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Coming of Age in Napoli

It was almost 40 years ago now that I first set foot on Italian soil to serve out a four year Navy enlistment at the airbase in Naples, and immediately I was captivated by it. I was very much an Innocent Abroad. Having been raised in a sheltered environment, I knew little of the ways of the world, and did I ever get an education. It effected me in so many ways that I still can't comprehend most of them and my memories of it have little to do with monuments or ruins, though I saw my share of those, too. 

What most impressed me was the poverty, and the decency of people in spite of it. I made wonderful friends among types of people I would never have associated with back home, and was invited to share many meager repasts in the barrenest of rooms. Today, I am told, it's a dangerous place, but then I could explore the old quarters of town, walk even at night along unlit streets, without ever once feeling threatened. I loved the songs of the street vendors, the communication by hand signals with people across the boulevards, the varieties of dialect, from the tactile guttersnipe obscenities to the lilting r and the trilled l of the highest bred Neapolitan. 

Though trained in Art History in college, it wasn't the obligatory art centers that fascinated me the most. It was the lives of the simplest people, the playfulness and joy of the street life, the insights into the workshops of counterfeit antiques builders, the assault on all my senses as I explored the backstreets of old neighborhoods, with their decrepit Baroque era palaces cum slums. And the eyes of the children, the eyes that knew more of life by age 10 than my parents did by middle age. The kinds of eyes I had only seen in mug shots of Mafiosi. But I think my fondest memory was enjoying a group of Milanese housewives, singing old songs acapella on the steps of St. Marks in Venice. They just broke into song spontaneously from the pure joy of being there and kept at it for a good half hour on a wonderful morning in early June, before the hoards of gawkers arrived, and the Piazza belong to the locals. 

There are ways that you come to know a place only by spending time there. Things that make you appreciate the difference between travel and tourism.  There is something to me about living abroad, participating in the life and the culture that makes tourism seem like a cheap trick. I have never been interested in tourism since.