“WHAT DISTINGUISHES NAPLES from other large cities is something it has in common with the African kraal: each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the northern European the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal, a collective matter.
“At midday, they [local children] lie sleeping behind a shop counter or on a stairway. This sleep, which men and women also snatch in shady corners, is therefore not the protected northern sleep. Here, too, there is interpenetration of day and night, noise and peace, outer light and inner darkness, street and home. Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought.”
Such are the musings of German thinker Walter Benjamin, who roamed the streets of Naples in the early 20th Century with his Latvian lover Asja Lācis. As the train pulled into Napoli Centrale, I silently prayed that this anarchic spirit remained. It was all I could think about as we inexorably progressed through the city’s outskirts in the intimidating shadow of Mount Vesuvius. We had spent the previous month under Mount Etna’s watchful gaze, which lacked the threatening glare of Vesuvius.
Days had blended into each other under Etna, moving at an agreeable pace. We would rise early to coffee patiently brewing on the stove, catching the sun rising, emitting a warm hue that bathed the island in light. Spring turned to summer with ease, and life was simple and sweet. We were labouring as farmers, enthusiastically embracing the traditionally derogatory term of terrone. It meant that we were peasants, of the land, but that’s what we wanted. We endeavoured to momentarily eschew the society that had birthed us and embark on an epochal search of Sicilian beauties, visceral experience and a life of simplicity.
Tentatively, we entered the Centro Storico. Myself and Aaron, the mate who accompanied me on this summer odyssey, made sure to absorb each and every minute detail. We had been operating on a different frequency back in Sicily, and suddenly became well aware of it. Time marched slowly there, the land where life was relaxed and tinged with a sepia-hued nostalgia. Naples, on the other hand, obviously held a rich history but seemed unconcerned with it. In fact, it appeared to disregard all external opinion, flaunting its flaws shamelessly in the deeply-rooted belief that its intoxicating beauty comfortably outweighed them.
The place was a hive of activity. It throbbed with an unbearable urgency to live life with the rich intensity it deserved, a spiky double espresso to the rest of Italy’s indulgent cappuccino. Aloud, Aaron and I expressed doubts about venturing deep into the Neapolitan night that evening. We would be better served enjoying a good night’s sleep, preparing ourselves for a full day of exploration. As soon as our armour of bravado failed, we revealed ourselves to be the two inexperienced teenagers we truly were. To us, coming from the bastion of conservation that is Ireland, Naples seemed edgy, dirty and impossibly alluring.
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We had, however, come a long way since we parted home shores. The two young men who explored the Neapolitan streets would have been unrecognisable to old friends. The Mezzogiorno had warmed our bones, leaving us deeply tanned. The arduous physical labour of Sicilian farmwork, combined with the vegetarian diet mandated by the farm, ensured a lean physique blessed with an ascetic air. No longer were we outsiders, pale tourists intruding on this hallowed peninsula. Instead, we had latched onto the southern rhythm of existence, with two ears attuned to the indigenous tongue. As soon as we remembered this, and cast aside our initial trepidation, we integrated seamlessly into the city.
Searching high and low for our hostel in the labyrinth that is the Neapolitan streets, we dropped into a bar per un caffè. Paying heed to the musical lilt of the conversation that surrounded us and the passionate fervour which with they debated, I was reminded of the reason I had come to Naples in the first place. It’s best explained by Jonathan Wilson in his history of Argentine football, Angels with Dirty Faces: “On October 30, 1960, 32 years after Borocot had described the perfect pibe, the urchin with the mop of unkempt hair, the eyes that glittered with mischief, and the impudent smile that revealed teeth worn down by yesterday’s bread, the ideal was made flesh in the Evita Peron hospital in Lanaus, an industrial district to the south of Buenos Aires.”
