Chapter 4: O Sole Mio

My father certainly met a lot of famous people during his career.  At the West Point graduate luncheon in Charleston, he might sit next to “Westy”, Westy being General Westmoreland, the allied commander in Viet Nam.  And he often played handball with that somewhat famous guy who was an instructor at the Naval War College and now writes military history novels and appears on Sunday morning talk shows.

One time, he and I were watching A Bridge Too Far together, when he said: “I remember Julian,” referring to Julian Clark, the hero played by Robert Redford.  “Julian was a pretty nice guy.  We knew him in Naples.”  The comment struck me because it was delivered so matter-of-factly, as if it were an ordinary thing that they made movies about people you’ve known.

“Do you remember anything about Naples?” he asks, following up on the topic just introduced.  But before I can react, he adds: “Naples was really something . . .”

“Yeah, I know,” I answer.  I don’t remember much about Italy myself.  I was just two years old when we moved there, and not quite five when we left.

Italy was memorable for him, not because of the job–he worked with NATO, which I gather was lots of frustration and bureaucracy–but because of the people, the natives specifically.  “The Neapolitans were really something . . . ” he says again, “something” being his favorite superlative, used whenever the item described is just too much for words.

“Unlike Germany, this time we lived among the natives.  In Germany we lived on base, went to American schools, shopped at American stores, but in Italy we lived in that apartment on the hill.  You don’t remember that do you? . . .  The bocci ball court out front . . . Our neighbors the Augistinos.  You would go down to their apartment to watch TV . . . we didn’t have a TV in Italy . . .  You used to watch Topo Lino–Mickey Mouse . . . “

I remember some, but I wonder if it is because he has reminded me so many times.

“Do you remember the railroad tracks just beyond our apartment?” he asks.  The question, however, is only a prelude to another anecdote; it doesn’t matter if I remember or not.  “I must have seen it happen a dozen times.  When we stopped for a train, the cars behind us would move over into the other lane.  On the other side of the tracks they did the same thing.  When the train passed, you had both lanes of traffic facing each other.  Nobody could move.”

“Go figure.”

“Yeah, go figure . . . It didn’t make any sense to me, but that’s what they did . . .

“And when you are driving down the highway,” he continues on the topic of Italian road etiquette, “you never look an Italian in the eye.”  He has often advised me of this fact, but never really explained why.  “You just barreled into the intersection like you owned it.”

I figure it might have something to do with Latin machismo, but I never have understood what he meant.  When I ask again, he’ll simply say “Neapolitans” or “that’s Naples”, as if that says it all.  Or maybe he’ll smile and shake his head as if to say the city and its people defy all logic and explanation.

But then maybe we were the ones out of place.  We had a big station wagon, a Brookline, shipped over from the States.  It was black, huge–about 16 feet long, and I’m sure stuck out like a sore thumb.  Maybe it was too much for the Neapolitans to avoid this challenge from an American.  I can almost see the little Fiats bouncing off the this big black behemoth as they challenged us for control of the road.

Pedestrians, as well as Americans in big cars, have to watch out for the Italian drivers as well.  Often, during our walks together, he’ll remind me of the Neapolitan taking his family for a walk.  “They always walk in single file.  The man walks behind, and puts the women and children in front.  And then when they come to an intersection, the man holds up his hand for the traffic to stop–still from behind.  He waits for the rest of the family before crossing himself.”  When he remembers, he’ll make me go first.

One of my favorite Naples stories, one which further highlights Neapolitan chivalry, is the about the guy in the row boat.  “He’s out there with his paramour, rowing and singing O Sole Mio.  We were in our sail boat, your brothers and I . . .  Do you remember our sail boat?  Our house was right on the Bay of Naples, so we bought a boat.  But then you weren’t old enough to go with us . . . Anyway, we were bearing down on this guy . . . we couldn’t maneuver all that well in the sail boat.  We were frantically yelling and signaling him to get out of the way.”

“I suppose he didn’t realize there was a soldier driving this boat.”

“Yeah . . . anyway, he goes right on rowing and singing O Sole Mio. He finally sees us just before we are about to run over him.  So what’s he do?  He jumps overboard.  Left the woman behind.”  He chuckles after this one, so I’m sure nobody was hurt.

Often at Christmas, he will tell the story of the Neapolitan mail man.  “The Italian mail service was just pitiful.  You were never sure if a letter you mailed would get through.  And you wouldn’t see the mail man all year–until just before Christmas.  Then he would ring your doorbell and personally deliver your mail.  He might even save a letter for weeks just so he could hand deliver it on Christmas Eve.  He was looking for a tip of course . . .

“Mussolini never got the postal service to run on time?”

“There were a lot of things he didn’t get to run . . . probably just too much to overcome.   The Italians just didn’t work that hard.”

I also remember him telling me about the non-working elevator in our apartment.   “We lived on the fifth floor and we could take the elevator to get to our apartment.  But you had to pay to use it.  It cost something like a hundred lira.  That was only a few cents back then.  I don’t know what they did with the money because the damn thing broke down all the time . . .  And whenever it broke down, the landlady would get on a rope in the basement and pull it to the next floor . . . Can you imagine?”

