Just married, my wife Arielle and I landed in Naples, taking a train directly to the countryside in Pompeii.
In Pompeii we met a man trying to sell us tours. Pushing him off I said, “No thank you we’re here for our luna de miele,” our honeymoon. As happened often during this vacation, he looked at me, heard my corrupted Italian, and asked me if I was Italian.
“Tu sei Italiano, si?”
“Yes, of course I am.” I told him. Then we began our conversation in Italian and English with a lot of hand gestures.
I explained that my father’s family was from Sala Consalina. He knew the town, of course. When Italians confirmed that I had an Italian heritage, they treated me slightly more like a countryman than a tourist. Southern Italians had connections to America; many of their cousins, fathers, uncles, and sisters had migrated to America over the past hundred years or so. Some of them had even lived in America, learned English and had moved back.
“You are on your luna de miele?” he asked again, just to make sure. He clasped his hands in prayer to bless the occasion.
I said, “Yes, we’re on our honeymoon.”
He told us he had a farm and began making elaborate animal sounds, sucking his teeth and mewing.
We weren’t sure where he was going with this.
“Va bene,” I said. That’s good.
He said he had rabbits, using his index fingers to describe the ears. He also had pigs, he said, snorting and pacing back and forth.
We watched him in utter amazement.
Then, he pointed his elbows out and began making sounds: coo ro coo, coo ro coo. He had a chicken that laid special eggs.
Now we started to laugh.
“My farm is in the valley,” he continued, explaining that the soil was very rich. From his mixed English and Italian I understood that because his home was in the valley, vegetables and other plants grew big and animals were healthy and fat.
“On this farm,” he said, now gesturing wildly with his hands, “I have a chicken that lays big a’ eggs, very big a’ eggs that are potent.” His hands were wide apart, demonstrating the size. These eggs must have been as big as children.
Watching him move around, we waited for what was going to come next.
“I can give you one of these eggs,” he said for your luna de miele. When you eat a’ this egg you can a’ to fuck like boom boom boom!” he said, punching his right fist into his left hand.
He continued, undaunted by the look of astonishment on our faces.
“When you eat a’ these egg in a’ the morning you can a’ to fuck like boom boom boom, like a Vesuvius, you explode to make the babies. “
We didn’t say anything.
After a pause, he asked, “Where are you staying?”
We pointed at the hotel right across the street. The Vesuvio.
“Domani, I bring a’ the egg for you. You can to eat it and then to make a’ the love.”
Arielle asked, “What time will you be here?”
He said he would setup his stand at 9:00 a.m. and stay until the afternoon.
In the hotel that night I read for a while then rolled over and went to sleep.
Next day, Arielle jumped out of bed early. She rushed to get dressed and get me out of bed. We went to see our friend, the Pompeian Farmer with the magic eggs.
Practically running down the street, my shoes untied, Arielle still tucking in her tank top, we finally got to where his stand had been.
But he wasn’t there.
Arielle looked disappointed. I was somewhat relieved. I was worried that the egg would make my head explode, or my eyes would fall out. Maybe it was some kind of village witchcraft. Was it something invented by Italian sorceresses to get rid of a horrible husband? But I wasn’t so bad. At least not yet—we’d only just got married. We were on our luna de miele.
During our walk back to the hotel room, we saw an old man playing a guitar and singing on the street. We slowed down a bit as we approached him.
I was in a fog, so I didn’t completely hear and see him at first. Then I noticed the man looked like my mother’s Uncle Rudy. He was rail thin and had dark, boney hands. His face was wrinkled. Fiercely emerging from his old face with volcanic intensity was his gigantic nose. I began to actually hear the song—it was Malafemmena, a song I had grown up with. I had played this song many times for Arielle.
Arielle looked at me as if I’d asked the man to play it. I just shrugged and asked, “Isn’t life ironic sometimes?”
Now we made a full stop and listened.
