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We unloaded ourselves from the bus, lagging behind a group of college-age travelers. They scattered off with their backpacks and roll-up bed cushions, most likely to a nearby hostel. Besides them our only other fellow passenger was the street musician who had told us about this last bus from Sorrento to Naples. He had left at an earlier stop, so we couldn’t ask him for any more help. At 3:30 am Piazza Garibaldi was desolate! My friend and I looked around and at each other in disbelief. The nerve center of traffic chaos and a place virtually impossible to navigate with luggage during the day, now looked like a ghost town. It was just the two of us and the two bus drivers, and they were getting ready to drive away. Well, there were a few heaps of blankets scattered around the piazza. From under the heaps, worn shoes with holes and soiled fingers peeked. (I’m pretty sure they were sleeping bodies under the blankets, not corpses.)
I turned to the dark-haired bus driver and asked if there was a bus going to Via Medina, the location of our hotel. “Non c’e niente di piu',” was his response. Then I asked about a taxi. He and I both looked out into the emptiness, as he shrugged and said, “A quest' ora, no.” (At this hour, no.) It looked like the over one-hour walk was our only option for getting home.
Regret and panic set in. What WERE we thinking lingering after dinner in Sorrento having 3 glasses of limoncello? How could we miss the earlier circumvesuviana to Naples? Why didn’t we just find a hotel in Sorrento for the night? Never had I so yearned to be among the crazy traffic, weaving vespas, relentless peddler solicitations, and all out madness that made up the streets of Naples during the day.
Maybe the bus driver detected my nervous tic, my eyelids began twitching faster than those speeding scooters, or he recognized a panic behind my smile. He told us, “Get in.” My friend gave me the, “We’re not getting in that empty bus with them!” look. Our options were getting in or walking back, and I wasn't walking. The bus rambled away, its "fuori servizio" (out of service) sign lit up, the four of us aboard. Our ride ended at the bus depot somewhere in the city. From their they took us in their car.
During the drive, we talked a little, basic chit chat. Where we were from, how long in Naples, etc. The dark-haired driver shared his love for movies, especially American, and his dream to become a director. I asked if he had studied/could study directing at a university. The question brought a chuckle from both and a "Magari!" (if only) from the dark-haired one. Both the question and their response revealed how different life is growing up in California versus growing up in Napoli.
They dropped us right in front of our hotel building like they were dropping friends off after a late night out. I don't know how many times we said "grazie mille." In unison, they replied, “Era niente.” Maybe for them it was nothing, but for us it was huge.
Naples may be the city with the worst reputation in Italy. For many, when they think of Naples, nothing but negative images comes to mind; the camorra, garbage overflowing in the streets, crime, pickpockets, locals preying on tourists, etc. My thoughts about Naples are all positive, and always include that night and the kindness of those bus drivers.
Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many Italians from other parts of Italy categorize all the people of Naples as “furbi” “cattivi”(bad) and even go as far as calling them criminals. After hearing this too many times, I shared my story about the bus drivers with a woman from Bergamo. She surprised me by laughing as she replied, “That would never happen in the north. A northern Italian would have left you in the piazza.” That story changed her tune, she went on to acknowledge the warmness and humanity that is more prevalent among those in Italy's south.
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This isn’t the only Neapolitan act of kindness I’ve heard or seen.
During my recent travels, I took the train from Milan to Naples (a 5-hour ride even on the fastest train). The train was full. A Neapolitan man, somewhere around the age of 30, went to claim his assigned seat to find an older lady was in it. He realized she didn’t have a seat assignment, and would have to stand all the way to Naples. He told her to stay in his seat, and he stood.
A French friend stopped a local on the streets of Naples and asked for a restaurant recommendation. What she received was an invitation to mamma’s for a home-cooked meal. She accepted and still raves about it being the best meal she's ever eaten in Italy.
Now I’ll agree that Neapolitans can be a little quirky. Entire families travel via vespas through the streets – baby on dad’s lap, toddler standing on the platform between seat and steering wheel, and mom holding on in the back. When the seatbelt law passed, seat-belt printed t-shirts appeared for sale throughout the city. They have their wacky superstitions, one that cracks me up is the smorfia; I still don’t understand how a dentist being closed can cause a rash of lotto-ticket buying based on the smorfia numbers for dentists, letters and "surprise," but it happened.
The city has its share of problems, but the everyday people endure and embrace life and others around them. My experience with the everyday people of the city makes the harsh generalizations about them impossible to believe.
The Napoletani have always treated me like an old friend coming for a visit. Not only the guys from the bus, but many others. From the man who got off the bus with me to show me the way to via Tribunali to the salami shop owners who spent at least a half-hour of their lunch time making us sandwiches and giving us tips on places to visit and eat. The ladies at the bus stop who banded together to help us figure out the best way to get to the Capodimonte Museum via bus, and many more. For me the food of Napoli warms my belly, and the warmness of its people should melt the hearts of its coldest critics.
Have you had similar experiences with the Neapolitans? What stories do you have about the people of Naples?
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