Fiddle Guitar Vocal duo the Summer Januaries– Sean Michael Robinson and Rachel Erin Robinson

Balloons in Napoli

The Summer Januaries busking with Napoli buskers

Every time we told someone we would be traveling to Napoli (i.e. “Naples”) as the last leg of our Italian trip, we received virtually identical responses. “No.” “No, not Napoli.” “Non.” This last remark was said emphatically, with stern face and wagging finger, by a Perugian pizza chef, himself a Neapolitan intensely proud of his incredibly delicious Neapolitan-style pizza, but completely convinced that our traveling to his home town to play would be certain disaster.

Even our friend Vince Conway, an international busker on the hammered dulcimer and a man not prone to exaggeration, told us to watch out for “street kids.” A few nights before our trip to the city I did some ill-advised googling and spent the next three hours reading about Napoli’s problems with petty crime and street theft of all stripes—tales of roving gangs comprised of senior citizen pick pockets, ceramic tiles masquerading as I-Pads and sold to gullible tourists, and bags stolen in drive-by attacks on motorcycle or scooter. Rachel had to accompany me on a long walk so I could calm myself enough to go to sleep.

But of course, if you’re worked up about the thought of getting scammed or robbed, having a midnight stroll around Rome on a Saturday might not be the ideal antidote. I spent the rest of our stay there feeling vaguely uneasy, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about my body and pockets and the people around me.

Fortunately, the train ride was reassuring. The train was almost entirely unoccupied, and one of the few people we did meet was actually another busker. He was a balloon man from Argentina, and he very kindly gave us the rundown on the best places to busk in Napoli. We didn’t take his suggestions as gospel, since a place that’s good for a balloon man is not necessarily good for unamplified music—but just the fact of his existence, his friendly demeanor and his willingness to share a long list of pedestrian streets we could play on, was a tremendous reassurance.

And then we stepped out of the train station.

The area surrounding the train station was the urban hell that everyone had described to us—huge crowds of disoriented pedestrians in a concrete sea, and a horde of beggars, street sellers and scammers of every kind waiting for them, like the seals that wait by the fish bridge at the Ballard locks to pick off the salmon that stream over the side.

Most of these activities were nothing new at this point, it was just surprising to see them so densely concentrated in such a small area. We moved our way through the streets and to the bus line that our hostel had instructed us to take. When the bus arrived we piled into the red vehicle stuffed full of passengers, and put our tickets into the receiver in the back. Even more people piled on at the next stop and the crush became almost unbearable. It suddenly occurred to me that none of these people were inserting any kind of transit ticket at all—I realized that on this entire bus, we were probably the only people that had paid.

busking on Via Toledo

A lovely harpist we saw on Via Toledo.

The short walk from the bus stop to the hostel had more signs of these same kinds of indifference to the organizing forces of the city—uncollected trash everywhere, begging everywhere, street vending everywhere, the bags of the Firenze umbrella men for the most part replaced by taped cardboard boxes that served as mobile display furniture.

After dropping off our luggage at the hostel we got a brief rundown on the city from the very friendly staff and then took off for a walk around the historic center. We were immediately struck by how vibrant and alive the entire place seemed, and how unfamiliar. There seemed to be no kind of traffic laws at all, and motorcycles routinely pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of us. Parking seemed to be a free-for-all, and pedestrians turned a driving street into a pedestrian one by sheer force of numbers. There was graffiti everywhere, some of the tagging variety, but much of it political as well, especially in the old sections of the city, near the university.

We ended the night with one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life, at an amazing pizza parlor in the historic center. We remembered the advice of our friend Alma, who told us upon our arrival in Italy that “you’ll always have to pay for water here. And if you have to pay for water, why not just have wine?” So we shared a bottle of wine and two pizzas for a completely reasonable sum, and then stumbled back to our hostel, no longer worried about much of anything at all.

Our exploration on Tuesday only confirmed what we had thought so far—that this was a big city, rich with potential experiences and opportunity, but also a city besieged by opportunistic selling and scamming. Most of the umbrella men, however, were completely non-aggressive, just passively standing by their wares, propped up on taped cardboard display boxes, only moving when the police came by, and even then just calmly packing up their goods and moving a few feet until they passed..

One of the most amazing sites we’ve seen in Italy so far, a student protest that gathered thousands.

One of the reasons these men seemed so much less aggressive is probably that their wares are more in demand here. Rather than just selling junk souvenirs or the same light-up toys, these men were hocking, amongst other items, knock-off designer bags, which there’s much demand for. Unlike the United States, in Italy fashion and accessory designs are copyrightable, which means that under Italian law producing a Louis Vitton knock-off handbag and selling it on the street is the equivalent of selling photocopied copies of Fifty Shades of Gray on the sidewalk outside of a Barnes and Noble.

