As the alma mater of Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, Trinity College in Dublin was an easy choice when it came to picking a foreign school in which to study literature for a semester. Trinity was historic, prestigious, and located in the safety of the gorgeous and affluent tourist center of Dublin. Studying in Dublin, meanwhile, didn’t require that I learn any additional languages and ensured that I was exposed to a constant stream of goodwill and friendliness from native Dubliners.
In other words, Trinity College and Dublin were safe. I made lovely, safe friends, worked hard in my classes, and only went to pubs and clubs on weekends. I didn’t take any risks until two months into my study abroad experience, when I took a trip with a small group of friends to the reportedly crime-ridden city of Naples.
I wasn’t sure why we were going there, since the brighter, more tourist-friendly cities of Venice or Florence wouldn’t have been much farther away from Rome, our first destination. In comparison to those cities, Naples was too authentic—dark, almost sinister in feeling. My friends and I decided this later, after touring shadowy streets lined with overly-intricate nativity scene figurines and terrifying monasteries with reliquaries that contained entire decayed legs.
In Rome, we’d stayed at a clean women’s hostel close to the Vatican. In Naples, we stayed with a man named Giovanni. Giovanni was a short, bald, middle-aged native Neapolitan who was allegedly the best hostel owner in Naples. The hostel turned out to be his three-bedroom apartment, which could only be accessed by climbing four flights of the steepest, most dangerous stairs in Europe.
We were disoriented from scaling the stairs with our luggage, so what Giovanni told us at our first hour at his hostel didn’t seem to make sense. Among his claims: Naples was the greatest, most beautiful, most historically important place in the western world. Most other places in Italy, like Venice, were overrated. So was Sorrentino on the Amalfi coast; tourists only went there to buy lemons, but the lemons were fake. So was Pompeii, which wasn’t even as old as Giovanni’s storage unit in the basement. My friends and I nodded dumbly at these claims for a full hour. Our bewildered patience was finally rewarded when Giovanni offered to make spaghetti carbonara for us.
“The time it takes spaghetti to cook is the same time it takes to smoke one cigarette,” he advised wisely, smoking casually over the boiling pasta water and the vegetables he was chopping. He was substituting zucchini for bacon because I told him that I was a vegetarian.
Later, when we sat awkwardly at his table and ate, he questioned me about my dietary logic. “When you eat the chicken,” he told me, “you get the life essence. If you do not eat the chicken, where do you get the life essence from?”
“If you need to eat another animal to get the life essence, where do chickens get the life essence from?” I asked meekly.
Giovanni looked at my friends. “Oh, she is very smart,” he told them, and smushed his palm into the center of my face.
The other guests at the hostel were filled with the same frightened, reverent awe of Giovanni that my friends and I shared. They had traveled from New Zealand, India, and Germany, and we bonded quickly.
A friend from Trinity downloaded the cult B-movie “The Room” on a laptop and presented it to the other guests in the Giovanni’s living room. “This is an accurate representation of American culture,” we informed them proudly as they watched Tommy Wiseau in horror. We got lost with our new friends on excursions to Pompeii and Capri, and exchanged stories about our bizarre and fascinating walks through Naples.
When we were getting ready to leave Giovanni’s hostel, Californians were checking in. They had just come from Venice, and carried stories about Carnival and how incredible it had been. I grumbled briefly about how much I wished I had visited Venice instead of Naples, but secretly, I was incredibly grateful we had gone to the weirder, more ominous city.
I had needed the departure from the safety and sanity of Dublin, to learn what awaited. As we mournfully left the hostel, Giovanni smoked and strummed “Moon River” on his guitar, pausing to kiss us on the cheek and remind us to return.