torso here, leg over there, head off to the side. All the body parts were nude, as if they were lying there waiting to be pieced together in a department store show window. And I don't remember what I am now supposed to be convinced enough to go out and buy. Glue? Body parts? 


A recent letter to editor in il Mattimo expresses outrage at the fact that city fathers of Ottaviano, near Naples, want to open a Camorra museum. ("Camorra" is the Naples Mafia.) What are they supposed to display, the writer asks-- photos of blood-stained victims? Bullet-proof vests? A list of all the poor people who still have no idea what has happened to their family members? Is this the kind of phony romantic rubbish you want to impress upon the minds of young people who visit such a museum? The politicians, he says, have confused the "Camorra" with the "Carbonari", indeed another secret society, but one of the most important movements in the history of modern Italy. 

When the Neapolitan Republic fell in 1799, absolutism returned to the Kingdom of Naples with a vengeance. The restored Bourbon monarchy punished the "traitors" severely and infamously and went about 18th-century business-as-usual in the new 19th century. The monarchy was again overthrown in 1806 by Napoleon, who installed his relatives as king --first, his brother and then his brother-in-law, Gioacchino Murat

The subsequent 10-year French rule was, by most accounts, an improvement over the Bourbon monarchy, but it was still an absolute monarchy (held in place by the French) and, in spite of an Italian king, Murat, still very much rule by a foreign power. It is during this period that liberal ideas of representative government and eventual freedom from foreign rule went into hiding in the form of the "carbonari", a secret society whose goal was to obtain constitutional liberties for the kingdom. 

When Ferdinand returned to the throne in 1815, his kingdom was a nest of carbonari --active and, in some case, armed cells of people from all walks of life --  military officers, landlords, nobility, priests, and peasants. They took the name "carbonari" from the trade of charcoal-burning, practiced in Calabria, Abruzzi and Campania. They were divided into Masonic-type lodges and had typically secret rituals, titles, in-group signs of recognition, and an entire vocabulary --a code-- taken from the charcoal trade.  Their flag was red, white and black, a banner that remained the symbol of liberal revolution in Italy until replaced by red, white and green in 1831, colors still used today on the Italian national flag. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, they grew in strength and were the focal point of the 1820 revolution that for a time, at least, succeeded in wringing a constitution out of the autocratic Bourbon ruler, Ferdinand I. 

The uprising of 1820 in Naples seemed successful at first. In spite of ruthless measures to eliminate the secret society, Ferdinand was faced with the fact that his own armed forces were honeycombed with carbonari. In July 1820 a military mutiny broke out at Caserta and the king was forced into conceding a constitution for his kingdom, one modeled on the single-chamber body of the Spanish constitution of 1812, itself the product of a revolution. 

A situation of liberal-revolutionaries in open hostility against the state and then forcing  constitutions on kings was not what the Congress of Vienna had been about (in 1815 it had ended the Napoleonic interlude by restoring the old order in most of Europe) . A new Congress was convened in Troppau in 1820 to deal with the crisis. It essentially gave the King of Naples the authority to seek aid from Austria. He left Naples after swearing an oath to the constitution, hastened to the Austria of his old Hapsburg in-laws (his first wife Caroline was a daughter of the empress Maria Theresa) and returned with a 50,000-man army to put down the rebellion. They were met by a Neapolitan force of 8,000, which they defeated at Rieti on March 7, 1821. A few days later the King returned to Naples in triumph --at the head of an Austrian army. He dismissed parliament and tore up the constitution. The inevitable trials of "traitors" ensued, followed by the inevitable executions shortly thereafter. It is from this date that a constant foreign presence in Naples --either the Austrian army or Swiss mercenaries-- was necessary to support what had become the last bastion of absolutism in Europe. 

During the 1830s, carbonarist activity spread to Piedmont, Lombardy, Parma, Modena, Romagna and the Papal States.  It even attracted foreigners who had taken up the cause of Italian unity: Lord Byron, for one. It is for this identification with the cause of national unity that the carbonari are historically seen as the forerunners of the Risorgimento, the mid-19th-century movement to unify Italy, generally seen as starting in earnest with the revolution of 1848. 