The pibe was Diego Maradona: “Diego grew up in a shack with neither running water nor electricity. It was Villa Fiorito, Maradona always said, that taught him viveza, the sense of cunning or canniness that was prized as the virtue that allowed the impoverished to thrive. Those from the provinces, he insisted, were more honest, but villeros were tribal: they would gather their friends tightly around them, prioritizing loyalty above all else. He is, he proudly says, a cabecita negra (a little black head), descended from poor Italian and Guarani stock, a labourer from the lowest reaches of society.”
My father became a man in the 1980s, bearing witness to the full spectrum of Maradona’s rise and fall, with significant reference to the time he spent in Neapolitan colours. Rarely in the history of football has a man aligned with a city with such perfection. If Italy was three cities, I would argue that they would be Milan, Rome and Naples. Milan represents the industry and prosperity of the north, while Rome symbolises the grandeur and decadence of the nation’s heavy past. Naples is the crown prince of the south, the capital of the Mezzogiorno, proudly defying all condescension and snobbery and welcoming viveza and its proprietors in a warm, firm embrace.
The bond between Naples and Maradona was so strong that he actually called on his adopted city to support his Argentina side when they played Italy in the 1990 World Cup in Naples’ Stadio San Paolo: “You shouldn’t forget that in Italy they do not consider you to be Italian. The country comes and asks for your support for just one day of the year, and for the other 364 they’ll call you Africans.”
Maradona’s comments were incendiary, but they alluded to the powerful regional divide in Italy. Interestingly, there was a strong link between Argentina and Naples long before he landed in the city. A 2004 Cambridge paper investigated the influence the Neapolitan language had on the intonation of the Rioplatense Spanish of the Buenos Aires region and Uruguay: “Buenos Aires Spanish differs from other varieties in the realization of pre-nuclear pitch accents and in the final fall in broad focus declarative utterances. It also differs in the realization of the intonation contour in utterance-final intonational phrases, where a pronounced tendency for down-stepped peaks is observed.
“We argue that these patterns, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century, and coincided with the peak of Italian immigration, are due to a combination of direct and indirect transfer from Italian. As a result, two intonational systems that were typologically similar before contact took place became more similar after contact, in what can be interpreted as a case of convergence.”
Darkness fell quickly on that first Neapolitan night. We abandoned our bags at the hostel before setting out with our newfound international roommates for the evening. By the time the sun had disappeared behind the city skyline, everyone was several bottles of Peroni deep and enjoying the world-famous Neapolitan pizza. All around us, the city shook with immeasurable possibility.
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Vespas sped by, groups of friends gathered and music blared. Passion in the original sense of the world implies a barely controllable emotion, a term evolved from the Latin, pati, to the late Latin passio(n-), a term predominantly used in Christian theology to indicate suffering. Sitting there with the night ahead of us, I understood. I thought of Kerouac, who frantically scribbled that: “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”
The city seemed blemished yet beautiful, producing an overwhelming scent only made possible by its imperfection. It underlined all of my previous assumptions, exhibiting a potent cocktail of danger and seduction, oozing in sex appeal yet mired in squalor. With all trepidation cast aside, it was a true thrill to hit the city streets and inhale the Mediterranean night air. I have always been wary of succumbing to lazy stereotypes, but quite a few of Naples’ rang true. It was a passionate city, where there was no light without shade.
John Hooper, in his study of Italy, The Italians, delivered his assessment: “The broad sweep of its bay, overlooked by a brooding, smoking Mount Vesuvius, features on any number of old prints. When they were first made, Naples was regarded as a kind of earthly paradise. Goethe, who visited the city in 1787 and seems to have seen nothing of the poverty that has always been endemic to Naples, described it as a place where ‘everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness’. One wonders what he would make of it today.
“Campania is Italy’s poorest region and in many respects its saddest. The holidaymakers who come to the region generally see only Capri or resorts such as Sorrento and Positano, but most of the people of Campania live in the immense hinterlands of Naples and Salerno, often in perilously sited or poorly built housing blocks – the visible manifestations of corruption and the capillary presence of the local mafia, the Camorra.”
