This week my parents are off to Italy to celebrate my Dad’s birthday. They’re going to be based in Naples and will be exploring some of the Amalfi coast. I find myself very jealous!
As Brits, we’re so lucky to be able to hop on a plane and visit a different country for a couple of days. That’s something I miss about home. Living in New Zealand is amazing, but the closest country (Australia) is a good 3 hour flight away, and flights are never as cheap as Ryanair’s £20 one-way deals.
This time three years ago I was in Naples myself. I spent a month at the Centro Italiano, a language school which offers intensive Italian language classes to people of any age and any nationality.
I’d just finished an 8 month stint in Pau, southwest France, where I had been teaching English to children in three primary schools in the city. I studied French Studies with Italian at Warwick Uni, and while it was compulsory for me to spend some time in France as part of my degree, I didn’t have to spend any time in Italy because I “minored” in Italian but “majored” in French. Strange ey? I wanted to go to Italy anyway, partly because I wanted to improve my Italian, and partly because it’s Italy and I love Italy!
I’ve been writing this post on and off for about a year now. I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it or what I wanted it to be. The photos aren’t great because I didn’t have a very good camera or a clue how to take photos (not that I’m much better now!) But instead of leaving this post to sit in my ‘drafts’ folder, I thought my parents heading off to Naples would be the perfect excuse to share this memoir…
Naples was a shock. It was huge, it was crazy, and it threw me out of my comfort zone from the moment I stepped off the plane.
The journey from the airport to my accommodation was long and unforgettable and not for a good reason. On the first bus journey, an American boy gave me his phone number and asked me to keep in touch (a nice gesture, but I didn’t – sorry Jesse.) On the second bus journey – which was so cramped full I had to squeeze in next to my suitcase – my bottom was unfortunately squashed very close to a middle-aged man’s crotch, who, it appeared, was very excited by the bus journey… I couldn’t move away since there were so many other people (and my suitcase) in the way, so I silently cringed while wishing the journey would be over soon. Thankfully, he got off the bus after a couple of stops.
We pulled up by the Teatro San Carlo at Piazza Trieste e Trento, just like the instructions in my confirmation email had advised. I got off the bus and lugged my suitcase up the cobbled street which would be my home for the next month: Via Nardones. It’s a one-way street parallel to Via Chiaia, one of the main upmarket shopping streets in Naples, and a two minute walk from the Piazza del Plebiscito. Most of all, it’s incredibly Italian, with laundry hanging from the balconies overhead, tiny shops crammed into the smallest of spaces, and a statue of the Virgin Mary looking out at you from a crevice in the wall every two hundred or so metres.
My room was simple but had everything I needed: a comfortable bed, a desk, a mirror and a balcony. The windows were only single glazed because it was so hot, but I soon came to learn that they also let in a lot (read: all) of the noise from the car park below. Drivers in Naples like to beep their horns and reverse in ridiculous places – even at 6am – so I was always up early. Similarly to my bedroom, the bathroom and kitchen were simple but functional, though there wasn’t a living room.
For some reason, I was overly emotional that first day. After I unpacked, I decided to go for a walk, found a café with free wifi, and broke into tears on FaceTime to my mum. My Italian was very rusty, and Signora Cioccia (my host) didn’t seem to understand what I meant by “wifi password”. I was tired from my flight that morning, which had left at an ungodly hour, and I was still a bit shaken up by the bus incident. Mum (as always) cheered me up and told me it would all be okay – and it was, of course. I went back to the flat, had a nap and made some food with the scraps that other students had left in Signora Cioccia’s kitchen. The next day, I got myself an Italian SIM card with unlimited data, and a few days later I met Signora Cioccia’s grandson, who gave me the wifi password.
Signora Cioccia was a crazy old Italian lady who would fall asleep in the afternoons and speak very quickly in Napolitano, the local dialect in Naples. I would catch perhaps every one in four words, so our conversations usually ended up with me nodding and saying si while wondering what I was agreeing to. She kept a letter written to her by another student thanking her for her hospitality and she must have read it to me about six times during my month-long stay, but I always pretended each time was the first time. Every morning she would ask “vai a scuola?” (“Are you going to school?”) as if attendance was a choice and I hadn’t paid hundreds of euros to be there. “Si, certo,” I would respond before going on my way.
There was also another student living in the apartment, a blonde girl from Sweden who was about my age but I can’t remember her name. Her English was a lot better than her Italian but I tried to speak in Italian to her as much as possible. She told me that she had an Italian boyfriend who didn’t speak much English; I’m not sure how she met him but he drove her to school everyday on the back of his motorino. I wondered if they spoke in English or Italian – or if they even spoke much at all.
My first day at the school was scary but exciting. After working as a teaching assistant for 12 hours per week in Pau, I was ready to settle into a more structured routine. My weekly timetable in France meant my lessons were dotted across the week, from 10am on Mondays until 4:30pm on Fridays. In Naples, I would be studying Monday to Friday, 9am until 1pm, for four weeks – with the afternoons and weekends free to do as I pleased.