Anyway, we took all of this in on our first two days in town, and by Wednesday night we were ready to play. We went back to Via Toledo, a pedestrian-only street that we had walked the night before. We were mainly attracted to the hordes of people we had seen on Tuesday, but the fact that we had seen a few buskers that night didn’t hurt either.

Two hours later we were exhausted and not a heck of a lot richer, having beat ourselves silly trying to play for the hordes of locals that streamed by us. We had received many friendly smiles and even more curious looks, but very few long-term listeners and even fewer coins. It was almost a complete bust, capped off by being lectured by a woman working at a pharmacy down the street, who came out of her business to tell us “I don’t come to work to listen to music. You go elsewhere please.” We felt slightly better about it a moment later, when a woman who had overheard our conversation ran over to the pharmacy to lecture/argue on our behalf. As we packed up our things the two women were still arguing outside of the pharmacy. What a night.

But it wasn’t over yet. On the way back from dinner, who should we see in the street but our friend Jimmy Detroit, who we had last seen in Bologna a month earlier. After a quick greeting he introduced us to his friends, a guitar player he’s been performing with, and his girlfriend, both of whom were just as nice and inviting as Jimmy. They asked us if perhaps we’d like to busk with them later in the week? After a few months of playing as a duo, playing with a larger band seemed like a novel experience, so we made loose plans to get together soon. We also told them about our failure during the day, and both of the players were encouraging and suggested a few other areas we might try playing.

Some local buskers we saw on Via Tribunale.

On the following day we intended to try out some of the other areas, but the temptation of the crowds of Via Toledo proved to be too much, and we set up and gave it another shot. Our set started off auspiciously, as we were recognized before we had even played a note, by a woman who had seen us play in Perugia a few weeks before! She stayed for a few songs, and as often is the case, one person standing and watching us made it much easier to gain and then maintain a crowd. After an hour and forty-five minutes we had sold three CDs and done significantly better than before on tips. Still not what we were used to, and comparable to our worst days in Bologna, but no longer a waste of time financially.

But the playing had taken a pretty heavy psychological toll on us. A brief list of the things that occurred during this one set–

  1. An incredibly drunk man who we recognized from the night before, who was fixated on the money in our case, and over the course of a half-hour tried out several schemes to lift some from us, all of which were unsuccessful due to his impaired motor skills and our awareness of his intentions.
  2. A thin man who adored us, and adored even more every child who stopped to listen to us, making his adoration known by, in the case of the former, awkwardly-close cell phone filming, and in the latter, awkwardly intimate interactions with the children that caused their parents to flee with tots in tow.
  3. A little girl handing out fliers with her mother, burst into tears when she lost track of her mother. After a five-minute ordeal involving half a dozen passerby giving her assistance, mother was located and the two were tearfully reunited, so that they could continue their flyering.
  4. A muscular man aggressively pushing bags of men’s socks on unsuspecting pedestrians. His method seemed to be to place one of his huge arms around his victim’s shoulders and the other to place the socks into his victim’s hand, in some kind of fierce footwear embrace. He tried this four or five times in the minute or two he was in view of us, at least one time forcing his victim to flee into a nearby store in the hopes of losing him.
  5. A second drunk man, friends with the first, who fell down and struck his head on a phone booth across the street from where we were playing. I set my guitar down and started to cross the street, thinking I should at least make sure he was okay, but when I had taken just a few steps forward it immediately was clear that a. he was moving on his own, and b. his pants were down and he had shit all over himself. As we watched with horror he staggered back to the bench he had been sitting on earlier and laid down, facing away from us, to sleep. Unfortunately he still hadn’t managed to pull up his pants.
  6. Moments later three tween-age girls arrived on the scene, glanced at the man, and calmly produced their cellphones to photograph his butt.

It’s hard to say whether it was this last item that really ended our set, or whether it was the sudden wind directed from that side of the street to ours. Either way, we were done, and we were exhausted.

After heading back to the hostel for some much-deserved dinner, we saw that our friend Jimmy had sent us a message. Would we like to play with him and a few Napolitan friends tonight in the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore? We headed down, bringing my tambourine and flute along with our normal instruments. What resulted was two hours of completely unrehearsed singing and playing, some tunes we were familiar with, but many we had never heard. Rachel and I added our voices, violin, flute and percussion to an already thick sound—two guitars, upright bass, harmonica, banjo and many voices. It was a blast, and exactly the kind of thing we needed after such an emotionally exhausting day. At times we were playing for several hundred people, who danced and drank and sometimes sang or shouted, a completely different crowd than the people we were playing for earlier. Apparently that audience also included several people from the hostel, which is why you can take a look at a video clip of this madness now. (Thanks, Ian!)

