I like to joke that I’m better looking at a distance. Because at a distance you can’t tell just how pale I am, or that my beard is this strange shade of orange-red, instead of brown, like the rest of the hair I grow. Because at a distance you can’t tell just how big my nose is, or that I walk with my toes out too far like a clown without clown shoes. And because at a distance you can’t see my Charizard tattoo. OK, I don’t actually have a Charizard tattoo. (Yet.)
Naples is a city that is better looking at a distance.
After some stressful confusion, Kay and I found and boarded our train in Rome, and headed for Napoli. A middle-aged Italian man sitting behind me would arbitrarily sing a tune a cappella, and his booming voice filled the train car. When he finished one song, the other men sitting around him would cheer, whistle, and applaud. Other passengers pretended not to notice the singing man, the way some people avoid eye contact with peddlers or beggars on the street. The series of short concerts from this strange man became increasingly ridiculous. This same group of men kept cheering. I couldn’t tell if they were cheering for him, or laughing at him.
Our hostel in Naples reminded me more of the hostels I’d occupied in Australia, whereas Rome’s Hostel Pink Floyd reminded me more of a hotel. The buildings and rooms that made up this hostel formed a boundary around an open grassy courtyard, with picnic tables, lines of drying clothing, and checkered hammocks suspended from shady trees. On one side of the courtyard was the kitchen, the lobby (which led to the only entrance and exit), and the bar (yep, the hostel had a bar; we were given free drink tickets upon check-in). The other side contained the sleeping rooms and bathrooms. Our room was clean and white-colored, with several sleek metal bunkbeds (if I remember correctly, the room slept ten people).
There are three famous castles in Naples, and after dropping off our belongings we went to explore the one closest to our temporary home. Naples is a hilly city and the hike to our castle was entirely uphill. Even after only a few days I felt like I had sweated more in Italy than I had in the other days of my life combined; Italy in the summertime was like living inside hot yoga. Eventually we reached castle, which was built into the side of a mountain, not unlike how an evil villain would design his ominous lair. Kay and I looked over a castle balcony–it was like being on top of the whole city.
The view of Naples and sea it touched were beautiful. Most of the buildings were warm colors–shades of brick red and pale gold, with occasional green accents provided by a rooftop or tree, creating a matte autumnal palette–and at that height and distance, they appeared crammed and stacked, leading the eye back towards the few beachside skyscrapers and up to the foggy horizon. I don’t think American organizes its cities as cutely as European cities do. I gazed for minutes. Only my need for shade could tear me away from the view.
Sweating like a madman I escaped into the art museum, which was built into the old castle. I stood in front of floor fans and stared at paintings and sculptures. I took my time; it was hot and I quite enjoy art museums. After leaving the museo we hiked back to the hostel and napped in the courtyard hammocks. I woke up in the dark, which was super disorienting. Later that night I slept in an actual bed.
I fell asleep the way I had learned to fall asleep in the other un-air conditioned hostel: nearly naked, flat on my back, ignoring the beads of sweat rolling towards my pillow. Kay woke me and told me to get ready for our trip to the island of Capri. We took the metro towards the pier, walked around another massive castle, bought a round-trip boat ticket, and piled into a crowded square-shaped ferry. I felt sea-sick being ferried slowly across the chopping waves, and then I fell asleep next to some Japanese tourists until we were ashore at Capri.
Most of the island was touristy, mountainous, and rocky. I found it lovely, and the skiffs clustered around the shore, held in place by rusted chains, made me imagine the shore of Havana in The Old Man and the Sea. Small fish were swept towards the shore, whipped around my submerged feet, and were then sucked out into the sea, according to the tide.
Kay and I found our tour boat and sat in the sun. I applied sunscreen to my face and arms and kept my shirt on–partially to preserve sunscreen, which had become a precious commodity, and partially because I was easily the palest person on this boat. Like, embarrassingly pale. Our tour boat took off on its route, which was around the perimeter of the island. We took a lot of pictures, even though the island of Capri looks mostly the same at any given point, when looking from the sea’s point of view. Our tour guide seemed to never stop talking–he was constantly rattling off facts, first in Italian, then in English, then in Spanish. He sent our boat through coves and under natural arches made of stone.
