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© 2004 Jeff Matthews & napoli.com

Around Naples in English

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In "Kant's Problems with Ugliness," the author argues that Kant's attempt in the third Critique to overcome the gulf between the realms of nature and freedom, by showing that the natural or phenomenal world is receptive to the efficacy of pure practical reason, is incompatible with the existence of ugliness…This argument, I suggest, rests on a failure to recognize Kant's distinction between aesthetic and teleological reflective judgment, and evinces a misunderstanding of the complex and delicate relationship which Kant constructs on the one hand and morality on the other. (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 50:4 Fall 1992

leonardo sketchI couldn't agree more. Or maybe I couldn't disagree more. Anyway, it got me thinking about 'ugly'. I didn't grow up with the concept of 'ugly'. 'Beautiful,' yes: so and so was "good looking," "beautiful," "handsome," etc. , but we never called people "ugly". Negative adjectives usually referred to personality rather than physical appearance. Thus, a handsome guy could still be a 'jerk' or 'creep,' and my middle-aged feel for more recent coinages such as 'nerd' and 'dweeb' tell me that the same is true of them. I wasn't truly made aware of 'ugly' until I moved to Naples. 

A short time after I barreled my lock and stock into a rather large Neapolitan extended family, I ran into one of my extensions on the cable car. I knew he was a relative becauseI had met him at a family outing, but I really had no idea exactly who he was. Keeping track of my in-laws is an exercise in kinship anthropology of Dostoyevskian proportions. (You will recall that Sergei's second cousin's niece's sister, Anna, whose grandmother's stepbrother, Maxim, is really the bastard son of Lt. Kasov's uncle, has been using her maiden name ever since page 445, just to keep you on your toes.) Anyway, (you can get off your toes, now —or at least get off mine) he (my relative, not Dostoyevsky—pay attention!) recognized me and called me by name, but I couldn't place him.  When I reported the incident to my wife, she asked: "Who was it?" 

"I don't know." 
"Well, what did he look like?" 
"Hair, arms, legs, the usual things. Nice little guy. Getting along in years. Very amiable." 
"Was he ugly?" 

Was he ugly?!  Now, that was the first time in my life that I had ever heard that question! Forget Caucasian male, medium build, receding hairline, aquiline nose,  high cheekbones, lantern-jawed, almond-eyed, brachycephalic, identifying marks, scars or tattoos. Why, yes, officer, I can describe the suspect exactly: he was ugly! How ugly was he? Well, I'll tellya! Why, he was so ugly …(cue the drummer for a rim-shot)  …we didn't know if that was his face or whether his neck simply had a bad case of acne! (ka-bam!)  Why, his mother used to put a sack over her own head when she breast-fed him! (ba-boom!) She tried putting one over his head once, too, but she got arrested for bag abuse! (ba-da-boom!) Why, he was so ugly, he looked in a mirror once and he broke!  (Forget it. Shoot the drummer.) 

"Huh?" I answered.  "I don't know." 
"What do you mean, you don't know. Either someone is ugly or he's not!" 

When my wife found out from the family grapevine (a Beaujolais-sized vineyard, really) who I was talking about, she couldn't believe it. 

"How can you possibly say he's not ugly?! He's the ugliest one in the whole family!" 
"But…," I sputtered, "…you just can't say that about someone!" 
"Why not? It's not his fault, just like it's not someone else's merit to be good-looking. God got distracted and let the clay sit too long, that's all." I was relieved to know that when you're working with hydrous aluminum silicates, even He is not perfect. 

Indeed, in  Naples, as in much of the world, 'ugly' is no big deal. Leonardo did some of his most marvelous sketches of ugly persons (illustration, above). Ghandi was ugly. Mother Theresa was ugly. Gorillas are ugly—big lovable cuddly creatures who would share their last banana with you. But they're ugly. And so what. 

