Postcard: Naples

4 minute read
Jeff Israely

‘I guess you want the folklore now.” Municipal police officer Alfonso Celiento has just run down the long list of laws regulating public behavior in Naples, from smoking in bars to scooter riding to selling kitchenware on a street corner. He’s right: Neapolitans are famed for breaking picayune laws, but it’s the city’s major crimes that have been making headlines. Unemployment hovers around 20%, and the murder rate is consistently among the highest in Europe. There were 55 homicides in the first two months of the year–many of them victims of warring factions of the organized-crime syndicate the Camorra. The only good news is that a temporary truce had, as of the day of my arrival, resulted in two murderless weeks.

Celiento, 50, seems perfectly cast to play the part of policeman in this pulsating Mediterranean city: quick-witted and classically handsome, with salt-and-pepper hair, mirrored sunglasses and a well-pressed blue uniform. But he’s not cracking Mob cases. He’s using the STOP paddle in his right hand to pull taxis over at random–checking if their meters are rigged–and show passing motorists in hectic Piazza Garibaldi that the Law is indeed watching, if mostly for minor violations.

I can see by the traffic passing Celiento that a 2000 helmet law for riders of those ubiquitous mopeds, while obeyed by Italians from all points north, is still treated in Naples as optional. Entire families of four whiz by, squeezed on a scooter built for two, often with young, helmetless kids. It is a disquieting sight for even a Milanese or a Florentine, let alone a Northern European or an American, who wonders if this southern pocket of Europe somehow got left behind. Adding to the unease are picturesque streets in the historic center littered with trash as well as warnings from locals not to go out at night when purse snatchers and gang members reign. Celiento does not believe that either the city’s habitual skirting of the law or the Camorra culture of death is rooted in the economic hardship. “A culture of civility comes before any economic question,” says Celiento. “It must start in families. The first time I find my son without a helmet, I’ll simply take his moped away.”

Outside the jurisprudence department of the University of Naples, law student Nino Danilo, 21, says he never wears a helmet–and not only because it ruins his hair. “You feel more free without it,” he says. And when he sees a policeman, he does his best to scoot away. “Rules,” he says, “are made to be broken, right?” Danilo grins and says he’s still deciding between careers as a defense lawyer and a public magistrate.

Over the past two years, however, there has been a surprising streak of compliance. A national smoking law that had been predicted to be roundly ignored is instead almost universally obeyed. To better understand this twist, I track down an American writer friend, Sima Belmar, who moved to Naples two years ago and married a native, Antonio Capezzuto. He owns a small wine bar, and he has an explanation for the good behavior. “You respect the person who is running a business,” he says, “not because it’s the law.” As we walk past colorful markets of produce and fresh fish on Via del Tribunale, with the vendors calling Belmar’s 10-month-old daughter Lucia by name, she says she is getting used to the competing codes of compliance and defiance in Naples–and is even starting to lose some of her American law-abiding habits: she always ignores signs that tell her to fold up her stroller on public transportation.

Still, by day’s end, we are reminded again that the Mob here is indeed more than folklore. The Camorra truce has been broken, and three people have been gunned down in a six-hour span. In at least one of the hits, two killers arrived by scooter. Both were wearing helmets.

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