My first task was sitting a test which would determine my competency of Italian. The written paper was frustrating because I knew that I knew the answers, I just couldn’t remember them. The conversation part of the test was slightly better but still difficult. I was placed into a group with other mid-level speakers and found the lessons fairly simple after the first few days; my knowledge of Italian was slowly coming back to me. After a couple of weeks I moved into the advanced class, which was less of a recap and more focus on the very difficult tenses we had only touched on in my second year of university.
Something I really liked about the language school was that I met people from around the world: a young chef from Japan, who showed us how to make paper origami birds; a French woman who stayed for a week while her husband was away with work; a woman from the Netherlands, who sold all of her possessions and quit her job to study in various language schools across Italy; and an elderly man from Spain, who told endless stories about his life in Valencia, but he did like to go on a bit much.
The school offered excursions and extra activities in the afternoons and evenings for the students; occasionally I went along. It was perhaps my third day in Naples that we were invited on a tour of theCastel dell’Ovo, and I remember feeling unsettled at how little I understood. If I wasn’t otherwise occupied, my afternoons were spent strolling around the city, perhaps along the seafront or through the gardens, which I remember were very dry from the heat and there were many ants when I sat down by a tree. Or, perhaps in light of feeling the urge to drastically improve my Italian, I would often sit on my balcony with a punnet of fragole, do my Italian compiti and copy up my notes from the morning class.
Evenings were my favourite time. I should be inclined to say that it was because of the vibe in the city, or something cultural like that. True, the city was exciting at night: there were always people out and about, restaurants stayed open late and there were street performers in the piazzas. The children in the Quatieri Spagnoli would stay up until past my bedtime playing calcio in the alleyways, though this was an area I avoided after dark after reading that it was unsafe* on the Internet. *Actually, it was just very difficult to navigate: a maze of narrow streets and stairs and balconies, and my tourist map wasn’t detailed enough to stop me from getting lost every time I attempted to walk through it.
In truth, evenings were my favourite because they were about il cibo, and oh, how I love Italian food. Living in Naples, the birthplace of pizza, meant it became a staple part of my diet for the month I was there. Yep, I put on weight – but did I care? Nope.
Sometimes, students were offered cooking lessons in the evenings with a local chef. In my first lesson, we learnt how to make authentic pizza and pasta – this was the first time I realised that the word pasta means dough, as well as being the general term for spaghetti, fusilli, tagliatelle, etc. In my second lesson we made spaghetti with seafood, I can’t remember exactly but I think it was mussels – this was before I went vegetarian so I was happy to try, but I’ve never been a big fan of seafood.
Before I went to Naples, I didn’t realise that the Margherita pizza was actually named after the Queen Consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. The story goes that in June 1889, the Italian King and Queen were visiting the Southern part of Italy to keep up appearances with their southern subjects (the country was only unified in 1861). Apparently the queen was fed up of all the gourmet French food served at the Capodimonte Palace (which was all the range across Europe for royals at the time). She summoned the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, who made her a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, representing the colours of the Italian flag. The Queen loved the pizza, and thus the Margherita pizza was born.
I met with the French woman from class (I forget her name) one evening for dinner and we went for a pizza at Da Michele, a pizzeria on Via Cesare Sersale. It’s perhaps the only restaurant I have ever been to that is equally popular with tourists as it is with locals. Da Michele is the restaurant in which Julia Roberts eats a pizza in Eat, Pray, Love and there are photos and news articles about it on the walls. I remember there were only two options: la Margherita (tomato with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves) and la Marinara (tomato with oregano and garlic). I think they cost about €4 each and they were delicious. I chatted to my companion first in French and then in Italian, but never in English.
I also particularly liked getting a gelato, firstly because who doesn’t love ice cream, and also because Italy does the best ice cream in the world. I soon learned that vanilla wasn’t anywhere near as popular (or authentic) as crema and that it’s acceptable to eat gelato at any time of the day. I particularly liked the gelateria because of the different people who went there: the tourists, who, like me, were spoilt for choice with all the flavours; the young children who had gelato running down their chins; the businessmen who would buy a scoop on their lunch break. Everyone loves gelato.
I would also often cook for myself in the little kitchen at Signora Cioccia’s apartment, or have some leftovers with her while she gabbled on in Napolitano and I smiled and nodded as if I had a clue what she was talking about. I didn’t like cooking when she was in the kitchen though, mainly because I soon learned I knew nothing about cooking Italian food. One evening I was making some pasta and she asked if I had already put the salt in. At this age, I barely knew how to cook – I didn’t even know you were supposed to put salt in with the pasta! – so I replied “non ancora” (not yet). She picked up the salt and poured perhaps half of the tub into the boiling water, and I thought bloody hell, if I was ever going to get a high cholesterol then this isn’t how I thought I’d get it!