Bureaucracy, getting by

There are many ways to "arrangiarsi" or "get by" in this part of the world. In the film Caffè Express, with Nino Manfredi, the main character wanders the corridors of an express train selling coffee illegally. He prepares the coffee at home, puts on his  homemade uniform, gets on the train and goes to work, always staying a step ahead of the conductor. Much Neapolitan humor deals with this figure of the 'survivor,' the one who will do anything to make a living. Wait -- not anything. The true Neapolitan survivor will not steal. That is undignified and carries no honor or sense of achievement with it. The real 'survivor' offers a service or a product. Those who offer—perhaps a bit forcefully at times—to wash the windshield of your car while you're stopped in traffic are an example, as are the vendors of kleenex and cigarettes. They are at the bottom of the list in terms of creativity, however. 

A better example would be Massimo Colatosti, who may have been be the only person in the world  to wish for monster traffic jams every morning when he awakened, and who had a very good  job until cell phones became so common. Massimo wandered from car to car offering cell phone service to those who were  stuck in traffic and who needed to make a call.  Apparently, he was a gentleman and didn't charge if the caller was ill and had to make an emergency call. On the other hand, if it was just young lovers who wanted to whisper sweet nothings, Massimo  charged them sweet somethings. He charged men more than he charged women. The true survivor is nothing if not chivalrous. 

There is another kind of job that is necessary—but shouldn't be. It's not a street corner job, either. There are respectable little offices called "agencies". The sign in the window tells you they take care of driving licenses, birth certificates, residence papers, this document, that paper, etc. etc. If, for example, you need a document to attest to the fact that you have no criminal record, you can go in there, pay some money and come back a few days later to find your papers all in order and waiting for you. But, you say, couldn't you do that yourself just by going to the appropriate office at the City Hall?  Yes—if you want to stand in line. If you wander into the city hall or police station or hall of records looking for just  the right wayward scrap of paper with your name on it—well, you can kiss the whole day "good-bye". The bureaucracy in Naples is Byzantine; indeed, the Greeks invented Catch-22 (You can't do A before you do B; but in order to do B, you have to show that you have done A). Pythagoras, himself, is said to have been trying to prove that there was a number between 21 and 23. Maybe the Neapolitan version has to do with the still proud attachment that Naples has to its Greek roots and traditions, or maybe it's just that everyone needs a job. This is one more way to "get by". You are essentially paying an outrageous amount of money to "queue standers". That's all they do. They put in the time so you don't have to. 

They make a good living, too. I understand that it is even a profession passed on from father to son, just as were the noble trades of yesteryear: the silversmith, the carpenter, the luthier—and, now, the guy who waits in line. "Yes, my boy," says Father (sweeping his arm out in a grand gesture to show his son the 432 people in front of them in the queue), "some day, all this will be yours." 

Christmas (2)--the Wishing Tree

Well, the stolen "wishing tree" has been found, and all is well once again in the Galleria Umberto. As noted in another entry, the tradition of the Christmas tree is a relatively recent one in southern Italy, yet it is already an established practice to erect one or two of them in the gallery. They then become not just Christmas trees, but "wishing trees" -- that is, people write wishes on slips of paper and put them in the branches of the tree. This is in keeping with an age-old similar ritual with religious statues and some monuments in the city. When they restored the statue in Piazzetta Nilo some years ago, a number of such scraps of paper were found wedged in the cracks. 

This year, a local businessman, Antonio Barbaro, donated two 25-foot silver pines to the gallery. The other night, one of them was snatched away at midnight by a band of a dozen kids who hauled it two blocks away into the rough Spanish Quarter of the city. They cops found the tree a few hours later and called Barbaro. He said it had just been a prank by some teenagers who wanted a Christmas tree. "Leave it there," he said. "I grew up in that quarter. They have some wishes of their own to put in the tree." He replaced the tree in the gallery. 

Yesterday I stood at the tree in the Gallery reading the wishes. Some of the slips of paper are addressed to "Babbo Natale"—Father Christmas. Some are to "Baby Jesus". Almost none of them are for personal gain—no "please give me a motor scooter" sort of thing. Many of the wishes are broadly benevolent—peace in the world, no war, make next year better than this one, etc. Some are simple, personal and heart-rending—"Please make my mother well again."  One was delightful: "We're in love and don't need anything else, but thanks anyway!" One was outrageously alien to the spirit of the season: "Please kill Berlusconi [the Prime Minister of Italy] and get Naples back in the 'A League' [the top division in Italian soccer]." 

