Have you ever traveled somewhere and formed an immediate impression about it, good or bad? Certain places hit us with such an intensity right off the bat. Sometimes, first impressions are spot on while other times, well, they can be deceiving, and by the end of the trip you've fallen in love with the place. By nature, vacations and traveling are generally times of rest, relaxation, and discovery, but let's face it, traveling can be stressful. I try and give myself a day or two before forming any initial opinions about a place (of course, much easier said than done).
So I was surprised to find myself strangely unhappy when we arrived in Naples, Italy, several years ago. You may be thinking "I'm not surprised at all" since Naples isn't exactly on the bucket list of many travelers. In fact, it seems to just be a necessary itinerary stop when visiting Italy, and many avoid it altogether.
By the end of my first day there, I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something didn't feel quite right. I didn't have the familiar feeling of excitement and anticipation I usually have when I start traveling, eager to discover a new place. I couldn't put my finger on it, and the more I thought about it, the worse I felt, since we'd been planning this experience for a while. My husband and I were finally taking our big anniversary trip back to Italy where it all began for our families.
My grandfather was born outside of Naples, in the hill towns around Mount Vesuvius, and he emigrated with his parents to America from the Port of Naples at the turn of the last century. My husband's grandfather was also from the Appenine mountain region east of Naples. So this trip held deeper meaning for us both, like a reconnection on some level with our ancestors.
We settled in more on our second day and spent the day exploring the historic city. By late in the afternoon we were ready for a glass of wine. Good thing we were in Italy, wine is always on the menu! I was reluctant to bring it up, but my husband saved me by saying what it turned out we'd both been feeling.
"How are you liking this so far?" he asked, and then I saw that look on his face that after 25 years told me that he's the one not liking it so far. "I don't know what it is," he said "but I'm not really feeling it".
We talked about it more at length, over lots more wine, each of us throwing out raw thoughts and trying to get to the heart of the problem.
"It all just feels so...I don't know...familiar... to me."
And there it was.
That was it!
Naples, and all of Italy as it turned out, was the least "exotic" place either of us had ever traveled to abroad. We'd checked off some of the more alluring locations on our bucket list that exemplify the colorful culture and indigenous people of National Geographic - Bali, Peru, Lombok, Mexico and many trips to Central America in between.
On the surface, Naples wasn't exotic enough - it was all too familiar to us - and that's what we hadn't prepared for. It never dawned on us that we were, in fact, the indigenous people of this region. It was the first time we'd returned to the home of our ancestors in Italy, and as second generation Italians, the atmosphere and people were commonplace to us. The food, the smells, the cadence of the spoken language. Even the people looked familiar to me, which isn't surprising since I was now wading in my own gene pool. We hadn't yet been there long enough to delve into the authentic Italian culture we'd lost two generations ago, though we would find it soon enough.
Napoletanos have a very different style about them, and I'm not talking about their fashion sense, though I could go on for days about that. They're not as outwardly friendly as people I met in, say, Mexico or other Latin American countries. Children didn't seem as carefree and happy as I've seen elsewhere, and there was a feeling like everyone was just a little on edge, preoccupied, or reserved. It's not that they're unfriendly in Naples, but people can seem a little rude, very much like New Yorkers. And because I'm from New Jersey (close enough), I think I know why that is - I just don't think they're interested in what you're doing. Not that they don't care - far from it. But tourists are not the main attraction in their day.
After we talked and understood the reason for our discontent, we started to relax and savor every moment of this very familiar place, calling out things both familiar to us and fascinated by the occasional disparity. We were in a foreign country surrounded by the people, food, and everything that reminded us of home - really, what could be better?
Naples is truly an enigma, and I understand completely why people either love it or hate it. It is a place that stirs quick emotions, like the people themselves. Naples is a 21st century medieval city, with layer upon layer of modernity patching the crumbling foundation that occasionally peeks through - like the paper funerary notices tacked up on neighborhood corners, the newest ones plastered right over the old. People here live amongst the ruins, surrounded by hidden treasures, centuries-old antiquities, and the challenges that brings. They celebrate life, love and family with equal passion. It is the good, the bad, and the ugly of all the cities I've ever visited - and I fell completely and madly in love with it.
"NOW what's so funny?" I asked my husband as he laughed to himself.
"I feel like I'm at a family reunion" he replied, summing up perfectly how we both were feeling.
"This is the first time me and my nose have felt at home!"