I eventually took my shirt off. People used my chest as a white balance for their cameras before taking a picture.
The Blue Grotto is perhaps Capri’s most famous individual sight, and we wanted to see this mystical cove–this picturesque flooded cave that is all darkness except for glowing blue water. Some tour-goers elected not to see (and pay extra for) the Blue Grotto, and they were taken back to the original dock by a separate boat. The rest of us waited on the sun-soaked vessel, meandering on the waves, until men in rowboats gathered us, four at a time, and took us into the cave.
The Blue Grotto didn’t really have any surprises–it was complete blackness, except for the glowing water, which shined from underneath the surface. It was beautiful, I’ll say. And the Italian rowing started singing loudly, his song echoing slightly behind him. It would have been a romantic situation if the situation were romantic. But it was also a little ridiculous. And the tour probably lasted three minutes. Not worth the 12.50 Euros. It sounded better in the brochures; more attractive at a distance.
At no point on the boat tour were we allowed to swim in the water. So after coming ashore, I found us a nearby beach. I was determined to swim, to submerge myself in some overdue coolness. The shore was made of stones instead of sand, which was miserable to walk across. I swam far from the shore, treaded water where I couldn’t stand, probably swallowed some salt water. Kay and I traded places so that one of us could watch our belongings. As Kay swam and I sat on the stony beach, I listened to people talk and noticed that most conversations in Italian sound like an argument, even if they aren’t one.
Back at the hostel I met another American, the first one I wasn’t related to at least. We became fast friends and seemed to joke and make our cultural allusions at light speed, temporarily leaving Kay as an observer of our conversation instead of a participatory cog within it. Kay and I needed dinner, and our new friend “G” joined us to drink. As we treaded blister-footed down Naples’ sloping streets to a nearby restaurant, we happened to encounter another one of our hostel’s visitors. We invited “A”, a Chinese art student to join us for dinner and drinks as well.
Failing to navigate the menu, which was written only in Italian (which is reasonable, considering we’re in Italy), I chose a pasta at random, and succeeded in unknowingly ordering something delicious. Kay ordered pasta, “A” ordered tiramisu, “G” ordered a massive Peroni, Italy’s most prominent pale lager. We started getting to know each other around the table, and at first “A” really stole the show, revealing that she’s an anti-marriage polyamorist, attracted to, in her words, “short, pudgy, dumb guys.” “Italian men are perfect for me!” she said in her learned English. While laughing, we told her not to compliment/inadvertently insult Italians so loudly, since we were surrounded by them.
“G” then launched into the stories of his world travels. All four of us have traveled to multiple continents, and I think traveling abroad is a pretty neat thing to do (obviously, I guess), but, from my humble perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who defined themselves so much by their travels. We got to hear about everything from how he met his girlfriend in a romantic European city (he met his girlfriend, whom he said was back in America at this point, on the trip, and made sure not to let us forget) to how he read a children’s book to a bunch of Spanish-speaking niños on a bus. And all without really being prompted.
The conversation shifted. At some point the idea of “dorkiness” was brought up. “G”, a tall, handsome, charismatic fella then informed us of his struggles as a “life-long dork.” A new story began, this time about how he played chess professionally as a teenager. I’d be lying if I said this story didn’t start out very interesting to me, but its engaging qualities wore off as it continued for–and I’m not joking–25 minutes. That’s longer than a sitcom, if you cut the commercials. We’d long since finished eating and drinking, and the yarn about a young chess-genius crushing it in the world of 6th century two-player strategy games continued as we left the restaurant and reentered the hilly streets.
Walking back to the hostel, I remember thinking that night how strange it was that my new friend (and my only American friend) had so quickly transformed from delightful ping-ponging conversationalist to self-inflating, story-telling social-soloist. Or maybe it was all in my head?
