Tales of a wandering lesbian

Angels and pizzas

“Napoli e bella.”  We’d heard it pretty much every time we mentioned to anyone that we’d be in the south of Italy.  At least from the folks in Italy.  One of my good friends had spent time there, and she was also a big fan, but other than that, I’d heard that Naples was dirty, dangerous, and really nothing great.  Still, “Napoli e bella,” echoed in our ears.

“I think we should do Naples.”  The Ant and I were planning our last week in the south.  “I mean, our family is from there.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.  “If grandpa was here, he could tell us all about it.”

On our trip to the north, we’d been hesitant to tell people where our family was from.  Naples has a reputation, and Campo Basso, where my great grandmother was from, doesn’t seem to be much better.  The usual response we would get was a, “mmmmm” and a changed subject.  But here, far south of Naples, it seemed to be the crown jewel, a beautiful metropolis.

Our day started as it usually did, with a cappu, a pastry, and a ride on a bus.

A pretty darn crowded bus.

Then a ride on a train.  The a ride on a subway car.  One that went from empty to packed in approximately 20 seconds.

If Rome is the best of everything, Naples is the most of everything.  It’s intense, like bone marrow cooked down to its absolute essence, earthy, pushy.

We were only spending one day in Naples, so we wanted to hit the highlights.  Museum and pizza were high on the list.  When we emerged from the subway, we were hot and disoriented.  We’d watched a grandmother struggle aboard the car and, practically collapse into a seat that was quickly vacated by a hoard of giggling high-school aged girls.  She fanned herself with a collapsible fan she pulled from her purse and muttered rapidly about the heat.  The girls sat on each other’s laps to make room for her and rummaged in bags to find water to offer her.

Now, above ground, we were rummaging for our own water bottles, and I was looking for the “big, red building” that Rick Steves had described as marking the National Archeological museum.  Now, Rick has done me very well in the north, but his apparent ignorance of/loathing of the south was starting to annoy me.  (Yes, Frank you were right.)

As I looked up the street, up a hill, I saw at least 3 big, red buildings.

“Um, maybe it’s one of those,” I tried, gesturing feebly at them.

“Kristin!”  The Ant wasn’t amused.  And I wasn’t even joking.

I shrugged, and we headed up, sweating freely in the midday sun.

It turned out that the museum was a fourth big, red building.  Fortunately, it was closer than the others.  After trying to enter a metro entrance marked “Museo,” we finally found our way inside.  The museum is known to house many of the treasures that were stripped from Pompei when it was discovered.  The frescoes and mosaics were cut out and removed to become part of the royal collection.  I was most excited to see the mosaics and the “secret room,” a collection of erotic art commissioned by the wealthiest home-owners in Pompei.

Unfortunately, the mezzanine level, which houses both the mosaics, and the secret room was closed.  No erotic art for us.  Well, kind of.

We entered the galleries and began our appreciation of the art.

The Ant really had a deep understanding of the Farnese gallery.  I think it was the fine relation of the human form that captivated her.

I, on the other hand, identified with the “labrys-bearer,” and “fish-wrangler” as I like to call them.

Starting to get hungry, we ran through the collection of frescoes and tools.

And then checked out the sundial room, which, at noon every day, shows the date with a single shaft of light thrown onto the calendar on the floor.

Finally, we headed into the room of Greek sculpture.  From the first time I looked into the stone and bone eyes of the Greek statues in Athens, I’ve felt an affinity with these objects.  A near kinship.  When I look into the faces of Roman marble busts, I don’t see myself.  When I look into the eyes of the Greeks, I do.

Also, their asses.

And then we saw a really fascinating modern exhibit.  One with Medusa.

I once went for Halloween as Medusa.  You know what they don’t tell you in the US?  She’s Intersex.

No, really.  It’s part of the myth.  It just gets left out.  Fascinating.  I might have modified my costume a bit.

After Medusa, we were able to cross the museum off our list.  All that was left was pizza.  Pizza.  In Naples.  Rick had not been super helpful thus far, but he did have the names and locations of two famous pizza places listed in his Naples section.  I somehow convinced the Ant that it was necessary to eat at one of these two restaurants.  And also that I’d be able to navigate us through the streets of Naples to them.  Fortunately, they were across the street from each other.  And so we started walking.

There were a lot of people.  And a lot of shops.  And a lot of cars and scooters, and flags waving.

There was a lot of gum on the sidewalk.  There was a lot of graffiti, too.

“Dirty” is the way I heard it described.  In guidebooks, from other tourists, and from the people we met at lunch.

“She thinks it’s dirty.”  The couple next to us was visiting.  She from Madrid, he from Rome.

“I like it,” I said.  Not as though I was trying to be contrary.  Naples really had a feel to it.  Unsettled, seething – but interesting.

“Earthy.”  That’s the word I applied to the city.  Maybe the word I’d apply to myself.  Not sure.

“How do you eat so much.?  Magra.”

