You’d think I would have had enough travel over the summer: a month in Europe, a few weeks in New England, a cross country drive from California to Virginia, Boston and back, and 10 days in Hawaii. But during the second week of the school year I was selected to present at a conference in Naples, Italy…
My university provides funds for faculty presenting at international conferences, but there is a limit to the amount, and in an effort to save them money and to reduce my out of pocket expenses, I found the cheapest airfare I could, and I got a real bargain. The itinerary didn’t sound THAT bad on paper, but reality is always another story.
My airport shuttle arrived at 6AM for an 8:15 flight to Newark. I had a 3 hour layover there, intending to relax in the United Airlines lounge, but had to visit three different United Club lounges until one would actually allow me to use my club pass (they said it there was too much demand and that they couldn’t accommodate my pass). After walking the airport for an hour, the 4th “pop-up” lounge let me in, but it was just a closed off airport lounge area that served wine, beer, fruit, and of all things, potato salad! I went for the wine.
Back in the air on a 7 hour flight to Dublin, Ireland, and then a 2.5 hour layover there before I headed to Paris on Aer Lingus. Are you still with me? I spent an overnight in Paris, disappointed to learn that the dinner reservation I’d made weeks before had been mysteriously cancelled, with no explanation in the e-mail. I’d honestly ceased caring, as I was zombie-like as I walked the streets of Paris on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, barely able to keep my eyes open. I walked by the restaurant later and found that they had just sold the place a week prior and there was new management, who promised me they were now a much better restaurant. I’ll never know, of course, as they cancelled my reservation! Grrr.
The next day it was on to Orly Airport for my flight to Naples on EasyJet. There is nothing “easy” about this airline, and after the flight was delayed close to an hour, we were allowed through the gate and into the gangway where we again lined up and were told to wait. About 300 people proceeded to stand in a glassed in gangway, with no air conditioning, no ventilation of any kind, no seats, no bathrooms, and a locked door behind us! We stood like that for close to 45 minutes. My back was screeching at me in pain, and tempers of fellow passengers flared as we watched airline personnel walk back and forth on the other side of the glass, totally ignoring us as angry passengers banged on the windows like caged animals, demanding to know what was going on. We were ignored as if we were uninteresting exhibits in the EasyJet Zoo. When we finally were allowed to board we learned that a passenger on the incoming flight had been ill and couldn’t get off the plane, but they nearly had to contend with at least another 100 sick passengers who were slow-roasted in the gangway! On to Napoli, grazie ad Dio!
I was met at the airport in Napoli by Francesco, the owner of my AirBnb apartment, and he drove me to the place, happily chatting along the way about his beloved home town of Napoli and his upcoming trip later in the week to the southwestern U.S. and California. I had seen photos of the apartment online, and it looked just like it did in those pics: clean, quiet and comfortable with good air conditioning. By itself, it would have been a nice place to spend a few days, but the bonus here was a wrap around balcony that led to the front of the building where, from this 10th floor perch, I could look out on a 3-D, postcard-worthy view of all of the city, the Bay of Naples, and my old volcanic pal Vesuvio, spread out before me. It was simply stunning and during my visit I loved checking out the view in changing light and cloud conditions throughout the day.
I was staying in a neighborhood called Mergellina, west of the center of the city and not too far from a picturesque port. I was sandwiched in between two train/metro stations, each roughly 5 minutes away, and though the neighborhood didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of restaurants and such, it felt totally safe and reasonably calm, which cannot be said for many parts of Naples, which has the dubious “honor” of being the city in Europe with the highest crime rate. Walking around this area it felt like any other Italian city, though my first day out I spent 15 minutes trying to cross a street, and had to dodge a motorcycle coming at me from around a corner on the sidewalk where I was walking. Ah yes, this is the Naples I was familiar with.
