The City Beneath the Volcano

We take the morning train from Rome to Pompeii, switching trains in Naples. Carl has warned me about the Naples train station, which seemed like overkill to me. I’ve spent hundreds of mornings commuting on New York’s subway cars and Philadelphia’s SEPTA buses. None of the things I’ve seen or smelled on those days prepared me for transit in this city. To get a ticket for  Napoli Centrale to Pompeii there is no line, not even the resemblance of a line. There is only a mob. To move towards the ticket window one has to push on the back of the person in front of them. When it’s finally our time to pay Carl’s wallet is taken out for only the briefest of moments, given that we’re bombarded with signs warning us to keep valuables close, watch for pickpockets, and not to flash money about.

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DSC_8534When we get to Pompeii, Vesuvius towers above us shrouded in clouds. Pompeii is sublime and surreal. The colors of the mosaics remain bold even over the millennia. Murals look fresh, some seeming as preserved as works by the grand masters in the Prado. It’s eerie and unreal, but it seems I have no memories of Pompeii that feel mine, only communal. The trips to and from Naples to Pompeii back into Naples though, those belong to me.

I remember the train that arrived at the Pompeii station over an hour late, carrying shirtless, boombox wielding teenagers who clogged the aisles and backpackers who lounged on their bags in front of doors, and how I had to wedge myself between them for the duration of the trip. I remember the ticket machine that broke down at Napoli Centrale leaving a group of us momentarily wondering what we’d do next, until a duo of men promptly arrives — One pulls a screwdriver from his jacket pocket and fiddles with the machine, while the other unzips a duffle bag and sells individual tickets to the line at face value. Neither are uniformed and I’m still unclear whether they’re affiliated with the transit system, or are the cause of the initial clogging.

I remember entering the platform with our ill-gotten tickets and waiting. And waiting. For 90 minutes for a train that was 85 minutes late. And when everyone did board, sweaty from a June day spent standing in a crowd in the stagnant air, I remember the looks on everyone’s faces when we were told via loudspeaker that this train would not be departing, and that we should find another mode of transportation. Finally, I remember that as the announcement was made I watched a clump of hair, knotted up like a tumbleweed, glide into our train car and rest feet away from my feet, as if tucking-in to sleep.

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As all this was happening our Airbnb host, who we were now three hours late to meet, had a single question: “Are you guys ok?

Naples is gritty in a way I hadn’t experienced since Lisbon, when I witnessed a brawl break out in a burger joint. It’s true grit though. Genuine grit. Naples is unapologetic. Unwilling to put on airs. It doesn’t need to — It doesn’t want to hold onto people that don’t appreciate it.

An air conditioner drips onto our table during our most expensive dinner out. Drops fall next to our Branzino, but the fish, smothered in olives, was so good that we ate happily on. Our server — fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish — surprised us at the end of our meal with a chocolate mousse, stating that if we could name the liquor used in the desert he’d give us the whole bottle. Neither of us could pinpoint the cointreau, but it was such a friendly and unexpected interaction from someone who was very good at what they were doing.

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A small boy runs up to us as we enter our apartment building one afternoon, asking for the soccer ball behind the stairwell. All of this was expressed in Italian, but seeing there was a ball behind the stairs, we opened the door to invite him in. With eyes bulging but never breaking eye contact, he says he cannot come in, and begins to gnaw on his arm. Confusion ensues, but in the end we realize that he’s afraid of the dog that entered the building moments before us. The dog bites. We toss the ball to him outside, and he plays contentedly.

We meet the dog in the stairwell the next day. He doesn’t bark or bite, but he’s huge and when I see him I look at him through the eyes of the child. And I wonder about him. The stairs are dirty and the building facade is browned with age, but our apartment (an airbnb) is a lush urban jungle. There’s an outdoor space the size of our old apartment in Seattle, equipped with a kitchen, living area and patio covered in plants. Two cats come with the space as well. White and fluffy all they want to do is cuddle.

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During the day we work, and in the afternoons we sit outside here and lunch on olives, tomatoes, and bufala mozzarella, all purchased from the shop down the street. I’ve never seen a cheese counter like the one at this grocer — Hundreds of pounds of cheese are on display, from hard wheels veined in blue to balls of fresh mozzarella the size of babies’ heads. We feast on the patio overlooking the sea and the volcano, and in the evenings we sip wine and take in the city lights, each of us with a cat purring away in our lap.

