The Art of Getting By In Naples
Before I went to Naples, everything that I knew about it came from what my Neapolitan nonna told me. People were poor, living conditions were hard, food was scarce, there was crime, and it was hard to find work. These factors and others brought her to America around 1900 when she was in her early twenties.
When I finally went to Naples, I found a city of contrasts. My first encounter were the elegant hotels along Via Partenope, one of the main streets along the seaside (lungomare) offering gorgeous views of the sea, and of large ships slowly passing by on their way to nearby Capri, Ischia and other ports, as well as a panoramic sweep of the sleeping giant, Mt Vesuvius looming in the not too far distance. Closer to shore fishermen lowered and raised their nets as their vividly colored boats bobbed gently in the water.
Jutting out to sea across from Via Partenope was the foreboding-looking Castel Dell’Ovo(Castle of the Egg). This ancient fortress, the oldest castle in Naples provides a dramatic backdrop where brides like to have their photos taken, and it is a favorite place for lovers to cozy up on the rocky ledges that flank the water’s edge. It is also a spot for the poliziastradale (traffic police) to hover and at a moment’s whim stop motorists for a check of their licenses while paying no attention at all to the hundreds of motorists whizzing by them without any concern for traffic lights or pedestrians. Not far from Via Partenope is the expansivePiazza del Plebisscitowith the impressive, and opulent Palazzo Reale,a seventeenth century royal palace built for the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Opposite the palace is an architectural wonder, the nineteenth century church of
San Francesco di Paola, which bears a striking resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome. The space between these two monumental structures was originally intended for ceremonies, and military parades and is today a “communal living room” for Neapolitans of all ages to congregate with their families and friends. Here they gossip, sit on mopeds, eat gelato, read the paper, people -watch, and stroll arm-in-arm with no particular destination in mind. When I am in these settings it is an opportunity to see people for who they really are and the
Neapolitans exhibit a zest for life found nowhere else in Italy where I have been. They live life on the edge, unabashed, and with gusto. They test fate at every turn, as is evidenced in the way they drive, argue, and turn negative situations into their advantage. To experience the real and everyday Naples a visit to the old neighborhoods is a must, whether it is the Spanish quarter (Quartieri Spagnoli) or Spaccanapoli, whichmeans split Naples. If you are observant in these places you can get an idea of how Neapolitans live and cope. These living and working neighborhoods are defined by narrow crowded streets shaded by buildings that appear to close in on themselves. Row after row of laundry strung from building to building block out the sunshine but make a statement about how to cope in confined spaces. Scores of people crowd the walkways on their way to shop or work; children play soccer in spaces no bigger than a closet, and some men pass the time of day amidst all the chaos by claiming a small section of the sidewalk and enclosing themselves in a make-shift tent to play a game of cards.
There are shops of every description on these streets from butchers to bakers to tripe sellers, and open-air market areas where fish from the tiniest of fresh sardines to huge tuna and swordfish are cut, sold, and wrapped in large paper cones. In the produce market every imaginable fruit or vegetable is available including carrots, celery, onion and herbs already tied together like a bouquet garni ready to add to the soup pot, an indication that today’s Neapolitan women do not have the time to spend in the kitchen like their nonna did. A walk down the famous Via San Gregorio Armenoreveals a colorful street made famous by the presepiotrade; the handcrafted nativity figures made by local artists from terracotta and dressed elegantly in the costumes of old Naples. I stopped to look for figures in some of the jam-packed shops. I soon learned by observing what one of the elements of getting by was... the ability to argue. If you want to pay a fair price for a presepio, or anything, knowing how to strike a good deal and the art of persuasion are key.
Today’s presepio reflects more than the manger scene of the Christ Child, shepherds, and Three Kings; there are figures of present day politicians, Sophia Loren, the pizzaiola(pizza maker), the prosciutto-maker, the wet nurse, scenes of life in old Naples and the constant favorite,Pucinella, the masked clown in baggy white pants, pointed hat, and ruffled shirt, who is the classic and complex character symbol of Naples, a symbol of fortune and fate, of laughter and tears, of good and evil, of conflict and resolve, of intrigue and innuendo, and who above all embodies l’arte di arrangiarisi,the art of living by your wits.
Coping and ingenuity go hand in hand in this crowded, boisterous city of contrasts. No matter what fate has in store for a Neapolitan, he or she will find a way to deal with it, whether it is the music grinder who positions himself strategically on the street playing for your entertainment while his hat becomes a receptacle for money, or the puppeteer who pulls all the right strings to amuse you and shame you into recognizing that his talents are not for free, or the trinket peddler who just wants to get by and stands on a corner all day long repetitiously demonstrating how a battery operated toy works. Even in restaurants a wandering musician who will expect you to show your satisfaction with a slip of a few euro as he serenades you
In Naples, the game is life lived to the best of one’s ability and for that we must all have a little bit of Pucinella within us.