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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

See Naples Then Die

A few days after I wrote my last blog post found me sitting underneath the statue of Dante in the Piazza named after him, waiting to meet up with my program coordinators and a couple of fellow volunteers, and not knowing what to expect. It was by far the most nerve-wracking moment of my trip. I had signed up for this volunteer program in Naples months ago, before any of it felt real, and then I had shortened my program from a month to two weeks in a moment of doubt. Part of me wanted it to be a life changing experience, and part of me wanted it to be terrible so I could justify my shortening of the program.

“Are you Alexandra?” a young woman asked, breaking me out of my own thoughts. She looked barely older than me and reminded me of one of my closest friends from Rimini. I felt immediately at ease. She was joined by an Italian man with wild greying curls. The two of them were INN staff members and would become staples in my daily life in Naples. Together we walked around the statue until we found the other two volunteers slumped on a bench with their suitcases and backpacks. On the walk to the apartment that would be our home for the next few weeks, I learned my fellow volunteers were a young couple from Australia who had been married nearly a year ago and were on an adventurous extension of their honeymoon. We were shown around the volunteer housing- a long hallway lined with windows that looked out on orange trees so tall you could reach out the window and grab an orange, an airy living room with a couple of couches and a bookshelf in a corner, a kitchen taken up by a big table with seats for all the volunteers, a hallway upstairs with four dorm-like rooms and two bathrooms, and a terrace that looked out on the city of Naples. After dropping my things off by my bunk (both of my roommates were sleeping), I set out to make friends. I felt like I was back in boarding school- music came from one room, laughter from another. I knocked on the first door I came across and introduced myself. Five minutes later I was hanging out in one room listening to Drake’s new album with a collection of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and a Belgian. I think even in that moment I knew I was in very good company.

That night all twelve of the IVHQ volunteers went out for pizza together to celebrate the arrival of the newest crew. For seven euros I had one of the best pizzas of my life and shared a bottle of wine with two of my new friends. Over dinner we heard the low down on the various programs as well as many of the inside jokes (one volunteer who when she was drunk started dancing in the doorways of bars and saying “Ciao, Ciao!”, the legend of a man named Kilo Lombardi who knew everyone in Europe, the hike up Vesuvius several of them had taken the day before and had barely survived) that had developed over the weeks before our arrival. Full from pizza and drunk off wine and new friendships, we all headed back to the terrace at our housing where one of the former employees of INN (the Napoli branch of IVHQ) had brought a group of American college students on a spring break trip. There was wine and cheese and olives and someone was playing music from their phone. I mingled with the other volunteers for a few minutes before starting a conversation with the young couple I had met up with at Piazza Dante and an American college senior who had immigrated from Haiti to New York. At first we talked about why we were there, our travels, and volunteering, but soon the conversation headed towards politics and our new American president. I was absolutely blown away by the response of all three people, and we had an incredible hour-long conversation about the greater implications of this election, what had led to it, its effects around the world, and the damage America had done throughout time. We talked about systems and what works and what doesn’t. For the first time in my life I heard about life in Australia and their perspective of us. As we said our goodbyes to the American and headed out with the other volunteers, I was struck by how amazing it was that I found myself in Naples on a rooftop overlooking the city having such a deep conversation with another American and two Australians. That’s the kind of intellectually stimulating and eye opening conversation I left home to find!

That night led us to a bar affectionately nicknamed JB’s by the group (Jurdau Bar) for a couple of very large Peroni beers at what would become our regular table. Part of the magic of Napoli is the constant stream of people, of sounds and yelling and talking and desperate hand gestures. Sitting outside of JB’s, we were right in the middle of it all. Across the street was Piazza Bellini, packed with people sitting and smoking on its benches and beneath its statue on a street lined with people of all ages laughing and singing and talking. From there we headed to Alter Ego- a somewhat eccentric nightclub down the street. Inside purple lights were flashing and a live band on a makeshift stage was playing a mix of Spanish, Italian, and English hit songs. In the middle of dancing, I looked down to see a little boy in a small tuxedo with gelled hair. I stooped down to his level and asked his name and how old he was. Turns out the four year old son of the owner came out with his father on weekend nights to dance- even at 2 am!

Within a few days I was fully adjusted to the volunteer routine: wake up late, eat breakfast, explore the town on my own, come back to the housing at 1 for lunch (ordered through a google doc, served in tins, pretty good food), rest until 2:45, walk to my placement with the two other afterschool volunteers, work with kids until 7, walk home, eat dinner (also served in tins, but this time accompanied by fresh bread in a paper bag), hang out until late. Time spent with the other volunteers consisted of using the opening to the clothes dryer in the kitchen as a goal for a small soccer game, sitting and talking on the roof with some contraband beer, or occasionally going out to JB’s.

