Sometimes when you travel, your first impressions of a place are not what you thought they’d be, but I never thought I wouldn’t like my grandfather’s home of Naples, Italy. Here’s why I was disappointed at our first trip back to the home of our Italian ancestors (it’s not what you might think) and why some Italian-Americans might feel the same.
First Impressions of Naples, Italy
Sometimes, first impressions are spot on, but other times can be deceiving, and by the end of the trip you've fallen in love with a place. Traveling is stressful and sometimes exhaustion and disappointment can lead you to feel underwhelmed after you arrive in a new place.
When we arrived in Naples, Italy many years ago on our first trip to Italy, I thought maybe that was the case. I was probably just tired. You may not be 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 travelers 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 Naples, Italy where it all began for our families before they emigrated to the United States at the turn of the last century.
Naples, Italy, Our Ancestor Home
My grandfather was born outside of Naples, in the hill towns around Mount Vesuvius not far from Pompeii, and he came to America with his parents from the Port of Naples when he was 8 years old. My husband's grandfather was also from the mountain towns 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 of Naples. 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 was 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!
Italy Was Too Familiar
Together, my husband and I had 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, Patagonia, Mexico, and many trips to Central America in between. But as it turned out, Italy turned out to be the least "exotic" place either of us had ever been to.
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 common to us - the food, the smells, the cadence of the spoken language. Even the people looked familiar, which wasn't surprising given we were now wading in our own gene pool. We just hadn't been there long enough to delve into the more 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've 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.
Now That We've Got That Out of the Way
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 how we both were feeling. "This is the first time me and my nose have felt at home!"
Are You Italian-American?
It took us a few days to understand what it was like to travel so far from home to a country that felt so oddly familiar. Frankly, it surprised us. We didn't have that feeling of coming home that some Italian-Americans experience. Perhaps because we were alone. There were no relatives to greet us at the airport with hugs and tears of reunion. If you're Italian-American but don't still have family there (that you know of), this might be your initial experience of Italy too.
Give it 36 hours and several good bottles of wine! If you don't like Naples after that, you never will, and that's OK. But you also just might fall so in love you'll never want to come back!