Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Napoli e Pompei

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG POST IF YOU HAVE LESS THAN THIRTY MINUTES TO SPARE. It's gonna be a doozy, it has to be. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday afternoon marked the beginning of our long weekend in Naples, the childhood stomping grounds of both Benito and Giovanna.  We stayed in the large country home Benito had built with his dad when he was Giulio's age, where his mother now lives on the first floor and his older sister's family on the second. The remaining apartments are rented out to local tenants. Extended families cohabiting within the same home is the Italian norm. In fact, Benito and Giovanna were considered to be "branching out" when they during their first year of marriage moved down the street from Giovanna's parents ("fortunately" mama was still able to keep an eye on her baby from the balcony though). So you can imagine everyone's reaction when they later moved to Israel and then the United States. At least these "radicals" are only as far away as Rome now. I felt myself grow increasingly tense with each uninvited visit from family members upstairs through doors kept perpetually ajar. You couldn't convince even one of my American family members to live like this, so I'm not worried about hurting any feelings here. Grazie, but no grazie

As we neared the city Friday evening, all that Benito and Giovanna had prepared me for re: Neapolitan driving rang true. The single best illustration I can offer is that it's a city of bumper cars, with nearly identical (dis)regard for traffic rules and the inevitably dented vehicles. I saw very few BMW convertibles here, dad;)

Just as in Foligno, I would fall asleep once again without any clue of where I really was. Early Saturday morning started the day at the counter of Benito and Giovanna's favorite Neapolitan bar, munching on cornetti (the Italian croissant--mine infused with nutella of course) and sipping frothy cappuccini (move aside, Starbucks)! One of Naples' many claims to fame is its pastries, and I stand before you as a firsthand witness to this truth. I'm just glad I don't live there. 

With full bellies and happy hearts, the three of us piled into the car and headed for Pompeii, just 45-minutes outside of Naples. Once we reached the entrance to the archaeological site, Mamma e Babbo (mama and daddy) dropped off Sorellona (big sister--that's me) and promised to return in five hours. They had planned their own romantic afternoon to be spent in Positano, ironically the location I chose for my "Ideal Italian Vacation" oral exam senior year at JMU. 

As for my day spent exploring Pompeii, there really are few words to describe this experience, so I'll let the pictures do (most of) the talking. 

Mind-blowing level of preservation. I was especially drawn to the ever-vibrant painted works, looking (relatively) fresh since the 1st century AD.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii was partially destroyed and buried under nearly 20 feet of ash and lava rock. It wasn't rediscovered until 1748 and has been consistently excavated ever since. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the ancient city, which I still wasn't able to completely cover even in over four hours of continuous walking. Despite regular dizziness due to dehydration under temperatures close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, "conquering" the lost city proved well worth the physical battle. It was a historical site unlike any other I've ever seen.

the forum

your standard Pompeian bakery


another theater

forum and Vesuvius in the background

A small portion of the archaeological finds. My personal favorite was the crouching man. Once the bodies had decayed, hollows remained in the lava rock where the corpses had been. As a result, archaeologists managed to produce a number of plaster castes such as this one, which reveal the exact body positions and even facial expressions of the victims during the eruption.

statue of Apollo in his temple

view of downtown Naples from ancient Pompeii

Back home, we were greeted--bellies up--by the three very sweet family dogs Carrie, Charlotte, and Lea (miss you, Boomer). As I attended a much-needed canine therapy session in the drive, I looked on as the Vitolo clan made a year's supply of homemade wine from their own harvested grapes. 

After naps were had all around, I set out with Nonna and "my" Vitolos on a mission for Naple's finest gelato (although everyone knows Sicily's is truly the best). Next, we enjoyed a beautiful stroll under a full moon along the nighttime twinkling coast, making only one crucial stop. Having been recently baptized as a Roman by means of my visit to La Bocca della Verità, it was time I had my Neapolitan baptism as well, this time in the form of taralli (lard fried dough shaped like a bagel with almonds and lots of pepper) and Peroni. Also significant of this coastal walk was that it was the site of Benito and Giovanna's first kiss 25 years ago, where I'm told Giovanna actually fainted. C'mon, realluh?

Love me a lazy Sunday, just the way God intended it to be. Benito, Giovanna, and bimbi (kids) spent the morning shopping at the Military Base of Naples and for once I was thankful to be excluded. Refusing to set my alarm (more out of principle than anything else), my smile stretched from ear to ear when I finally opened my eyes to check the clock--10:30 AM. Yep, still got it. A chorus of chickens, roosters, and horses gently roused me to get up and greet the day.

Nonna sat with me while I ate breakfast and sipped on strong, scalding hot espresso. This lady is so sassy, stubborn, loud, and always talking. And if she's not talking, she's singing (hey now, she sounds a little bit like me). Anyways, Nonna insisted on treating me like a helpless baby, certain that I couldn't so much as throw away my napkin on my own, and I let her. Nonna Napolitana naturally made me think of Nonna Siciliana and how dearly I miss her...and her ideal terrace for sunbathing, of course. 

I showered, dressed, and found a sunny spot on the patio in which to read. Minutes later, I heard Salvatore's (Benito's 22-year-old nephew) voice coming from inside, followed by Maria's (Benito's sister and mother to Salvatore) who was scolding her son for neither entertaining me nor showing me around town while Benito & Co. were gone. Ugh, don't they know I hate it when people do stuff like that? Next thing I knew I was being selected against my will as a volunteer in Salvatore's impromptu magic show. I'm awkward. 

