Five Thousand Lire

When I graduated from university, I had the good fortune to spend six months in Naples, Italy where, of course, I studied Italian and visited all the works of art to be found in that city of visual opulence. I wasn’t there alone, however. I was with my lover, also a graduate in art history. This was to have been our romantic interlude between the time of study, research and exams and the time of assuming a life of work and day-to-day responsibility. This was to have been a joyous time of fulfilled curiosity. We had arrived in May when the weather had begun to turn warm and the winter rain had ceased. This was to have been our time, utterly free.

Sometimes, I wandered the streets of Naples alone. My lover liked his solitude – he could spend hours in the Archaeological Museum sketching. He did not like learning foreign languages, so I took Italian classes by myself. It fell to me to achieve all our verbal navigation of the city, such as ordering in restaurants. I didn’t mind. It made me feel knowledgeable, essential to our Italian experience. After class, in the afternoons, my lover and I would meet for coffee in Piazza Bellini, a point between the Museum and the language school. I usually arrived first.

To get to Piazza Bellini, I usually passed near the monastic complex of Santa Chiara. Outside the gates, almost every day, I would observe a beggar and his dog. The man was swarthy, with thick curly hair. The dog was a black and white mongrel, very well behaved. I noticed that from time to time, passersby would offer the animal some tidbit of food. The beggar always seemed to have lire coins in the tin dish that he proffered. I noticed that he always wore gloves, even as the weather turned from warm to hot.

Then one day, while I was waiting for my lover at a café in Piazza Bellini, the beggar approached my table. My lover was late and I was reading – an English novel, I don’t remember which. I was tired and wanted to think in my own language for a while. I was startled by the words that interrupted my browsing, the tones, in rapport with the writing before my eyes:

“If you give me five thousand lire, I will be your friend for life.”

The beggar was American. I looked up, stupefied. He held out one hand. The other, gloved, he held up. The middle and ring finger of the gloves flapped, empty. His index finger and pinky were held up, palm toward me. This is the classic gesture of horns in their aspect of bringing good fortune. However, since two fingers were clearly missing, I didn’t take the sign literally.

The time that it took for me to collect myself, gave the beggar the chance to scrutinize me. I could not avoid looking back. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.

“I have seen you pass on your way from school,” he said. “I lived on Mulberry Street when I was little. After the war my family came back here.”

My cappuccino and cornetto arrived, along with the bill. The waiter stood by the table, waiting for me to pay. The change included a five-thousand lire note, equivalent to about three dollars. This was a lot to give a beggar; usually twenty-five cents was appropriate.

He repeated, “If you give me five-thousand lire, I’ll be your friend for life.”

Something about this good spirited bargaining called to me. I passed him the note.

I spotted him several times afterward, by the gate of Santa Chiara or by the gelato store nearby. He always greeted me, first saying – in English – that he doesn’t want money; that he’s fine now. Sometimes, I would pet his dog, who was actually reasonably clean.

The last time I saw the beggar was again in Piazza Bellini, in October. My lover was with me. Our time in Naples was coming to an end and the weather was turning cool. The winter rain had started, slowly, just in the mornings. Afternoons were still warm but not so much as they had been and there was a slight but unrelenting dampness underneath the warmth.

We were drinking expresso and avoiding conversation. I had suspicions that my lover had become involved with someone else and wanted to break up with me. He would not say so directly, but talked about wanting to stay in Naples a while longer. I should return to the States, however. He didn’t want to disrupt my plans.

My “friend for life” came up to our table. He looked at my lover and then at me. He lifted his semi-fingerless hand, palm facing the ground and moved it back and forth, the classic gesture of cheating. Then he looked at me and smiled and shook his head.

“You will be all right. Go back,” he said.

As I stood up bewildered, my “friend for life” nodded and turned his fingers downward, making the sign that protects against the evil eye.

The “Mayor” of Piazza Bellini

Several years ago, we were back in Naples and looking forward to taking up the life we made here two years previously. Naples didn’t appear much changed, but then you couldn’t really expect that it would have been.   In Naples things are very much beneath the surface. Nothing that was ever there has ever really gone away, only been built over. Layer over layer, this city is more eternal then Rome. The past remains and is part of everyday life. During our previous stay in Naples we had lived down the street from Piazza Bellini, so that is where we headed on the first day of our return.

Piazza Bellini
Piazza Bellini
17th Century Church in Piazza Bellini
17th Century Church in Piazza Bellini

Piazza Bellini is a gathering place for students. It is the Bohemian hot spot. In the four or five cafes that line the back of the square, music students sit composing on their computers; the young people have a coffee while connected to wifi at the internet café; across the street from the square, motorini wiggle around slower moving cars. People meet. Deals are made.

Not quite in the middle of the piazza, closer to Restaurant Bellini (a famous restaurant, established just after WWII and named after the piazza) than to the center, is a small excavated area surrounded by a fence. Below the surface of the piazza, the ruins of the original Greek walls dating to around 700 BC have been partially exposed. The Greeks were the first to colonize this area, naming the city Parthenope, for the siren who drowned herself in the Bay of Naples after she had been rejected by Ulysses. Later the city was renamed Neapolis, which evolved into Napoli – and in English, Naples.

