Chapter 15 : We no speak Napoletano

And so it was that I embarked upon my last trip around Italy before I return for Christmas. Naples, which, if the South of Italy were to have a separate capital city, would surely be it, seemed a fitting place to end the first chapter of my year abroad.

As with all places, I went for the food, but before we get to that, here’s what else Naples has to offer the less greedy tourist. First and foremost, it’s the churches. I suffered from a similar church overload that I experienced in Rome, which I hope you will understand when you see the Google map detailing all of Naples’ churches below:

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Still, I was particularly keen to visit the Capella Sansevero, home to a sculpture called the Cristo velato (‘veiled Christ’). We weren’t allowed to take photos in the chapel (of course, Italians being Italians, several people tried, and were put in their place immediately by two stern looking wardens), so the photos here are from the chapel’s website. The Cristo velato is astonishing – both in the skill that must have been involved in creating the impression of a figure under a veil in marble and in implying such frailty in form in stone. Still, far more interesting (for me anyway) is the underground room of the chapel, home to the anatomical machines (see gruesome picture below) – an experiment from around 1763 by Raimondo di Sangro and Dr Giuseppe Palermo that has resulted in the preservation of the circulatory system on a male and female skeleton – I couldn’t take my eyes off them!

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Religion and science in the Capella Sansevero

No doubt you could spend weeks in Naples just exploring the churches, and it’s also home to some great museums, but this time round we were there for the Christmas market. Part of Catholic tradition is to decorate homes with an elaborate ‘presepio’ – a Nativity scene, for which you can buy countless characters and pieces of scenery at the market on Via San Gregorio Armeno. Italians begin decorating their homes with these nativities and their Christmas tree on the 8th of December, the immaculate conception. The streets of central Naples were packed with merrymakers from the early hours, and the atmosphere was jovial (think people in fancy dress bursting into song and parents carrying toddlers high above a sea of people), if at times a little tense (think not being able to edge your way around crowds of singing people in fancy dress and the fear of sending toddlers flying as you shoulder your way through the throng). Still, it’s clear that the people of Naples take Christmas extremely seriously, and of that I heartily approve.

The market was the perfect opportunity to indulge in two of my favourite year abroad hobbies: listening out for people speaking English and shopping. The former was mainly satisfied by Anna, my travel companion, and the gentleman from whom I purchased an unholy amount of pashminas, also fulfilling criteria b. Naples is far more pleasantly diverse than Reggio, and as a tourist I felt much more at home there, if a little overprotective of my belongings at all times.

Still, that’s not to say that I was able to communicate with any of the locals. The title of this blog, as well as being a gioco di parole that I am understandably very proud of, is a reference to the fact that, sadly, having a decent command of Italian does not mean that you will be able to converse with any Italians. This is perhaps more true in Southern Italy, where speaking dialect is very common, and said dialect is pretty removed from Standard Italian (the closest dialects to the standard used to be around Florence, and have since gone further north). Although there are very few people that are unable to communicate in Italian (my guess would be the elderly or those living in very remote areas), dialect, or a mixture of the two, are still very widespread, and largely incomprehensible to the foreigner. Wikipedia, seemingly having even more time on its hands than me, has handily translated the Lord’s prayer into Napoletano – here is an example:

English: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Italian: Venga il tuo regno, sia fatta la tua volonta’, come in cielo, cosi’ in terra.
Napoletano: Faje vení ‘o regno tuojo, sempe c’ ‘a vuluntà toja, accussí ‘ncielo e ‘nterra.

So not entirely removed, but hopefully you can see why I might have trouble. Fear of living in the South and developing an unprestigious deep southern accent (the equivalent of the North here – sorry northern friends – with the additional menace of the Mafia thrown in), has been replaced by the peril of accidentally learning an entirely different language. Fortunately, three months later, I still understand next to nothing of Calabrese, the local dialect, with the exception of a few swearwords that have eked their way into the everyday language.

Anyway, where was I? Naples! Food! We finally made it here, your reward for reading the above is that I will now make your mouth water with a description of the delights of Neapolitan cuisine. Silvana had advised me to try pizza (which originated in Naples), hazelnut coffee and sfogliatelle, and so, like a dutiful language assistant, off I went! The pizza was naturally incredible – if you’re a fan of the crispy base you really ought to stay away – the dough is as dreamy as the toppings of fresh buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto. Sfogliatelle, for those wondering, are yummy warm filled pastry creations – the pastry is like a filo texture but there’s so much of it that it’s really thick, and then it’s filled with a custard-like mixture that’s much thicker too and you eat them warm and they’re YUM. On top of this Anna and I found an enoteca (wine bar) for an evening drink and had some delicious sangria, albeit with some rather rustic chunks of orange – and of course I was merry after a glass because I have been essentially abstaining for most of the trip. Breakfast at the hotel was the classic croissants and cake combo – I don’t think I had anything but sugar before 2pm, no wonder I was buzzin’.

I would definitely visit Naples again – as per I had been rather optimistic in time allowed for the visit with just one night in the city – but the views of Vesuvius on the train ride home have reminded me of something I have to see first – Pompeii!

Chapter 14 : Things I’ve Learned

This week Alastair came to visit me. And it was the best. And I think it was also an eye-opener for him to see in the flesh (brick?) the place that I’ve been describing with let’s face it a fairly hefty dose of exaggeration for the past few months. So now that he’s made his way back to England and I shall be following suit in under ten days, I thought I would reflect on the things I have learned both in the last week and in the three months that I have been here.

