Two years ago, my brother, Dave, and I spent a couple of days in Naples. We arrived at the train station - a busy tourist hub. When we went outside, the famous Piazza Garibaldi was tented in construction projects. Across the street, small-time scammers - guys with card tricks or little cups on top of a coin - did a steady business. We pulled our rolling bags out to the street and caught a taxi. The car wound its way through the city and up a steady ascending road. After a series of curves, we stopped in front of a stunning vista. Our hotel was an ancient convent perched high above Naples. We later learned that parts of the lobby led into caves. On the roof was a wide terrace with panoramic views of the city, the water and Mount Vesuvius. We were thrilled.
But we hadn't come to Naples to stay in our hotel, so we left our bags in our rooms and headed out right away. We didn't really know which way to go, but we found a crumbling staircase across the street from the hotel and headed down into the city.
The staircase was very long. It dropped at least 100 meters down into a dark neighborhood that seemed far removed from our hotel's expansive prospect. Naples is a poor city, and it's medieval streets are narrow alleys. People live in terraced apartment buildings haphazardly balanced on top of one another. These buildings are not old - they are ancient. Laundry hangs from all the windows. There is graffiti on every surface. We kept seeing the same printed stamp at every corner - Dave realized that it belonged to a well-known football club with ominous mafia connections. Several buildings appeared to be occupied despite obvious structural damage. There were too many collapsed staircases to count. Naples is famous for its intense earthquakes. As we ventured further into it's lower foundations, it was hard to understand how the neighborhoods above remained upright.
It was August, and very hot. Most of the apartments were not air-conditioned, so the residents threw their windows and doors open. They dragged furniture into the streets and sat around smoking and talking. We passed a group of women lounging this way. I wondered what their lives were like. Most Italians do not stay at home in August if they can afford to go to the beach. These women were clearly not fortunate enough to escape. They sat on their dining room chairs in the street, fanning themselves in the 90 degree heat. Their faces were lined, but their hair was carefully kept and they all wore lipstick. As we passed, they looked us over but took no special notice. I wondered if they resented me - a happy vacationer tripping through their hometown for a quick thrill - indifferent to their true experience.
Just when I was starting to worry that we were lost, my flip flop broke. The tab between the toe let go of the strap. I couldn't get it to re-attach. David was loping ahead of me.
"Hold up! My shoe broke!"
I stood on one foot and fumbled with the rubber flip flop. It wasn't fixable.
"Oh shit. Can you walk?" asked Dave.
Maybe I could get back barefoot? I looked down at the ground. The cobblestones had a greasy look. Bits of abandoned food were embedded between the stones. Motor oil was spilled in places.
I put my foot back on top of the broken flip flop and gripped the broken toe strap between my big toe and second toe.
Dave stayed a little closer to me as we slowly retraced our steps. A motor scooter whooshed past us. As I limped, Naples' crime-prone reputation began to concern me. My brother is a tall man and fairly fit, but he is no tough guy. Were we to be attacked or robbed, I would probably worry more about him than me. We both looked hopelessly American in our khaki shorts and athletic gear. My foot was beginning to cramp up from clutching the broken flip flop tab.
The group of women looked up as we passed them a second time. "Perché lei torne?" called one of them.
I held up my broken flip flop. They all groaned with recognition and waved their hands sympathetically. We smiled and kept walking, but one woman motioned me to stop. For a moment, I was wary.
She dashed inside a nearby door and returned with a pair of sandals. She held them out to me.
I had given my last coin to the taxi driver. I tried to refuse.
"È un regalo!" she insisted.
She said it again louder, as you would to a slightly deaf person.
Her smile was huge and kind. I looked at the sandals. They were made of pink and gold plastic net, with little flowers on them. Really tacky.
She put them in my hand. I lay them down on the cobblestones and slipped my feet into them. They fit.
When I go to Italy every year, one of my chief goals is to be surrounded by beauty. I'm aware that Italy is a real place with real problems. However, I'll admit that I don't think too deeply about those problems. It's almost an advantage that my Italian is so limited. In Italy, I'm a slightly stupid person, helpless in the face of overwhelming gorgeousness. In the presence of a sunset over the Tyrrhenian Sea or a glorious 1000 year old statue, or a single perfect bite of burrata, I'm not really a sensible adult. There is something maternal in Italy's beauty, and I absorb that beauty like a dopey baby - happy, wonderstruck and trusting.
My home, in NYC, is a place where even tiny babies are not trusting. This has nothing to do with relative danger. For years, New York has grown steadily safer. Crime has fallen to record lows. Taxis all sport stickers reminding drivers that their decisions matter. Street lights work. The police are everywhere.
But in New York, beauty is expensive. it's something that must be purchased. You can rent it from a broker for 20,000 a month, or purchase it from a designer collection at Saks Fifth Avenue. If you aren't fabulously wealthy, you can buy knock-off beauty at H&M or IKEA. There is beauty you can visit of course - at the Metropolitan Museum or the MOMA. Don't try it on a weekend or the crowds will kill it. Summer is easier and cheaper. You might find a free dose of beauty in a park on the Hudson, or under a tree in Prospect Park. But who has the time? In NYC, no one ever drags their dining room chairs into the street to smoke a cigarette and chat with their neighbors. In fact, your neighbors will be very annoyed if you smoke that cigarette under their windows. Don't do it or they will call the super to complain.
Those little plastic shoes that I received in Naples were transformed by circumstance into something radically beautiful. After I stopped repeating "Grazie Mille" over and over, Dave and I climbed the stairs back up to our hotel. I looked down at those shoes and something sweet rose above the crumbling cement, the graffiti and the motorcycle fumes. My fear of the city evaporated, and I felt incredible gratitude.
We learned a lot about Naples the next day. We visited the archeological museum, famous churches, and the catacombs. We heard an earnest young tour guide speak enthusiastically about his city's historical importance and his hopes for the future. He begged us to tell our friends in the US that Naples is wonderful place to visit - and we promised to do so. We ate the famous pizza.
On the second night, our last before heading further south, I wondered if I could run down the steps, find the lady who gave me the shoes and pay her for them, but it seemed like a fraught errand. First off, it would probably be difficult to find the street again. But even if we did locate the street and the lady, she might be hurt by the money. She had made a true gift to a stranger. I wanted to respect that. Instead, I stuffed extra euros into the donation boxes at the sites.
Maybe it isn't actually possible to pay for beauty? I can't tell you how many times I've been hypnotized by an expensive dress, purchased it and completely lost interest in it. Those windows at Saks are filled with meaningless thrills.
Real beauty requires a deeper connection than payment. It's always "un regalo".