This week, we’re proud to present our first ever contribution of original creative non-fiction, courtesy of Daniel Carpenter, who also gave us this great Ninjas post about David Foster Wallace!
I’ve only been in Italy for a day when we get kicked out of the flat earlier than expected due in part to a freak bout of influenza, bronchitis and scarlet fever which seems to have sprung from the depths of a 17th century family saga to strike down the family we are staying with. It’s a tiny flat and our goodbyes are done across the middle of a sofa which over the course of that morning has become the quarantine zone. Outside, it looks bright and sunny, but the wind almost knocks you over the same way the cars threaten to do whenever you step out into the middle of the street. I have been in Italy for one day and I’ve already been driven on the pavement by a taxi driver who got stuck in traffic, he called it a shortcut.
I’ve come, like all the best knights, to rescue my girlfriend. She has been staying in Italy for two months, an au pair to the family of a tour guide in the centre of Naples. The plan as it stands is to creep across Europe, up to Venice and across to Paris where we will celebrate our sixth anniversary in style. It’s a good plan.
The first stop though, isn’t really a stop for my girlfriend. Two more days in Naples for her, two days in the city for me. We’ve spent the past couple of months on Skype, her talking up the metropolitan cafes and bookshops, the beauty of Vesuvius and the sheer scale of the city but what she leaves out is just how alienating the city is to strangers. It does not welcome them. There’s a story about Naples during the Second World War: It was one of the first cities to overthrow the Nazi occupation, and it took them four days to drive out an entire army. When the allies showed up to rescue them, they realised they weren’t needed, and immediately left. All credit to the Nazis; four days is pretty impressive. If this city were to be invaded now, you can bet your life that any occupying force wouldn’t last the afternoon.
The city itself has a trend for graffiti, a ‘nothing is sacred’ approach to street art in which everything from the pavements, to trams, to museum walls are covered in tags and pictures. One afternoon we head down the riverside towards a small beach. Behind us, the remnants of a fairground are tarpaulined over, waiting for a better day. Two kids cycle suspiciously in ever decreasing circles near us. I suddenly realise I know no Italian and wonder whether, if they were to mug us, this would make negotiations difficult. Beyond them, lying on the sand is a long row of huge white boulders, which my girlfriend wants to climb on. Someone has scrawled enormous letters across the front of a few of these boulders and at a certain angle, it just about forms a word.
You’ve seen pictures of favelas, Brazilian slum districts where the bright rectangular buildings appear from a distance to lie on top of each other, rising higher and higher into the hills. Naples is like that too. Everywhere you look, everywhere you walk, someone has found a way to insert a block of flats, or a bar, or a bookstore.
The hotel is officially The Worst Hotel in Italy. It’s a small place called Hotel La Place, or The Palace Hotel and it’s found somewhere near the main train station which is widely known for being one the worst areas in the world for pickpocketing. Or one of the best. We walk past a street packed full of black market goods – trainers and clothing mostly – and at the end of that road, a small square packed full of Neapolitans and even more market pitches, these strewn across blankets and towels. Our hotel is opposite. Litter piles up on street corners. The garbage disposal in the city is run by the Cammora, the Mafia. There’s a story that they hire teams of children to collect and deliver the bin bags and make a huge profit from it. The guy that runs it apparently lives somewhere in the city, behind a sliding concrete wall.
Of course the shower doesn’t work. Of course half the light bulbs are broken. Of course the heating has been left on, creating the illusion that we’ve checked into a sauna, with added bed. We checked in to The Palace Hotel and mysteriously, upon leaving the lift, found ourselves in Hotel Mexico. It seems that The Palace Hotel begins and ends with the check-in desk, a small lobby and the lift itself. The radiators in the room are on full blast and as is usual for rooms in Italy, thick, heavy-set shutters are installed in the windows. In the flat, they were beautiful wooden slatted blinds. In The Palace Hotel, they are cold metal shop shutters. The issue with the shower is that, to be honest, it isn’t really a shower. It’s a thin white hose attached to the wall of our bathroom with a rudimentary shower head stuck on the end. There’s a hole in it and when we turn the thing on, water sprays out of the side like someone’s jugular in a horror movie.