Once "my" Vitolos had returned from The Base, we left almost immediately for Giovanna's parents house (only 5 minutes by car) and made it just in time for lunch. As an eternity of courses were plopped on my plate in seamless sequence, I was reminded of that all-too-familiar Circeo stomach ache after my first full week in Rome. I'm talking plates of little salty fried Mediterranean fish and stuffed zucchini, overflowing bowls of zucchini flowers and mussels in calamaretti pasta (so named for its squid-like shape), sardines marinated in vinegar, olive oil, and lemon, platters of fresh white fish with parsley and olive oil, an impressive basin of fruit, and Neapolitan baba rum cake. Dishes seemed to magically emerge from all corners of their home, and sometimes from nowhere at all. As we sipped on Limoncello and stove-top espresso, I prayed that it was all over, for real this time. I could feel my arteries clogging. Before we got up to leave, Gio's mom made a point to announce that I was prettier than when she had first met me in Circeo. Well, it's either the olive oil or August was just an especially unfortunate month for my appearance. 

As the men gathered to watch the Napoli soccer game, Nonna Vitolo and Giovanna tricked me into joining them downtown, which involved sampling dulci (sweet pastries) and more espresso. At least I could enjoy this view while on the verge of projectile vomit.

Neapolitan coast and Mount Vesuvius

Back home, I finally surrendered to my pending food coma and reclined in bed to read and rest. Food: 1, Sarah: 0. It wasn't long before Nonna had resumed her Neapolitan songs in shameless gusto; however, she was almost immediately silenced when Giovanna requested that she not wake me from my nap. 

(English translation provided for your convenience)
Nonna: "But her light is on."

Gio: "OK I'll go check."
Me: "Yeah, Gio, I'm just reading, not sleeping."
Gio (to Nonna): "Yes, she's fast asleep, mama. Better not wake her."

This is not the first time I've witnessed one of Gio's impressive fibs. I say "impressive" not because I condone the behavior, but because I'm not sure I've ever gotten away with a lie in my entire life. I gave up trying long ago. One of my favorites was when a few of Giulio's birthday party guests had wished to bring home leftover fried chicken to share with their families, but she assured them that the chicken wouldn't keep and so we'd have to throw it away here. We ate it for lunch the next day. 

Since it had been a whole hour since we'd last eaten, everyone sat down for dinner of eggplant parmigian (my fave), fried chicken filets, salad, and calimoxo (a Spanish drink with coke and red wine--don't knock it 'til you've tried it). The remainder of the evening was spent watching Cee-Lo Green and Michael Buble YouTube videos with Benito and kids and playing Neapolitan cards in bed with Virgi before eventually falling asleep side by side. Besides being a kicker, sleep-walker and occasional snorer, she's also a sleep-laugher...I guess that makes two of us (minus the sleep-walking). Virginia, better known by family as Sorellina (little sister), likes to call me Sorellona (big sister) or simply "our Sarah," and reminds me often of my role :)

Monday morning, I woke up early and took the tram downtown with Benito, where we spent several hours in a leisurely jaunt around the hub of Naples, a Greek-founded city over four-thousand years old. We moseyed along the main drag: Via Toledo/Via Roma, breaking just before the main square (La Piazza Plebiscito, pictured above) for creamy cappuccini in Naples' most famous cafe. As we were stopped by several Asian tourists asking for directions and advice, I was increasingly thankful to have Benito as a tour guide, one who offers both historical and anecdotal details along the way. That morning, I learned that Naples is actually a composite of two cities, one stacked right on top of the other. The underground city is essentially a negative of the one above, having used the rock below to build many of the buildings above. I was immediately aching to discover the mazes, tunnels, and caverns that lay below my feet, but for another trip.

Next was a gastronomical stop in the name of crostone. Apart from pizza and pastries, Naples is also famous for a number of fried finger foods. No one's starving in this city. The basic recipe for crostone is as follows: find something creamy and edible that can be rolled into a ball. Deep fry and serve. Benito and I sampled one filled with macaroni and cheese and another with ricotta, mozzarella, and prosciutto. The latter beckoned a profound emotional response from the pit of my being. You couldn't eat this thing without shouting, "OH-MY-DEAR-LORD!" to anyone who would listen. I had to close my eyes and sit down. I felt weak and jubilant, all at the same time. It's like that song you can't not get up and dance and sing along to, or at the very least, tap your foot to. 

outside a beautiful commercial complex 

inside commerical complex--reminds me a bit of Grand Central Station

Just around the corner, our ears perked as we passed in front of a tabacchi store, overhearing a yelling match between a customer and cashier. There had already formed a generous audience of Neapolitan locals. Crowding the entrance, they stood there shamelessly spectating with arms folded just feet away. An all-too-common occurrence in southern Italy, it wouldn't be long before these accumulated witnesses would be adding their own two-cents to the argument. I half-expected some vendor to come around and pass out the taralli and beer. 
For someone who rarely gets embarrassed, I confess I felt very uncomfortable. I couldn't bring myself to even look inside the shop, and inching further down the block came as second nature. Benito later admitted that he had enjoyed watching my "show" even more than the one going on in the store. 

Just one of the two french castles in Naples. The third is Spanish. Spanish and French also had a strong influence on the Neapolitan language, which is starkly different from traditional Italian. 

Back home, I actually dreaded having lunch, still very much aware of the deep-fried crostone sitting in my stomach. Today it was ziti pasta pie, followed by homemade tiramisu and espresso for dessert. Needless to say, this made for a very uncomfortable car ride home. Here's to a week of running! 

1 comment:

  1. brings me back to my time in Naples...I took a nearly identical picture of the rotunda-ish looking building. my heart skipped a beat when i read "nonna" until i realized it was not our nonna you were referring to :) If i were you, by now i would literally weigh about 200 pounds. which is why i can never move to a european country. so i guess it will have to be a third world country if i do move overseas. oh wait...that's what i did in my gap year when i also weighed 200 pounds. maybe the arctic...