Home Sweet Home, Caserta, Italy
Life in southern Italy is different. For me, departure was bittersweet. Culture shock of a different kind. Re-learning how to drive, and to stand in line. In America you find things like personal space, customer service and public restrooms stocked with toilet paper. In southern Italy, you learn to slow down. You discover the subtle differences of espresso, lungo, macchiato and americano. You eventually give in and hang your underwear out to dry like your Italian neighbors and separate your trash into 14 different bins of labeled refuse. Sooner or later, you hear yourself shouting "mamma mia!" and throwing your hands up in disbelief when the car ahead of you stops to block traffic and exchange a few pleasantries with a passing motorist.
You learn the names of your neighbors and how to navigate the mood swings of the crazy old woman living opposite the courtyard. You know better than to order a cappuccino after 10am, and you understand that a proper pizza is never sliced. More importantly, you learn how to drive like an Italian. You adopt a death-defying approach to all things dangerous, seemingly impossible, or all together unlawful.
After five months of full Italian immersion, my mother came to visit me in Caserta. She stayed for a week, and I remember trying to explain how she should make her way back to my apartment after dropping me at work. The total commute was just seven minutes, but was so complicated I finally had to write it down.
I came across it recently, and felt of a note of nostalgia for the madness of Naples.
Follow signs to Caserta. The first sign will point you toward a sharp merge but don’t hesitate. Bottleneck like the rest. Stay in the middle or left lane. It may be worth mention that blinkers are an Italian decoration and largely ignored. Also, it is perfectly acceptable to create additional lanes. Don’t be alarmed when three lanes suddenly turn into six. Maintain your speed, and you'll be fine. You should pass two traffic lights on the way – ignore these. If you stop when the light turns red, God help you.
Watch out for mopeds and old men on bicycles. They are equally suicidal and appear out of nowhere. Also, set aside a euro for the migrant workers in case you are stopped at a red light. They will wash your windshield no matter how much you protest. Follow the exit sign to Marcianise city center. Cars will be parked on both sides of the street and there is almost always someone parked at a 45-degree angle, altogether blocking traffic. Watch for this on both sides, because oncoming traffic may suddenly overtake your lane.
You will come to a round-a-bout. Whatever you do, don’t pause. Even if traffic is heading straight for you, you must merge. If you stop, you will be drowned by car horns and no one will let you in. Ever. Continue on this road for 1 Km. Once you pass the construction sight, take a sharp right at the giant stone wall. There is no street sign. Actually, it doesn’t look like a road at all. If you pass a petrol station, you’ve gone too far.
Follow this road until you reach a brick wall with a painted swastika. Turn left. It may seem like you’ve taken the wrong road, as it becomes narrower and narrower. Keep going. Just before you reach my house, there is a one-way street that intersects Via Sant’Anna. There are no signs indicating this street and it is impossible to see what’s coming. Just slow a bit or speed up, whatever works for you. You will reach a dead end. I live behind the massive iron gates to your left. You will need four different keys to get in. Try not to lose the big one, it’s the only copy. Easy peasy.
I hadn't realized how strange my new normal had become until I was forced to put it into words. Naples had become my home away from home, and I walked away a wild driver. I have yet to recover.