We are told that we can recognize these walls as Greek because they contain no mortar; mortar was employed by the Romans. It is hard to tell what the original scope of the walls might have been. They look as though they might have been niches for guards. There are formations that seem to have been small windows. They don’t seem to be standing very high. Could they be the tops of walls that have been surrounded by earth over the centuries? These remnants of walls of tightly fitted stone are of little interest to the crowds that move through the piazza. The ancient walls are covered with moss and frequently littered with cast off bottles or old clothing. Just in front of the excavation are piles of the infamous Neapolitan garbage. We observe, however, that is not always the same garbage day after day. Somehow garbage is removed and new garbage is dumped

Greek Ruins in Piazza BelliniGreek Ruins in Piazza Bellini

The Greeks were the first to colonize this area, but they constituted the second wave of inhabitants. They displaced the indigenous people and were in turn displaced by the Romans around 300 BC. Just beyond the piazza, lies Via dei Tribunali, one of the original Roman streets in Naples. Walking in Naples is walking through time.

Via dei Tribunali (from Roman times)
Via dei Tribunali (from Roman times)

Two years previously, when we lived on Via Costantinopoli near Piazza Bellini and every now and then we would have a cappuccino or espresso at Café Fiorillo and chat with the owner Vincenzo who ran the café along with his son Roberto and grandchildren. Vincenzo knew some English and we knew some Italian, so between us we managed some pleasant conversation. Here we also became acquainted with Pluto who lived at Café Fiorillo.


Vincenzo (left) and Roberto in Café Fiorillo

Roberto at Exterior of Café Fiorillo

Cafe FiorilliWe first noticed Pluto when were passing by on our way through an ancient gate on Via Port Alba. He was sixteen years old and he carried himself with great dignity. He was white with brown dots and must have been beautiful when he was a puppy. He belonged to Roberto.

Via Port Alba
Via Port Alba (with an old city Gate)

Pluto was standing beside the table of an elderly gentleman who was enjoying his cappuccino and cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant at Café Fiorillo. Pluto and the gentleman were engaged in a staring contest; but it wasn’t a fair contest, as the dog was too much of a match for the man. Pluto had decided he would like some cornetto too, so he stood looking at it hopefully, waging his tail ever so gently, his light brown muzzle only slightly resting against the edge of the table. His eyes were bright, his expression hopeful. Very soon, the gentleman broke off the crispy end and held it out to Pluto who lay down and ate it slowly, for he was very old himself.

Pluto was in the habit of conning food from the patrons of Café Fiorillo but would decline to eat it if it was not to his liking.   Then he would make his way up Via Costantinopoli to the newest restaurant in Naples, La Stanza del Gusto. This restaurant is not so much like the traditional Neapolitan eating places, but one that would not be out of place in the most upscale neighborhood of New York, one that serves wonderfully tasty cheeses and upscale versions of typical southern Italian cuisine. The owner, Mario, knew Pluto and his mendacious ways. He did not ever offer Pluto anything to eat, so Pluto would make his way slowly and carefully across the street to Piazza Bellini where he could scrounge in the Greek ruins.

Mario at La Stanza del Gusto
Mario, the owner,  at La Stanza del Gusto

Our first day back in Naples this particular March, we went to Café Fiorillo. Vincenzo remembered us, of course. Americans in Naples are always noticeable – by sight and by sound. We are the ones who are looking about either in awe of the works of art that stand on the street as if they had nothing better to do, or in suspicion that they are going to be accosted and robbed imminently. (We do not anticipate the latter, but are guilty of the former type of tourist gazing.) Americans are also the ones who struggle to twist our tongues around the pure Italian vowels in order to make ourselves understood. Our Italian is getting better and we had a nice long chat about the events of the past two years. Unfortunately, we did not see Pluto; he died last November. He was almost eighteen years old and was hit be a car while crossing Via Costantinopoli on his way to Piazza Bellini. We asked for a photo, but Roberto didn’t have one.

Pluto had always crossed Via Costantinopoli slowly and carefully to avoid traffic. He did not so much dodge the motorini (motorbikes), as make sure the drivers saw him and stopped to let him pass. In his old age he trembled as he walked. Once in the pizza, the old dog would sniff the periphery of the excavation for any tidbits he might like to eat. Then he would lie down in the sunlight, close by the ruins. If a stray dog approached and Pluto would challenge him, rising shakily and growling softly. Apparently, this is a drama that had been played often. The young stray seemed to feel some respect for the ancient dog standing before him. He did not growl in return, but lowered his head and wags his tail. Then the stray moved on, well aware that Pluto was the Mayor of Piazza Bellini. For us he always will be!

[This is one of the newsletters we sent to friends during our sojourn in Naples.  It has been edited and included in Ciao, Napoli: a Scrapbook of Wandering in Naples.]