1) Italians are immensely proud of their homeland

I think it’s fair to say that not many people would consider me particularly lucky with my geographical placement in Italy. I had wanted Tuscany, famous for, well, Florence, and its rolling hills, wine and general good time atmosphere. Safe to say I was a little devastated to find that I would instead be heading to my third choice. Wikitravel and my gentleman’s guidebook were not my friend here, the former warning me that the main road along the Calabrian coast is ‘one of the deadliest roads in all of Europe’ and the latter lamenting ‘how barren is this historic city!’ admitting that ‘there is something to be said for not seeing Reggio too close at hand’. Great. What I should have done is talked to the locals, who instead would have opined the region’s climate, history and seafront (which, I have on the authority of every person I have ever spoken to here, is known as the most beautiful kilometre of sea in Europe. I have a feeling they may have said ‘the world’ but I’d hate to overstate.)

Whenever I mention that I am going on a day trip, no matter where it may be, there is only one response: ‘Ah, bello,’ accompanied by a knowing nod and smile. I’ve yet to have any local respond with ‘oh, are you sure you want to go there? It’s a bit dodge’ – whereas the guys I met from Milan warned me that Reggio and the coastal towns shut down in the winter, and my Italian teacher, originally from further North, told me not to wear my watch or any jewellery when I go to Naples, lest it should be plucked from my body.

In order to visit some Greek ruins, that were in fact bellissimo, Alastair and I needed to get a taxi from the local station of Locri about a mile South. On our return journey, the taxi driver noted that we were early for our train, and decided to kill the time giving us a drive-by tour of his town. Locri has a pretty piazza, but other than that I’d say that it’s a fairly average Southern town. Not according to our tour guide, who offered to stop the taxi in order for us to take photos of the seafront, and insisted we return now that we have seen all that Locri has to offer. It makes a nice change from the British attitude of moveasfarawayfromyourhometownassoonaspossible, and makes you feel privileged, if a little incredulous, to be exploring places held so dear to their inhabitants.

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Locri Epizefiri

2) Reading is good

The absence of a hefty Cambridge reading list combined with an impressive number of hours clocked up on public transport means that I have had the chance to read more than I have in years, and I’m loving it. Just thought you’d like to know.

3) Travelling is better

I’m not sure I even agree with that, but it’s a nice segue, and travelling has definitely been the best part of my year abroad. I’m incredibly lucky that the British Council scheme affords me both the time and the money to travel around, meaning I have been able to visit Rome, Naples (on Saturday!), Sicily and Turin as well as the local towns of Scilla and Locri. Having the experience of flying solo around an unknown part of the world means that I am now unfazed by the prospect of more adventurous travel. I can almost feel my mind broadening as I see these new places, and it’s definitely given me a thirst for travel in Italy and beyond in the future.

4) Don’t mess with Italian mealtimes

I struggle again and again to decide if Italy is an extremely stressed or laid back country. The driving? Stressy. The walking? Sloowwwww. The way they talk on the phone? Angsty. The way they socialise in person? Laid back. One thing that is apparently not to be messed with, however, is the eating times. One of the first lessons in Italian culture (I’m serious) is that it’s an absolute travesty to order a cappuccino after 11am, God forbid after a meal. Go into any cafe’ after 10.30 am and they will also have run out of croissants, because why would you want one after breakfast time, which is about 7am? – this would never happen in Costa.

And, as we found this week, aperitivi can be enjoyed at lunchtime and dinnertime, but at 4pm? You must be kidding. I think restaurants that stay open from 11am til late in the UK have had me spoiled – if I want to eat at 3pm there’s no one to tell me I can’t. Here that’s also true, but the reason being that they’re all at home having a siesta, so there’s no one to serve me either. 6.15pm is also too early to go out for dinner, as we were turned away by a bemused waiter who told us to come back at half seven. There is only one way to eat in Italy, and it’s the Italian way.

5) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

I am very grateful to be in the South for one key reason: when I speak Italian, the locals will humour me, even understand and reply in Italian. For a language learner, this is the dream, and surprisingly difficult to come by in touristy regions where people are all too keen to speak to you in English. Alastair even pointed out that often the locals would look relieved when I started speaking to them in broken Italian – perhaps having feared that I would expect them to speak English. 

Indeed, I have had many a conversation, the most memorable being with a friendly old man outside the train station in Turin, where Italians have encouraged me to continue practising my Italian, assuring me that ‘poco a poco’ it will come. The teachers at the school keep reassuring me that I will speak well by May (something I am blindly clinging to without necessarily putting the work in alongside it), while the local sandwich vendor told me that practice would make perfect and I needed to change the way I pronounced my ‘i’s, and the waitress at a wine bar told me I sounded more northern Italian than English (punching the air as we speak.) I wish that I could say that this was all a gradual progression towards fluency, but it’s more that one day I will have a perfect conversation with someone, and the next day I will forget how to order a coffee. Gradually though, I must be getting better.

6) All good (and bad) things come to an end

While October dragged on forever and ever, I felt like I blinked and missed Alastair’s visit. Obviously that’s because I had an amazing time, and we managed to cram a lot into his stay (a few museums, a ruined Greek city, a boat trip to Messina and some sailing spectating on the beach), and in hindsight I wish I had made more effort to busy myself in October – the time will pass either way, but one is far nicer to look back on.

With that in mind, despite being unashamedly on the countdown to home, I still have a trip to Naples and possibly Tropea in the pipeline in the next ten days. The year abroad, like all things, will eventually come to an end, and I’d hate to think I spent the time wishing it would all be over, when there’s so much else for me to be doing here. I’m understanding Italy, and myself, a little better each day.