The next night was our last in Naples, and Kay and I joined several hostel visitors for dinner and drinks, including “A” and “G.” We made our way into an English pub and I ordered a Ceres Strong Ale, which is a beer from Denmark, and one I hadn’t seen yet in Italy. I needed a break from Peroni, which is like the Budweiser of Italy. Plus this Ceres was a tasty 7.70 percent-er (while Peroni is only 4.7% abv).
Literature wound up being the topic of choice on my side of the long table. When asked which authors I usually read I answered Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Salinger.
“Do you read any modern authors?” the chess champion asked me.
“Yeah, some. Lots of graphic novelists, I guess. I also like Jonathan Safran Foer, David Sedaris–” I was cut off.
“Have you read David Foster Wallace?”
“Um. Not yet.”
I’ve had some friends recommend D-F-Dubs to me, so maybe he’s great. But I haven’t heard any reason, whether pretentious or lay, that has inspired me to jump into one of those house-sized Wallace novels yet. The reason given by “G” was especially uninspiring: “Here’s the thing about David Foster Wallace,” he said, “is that something that happens on page 46 matters on page 301.”
That, by the way, is how every book works.
While enduring the praise of the Patron Saint of Footnotes, I ordered another birra and the conversation shifted. My fellow American then controlled the table’s conversation, with volume and energy. “G” was thirty years old, and I started to wonder if his youthful exuberance flowed from a well of childlikeness or childishness. I was no longer impressed, and I felt like I was missing out on getting to know the mostly-strangers surrounding me in the pub.
Now, I realize the irony in me finding fault with someone for telling stories, and I’m trying not to lambaste my countryman unfairly. My annoyance could have sprung from a number of reasons. Maybe I wished that I was getting more attention. Maybe I felt like my precious remaining time in this city was being wasted. Perhaps, temporarily, I had gone mentally full-Holden Caulfield and found this grown man, orally reciting his own autobiography, to be a self-obsessed phony. I know on some level, though, that my frustration came from being disappointed in a potential friend, to whom stories and self-inflation outweighed conversation and empathy. (Like that character Justin Theroux plays on Parks and Recreation–“G” was a “life tourist.”) What started as a really fun friendship turned into a conversational pissing contest, except that only one person wanted to urinate, and the everyone else wanted to eat and drink and talk and laugh, and probably say to the urinator, “Hey, can you please put your penis away? We’re trying to learn about each other while we’re all in the same place.”
(Honestly, it took me way too long to write this particular essay, and I’ve been rewriting these words, hoping that I might find the most correct way to describe the nice, brief, yet irritating friendship I had in Naples. To bring it back to the theme: my compatriot was better looking at a distance.)
Earlier that day, on our last day in Naples, Kay and I toured Pompeii and hiked up Mt. Vesuvius (which is the setting of my next essay). Covered in dirt, physically exhausted, and sunbaked we made our way “home.”
Naples, you should know, has a garbage problem. Rubbish lays in heaps on the streets, and the many dumpsters are usually overflowing. Up close the city appears quite dirty. I suspect that many locals find this to be a problem, and perhaps protest in vague anonymity, because across the street from our hostel, Kay and I noticed a large rubbish bin completely on fire. Orange flames leaked from every opening, morphed the plastic container, and sent black smoke skyward. Nearby shopkeepers and other locals looked around with concern, not knowing what to do, or if there was anything to do. Others, myself included, took pictures. Scooter and automobile drivers whooshed by without slowing. Kay suggested we let the hostel know and so we dashed inside.
“There’s a dumpster on fire across the street,” I told the lobby clerk.
“Oh,” she said, and after a pause, “Welcome to Naples.”
Overall, I really enjoyed my stay in Napoli. But it’s interesting… From a distance, one up on top of a castle built into a mountain, the view of Naples kept me from moving for quite some time. I forgot about the sun and my sweat and tried to memorize the vast and colorful sight. And later, when walking through those same streets I had admired, I carefully stepped over disregarded garbage and a dumpster across the street from my bedroom was on fire.