The old Neapolitan sang the song sweetly, not having to belt or wrestle with it. Though the song bemoans a man’s unrequited love for a beautiful though devilish woman, he sang it softly and sadly, as if whispering it in your ear, telling you a secret. His strong hands strummed the guitar powerfully.
The old man’s song was both sweet and ancient; listening to it was a journey in itself. Although not an old song itself, Malafemmena contained hundreds of years of Neapolitan music, harking back even to the Arab invaders who brought their musical traditions to Southern Italy. The lyrics were out of a tradition—not unlike the many blues, country and jazz songs that describe a broken heart, an unfaithful lover and the loss of love.
Arielle and I walked away from the man and went back to our hotel room.
We didn’t need any magic eggs.
Escape from Pompeii
Leaving Pompeii, we took a taxi to the train station only ten blocks away. It was easier than lugging our bags.
When we got into the cab, the driver spoke to me in dialect. If I understood correctly, he said he was going to pick up another fare and take them to the Pompeii station, too.
He asked me if I understood.
I said, “Credo di ci.” I think so.
He laughed. My wife, Arielle, trusted that I knew what I was doing.
The driver looked like a cross between Jimmy Durante and Popeye. His name was Luigi. He was about seventy, short and muscular. He wore thick glasses that made his eyes bulge. I was sure he couldn’t see too well, if at all.
We drove about fifteen blocks out of the way to pick up the other fare. He swerved into oncoming cars, not because he was trying to hit them but because he couldn’t see them. He hit the side view mirror of a car with a woman driver and two kids then yelled at them, “Minka tu sorde!” Shit up you dickhead. I turned to Arielle and told her that my grandfather used to say that.
”Didn’t your grandfather speak Sicilian?” she asked.
“I guess they curse the same.”
He finally pulled into a gravel driveway, got out of the car and asked us to wait. He walked to a small business office about twenty yards away and then walked back to the car. A few minutes later two men hauling luggage in light brown shiny European suits walked toward the car. They were friendly, smiling, and spoke English.
“Luigi, come stai?” the taller one asked the cab driver. Luigi seemed happy to see them like they were old friends. They all shook hands.
When the two men got into the car, they told us that they worked for a Brazilian manufacturing company with a plant in Pompeii that made sportswear for soccer teams and other sports.
As he pulled out of the driveway, Luigi said, “Shamonie.” Let’s go. “Now we go to the Naples Station. Twenty dollars each.”
I looked at the Brazilian guys.
Luigi kept driving.
“Did he say we’re going to the Naples Station?” I asked. They seemed to understand him better than I did.
“Yes,” they said, smiling. I suspected this was a ruse that Luigi had pulled before. Maybe the Brazilians were in on it, maybe not.
“I never said I agreed to go to the Naples Station,” I said. “We only want to go to the Pompeii Station. That’s a ten-dollar ride.”
Luigi made a big fuss, cursing, thrusting his hands wildly as if to shake off an evil spell. He didn’t look at me though, not even through the rear view mirror.
“Disgraciado, n’grato,” he said, cursing me, calling me ungrateful. He complained that he tried to arrange this ride for all of us as a convenience. I was ungrateful and didn’t appreciate his gesture.
As I sat and listened to his rant, Arielle and I laughed with the Brazilians. Luigi’s audacity was so transparent it was comical. It was a performance.
Now, having driven about three miles, Luigi kept slamming his hands on the steering wheel. It seemed that we were going to Naples no matter what.
I thought to myself, well, here we are, the luggage is in the trunk, this guy is a maniac and we’ll at least have a story to tell—if we survive the ride.
I said aloud, “Okay, andiamo a Napoli.” Let’s go to Naples. The Brazilians clapped and a big smile broke out on Luigi’s face. Though he stopped banging on the steering wheel, his driving remained out of control.
The Brazilians told us when they come to their Pompeii office, they always call Luigi.
“But aren’t you afraid he can’t see and can’t drive?” I asked.
“Have you seen the other drivers in Italy?”
