O sole mio, Italy
We were married in Naples in the sixties, practically penniless and with no plastic or other financial safeguards. In the seven weeks of paperwork before we foreigners could get legally wed Patti au-paired with the rich Buonomo family while I stayed in the youth hostel on 200 lira a day, and taught English at a high school. We finally found a tiny flat we could afford in the red light district, and got on quite well with the whores on the corner, the day staff that is, ladies who looked rather like our mums: at sunset the real girls took over. Practically next door to us was a place that roasted coffee beans and the mighty aroma would waft up to us on the third floor
We went back to Naples at the turn of the millennium. They told us it would not be like the nineties when there were often police shoot-outs with drug gangs, it was safe now and things were greatly improved. Plenty of graffiti and some trash on the pavements but what struck us was how docile the traffic had become. It was quiet in our old quarter, in the steep cobbled laneway across which we would fire cherrystones from our balcony with just the squidge of two fingertips. No ladies were loitering; gone, too, was the little fruit and vegetable market.
The main street had changed its name back to Via Toledo in memory of earlier Spanish glories, and in the process had become a chic pedestrian plaza with boutiques galore. When it was Via Roma we would see horse-drawn hearses and motocyclists roaring up the wrong way, and once three santa clauses all puffing cigarettes emerge together from a department store. Young tourists brushed past us heading for the Caravaggio exhibition. We looked for and found on a stall graffe, the magnificent fat sugary doughnuts of yore.
At the Anglican church the vicar was leaning a bicycle against the wall. He listened to our short story and ushered us into the vestry: there indeed in the register which had been started in the nineteenth century was our spidery entry, quite spooky really. We checked out the nave and pews and arches, more quaint than holy and as empty as it had been that time: a surge of feeling came back, and a clutch of the hands.
In the phonebook amazingly was listed the office of the lawyer Buonomo, and in fits and starts a meeting was arranged, in a caffe with cane chairs spread out in a nearby piazza. Along came the avvocato now in his seventies, but accompanied by a long-faced handsome young man straight out of a painting. Courteous introductions, a round of cinzanos, some recollections. Patti’s main one was of the son as a six-week old, with a very dirty bottom.
Down at the waterfront at Chiaia the bay was as breathtaking as ever. Sun spangled the blue while Capri’s grey shape beckoned in the middle distance. We had been there on an Easter Day when the air all over the island was heady with wisteria blossom. Further along the waterfront at Santa Lucia we joined a small clutch of onlookers bewitched by Vesuvius, pretty as a picture across the water, and thought of the song. On that corner there, wedged in the back of a Fiat 500, a bigger thing hurtling round the other way had missed us by a whisker, before which Enzo had unnervingly exclaimed ‘If he hits us, I get a new car.’ We had yelled but it was all over. Now we reflected ‘See Naples and die’ and marvelled that we had survived. We had even come back.
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