After the holidays, the "best" wishes will be printed in book format and sold. This year, the proceeds will go to a fund to combat genetic disease. 

Smorfia; luck (good & bad) (1); dreams (1)

I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair. —Stephen Foster

Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and behold, the sun and  the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. — Joseph

"La smorfia"  is a book that details the Neapolitan tradition of interpreting dreams by associating them with numbers and then betting those numbers in the state lottery, Lotto. Whether your dreams run to the songs of Stephen Foster, or the Book of Genesis, "la smorfia"  may be the way to finally pan some true nuggets from your nightly rivers of surrealism. 

Traditional dream themes in la smorfia cover everything from water to death to dawn to money, sex, trips, birds, blood, accidents, family, food and any  change, twist or perversion of the human condition you could possibly—well, dream up. Most Neapolitans on the street know at least a few numbers of la smorfia. If you dream of God or Italy, then play number 1; an insane person is 22; if you are frightened by a dream, bet 90. 

It is technically permitted to play a single number, but the payoff from the tightwad state is so paltry that most people look for secondary interpretations in their dreams. Instead of playing simply 90 for "fear", imagine that you dream of being frightened by  an insane person. Then you play  both 22 and 90.  If—follow closely—you are badly frightened by an insane person carrying a bowl of soup (68), then  the Cosmic Numbers Runner is trying to tell you to bet the farm on all three of those numbers. 

Each week in ten Italian cities, the lotto drawing selects at random five numbers from one to ninety.  Betting two numbers is called ambo; it pays off at 250 times your original bet.  You can bet on  three numbers, terno; four, quaterna  or all five, cinquina. These pay off, respectively,  4,250 times, 80,000 times, and one million times whatever you bet. So, if you decided to plunk down one euro (about one US dollar), a normal wager, on your hot terno of 22, 68 and 90, and those three are among the five drawn, you win €4,250. There are various possibilities for splitting your bet and even for playing the lotto numbers in other cities. There is a limit to the amount you are allowed to bet on a cinquina, but most people with a "sure thing" simply play different tickets. The tickets are anonymous and no one will know that the measly €5 you had riding on the cinquina revealed unto you in that dream …you remember… when she did that thing with the… and you were… right, that dream —no one will know about that million to one payoff until you back your truck up to the bank. 

If you have ever really  dreamed of Jeannie with the light brown hair, you have a few options open to you, depending on just what she is doing: dancing, 37;  crying, 21; riding a bicycle, 79.  If your dream is so true to song that she is, indeed, "tripping where the bright streams play," then you may have to do some fancy interpretation, but that's half the fun. Dreaming of a woman's hair, however, is a 55, so, again, you have at least an ambo. Joseph's dream would certainly be regarded as portentous. It requires knowing the numbers associated by popular tradition with stars, the sun, bowing down, etc. There is  a good terno in there. 

One expects to find all the eternal themes of love, death, family, etc. represented in folklore, but it's amazing how quickly popular tradition updates itself. When the great soccer star, Diego Maradona, was playing for Naples, and he happened to dribble through one of your dreams, he was a 43, because 1 (God) plus 42 (football player) equals "a God of a player," ("nu dio 'e giocatore"), as they say in Naples. 

You'll have a hard time convincing thousands of years of tribal shamans and decades of our own domestic headshrinkers that dreams are meaningless. To centuries of Neapolitans, as well, they are anything but. So if you're curious about that dream of the clarinet falling on and killing your canary —sure, it might be nothing: maybe you just turned over too quickly last night and knocked some of the pictures off the walls in your head, that's all. On the other hand, it might mean  50 (clarinet) and  90  (dead canary), in which case you're in business. Sweet dreams. 

Neapolitan language

If you have studied Italian formally,  you probably recognize this: 

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smaritta..."

That is, of course, the opening  of Dante's Divina Commedia. It is one of the most famous passages in all literature and if you still remember it, you don't need me to tell you what a gentleperson and scholar you are. You also don't need me to point out to you the exquisite uselessness of that passage—in spite of the fact that it mentions being lost—when you're trying to find the main train station in Naples, for then you may find yourself having to deal with so-called 'non-standard' Italian, a dialect. 