Perhaps it was my upbringing in suburban Ireland, but this dichotomy only enhanced my intrigue. With this in mind, we departed the Centro Storico and made our way to Fuorigrotta on the city’s outskirts. It was the neighbourhood that housed the Stadio San Paolo, and we were making a pilgrimage. Taking stock, we fell into a bar in the shadow of the stadium per un caffè. It was populated exclusively by locals and adorned with swathes of club memorabilia.
We ordered in Italian, and our clumsy Sicilian twang raised eyebrows. Before we knew it we were peppered with questions, and as soon as we were outed as football pilgrims, we were regaled with tales of glory days past. Eyes glazed over as our interlocutors fluidly interchanged between Napoli, Diego Maradona, and existential questions of life. We had expected to be met with silence, but instead were swiftly escorted across to the stadium, through its gates, and onto the pitch, left to our own devices and blessed with complete free reign.
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It was an incredible feeling to touch the sacred turf that Maradona had once graced. To set foot in the arena where he produced displays that solicited Gianni Brera, famed editor of La Gazzetta, to describe him as, “The hyperbolic beast, in the infernal, mythological sense of Cerberus: if you do as much as respect him, out of sporting fairness, he’ll plant his teeth in the scruff of your neck, rip off your head and let it fall to the ground like a piece of fruit from the already sodden petiole.”
But it was not purely sporting prowess that earned Maradona such hallowed praise. From the moment of his debut, he latched on to the city’s character and understood their struggle: “My debut was an away game against Verona, in the north of Italy, on 16 September, 1984. They hammered three in against us. They had the Dane Preben Elkjaer, and the German Briegel, who could get me off the pitch with the simplest of moves. They greeted us with a flag that made me understand, suddenly, that Napoli’s struggle wasn’t just a football matter: ‘Welcome to Italy’, it said. It was north against south, racism against poverty.
“To have won Napoli’s first Scudetto in 60 years was, for me, an incomparable victory. Different from any other, even the 1986 World Cup. We built Napoli from the bottom: it was proper workmanship. The Scudetto belonged to the whole city, and the people began to realise that there was no reason to be afraid: that it’s not the one with the most money who wins but the one who fights the most, who wants it the most. I was the captain of the ship, I was the flag. They could mess with anyone but not with me. It was that simple. When we started building that team, the results came: Inter came, we thrashed them; Milan came, we beat them. We beat everybody.”
The evenings back in Sicily had been serene. Work would culminate and we would retreat to our base per la cena, which would last for hours on end. Red wine would flow, conversation would meander, and the sun would slowly sink behind Mount Etna. Once the appropriate hour came, we would disperse and return to our dormitories, before swiftly falling into a profound sleep. It was a simple way of life.
Night fell differently in Naples. Gone were the ambling conversation and the relaxed drinks, and in its place was a delightful madness. We didn’t heed the pace with which the Campanian sun fell on that final night, so overwhelmed were our senses. In the morning we would be on a train to Cassino, to investigate Lazio farming culture. Our motley gang gathered in the centre of a piazza, and we regaled our day’s exploits. The tourists recalled the sights they saw, while the locals relayed the inner-workings of their daily lives, devoid of pretension, matters they deemed mundane but we found intriguing.
Suddenly, a football was produced, drinks were abandoned, and a passionate game erupted right there in the piazza. My attention, however, was elsewhere. I was smitten by a Neapolitan. She had voluminous dark, curly hair that fell over her shoulders, and a pair of deeply-set hazel eyes. Born of a Sicilian mother, she had initiated conversation having heard me braggadociously proclaim my tenuous Sicilian roots. She was Naples in the flesh. She had an esoteric quality both intangible and overpowering, an innate confidence that transcended pontification and resonated with an unmatched simplicity. Hers was an essence that mere prose didn’t do justice, but once you tacitly comprehended, you could never forget. She was Naples in the flesh.