We went to Naples for the weekend which is always a shot in the arm. Naples at the moment is a fluttering wave of sky blue: flags, banners, posters, t-shirts. Hanging from balconies, festooned across streets, streaming out behind motorini, stretched tight across chests small and very large. SCC Napoli has pulled well ahead of the field in this year’s football championship and the city is ready to party.
I found the joy shocking.
I mean… Naples. The most superstitious place on earth. You wouldn’t want to be a black cat in Naples. People will cross the road to avoid a red-haired person. There are rites and rituals, gestures and phrases to keep the evil eye at a distance and bad luck at bay. It’s an endless, dramatic, highly animated battle to avoid fate not going your way.
Now, Napoli is well ahead in the league tables but it’s not unassailable. There are still many weeks to go. Even if every single thing goes their way they can’t win on numbers until the second half of April. Why exactly has scaramanzia-caution been so utterly thrown to the wind?
There’s endless speculation about what’s going on in the Neapolitan psyche but none of it is very satisfying. Ok, it’s 33 years since Maradona handed them their last scudetto and 33 years seems like a good, significant anniversary for getting the big prize back. But that’s not really enough. Every Neapolitan we talked to was absolutely confident and absolutely quaking: the great expectations are heartfelt but with severe reservations. Is everyone in Naples sleeping with a corno rosso under their pillows?
One thing that the beatification of the not-yet-victorious team has underscored is the extent to which these local saints are far from local. As you walk down via Materdei, ticking off the player-by-player banners festooned above the street, you’re struck by the fact that just six of the 28-strong line-up (plus the coach) are Italian. Shall we stick our necks out a little and say that – in this age when migrants are spoken of in such disparaging terms and ‘economic’ migrants have it hardest of all – Napoli’s looming triumph (and may it remain that way) is kind of dependent on economic migrants? It’s a nice little ironic twist and I’m going to stand by it.
On Saturday, we went up Vesuvius. We didn’t go the gran cono crater: that wasn’t our goal. We went to the valle dell’Inferno (the valley of Hell), picked up our brilliant guide, and strode off to find crystals and lava cords and the extraordinary formations that only something as powerful as a volcano can produce. The whole area is utterly fascinating.
Every little detail of the geology of the place is – tragically in one sense but also fascinatingly – on show “thanks” to massive arson committed in 2017. Organized crime set fires all around the volcano complex on a day of high winds. The national park, only established in 1995 and much hated by many louche actors who objected to the area being ‘protected’ by anyone but them, went up like a tinderbox.
These days it’s a graveyard of twisted trunks. They’ve gone for a ‘minimum intervention’ re-greening… di necessità virtù, I expect. But if you know how to look, if you’re prepared to gaze beyond the destruction to the rebirth, there’s so much going on. Pine trees. Holm oaks. Ok they’re mostly knee-high but they’re signs of hope. So much gorse – lower-growing autochthonous specimens (Spartium junceum and Cytisus scoparius) which are bounding back with gusto unlike the taller Genista aetnensis (Etna broom) which was imported from Sicily and heavily planted here after past eruptions but which shows no sign of recovering from the 2017 singeing. Plants are brilliant: they know where they thrive.
It’s tough work crunching along in the deep layers of shifting volcanic dust and micro-pebbles, stirring muscles that generally lie dormant. Our guide pointed out the different types of rock formed and/or ejected at different times by the massive complex – the smaller shards and the rounded bombe – which is the name for anything over a certain diametre heaved immense distances up and down, and unleashed with pulverising effect on anything that happened to be beneath. We crawled through a slit in the landscape which had been caused by one seismic laceration. We split open rocks to reveal little accumulations of crystals of many colours, some of which only exist on this volcano.
Also fascinating was the description of the mutations over the millennia of what is not just one smoky pointy mountain but – as I said – a whole complex. The peak which we refer to as Vesuvius probably only formed with the AD79 eruption, the one that took out Pompeii and Herculaneum and remains The Eruption of popular imagination. Prior to that cataclysm, the Somma-Vesuvius complex was far larger, a vast caldera stretching 15km across, which over the ages imploded into itself, diverting fiery activity up the mountain which we now refer to as Vesuvius. Down in the valle dell’Inferno you can feel that ancient caldera. With Monte Somma rising to the north and Vesuvius to the south, it’s a powerful reminder of what lies beneath.
Which makes it all the more remarkable quite how many people live quite far up that still-throbbing volcano. En route to Quota 1000 where we had our appointment, Google directed the taxi driver along a very wiggly alternative route. It happens, especially in the labyrinth around Naples.
There are ribbons of cluttered houses along these treacherous one-track roads, reaching far far up the mountain. Just as there are high-ish rises lining the larger crater approach roads. In fact the 25 towns within the Vesuvius red zone are home to some 700,000 souls. If that thing were to blow, the chances of getting many of those people off the mountain are pretty much zero.
I was reminiscing with Stefano our guide about an attempted evacuation rehearsal which took place many moons ago when I was a journalist. Could it have been in 1999? I’m not sure. I do remember, though, that it was a very limited trial, and that it was a magnificent farce. According to Stefano the official Vesuvius evacuation plan has per sopravvissuti (for survivors) written on its front cover. I haven’t been able to verify this rather curtailed approach to saving the lives of the populace. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Back home, I’ve been musing on the locals’ perceptions of each other. There’s an elderly lady I keep an eye on in CdP. Her dementia is worsening. CdP’s an excellent place to be a smemorata old person: the town is like one big sheltered housing complex, with everyone looking out for everyone else. It’s difficult to think of anywhere safer for vulnerable people. And yet, and yet.
Each time I go into a shop to apologise for my friend walking out without paying or not having cash to hand to settle her bills, I hear the same dire warning. It’s so dangerous for her to be out and about by herself. Anything could happen. I’m an honest person and would never take advantage but… (dramatic pause) you really can’t be sure of other people. Not everyone’s like me.
The woman in the phone shop. Catia in the haberdasher’s. Piero in the hardware store. The people in the little supermarkets. Each of them warning me about unspecified untrustworthy ‘others’ in terms which make them sound dangerous in the extreme.
The thing is: these people have known each other since they were born. Many of them are related. They bump into each other several times a day and know all of each other’s secrets. It’s not so much that they mistrust each other. It’s more that they all suspect that there are unidentified Dark Forces at work, ready to overthrow their order. If I pressed them for hard proof, their arguments would fall apart.
The amazing essential goodness of what surrounds us here was brought home to me by the brother of another friend, Tom. Tom had just lost his husband, our dear Adriano. His brother came from the US to attend the funeral and spend time with him. At dinner one evening the brother was relating – in total bewilderment – his progress with Tom around the neighbourhood. He couldn’t believe how, quite unbidden, passing acquaintances – pharmacists, notaries, waiters, bank clerks, check-out workers – emerged from behind desks and cash desks, from back rooms and offices, to throw their arms around Tom and share his grief. He couldn’t get over the affection of it all. But that’s just the kind of place it is.
I’m wondering (full of hope) whether it’s going to be the Year of the Apricot. The big old tree and the little ones are covered in blossom – all together this year rather than oddly staggered as they usually are. How fantastic that would be. I’m trying to make up for lost planting and sowing time. Between travelling and work I really haven’t been keeping up with anything in the garden, including the veggies.
In my endless post-Brexit search for a replacement for the UK organic seed supplier which I can no longer favour with my custom I tried an Irish company this year. Such very stingy quantities of seed. They’d better all come up because otherwise we’ll have precious few tomatoes.
Today with the moon just beginning to wax I’ve put peas in the ground and tomatoes in pots. Better late than never.