From the revolution of 1820 to the fall of the Kingdom of Naples in 1860, the Bourbon rulers proved singularly inept at dealing with the forces of liberalism other than through outright suppression. Bourbon absolutism held the line in 1821, again in the great revolution of 1848, and was only undone in 1860 when the kingdom fell to the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi

Camaldoli, monasteries (2)
There are still a number of monasteries in Naples, places of seclusion that will take you as a paying guest for a few days and let you seek your Self. One of the most tempting of such places is The Hermitage of Camaldoli (photo, left). It sits on the hill in back of Naples at the highest point in the city, between Vesuvius and the Flegrean Fields. It was built in 1585 by the Camaldolese congregation of Montecorona on the site of an earlier church. The large altar in the church is the work of Cosimo Fanzago, and there are numerous prized paintings by such artists as Fracanzano and Giordano. The Hermitage is still a ‘working’ monastery. There is a part, however, where visitors are received and the gardens overlooking the city to the south are on occasion open to the public.   

Whenever I mention that I would like to spend some time there, those who know and love me (not necessarily the same group of people) usually look up and say, "What's a river in South America with six letters beginning with L?" 

Yet, I often dream of showing up there some morning. First, I imagine preparing my Soul Searching and Enlightenment survival kit. I can't go into this thing unprepared: 

-Laptop computer: check. 
-Portable multi-system TV/VCR: check. 
-Supply of SEAL Team training videos: check.
-Global Positioning System receiver, providing latitude, longitude, UTM and OSGB: check.
-Rappelling Harness, featuring two forged steel attachment rings proof-loaded at 5,000 pounds: check.
-Portable dead-bolt, requiring no tools and installing in seconds to any exterior or interior standard door and withstanding up to 1,700 pounds of pressure-- (even those of you with marginal SAT math scores can see that "up to 1,700 pounds" could also mean three pounds): check.
-Survival Straw, a highly efficient drinking system that removes harmful bacteria, chlorine, pesticides and water-soluble heavy metals from at least 4,000 gallons of water: check.
-A box of cigars: check. 

About the cigars --I don't smoke them, but I'm not sure about the monks. My view of monks was forged in the crucible of Eugene Pallette's (photo) great portrayal of Friar Tuck in the 1938 Warner Bros. epic, The Adventures of Robin Hood.  He was a pretty swashbuckling guy; he drank wine, ate mutton (whatever that is) and cudgeled lots of heads according to the medieval monastic dictum that it better to cudgel first and ask questions later. (WHAM! "Are you saved, my son?") Thus, if they had had cigars in Friar Tuck's day, he would have smoked them. 

Now, some of you spiritual sluggards  may think that monkdom is one monolithic flying wedge of undifferentiated belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Well,  the statement, "When acid is added to an aqueous solution, the pH rises," is further from the truth, but that is neither here nor there —though it might be somewhere else.) 

As a matter of fact,  different monastic orders say truly catty things about one another. For example, Benedictines may tell you that Franciscans drink too much; Franciscans may tell you that Dominican choirs don't sound much better than Little Richard (or, Parvus Ricardus,  as they put it); the Carthusians, of course, invented the color charteuse, "But what have they done for us lately?” ask most other monastic orders. Trappists, of course, don't talk about other monks because Trappists have taken a vow of silence, which they break only once a year to complain about the incessant racket of  sandals shuffling in the abbey corridor. And no one has anything good to say about a cappuccino whipped up by a Capuchin friar (though the Capuchin monkey, cebus capucinus, native to Central and South America, is said to brew a pretty tasty cup of Java, which is nowhere even near Central or South America). 

Also, no one bad-mouths the Jesuits, because they are the Bad Dudes on the monastic block —lean, mean, intellectual Soldiers of the Faith. Attila the Nun may have whacked you across the knuckles with a ruler for stumbling on, "How much is eight times seven," but a Jesuit will drop-kick you off the triforium for hesitating on, "Quick, what is the exception to Aquinas'  idea that  all beings are composed of potential and actual principles?" (Hint: Don't say fifty-six.) (Note to myself: add a multi-purpose Jesuit Army Knife to my survival kit; the Inquisition blade, alone, makes a Swiss Army Knife look like Lichtenstein. 

So, one morning, I show up at the door of the monastery and summon a monk with an enormous knocker. (Yes, a mutant sporting a misplaced modifier)... 

That is the point in my dream where I usually awaken. 

