I can’t say I wasn’t warned. In the weblike, often unintelligible microcosm of family and community here in Naples, there are stores you visit because your grandparents bought their vegetables from the current proprietors’ grandparents. And then there are the vendors — even on the same block, with the same green awnings and seemingly identical appearance — which prompt Zia Lidia to furrow her brow and urge me to avoid. For example, no ordering vegetable delivery from the place across the park — their delivery boys are not to be trusted. In fact, they will deliver your eggplant, and in the second it takes you to open the door and grab the bag they will have made a complete mental inventory of the items they would like to return to steal when you leave for dinner.
This kind of talk struck me as paranoiac — at best, something to amuse myself with as yet another curious cultural phenomenon; at worst, a depressing pessimism and lack of trust in your neighbors. Either way, with two sprained ankles and a walker boot, I cannot be so picky about where I shop. So yesterday I went the the closest fruit vendor. This one also happened to be one that Lidia had warned against, so I paused and carefully scanned the street before entering to ensure none of the Italian relatives would catch my transgression.
Upon stepping inside, I felt a little pang of delight: the dim interior, haphazard collection of canned goods, and crates of gorgeous heaped summer produce made for just the sort of place that I find charming in Naples. So typically del sud — complete with a nonna figure in a bleached cotton housedress sitting in the back. Her husband, a shuffling man, approached me directly, and asked the clipped Italian shop-speak for ‘what would you like?’ — ‘Mi dica’. It took a moment for me to remember what I wanted as I stared, distracted by his hands: broad, knobbed fingers reminding me of Jerusalem artichokes which soon started grabbing zucchini and pomodorini for me with a force that seemed incongruous with his age.
As we went from crate to crate, he plopped fruits and veggies into the usual brown bags and weighed them on a balance that looked like it had been purchased by his grandfather. I was lulled before long into the rhythm of Neapolitan shop interactions, and the friendly banter that makes an excursion for tomatoes into a social occasion. I even started to feel sorry for these people — their reputation tarnished, it seemed, for reasons that likely stretch back generations.
And then, I’m hesitating over the bin of cherries when before I can even register what’s happened, I feel one being pushed into my mouth, that thick finger brushing my lips in retreat. The cherry’s twin is then popped into his mouth. ‘See,’ he says, with a mischievous eye and only slightly lowered voice, 'now we are in love!’ This last bit is accompanied by two, thick fingers coming together at my eye level — I file it away as either crude symbolism or yet another Neapolitan hand gesture I must learn. My slight revulsion at having involuntarily consumed a manhandled cherry quickly sours to nausea at the lewdness of having an object unexpectedly thrust into my mouth.
I paid, didn’t raise a fuss, and hobbled out of the store with a kilo of vegetables, wondering on my short walk home whether Lidia might have left unsaid the real issue with that place. I also wondered if I was being a bit too waspy and uptight in my reaction — maybe the old man simply wanted me to buy cherries, and thought he’d take a bit of amusement out of the job in playing a game with the American ragazza. But it’s also hard, a week after reading about the Stanford rape case, to give in to a ‘boys will play their games’ mentality. And so I’m left with a sense of moral — and, really, cultural — ambiguity that hasn’t quite resolved itself into any kind of neat conclusion, a troubling, fascinating conundrum that is becoming a regular symptom of living here.