For whatever reason all the boys in sight had basically the same haircut: a semi-close shave on the left side, and on the other side, longer hair with fashionable curls, echoes of the flapper girl aesthetic. It was an absurdly specific hairdo to be so ubiquitous, but there you go. Apparently it was all the rage in 2015 southern Italy. I was traveling alone, late-twenties restless, eager to feel for myself the truth of Hugo’s immortal words, the best yet written about travel:
As in the morning, he saw the trees pass by, the thatched roofs, the cultivated fields, and the dissolving views of the country which change at every turn of the road. Such scenes are sometimes sufficient for the soul, and almost do away with thought.
To see a thousand objects for the first and for the last time. What can be deeper and more melancholy? To travel is to be born and to die at every instant.
No other experience more closely approximates early childhood. The bombardment of stimuli, languages you don’t understand, every word and color something new– settings where memory is insufficient to comprehend existence. That is where I was, and where I needed to be. We are taught how to think, but not how to feel; any life event involving emotions is one we stumble through, amateurishly. Travel forces all at once upon you a concentrated heap of life experience.
I drifted through the cluttered square, an open oblong plaza from which extended five or six ancient cobblestone streets heading off at odd angles. You felt a weekend sensibility here, adolescent gaggles of arms and legs and dreams. Must have been school break. Do you remember what it meant to be that age? Timid and loud together? I rode the subway into town and they were everywhere. I imagined similar scenes on the other subways coming in. These were the nights of possibility, humid air rife with hormones and longing.
Even in Napoli, people look put together; this is still Italy, after all. I was by far the worst-dressed person in sight, with my stocky black raincoat, unwashed hair, ill-fitting black jeans and dirty boots. I hid my film camera in my coat and tried to keep a low profile.
Tourists don’t come here.
I did what I often did as a lonely child, and what I’d come here to do: observe. Observe, reflect, and create. I wandered aimlessly through the square, my thoughts drifting along the above lines, when it caught my eye.
The only English language wording in the entire space, in this burgeoning chaotic plaza with its teens and cars and signs and stores and vendors and alleys… was a phrase penciled in sharpie on the side of a girl’s right shoe– on the welt, to be exact, the bottom outside wall just before it touches the ground.
The welt of her shoe was white, and the black sharpie thusly caught my eye. She’d scrawled in neat, bubbly handwriting a line from a song I knew well, new at the time:
You’re so Art Deco, out on the floor.
Lana Del Rey’s sultry voice, with its strangely energizing despondency, wasn’t literally playing, but in that scrawl it flitted through the air like a whispered secret, at once giving the plaza rhythm and making the whole place wink. We are like you, the wink said. Our hearts are the same shape as yours.
A woman was performing on a sidewalk portion of the open space. She stood beside a seated musician who accompanied her singing with classical guitar. He didn’t make much of an impression, perhaps the better to let her shine, for shine she did: she resembled the older Sophia Loren of Ettore Scola’s 1977 Una giornata particolare, with the same grace of self, the poise that comes with age and deepens your beauty. This woman’s dark hair was longer, and her voice rang out elegantly, if wearily. The kids paid her no mind, but occasionally a soul would pause.
I took up a position across the street and watched from a distance.
She sang what sounded like Italian traditionals, and the melancholy chords they required she suffused with histories of pain comprehendible in any language. What was her story, this striking figure who'd surely lived more than the street performer life in which she was now engaged? Her presence spoke volumes, and by the time she was wrapping up had attracted a small crowd of listeners. Some left a few coins as they scattered off.
I approached, and she looked up while boxing up her microphone and related paraphernalia. I wasn’t surprised to discover her face up close as captivating as her voice from across the street. Some people disappoint at close quarters, or reveal themselves as different than you assumed; she was precisely the person her voice proclaimed her to be. Deep emerald eyes matching her flowing dress, a contrast to olive skin that had seen better days.
I fumbled with my Italian, but she knew some English too, and caught my meaning. I needed to tell her how good she was. I needed to contrast the ignorance she received from the others. Most crucially, I somehow needed to express that she wasn’t alone, that I knew something about the debilitating solitude of crowds.
We communicated most in the silences between our words, in the universal language of looks and gesture. I gave her the handful of coins I had left, knowing it was a hefty quantity of money for pocket change. I complimented her singing and spoke my appreciation of her being here tonight. We looked at each other, divided by generations, culture, geography and language. We held the moment, knowing we’d never meet again.
You can dream an entire life in an instant.
I dreamt of a world where she was appreciated by those around her regularly. Where love played a greater defining role than struggle, and her loneliness was assuaged often and with ease. I could observe by her surprised gratitude toward my kindness that such things were not customary in her life. Nothing makes us belong more broadly than a meaningful encounter with a stranger; the moment we exchanged made me feel part of something shared, something vast and knowable. We’re all in this together.
I hope she felt similarly.
This is a spiritual sister to this story, about another evening moment in Western Europe, this time in Paris.