My trip to Naples was loaded with more than my usual lust for travel. In Florence, I found myself trapped in a language purgatorio that I couldn’t shake off. I had achieved a decent level of comprehension, but my opportunities to speak and have different kinds of conversations were limited. I needed to move past the fear of embarrassment and be forced to speak more than just tourist Italian. While Florentines often expressed their disapproval of visiting Naples, many Americans also told me that they thought Naples was dirty and dangerous. I refused to take them seriously before asking them a few questions. Were you en route to Pompeii? Did you only pass through to take the ferry to Capri? So, the only parts of Naples you saw were the train station and the docks, eh? I was undeterred.
Nevertheless, I had my game face on as I stepped off of the curb into the zigzagging traffic. The air smelled of salt and diesel fuel. Motorini zipped by with two, three and even four people riding on a single bike. A stray, skinny dog on the median looked up at me, then at the white paper bag that held a sandwich, then back at me. The brightly colored palazzi were peeling off hundreds of years of paint and connected to each other by laundry lines. The street lights strung up on wires were fading into the growing morning light.
Slowly, I began to see shades of all the Little Italy’s in the United States. Shopkeepers were setting up sidewalk displays of fruit and fish. Crumbling walls revealed sidewalk grottoes that held statues of the Madonna with offerings of fresh flowers as evidence of their upkeep. The pungent smell of salami and cheese, the hand gestures of old men with their stinky cigars, and the tinny sound of recorded opera music from upstairs apartments all promised to break me from my purgatorio. Suddenly, Florence felt like France.
Desperate for breakfast, I followed the smell of powdered sugar into a bakery. Taped to the walls behind the counter were faded prayer cards to Saint Anthony, old 10,000 lire notes and the first of the euro bills. The baker’s wife emerged from the kitchen, pulling off her gloves as she balanced a phone in between her ear and shoulder. She looked directly at me, held up one finger and said, “Ashhpet.”
Ashpet? Ashpet! She had told me to wait and I understood this simple word in both Italian (aspetta from the verb aspettare) and in the context of the Neapolitan accent. While Naples has its own dialect called napulitana, the hallmark of its hometown accent is the shushing “s”. I had heard this Southern drawl and this drop of the last vowel many times before from my grandparents and from many other Italian-Americans.
Done with her phone call, I pointed to a fresh-from-the-oven pastry and said, “Vorrei una sfogliatella,” carefully drawing out the word to properly navigate the tricky “gli” sound. The baker’s wife looked at me for a second, smiled and repeated, “Una sfu-ya-dell?”
Yes! This was how I had always referred to my favorite pastry at home—with a Neapolitan accent! She continued asking me questions and we fell into a comfortable banter. My purgatorio was over. I could feel free to speak, make mistakes and use the words I knew instead of suppressing all that I had been trying to hide in Florence.
She became excited when I told her I was from New York. She then decided to try out her English on me. “I have my cousin Giuseppe there. He lives in Bayonne, New Jeeerseey. You know this place?”I broke out laughing. Here in the middle of a foreign city, someone knew a Joe from Bayonne.
While Northern and Southern Italy seemed like distant worlds, everywhere in Naples, I found threads to the United States. During this and many subsequent visits to Naples, people were constantly asking me if I knew the cities where their American cousins had settled. People from nearby Montefalcione had immigrated to Boston, while relatives from Sturno had found their way to Glen Cove, Long Island. Each time I looked up and saw magnificent Mt. Vesuvius hovering above Naples, I thought of the faded prints of the volcano hanging in Italian bakeries in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Providence and New Jersey, right next to the requisite dollar bills and prayer cards.
About the Author: Danielle Oteri shares her experiences navigating Southern Italy with all of its linguistic and cultural quirks.