There are vegetable gardens pressed right up against the train tracks. I spy rows of purple cauliflowers growing round in leafy beds as my train crawls into Napoli Centrale. I notice even more unexpected patches of vegetables growing adjacent to grimy overpasses, but it is the groves upon groves of orange trees, their unmistakable fruit dotting the faint hills in the distance, that take my breath away. So many things green and growing and alive pop and spill from the manic density of ragged sprawl like garnish. If I’ve come here to learn how to find beauty amidst chaos, then this is Naples’s first lesson for me: grow what you can.
A sea breeze blows off the Mediterranean just like the sun rains down on the Amalfi Coast, with a bright concentration even in mid-December that yields all my anxious travelling thoughts to the citric warmth of here and now. And here I am, walking through feverish Naples. The smell of cigarettes and grease fills the air, mixing with the sweet tang of ocean, diesel, and something organic slowly rotting. From every fissure in concrete, plants stake their claim. All the while Vesuvius looms, the city’s unforgettably active and patient shadow, visible to the southwest. Rich in soil and in heat, the ancient volcano stands at once benign, threatening and blessedly fertile.
I stay in a cheap apartment in the Spanish Quarter. Ten flights of stairs above the winding streets, I delight in my small damp room and a fantastically precarious iron staircase that brings me up to a bare roof. Each morning, I am a pilgrim to the light, gingerly climbing up to the exposed rooftop to watch the sun rising. Here I gaze at the Bay of Naples, deeply blue and bowl-shaped, gleaming beyond the expanse of terracotta tiles and umbrella pines and church spires and satellite dishes all clustered before me. By the way a bird flies, I perch up here only two kilometers from the water’s edge and the ruins of ancient sea walls. Birds in Naples, like the traffic and like the people, are unignorable and outrageous. They’re bold. They fill all corners of the sky. They chime loudly on tall rafters and beyond tall walls. Although it appears a scavenging seabird paradise, three times I see droves of starlings fly in their extraordinary murmurations across the pink morning sky. This is my second lesson: savor all good things. I peel perfect fresh oranges for breakfast and eat the taut segments one by one, practicing.
In the classic Neapolitan gesture of pulling a lower eyelid down at you to expose pink-red sub-skin, Naples launches herself into each new day. Is this cheeky resilience what gives the city her thumping pulse? A port city founded in 6th century BC, Naples is still home to a species of pines that lives to be over one thousand years old, for the serpentine streets have constructed themselves around them. Here live also public olive groves, tended long before Napoleon seized Italy for himself in 1789, outliving Garibaldi’s unification conquest in 1860, and even the blitzes of the Second World War. Under German occupation, Naples became Italy’s most bombed city, yet Naples’s citizenry, knowing best its battered mazy streets, fought the Germans troops tooth and nail out of town before the Allies even had the chance to liberate her for themselves. Umbrella pines planted at this time still shade piazzas. It is a history both fraught and contemporaneous. Perhaps in this lies a third lesson: where there is survival, there is victory.
Indeed, like a cracked beehive, Naples drips with honey and life. Loose tomato plants grow wild from faults in the foundation of buildings. Gnarled succulents and lemon trees decorate narrow front steps in clay pots. Fried pastries baked with rose petals are doused sticky in rum. Pomegranate and orange trees grow round, their ripe fruit littering cobblestones. Bees whirl, tiny green birds flit about, and flowers colonize unexpected places, like the violets I spot clustering beside the wet bases of engraved stone fountains. Stacked balconies cascade with plant life and clean laundry alike, each balcony becoming a love letter to existence itself. Street markets hawk piles of miracles: oranges, artichokes, radicchio, persimmons, and even packed masses of live eels, black and writhing in Styrofoam containers. From my rooftop, out of the drainpipe extending down to the street, a vine has pushed up 100 feet through the seams to the sky. So much is alive! What is soon to die?
I notice the dazzle in the cracks, but the cracks are fractures nonetheless. For all the flowers and fruits, there are stray dogs roaming, there are men yelling angrily into their phones, there is an acidic sense of chaos; incessant vespas, reckless buses, the loose antics of motorini. Inequalities flourish, and I exchange looks with strangers that cleave at my heart. The sense of squalor—a poverty that bites and festers—is noticeable without having to look too closely at all.
I also see more garbage discarded, heaping to the streets than I imagined possible. There must be hundreds of millions of discarded cigarette butts alone. And then I learn about the mafia’s most impossibly ingenious business arrangement: underbidding on the city’s waste collection contracts and then burning the truckloads of rubbish at city limits. I find it utterly anthropic. But Gomorrah here is the un-whispered word, and I know nothing. All I can do is wonder and witness the hundreds of public shrines carved into stone walls to remember the young lives lost to violence, with bunches of cut flowers and photographs and the sign of the cross. The collision of mafia and church and state is not quite seen or unseen, yet Naples’s dark reputation is as palpable as the orange trees shooting emerald leaves up through paved stones. Perhaps more than anything, Naples is a complicated picture of man and nature if not living in harmony, then living both in spite of, and in dedication, to each other. The final lesson might be this: hold on to the truth of many things at once.
Naples hands me more questions than answers. What is beauty without its shadow? I want to ask the orange trees. I want to ask this audacious drainpipe vine. I want to ask the old woman who also emerges to greet the sunrise onto a small adjacent balcony each morning. She first beats a rug over the railing, releasing trapped dust motes to drift down in the long soft light. She then waters her chili plants and herbs and potted trees with care, one by one by one. Finally, she leans on her railing and gazes over her city to light a cigarette and exhale to another day. The waking streets intensify, churches ring out their bells, and plants unfold to the sun, yet she and I linger as close to the sky as we both can get for a few precious moments longer. Is this how she finds beauty? How does she eat her oranges? And how does she understand impermanence?
Jennie Long lives on Coast Salish territories on Vancouver Island. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Sliced by Fed, Upping the Anti, Ms. Magazine, and Entropy.