In Naples you are surrounded by the sounds of  an ancient, rich, bawdy, colorful language, one of the most  interesting tongues still wagging anywhere in Italy and one which  to the ears of puzzled newcomers seems to have only peripherally  to do with the national language. 

Discussions of language bog down in questions of "language" vs.  "dialect".  It's  like the difference between "cult" and "religion". A religion is a cult with political power, and  similarly, as Latin splintered  along with the Roman Empire, the pieces—dialects—became  "real" languages when the people who spoke that particular brand of vulgate Latin got enough clout to declare that theirs was the official language of the area they lived in. The reason we have Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French is that we first had Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. Until the unification of Italy in the last century the  Latin "splinter"  spoken in Naples was the language of the Kingdom of Naples. When Naples became part of the Kingdom of Italy, the language was relegated to being "just" a dialect, because the new official language of united Italy was based, for various literary, historical and political reasons on Tuscan, the central Italian dialect of Dante. 

Typical Neapolitan  expressions are: "Tiene 'a capa sulo per spartere 'e rrecchie!"  Roughly: "The only thing your head is good for is to keep your ears apart!"  or "Storta va, deritta vene" , (it leaves crooked and comes back straight), the sense of which is that "Each cloud has a silver lining," and "Chiacchiere e tabacchere 'e lignamme nun s' mpegnano—literally: "You can't pawn talk and wooden snuff boxes", meaning, "Talk is cheap." 

Neapolitan has Latinisms long since gone out of standard Italian, such as mo'  for "now" (from the Latin modum ). It has influences from Spanish, such as cu mico  and cu tico,  instead of the Italian con me and con te. It has words such as sfizio,  for which there is no Italian equivalent, and which has found its way into use in standard Italian. Sfizio  is the satisfaction  one gets from doing something "just for the hell of it". In the outlying areas near Naples, they still have words such as craje, for "tomorrow"—a word  that came ashore with Ulysses. That there is Greek in Neapolitan shouldn't be surprising, since Naples was a Greek colony before Romulus had even learned how to spell "empire".  'Napoli' comes from Neapolis—"new city"—and other place names, less obvious, are abundant: 'Posillipo' is from Pavsillipon, Greek for  "the place where unhappiness ends." 

Phonetically, Neapolitan is very interesting.  One of the most obvious sounds is what phoneticians call the "schwa", a neutral, central vowel, the "uh" sound of unaccented syllables in many languages: English, Russian, Neapolitan (but not Italian)—the 'a' in 'ago', for example. A dead giveaway that a northern Italian is trying to sing 'O Sole Mio  is the mispronunciation of  the final vowels as pure Italian  'ay' and 'oh,' instead of 'uh' and 'uh'. It is the most characteristic of all sounds in Neapolitan. 

There are even Neapolitan vowels and consonants  traceable to the languages of the pre-Roman peoples of Campania, the Oscans and the Samnites. We forget that before Latin in this area, there was Greek, and  before and alongside Greek there were  other local languages, none of which have survived. Latin met with more resistance in Campania than elsewhere on the peninsula as the Empire spread out from Rome. Even back then,  people in this neck of the woods were stubborn. The Roman historian Livius reports that a delegation from Cuma had to go all the way to Rome in 180 BC and have  Latin declared  the official language down here in order to get the folks in the local markets to stop speaking Oscan! Even then, it was noted,  the people in this area still pronounced Latin with a local accent. 

Among the many grammatical peculiarities of Neapolitan is the post-positioning of some possessives with family members. "A sorete"   (to sister-yours) as a return insult, means roughly: "The same goes for your sister, buddy!" The proper pronunciation of the final vowel as "uh" (see above) also qualifies you for participation in the ancient and stirring ritual of The Laying On Of Fists. 

