It’s more than 3 weeks since I arrived in Naples and time I posted an update. It’s been a really good spell, and I already feel at home here in Naples. I’m pleased with the set-up in my student flat here. My new flatmates (all from the South of Italy) are all really nice, and they immediately made me feel welcome. The flat, admittedly slightly outside the centre (though that’s made up for by there being parking outside, very hard to come by in the centre), is very nice, modern and spacious.
As well as the big pluses about my new flatmates, I’ve also appreciated little things that I missed in the flat in Palermo.
- Instantaneous hot water (as opposed to using hot water on the unreliable 1980s-style timer we had in Palermo)
- A washing machine that doesn’t require 10 minutes of wrestling with to get it started and doesn’t take all day to finish
- Radiators, for drying clothes and general warmth (not that we’ve needed much of the latter given it’s been 20 degrees outside much of the time)
- Unlimited wi-fi (as opposed to having a small allowance and not being able to watch iPlayer or 4oD)
In terms of the social side, the last 3 weeks have underlined just what a unique opportunity a year abroad is to develop as international a group of friends as you ever will. I’m looking forward to plenty more nights out with the lovely people I've met and plenty more day trips like yesterday’s, when some of us went to the Palace of Caserta, a UNESCO World Heritage site built to rival Versailles. The grounds were spectacular, so we spent the whole day there, hiring bikes to cycle up and down the seemingly endless grounds. There are so many more places surrounding Naples to visit: including Vesuvius, Pompeii, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. And, slightly further afield, Rome – just an hour by train – which I’ve inexplicably never properly been to.
Some things that I’ve experienced which are typical of Naples:
- The pizzaiolo (pizza chef) who, when he heard the address we were ordering from over the phone, delivered pizza to us in person as he’s friends with my flatmate.
- The shady figure who lurks in the Co-Op all day and asks customers to use his loyalty card so he gets points. It’s a similar phenomenon to posteggiatori, which are as much of a thing here as in Palermo
- Drivers beeping like crazy at us on the way back from Caserta when I hesitated at a turning but then, when we stopped at traffic lights (unlike many Neapolitans), couldn’t have been any friendlier. I assumed they’d be mad at me but instead were laughing, interested in where we were from and helping us find the way home.
- Trattoria Nennella, a typical Neapolitan restaurant we went to for an Erasmus welcome dinner. Typical not only in terms of the food on the menu but also the atmosphere. Waiters would stop every now and again to watch the Napoli football match on TV, yelling at the referee, while the restaurant’s manager would then lead singing of O Sole Mio and dance around. As we finished our meals, waiters suddenly gestured to us to stand up an and said ‘Ok guys, that’s it – time to go'! While we didn’t mind, as we were a huge group and there was a queue of people waiting, we were stunned – none of us had seen anything like it in restaurants in the UK, Germany, Austria, France or the North of Italy.
The last point sums up one of the features seemingly typical of Neapolitans (and also Sicilians) that I really like. That people in bars and restaurants talk to you more as if you’re old friends than in (what in most cities would be) a formal environment. And that they’re unafraid to speak their mind or say what they want, without any pretence or façade. This doesn’t mean they go about offending people – in fact, I've found Neapolitans and Palermitani have been more friendly and caring than locals in any other city I’ve spent time in. But they seem to be much less obsessed with la bella figura and making every effort to show immaculate manners all of the time.
I also noticed this lack of formality among the 3 families in Palermo and Naples that have hosted me for dinner, which all either used plastic plates and cups or had a buffet sitting on sofas (or both). The food was as amazing as ever, being the South of Italy, but just because they had a guest (or guests), they didn’t feel the need to go out of their way to make it a formal occasion, even when they hadn’t yet met me before. That’s not to say that if I’m invited somewhere for a dinner where we use metal crockery, I feel pressure. But the plastic plates symbolised the total informality which made me feel at ease, as if I was more of a part of those families than a burden whose presence was making them make extra effort as hosts or go about a mealtime differently to how they normally would.
The lack of shallowness and superficiality compared to much of the North is the kind of thing that endears me to Naples and Palermo. As if they don’t make it obvious enough by how interested they are in myself and others who come to Naples/Palermo from outside and how we're getting on in their city, it’s by this sort of thing that the locals show that for them the most important thing is the company: that they're interested more in conversing and getting to know us than impressing. My experience has been that families just are themselves more, regardless of whether or not they have guests, even when that means arguing among themselves or doing things that we all tend to do around our own family's dinner table. That is to say, they don't seem to do anything they wouldn't normally in order to show just what a civilised family they are. It’s refreshing.
The academic side, as ever with Italian universities, has had good bits and bad bits. Two examples of this are class sizes and quality of teaching. For a Sociology lecture I went to, the lecture theatre’s 200-seat capacity wasn’t enough, so some of us had sit on the floor. For Contemporary History, however, there are literally only 6 or 7 of us – class sizes you’ll rarely find at undergraduate level even in the top European universities. It really is pot luck whether you’ll end up in a class of hundreds of people or with fewer than a dozen.
Similarly with lecturers, it’s such a lottery what yours will be like. By all accounts, I’ve been lucky with who I’ve ended up with both in Palermo and Naples. I’ve got on well with and been impressed by all of them. Well, apart from one, who in our first lecture wrote a Pascal quote on the whiteboard and asked what we thought, reassuring us there was ‘No wrong answer’. When one student said what she made of it, the lecturer snorted ‘You’re completely wrong!’, thus shattering the confidence of the first-year brave enough to raise her hand in her first ever lecture in front of 150 people. Worse, I’ve also heard numerous horrendous anecdotes of awful male lecturers who would give female students high marks when they wore low-cut tops and fail them when they didn’t. Hearing about this sort of thing, one Erasmus friend in Palermo who admitted he hadn’t revised for an exam tried to bank on his examiner (his lecturer) giving him ‘Marks for looks’. I saw him in the canteen one day dressed up and asked if he was going to a wedding or something. ‘No, just to an exam’, he replied. But when I next saw him and asked if it had gone well, he shook his head. 'A different lecturer - a guy - took the exam and wasn’t impressed’.