fear I’ve become dangerously emotionally attached to the city of Naples. When people say bad things about my adopted hometown, feelings of hurt bubble up in my chest and I feel the need to rush to the city’s defense, as if I’m running to save a puppy that’s wandered into the road.
It has been a year now since I moved here, and I don’t think I’ve ever grown as deeply fond of a place as I have of this one. If someone said they disliked Seattle or Portland — cities where I’ve spent a greater chunk of my adult life — I’d shrug and think, “To each his own.”
But if someone complains about Naples, I become convinced they must be missing something. How could they not see the things I see?
No matter where I go in Italy and the world, I come home and find myself relieved to be back in Naples. Sometimes it’s because I spent three days in Paris paying higher-than-expected restaurant bills for food half as good as what I get here. (Granted, I’m not a genius when it comes to navigating France, which could be a factor.) Other times, I’ve been traveling through Northern Italy for a week and am glad to come home and get a rich Neapolitan shot of espresso.
Ultimately, though, the reason I love living in Naples is that the people here rarely treat me like a foreigner.
My traveling partners will attest that I get annoyed when I go to Rome and waiters or baristas seem ruffled that I am speaking Italian to them. Inevitably, a whole conversation (in English) will ensue about how I know Italian so well — which, coincidentally, is the same thing waiters at tourist traps ask any American who manages to spit out, Va bene. It makes me feel like a perpetual first-time visitor, even though I’ve been to Rome a dozen times and even studied there for a quarter in college.
In Naples, you know what happens when I speak Italian? Nothing. The waiter brings me a cup of coffee. Or the water or wine I ordered. It’s expected that you speak Italian, almost as Americans expect people to speak English in the United States.
You’d think that Naples would be the place where my husband and I would stick out the most, he being Ugandan and I being blonde and blue-eyed. Physically, we make an unusual pair among a sea of olive-skinned and dark-haired Southern Italians.
But the people here don’t hesitate to pull us into their lives and their conversations.
Today I was at a pasticceria buying a dessert for some dinner guests I was expecting, and overheard a woman trying to buy some panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas cake. She wanted to taste a piece of the cake before buying it.
The pastry worker was insisting that if she didn’t like it, she could get her money back But she still wanted to and try a piece. “Sono fatti da noi,” (“They’re made by us”) the pastry man said — which usually in Naples is a synonym for, “Of course it’s good.”
The woman then looked at me and asked if the pastiera (a Neapolitan Christmas specialty) I was buying was good. “I bought a pastiera here before that was good,” I told her in Italian. “But I haven’t tried the panettone.”
That set the pastry man off. “Non si muove,” he instructed me (“Don’t move”). He sped downstairs and returned with a freshly baked panettone, which he promptly cut in half and held open like a butterflied piece of meat.
He then cut the doubting woman a piece, and also handed me a larger than necessary portion. Quickly, the woman agreed with the baker: it was good. But she needed my opinion, too. “Si, e’ buono,” I said. And the pastry chef raised his hands in victory, and a panettone was sold.
I went home with my pastiera, and on the way received a text message saying my dinner guests had cancelled.
While eating a slice of pastiera by myself, I reflected on how a complete stranger in Naples automatically assumed that a foreigner like me would have a valid opinion on the quality of Italian desserts. Maybe up north, she would have just assumed I didn’t know a panettone from a cannolo. Or, I would first have to explain to her how I learned to speak basic Italian before she deemed my contributions worthy.
In Naples, thankfully, we can skip all that, and instead delve freely into the more important things in life — mainly, caffè and pastries.