Neapolitan has survived and thrived  magnificently as a vehicle of expression for such Neapolitan greats as the playwright/ philosopher Eduardo de Filippo  and the poet/ clown Totò, both of whom, in their own inimitable ways, are the essence of Napolitanità—the  ability of the common people to retain their dignity in the face of adversity, to resist being overwhelmed by external forces. This applies to language, as well—maybe especially  language, whether it's  Oscan, Greek, Latin,  Spanish, French or, recently, English. Resist, change it, make it your own,  but don't be overwhelmed. Don't give in. 

Here, get a load of this: 

A mezz' età mettenneme 'n cammino,
io me truvaie pe' na furesta nera,
pecché m'ero 'mbriacato senza vino.

They have even translated La Divina Commedia  into Neapolitan! How's that  for not giving in?! 

[Most people know a little bit of Neapolitan dialect from famous Neapolitan songs such as 'O Sole Mio. To read about the Neapolitan Song, click here.
To view some of the texts of the songs themselves, in dialect, click here.
To read about the Neapolitan dialect and Salvatore Di Giacomo, see here.]
The oldest collection of European fairy-tales is in Neapolitan. To read about that, click here.]

Croce, Benedetto (1)   (1866-1952)

One has to know a lot about philosophy, history, literature, aesthetics and various theories of criticism in order to do justice to the topic of Benedetto Croce. Someone like me, then, will clearly have to start somewhere else, such as telling you what fascinates me most about this man. 

It is this. When Croce died in Naples in November, 1952, his funeral procession was an outpouring of popular emotion and affection. Thousands of common citizens spontaneously spilled into the streets to say farewell to one who has been described as the most important Italian philosopher and historian of the twentieth century, and who, they say, blew a hurricane of freshness into the stagnant hot-air that had been implacably settling over the Italian intellectual landscape for centuries, perhaps since the Renaissance. 

How is it that an intellectual had such an appeal among the people? Maybe the key is in the word "intellectual". There is in the word, itself, a nasty undercurrent of arrogance, which holds that the life of the mind and the life of—well, the life of life, itself—are separate, and that those things worth knowing in life must be couched in terms that cannot be readily understood. It is as if the mind were a separate kingdom ruled by only a select few. Among such people you will find at least a few of Croce's detractors, those who view him as a great "popularizer," or, to use the Italian phrase, a "vulgarizer" of culture. (Perhaps one should be wary of intellectuals who are wary of vulgarizers. Those who feel this way about Croce might well have felt the same way about Dante, who chose the terribly vulgar path of writing the single most sublime poem in Western literature, La Divina Commedia, in Italian, the language of the people, and not in Latin, the language of the select.) 

If what I have said is a fair description of at least some intellectuals, than that is what Croce definitely was not, and therein lies his appeal to many. There is undeniably something in the Neapolitan character—and, indeed, in all of us throughout the ages and across cultures—that loves, respects and identifies with very simple and very intelligent persons, those we term "wise". 

Croce was just such a simple person. His early life was struck violently by tragedy when his parents and sister were killed in the great earthquake that struck the island of Ischia where they were staying in 1883. He, himself, was buried beneath the rubble for hours before being rescued. His parents' estate left him enough money to live and to write. He dropped out of the university to pursue education on his own, and wound up as Italy's Minister of Education, a scholar respected the world over, one whose collected works comprise seventy volumes and range over a mind-boggling array of disciplines. In literature, he wrote about Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, virtually all of Western literature. He wrote histories of Naples, of Italy, of Europe, and he wrote over a broad spectrum of philosophical and general cultural matters. Croce may almost single-handedly have been the cultural version of the risorgimento (the political movement to unify Italy.) Cavour, in referring to the unification, said "We have made Italy. Now let us make Italians." Croce perhaps helped to "make Italians," culturally speaking, by providing them with a broad unified cultural background. He founded his journal, La Critica in 1903 and for 41 years published his own writing as well as reviewing important European historical, philosophical and literary work of the times. He said of his own magazine that "La Critica was the most direct service I could render to Italian culture, uniting the role of a student and of a citizen." 