My volunteer work, although only for two weeks, was very meaningful to me. Every day the three of us showed up to the center at 3 pm, greeted by a bunch of kids (ranging from age seven to age sixteen) with tons of energy. There was an initial crazy period of greetings and joking around while everyone arrived. Neapolitan Italian is nothing like the Italian I had learned, and words of dialect were thrown around so much that I was reminded of my first days in Rimini three years ago where I had to strain my ear to catch enough words to understand a sentence. The kids were divided into three groups: the scriccioli (ages 7-9), the viaggatori (ages 9-11) and the tuffatori (ages 12-16). In the beginning I spent a day with each group, helping with homework and then joining in a snack and activities. I focused on creating strong connections with one or two of the kids. There was Chiara who wanted me to help her learn to read and on my last day proudly brought a panini for me to have as a snack, Vincenzo who was fascinated by the American flag and drew me a picture of it each day, and Vittorio who taught me Neapolitan dialect in exchange for me teaching him English. One day I distracted the most rambunctious boys in the youngest group by starting an arm wrestling competition, which ended up allowing the rest of the kids to stay quiet and do homework for the first time! There was certainly a lot more yelling than I was used to, but once I learned to take headache medicine in advance and try to distract the kids, I was fine. Even though I had only been there two weeks, on my last day the kids wrote me a card and jumped all over one another to hug me. After this experience I realized how much I love working with children. There is something about making connections like that, about how open kids are to letting you into their lives, about how much of a difference you can make just by setting a good example and giving kids the attention that they need. These two weeks gave me more people to include in my prayers and showed me what I was put on Earth to do! I am very grateful for the volunteer experience.

Some of the highlights of my time at the INN:

Walking up to the community of Vomero with one of my roommates. The stairs were many but the view was worth it! Neapolitan men might be famous for their advances, but this was greatly exacerbated by the fact that my roommate was a model (or at least looked like one) and resulted in us being followed that day by two young men on a vespa carrying materials to build a house. When we (or she) refused them, they sped ahead, dropped off the materials, and came back to try again, asking where we were staying. Eventually we escaped them by running downstairs, grabbed a coffee and walked back to the housing.

Our weekend trip to the Walk of the Gods in Positano. It was a three hour long moderately difficult hike through rough terrain, with an exquisite view of the coastline and the colorful town of Positano built tumbling down the hillside. Upon our arrival in the town itself, we had to walk down thousands of steps until our legs shook and threatened to give way. We got all the fixings for a picnic and joined our friend on the beach with sandwiches, olives, and prosecco. We sunbathed, dipped into the frigid water, and sipped cocktails on the dark sand.

Heading back from Positano, after an hour long bus ride spent standing up and trying not to puke as we wound around the craggy cliffs of the Amalfi coast, the setting sun suddenly appeared on the horizon, red and swollen and beautiful. That same night, on the train ride back to Naples, one of my friends (the only other one who spoke and understood Italian) and I overheard a conversation among several couples sitting a few seats away from each other about food and how they would prepare their dinner. When we commented that we were hungry after listening, they immediately involved us in the conversation, wanting to know where we were from and what we were doing here, and right before their stop we exchanged numbers and they invited to bring us to their house for dinner the next weekend! Which of course started another conversation of what they would cook then and how they would prepare it…

One day after snacktime in the afterschool program, the children began to rehearse for a play they were putting on for their parents. The play was supposedly the Neapolitan version of a mix of fairytales and included Cinderella inviting Little Red Riding Hood to her house for “some fresh parmigiana.” The last line of the play, however, was what struck me: “It’s like this in Naples- we are all a family and we all love each other…My nonna always says ‘if there’s food for three there’s surely food for four!’… my wife and I leave our door open because the more people that come through, the more our house is full of love!”

For the 26th birthday of one of the volunteers, several of us bought tickets to the opera. After our placement we hurried home and dressed up in the nicest clothes we had brought with us. On the way to the opera house we popped a bottle of champagne and stopped at JB’s for celebratory drinks. I was blown away by the grandeur of the oldest opera house in Italy, and even though our seats were on the very top of the balcony and without my glasses I could barely make out the shapes of the actors, it was a wonderful experience. The opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, was reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet with elements of Macbeth, and was very moving.

A day trip to the island of Gaiola- a magical place. We got food for a picnic and took a bus about an hour outside of town, then walked twenty minutes down narrow pathways and sets of stairs to the water. There was a beach section, full of Italians even in late March, and then another side that was part of a protected park where the actual island was. It was a tiny island-two chunks of rock really-joined by a bridge and surrounded by the cleanest water I have ever seen in my life. After a picnic lunch, some sun bathing, and some good music, we took a swim in the protected section. The water was as cold as Cape Cod water in early summer, but felt wonderful and the view was absolutely breathtaking. In the distance we could see Napoli covered in a cloud of smog and mount Vesuvius watching over the city from behind.

The last night spent at the INN, I gathered with my new friends on the terrace for drinks and music and talking. We talked about our experiences, about funny things that had happened during our time together, and then put on music and danced. There was such tenderness in our goodbyes, so much love and respect in the way we looked at each other, and I couldn’t help but think this was one of the best groups I had ever been a part of.

For anyone considering volunteering abroad, I highly recommend IVHQ and I highly recommend the Naples placements. I enjoyed my time in the afterschool care program but heard wonderful things about the programs teaching English, working with refugees, and environmental work. Naples (now my favorite city in the whole world), is a wonderful place to be and volunteer. The city may be dirty and chaotic, but it is filled with more humanity, warmth, and life than any other city on Earth. There are many poor and rough sections where volunteer work is greatly appreciated. Volunteering, though sometimes difficult and exhausting, is great for the soul and its gifts are invaluable. I am so grateful for the connections made with fantastic people, for the smiles received from children I helped, and for my time spent in Naples.

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