It would have been nice to have seen Naples for the first time from the sea, the way Nelson did in 1798 when he supported the King of Naples, sorted out the French and where an unintended consequence was meeting the love of his life which, as we all know, led to difficulties of another kind.
But now that we are in the old part, Naples is taking on its own individual character and unlike Goethe who was here in 1787 and who, in his Italian Journey, described it as “a paradise”, my first impressions are not so favourable. The buildings may have had a certain glory once, but now they are dingy and dirty and many are crumbling. The whole place has an air of decadence, not helped by the fact that there does not appear to be any street lighting other than that coming from shop windows and car headlights. It gives the place a semi-deserted, half-shut sort of look, as if the inhabitants have had enough of all the squalor and are in the process of evacuation, turning off the lights one by one as they leave.
When I ask Angela, our guide, why there are no lights, she has a conversation with the driver and reports they are conserving electricity because of the drought. It has not rained since early May. We are more than half way through July.
From our position above and behind Enrico, the driver, even if the architecture is not very appealing, we have the compensation of a grandstand view of some fine examples of mad Italian driving.
It is not for the hesitant, driving in Naples. Those who do will never get anywhere, never mind lost. There appear to be no rules. Angela says the traffic lights are for decoration, pedestrian crossings are street paintings and nobody pays any attention to either. This also applies to Italy’s attitude towards EU legislation.
“The Germans make the laws, the British obey them, the French ignore them and the Italians have never heard of them,” Angela says, laughing. “They’ve just introduced a seat belt law,” she adds. (God knows how many years we’ve had that!) “They’re also supposed to wear crash helmets on their scooters but no one bothers. You’ll often see a man and his wife and his son, sometimes even a dog on a scooter and no one is wearing a crash helmet.”
“Except for the dog,” I remark to Angela, who is just across the passage.
It’s not quite true though: there are one or two who are wearing crash helmets and here is a boy with bare feet standing on the platform behind the handlebars, holding on to them in a casual sort of way, as if he has been doing it for years – which he probably has ever since he was tall enough to reach them. Interestingly, the father is wearing a helmet. He has less faith in his driving than his son apparently or maybe he thinks there’s no point in getting him one until he’s fully grown – if he makes it that far.
The aim of driving in Naples seems to be to get as close as you can to the car in front without actually touching it but this doesn’t always work, judging by the number of vehicles with bashes in them. It’s dodgems without the protective rubber bumpers. Amazingly, despite more close shaves than all the Wilkinson Swords in Italy, Enrico does not seem to mind all the cars and all the scooters in Naples cutting him up and having to brake sharply to avoid hitting them. Here size gives way to agility; might does not automatically secure the right of way. Enrico cannot bulldoze his way through the Neapolitan traffic willy-nilly. It’s like Goliath taking on David and we all know who won that one.
Now Enrico wants to turn right up a narrow street but he can’t because his bus is so long it will not allow him to make the manoeuvre without slicing the side off an abandoned car on the corner like peeling back the lid of a sardine can.
A bar stands on the opposite corner. Seeing the problem, one of the customers comes over to give Enrico non-verbal directions by waving his arms about like those people with table tennis bats who semaphore to pilots where to park their planes precisely. Enrico has opened the door and gives a full-throated response to what he thinks of that. It might be expletives for all I know. It certainly sounds like it. He might uncharitably be telling the would-be guide to mind his own business – or, and I am thinking this might just possibly be nearer the mark – if he’d kindly go and drag that moron of a motorist out of that bar, he’d happily disembowel him with his bare hands.
A crowd begins to gather as drinkers come to add their tuppenceworth. Suddenly the street has sprung to life with a multitude of voices.
Angela, over her microphone says, “Welcome to Neapolitan life! Now the whole street is going to become involved!”
So unlike my own dear Aberdeen, I reflect, that most staid of all Scottish cities, the home of my alma mater, the granite city with the tough exterior where you would rather die than reveal your feelings to anyone, let alone perfect strangers. Besides, Aberdeen’s habitually Baltic climate is not conducive to hanging about street corners or alfresco bars, if ever there were any. Taken as a whole, we northern Europeans, sun-deprived, living in a cold climate, tend to mind our own business; but these southern Europeans, hot-blooded with a superfluity of sun, cannot wait to get involved. This is the warm south and the gentle Neapolitan air is filled with the sound of voices that doesn’t sound so gentle as people shout each other down, each with their own piece of advice to give Enrico, who, for his part, seems to be ignoring them completely.
And then, at the other side of the bus, I can see the offending vehicle suddenly begin to rock. Half a dozen or so men are bouncing it sidewise off the street and onto the pavement. So helpful, so kind! And what about that man with the windmilling arms who is vociferously shouting something louder than all the rest? Could he possibly be the owner who has just appeared on the scene and is not best pleased to discover the love of his life being handled so roughly by these rude men?
Welcome to Naples! It’s not every place you go where they throw an impromptu street party in your honour, but Angela has given us the feeling that this is the sort of thing you might expect to see here any day of the week.
But what, I wonder, happened next as Enrico completed his manoeuvre and we left them behind in the street, still arguing? Did it stop as suddenly as it had begun – or had we witnessed the start to something bigger?