Short Stories in Naples

On Thursday morning, at the patisserie Poppella, I wrote this in my journal:

I'm so overwhelmed by Naples. It's so busy. I feel like I'll be trampled when I walk on the street. Everything is dirty. Garbage is all over the streets. I'm afraid to take out my computer. I'm afraid someone will take it. Is this unreasonable? Is it not? This Poppella feels like a New York coffee shop. It's so slick, refined. Insane contrast to the bedlam clamor all around. I'm breathing. I'm calming down. The pastry was good, and the cappuccino is too.

I can people-watch here. That's good. it's stable. By the standards at least that I'm used to, this is not a rich area. The people are living their lives. And this patisserie, it's a castle built up from the paupers' plains. I sit at the drawbridge, protected by its shadow but in view here of the rabble--breathe, breathe.

I use that word "rabble," this "pauper." I see that I'm judging them, categorizing because I am afraid. I feel this need to know their quantity, to define them. Let me breathe a while. I'll sip my cappuccino.

I stopped before here at another shop, called Poppella too. The man sitting in the doorway called me in, said something in Italian, or Napulitano, but I heard "dolce" and "sale"--sweet or savory, I guessed. "Dolce," I said, and he served me up an enormous pastry without inquiring further.

I think now, this must have been the day-old shop. Claggy, cold, too drenched in powdered sugar. I ate it fast. I wanted out of there.

There is a fruitseller opposite me here. The motorbikes race by--there must be eight or nine for every car. He smokes a cigarette as he packs the plums and peaches. More of the merchandise is outside the shop than in.

I feel the sugar in my brain now. I'll get some greens for dinner tonight.

I have formed something of a habit these last five days. I wake at 8:30 and check the news. I do the New York Times’s mini-crossword. I practice Italian. I switch the blessed three-pronged plug adapter that we found in the apartment from phone to computer. I drink water.

Breakfast is a retreat to Northern Europe–banana, muesli, yoghurt: something that would draw stares outside of the apartment, where breakfast means coffee and a pastry. Then I set out with my husband along the streets, he to pizza class, me to hunt out a café.

Diners at the Poppella Patisserie along a busy street in Naples, Italy.

I don’t like coffee. I stand by tea. But here, it is one of the customs I think I can adopt, and I’ve come to quite enjoy a cappuccino at a table. I sip. I set a stopwatch. I pull out the laptop. I start my work.

I am writing short stories. I’ve completed three and a half rough drafts (the half is one I started before leaving Norway), about 14,500 words, plus blog posts here and a little journaling. This summer is meant to be a writing time, to devote myself to what I struggle to find the energy and time leftover for during school. If I can build a habit, maybe it will stick when I return to Norway.

Garbage littering the street in Naples, Italy.
Laundry drying on a clothes line against a blue sky in Naples, Italy.

When I closed the journal, on Thursday at Poppella, I felt calmer. The fever of thoughts out on the page–they dry and blow away a bit. Then I can get on with something else. And I look back at what I wrote. I feel a bit loathe to post it here. It is those two words–pauper, rabble–they embarrass me. They reduce people’s complex, variegated lives to poverty. I’m not even sure it is poverty. Perhaps it’s just a different way of living in a city.

But I want to post it because I think it captures accurately my experience here, which has been overwhelming, fast, and rough. Walking on the streets, the traffic is fast and uncompromising. The sidewalks are often obstructed with parked cars, laundry racks, and trash. It’s a quick jab into the street of honking horns, then back. It reminds me vividly of Marrakech.

A pile of garbage at the side of a narrow street in Naples, Italy.

Some research online [here’s one piece by NPR] reveals that the garbage here is no new problem. In 2008 international media reported about the intransigent Camorra, the local organized crime organization controlling much of the city’s waste disposal system. Camorra-owned landfills illegally dump toxic waste, contributing to rising cancer rates, and there is not space in the landfills available for household garbage, which spills out in the streets.

Italians love their coffee, but the café culture here is very different from what I expected. While it’s quite normal for Italians to linger over dinner, to socialize, four courses, appreciate the food, their coffee stops are brief. Most commonly, people stand at the bar to drink an espresso. For a table, one pays extra. I am almost always the longest-staying customer. It’s my American coffee shop wile-away-the-hours complex. I’m the only one with a computer. I suppose they think I am strange.

A little ways into my typing, that Thursday, after journaling, a commotion broke. Shopkeepers across the street were drawing down their gates. I looked left. The crowd there seemed to have thickened. Who was coming? Should I go? A couple of minutes later, I saw that it was a funeral procession. A hearse drove carefully through, and a parade of mourners followed on at a walk. The shops had closed out of respect, and as the hearse drove past, they rolled the doors back wide.

An hour or two at one café or another, and I return along the edges of the streets and stop in shops along the way. There are a few small supermarkets around, but more often the stores are specialized: I buy vegetables here, and pasta there. In the butcher’s, I buy a little cheese. I go to the supermarket for whatever I cannot find elsewhere.

In the afternoon, my writing grows more intense. I set a timer for fifty-five minutes, during which I give myself two options: type, or stare (the impetus for this strategy came from here). I’ll also drink tea. It’s good. I do one or two sessions of this, and I’m avoiding the distractions that so often plague writing for me. I stop and brainstorm when I’m not sure what direction to take things in. It seems to be working. I’m getting a lot done.

Naples is a crucible hot, fast, bold, and loud. If I become something of a hermit in the afternoons, I apologize. I’m glad I’m here. I’m just taking it a small dose at a time.

With love,
Jimmy

A narrow street in Naples, Italy.

3 thoughts on “Short Stories in Naples

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  1. You’re very courageous! Fast, intense crowds overwhelm me. But maybe all that energy stores up inside you and comes out in your writing sessions. Wishing you well, with delicious pizza at the end!

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    1. I hope that is right, that the energy ended up helping my writing! It definitely gave me some inspiration for at least one short story. Thank you for reading and the good wishes, Marian! The pizza was incredible.

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  2. I think you captured the authentic character of Naples. It is good to expand your comfort zone sometimes. It makes you appreciate your home.

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