In discussing Croce's philosophy, we may simply note here that Italian philosophy had never been through the paradigm-wrenching experience of a Reformation. As such, Croce had to create his own internal Reformation, divorcing himself from the medieval nitpicking that still plagued even 19th century Italian philosophy. (It is true that he took an almost Germanic delight, alà Hegel, in subtle distinctions and classification, but, alas, there may be some truth in Spinoza's warning that, "That which is excellent is difficult"!) Yet, his language is eminently approachable, and, indeed, the term 'utility' crops up so often in his writings, that even if 'pragmatic,' (as a technical philosophical term) does not apply to Croce, at the very least, he succeeded in moving Italian intellectual thought away from religious scholasticism into the mainstream of European humanist philosophy. 

This human approach is nowhere clearer than in his definition of history. 

"Historical judgement is not a variety of knowledge, it is knowledge itself; it is the form which completely fills and exhausts the field of knowing, leaving no room for anything else."

This idea that everything takes place within history rings true to many. History, after all, is not something that runs along beside you, "doing history," as it were, while you do something else. All of the 'something else's' that you do—write, paint, work—are history. The soldier who dies in a war has made the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of some historical process or other, just as the woman who waits in line three hours for bread is an integral part of larger macroeconomics. Yet, this commonsense view of history has not been all that clear to many, who have chosen to view their searches for truth, for God, for music, for art, for whatever, as something that transcends life instead of being part of it. It is true that this view of history as being all-encompassing leaves no room for the transcendental, and Croce, from a devout Catholic family, was an atheist, feeling that "philosophy removes from religion all reason for existing." 

There is a story about Mozart that may shed some light on Croce's view of the age-old question in aesthetics: What is beauty? Mozart used to sit in crowded pubs, eating, drinking and chatting with his friends, surrounded by the constant hubbub common to such places. When asked how he could compose music with all the racket going on, he said that the music was already composed in his head and that he was merely copying out the parts! There is a school of aesthetics, of which Croce is a leading member, that holds that art and beauty exist in their perfect and complete form the minute they are conceived by the artist. The actual sculpting, writing, painting, etc. is merely "copying out the parts". The opposing view, of course, claims it is absurd to think that Michelangelo's mere thought of David is beauty. Surely it is the manifestation of the idea that is beauty! Surely, you need the statue! If that makes intuitive sense to you, you are not alone, but ask yourself the question presented in the counter-argument: Why, then, do you even go to see the original in Florence when there are copies to be seen elsewhere that are indistinguishable from it? Are you not going to somehow 'see' or be in the presence of the idea, the original idea, which can only inhere in the original work? Yes, you can look at a copy and like it --ah, but behold the original! Is there anyone at all who would say there is no difference? Even Croce's critics who scoff at such Idealism?! 

There is in Croce's writing a certain melancholy at his own lack of the intuitive lyricism from which he felt true artistic beauty springs, yet he insisted that art and beauty were for Everyone—that all of us, creative or not, have the intuitive ability to at least tune in to the original creative idea by tracing back to it through its physical manifestation as a painting, a poem, a piece of music. That, he felt, was the essence of appreciating beauty: our ability to approach the Idea. 

Croce's view of the individual in history makes him particularly important in 20th century Italy. Croce has rightly been called the Historian of Liberty, one who viewed all of history as a stage upon which the struggle for freedom is played out. Under Fascism in Italy, Croce was the anchor of the intellectual resistance, and after the war, he rightfully assumed his place as a sort of Grand Old Man of Liberty, one upon whom even the president of the Italian Republic came calling when in Naples. 

And that is the Grand Old Wise Man the people of this city turned out to say good-bye to. 

[See here for a wartime episode involving Croce.] 

Pompei  (2); spirits (good & evil) (2)

In 1932, Universal studios released a prototypal horror film called The Mummy. It starred Boris Karloff and was magnificently eerie, much better than the slew of potboiler imitations that followed. It was a film loosely generated by popular buzz of the day surrounding the curse supposedly attached to the tomb of King Tuthankhamen ('Tut', for the tongue-tied), discovered (or desecrated, depending on whether you are an archaeologist or an ancient Egyptian) in 1922 by two Englishmen, Howard Carter and George E.S.M. Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. In the antechamber of the tomb they found a plain clay tablet on which were inscribed hieroglyphics reading, "Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh."  Within seven years, 22 persons involved with the discovery and excavation of the tomb had died untimely deaths. 