Euro, the (1)

The only people not complaining about the change from the lira to the euro seem to be those who make a living from tips. In the days of the lira, it was common practice to leave a 100 lire coin—or 200, at most—as a tip for a coffee in the mornings at the local cafe. The equivalent of 100 lire, today, is the itsy-bitsy copper 5-cent coin. The 10-cent coin is a bit better; at least it is bronze and shiny. Nevertheless, it now quite common to see people leaving the next highest denomination, the 20 cent coin. That is a substantial increase in the average tip. No one wants to be seen plopping down paltry combinations of 1, 2 and 5-cent coins. Just leave 10 or 20. So far, the only use I have seen for the 5-cent coint, by itself, is in coin-operated lifts. Some apartment buildings, outrageously, make you pay to get up to your own flat. The excuse is that it keeps kids from riding up and down all day long for free and fun. 

Those hustling at street corners—selling packs of tissues or cleaning the windshield of your car—used to charge (or expect) one-thousand lire, the lowest denomination of paper money. It was a handy and a reasonable price. It is equivalent to 50 new cents, a handy coin, but one that most people don't seem to like. There is a tendency to view the shiny €1 coin as the new unit for that type of quick service. The guy with the squeegee doesn't demand €1, true, but looks crossways at you if you give him 50 cents ("Why, you cheap so-and-so"). So, you cave in and give him twice as much as you used to. The general complaint is about so–called “micro-inflation,” referring to the blatant “rounding up” of prices. Stores converted the old lire price to euros, came out with, say, €1.87, and rounded it up to €2. In some cases, there seems to have been a doubling of prices: that is, a service that used to cost 100 thousand lire now costs €100, twice as much—but it looks the same, and that is the deception involved. I complained about this to a plumber. "That's double what it used to cost in lire," I said. "We don't use lire, anymore," he said, as if that true statement were some sort of explanation. The phenomenon is apparently Europe-wide. Germans commonly refer to the "euro" as the "teuro," a pun on "teuer," the German word for "expensive". 

I was very optimistic at the time of the change-over. I knew that things were bad in the Balkans, in Chechnia, and in many other places I couldn’t spell, but, on the bright side, at least in my part of the world—central Europe—peace and tranquillity had finally reared their cute little heads. Yes, traditional enemies still sneered at each other’s total lack of morals and personal hygiene, but, on the other hand, they now swarmed over former enemy territory only on peaceful duty–free shopping binges. Tribal massacres were still found at football matches, sure, but that was ok, because that was a lot better than it had ever been. In short, things had not been so quiet here since everyone was killed in the Thirty Years War. United Europe, then, was at hand. The flag was up and flapping, the Chunnel was in, and the national anthem, though, not official, seemed to have gone by default to the happy snappy Ode to Joy with music by Ludwig van Beethoven and text by Friedrich Schiller—not exactly Rodgers and Hart, but not bad. 

There was even a common language called ‘money’—the €— and everyone was in a hurry to learn lots of it real fast. The goal, then, was economic union—one big prosperous family earning and spending the same currency. Make it in Sicily, spend it in Copenhagen. (That might have to wait until Denmark decides to convert to the euro.) For a while, before the changeover, the main problem was what to call the new currency. ‘Ecu’ (European Currency Unit) was an early solution—and a terrible one.  I wouldn’t be caught dead spending anything as ugly as an ‘ecu’, maybe because it sounds too much like ‘eco–’, as in ‘ecology,’ or ‘eco–this’ and ‘eco–that’. I’m not ready for European financial puns on ‘ecu–logical disaster’. 

On the other hand, the Germans are said to have loved ‘Ecu’ since it sounded exactly like ‘Eku’, the name of one of those potent German beers, which can really devalue the inside of your skull. The French were happy with Ecu, too, since it sounded a lot like ‘ecu’, the word for an archaic French coin. Other candidates around Europe, were—not surprisingly—the Euromark, Eurolira, Europound, and Eurofranc. Or we might have fallen back on archaic terms: the Eurothaler, Eurodoubloon or Eoroducat—or maybe exotic currencies such as Euroyen. Now, that had a ring to it, as did another of my favorites, the Eurosemolian, or the slangy but catchy Eurobuck, Euroquid and Eurosmacker. I recall that my childhood heroes on Space Patrol solved a similar problem with something called a "Galactic Credit." That might have worked.