The Italians, in general, did not appear too serious about their jobs.  “I remember at our office in the summer we worked tropical hours: seven to one. Still the Italians took their lunch at noon–and, whatever time of year, it would always be a two hour lunch; they’d make sure and get in their siesta as well.”  How could you get anything done when your colleagues priority is their siesta?

“But then, the Neapolitans didn’t have a whole to be proud of.  They were pretty poor, unlike the Northern Italians who were much better off.  But the one thing they were proud of was their water.  It came in from the aqueducts, built by the Romans two thousand years earlier.”  He stops to allow me to ponder this tid-bit, as if it should finally explain some of the mystery.

Another Naples story which may (or then again, may not) shed light on the mystery of Naples, involves the Neapolitans’ patron saint, Saint January; San Genarro, I think, is the Italian name.  “Saint January was executed by the Romans back in the second or third century.  After he died, they managed to save a vial of his blood, and they still have it today.  Every year, during the winter, the blood freezes.  In the spring, when it thaws, there is a big celebration.  It’s a really big event; during early spring everyone waits with bated breath to see when it will thaw.  If it thaws before Saint January’s feast day, it is good luck; the priests go into the streets shouting the news, and then there is a big parade.

“But if it doesn’t thaw in time, that’s bad luck . . . the Neapolitans look up to the sky and say: ‘San Genarro, why have you abandoned us?'” Dad’s fingers are in the air and his voice raised to a high pitch as he recounts, demonstrating how this is just another trial in the difficult life of the Neapolitan.

“Pretty strange,” I add after a moment of thought.  “But then, maybe it’s just their version of ground hog day.”

“What about the garbage in the street?” I ask a moment later, trying to keep the conversation alive after remembering something my brothers told me once.

“Oh God!  Every New Year’s they would have their spring cleaning–or  I suppose it was a New Year cleaning.  They’d just throw stuff out the window.  I don’t mean garbage bags.  They’d throw furniture, mattresses, bicycles . . . everything . . .  anything.  They didn’t package anything; they just threw them away as is.  They threw things from the floor above us.  You could see it go by our balcony.  And it would be all over the street.  Crazy!”  It sounds like he did not approve.  But then, maybe it is just another clue.

*****

In addition to the natives, my father met a few interesting people on the job.  There were other soldiers and diplomats from the various NATO countries at the Naples headquarters; there was Jacques, the French Legionnaire, who often gets a mention, and the RAF (Royal Air Force) fellow who lived in our building.  And as part of the job, he traveled to other parts of Europe as well, meeting with NATO counterparts from all over as he played diplomat.

But then, diplomat was not the role that suited him best, so he doesn’t talk often about the experiences.  Besides, it appears this crowd may have taxed even the most patient and serene of diplomats.  “It seems like everyone hated somebody. the Neapolitans hated the northern Italians . . . the French hated all the Italians.  The Greeks and Turks hated each other.  They all seemed like reasonable people . . .”  He shakes his head and gives a wry smile.  Such seems to be the life of a NATO diplomat.

The Turks and the Greeks seemed to be the worst to deal with.   He talks about them occasionally as their enmity for each other especially stood out.  “They’re both in NATO, but they could never agree on anything; they still don’t.  We had a hell of a time trying to get the two to agree on anything we did . . . they really hated each other; still do . . . I remember one time I was in Istanbul–with this Turkish Colonel.  We drove past this hovel, and the colonel looked at me and all he said was: ‘Greeks’.” He exaggerates the tone, saying “Greeks” like someone from the KKK might say the “N” word.

But despite all the frustrations of the job and the eccentricities of the locals, one can tell he still thinks very fondly of those three years spent in Naples.  Certainly, much of the charm must be attributed to the Neapolitans, but I think the city itself added much as well.  He will often go back to the surroundings when he gets started on Naples: the apartment on the hill, the Bay of Naples, the isle of Capri.  “You know you could also see Mount Vesuvius from our balcony on top of the hill.”

And once he gets started on the surroundings, he will tell me again about the street we lived on, Via Pocilipo, and its surroundings: the bocci ball court, the store on the corner, or maybe something more about the apartment.  “What a place we lived in.  The view was absolutely fantastic.”  He always smiles when he talks about it.  “And did you remember it had marble floors?  But it wasn’t much of an apartment though,” he adds, lest I think it was some sort of grand place given all the marble. 

He will often pause for a moment, focusing on the places last mentioned and then resume with some additional facts.  “I remember sending your brothers down to the corner store to buy a bottle of wine.  They were just barely teenagers, but of course, in Italy, that was okay . . . Your brothers remember Italy really well.  They went through boy scouts and little league while we were there, a lot of the same things you did in Virginia a few years later . . .

“Do you remember the steakhouse restaurant a couple blocks away? It was run by a guy who used to work for Al Capone.  He was deported from the U.S., so he went back to Naples and started a restaurant.”

“Italy really was a beautiful place,” he will often say after a moment of reflection, and then he will proceed to tell me again about all the places we visited while living in Italy: Florence, Rome, the Vatican.  “Beautiful places, just beautiful.”  And then, he’ll tell me again about the time Steve’s little league team went to the championship or about the time Mike and his boy scout troop met the Pope.

The memories are almost all good.  Even the enigma of the Neapolitans and all their idiosyncrasies only added to the charm and the character of Naples.  I suppose it was just a special place and a special time.

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