I was leaning against a lamppost close to the Central Station, hearing music, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. A street vendor asked me if I wanted to buy a Mickey Mouse shaped cigarette lighter. Not knowing how to say ‘oxymoron’ in Italian (for the record, it is ‘ossimoro’), I replied instead with a “No, grazie”. Noticing I was not Italian, the street vendor switched to English and asked me where I was from. “Portugal”, I said. “As soon as my wife can drag our son away from that toy store, we will continue sightseeing Naples”. ─ “Sightseeing? Naples? Why?”, he machine-gunned back, before walking away shaking his head.
I popped the headphones back into my ears and pondered his question. A fitting song had just started:
“New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down
New York, you’re safer and you’re wasting my time
Our records all show you were filthy but fine”
I have never visited New York in the eighties, so I will have to take James Murphy’s word that the city was indeed better with grime and under the rule of the Five Families. In my head, Naples today is not that different from New York of yesterday, as it also has no shortage of trash and extortion by the Camorra, the local Mafia.
Apart from crime lords – which I assume form only a minute part of our readership – I expect that most Neapolitans would prefer a tidier and safer city. However, who are we – mere travellers visiting the city for a few fleeting moments – to opine on what is best?
Best or worst, good or bad, and other ranking duos have no place in travelling. Much like one does not judge a painting in a museum by its colour palette, one should not shoehorn a city into pretty and ugly categories.
─ “It is what it is”, I said to Jules the moment she exited the toy store, with a grumpy Gabriel in tow. ─ “You hate that expression, what are you going on about?”, she replied, puzzled. I do indeed have a pet peeve with blasé expressions, but this one seemed to suit Naples.
─ “It is indeed a fitting expression”, agreed Jules, after I took her through my reasoning. “There is always beauty in the unfamiliar. Often it will not conform to our preconceptions of what it pretty and what is not, nor should it. Travelling should be about expanding our horizons, rather than looking for places we like”, she added.
There is of course beauty – the obvious, pretty kind of beauty – in Naples. But, unless one is ushered blindfolded, from basilica to church, from the seaside to the views of Vesuvius, and from pizza napolitana to gelato, there is no way to avoid the rest of Naples.
Nor should it be avoided. The rest of Naples – the grimy narrow alleys, the scruffy buildings, the chaotic traffic – are stretch marks in one of the world’s oldest cities. Something that has survived Mount Vesuvius for over two-thousand years will continue to endure, impervious to travel guides and opinionated tourists.
We visited Naples back in 2019, which is why you won’t find any hint of social distancing and masks on these photographs. You can find them (plus others that did not fit this text) here, under a Creative Commons license (meaning that you can use them freely but are required to credit the author).