“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 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.
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.