“He says you’re so skinny.”  The woman was translating the Italian to English.  Beautiful.  And he spoke to her in Spanish.

I smiled.  The Ant and I had just polished off two pizzas.  Two pizzas that turned out not to be ours.

In the bustle of the upstairs pizza parlor, the din that rose from the family-style tables crammed together, someone had misunderstood.  When they set the two pizzas in front of us, I wondered.  Then I pretended that they were two different types – our types:  margherita and 7 cheese.  I even swapped with the Ant.  Then we traded pieces, willing our taste buds to experience the 7 different cheeses.  Yes, we were that hungry.

As I gobbled, I thought about the other people who might be equally hungry, waiting for pizzas that wouldn’t come.  There were people inquiring about pizzas everywhere.  This seemed a common issue.  And then the third pizza arrived.

This was what a 7 cheese pizza was supposed to look like.  Ahem.

The waiter looked at our neighbors who told him we’d already eaten.  He shrugged and smiled and left us the pizza.

Our new friends looked at us.  The people on our other side stared.

“I’ll share!”  I declared.  They all waved their arms, distancing themselves from the fugitive pizza.

When we left the restaurant, it was with a pizza box under my arm.  There was no way I was going to let that thing go to waste.

“You’re going to carry that through Naples and on the train back to Salerno?”

“Yes, but if I find someone to give it to, I’ll do that,” I told the Ant.  She agreed.  In Portland there would be a dozen street kids asking for it the second I left.  But here, I ran into nobody who was even asking for money.  I found this odd in a city as earthy as Naples.

Walking back toward the museum and the metro stop, we ran into our friends Andrea and Irene from the restaurant.  We chatted about the city, and exchanged contact information.  Andrea told us not to show our cameras or money in the street.  Then we continued on, taking in the glory of the city.

The Ant didn’t so much share my love of Naples.

The day was just getting hotter.  Thinking of the crammed train ride ahead of us, we bought a bottle of water, found a park bench, and hydrated.  Then I grew a little restless.

“It’s time to move,” I said to the Ant.  It just felt like we’d been on that park bench a little too long.

When we stood up, a scruffy, bearded man put out his hand and asked for money.

“Una pizza buona?”  I asked, handing the box to him.

His face lit up.  “Si.  Si!  Buona.”

“Ciao,” I said and we walked along toward the station, past several big, red buildings.

That night I had an email from our new friend.

“Kristin, you didn’t eat too much pizza?” came the Italian question.

“No, don’t worry.  I gave it to a man on the street.”

“Well, then he surely saw an angel today.”  I loved that he thought of a woman with pizza as an angel.

Do you see why I love Naples?   A place where graffiti artists compete for your attention with fascist architecture, and angels walk the streets doling out pizza.  This is my kind of earthy.  Napoli e bella.

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July 1, 2010   1 Comment

Venice Day 4

Warning:  This was a very long day.  You might want to take a nap before reading.

The day started on a good note.  At breakfast I discovered “delichoc,” little containers of a nutella-like substance.  They were hiding among the little containers of jelly.  Suddenly, the nice rolls on the breakfast table became fantastic!  I found myself wondering if I could smuggle some of them, along with the delichoc, out in my shirtsleeves.  Trying to remember how I’d done just that in the college cafeteria, I had to abandon the plan as other guests walked in for breakfast.

I walked out of the hotel into my first sunny day in Venice, and found the sun doing lovely things to the city.

Venice sunny door

This was my last full day here, and I had a lot left on my list of things to see.  I had planned my day carefully, and hoped that I could use everything I’d learned to keep myself on track.  I tried first for a traghetto ride, but found the stop closed because it was Sunday.  No problem, I knew how to walk where I wanted to go, so I struck out on foot.  They city had a nice surprise for me.  It took me right past the firehouse.

Venice Firehouse

I found the municipal boats of Venice an amusing novelty.  Seeing the firemen scooting around on a little boat was totally entertaining.

When I reached the Rialto bridge, I saw a sign that read “Rialto, the heart of the city.”  “It’s a sinking heart” I thought to myself.  Little did I know…

Floodwaters at Rialto

The first site on my list was the island of Murano, famous for its glass furnaces.  I’d have to take a vaporetto ride out and back.  So, I walked up to the top of Venice, bought a ticket and hopped on a boat.  The ride itself was beautiful, taking me past the dramatic island cemetery.

Venice cemetary

Murano was a sleepy island with wide canals, interesting public art, and glass everywhere.

Murano canal Glass public art Glass Madona

I followed the other tourists down the row of formal glass furnaces and shops, across several bridges and to the glass museum.  I spent an hour or so moving through floor after floor of glass exhibits.  From seriously ancient pieces to really old ones, they were all exquisite and fascinating.  But, I had at least three other major sites on my list, and needed probably 30 minutes to get back to the city.  Plus, I had only consumed one coffee, and it was pushing noon.

