Burgess Braves Italy's Grunge City

In Naples, tots ride motorbikes and wield crayon weapons.

By Steve Burgess 6 Jul 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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The train from Rome stops, and the engine whine heads into a steep decline. I look up from the paper. We are in a station-a big one. There are no signs visible. No one else is in my car, and no conductor has visited for miles. I crack open the door and look down the platform. People seem to be getting off in numbers. I call out to a young woman loitering nearby: "Scusi! Is this Napoli?"

"Si," she replies. "Napoli."

Well, OK then. Better get off.

Grungy, possessed of a reputation that can cause even Italians to warn you away, a town that suffered a cholera epidemic as recently as the 1970s -- Naples would be a challenge for any PR firm. A much-touted 1990's revival of the city's fortunes seems to have stalled under a new administration and a renewal of gang violence in the suburbs. After the glory of Rome, Naples has got to come as something of an anticlimax. (It should be noted though that there are worse things than anticlimax. Not many days before my arrival the Rome-Naples trains had been halted after the discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb along the tracks).

After Rome, Naples almost feels like a different country, a noticeably poorer one. In some spots Naples resembles one of those post-colonial Asian cities, where the European architecture of the former rulers is gradually falling into decay. And the spirit of revolution is certainly in the air around here. Many a bookstore on my street gives prominent display to the diaries of Che Guevara.

But if Naples is not Rome, it has novelties of its own to offer. I'd never seen a pay elevator before. Ten cents to get to my fourth-floor hotel, although once you get into the room the toilet is free.

Child biker gangs

Before my arrival I'd been warned repeatedly to be on the lookout for evildoers. People are always telling you that the next town along is full of thieves, but Naples really does have an enduring reputation as a dicey spot. As usual, the reports appear to be overblown. The taxi driver from the train station does indeed try to screw me, but after that central Naples seems no more crime-ridden than any other large Italian city.

At least, not until I become a victim. Walking along a popular Neapolitan shopping concourse, I feel something strike my arm. Rolling to a stop on the sidewalk near my feet is a grey crayon. Moments later a blue one bounces a couple of feet away. I look up but can't spot the throwers, so I hastily move under the eaves. If that's the kind of thing going on in daycare centres, this really must be a tough town.

Child rearing definitely seems different over here. Mothers are not afraid to swat their offspring in public, but the hyper-protectiveness of modern North American custom is missing. Preschoolers hanging onto the handles of Daddy's speeding motorbike are a fairly common sight here. Those kids who survive are bound to have more fun.

One day in an outdoor street market (another quasi-Asian touch) I hear a buzzing motor and see the crowd part. Three girls, ages roughly nine to thirteen, are plowing through the mob on a little three-wheeled ATV. Piled together on the little trike like rush-hour passengers on a Tokyo subway, they proceed to a public square and bomb around squealing with terror and delight. Fun for them, but let me tell you-if I ever got a date and then a second one and then fell off the wagon and got catastrophically drunk and thus ended up married with kids of my own, I certainly wouldn't want them behaving like that.

Winding down

My final day in Naples is a grander finale of sorts. This six-week journey is almost at an end. One more night in Rome will follow, and then Vancouver at last. Reminders of home come in odd signals from beyond the sea. I am sitting at a café when the waiter delivers a sandwich to the next table with a little Canadian flag stuck incongruously in the middle. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it involves GroupAction Quebec and the fight against separatists.

I set out on a long cross-town walk from the old city to the ritzier-looking seaside districts of Posillipo and Bagnoli. Down along the seawall Naples no longer looks gritty and beleaguered-with yachts in the foreground, castles in the middle distance, and blue islands on the horizon, it's a Mediterranean brochure.

Local legend says the city was founded on the spot where the siren Parthenope washed ashore after drowning herself, heartbroken at her inability to tempt the mighty Ulysses. As I walk along her namesake street with the sea on one side and Naples climbing the hill on the other, I must admit that the siren sings a very lovely tune.

But I am nearly beyond temptation. Like Ulysses (no, really) I am thinking of home. Almost time to go.

Check out Burgess' other postcards:

Going it Alone in Cinque Terre

This Barcelona Place is Great!

Burgess in Tangier: Fresh Prey

Burgess in Rolling Purgatory

Granada, End of the Hippie Trail

Tapas? Tricked Ya!

Burgess Skips Town Again

Steve Burgess has one more postcard in the mail for The Tyee next week before returning to Vancouver and rediscovering the work ethic.  [Tyee]

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