My conference was about volcanoes and 750 person attended the week-long event. I would be presenting a poster about a Natural Disasters course I teach. After getting a few grocery essentials, I headed for the conference Ice Breaker event on Sunday evening. Since I was only 2 stops away by train, I thought it would be a short hop, but I forgot, this is Napoli. The train station was empty, and there was only 1 ticket machine. When I fired it up to buy my ticket, a loud, metallic, female voice virtually shouted at me in English “You are advised to be at all times aware of the presence of PEEK-A-POCKETS!” This echoed and reverberated through the empty station, and I ruefully thought, “Great, every PEEK-A-POCKET within a 3 block radius now knows I am here!” I then had to climb multiple flights of stairs to get to the train platform because every escalator was closed with a sign that said Fuori Servizio (out of service) and the signs looked like they had been there since the 79AD eruption of Vesuvio! Mamma mia! I then waited almost 35 minutes for a train to arrive. It was very warm and humid and before I even sat down on the train I was a sweaty mess.
When I exited the station I walked to the conference center entrance up a gradual incline in the blazing sun, only to find that the gate on this side of the complex was locked, forcing me to go almost a mile to circle around to another gate to enter the area. I’d texted my friend and former research colleague, Tullio to “save me a drink” at the ice breaker, but by the time I arrived, out of breath, soaked to the skin and feeling faint, all that was left was a sickeningly sweet pink punch – non-alcoholic. I was informed that the alcohol had run out within the first 30 minutes. I found Tullio in the crowd, but he knows virtually everyone at this conference and it was impossible to speak for longer than a minute at a time. and I didn’t see anyone else I knew, so there was a lot of standing around and melting an waiting to find out Tullio’s dinner plans.
As the “party” ended (they ran out of punch), Tullio was herding a group of about 12 people to go to dinner, but it was a long, slow process. We stood around while he unsuccessfully tried to get a reservation for a party of 12 at several restaurants. Then when it seemed we might be on the move, he or one of the other 11 people in the group would get sidetracked or run into new people, so I think we stood around for over an hour with no place to sit and the heat still stifling. After being a captive in the EasyJet Zoo that morning, my back was breaking and the waiting was killing me. After a long cab ride – we’d had to take three cabs), we then wandered around for probably another 30 minutes finding closed restaurants, until we finally found a pizzeria that could accommodate us. Napoli is of course famous for its pizza, but I am sorry to say this was not the place to find it. It was soggy and messy and I probably ordered the wrong thing, trying a pizza that had mashed peas instead of tomato sauce… again, it sounded good on paper, but the reality was lacking!
I had a good chuckle when chatting with one of Tullio’s friends over dinner about Napoli’s reputation for being a dangerous place. I recounted a story of a time many years ago when I was with Tullio in Naples and I’d pointed up into the neighborhoods on the hills above us. I said, “That looks like an interesting neighborhood to explore.” Tullio laughed and said, “This is one of the most dangerous areas in Napoli. You could be killed 10 minutes after you arrived!” But Tullio’s friend scoffed at this and said, “No! They won’t KILL you! They just rob you!” Now that is a slogan the city of Naples might not want to include on its tourist brochures.
After dinner, I trudged back to my apartment, as we were only a few blocks from where I was staying, and with the A/C turned up to create a meat locker-like climate, I fell into a very deep sleep. I awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the first day of the conference. I walked 5 minute to the train, I listened to the extended warning about “Peek-a-pockets” from the alarmist ticket machine, clamored up all the stairs (amazingly the escalators were still fuori servizio), and waited 20 minutes for a train to pass. Then there was the long walk to the conference in blazing sun with 84% humidity. I looked so neat and clean when I left the apartment and now I looked like I was near death after a long hike through a tropical jungle. Mamma mia! There were a few men wearing three piece business suits, and for the life of me I could not imagine how they looked so well put together. I checked in and got my conference bag and gift items: a XXL t-shirt that I might be able to wear someday if I lose 100 pounds, a cap, a certificate of participation, and a notepad and pen. Now I felt official.
Most of the conference center was not well air conditioned and the patio outside was bathed in noontime sunshine, so there was no escape from the heat and humidity. But lunch was truly an experience. We were herded to another building and up several steep ramps to the lunch room, where there were about 8 self-service buffet tables. After filling your plate you went to a different table for wine, and then… you stood. Yes, there were no chairs, only a dozen or so tables where you could set your drink down and stand up! At prior versions of this conference in Japan, Ecuador and Tenerife lunches were outside under umbrella tables and you could sit comfortably and converse with people from all over the world. Not so here, and people tried to balance their plates, sometimes unsuccessfully looking ready to collapse, as there was no a/c here either. I could simply not stand up any longer, so I followed the lead of several other people and plopped myself down on the floor. Some Japanese attendees jumped up when they saw ants running across the floor but I was too tired and defeated to even get up again, especially since my feet and legs had fallen hopelessly asleep! I have no idea who planned such a bizarre way to provide lunches, but God help anyone with a disability or, like me, a bad back.