After a hasty macchiato and a vaporetto ride, I was back in Venice proper, and headed over the Rialto again.  My plan was to visit the Ca’ Pesaro to see its Modern and Asian art museums, before visiting the huge collections at the Correr Museum and then, hopefully, the Accademia.

The bar where I’d grabbed my coffee was so insane that I abandoned hope of trying to get something to eat.  Now I was seriously hungry and beginning to panic.  (Honestly, the only times I panicked in Venice were when I couldn’t find food immediately.  I was in full-on panic.)  I found Ca’ Pesaro – which was in another damn foodless part of town – and went in search of pizza.  There was no pizza.  I walked for at least 20 minutes before settling for a fancyish-looking bar, where I picked up something that looked like a twisted piece of pizza (sfizzaforno, I think it’s called).


For some reason, it took like a zillion years to heat it up.  I stood at the bar the entire time thinking it would come out of the little oven at any moment, and dodging the stares of the barista who was probably wondering why I was standing there with a panicky look.  When it finally emerged from the oven, it was hot – I mean hot.  Still, I shoved half of it in my mouth before I thought to take a picture.  It was tasty, I think.  One caffe later, I felt human enough to try another museum.  I relocated Ca’ Pesaro.

I don’t know if I saw everything in the museum.  I tried.  I think I saw all the great modern art, but the Asian art went on forever.  (And I love Asian art.)  According to the signage, it was originally the personal collection of a guy who became an enemy of the state or a war criminal or something.  The 30,000 items were seized, some were sold, and the rest became the museum.  It was overwhelming.  The swords, armor, guns, saddles, scrolls, lacquered bowls, pots, jade and ivory seemed never-ending.  Unlike other Asian collections I’ve seen, this one was a collection of a single person, and reflected his tastes, as opposed to featuring “culturally significant” works.  The experience was very interesting, but exhausting.  This is where I think I might have missed a couple of rooms, given my state of exhaustion and hunger, and the poorly-marked walking route.  Even so, I saw a lot.  A LOT.  And I had two huge museums left.

Now, I know that it’s best to visit cities like Venice with the thought that you will return.  And it’s not a good idea to pack so many exhibits into a short time, but I really wanted to see the archeological museum at the Correr (which was free to me with the museum pass I bought earlier in the week), and the Leonardo exhibit that was advertised all over town.

So it was back to St. Mark’s piazza where the Correr museum is.  I saw important rooms of a library (I don’t remember which one) and the archeological museum.  This was great.  Lots of ancient sculpture, ancient coins and the machinery to make them, and several galleries of antiquities housed in vacuum-sealed rooms.  And beautiful views of Venice from the gallery windows.

Accademia view

I might have missed some of the rooms (I was still hungry and the routes were confusing to me in my stupor), but I didn’t really care.  I closed down the museum and staggered out to continue my search for pizza.

This time I stepped into the first bar I saw with pizza in the window.  It was thick-crusted, and very different from the other pizza I’ve had in Italy.  It was good, though.  And kept me from having a full on melt-down on my way to the Accademia.

Thick pizza

When I bought my ticket at the Accademia museum, I was super-excited to find that it was discounted.  I didn’t ask why, but the 1.50 would buy another piece of pizza, so I was happy.  Inside, there were galleries of great collections.  Series after series of paintings commissioned regarding specific topics.  They were enormous works filled with religious scenes.  The most interesting to me was a room filled with huge paintings of scenes depicting the miracles of the relic of the true cross.  Strange scenes of exorcisms and priests swimming in the canals of Venice were even more interesting as my head started swimming from everything I’d seen that day.  Helpfully, the exhibits had excellent English-language explanations, which was nice.  I was able to give my brain a break from the non-stop translating that it undertakes each day, and just lean back on the padded benches to enjoy the paintings.

About halfway through the museum, I found the reason for the discounted entry.  A couple of the major galleries were closed.  Frankly, I was relieved.  I was tired.  But there was one last thing I wanted to see before I ventured out into the city in search of dinner.  Leonardo.

Leonardo poster

I’d seen posters for the exhibit all over the city, and wondered what, exactly, the exhibit would be.  When I first stepped into the tiny room housing the special exhibit, I was a little disappointed.  There was just one piece in the darkened room.  One little sketch.  This is what all the fuss was about?  And then I stepped in front of it.  The posters weren’t just using the “Vitruvian Man” sketch as an advertisement for Leonardo, they were advertising the exhibition of the piece itself.  (I learned later that the sketch is actually housed at the Accademia, but is rarely exhibited.)

It was remarkably powerful.  And beautiful.  The rust-colored ink on the camel colored paper was bold and clear.  Everyone in the room was silent.  Absolutely absorbed.  This was a nice surprise to end a long day of art, much of which will run together when I look back on the day.  Of the thousands of objects I saw, this one will stand out.

I knew that with certainty.  And I knew something else, as well – I was hungry again.

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December 4, 2009   1 Comment