When we left off, dear Reader, I was basking in the September sun with my handsome husband on the island of Capri. But that’s all over now, I’m heading back to school and into the fire once more. Navigating Napoli can often seem like running a gauntlet or, at least, a Sisyphean effort to maintain your sanity.
Riding the Rails à la Napoli
Most days just getting to school is an adventure with passengers often being asked to switch trains, platforms, or simply… get off. I’ve even had a train worker close a station right in front of me with no explanation. As an adorable old Italian man once explained to me: “the train sometimes yes, sometimes no.” Ah.
Then there’s the chatting. I will preface this rant by fully admitting that I have a serious aversion to small talk. Yes, I was the coworker that pretended not to see you and let the elevator door close in your face. It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to ask about your weekend or talk about the weather. But the Italians, they are social animals to the Nth degree. Even in a completely empty train car they will sit down right next to you and, after a moment, benignly ask “Is this train going to Napoli?” Now, something tells me the locals from Napoli, standing under the Napoli sign, and boarding the Napoli train probably do not need directions from an obvious foreigner. No, dear Reader, they’re merely hoping to break the ice.
Sometimes they tell me how they feel about globalization, their grandson’s girlfriend, the economic crisis in Greece, or even their wives (and then proceed to invite me out for caffè). Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these encounters are with men. Italian men – at least the ones riding linea due – certainly live up to the Lothario stereotype. Maybe we chalk these extramarital chats up to different social norms. Maybe men are dogs. In either case, this might explain why the Italian women have been so standoffish….
Often these interactions amuse me, sometimes they exhaust me, but occasionally they just plain piss me off. For instance, a chat with a seemingly polite young man once took a startling turn into a discussion about my feet and whether or not he could smell and touch them. Sigh. Public transportation is not for the faint of heart.
There is a hint (barely a hint) of fall in the air this morning and I board the train determined to keep my good vibes in tact. When the train goes out of service at the Campi Flegrei station, I assume we are merely switching trains. Instead, we are being ushered out of the station entirely. Confusion erupts among a sea of disgruntled and wildly gesticulating Italians.
Emboldened by my six weeks of Italian, I ask a frazzled Trenitalia worker what is happening. “È rotto!” he replies (“It’s broken”). I attempt to clarify: that specific train is broken? The station is closing? Are there shuttle buses coming?
“È rotto. È rotto. TUTTO è rotto!” (It’s broken. It’s broken. EVERYTHING is broken!”). The man narrowly avoids the crowd and manages to flee the scene.
I blink. No kidding, I think to myself. Just when I feel as though I’m getting the hang of things, Napoli, like a slap in the face, reminds me never to become complacent. Unwilling to forfeit yesterday’s carefully cultivated sense of peace, I do what a Neapolitan would do… and have a caffè. Surely, life will sort itself out eventually.
After a moment a woman approaches me in the coffee bar and asks what’s happening at the station. “Tutto è rotto,” I reply matter of factly.
“Ahhhh!” she nods knowingly.
When no solution presents itself, I contemplate my options. I can’t get back home from this station and I could call my husband but… ugh, that would be so uncool. Determined to forge ahead, I walk a few blocks towards the city and hop on a bus pointed in the general direction of downtown. I stay on the unbearably crowded bus until I recognize a street. Still a few solid miles from school, I surrender to the chaos: I put on my headphones, blare some tunes, and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the bay on my way to class. I show up forty-five minutes late, but feeling triumphant all the same.
During my studies at Centro italiano, I’ve met people of all nationalities motivated to learn the Italian language for work, to adjust to a new life here, or, occasionally, just for funsies. Learning a language is a tricky thing and, much like settling into a new life abroad, your enthusiasm can ebb and flow. At first, it was exciting – being able to point at something and call it by its correct name – how remarkable! But then, Italian was so omnipresent it began to feel invasive. I would find myself conjugating in my dreams (vado, vai, va…) and one time I rolled over in the middle of the night and, drowsy from my deep slumber, fretted to Billy, “I keep thinking in the past tense.”
My mastery of the language also varies somewhat inexplicably from day to day and the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Though there is one constant throughout this process: my admiration for my classmates’ consistent ability to push themselves out of their comfort zones – to try. Stammering, face-reddening, oh-shit-I-sound-like-a-toddler attempts. It’s courageous in its way, is it not?