Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 8. Spanish Quarter

Back on the main street, we once again passed Piazza Dante. I noticed a cute little boy dribbling a basketball in front of the two carabinieri and their armored transport vehicle and held up my iPhone to snap a quick photo, hoping to catch the irony of the scene. I had already asked two other groups of carabinieri if I could take their photos and the answer was always no, so I knew I was risking trouble with this shot. Sure enough, I got some trouble.
The nearest officer marched up to me in his camouflage outfit, hand resting on his rifle, with a pissed-off look on his face.
“No photos!” he said.
“Sorry,” I replied meekly.
I had no choice but to hold up my iPhone and hit the photos button. My hand was shaking a bit. The photo wasn’t there. I was sure I’d heard the shutter sound. I flicked my thumb over the display a few times.
“Um, I don’t know what happened. It didn’t take a picture.”
He stared back at me, not understanding.
“It’s not there,” I blurted. “See?”
He looked at the phone, then back at me. I was sure he was going to snatch my phone away.
With a resigned look he motioned with his hand. The gesture was clear -- we could go.
       We walked to the Spanish Quarter and grabbed some snacks, sitting at an outdoor table for an hour on a busy corner unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The intersection was tiny, the roads allowing the occasional compact car, but seemingly unsuitable for anything larger. The roads were more like alleys between the well-worn, multi-level apartment buildings, and they were filled mainly with pedestrians and scooters. A sign over one of the street/alleyways at the intersection read “Merry Christmas.” Clothes were hanging out to dry from nearly every upper-level window of the apartment buildings on each side of the streets. Besides the built-in stores, the sidewalks were a bazaar of street vendors selling everything from socks to fresh fish. It was visual cacophony.

        A man in a disability scooter slowly made his way through the area, another obstacle for the sea of humanity flowing around him. We got used to seeing three on a scooter, then saw a scooter with three women and a baby. None wore helmets. (Naples was the only place in Italy where I saw two-wheelers defying the national helmet law.) Three little girls holding hands, the oldest apparently about 5, filtered through the road to a store as Paul and I watched in semi-horror, sure they would be trampled. But it wasn’t their first rodeo, obviously.
I decided I could have ridden the BMW in this area, but a dent would be assured. Give me my old Vespa and I’d explore every back alley of this gritty, lovely city.
In the Spanish Quarter the scooters go for every available space – around pedestrians and the other scooters zooming past them, sometimes driving on the shop-lined sidewalks. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any zanier, two 20-something dudes on a beat-up, old scooter rolled up, lifted the scooter onto its kickstand, and walked away to get some food, essentially shutting down one street and part of the intersection for five minutes or more. The most amazing thing to me was that this seemed to surprise no one. As the scooter sat there buzzing, its raised back wheel spinning, the pedestrians and scooter drivers just went around it, barely seeming to notice.

As night fell we strolled into a residential neighborhood, past barn-door garage entrances and venerated sidewalk shrines that held religious items in mailbox-sized cabinets. Scooter and foot traffic in this area grew light. I stole quick glances through the open doors and windows of the Neapolitans in the ground-level apartments: A burly man in a tank-top and boxer shorts stood in the light of his open refrigerator door, deciding what to eat or drink; a senior citizen was helping a much older woman with snow-white hair out of bed; a young man who may have been an immigrant studied from a college textbook behind a screened window.
I told Paul I needed to duck into an espresso bar and Paul said he would wait outside where there was a wisp of a breeze. A large, jovial, middle-aged man in a white T-shirt and slacks was talking with his wife. I was the sole customer. The drink coolers hummed as he served me. He smiled when I spoke Italian, and asked where I was from.
“You want sugar?” he asked in English, starting to pour some in, and when I said “sure,” he began pouring in earnest.
“That’s good.”
As he handed me the small cup and saucer he suddenly exclaimed, “Trump!”
I hadn’t heard the word for a few days.
“Trump, Trump!” he pointed behind me. The news was playing on a TV on the wall, and there was Trump.
“You like Trump?” the man asked, still smiling.
I sipped my espresso, unable to read him. I took the coward’s way out.
“I don’t want to say. I’m on vacation.”
“I like him!” the man boomed.
Finally, Paul and I had a proper pizza dinner at a nice osteria, sitting on a table on the porch, listening to a strolling guitarist, and exchanging travel stories with a Canadian woman and her two teenage kids. A few other tourists were there, too – some Germans who looked to be in their 20s or 30s.
It was still warm as we walked back to the Rex. In my wasteful American way, I had left the air conditioner on the whole time. But it was sublime to walk into that cool room.

Next: Herculaneum and Positano

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