That evening an old friend, Roberto, came into the city to pick me up and take me to San Sebastiano, a small village near the summit of Vesuvio. I’d met Roberto back in 2003 when Tullio and I were doing research on the risk perceptions of those living on the volcano’s flanks. We found a gelateria run by a man named Salvatore, and would spend afternoon breaks there while we collected our survey data. I have remained in touch with Salvatore’s family through the years, and recently learned that he had retired and sold the gelateria. Roberto, his eldest son, wanted to bring me to dinner to surprise his dad, so that was the plan.
Being back in this area again gave me chills, as the month that Tullio and I spent surveying the area’s residents was probably among the best professional experiences of my life. These suburbs of Naples, places like the new versions of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, now Pompei and Ercolano, and other sprawling cities like Torre del Greco and Torre Annunciata, and even little San Sebastiano are rather grimy and chaotic, with street pavements that are so buckled you almost wonder whether magma beneath the volcano has caused it. The traffic must be seen to be believed. And yet I loved these places and the earthy and friendly people we met along the way there, so I was happy to return.
During a prior visit with the family, Roberto’s mother had asked me if I had any inside information about when Vesuvio might next erupt. Teasing, I answered, “Forse cento anni, o forse domani…” (Perhaps in 100 years, or maybe tomorrow”. Well I panicked the poor woman, and despite multiple attempts to reassure her, she nervously and repeatedly kept asking every few minutes throughout the dinner, “Domani? Veramente?” This family and many people I speak with here defy the common belief that those who live next to the world’s most famous volcano are in denial of their risk. They know they are in a dangerous place, but of course it has been their home all their lives, and since Vesuvio has been napping since 1944, it’s understandable that people don’t allow let its presence force them to leave their home, simply waiting until the fateful day that will eventually come when Vesuvio reawakens.
Roberto dropped me off to visit with his parents while he went to his house next door to start preparing dinner, and it was not long into the conversation before his mother started asking questions about Vesuvio. I was very professional this time and did not joke around with her. Salvatore was indeed surprised to see me and greeted me warmly, and then they both berated me for quite some time as to why I was not staying with them instead of in an apartment in Naples, despite me trying to explain that it’d take me 1.5 hours or so each way to commute by public transit from San Sebastiano to the conference. Another hot topic was why I am still single at my age and how I need to move to Italy and find a nice woman to settle down with!
I continue to be frustrated with my ability to speak easily in long conversations and to comprehend what others are saying to me. Maybe the Naples accent makes it more difficult, but I struggled to understand what Robert’s parents were asking me several times. Thankfully he finally rejoined us and cleared up several mis-translations that had occurred in his absence!
Disturbed by my story of the mediocre pizza I’d had the night before, Roberto brought me to a tiny pizzeria located just around the corner from his home so that I could taste a “real” Naples pizza. We had that as an appetizer before the hearty gnocchi he was making for me for the dinner itself. I have to say, the pizza was as simple and as delicious as could be and I was grateful to be able to try the real thing. Dinner was also delicious and very filling, and I actually took half of my gnocchi home with me to have for lunch the next day! Roberto and his wife Carmen have two young daughters, Andrea and Alessandra, and they are beautiful and a bit precocious. Twice I had to shoo little Alessandra out of the bathroom when she simply walked in unannounced to say “ciao’! They had been living in Spain for several years, but Roberto was homesick for Italy and his family and so they are now renovating a home next door to his parents and one of his other brothers. The pull of la famiglia is strong here.
After dinner, sitting outside in the darkness was magical. The planet Mars was shining in the southeastern skies like a brilliant red searchlight. The night was cooler with a bit of a breeze, but the air was still heavy with humidity. The sounds of barking dogs and squealing cats, laughing children, and plates, glasses and cutlery being set out or cleared from neighbors’ dinner tables carried on the wind. Staring into the darkness above me, I could not see Vesuvio, but its presence hangs in the air as well, palpable and I felt a strange sensation, as though I was awaiting a fireworks display that would begin eventually, but without a set start time. There was a feeling of anticipation in the air, an energy that I have always felt when I visit this area. It probably sounds insane, and maybe it’s because of my long relationship with this area and what I know about its past and future.