In Naples, we may have material for another film. It is not uncommon for the superintendent of the archaeological site at Pompeii to come to work and find envelopes and small packages containing bits and pieces of antiquity, items from the ruins of Pompeii, pilfered and then sent back by sticky-fingered tourists haunted by remorse. 

But are they haunted by something else? Could be, because sometimes letters accompany the booty. Some time ago, a package arrived full of objects stolen from Pompeii. It was from Valencia in Spain. The penitent thief claimed to have had nothing but terrible luck ever since he swiped the objects. He lost his job and was then plagued by family problems; the sender was convinced that he was the victim of a curse put on the objects two thousand years ago by devious citizens of Pompeii who wanted to protect their belongings down through the ages. 

The superintendent  has had goods returned from as near as Castellammare and as far away as Poland. The senders' names and addresses are usually bogus, but a number of them contain letters with the same general message: "Bad luck ever since I took the stuff. Please take it  back. Release me from the curse." The good superintendent, of course, refuses to pronounce judgment on such things as ancient curses, but if it gets his stuff back, who is he to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe? 

Personally, I think that the people who sell tissues, wash your windshields and hustle cigarettes at traffic lights in Naples are missing a golden opportunity. In a city where astrologers and soothsayers openly advertise, and where everyone in my family, including me, believes in the evil-eye, why not put curses on personal property? Cars, for example. It would be a symbolic way of saying, "Death will slay with his wings whoever touches my wheels." Maybe a brief incantation at the stoplight, then a quick exchange of a euro or two for an amulet, possibly in the image of Boris Karloff, with an adhesive backing so you can slap him up there on the dashboard right next to whatever other medallions you happen to have protecting you. Sort of a double-whammy. 

Added bonus: if your car is tampered with in the middle of the night, ancient curses don't go off with that annoying waah-waah-waah burglar-alarm siren that keeps you awake all night. There's just this single, long,  blood-curdling scream. It might be a pleasant change. 

Metropolitana (2)

The space between Piazza Italia and
Largo Lala in Fuorigrotta, site of major
construction for the new train line.
Yet another train line, and if this one ever gets up and running, it will be a boon for the city. Back in 1990, when Naples hosted some of the games for the World Cup in soccer, they were to build a "rapid tram" line from town out to the San Paolo stadium. Such a line would have been an enormous asset—even after the games—to the city's struggling transit system. 

Well, stations went in and the underground tunnel was built, and they even ran a test car or two down the tracks at the time, as I recall. Yet, the line never opened; it was unfinished or too poorly built to operate, and for the next decade, it just lay there gathering cobwebs below the surface of the section of town known as "Fuorigrotta". It was, in the words of the President of the Campania Region (of which Naples is the capital) and mayor of the city of Naples during the 1990s, Antonio Bassolino, who spoke about it the other day on television, a remnant of the great "tangentopoli" scandals of the early part of that decade. (That's an interesting word, translating approximately to "bribe city".) In other words, everybody was on the take, and the money to do the job right just disappeared. 

That appears to be changing. They have been working on the stations, track, and tunnel for a number of months now and current plans call for at least part of this renovated rapid light-rail transit line to be incorporated into the city's transit system within two years. Finishing the entire line will take about five years. There will be seven or eight stations along the route, one that will connect the extreme western zone of Naples in the area of the stadium and new university campus to the port of Naples at Piazza Municipio. That is something that even the new subway line does not do. 

Myths; Euro, the (2)

A myth is a traditional story, possibly with historical basis, serving to explain phenomena of nature or the customs and institutions  of a people. Admittedly, the tale of Peirithous  being punished for the attempted seduction of a goddess may not mean as much to us as it did to the ancient Greeks, so we now have what are called 'Urban myths'.These are tales that shed light on our own, modern-day 'customs and institutions'. The most famous of these, as near as I can tell, involves the woman who put her little rain-soaked doggie into a microwave oven to dry him off!  This supposedly reveals something about our relationship to our technology, as does the one about the woman falling asleep under a full-body tanning lamp and getting her contact lenses welded to her eye-balls. 

