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  • A love letter to Napoli
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    If Napoli, Italy's southern capital, was a man, it would be the "bad boy" of every woman's dreams. As famous for its relatively high crime rate as for its breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples and the magnificent Vesuvio, Napoli is sensitive with an edge. Much like mischievous men who always get the girl in the end, such a place produces the best sort of contradictions -- fast and slow, sweet and sour. It is a city reborn and the United States' Italian American community should take heed. Your Napoli still needs you to help realize its greatest potential.

    From my first encounter with la mia bella, calda Napoli, I was seduced by its heady sea scent, the laundry drying on lines that stretch from balcony to balcony and, of course, its colorful people. The Commedia dell'Arte, an Italian theatrical tradition that dates back to the 16th century and monogrammed stereotypical characters to represent the country's different regions, depicts Napoli as the masked hunchback with a large hooked nose. He is an incapable court jester, who humors himself by poking fun at authority figures. In a small way, he truly does represent the Napoletani for he finds laughter even amid sadness, potential for beauty even amid ugliness. Any one whose family immigrated from Napoli to the United States knows of this remarkable resiliency. The good people of Naples, many of whom have far less food and stuff than we can imagine in America, will welcome you into their homes and treat you as though you were family. They will share with you whatever little stuff they have.

    That is not to say that the Napoletani are na´ve. They come from a long line of conquered peasants, so defeat and, therefore skepticism, are in their DNA. The ancient Greeks first laid claim to the city and called it Parthenope, Palaepolis and finally Neapolis or "New City." In the 4th century b.c., the Romans conquered Neapolis because of its splendor and baths. Next came the Byzantines, the Normans, a few different emperors including the house of Aragon's rule over the Kingdom of Naples (which included all the states south of the Papal states) in 1282. In 1860, Naples fell to Garibaldi and was annexed to the kingdom of Sardinia. And many of us have found ourselves in America because of the severe damage the Napoletani suffered in World War II, first as they protested Mussolini and the German occupation and then as the allied forces swept in, also causing significant damage.

    Those with Napoletani blood are born broken-hearted, always longing to change their destiny. A few have done it: Enrico Caruso, Toto, Renato Carosone, Sofia Loren, Massimo Ranieri, Gigi D'Alessio, Pino Daniele, Ciro Ferrara, Fabio Cannavaro are the first to come to mind. All of them used their talent to create a more luxurious life, to rise above their lot. But the rest of the country never lets them forget from where they came. The media is constantly pointing out that D'Alessio speaks unabashedly in dialect and that Ferrara, a professional soccer player, breaks into song - like any authentic Napoletano - in the locker room. Lucky for the media, these celebs wouldn't have it any other way. They are the loyal sons and daughters of Napoli. They know all the words to "Malafemmina" and they'll sing 'em for ya. They have seen the brilliant sheen that Napoli can have when someone takes the time to wipe the dirt away. And they want everyone else to see it, too.

    A few weeks ago, I was looking at photos of my recent trip to Napoli with an American friend. She visited Napoli while studying in Italy a few years ago, and told me that she would probably never return to Italy's south. Her explanation: it was too scary with all the men harassing her and the thoughts of petty crime that were planted in her head before she left. In April 2003, Gregory Palermo, a foreigner who has been living in Napoli, reported that "all the ex-patriots who live in Naples hate it here" on talesmag.com, a site that includes a section on the "uncensored view of life abroad."

    I'm not going to lie. The statistics are troubling. According to a recent study on school violence by Ersilia Menesini and Rossella Modiano, Napoli has one of the highest rates of school bullying. In 1996 alone, there were 1,851 reported incidents, according to another study, The Nature of School Bullying: A Cross-national Perspective. These kids, presumably, grow up and account for some of the delinquency in the city. The Federal Bureau of Investigations lists the Camorra, a gang that was born and still is headquartered in Napoli, as the world's largest organized Italian crime group with about 100 clans and 7,000 members. Recently, the Camorra tried to increase demand for illegal garbage dumping by stopping collections; as a result, Napoli's reputation became even stinkier after piles and piles of refuse grew to mountains on the sidewalks. There is a high unemployment rate that makes for desperate people who pick pockets and harass passers-by, especially vulnerable tourists. You will see graffiti, broken down apartments and a pervert or two as you walk down the street. If you choose to drive instead, you will quickly learn that laws - even stopping for a red light - are fairly meaningless here.

    But these Americans who "hate" Napoli or won't ever travel south again, don't know the Napoli that I know, the one that surges in my blood. (Perhaps, the salt water of Napoli is inside you, too!) These outsiders didn't get the chance to see Piazza Plebiscito or Palazzo Reale up close. They couldn't have possibly noticed the blue of Napoli's bay and the scenic view of Capri, Procida and Ischia. They failed to realize that all these islands and Sorrento are all provinces of Napoli.

    Perhaps language barriers, prevented them from seeking out the good people of Napoli, the ones I mentioned earlier. They never met Antonio, who didn't even know me but waited for four hours at the airport with my cousin after an inevitable Alitalia plane delay. (Too bad for them because Antonio speaks fluent English!) They missed out on Enzo, who befriended me on my flight from Roma to Napoli as I was hyperventilating from my fear of flying. Sadly, these Americans don't have cousins like Gavinca and Giusi who go to university in Napoli and showed me just how to wipe the dirt away to see that shine. And their lips certainly could not have tasted the just-flaky-enough dough or perfectly herbed sauce of an authentic Margherita pizza. Let those other tourists miss out on our place. Go to Napoli and not just for your nonna. Go for yourself.

    In her book Mattanza, which is actually about the ancient Sicilian ritual of bluefin tuna fishing, Theresa Maggio writes, "I read somewhere that women fall in love with the place and marry the man." Perhaps, that is why I spend many nights dreaming about un uomo Napoletano whisking me away from reality and back to Napoli or one of its provinces.

    I must confess: La mia bella, calda Napoli, when I am with you, I only hear Caruso's "Core'ngrato." I only see "o sole mio" with its red and gold streaks. I only taste your fresh gifts from the water - clams and calamari. Oh, and that lovely ocean smell! I only feel the goose bumps brought on by your tender sea breeze. Amore mio, ti amo!

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