Roberto piled the family into the car for our trip back into Napoli to take me back to my apartment. On the way there were, ironically, several small fireworks displays were going off in San Sebastiano and surrounding towns, and I’d noticed the same thing in Naples as well. When I asked what the occasion was, both Roberto and Carmen said, with great sincerity, “It’s always this way. Either someone is having a birthday, someone is getting married, or someone just got out of prison.” When I checked their faces to see if they were kidding, I saw that they were completely serious, and Roberto added, “It’s usually the third reason!”
I had Roberto drop me off a mile or so from my apartment, partly to save them the bother of driving further from home and partly to make myself walk home and burn off a few of the incalculable number of carbs I’d consumed that night. We had a fond farewell, and I was again reminded of how fortunate I am to have made so many friends in Italy, who have shown me such kindness and given me a little insight into the Italian family and way of life.
I was to take an all day field trip sponsored by the conference on Wednesday, but not only was I feeling simply exhausted beyond comprehension, I had already seen the places they were going to during my prior work in the area, so I decided to play hooky and explore Naples for the day. I took the metro into the city center and planned to dine at a highly recommended restaurant I’d found online. Alas, it was closed; I know that Italians often vacation during August and many things are closed, but evidently early September is the same in this regard and many businesses were closed. I chose another place that was well-reviewed, Trattoria Pizzeria Spaccanapoli, and enjoyed lunch in air-conditioned comfort with a friendly waiter who seemed genuinely intrigued by the fact that I spoke Italian… very GOOD Italian, according to him, so that was a morale boost. I had a local dish called Polpo alla Luciana, octopus cooked in a thick stew of tomatoes, citrus and herbs, with chunks of toasted bread. Wow. I also had a pizza, this time topped with local buffalo mozzarella cheese and “yellow tomatoes from the slopes of Vesuvio,” so how could I possibly pass that up? And it didn’t disappoint!
Naples is a very strange city. The architecture and greenery, and of course the setting itself, are simply gorgeous, but there is a lot of graffiti, as well as run-down and dark alleyways, broken pavements, chaotic traffic, and the overall feeling that this is a city in serious economic distress. Still, I enjoyed my walk, clinging to the smaller and shadier streets to avoid the sun, cooling down with a fresh lemon granita (an Italian version of a slushy), and later, a gelato at Mennella, a local gelateria chain that was excellent. I also drank seemingly gallons of water, and I felt like I lost it just as quickly as sweat poured from my face. I visited the lovely Galleria Umberto I, a glass- dome covered shopping mall with gorgeous mosaic floors, in a circular pattern displaying the signs of the zodiac.
I walked down to the Santa Lucia district (which is what the song of the same name is referring to) and enjoyed the breeze off the bay, the views of Vesuvio, and more people watching. I guess that is the social psychologist in me. A common greeting among Neapolitan men is guaglio`, which sounds like “WHY-OH!” and means boy or guy and might be used by an employer calling one of his male employees. It is heard almost everywhere you go; just walk past a construction site or road crew and calls of “Guaglio`!” abound. I had a good laugh watching little boys as young as 3 or 4 years old shouting it out to one another on city streets as mothers led them past one another. They start young!
From here I hopped on a bus and then a train and headed west to the town of Pozzuoli, a Naples suburb on the sea that is famous for centuries of rising and sinking due to volcanic processes underneath the city. Ancient Roman ruins slowly sank beneath the sea, only to rise again hundreds of years later, covered in barnacles from their time under water. There is also a large Roman colosseum and the ruins of an ancient market place that are likely from the same period when Pompeii and Herculaneum were thriving 2000 years ago. I saw wedding parties having photos taken by the waterfront, groups of older men congregating on park benches, and gangs of kids kicking soccer balls around as the day faded and sunset approached.