The staff don’t speak English all that much but when we finally get across what’s wrong they promise the whole thing will be fixed in an hour. At least that’s what we assume. I decide that next time I go to a foreign country, I will endeavour to learn the language. That or semaphore. Two hours later we leave the hotel for the day, shower still broken.
Traffic in the city is how I imagine things are in blood vessels. Cars and motorbikes speed across intersections and traffic lights with disregard for each other and pedestrians. They bounce off one another like blood cells, fighting their way down capillaries and arteries. Crossing the road is a leap of faith and my girlfriend grasps my hand every time and tugs me across. The girl is a pro and I realise I was wrong. I’m not a knight, coming overseas to rescue her, she’s there to rescue me.
We go for food. Real food. In tiny restaurants that serve plain balls of mozzarella as a starter and have enormous clay ovens that take up half the place. We find alleyways with shops selling old superhero comics from the 90’s. Every one of those little alleyways is a thing of beauty. Washing lines stretch between homes, and tiny balcony gardens grow tall and thick with herbs and flowers. We’ve been here a day before I understand how you can fall in love with the place. All it took was comics. I am surprised I didn’t think of it sooner.
My girlfriend takes me across the metro system, beyond the piles of litter that lie on the sides of the roads and up, higher and higher until we reach the walls of a castle. There’s graffiti of course. An aerosol sprayed white dove flies along a pebble dashed wall just behind the driveway of a house. At the edge of the wall, you can see the whole city splayed out in a panorama. On the left, buildings get smaller and smaller and disappear off into the distance. On the right, looming above everything, is Vesuvius. It’s stereotypically volcano. It even does that dip thing in the middle, the way I drew volcanoes as a child. It looks threatening. And then everything makes sense. The people, spending all their time living under the shadow of that thing. I can see the Nazis coming up here, having a look at this huge, sprawling city with a living, breathing fire mountain at one end and thinking, “you’ve got to be fucking joking.”
That evening we return to the hotel, then climb in the lift and head into the other hotel. The shower still hasn’t been fixed and another bulb has gone. We switch rooms and find that every light is broken in this new one. At ten in the evening we find ourselves stealing light bulbs from our first room, sneaking them down the corridor and screwing them in. We try to buy wine from the corner shop, but quickly realise neither of us brought a bottle opener. Never mind, we buy a plastic screw top bottle of red and the man behind the counter hands us two plastic cups and smiles. I have no idea what his smile means. The wine is sparkling. I have never seen sparkling red wine before. It doesn’t make sense.
The only programme on the TV we can agree on is some American sitcom, dubbed into Italian. My girlfriend translates roughly whilst I pour us another cup of wine. “He’s just been told they’ve found a lump,” she says, “so now he’s joining a drum circle.” Outside, crossing the tiled corridor nearest us, someone leaves, wheeling behind them a screeching suitcase. I wonder how long they lasted. I try changing channels, bowing down to the Gods of Holiday who determine that at a nexus point of all travels you will end up watching rolling news. We don’t even have this. So it’s back to the sitcoms. “They’ve bought him some nice trousers,” my girlfriend explains, “so now he’s back to normal.”
I wonder about what it is that makes us fall in love with a place. I remember visits to London, to New York and not understanding why people obsessed over them. I remember how hypocritical I feel when I say this and then talk of Manchester as a perfect place. I wonder what it is about that city that I love. The shops, sure. The buildings, yeah I guess. But those things just make a city a city. They don’t make a place a home. For me, home is people and so I lie down on the bed, in The Worst Hotel in Italy, whilst the traffic outside rattles the shutters and my wine froths up in the plastic cup next to me, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I am a thousand miles away, and home.
Daniel Carpenter is the co-founder of Bad Language and New Writing editor for the Blank Media Collective. He has been published on the Rainy City Stories and Metazen websites, as well as in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology alongside Ian Rankin and Ali Smith.