As Luigi floored the pedal and steered with his finger-tips, he handed us a picture of his Brazilian girlfriend with his left hand, reaching over the seat. He had apparently shown it to the Brazilians previously. They teased him saying that she was too old for him. She wasn’t more than twenty-five. Wearing an outrageous sexy costume, she looked like a dancer.
Luigi said he had many girlfriends.
I joked about whether or not he used Viagra. I said that Luigi probably drank a potion mixed with ash from Pompeii to get his mythic potency. Or maybe he ate magic eggs. Maybe they all ate magic eggs in Pompeii.
We all laughed, even Luigi.
He now turned almost fully around to look at us, completely disregarding the road, his arms somehow still holding the wheel. Then he handed us another photo out of his pile of 11×14-inch pictures. It was an image of Vesuvius covered in plastic—like a placemat at a pizza restaurant. He then pointed to the Virgin Mary pendant he had hanging on his rearview mirror saying something about how Mary saves the Pompeiians from devastation every day. He made the sign of the cross; the Brazilians did too. I looked at Arielle and we made the sign of the cross so as not to offend anyone.
Luigi thanked the Blessed Virgin for allowing us to safely leave Pompeii. He said the Hail Mary in his dialect. He didn’t offer a prayer to save us from his driving.
Everyone quieted and bowed their heads.
When he finished, we started talking again about his beautiful and sexy Brazilian girlfriend.
We then drove into Naples; Luigi dropped the Brazilians off first.
At this point, he had warmed up to us and now considered Arielle and me his friends.
He then pulled out a cassette of Neapolitan songs and began playing the song Piscatore ‘E Pusilleco, the Fishermen of Pusilleco.
I translated his Italian for Arielle.
“I like how Claudio Villa sings this song,” he said. “It’s from the heart,” he added, pointing to his chest.
He then paused.
Now hardly looking at the road he said, “When I was a young man, I had one true love.” He pointed his index finger into the air to emphasize the number one.
“But I became a sailor and went to the sea,” he said. Then he stopped talking. His face dropped.
“When I came back to Pompeii, she’d married another man who’d taken her north.” He cursed the fact that he’d left her and said that this explained his love of young women; he was trying to get back to her, his long lost Maria. He then became sullen and quietly sang along with the song.
When the song ended, Luigi just looked straight ahead, not talking to us at all. We had been invited into his heart and were friends forever. We knew his secret.
He insisted on driving us directly to the hotel where we were staying. Gentle as a lamb, he stepped out of the car and before I could open the door, he opened it for us and unloaded our luggage.
He handed me the cassette of Neapolitan songs by Claudio Villa.
I said no, it was okay he didn’t have to give it to me.
He said that I was Neapolitan and should know the songs of my countrymen.
I agreed and offered him a few dollars extra.
No, he said. I could only give him twenty dollars like we agreed—not a cent more.
He hugged Arielle and me. He seemed even a little choked up like we were his children or his relatives. He had tears running down his cheeks.
We said goodbye and told him that when we were back in Pompeii we would look him up.
He handed me his private card and got back into his car, waving goodbye.
I hoped that he’d make it back.
My father told me that the Fiorito name was common in the region around Naples. Even though Arielle and I were on our honeymoon, this was also a personal journey. Though my father was born in downtown Manhattan, I felt that I was making a pilgrimage to the land of my ancestors.
Neapolitans looked like my relatives: The policeman looked like my mother’s Uncle Rudy; he was short, dark and burly. The ticket clerk looked like Aunt Dolly; she had red hair, bright blue eyes and a broad smile. The street sweeper looked like cousin Tutti; tall, handsome, a mop of black wavy hair on his head. Some of them even looked like me. Their hands were square and muscular, but not big. Their hair was dark and curly. They had extraordinary noses: wide, with big nostrils. But their noses were handsome.
Everywhere we went, I repeated my stories to restaurant owners, store clerks, people on the street—really anyone who’d listen. People would look at me funny at first. “You are from this area, no?” they’d ask.