I had some trouble getting back into the city from Pozzuoli, as the train station in town is an abandoned building with no ticket machines, a closed ticket window, and a lot of graffiti. It seriously looks like a perfect locale for filming apocalyptic scenes from The Walking Dead. After asking a few people and getting a few different answers, I discovered that I could buy my return ticket to Naples at a nearby Tabacchi shop (the typical place to buy bus and metro tickets in Italy) and finally I was on my way back to the apartment.
For dinner that night I strolled down to the Mergellina Port area, where I dined at Osteria Mediterranea for an even tastier version of Polpo alla Luciana and a homemade pasta with clams. Along the “boardwalk” area by the water I visited what is apparently a Naples institution, Chalet Ciro Gelato to try their concoction of a potato-based donut called a graffa turned into an ice cream cone, filled with gelato, then topped with whipped cream and candies. I have to say, and many of my readers will be surprised by this statement, the whole thing was way too sweet for me, and even the gelato was sickeningly sweet. I picked at it a bit and threw most of it away. The place sure is popular though, with cars double parking out front and large families peering at the desserts through glass cases in rapt anticipation..
After a couple of not quite so steamy days, Naples warmed up again on the day of my presentation at the conference. I’d discovered a more efficient way to get to the conference center, but even so, I was again melting by the time I got to the venue. I put up my poster in the proper area, and then mingled a bit until the session started, I’d worn a tie and long pants to look professional but that was hard to pull off hard in a room with sun pouring in through the glass roof and an anemic air conditioning system. But I smiled and chatted and tried to look poised for the people who visited my poster, hailing from all over the world: New Zealand, Denmark, the U.S., Italy, the UK, Japan, and France. Lunch was again a “sit on the floor wherever you find a spot” affair, though the food was better and I ate a couple of pounds worth of fresh baby tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. I attended a long string of presentations in the afternoon by researchers from Mt. St. Helens, Kilauea, and Iceland and while the presentations were interesting, I struggled to stay awake in the nicely air conditioned grand auditorium as it was the most comfortable room in the place. Rumor had it that many at the convention were sneaking into a back row and napping there just to escape the brutal heat outside and who could blame them? Knowing that I was departing for Rome the next day, I said my goodbyes to Tullio and others I knew at the conference and headed back to the apartment.
I planned to go to dinner at a highly rated place very close to the apartment, but alas, after walking up and down the street it was on several times, I could not find it, and when I finally inquired with local shop owners they said it had closed permanently. The last reviews on TripAdvisor were raves and only 4 weeks old, so I wonder what happened there. So I decided instead to venture to a distant neighborhood called Rione Alto to try another TripAdvisor recommendation rated among the top 100 places in the city. This required a ride on one train, then a 10 minute walk from one station to another, and then a ride on a metro train. The train and metro system in Napoli is as confusing and chaotic as the traffic there. Evidently there are three separate companies that run the trains and they are not affiliated, though some run their trains from the same station. The Metro Linea 1 that I needed to transfer to is an absolutely bizarre route that literally makes a loop the loop in a complete circle before finally heading off in the desired direction! I laughed out loud when I saw the route map at the Metro station. I was able to buy my train ticket at the first station, but when I entered the Metro Linea 1 station, the only two ticket machines both had the dreaded Fuori Servizio signs on them. This was a major, downtown metro station and there was no way to buy a ticket! An older woman, perhaps in her late 60s,was having similar troubles, and we simultaneously walked over to seek help from a woman in a glass booth, who was busy smoking and chatting on the phone. While I politely stood there waiting to be acknowledged, the Italian woman had no such reservations and pounded loudly on the window several times until the employee interrupted her phone call, only to rather rudely inform us that she had no tickets to sell and that there was nothing she could do.
The Italian woman then motioned to me to follow her and we walked to a hallway where there was a decrepit looking ticket machine that looked like it had been unused since the second world war. She indicated that we could get a ticket here, and I opened my hand to display my loose change. She painstakingly selected coins, counting aloud to reach 1 Euro and 10 cents. She put the coins into the machine, which promptly spat them all out again. She replaced them in my hand and selected others, again counting out loud as if to assure me that she was not trying to cheat me. She put them into the machine and it seemed to accept all but one. She took that coin and rubbed it several times with a damp Kleenex and scraped it against the side of the machine and then redeposited it, and voila, or as they say in Italy, ecco, a ticket slowly but surely printed out and she handed it to me with a triumphant smile. She was so gracious and I nearly dropped to my knees and kissed her hand in gratitude before heading down to the subway platform.
