Alexis Self gets to know his Neapolitan neighbours while under lockdown
In her book I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sue Prideaux quotes an account of a trip the philosopher made to Naples: “It was to be his first entry into the classical world. He was given no time to mark the solemn moment. Instead, he must waste all his consciousness and thought on outwitting the aggressive urchins who haggled and hustled and quarrelled over his luggage like thieving magpies.”
Apart from making the progenitor of the Übermensch sound like a prim bluestocking on a package holiday to Marrakech, this story confirms a view of Naples still held by many. Due to its raffish reputation, the city has largely managed to avoid the soul-sucking wrought by mass tourism on many other Italian locales—though, admittedly, even this statement, made as it is by another outsider from the north, is more than a little trite.
When I moved here in February, I told myself that a few months of teaching English to young Neapolitans would give me perspective lacking from most who visit these shores; while at the same time anticipating long afternoons of variety, leisure and, most importantly, warmth. I looked forward to reinforcing my small armoury of Italian phrases but did not expect quaranta giorni to become one of the few new arrivals.
While the coronavirus crisis was escalating in northern Italy, I was still skipping between my student’s apartments in the Vomero, an affluent district that overlooks Naples’s centre. Stopping to catch my breath, and gaze wide-eyed at this ancient metropolis stretched across the yawning bay, Vesuvius’s twin peaks looming in the background, I congratulated myself on my good fortune.
Like all proper emergencies, the present one came both inevitably and completely by surprise. One moment I was sat in Piazza Bellini sipping a negroni, the next I was being stopped by masked carabinieri keen to know what on earth I was doing outside at two on a Tuesday afternoon. I had the option to leave but, partly in order to keep my job, and partly to bear witness, I decided to stay.
Since then, I have moved into Palazzo Spinelli, a magnificently tumble-down 15th century building in the middle of the city’s ancient core, in order to look after a Frenchwoman’s cats. Though UNESCO-designated, this is still very much a working neighbourhood, evidenced by the great number of greengrocers, butchers, fish and cheesemongers, the only things allowed to stay open alongside pharmacies during the lockdown. Only the supermarkets have queues outside, meaning I can shop unhindered, as long as I stick to the small shops. Toilet paper is in good supply, though flour is harder to come by.
All my teaching now takes place online and most of my students, who range in age from nine to 23, haven’t left the house in over two weeks. They will remember this period for the rest of their lives. The majority remain remarkably sanguine. I wish I could say the same for my neighbours, whose domestic quarrelling (or is it just normal conversation?) ricochets around the courtyard, competing for my distraction with the smell of several concurrent meals.
Both are blown out the water by the local cantante, a crooner who serenades the street at six every evening. Conveniently he has a new CD coming out. After 12 days, I’ve grown weary of his repertoire, but my neighbours still singalong, banging pots and pans from the darkness of their balconies. A priest has started giving mass over megaphone.
I wonder if they notice me loping about in my confinement. I am grateful for the company of Antonio, a sardonic Puglian and Anglophile, who has become my fellow inmate. We spend our days largely apart but convene every evening to eat and discuss the things we will do when the quarantine is over: mostly visit certain bars and restaurants.
Despite my love of Naples ’44, Norman Lewis’ fabled account of the city’s trials and tribulations during World War II, I am still surprised and impressed at the present stoicism. Jakob von Uexküll, another distinguished German visitor, was so taken by Neapolitan joie de vivre that he used it to inform his Umwelt theory, which posits the ineluctable fusion of mind and place.
He wrote, “can people who experience this wonder with such fervour ever become philistines? A philistine is someone who worships the everyday… The Neapolitan doesn’t know the everyday. To him, everyday is a new beginning, for it can be the last.” Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, announced yesterday that the quarantine will extend beyond the original 3rd April end date.
All around I can hear people bridling at the conformity inherent in mass confinement. As for me, I look forward eagerly to my 4pm espresso—just another foreign philistine content to witness the Neapolitan everyday.