’m on Via Napoli, a street near my apartment in Pozzuoli, a small seaside town adjacent to the Bay of Naples and a very old and thankfully very extinct volcano. Pozzuoli is at one with Naples. As Brooklyn residents would call themselves New Yorkers, Pozzuoli’s population is Neapolitan to the core. Better or worse, it shares characteristics with its larger neighbor (the most densely populated city in Europe, by the way). It’s also where my wife and I call home for the time being.
Since rounding the bend and coming onto my street, I’ve had five cars honk at me (I’ve been on the sidewalk, mind you), narrowly dodged seven scooters (both on the sidewalk and on the street), been chased by one stray dog and playfully followed by two more. I have Olympic high-hurdled two massive, steaming piles of uncollected garbage, received innumerable hateful stares from older Italian women, and in general have been glared at by every group of Italians I pass, simply by virtue of my blond hair.
And this is just since I got off the train on the way home from work; I haven’t even started running yet.
ANYONE WHO has ever had the privilege of driving a decent car on a German autobahn will tell you the driving experience can’t be beat anywhere outside of the Bonneville Salt Flats with a jet engine strapped to your trunk.
Anyone who has ever driven in a Middle Eastern country knows what it’s like to drive among people with an almost enviable disdain for life forms, be they pedestrians, cattle, other drivers or themselves. There’s really no rhyme or reason; it’s simply kill or lose out on the fare sitting in your back seat.
Those who have driven in Italy, though, know what it’s like to drive within one of the most finely organized forms of chaos the world has ever seen.
It’s not very often that you find yourself in a just-barely-non-Third-World country with the absolute luxury to obey or disobey, at your convenience and in full view of law enforcement officers, whatever “traffic laws” exist for the safety of you and your fellow drivers.
Speed limits are suggestions, one way street signs are really more of a “heads up,” the horn becomes your most valuable weapon in your daily battle to get to work on time and your “high beams” become your most reliable form of communication, whether you’re using them to say “get the bloody fuck over to the right lane now you slow son of a bitch I’m late for work and hate you greedily without having met you!” or merely “I say, I have a few more ponies under the hood than you my friend, could I slide by and be on my way?”.
Anyone who has ever driven their beat up Peugeot or Opel in Naples, however, can describe to you firsthand what it’s like to fly a high speed fighter jet in the middle of a heated dog fight, where you have no wingman (and even if you did he’d be on his cell phone anyway, and if not, well, then just he’d be simply oblivious to you), all the other planes are trying to shoot you down, and the aircraft carrier you took off from expects you to find your own landing and parking space on deck because the flight deck crew decided they’re going to go on strike that afternoon. Then they’ll charge you €2 to park your jet there while you go and have a café and sort things out.
All of which only adds to the rich flavor of living in this, the black sheep of Italian cities. Travel outside of Naples, even someplace as close as Rome (just two short hours up the peninsula), and you’ll be greeted with the same response every single time someone asks you where you’re from:
“We live in Naples.”
“Ach. Napoli!” your new friend will say, while two hands beseech the sky for advice as to why someone like you would deign to live there. “Napoli non e Italia!“
So there you are, forcing yourself to grudgingly defend the city you call home against those snobby northern Italians you have nothing against except for the fact that their trash is collected on a regular basis and they have all the good football clubs.
Which comes easily enough to anyone willing to look beyond the graffiti, the garbage everywhere, the (apparent) general sense of disdain for any sense of order, the unwillingness of your average Napolitano to stand in a coherent line to wait for anything, and so on and so forth in an endless list of gripes. The inadequacies and irritating traits of Neapolitans are too numerous to spell out here, and we’ve all heard the usual Italian stereotypes, so it’s not worth mentioning here the differences between Italians and the Rest of the World.
As I said, if you live here long enough you learn to love it, as long as you can see beyond the obvious shortfalls. The food is phenomenal, the people will give you the shirt off their back as long as you’re willing to chat a moment or two now and then, and there’s a sense of unity here that permeates everything: we’re not northern Italy (spit!); we were doing just fine before the unification of the country (and later Mussolini) stole all our revenues and built up the north, thank you very much; and to hell with you if you don’t like the way we do things. This is Naples, and we’ve been marching to our own beat for a lot longer than wherever you’re from has been a country, so leave us the hell alone.
WHICH IS all well and good, until the first time you decide to start training for any kind of athletic event that you must prepare for outside the comfort of your own home or local gym. Once you take the plunge, as it were, and commit to a marathon or triathlon, for example, you’ve now entered a realm few here dare to tread, and one no guidebook will tell you about.
To stride down a Naples street in running clothes is both a brave and foolhardy deed, mainly because the Neapolitans don’t really view anyone wearing running clothes and actually running as being interesting enough to pay attention to beyond a piercing stare for a few seconds. That’s why it’s so dangerous: cars assume that you’ll get out of their way, because roads are for cars and cars alone.
And you will, every time, if you want to make it to the next run. You’ll learn that running on the side of the road that faces oncoming traffic is only good if you want to look into the passing cars for good-looking women. You’ll grow eyes out of the back of your head, because that watchdog you just passed may very well be trotting right behind you waiting for the right moment to attack. You will learn to suppress a very strong urge to vomit on the side of the road after you pass your first hillside sulfur vent, dead dog or cat, two month-old pile of uncollected garbage, or the wondrous sight of the same said garbage pile on fire.
I FIRST experienced the fun of running in Naples while training for the Venice Marathon. I began training during the summer, the race kicking off in October. Southern Italy gets fairly hot in the summertime and especially humid around a big city like Naples, but the heat and the humidity are not really the climate problems I’m referring to, to paraphrase “Casablanca.”
