I went to Naples three years ago, for three hours, and couldn’t wait to catch the train back to Rome. I returned to Naples this December, for three days this time, and fell deeply in like—dare I say love?—with the city. This tells me that a) You should give all cities more than a 3-hour chance, and b) I’m beginning to like less-than-pristine destinations better than their picture-perfect counterparts. Because let’s call a spade a space here: Naples is no Florence, for the good and the bad.
The hallmark of Naples is pizza, but I didn’t love it for the food alone. Rather, Naples’ character is what won me over. Naples conjures up a certain image of grit and hanging laundry; chaotic traffic and motorcyclists with a death wish. It’s a city suffering enormously from corruption, Mafia influence, and the general economic crisis, yet has a tough school-boy character that’s ready to stand and fight. It’s certainly a gateway city, bridging two continents in a rich mix, and clash, of cultures. Above all, it’s a proud city that demands respect. And it will earn it, if you stay long enough to give it a chance.
When I stayed with my friend Valeria and her family for three days in Naples, they showed me the underfolds of the city and brought me–forced me, really—to love it too. The family seeped pride for a city that so many Italians and travelers alike have scoffed at as a somehow lesser Italy. Valeria’s effusive praise for her home was infectious, and pretty soon I was seeing Naples in a whole different light.
The family brought me to one of the city’s best pizzerias, Sorbillo, and had the foresight to make reservations in what would otherwise have been a two hour wait. They coaxed me into eating an entire pie to myself, since, being true Neapolitans, they wouldn’t dare split one. They showed me the back alleys, but warned me to lower my voice when even naively joking about the Mafia. They taught me to hand-make gnocchi, introduced me to traditional Neapolitan Christmas carols and nativity scenes, and took me to the liveliest bar streets in Naples.
And I learned that a true Neapolitan has no fear of what the rest of us would call a downright suicide mission—driving in Naples.
They also taught me that part of Naples’ identity lies in the Neapolitan language. If Italian is the essence of Italy, then of course it makes sense that the southern city that beats to its own drum needs its own essence as well. Neapolitan is not merely a dialect or slang of Italian; it is, in fact, a separate language.
In 2008, the Neapolitan language was recognized by UNESCO as a protected language and heritage. It’s spoken by about 8 million people in Southern Italy, though it enjoys no official status and is not taught in schools. It’s somewhat intelligible with Italian, as most Romance languages are, but the two truly differ to the point where a northern Italian would have no idea what was being said in a bar exchange in Neapolitan.
The Neapolitan Language: 10 Terms to Impress the Locals on Your Next Trip to Naples
1. CAZZIMMA: When you do or say something just to annoy someone else, or when you’re asked to do something and you won’t do it just for the hell of it.
5. CIOTTO CIOTTO: Surprisingly this one’s related to food as well! It’s just an expression to say that you ate a lot…. FARSI CIOTTO CIOTTO (to become fat fat, I guess XD )
7. UALLERA: Well this one is up to you if you want to include it hahahah. . . . It’s TESTICLES, but AVERE LA UALLERA means that you don’t have the strength or the will to do something others want to do and you’re seen as lazy.
Ex: “Come on, let’s go there, it’s just 20 minutes walking,” and you are like “NO WAY, I’VE GOT THE UALLERA.” (It’s suuuuper typical haha :)
9. NZALLANUTO: Somebody who has his head in the clouds, like they always forget something. Or even when you’ve had a pretty tough day and in the evening you are so tired and dazed that you become kind of DUMB…. you can say it about yourself, like “I feel so NZALLAUTA now ’cause I’ve been studying all day long.”
10. RASCA: This one’s pretty disgusting. It literally means mucus. But RASCARE means when someone (especially old men in the streets) make that noise from their throats right before they spit, to get the mucus out, you know?? Hahaha it’s terrible, I know, but we have a word for that XD.
Thank you so much, Valeria, both for being an incredible host, and for painting us such a rich image of Neapolitan.
Have you ever been to Naples? Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between?