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Paying it forward, one coffee at a time

Posted in Style & Travel

An espresso cup from Gambrinus, Naples' poshest cafe (image from charmingitaly.com)
An espresso cup from Gambrinus, Naples’ poshest cafe (image from charmingitaly.com)

“See Naples and die” is an old Neapolitan saying that I don’t believe is related to the city’s notorious crime levels but, rather, to its beauty.
Naples is a complex, contradictory, generous and heartbreakingly beautiful city. Its baroque past makes for an exquisite sightseeing experience; its mild climate is a nice counterpoint the to the North this time of the year; its gulf and coastline afford some of the most splendid views in the world and, if ancient Rome is your thing, a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum will plunge you back a couple of thousand years. And I did not mention the food which, in itself, is reason enough to go. You have never really tasted pizza unless you had it at its source: Naples. Whether it’s the water used for the dough, the locally grown tomatoes or the mozzarella from the buffalo herds from the region, a Neapolitan pizza has very little in common with its namesake anywhere else.

But Naples, ruled by Bourbons for a couple of centuries before the unification of Italy, is also a study in poverty, contradictions and, yes, crime. I finally picked up a copy of “Gomorrah”, by Roberto Saviano, written nearly ten years ago – a book that changed the perception of how closely linked mafia (in Naples known as “camorra”) and the political and business institutions are. Even those Italians who never had a lick of a connection with organized crime could not look away anymore after reading it.

The gulf of Naples (image usatoday)
The gulf of Naples (image usatoday)

The citizens of Naples have always had to walk a fine line between legitimacy and what goes on in the underbelly of the city and, over the decades, have refined the art of getting by and making do in the carefree manner that is typical of those who live and commingle with abject poverty and danger. Cruelty, fear and generosity of spirit can live side by side in unexpected ways and, to a tourist, no Italian will be more welcoming than a Neapolitan.

While steeped into the horrifying read that is “Gomorrah” (whose author, a journalist who went undercover for years, had to live under police protection once the book was published), I came across a story in the New York Times that illustrates that generosity of spirit the average Neapolitan is born with.

The Spanish Quarter, poverty in the city center (image malanapoli.it)
The Spanish Quarters, poverty in the city center (image malanapoli.it)

If coffee is important to every Italian, it’s a ritual and a point of pride in Naples especially. It’s hard to convey the place coffee occupies in Italy. When I say coffee, what I really mean is espresso: gulped down first thing in the morning in the kitchen or at a “bar” counter; sipped right after lunch and then again mid-afternoon. Sometimes after the evening meal too.
Coffee is a social experience, a brief pause from the outside world: it signals the end of the midday break; it welcomes a stranger into our home; it’s the Italian version of the water cooler.

But in these times of deep economic recession, not everyone can afford to sink over a euro a day for an espresso – which is why in Naples, a few years ago, some bar patrons started paying for two espressos but consuming only one, leaving the receipt for another customer to use. Some bars tack the unused receipts on their windows, some have large bowls where they can be dropped: and anyone can walk in, pick one up and present it at the counter, in an endless chain of paying it forward.

This spontaneous movement started a couple of years ago and its main beneficiaries are beggars, romas and pensioners but also housewives and students. We often think that getting involved, that helping others requires a lot of time and energy. It can. But random and small acts of kindness for a needy stranger are easier to dream up and easier still to propagate.

It’s been a difficult recession nearly all over the world and there are a million examples of how communities take care of each other’s needs in unexpected ways, from bartering services and goods to pooling resources. I love the idea that in places like Naples little indulgences like an espresso have not been forgotten, that anyone in need can walk into a bar, be served an espresso compliment of a stranger he will never thank and that, for just a moment, everything in his world will be alright again.

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11 Comments

  1. It’s good to be back to reading your posts.
    I always watched jealously as my co-workers indulged in the post-meal ritual of espresso. Eventually I learned to stop ordering tea as I was still blowing on it to cool down while they were halfway up the street, recharged and on their way back to work. I grew to appreciate it as very different from the tea drinking ritual I enjoyed but every bit as sacred. I loved hearing about the pay it forward movement, and I love Naples. I always like to go for a run in cities I visit and I remember vividly my first run along the Bay of Naples. A real stunner for a runner.

    January 8, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      It’s interesting how we quickly adept to one’s country rituals. Here, I wouldn’t dream of having coffee after luch or mid-afternoon. When in Italy, it’s a fait accompli. I remember even stealing out of the office mid-morning, with one colleague or another, to down an espresso from the corner bar. Then back at our desks 15 minutes later…

      January 9, 2015
      |Reply
  2. silvia
    silvia

    Don’t know if you decided to post this after you knew about Pino Daniele but in case you didn’t it can’t be a simple coincidence.
    Naples is in my genes and I know for sure that the old Neapolitan saying refers to its outstanding beauty.
    Naples perfectly embodies all the contradictions about our country and this is why I think I like it so much. And wherelse in the world could they invent the caffé sospeso?

    January 6, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Most of the posts are written a couple of days before they are posted but, shortly after I scheduled this one, I saw on FB that Pino Daniele had died. It felt like a strange coincidence, and my unwitting tribute to the spirit of his city.

      January 6, 2015
      |Reply
  3. Naples is one of my favorite cities. So full of contradictions.

    Have you seen the TV series based on the book? I think it may be out on DVD or on iTunes in the States. It was really well done. Difficult to watch at times (based on trues stories) but riveting.

    January 6, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I saw the movie a few years ago, which I liked, but I felt it lacks the narrative perspective of the book. I had no idea there was a mini-series and will hunt it down. Will give myself a little break first: some of the stuff was really hard to read – can’t imagine watching it. Thanks for the tip.

      January 6, 2015
      |Reply
  4. Little stories like a gratis espresso, or two, are like stars, twinkling with the eternal light of love and compassion, generosity and non-judgmental acceptance. You two (almost) always make me smile or nod my head in recognition or amazement I enjoy the absence of the decades between us, the commonality of perspective. Blessed are you to have found each other; lucky am I to have met you out there, in the Blogosphere.

    January 6, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write this comment. It is one of the most thoughtful and lovely compliments we have ever received and we will strive to be worthy of it on a regular basis.
      By the way, I noticed you haven’t posted in a long while. All well we trust?

      January 6, 2015
      |Reply
  5. Ah, yes, wonderful Italian coffee…full flavored and completely delish. What is that saying? You can have the universe if I can have Italy, and coffee is one of the many reasons why that’s so apropos. Totally love that sense of generosity and kindness in Naples.

    January 6, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I love coffee and have been drinking it since I was a kid. Here in the States I buy expensive beans from small farms, grind them myself and brew them with an individual filter. In Italy, I immediately revert to espresso. As much as the coffee culture has improved here over the last 20 years, espressos just don’t taste the same, even when brwewed with the same exact machines. Could it be the water??

      January 6, 2015
      |Reply

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