“My father’s grandfather was from Sala Consalina,” I’d answer, giving them the family’s migration story to New York City.
A restaurant owner in Naples, who said he worked in New York City many years earlier, spoke at length about Sala Consalina and the Fiorito name.
“It’s a common name in Naples,” he said, “but especially in Sala Consalina.” The Neapolitan sun bore down on us as we talked, even though it was after 3:00 p.m. If you didn’t eat by noon, you had to wait until 3:00 p.m. to eat. Only tourists walked the streets during the day in Naples, our glossy guidebooks glaring in the Neapolitan sun. The sun finally yielded, but was still strong enough to make us retreat to the shade, underneath an umbrella.
“Really? You know this for sure?” I asked pathetically, like a man searching for a father who’d abandoned him as a child.
“Of course,” he said, as a moped roared by.
I hadn’t done any research prior to coming to Naples. After all, this was our honeymoon, not a National Geographic assignment. I could have looked up the Fiorito name and arranged planned meetings with people. I thought I would wing it instead and just see what happened.
In Salerno, I kept searching the mailboxes to see if I’d see the name Fiorito. I’d open one of the heavy iron-gated doors and look up and down the list of names. No Fioritos. I saw Gallos, Rubinos, Marinos, and other names I can’t remember, but no Fioritos.
Arielle and I fell in love with Salerno. Unlike Naples, Capri, and Sorrento, Salerno was hardly a tourist city. If there were tourists they seemed mostly Italian. Salerno streets were narrow and paved with stone. The age of the apartment buildings ranged by hundreds of years and were made of different materials; some darker shades of stone, some bone white and shining. Dressed in pearls and sunglasses, people emerged from these old cave like structures and stepped into fancy Italian sports cars.
One night, we got lost trying to find a restaurant recommended by a guidebook. Instead we found another restaurant—very small, very modest looking. We ordered eggplants, sopresata, salamis, ciabatta breads and wine. The food was delicious; the servings generous. Of course I went through my usual speech about my father’s family.
“Fiorito?” the waitress said, “Yes, I know the name; it’s very common in this region.”
I looked at her yearningly, as if wanting her to produce a few of them here and now for me. I’d love to meet them, see if we looked alike, and find out if they had relatives who went to America. Of course they would. I tried my best to speak in Italian, using a dictionary when I didn’t know the word—which was often. In the end we went back to that restaurant a few times. We discovered that mostly everyone in the restaurant was related. The cook was the waitresses’ husband and the man who worked the brick oven was their son.
Ironically, the one time in my life when more than one person commented on the name Fiorito was when I lived in the Berkeley, California. I worked on the retail floor of a computer store. Men old enough to have been in World War II would come in to purchase computers and accessories. They all looked the same to me: tall, graying, and wearing baseball caps inscribed with the names of their military divisions. When they saw my name tag they’d ask, “Are you related to Ted Fiorito, the bandleader.”
No I’d reply. I’d known of him but I wasn’t related to him. My father often talked about Ted Fiorito, a less-popular Guy Lombardo who performed for the troops around the country. His performances were also broadcast on the military radio networks so his name was known among this population.
We rented a car to make a trip to Sala Consalina. It was an hour’s drive outside of Naples. Along the way, we passed Teggiano, the town my friend Roberto is from. Arielle and I waved “hello” as we drove by. Maybe a hundred years earlier, our ancestors had argued over a bale of hay. Maybe they were at war. It would remain a mystery.
I was expecting Sala Consalina to be a poor town. After all, why would our family have left if they had lived comfortably? As we drove, there were signs to Eboli on the highway. I thought about “Christ Stopped at Eboli” written during World War II by Carlo Levi. Because he was an intellectual—an artist—Levi was banished to the worst possible place in Italy that Mussolini could send him.
Levi describes the poverty, illiteracy, and superstition that the Southern Italians demonstrated. Though they were Italians too, they were described as being from the third world. The title implies that European civilization never made it to Eboli and the towns south of it.