With that, I am now shattered to report that one of my most cherished stories about Naples falls into this realm of make-believe; it is urban legend, myth— not true, in spite of the fact that it should be and that I personally  know the guy who knows the man whose cousin's friend heard about it.

The many small brush fires during the dry season in this area have led to the extensive use of fire-fighting helicopters. They are equipped with water scoops hanging from  cables. They drop down close enough to the surface of the Bay of Naples to scoop up water and then fly off to dump it on the blaze. One day, high up the slopes at the site of a fire which had been fought using helicopters, a body was discovered. It was that of a scuba diver. He had been swimming around when suddenly he was air-borne, torn out of his element and subsequently dropped to his death. 

That's the way I heard it, and that's how I've  been repeating it all these years, but now it seems that this story in one form or another has been cited as 'true' in so many parts of the world that it can only be false. Too bad. I really liked it. It had potential; the scuba-diver remains might have been discovered by future paleontologists, who would have then concluded that the sea level back at the turn of the 20th/21st century around here was much higher than surmised.  It also had great literary value, since with slight modification, it could be  the opening of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro: 

No one was able to explain what the leopard [scuba-diver] was seeking at that altitude. 

Car theft has a couple of good stories connected with it. 

A man comes out of the house to go to work in the morning and finds his car gone, stolen. The next day, however, his car is back in place with a note inside, apologizing for the emergency which made it necessary to temporarily borrow the man's car. To make amends, the unknown 'thief' has left opera tickets for a  performance at San Carlo theatre. Tickets for the whole family. Man takes family to opera. Man comes back home. Man finds his house cleaned out, an easy task for the thieves, since they were absolutely sure that no one would be at home.

Car theft number two -(This one also involves the San Carlo theater in Naples, but from a little different angle):

Opening night at the opera attracts the well-heeled. They show up in furs and finery —and Mercedes', BMWs and Maseratis. Naturally, when you go into the opera house, you park your big expensive car in the lot adjacent to the theater and give the keys to the 'white cap', the parking attendant, a trusted and good-natured underling living out his twilight years moving other people's nice wheels in and out of tight parking spots. A few minutes into the performance, one of those gigantic double-ramped trucks rolls up and, with the help of the attendant and his splendid collection of keys to other people's cars, loads up twenty or so of the shiniest and most marketable ones, and roars off. Eye witnesses claim they thought the cars were being towed away for parking violations.

Gentleman Thief/Robin Hood myth: 

An elderly woman out shopping on Via Roma  falls and hurts her leg. She is immediately aided by two well-dressed gentlemen who help her up and insist on driving her to the emergency room. While she is being seen by a doctor, the two Good Samaritans wait for her, minding her parcels, coat  and purse. She comes out and starts to call a taxi to get come. Her two 'friends' will not hear of it, and they personally escort her home in their car. When she wants to pay them for their troubles, they shrug it off and tell her not to worry about it. They drive off. Only when she opens her purse later that evening does she realize that her  benefactors have already helped themselves to her money. During the affair they had  every opportunity to rob the woman and leave her, but they didn't, showing, instead, what was, no doubt,  genuine concern for her well-being.


In the first week of January 2002, a number of tales about the new coin of the realm, the Euro (€) were making the rounds: 

  • The lack of  zeros  in the new currency is confusing. So this guy walks into a bank to buy new euros with his old lire and the bank teller undercharges him by a factor of ten! 
  • In one story, the honest patron, not wishing to make the poor bank teller have to make up the difference out of his own pocket at the end of the day, comes in later and gives the money back. 
  • The less mythical version has one happy customer having a good laugh at the expense of the poor Bank of Naples. 
  • Then there is the ATM machine spitting out 10 €  notes stuck together, giving you a lot more than you requested. 
  • And some banks are going back to the lire because they can't get enough euros to do business.
  • These must be true, because I heard it from the guy who heard it from the guy who... 

    Or how about the battleship that disappeared from the port of Naples shortly after the WWII? Not hijacked, you understand— it disappeared little by little, piece by piece, day by day, apparently the victim of enterprising scrap iron scavengers! Then, there was the time…