If we do make it out to dinner, it’s to L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (pronounced in the ever-so-italian “mick-elle-ah”). Since I’ve known Carl he’s sworn that the best pizza in the entire world is in Naples, and specifically at Da Michele. I always nod along when he tells of this mythical pizza — Since his journey to Naples he’s been in search of the “soupiest” margherita pizza, with a center wet with mozzarella and olive oil, and a charred bubbly crust. Each time I hear him tell of this perfect pie I wonder to myself “How good could a pizza really be?” I wondered this when we were in a crowd of 50+ people who filled up the street in front of Da Michele as well.

To get a spot in line you walk into the always-crammed restaurant, use your fingers to tell the host how many in your party and watch as he scrawls the number on a two-page queue, handing you a number on scrap of paper. Taking this prized place in line outside we hob-nob with fellow pizza goers. There’s the young backpacking couple from Australia, sweet yet smelly as can be, and a group of middle-aged Germans on holiday — Carl, who’s been taking German lessons for years now, heard Deutsch nearby and B-lined to the source for some language practice.

The host comes out every couple of minutes to announce the number ready to be seated. While we know about who’s next, when someone’s number is called they act as though they’ve just won an Oscar. A look of disbelief is followed by a glowing smile as they float through the crowd. When the Germans are called in we applaud for them as if Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman were passing in front of us ready to accept their award.

The menu is a lone piece of paper, framed, posted inside the door.  Listed are the options: Beverages — Coke, Fanta or Moretti Beer. Food — Margherita or Marinara. We’re given no menu when seated, because there’s not a lot to choose from. Our order is briskly taken by a thirty-something gentleman who’s not in any mood for small talk. He’s in and out in fifteen seconds, and says not another word to us until the check is delivered. Taking a few slugs of beer from the bottle I eye up the room. From where I sit I hear Italian, German, English and Russian. People are either eating ravenously or sitting in anticipation. When the pizza is placed in front of me it looks great, but it looks like other margherita pizzas I’ve had.

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Then I take a bite, and realize there really is such thing as the best pizza in the world. The dough is yeasty and salty, soupy on the inside, yet pillowy at the crust. The sauce sweet and pulpy. It just tastes ripe. Pools of olive oil dot the pie, pushing the sauce out from around it and patterning the pizza in splotches of gold. On top is bufala mozzarella — like biting into butter. When you get a bite that’s cram jam full of cheese you get a wee bit weak-kneed. Finally, the pie is flecked with a few leaves of basil, to provide a pinch of herbiness. Most bites will be without the green, so when you arrive upon a smidge it’s like you’ve won the lottery. If the sauce were lacking, or the cheese were low quality this would be completely average. But because each part pulls its own weight, the result is a stunning.

I love getting a to-go slice in New York, smothering pepperoni in red chili flakes before eating from a paper plate on the street corner. Or a Chicago deep dish pizza that you need to wait 45 minutes for, until you’re frothing at the mouth you’re so hungry. Pizza covered in clams, or broccoli rabe, thin or thick, I love pizza in all its forms. Hot or cold or first thing in the morning scrambled with eggs. I. Love. Pizza. But, I will never again love pizza as deeply or truly as I loved pizza at Da Michele. Carl and I have promised to one another that if we’re near Italy, we will make a journey to Naples, even if only for an afternoon, to go back to this mobbed street. To these ever-churning tables and plastic chairs. When that pizza finally arrives, it will be like greeting an old friend.

As we leave the restaurant we pass by the waiting horde then weave in and out of traffic on a jammed street. With just inches to spare between ourselves and the surrounding bumpers I calculated there was a 40% chance we’d both die. We don’t. We go to the sea. There’s no shore. Only the water, quietly breaking on rocks, and Vesuvius, lying between Naples and Pompeii.

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Next to us are fisherman. I can spot a bikini clad woman on the rocks in the distance and drifting directly in front is a leisure boat. Vesuvius is a crater, blown out violently in the middle, but life goes on. Nearly 2000 years after the eruption destroyed ancient Pompeii, it’s no longer about rebuilding, it’s only about living. And if there’s one thing that gritty cities have in common, it’s life — There’s a certain level of vice that comes with a more ahem, vibrant city. I feel this in unexpected places, like turning a corner and finding a religious shrine dug into a wall (religion and brazenness seem to coincide in Italian cities). There is always something to feel though. When the week is through and we’re packing up to leave, our furry friends stand behind the glass patio door and watch us with knowing eyes. It’s so hard saying goodbye.

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