The Clam Man of Naples
A last minute decision to make the classic spaghetti alle vongole has me rushing out the door and onto the streets of Naples at 4pm on December 31st in search of clams. In Italy, there are certain foods that should be eaten on specific holidays; pasta with clams is on the ‘must’ list for New Year’s Eve in Naples, and therefore part of my earnest pursuit of a classic meal for our five Italian guests that evening. I have already been warned that shopping so late in the afternoon on New Year’s will be a challenge: closing hours — like the holiday must-cook list — are sacred here. So I run out, with a hastily written address of the family’s preferred pescheria and salumeria in hand.
The preferred pescheria, however, is closed, as is the second, and third that I pass. By the time I got to the salumeria — thankfully, still open, — the guy cutting prosciutto for me picks up on the tone of desperation in my voice when asking about an open fish store. In the lively back-and-forth of Italian shop-speak, soon every person in the store is involved, from the cashier to the guy in the back storeroom. All seem at a loss for how to help me at such a late hour. But in a stroke of luck, another customer’s interest is raised. Before I’ve finished uttering the last syllable of ‘vongole’, he whips out his phone. The friend on the other end of the line has clams — and not just any clams, but the most beautiful, prized clams of Naples! Am I willing to pay 20 euros for a kilo of them? I have absolutely no idea how much the most incredible Neapolitan clams should cost, so my answer is sì. Within 30 seconds the deal has been struck and the stranger assures me that these clams will be brought to me directly, ‘fra qualche minuti’ (in a few minutes).
The surprise of it all, and delight at the prospect of these clams has me a bit giddy. Even more surprising, it seems that the stranger — along with his two young children — want to wait with me until the clam-bearer arrives. I protest, but they insist. They all want to know how I ended up in this neighborhood (a rare American plopped down in the midst of a mostly residential stretch of Naples, well-off the tourist map). The stranger then explains his part in the clam-procurement ring: his family is in the restaurant business, and it turns out his mother owns one of the most famous friggitoria (fried snack shop) in Naples, just a few steps down the street; the pizzeria a block from our house is owned by his uncle; and he is the proud owner of the trattoria a few blocks in the other direction. All so very Italian — tipico, as they say.
After a half hour or so of conversation while waiting, I casually ask about the status of the clams, which results in more animated phone calls and a reassurance that the clams were very close by, only another couple minutes now. Out chat continues, meanders, without a hint of impatience on their part. Even the guys from the salumeria join in, though they had been ready to close up after bundling up my prosciutto and mozzarella.
Then, at last: it all happens so quickly that I hardly get a good look at the friend’s face, but before I know it I have a plastic bag full of clams in one hand and have handed a 20 euro note over with other. And with that, and hearty wishes of auguri for all, we separate — as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world to take nearly an hour out of your day to orchestrate a clam-pass-off operation for a stranger. (‘Niente!’ was the casual reply to my profuse thanks.)
In Naples, the beautiful and frustrating aspects of daily life are often one and the same. The length of time it takes to accomplish a simple errand can be twice what it would have been in London: renewing a passport involves three different offices and double the bureaucrats; in this case, finding a kilo of fresh clams on eve of a holiday took several strangers and nearly an hour of waiting. But within that time you’re also invariably treated to the human element that pulses through the core of southern Italy: personal encounters, communal experiences that reveal a depth of generosity that leaves me buoyant and tripping up the four flights of stairs to share the story at home.
It remains to be seen whether this would last during anything more than a two week stay, and I am the first to admit to my europhile American relatives that living in this environment can embitter, and exhaust in the day-to-day — two and a half years in France and my exasperation with certain tasks was undeniable. But living back in the US again now, after 8 years mostly away, I’ve noticed that even many friends here have a nervous tick of looking at their watch or phone when more than an hour has passed together; in Naples this just doesn’t happen — moreover, the notion of ‘wasting time’ within the context of a favor (even for a stranger) would be met with incomprehension.
Beneath lies an (unstated, but understood) reciprocity; lives are entangled. And there’s a simple awareness that you would do the same for anyone else when receiving help. A consequence — or perhaps inherent part— of this moment is the potential for social cohesion and exchange. In San Francisco we solve nearly all our practical needs via apps and an increasingly ‘on-demand’ service economy. This, by its very nature, cuts out a layer or two of human interaction with each demand — and, happily for those who view their days in terms of time optimization, means several minutes saved. But if you measure the value of your day in terms of personal connection, the brief encounters that reveal another sliver of life, then I would happily relinquish an extra few minutes in order to have that remain a part of my errands. There was no grocery delivery app I could call upon in Naples that evening; instead, I had to venture out, and in doing so was drawn into a deeper understanding of how social bonds and generosity function in southern Italy.
That night, around 10:30pm the clams were successfully transformed into a spaghetti alle vongole, thanks to the wisdom and advice of over half our guests. (Differing opinions on ingredient proportions were elegantly expressed and backed up by various family recipes; a heated debate ensued as to the appropriate level of peperoncino and parsley — a compromise ultimately reached.) And at midnight, with the cacophonous outburst of fireworks lit off every balcony and rooftop within sight, I gave a silent thanks to the clam-man and his accomplices — wrapped up in the heady joy of teetering on the precipice of the new year, at the edge of a balcony, in a city where the serendipitous is completely at home.