One great thing about Naples is that it’s all right, it seems, to be off your head. At times, you begin to wonder whether it’s not a performance of some kind that you’re being treated to.
In one metro station when we visited last weekend, there was a man who could have been a Latin American native but probably wasn’t – the variety of Neapolitan face types is remarkable, and so much greater than further north – playing his guitar and singing. He had one of the worst voices I had ever heard: raucous and slightly out of tune. And he only knew how to play three chords on his very scratchy old guitar. He had been practising, probably, but he still wasn’t all that adept at changing chord, so his song got a bit disrupted from time to time as he rearranged his fingers. At first I couldn’t work out where the racket was coming from, but round a corner, there he was, standing on one leg, the other knee pressed against the shiny red wall panel so he could balance the guitar on it. He was utterly focussed on his musical endeavours, with nothing at all in the way of money-collecting equipment. So he wasn’t busking so much as serenading his reflection. No one seemed to notice much.
On suspended screens at intervals along the platform, a lady at a kitchen bench was showing travellers how to make a vegan chocolate cake (does the average Neapolitan know what a vegan is? and if so, would they bother to make a chocolate cake for such a strange animal?) One dowdy looking late middle aged lady came rushing up to beneath a screen and started mouthing the ingredient list to herself, then rushed off again. Does she make a point of collecting and concocting each day’s recipe?
Another journey, another platform: there’s a group of three people, probably in their 30s, quite smartly dressed, talking in Neapolitan accents. One is doing an exposition of the ad on the wall behind my back, explaining that it’s for a local supermarket and that particular person in the photo is there because he wants one thing and the others have gone along to keep him company and their surprised looks are due to the fact that they’re amazed at the range of products. The disquisition goes on for several minutes, with the others nodding sagely. When I look, it’s an advert for a bar (or at least I think it is because we walked past a rather seedy-looking bar of the same name later that morning) or perhaps a make of coffee sold in bars which bear its name. You have to look quite hard even to get this far because the goods (bottles) on the shelf behind are all terribly out of focus and largely obscured by a large kentia palm. In front is a row of people looking like they’ve been photographed while on a ghost train or a big dipper, screaming and with their hair being blown about. Opaqe as its message is, it’s clearly not a supermarket.
Another wonderful thing is how the city is almost a whole season ahead. Yes, we are having a remarkably – even distressingly – mild end-of-winter our way, to the extent that my poor little apricot tree is covered in blossom and one brisk breath of wind or even the lightest frost will mean that once again this year we won’t have a single fruit. But in Naples any tiny cliff-clinging plot is awash with lemons and oranges and, in glorious profusion, brilliantly coloured camellias on huge branched things which would more properly be described as trees, rather than bushes.
There’s money in Naples (the parts we were carousing in were elegantly prosperous) but there’s also a very visible mass of the very poor. On Saturday afternoon we strolled through the Chiaia district, with its smart boutiques and general feeling of well being. And yesterday evening we went aperitivo-ing in Vomero, among rowdy crowds of fashion-labeled youth and rivers of well heeled shoppers on their Saturday parade up and down via Scarlatti. On Sunday morning we went down into the old centre to check out the Madre gallery. Just one stop away from elegant piazza Amadeo the clientele changes. The average height dips and the jacket of choice is shapeless puffa in nameless synthetic. It feels like walking through the leftovers of some low-rent clothes market featuring the worst of Made-in-China (though as the number of Chinese sweatshops around Naples is immense, they probably don’t have to bring these clothes from quite so far). You get the feeling, too, that washing facilities aren’t always that easy to come by.
Once through the old city walls, the scene changes again, to Medieval or maybe something earlier. All the little hole-in-the-wall fishmongers’ are open – this is Sunday morning, after all, and there’s Sunday lunch to make. But apart from that, it’s rattling and empty and episodic: a gaggle of unkempt children outside a shop where there’s a clown who’s making animals out of thin sausage balloons; an odd character lounging by the very bar named in that inexplicable poster in the metro; someone clanking a trolley of nothing down a narrow alley; an old old man wandering in slippers.
Inside Madre, the collection and exhibitions are take it or leave it – there are some interesting site-specific things in the permanent collection but as for Vettor Pisani and his friends – they’re another reminder that the 1970s were a decade which we might do well to put away in the broom cupboard and forget about. But from the gallery’s windows, on the walls just arm’s length away across tiny streets, there’s a wealth of spontaneous vegetation that I find mesmerising.
After a couple of spectacular days it’s raining again in CdP, battering against the south-facing window here in the living room and making me wonder what it’s doing to my delicate apricot blossom. (It’s night now, and I’m writing by the wood burning stove.) Apricots need a patch of serious cold to produce much fruit anyway, and we definitely haven’t had that this winter: so far, I’ve found iced-over car windows perhaps… twice?