Alfredo Antonini had arranged a three-month stay for my family in a villa on the Bay of Naples, complete with a view of Capri, Vesuvius and the harbor. In the course of my work we had visited Europe several times. After a week as tourists on the Amalfi Coast we decided to move to Italy. I had about ten thousand dollars for an extended stay, plus the money from the reruns of Airpower.
We brought John, the cat, and a baby nurse to 281 via Posillipo—reachable only by lighted tunnel through solid rock. Jutting into the water and built above unassailable stones, the villa had been designed as protection from 15th Century bandits whether by land or sea.
Our host was the father of a talented pianist. Signore Bernasconi had a contract for every light bulb sold south of Naples, including Sicily. He was a gracious Neapolitan who showed us our magnificent rooms. He introduced us to his staff of six, including his female butler. Under his breath he said, “If you want to sleep with her the charge will be 30,000 lire. I assume you have no venereal disease.”
His wife found a cook and asked me not to pay her more than a hundred dollars a month. If we paid her more, it would upset the family’s arrangements with their help.
The superintendent at 281 was friendly and addressed me as “Dottore.” My American sense of equality resisted the title. “Non sono dottore, sono signore.” (No doctor, call me mister.)
I could see he was hurt. It took me some time to understand. If I didn’t have a doctorate, if I was just Mr. Wolff, and his position as portiere to a noble address was diminished. I accepted the honorary doctorate.
Many years later on I did a series of hour-long broadcasts into what I called “a reconnaissance into the national culture” of various peoples. Our Friends the French, The Israelis, The Japanese, and The Italians. (More later)
Luigi Barzini, the author of The Italians led me to some conclusions:
“On the outside the Italians, particularly the southern Italians, are generous and emotional. On the inside they are cold steel, remote from emotions.
“Just the contrary with the seafaring nations. The British and Japanese are cold steel on the outside. Inside they are turbulent emotional people. “
Like all good generalizations they appeal to one’s emotions, not to one’s reason. But I was more fearful of Naples than any other city in which I have lived.
Our baby nurse was a French Protestant who insisted that I drive her to the only Protestant church in the city. When she went to services, I sat in my parked car with German license plates. I was immediately surrounded by hostility. A Protestant German was a rarity and a threat. I pretended not to understand when a glowering man told me he “would guard my car for three thousand lire.”
And yet there was a friendly, warm and helpful side to the Neapolitans.
My Finnish American wife was adept with languages, and had been tutored for years in Italian. It made a difference. Unlike the French who wince at errors in their language, the Italians feel complimented by the effort.
Tuulikki, the fair blond Nordic, went into the only butcher in Naples selling beef.
“Guardi! Le Bella blonde signora chi parla Itliano senza accenta!” (Look! The Beautiful blonde lady who speaks Italian without accents!) The dark Neapolitan ladies were swept aside and the Nordic, shy, blond woman who spoke excellent Italian was taken into the locker room. We had not known the Italian word for filet mignon, and so they cut up a whole carcass for three pounds of meat. The butchers then wrapped the cut into a fancy package, which they carried to our little convertible. They opened the door as if were Rolls and wished us a good day.
On the other hand, my insufficient Italian led to a misunderstanding. Naples is famous for its antiquities and I wanted to visit the National Museum. I asked directions from two tall white-helmeted policemen. “Per favore, dove se trova il Museo Nationale? (Please, where may one find the National Museum?)
There was no smile, just a gesture that I follow. We walked a block or two and they pointed to a large door with frosted glass and left me. In Naples Museo Nationale was the largest bordello in town.
La Dolce Vita is sweet, pleasant and shallow. We had to leave Naples. The three month lease was up. I couldn’t retire at 36. It was either Rome or Paris. We threw away our tutored Italian and chose Paris.