Running in general in Naples is seen as an anomaly, something nobody but football players do, and even then they only do it with a ball and while on a field. Football is the religion here, after all, and Catholicism the national pastime and anyone else is either from out of town or from a family that doesn’t care about their welfare, because no sensible Italian family would let one of its own out of the house looking like that.
I realized this the first time I managed to bring a church processional — it may have been a funeral, I didn’t get a good look — to a screeching halt, single-handedly, by running right through the middle of it, albeit still on an unoccupied sidewalk.
Normally it’s an uplifting, somewhat motivating feeling to have everyone looking at you and no one else, but that only counts when they’re actually cheering, not trying to bore holes through your upper torso with their eyes or record your facial features for a brute second cousin to hunt down and break sideways with a hardware store snow shovel, which was clearly the case here.
After that it was smooth sailing, or so I thought, since I’d be out in the free and clear of the country roads outside of town. It dawned on me that this was wrong the first time I had to choose between maybe getting clipped by the large green tractor barreling its way towards me or running ankle deep through last month’s garbage. Guess which one I chose.
I realized that this was to be the theme of the rest of my training time: choices. I would be forced, day in and day out, while out on the road running, to choose between the lesser of two death defying cultural barriers.
Case in point: I’d be running along next to the sidewalk – as everyone here knows, pedestrians don’t belong on sidewalks, only scooters, parked Smart Cars and uncollected piles of dog merda are welcome — when suddenly I look up and see a four-door Clio bearing down on me from the other direction, aiming for the empty spot I happened to just then run through. Narrowly avoiding a total collision — there’s always a little scrape or two in these cases — a sense of understanding washes over me: for all that guy knows I could have been running to that spot to hold it for my own beat up Smart Car while my uncle drops off his dry cleaning and grabs a café.
At this point, spouting curses does you no good unless you know the really good ones in Italian, and even then the guy that just about launched you into the nearest coffee bar has already forgotten you existed and moved along.
What you have to realize is that cars are just as confounded by your presence as you are of theirs. Italians don’t run across the street, offer a courtesy jog or even walk fast; to do so only confuses drivers, who have no idea in which direction those sneaky pedestrians are going and can’t decide if they should speed up and go ahead of or behind the person in the road. So they always, even in the heaviest, fastest traffic, walk at as leisurely a pace as can be across the road, ensuring that every driver knows exactly where they’re headed.
So a runner going along parallel to the flow of traffic just throws everybody off their game, since the drivers now have no idea if you’re going to dart out into the road, try and cross it or attempt to hurdle an oncoming hatchback at a dead sprint like a whitetail deer during rut.
IT’S STRANGELY soothing to not fully understand the local language while running in a country that doesn’t approve of you doing so. When you can’t understand the taunts and jeers of the scooter-riding teenagers zipping by you, you really lose any sense of self-consciousness, and a Zen-like blissfulness surrounds you and you’re off to ponder the deeper things in this life.
And then a side-view mirror shaves the hair off your forearm as you round a corner, horn blasting and three miscreants hanging out the back windows hoping you were carrying a backpack they could grab, bringing you back into reality. The cars don’t need to speak your language to let you know you’re in their way and they’re not gonna do a thing to change it. They way they see it here is that it’s not their fault you decided to jog down the side of the road instead of driving on it like a normal human.
So once you learn to master runner-to-car diplomacy your experience becomes slightly less stressful, although you still run with your head on a swivel at all times. Trying to predict how the pedestrians sharing the sidewalk with you will react is a crapshoot every time, and no two Italians on a sidewalk act the same way.
Sometimes they’ll take pity on your foolish self, out there in the heat for no good reason, and step slightly out of your way as they exhale a cloud of smoke right in your face (this is just about the highest form of courtesy they’ll extend to you, by the way). Most of the time, though, they’ll be walking five abreast and silently challenge you to a game of ‘Red Rover,’ and the only way to get through is to drop off the sidewalk and down onto the road – bad idea if you’re near a potential parking spot — or lower a shoulder, pick up some speed and barrel on through as hard as you can. You’ll be met with vicious cursing and another cloud of smoke, but you’re through and on your way down the street when these come at you, and besides, who cares? You don’t know any of their curse words anyway.
This isn’t really a good idea if it’s a gaggle of old ladies, but anyone else is fair game, and I always enjoy those occasions when I get to plow on through a group of teenagers intent on sending me to the street rather than break up their party.
It’s not out of rudeness that they ignore you; Italians tend to walk with a sort of tunnel vision, and anyone they’re not directly talking to isn’t really worth bothering with. So when you’re jogging along a narrow sidewalk and someone is walking towards you, you might as well just bite that bullet and squeeze to the side or stop and let them pass by. Or if they’re younger than 20 just strap on a thousand-yard stare and keep on running; they probably deserve it anyway (I like to assign guilt for various automobile misdemeanors committed against my car to random street youth that wear too much pink and have way too many body parts pierced).
SO IF you’ve got a weak stomach or sensitive gag reflex, stick to hitting the elliptical or treadmill at the gym. Outdoor Naples presents its own unique aromas that challenge even the hardiest stomachs of steel, and it’s not unheard of to find yourself inhaling pure sulfur exhaust from a volcano one minute and three week-old uncollected garbage the next.
I like to think of it as a poor man’s high altitude training center. All that smoke, exhaust, volcanic emissions and garbage can do wonders for your lungs, making you all the more grateful when you run through a stretch of clean air, or at least what passes for it here. Not to mention the benefits to your sense of situational awareness; dodging cars, dogs, nuns and scooters can do wonders for your reflexes.