Friday morning came and we approached the day with fresh hope. Today, finally, would be the day. We would play and people would stop and listen and enjoy and we would once again feel like some kind of street-level rock stars.

But after two different 90 minute sets, in two separate locations, it just wasn’t panning out that way.

It’s not like people were indifferent to us—they just didn’t seem interested in anything other than brief smiles, or exchanging surprised looks with us or each other. It’s hard not to take this personally after a while. What were we doing wrong? Were we out of tune? Did we smell? Were we dressed funny? Had someone placed a “do not feed the buskers” sign in our case? The last hour and a half was the worst. Playing from 5 PM to 7:30 PM on Via Toledo to throngs of shoppers, we made exactly the same amount as our three minute set on the half-deserted Ponte Veccio two months before.

via toledo

The constant temptation that is Via Toledo. I’m pretty sure this is a Tuesday afternoon.

We dragged ourselves back to the hostel and tried to decide what to do. It was clear to us that, though Napoli is an incredibly vibrant city, it’s also a city out of season, a tourist economy mostly dormant during the winter, full of shops and sellers of all stripes awaiting the tourist’s return. Was it possible these were just not people that were going to stop and listen to us? Even when we had played with the huge group of locals, although it had been a blast to actually have people listening and participating, the payoff had been virtually nothing monetarily. Were we just finally seeing the results of the European financial crisis?

We laid about on Saturday, wrote and walked around the city and tried to just enjoy ourselves and forget about the difficult day before. We had decided—we would be tourists for our last days here, and just move on to somewhere else. But where?

Jimmy had other plans. Go play, he said in another message. This is a magical city, and I know you’ll find some of that magic for yourself. He gave us a list of places to try, and encouraged us. Sunday beckoned.

That morning we woke up, grabbed our instruments and headed to the seaside. It was far from crowded, and certainly didn’t compare in any way to the bustling Via Toledo, but as we walked along the shore we saw promising signs. First of all, the day was gorgeous, and just playing in such golden sun with the water lapping behind us would do us good. Second, although there weren’t a lot of people, these were people that were relaxing, walking with their families, eating gelato and biking on big pedal cars or racing on tiny battery-powered go-carts. No cars, parks everywhere, people relaxing. This was the place.

bp12c

Another band had already found our place, unfortunately. We went down a little further.

And it was! We had a crowd almost as soon as we started playing, a crowd that stuck around and danced and applauded after every song. It was a quiet day, but it was a beautiful one too, and because it was quiet enough, people could see us and hear us for a while before they were directly in front of us, which meant they had plenty of time to decide if they should stop and listen or tip or just pass on. In other words, it was ideal, and exactly what we needed.

After a late lunch/early dinner we decided to head back, just in time for sunset. Unfortunately the crowd had thinned even further, and it no longer seemed like such a great place to play. So we decided to ride the funiculare up to Vomero, the other place that Jimmy had suggested we play.

And lo and behold, it was once again the right place! Families everywhere, shoppers, people strolling by and relaxing and smiling at us so broadly you’d think we were handing out candy. Interested faces, a crowd the whole time, and, only strange because they’d been so absent in our time in Napoli so far, cell phones out to take pictures and video of us. It was clear that, finally, we had brought the balloons to the right place.

bp12a

Two black silhouettes in the evening light.

  1. Nancy Strand Sunday, December 2nd 2012 at 5:18 pm

    I loved Napoli! Was pick-pocketed there and La Polizia actually recovered my wallet(missing my visa & traveler’s checks). Was there about this time of year; they had a wonderful ‘lane’ where the wonderful Italian nativities are made and it was almost a must stroll during Advent. Also enjoyed going out to Capri for a day. Anyway you look at it, there are wonderful people to meet!

    Reply
  2. Monica Thursday, December 6th 2012 at 5:58 am

    Ah, Napoli. I was there quite a while ago, but your description is very familiar. Bags of trash piled high along walls….YOUNG children holding infants, crying and begging for money (their mothers hiding nearby. And old men, chasing after us, demanding to carry our luggage, to the point of grabbing it out of our hands. I recall being very overwhelmed.

    But then we had the best pizza of our month long trip, so my memories aren’t ALL bad.

    We stayed just one day, and then took a very short train ride to Sorrento. The contrast was incredible ! Beautiful sunlit yellow villas; locals who were kind and helpful; clean streets. And just a sense of calmness.

    Reading your stories make me want to go back !

    Reply

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