When I first came here from Japan, I was struck by the seeming chaos of the place—particularly in the southern regions. Every time the Italians would gush about how beautiful everything was, I would nod along agreeably while struggling to understand just what was so beautiful about Southern Italy.
Take Naples, for example.
Despite the famous historical saying, vedi Napoli e poi muori, or “see Naples and die,” it’s common knowledge that Naples is a rather dark place. Even the Italians themselves shudder a bit at this underworld-like place while also having a great admiration for it. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand the contradiction.
The reality is that the streets of Naples are littered with garbage, while its cobblestone roads and sidewalks are terribly uneven and full of missing stones rolling around here and there. You can’t use the public fountains anymore, so they’ve been devolved into garbage cans. The decay is everywhere. The traffic signals mean nothing, with cars speeding through red lights and terrifying pedestrians. It seems nobody’s ever even heard of a motorcycle helmet. It’s common to see three or four people on a bike—some of them children—causing even northern Italians to wince. And the police are just standing by watching it all, making you wonder what exactly they’re patrolling for.
The taxis are infamous, and even Italians will tell you to never get in one or risk getting scammed. Pickpockets wander around showing off their thieving skills—it’s the kind of town where they’ll casually overcharge you even in stores and restaurants.
There are churches everywhere, probably every twenty meters or so on either side of the road, but nine out of ten of them are abandoned and shuttered. Yet there are statues of Mary decorating street corners everywhere—so are they devout people, or not? Perhaps superstitious is more like it.
So what, I wondered, was the attraction of this dingy, sketchy, infamous place—not just among the Italians but among the entire world?
Maybe the beauty of Mt. Vesuvius? Because it’s the birthplace of pizza? Pretty ocean views? The great coffee, perhaps?
I kept asking and asking and eventually concluded that it’s probably the lovely climate of the area and the temperament of the Neapolitan people who grow up in it. The ocean breezes that blow through the city seem to take your cares away with them, so that even if people wind up in trouble or get tricked, there’s a laid-back attitude that says hey, it takes all kinds of people to make a world.
The Neapolitan people live by a vast ocean that seems to wash away all negativity. They grow up in this unique land, which I guess accounts for their unique temperament.
Naples and its people remind us that there’s a part of human beings that remains essentially untamed. The quality and portions of Neapolitan ingredients, local dishes, and snacks appeal to the simplest and most fundamental of our desires—to fill our bellies with deliciously satisfying food.
The people who visit Naples probably admire the pride and strength of the Neapolitan people, too—since they’ll create food with passion and present it with confidence.