Soon it is apparent why this dot on the radar is revered by the French, Dutch, and Germans as an ideal slice of the slow life. Its sea is laden with cascading colors of sapphire blue and white ivory, each embedded in the rhythm of the tide; its knockout moons hold strong as guiding forces of the rotational tilt, as if it all began and ended here. Yet, no greater force is the contemplation that occurs at the skirts of a cosmic wonder such as Mt. Etna, where the discards of cataclysm pit questions of life against death. This is where man comes to quantify small decisions and conquer his ghosts; a realm of complete isolation seeming all but romantic with the right view.
Hiccuping down the spiraling street walls of Mount Pellegrino, aided by half-toned headlights and the intense focus of Lorenzo, our small vehicle dodges and weaves through a mess of low-swung brush and eroded manholes with a seeming grace.
“The mountain, it is falling down,” he says, with a grin. “It is fucking dangerous. They have closed the road because it is falling.”
“Closed?” Philipp retorts, in a rip of laughter; for, this stolen right of passage into the depths of a decrepit maze epitomizes his idea of a cheap thrill.
“Yes, it has been falling for some time now,” Lorenzo replies. “The mountain, its history, it speaks if you listen.”
Steadily the air around us envelops the car into a veil of night, and challenged are the dim, exhausted headlights at each tight corner. Branches overhead tickle the open window of our rooftop, and yet there is stillness on the road; our vessel feels isolated in its wholeness, as if the moment were being preserved for us, and us alone. Upon reaching the grounding lights of a colorful cityscape, Mondello – bold in all of its revelry – there is a sense of relief, but on its trail is the subtlety of remorse.
Unescapable, still, is the wrath of foddered consumables as the disconnect is made from Milan and our journey begun to Naples – a city where gold links, silver chains, crowned hats and premiere purse labels clutter every portable table top, ultimately toeing the line of intrusive as we waltz over the city’s unleveled streets of broken brick. Is this not the throw-away culture we longed to escape by vaulting across the Atlantic? An ode to their way of life, rather, this inherently serpentine servitude to sell, sell, sell, is exhaustive in its unrelenting draw of the senses and, in turn, combats the natural beauty of a city that once housed one of the great Kingdoms of the world. Napoli, in no short order, has a way of closing itself in on you; be it the narrow alleyways in between massive brick installments, or the everlasting strip of commercial goods and the bevy of bakeries and banks for one’s moral and material deposits; yet, the greatest thrill comes in watching the parade of cars storm the dotted lanes that serve as the main arteries to the city. On these streets, scooters reign supreme: slithering elusively, they’re commandeered by small children, rambunctious teenagers, and bearded men who take successive, sharp turns at 90 degree angles, against and then with the flow of traffic, just to shave off a few seconds of their commute. A steady Vaffanculo! echoes down alleyways.
“Now, are we talking active, or latent?” asks one of the retirees a few seats down from me. He’s one of the few who frequent this place at a certain hour, seemingly everyday. Together they talk politics, the Chinese, and the land-value of what was leftover from the Native Americans. Having just wrapped up comparing their Tuesday crosswords, these old men now appear ready to tackle White Supremacy with everything they have.
This is why I come back. Well, that and the espresso that is dark, viscous, and reminiscent of that which is served over the counter in Italy: like cough medicine, and also without a smile.
How many things come full circle, for this time last year I was winding down from a month-long sabbatical overseas, in where I was given a slice of life that is lived well-beyond, but also contently far behind, our modern-day life in America. Conversely, it is there that I also presume the same silver-haired men in carefully arranged outfits to be having similar conversations over coffee.
When the chairman of their committee drops in, the tailored-suit and otter-cap fitting snug to his frame, an anecdote sticks out, causing me to lend a careful ear. He’s going on about the local university, how it’s going broke, but also how the other, just like it, is firmly bankrupt.