Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The pursuit of the trash tramp.

October 26, 2010

We travelled from rainy Rome to the western coast, the city of Napoli.  I was looking forward to warmer weather, to gaze at the unending sea, to replace buildings with rock-faced mountains.  But I was caught off-guard by Napoli.

Our hostel, “Hostel of the Sun” (ironic, no?), was a short drive from the train station.  When we first arrived, the taxi driver, silent and swift in unloading our luggage, left us standing there, in the rain.  We had attempted to confirm the address, but in response to every “Italianized” comment, we received a grunted “si” and name of the hostel repeated in our direction. 

The building in front of us was brown.  Not the soft warm tan you would imagine on the quaint streets of Italy, but a dusty, dirty color that reflected the artificial lights, electric and sterile.  We called the hostel.  We were lost.  There was no sign, no arrow pointing “This way.”  And as the rain continued and the darkness persisted, standing out in the cold was our last desire.

Now, finding this hostel was my responsibility.  According to the website, it  had received the highest ratings and the best reviews; it even boasted “award-winning.”  Perhaps I should have researched from where the ratings and reviews originated; maybe I should have inquired as to the nature of said award.  But I didn’t.  And at that point, it was a little late.

Nonetheless, there we were.  My stomach in knots, I just stared at the foreboding structure, unable to meet Jared’s eyes.  When I finally turned to look at him, we had nothing to say to each other.  Yet, I could see it in his face, worry, alarm, and slight amusement (in retrospect, the slight amusement was a little slow in coming).   If the night turned out a disaster, I would never hear the end of it.  So I tried to lighten up the situation, reminding him that we had options; there were plenty of hostels scattered around Napoli.  (Never mind the fact that we had no map, the weather was uncooperative, and it was nearing the late recesses of night.)

We entered the building with instructions to go to the seventh floor.  The receptionist for the hostel was friendly and exuberant, almost strangely so, considering the time.  There was a tiny elevator, and tired from the long day of traveling, we took our chances with the antiquity of Italy (normally, I ignore these suspended cages).

The elevator cost five cents to run.  We had some loose change, a two cent, and two pennies.  Five.  Perfect.  Not to be deterred by something so small, we dropped in our coins and waited.  And nothing happened.

A man walked over to us, silent, and handed us a five cent coin.  We added that to the stash, but the machine and elevator remained silent. Once again, the quiet man returned, mutely opened up the coin collector, pocketed our two and one cent coins and handed the five cent back to us.  Apparently it has a specific diet; it only functions on coins of exactly five cents, and by incorrectly feeding it other amounts, we had condemned the elevator to the first floor.  (We soon discovered that our hostel has a monopoly on the elevator business. Every time when we headed out the door to the next activity, they would hold a wicker basket in our direction and ask, “Do you have a five cent for the elevator?”  So we never actually paid, we borrowed from the source.) 

Hostel of the Sun derives its name from the bright paint applied to its walls, luminous oranges and yellows.  It is, in my opinion, a true hostel.  Barefooted residents lounged on overstuffed couches.  The walls were coated with posters and postcards, ripped, ragged, and dog-eared; no order directed this decorating style.  A kitchen off the main room served a complimentary breakfast of canned fruit cocktail, Wonder bread with nutella, and coffee as thick as maple syrup.  The receptionist chewed and popped her gum, drew scribbles and shorthand directions on maps, and repeated our names, quite emphatically. 

“So JARED, so BRIE, what are your plans for Napoli?”

“You want to climb Mount Vesuvious?! That’s great, JARED.”

“So BRIE, here’s where you want to go for pizza.”

We ventured out into the rainy dark city that night in search of food.  Our destination: L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.

The most famous pizzeria in Napoli, home of the first pizza, a restaurant of historical significance that has suspended its fame through the recent movie “Eat, Pray, Love.”  But I was unimpressed.  You can only order two types of pizza: Margherita or Marinara.  Jared ordered the extra-large Marinara, I ordered the small Margherita.  And we sat there, fork and knife in hand (Italians don’t often eat with their hands when it comes to pizza), drinking Fanta, and taking a deep breath, thankful that we arrived in one piece. 

The directions had been simple and straightforward, yet the streets were unmarked.  And Jared and I both felt like the city, dangerous and dodgy, could not be trusted.  At one point, I stopped his pursuit, and slowly spelled out the truth, “We need to ask for directions.”  We both had been avoiding this step, afraid that if we admitted confusion to a stranger, we could jeopardize our safety.  But at some point, wandering around at night in a strange city, while sneaking peeks at the map stuffed in Jared’s pocket, spells tourist as loud and clear as asking for directions.

The directions the second time were also very direct, short and to the point.  “200 meters back (we had missed the turn) and take a right on the big street.”  What qualifies as a “big street,” I’m not sure.  But out of luck, when we reached the next road, one that was at least equipped with flickering street lamps (unlike the dark alleys), I looked up to find a glowing sign: “L’Antica Pizzeria” and in small letters “Da Michele.”  Success.

As the night progressed, I began to embrace the truth.  Napoli is not the sweet coastal town I had imagined.  Dark and dreary, even during the day, it is a haphazard collection of city traffic and industrial buildings. 

And, to make matters worse, Napoli was also having a trash strike.  (According to the news, police were alerted to mediate violent riots as the refuse built up over time.  The pope called for peace and a permanent solution, as the excess waste posed dangers to the public health code.)

The 2010 trash strike of Napoli.

A danger to public health.

Upon our arrival, in the heart of the strike, around 2400 tons of rotting garbage poured into the streets, mixing with rain, disintegrating and dissolving and covering everything in a unified stench.  Couches and chairs blocked the sidewalks.  Rotting food poured out from soggy cardboard boxes.  And stray dogs tore through the garbage, in search of food, or perhaps their innate curiosity overwhelming their sense of smell.   

Blocking traffic.

A tramp and trash.

One stray dog, a tramp, most unlike the heroic Disney version, followed us on our way back to the hostel from dinner.  The sky was dark, the city lights played against the puddles that had settled in the cobblestone streets, giving Napoli an eerie “I am Legend” feel.  Jared tried to shoo the dog away, waving his blue umbrella in its direction.  But, without forewarning, the umbrella broke, startling the dog and scaring us. 

The next thing I knew we were running, the dog fast on our trail.  I was so concerned with its pursuit, I started to cross the street to escape, until I heard my name.  “Brie.”  Jared shouted.  And I looked up in time to recognize the headlights.  My heart racing, I backpedaled to the sidewalk.  Jared’s face was pale, the dog at his heels. 

“It’s just a dog.”  He reasoned, berating me for crossing the street without watching for traffic.  But the city, like Gotham in its darkest hours, had transformed the dog into some sort beast, and escaping it had been my only thought.  

Apparently, just as the citizens of Napoli have ignored the trash, so they ignore the pedestrians.  Florence must be the Italian version of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, for I have assumed the jaywalking nature of most Florentines, crossing the streets like a game of Frogger.  I learned that night, this attitude must remain solely in Florence.

The dog took a side alley in another direction, leaving Jared and I to finish the journey home.

We had better hopes for the next day, anticipating that the breathtaking view from the top of Mt. Vesuvius would wash away the unsightly impression of Napoli.  And our climb did lessen the impact of Napoli on our trip.  In fact, it was so memorable, it surpassed Napoli and has received a special place in our hearts.  For we were certainly not prepared for our hike to crater, literally breathtaking as it was.

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