“Christ Stopped at Eboli” inspired reform in Italy and created a movement to address inequity in the south. As I drove along the highway, I felt a pain in my stomach imagining my ancestors who had lived so close to this border where civilization ended.
This realization made me quiet during the ride. This and the idea that it felt like this was the closest I had been to my father in the twenty years since he died. I felt like I was going to visit him. I was also nervous that my already flagging Italian would crumble when confronted with an even more exotic dialect.
When we arrived in Sala Consalina it was more an affluent mountain town than a village of muddy huts and shoeless people. We’d learned that a Fiat factory had opened in Sala Consalina, part of the movement to enrich the South’s economy. There weren’t any broken-down shacks or littered roads.
It looked more like a northern Californian town—except some of the homes were from the fifteenth century and even older. As we drove up a ridge that looked over the valley some of the homes had flags hanging from their windows. They looked like the flags you’d see at the horse races in Siena. Whatever poverty had plagued this town had been lifted.
We stopped to get a coffee at a café. I was afraid to talk, hoping they wouldn’t begin to rattle off words I couldn’t understand. I used few words to order and the waiter answered sparingly. He seemed cautious as if to say, “Oh no, another American coming to find his roots, maybe make claim to his great great-great-grandfather’s land.” They probably didn’t get a lot of strangers in this town.
We walked along the main street with boutiques that sold hats, clothes, and confections.
I didn’t ask anyone about the name Fiorito. No one seemed interested in talking to us and I was feeling shy or too nervous to talk to anyone.
We stopped to get gas on the edge of the town. The gas station attendant—an old man who looked like me—was very friendly. He acted as if we were the only people who he had seen in days. I had my usual conversation with him. He said, yes, there were many Fioritos in this region. He said he was not from Sala Consalina, but was from another town over the hills. He pointed to it, gesturing for me to follow his finger to see his hometown. He said that we were still paese, countryman.
We drove up and down the streets of Sala Consalina but there wasn’t anywhere to go that wasn’t a restaurant or a shop so we drove back to Salerno before sunset.
We left Salerno and Sala Consalina, saying goodbye to imagined relatives I never knew. We took the train to Naples so we could get to the airport early the next morning. I said goodbye to my father, knowing he’d be proud that I went to visit the town he talked so much about when I was a kid. I wished I could have told him that it wasn’t poor anymore; these people had disposable cash to buy funny hats and eat expensive candy.
In Naples we stayed at a hotel near the train station, which turned out to be an awful neighborhood with littered streets and rakish characters. It reminded me of the old Times Square.
But here we were back in Naples—a city I had always imagined but never thought I’d visit.
For our last night out on our honeymoon, we took a cab ride to a nicer part of town to eat dinner and enjoy the grandeur of Vesuvius looming in the sky. We left the hotel and walked to the ATM to get money for the evening.
And standing before us, in all of its glory, was a dreary looking watch shop. Its windows were dirty and the watches on display didn’t look any cleaner. The store was gated. The shop’s name was written across the awning unimpressively. The name wasn’t written in neon; it was displayed more like a Five and Dime sign. But I looked proudly. My search was over. In bold and powerful letters for all of the prostitutes, drug dealers and riff raff to see was our family name, “Fiorito,” practically exploding onto the street.
I told Arielle I was kind of happy it was closed. I didn’t want to go in there. Maybe behind the counter some man who only looked like my father would be rude to me. He wouldn’t recognize me as I looked brokenhearted at him. I couldn’t bear it. I would just have to say goodbye to Naples and goodbye to my father one more time. For now.
Mike Fiorito’s work has appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Pif Magazine, Longshot Island, Beautiful Losers, The Honest Ulsterman, Narratively, Chagrin River Review, Mad Swirl, and The New Engagement. Mike is currently working on a short story collection called “Crooners.” He is married, has two boys and lives in Brooklyn.