It’s funny how some of the smallest tasks can become so much more of a hassle when you don’t know the spoken language very well. Tasks like doing your laundry; I completely did not understand the instructions Signora Cioccia had given me, so she offered to do it for me, but I washed all my knickers by hand anyway. Or tasks like nipping out to buy some olives, and somehow coming back with over a kilogram of them, plus loads of other produce you didn’t even need. Or tasks like buying a packet of spaghetti, which turned out to be melazane, a thick, tube-like version of spaghetti that you’re supported to cook al forno, not on the hob (I panicked and bought the first thing that looked like spaghetti).
One afternoon I sat in the kitchen with Signora Cioccia’s grandson who was sixteen. We talked over a pizza (which cost just €3 including delivery). He told me how he could buy vodka and go to a nightclub, and how he got suspended from school and hated his parents and that’s why he’d come to stay with his grandmother for two weeks. I asked a little about school life and his friends, which he was surprisingly happy to talk to me about. I asked if he knew much English and replied with all of the swear words he knew.
Weekends in Naples were great fun, because once school finished at 1pm on Friday you were free to do as you liked. After my first week, my good friend from uni, Ali, joined me in Naples at the Centro Italiano language school, so we spent the weekends exploring the surrounding areas.
One weekend we caught the train straight after school finished on Friday and visited Sorrento, a place I’m sure you will have heard of. We spent a day lazing in the sun before looking at all the lovely things in the shops. I think it was here that I bought my brown leather belt, which I’ve worn nearly every day since. I remember that we headed out for an aperitivo before dinner, though I can’t remember where we ate. Sorrento was quaint, but very busy – even in May – though beneath the layer of overhyped tourism it did feel magical and it’s somewhere I would visit again one day.
Another weekend we went to Pompeii and Herculaneum, ancient cities that were buried under up to 20meters ash when Vesuvio erupted in 79AD. Walking through these ruins is like going back in time: they capture the events at the exact moment the volcano erupted and are incredibly well preserved. There are houses with ovens and lavatories, some with trades dedicated to wine making and laundry, as well as the baths, many temples, the forum, the amphitheatre… Excavations have uncovered portraits painted on walls, mosaic floors, graffiti, water fountains, paved roads and bridges, as well a the more sinister images of people attempting to flee the eruption. It’s really quite extraordinary just how much history you are able to see with your own eyes. Both sites have UNESCO World Heritage Site status and Pompeii, the larger of the two, is understandably one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, though most of the ancient town of Herculaneum is still buried beneath the ash as the modern towns of Portici and Ercolano have been built on top.
We also took the ferry across to Ischia and Procida, two small islands off the Amalfi Coast that are just beautiful. Both islands now heavily rely on tourism, however historically Procida was a fishing town and Ischia has a number of thermal spas due to its geothermal activity. It’s strange that I can’t actually remember being in Ischia, and I only have a vague memory of the view of Procida’s town centre from the hill. Funny how memories escape you. I’m glad I took photos.
Isn’t it bizarre how you somehow forget to do the tourist sites when you live somewhere for a longer period, but if you visit for three days you can cram in a week’s worth of activities. I’ve lived in Peterborough (England) all my life, but I’ve only been inside our beautiful Cathedral once. I lived in Pau (France) for eight months, but never went inside the castle. In Naples, I only visited a handful of the sights you’d find on Trip Advisor’s must-do list, and that’s only because I walked around a lot and went on excursions with the school.
Naples was a cultural shock for me in many ways – the size of the city, the heat, the dialect – but it was also a big step for me personally. It was the first time I had ever travelled all by myself to a place that I had never been before. Even though I had reserved a place at the language school and Signora Cioccia knew to expect my arrival on the Sunday morning, I still felt as though I was taking a leap into the unknown.
There is so much attention (at least in the travel blogging/ travel writing world) on solo travel, and on the opinion that women should travel by themselves. These articles say that the world isn’t a scary place, that you’re bound to meet new friends and have unforgettable experiences and push yourself out of your comfort zone etc, etc, and this will make you a better person, more confident, more cultured, blah, blah, blah. To tell you the truth I am sick of reading these articles. That first week in Naples was good, but it was also quite lonely. I missed having the company of a fellow tourist/traveller to be able to share my experiences with. When Ali arrived in my second week, we spent the afternoons and evenings talking, laughing and exploring. We had so much fun. I could have done it all alone, and I would travel alone in future if I wanted to, but Naples taught me that I prefer sharing my experiences with others. Solo travel is fine for lots of people, but I prefer having company.
After three years, I can’t say that I’m itching to go back to Naples, but I do want to go back to Italy. I want to explore all of the little towns I haven’t seen yet, I want to eat the delicious food and I want to speak Italian again. Knowing another language is indeed a skill, but you have to practice it so you don’t forget it, and I haven’t practiced much at all since I graduated.
However, our travel plans for the immediate future aren’t leaning towards Europe; rather, we’ll go wherever we can compromise on. We have so many ideas and will just have to work through them all. James doesn’t speak Italian bar the few words I’ve taught him, but living in Italy again is definitely on my to-do list before I grow up. Who knows where the next few years will take us…
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
Note: All of the photos used in this post are my own.