The guidebooks told us that Naples is a strange, gritty, and chaotic place, filled with vibrant neighborhoods, exquisite ancient mosaics, underground mysteries, and a slumbering volcano. We did not go to Naples, however, because or in spite of these things. We went knowing it is the birthplace of pizza and because It is where people still take pizza very, very seriously.
You need a sense of humor to live in Napoli and, the first few days we were there we almost lost ours. We were shocked by the intense September heat and humidity, jolted by dented cars making u-turns with no warning, motor scooters driving up on garbage laden sidewalks, and taxis speeding straight through red lights. We were also frustrated by our inability to communicate and make sense of our new world. We needed an English speaking guide, but we didn’t know where to find one. Then Roberto entered our lives.
Roberto was a tiny man with wiry white hair, a large vocabulary, and great bravado. He was fluent in many languages including English and Italian, and always wore a shiny gold Star of David on a chain around his neck. He took a fancy to me when he came to sell magnetized business cards to Enzo at Pizzaria La Notizia. I don’t know if Roberto liked me for keeping my equilibrium while Enzo was repeatedly shouting: “Uno! Due! Uno! Due!” while I awkwardly slapped the pizza dough into submission or if it was simply that Roberto felt a connection with me when he learned I was Jewish. Whatever the reason, Roberto became our guide and protector and, after pizza class, he took us on several tours and opened our eyes to the wonders of Naples. On the way to one of these extraordinary places, I asked Roberto, in an exasperated tone, why the Neapolitans drive like madmen.
“Aren’t there any laws here?”
“Jill,” he said calmly. “You must understand one thing…the laws in Naples are only a suggestion!” So we grasped each other’s hands and said a little prayer while Roberto whisked us to Fontanelle Cemetery.
Naples started running out of room to bury its dead in the16th century. To deal with this catastrophe, undertakers started moving bones into a cave just beyond the city walls. When the plague of 1656 swept Naples, thousands of corpses were piled into the caves. Even more corpses were tossed into the cave with the cholera epidemic of 1836. Later, it became a boneyard for paupers. In time (around 1872) a cult devotion to the dead developed and people began cleaning the skulls, praying to them and asking them for favors.
Roberto said there were so many natural disasters and so many deaths in Naples that Neapolitans thought they were being punished. For many, the feeling that developed and prevailed was: Death is just around the corner so live for today! This philosophy made sense to me. After all, it was my mid-life crisis, my belief that life is too short to wait to follow your passion, that led me to Naples. I watched Valerie and Roberto in the cool, dark, creepy cave, and I felt strangely calmer. Like the pizza dough I had been forcefully shaping, I too began to soften, succumb, and accept my destiny.