There the temperature must have been about 100 degrees, and people fanned themselves with ticket stubs, receipts, or other small pieces of paper, a futile effort indeed, but perhaps it was somehow psychologically comforting. I again marveled at how I’d left the apartment feeling so clean and spiffy and was reduced to a sweaty mess in a matter of minutes. We waited for almost 20 minutes for a train to come along, not before a crazy man entered the area and began screaming at people and tottering along the edge of the platform. I could not make out what he was saying, but onlookers seemed quite amused and acted as if it was a stage act. I was convinced that right before our train pulled in, he would topple onto the tracks and we’d be delayed for hours, but thankfully this did not come to pass! On to the loopy metro ride, which took twice as long as if we’d gone in a straight line, and I finally emerged from the station and rushed to the restaurant where I’d made a 9:00 reservation. I entered to find only one couple seated in the otherwise empty place, so I guess I needn’t have fretted about being late for the reservation.
The owner/waiter was very friendly and talkative and was amazed that I had come all the way from San Francisco and then all the way from Mergellina to this part of town to eat at his place. It had taken me over an hour to travel maybe 4 miles. I settled in for some grilled mussels, followed by a homemade pasta “Genovese”, a local specialty that the owner explained involves a sauce of meat and onions that simmers for 24 hours before being served. It was quite good, and I enjoyed the adventure, though I am really not sure it was worth all that effort to get there! Back to the Metro station again, where not surprisingly all of the ticket machines and a few of the escalators were fuori servizio. I was finally accepting of the fact that this is simply how Naples rolls, so why fight it? Luckily there was a woman in the glass booth even though it was almost 10:30PM, and she smilingly sold me a ticket. I then waited easily 20 minutes for a train while an elderly local woman paced up and down the platform in front of me, checking her watch, peering down the subway tunnel and muttering Italian curse words that I have only heard out of seasoned Italian bus drivers. It was nice to be the mellow one in such a situation for a change!
I rode only a few stops and then decided to exit and walk through a very charming area called Vanvitelli, a lively area of outdoor cafes and restaurants that I would have enjoyed spending more time in. I happened to find a branch of Mannella for my evening gelato, and then headed down a circuitous route that involved descending well over 1,000 steps on uneven stairways overgrown with grass and weeds sandwiched between apartment buildings. I could never have climbed all that if I’d been going the opposite direction, and I honestly wondered whether I would ever reach the bottom, but finally I hit a level street only a few blocks from my apartment! Home again, I packed my bags, had a last look at the city by night from the balcony, and got some sleep.
On final morning I had to leave the apartment by 10, so I killed an hour at a nearby pastry shop sipping delicious cappuccino and having a ciambella or an Italian donut. This time I managed to effortlessly get my ticket to Central Station, fondly listening to the warning about “Peek-a-Pockets” one last time, arrived at the station and caught my train to Rome. It had been a really exhausting few days. Mostly because of the oppressive weather and partly because everything you need to do in Maples seems to take an excessive effort to accomplish. Yet despite all of Naples’ many flaws, I felt sad to leave. I watched from the train window as Vesuvio slowly faded away in the distance and then enjoyed the scenery of beautiful farmland and verdant mountains. And the, just when I thought I was safe from Napoli’s gravitational pull, the train came to a dead stop. We sat there for some time before being informed that due to heavy rail traffic, we would be delayed. I wondered just how many trains could possibly BE on the tracks ahead of us. We sat for almost an hour, fuori servizio one last time. on what was to have been a journey of only an hour and 15 minutes. Mamma mia! Finally we began slowly rolling again toward the Eternal City.
Naples is an acquired taste, and I know many people who either hate it or are afraid to go there. She does indeed present some challenges for the timid traveler, but she also provides great rewards for those who make the attempt to get to know her and appreciate her, in spite of her heat and humidity, her peek-a-pockets, her constantly out of service infrastructure, and her graffiti-covered walls. I was happy to have had this time to explore the city in more depth, and I left feeling a stronger bond. And of course it helped that during my week-long stay I was neither killed nor robbed, and for that I am grateful! Viva Napoli!