Being an Italian-American has always been quite tough for me. In America they always called me “the Italian girl”, in Italy “Ammericà”. But I really did not know “what I was”. I can say that my family did a great job educating me and teaching me the “good values” that would help me become a “good person”.
But some were Italian values, and some were American. And sometimes they colluded. Since I spent most of my life in Italy, and more specifically, in Naples, many times I felt “different” from my friends, my colleagues and people living in my neighborhood. This discomfort was one of the main reasons that led me to a crucial decision: to leave Naples and find “my place” - the city where I could start a new life and feel free to be myself.
I moved to New York one year ago or so. I already know that I will not live here for the rest of
my life although I love this experience and hope that it will last a long time. I look at this city as a “bridge” that “connects” my past to my future, wherever it will be. I am starting to understand much more about myself. But most of all, I found my identity: the Italan-American identity. So, for the first time in my life, I feel part of a community, I feel similar to many people that share an important life experience with me : being neither an American nor an Italian, but “hybrids” who have their own culture, history, and maybe even language.
A month or so ago, we interviewed a number of Italian-Americans at the Calandra Institute of Queens College and asked them what is the first thing that comes to their mind when they think about Italy. I just watched the video again and asked myself the same question. The first thing I realized is that in my case it is not Italy that I think about, but it is Naples. In my city they said that “Napoli è terra straniera” (Naples is a foreign territory) or that “siamo il Nord dell’Africa”(we are the Northern part of Africa). Yes, because Naples is not Italy, it is a small planet on its own, where people obey different laws, have different values and carry on a “Neapolitan life style”.
Just a year ago I had arrived at the point where I hated that city.
I hated Camorra organized crime, the baby gangs, the garbage emergency, Vesuvio ready to explode at any time, the abusive infrastructures and the rotting hospitals and schools.
I hated the helpless unemployment, the almost pandemic state of poverty of a high percentage of the families, the gossiping women sitting on the doorsteps, the children playing soccer in the middle of the square and ready to kick the ball with the extraordinary power of their skinny legs just when I was trying to cross the street, and the always-complaining-grumpy-old-men sipping espresso coffee at the bar all day long.
I hated the constant negotiating with the “fruttivendolo” (greengrocer) and “macellaio”
(butcher) to have a little discount on a very expensive pound of “cerase” (cherries) or filetto, the dioxine in the mozzarella, the rudeness of the waiters in the “pizzerias” and the sensation that I was pretending “too much” from them if I asked for another fork because mine was dirty.
I hated the abusive parking attendants to whom I had to give “due, non meno” (two euro and not less) to watch my car otherwise they would probably vandalize it; the constant fear I had that somebody would steal my pocketbook from my hand or my earrings or necklace; the danger in taking the subway after 8 pm; the real possibility that somebody on the bus could take my cell phone from my backpack.
I hated all of these things, and much more. So I went away.
Now a year has passed by and I have lived a whole range of experiences here in New York. I would never ever go back to Naples, it certainly is not the place for me place, it is not my future. But now at least I can say I do not hate it. Or better still, I miss it a little bit. I miss my “Neapolitan routine” as I used to call it, and some things that in Naples are “normal” but not in the rest of the world, especially in Manhattan.
The following is a brief list of the things I really feel I miss.
First of all, the sea. It might seem quite strange to you since Manhattan is an island, but I miss the sea. Here I do not feel the presence of the ocean, at all. I can’t smell the dampness of the seashore, my hair can not find the rhythm of the sea breeze. I remember my fishmonger advising me on the deal of the day. “Pigliete chest che è pesce paesan” (Take this, it is local
fish), as if he raised that cod fish in his backyard… Now I do realize how the sea was part of our everyday life.
Second, the days spent at the bar in front of my University. I used to go downtown and wake up my friend Rodrigo at about 9 am. We had our first coffee at 9:30, our breakfast. By the time it was 5 pm, we easily had 8 empty espresso cups on the table, four each. We used to stay there all day long, people saw us from far away and joined us for a half an hour or so. That was a great way for both me and him to study, meet friends, discuss our dreams, ideals, opinions and, of course, argue. The waiter used to come every once in a while trying to find out if we were finally going to leave the table to some other client, but there was no way to kick us away! And of course he eyed us very badly when his shift was over and we were still there, and he had to go away with no tip at all!
Now I look back and I realize that it was something we could do only in Naples. Only in that spot of the world’s map do people have the right to waste a whole day like that, and nobody can do anything about it. It is just the way it is.
Third, the screams. People in Naples scream, it is in their nature. Every hour or so you can hear a mother of child screaming from the window something like “Gennà saje che t’agg fatt a merenn” (Gennaro come upstairs, I have a snack for you) to the kid playing downstairs carefully watched over by his grandma or some widow dressed in black sitting outside her tobacco shop. Everybody in Italy recognizes Neapolitans by their loud voices, it is like a trademark. Here in New York I hear people screaming only when there is an emergency or something dangerous is happening. It is the exception. In Naples, on the contrary, it is when people are quiet that there is something wrong, and you have to start
worrying. Silence can become the best way to communicate when you know the “Neapolitan code” that allows you to read the other’s mind without saying a word. Otherwise, when a Neapolitan screams, don’t worry. He could threaten you, but be sure that his hands won’t go further than his words. And, after he finishes, you can just walk away.
Fourth, the beer. Yes, of course I drink beer here in New York. A pint of Guinness is always a fair treat after a week of work. But you can only enjoy it indoors.
Here it is illegal to sip from the bottle while walking around. Too bad, because when I went out in Naples this is how I used to spend my evenings with my friends. “A passejata (a walk) a Piazza del Gesù” was “a must”. A beer each and a couple of guitars on the doorsteps of the church and we were all set. Singing and dancing in the middle of the street was a “habit” for us, and people in that neighborhood came to know “sti pazzariell” (these crazy kids) and
sometimes also applauded our…performance! It was funny to see how the group got larger and larger as the hours passed by, with other groups joining us. Now that I think about it, I realize how Naples never really became a metropolis, but always remained in a certain sense a small town. A village where housewives leave the entrance door of their apartments open so that the other women in the building can step in and have a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. A place where people can be very egoistical and self-centered but also very generous.
Naples is a living contradiction; it is black and white together. But, as we say here in America, “that’s the way the ball bounces” and after all it is not that bad.