I am not a scholar of Italian culture but it does not take a college degree to observe that as one travels south from Milan to Florence to Rome to Naples, there is a palpable difference in the air. From the stench of urine outside Rome railway station to the aroma of freshly baked Pizza Margherita in a glass-front bakery on a cobblestoned Naples street, everything screams that the south is wild; maybe not in the “Wild West” sort of way but in a different, perhaps more exotic, way. I wish I had the time to travel farther south to Sicily to explore and contemplate this difference but I guess there is always next time.
When I had landed at Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport, I just had this vague idea to travel maximum Italy in minimum time and at all costs (which basically meant to travel at no cost at all besides my limited TA/DA) but I did not have so much as drawn a roadmap thus far. I started gypsy style, seeking help from locals – the first of whom was my trainer himself, a very cool guy who had made lots of money while working for years in European Space Agency and spent it all on building his own tech startup related to reference positioning systems. On the second day of my training, he drove me in his Fiat to Verona – the historic Roman city sitting just 30 km from my B&B which I still could not have discovered by myself; and this is where it all took off very well from. I finished the two-week training in four days, checked out of the hotel room which was paid in full for my two week supposed stay, and set out on what I now reminisce to be a very risky adventure financially with just a backpack and a thin wad of government euros in my pocket.
Fast forward to a week later, when I was in Naples with a reservation for Pizza Hostel (the cheapest I could find) in my hand and a flight booking to Geneva the next day which basically left me with a little over 24 hours in the city. When you are short on time and money and friends and alien to the local language, you tend to realize and shrug off the massive weight of your third-world aristocracy and dive head-first into the stormy sea of fearsome unknowns that lay ahead. Navigating my way with Google Maps which often lost its way in the narrow, deceptive streets, I had to resort to local help to reach my destination. Before long, I found myself in the finest neighborhood you could expect your 20-euros-a-day hostel to be located in.
The genial Greco-Italian owner cum warden of Naples Pizza Hostel evoked the image of a Spartan warrior from his handsome face and curly black beard. He conducted himself like a long-time friend to all the eccentric travelers lying half-dressed in all imaginable positions on sofas scattered in the hostel lobby. With my socks and underwears hand-washed earlier the same day in Rome still hanging in a pompous display from my bag pack harnesses for drying, I seemed no foreigner among them. The warden spoke little English and was kind enough to lend me the same paddle-lock for nothing which i was offered for 15 euros few days back in a hostel in Venice. I needed to stretch my back which was hurting real bad from the past week’s train journeys. As i lay on the clean sheets, the very thought of sleep became so tempting that only a quiet recitation of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening could thwart the drowsiness after a brief siesta.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But i have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”
As i came out into the Mediterranean June afternoon, Naples was bustling with activity. The smell of crowded bazaars reminiscing the Tyrrhenian sea to the west brought to me a sudden nostalgia for my own home I.e. Karachi. The dilapidated high rise apartments lined up the cobblestoned streets through which automobile drivers zipped by at the speed of light displaying an almost mystical disregard for life. Creepers, electricity and washing lines criss crossed each other in a beautiful mess. The heavy, obscure street wall graffiti had a sinister air to it. It was not difficult to imagine that I was wandering in an Italian crime scene – though, for sure, a particularly thrilling one.
As long as there are seas, I would find my way in foreign lands. And thus, I walked towards the Tyrrhenian through the most beautiful of the world’s streets.
Eventually, in the late afternoon, a street led into another street which led into an open boulevard offering me the first view to the sea.
If all of us have a share of beauty to witness in one life then I already had mine for the day. Suddenly, I no longer cared for the ticking clock. A gypsy had decided to camp by the beach.
Later that night, I walked back to the hostel through the same streets contemplating the brevity of life, the aspiration for beauty and how travel can connect them for a more meaningful existence. I wondered if there was anything in the world i wanted to be more than a traveler – or a gypsy, or a nomad to use the lesser sophisticated terms. Tomorrow would be a new day. I had plans for Pompeii and Vesuvius before departing for Geneva. I knew that Naples’ cobblestoned streets, sinister graffiti, sunset over the Tyrrhenian sea and the contemplative walk back to the hostel will remain etched on my mind for a long time to come. For the first time in my life, I was nostalgic for a place I had not even left yet. I knew I was coming back here soon!