Going out in a blaze

There’s the scratch and sizzle of a striking match. Then the blue-orange blaze that ignites the shrouded body, which is wreathed in marigolds. Then … foof! … all is rising flame and billowing smoke. The corpse begins to burn. It will do so for hours, until all that remains is a heap of ash and bone.  

I witnessed such sacred funeral pyres on the Ganges in India and on the Bagmati River in Nepal some years ago. I didn’t stumble upon them; I sought them out as quasi-spiritual pilgrimages. My slightly morbid, slightly practical fascination with death led me there. Beholding the ritualized smoke and fire, I felt privileged and humbled.

What I didn’t feel was awed. Death is deeply quotidian to this non-believer. There is nothing mystical, magical or celestial about it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, with no heaven, hell or afterlife to follow. Pardon the party-poopery.

Seeing these holy spectacles, my thoughts toggled between where the spirit goes (er, nowhere) and the fact that I was simply watching large bonfires almost beautiful in their pageantry. Any psychic weight was emotional — these were real, beloved humans — and philosophical — what does it mean? — and not, at last, spiritual. 

I’m brought to these memories by a spread in today’s Times about the only public open-air funeral pyre in the U.S., located in the small, dusty town of Crestone, Colorado. The story follows an 81-year-old resident from the last stages of his illness to his outdoor cremation:

“He knew his body would be wrapped into a simple shroud, carried on a wooden stretcher into an enclosure, and placed on a platform a few feet from the ground,” the story goes. “His sons and his wife would light the fire and watch his body burn for several hours. The next day, they would collect the ashes.”

While pyres are rare, cremation in the States is hot stuff. In a statistical shift, more than half of Americans are cremated after death, and you can be sure that’s how I’m getting out of here. Embalming is for chumps, religious beliefs be damned, and casket funerals are so much ceremonial claptrap — wasteful, ghoulish, quixotic. (You can read about far more creative and eco-friendly ways to be put to rest here and here.)

The Hindus have it down. Across Asia they practice communal, public pyres that almost anyone can chance upon and witness. They are solemn. Tears are shed. But for some reason they are not private family affairs, but rather regal roasts for all to see. Crestone, Colorado, is on to something.

Yet as much as I respect it, that’s not for me. Let me say — family, listen — I do not want to be burned on a communal funeral pyre for public consumption. A high-tech, high-temperature crematorium is just fine, and afterward, as I’ve said, do what you will with my ashes. I suggest salt and pepper shakers. 

What I saw in India and Nepal was real and powerful, despite my spiritual doubts that border on irreverent. I’m of two minds, the sacred and the profane, but a bit closer to one than the other. Guess.

Funeral pyre, Nepal

Books, actually

So let me bore you silly and tell you that I’m currently re-reading Joseph Conrad’s slim epic “Heart of Darkness,” a smidge more than 100 pages of nightmarish adventure up the African Congo, rife with colonial violence and brushes with death, and co-starring a renegade colonist named Kurtz who’s apparently gone mad in the jungle.

It’s been decades since I’ve read the classic novella, which of course inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam phantasmagoria “Apocalypse Now,” back when ELO and C-3PO held cultural sway. And it felt about right for a revisit, don’t ask me why. 

(No, ask away. Okay, I needed a shortish book to hold me over while I wait for a copy of the new Michael Cimino biography. A mysterious figure, Cimino directed the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama “The Deer Hunter” and the catastrophic flop “Heaven’s Gate,” both right about the time of ELO and C-3PO.)  

Before re-picking up “Heart of Darkness” only yesterday, I was hopscotching between three books: Tove Ditlevsen’s mesmeric memoir “The Copenhagen Trilogy”; humorist Lindy West’s caustic movie reviews, “Shit, Actually”; and cartoonist Roz Chast’s lauded memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” 

Ditlevsen’s “Trilogy” bundles three smallish memoirs — “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency” — in a single volume, and the cumulative effect is powerfully poignant. She traces her life in the 1930s and ‘40s, from about age 6, when her interest in poetry flowered, to her twenties, as a young mother and successful author addicted to painkillers. The prose is clean and unflinching and recalls the transfixing autofiction of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Lindy West is the opposite of Ditlevsen — tart, messy, sophomoric, fueled entirely by pop culture punch. Her rambunctious movie reviews aren’t primly unfurled; they’re yelled in a neon hailstorm. Mainly they’re plot synopses with running commentary festooned in ALL CAPS, promiscuous italics and serial exclamation points (because they’re funny in bulk!!!!!). It really is like she’s yelling at us.

She LOVES!!!! 1993’s “The Fugitive” and rates movies — from “Face/Off” (a misunderstood masterpiece she direly underestimates) to “Harry Potter” — on how they stack up to the Harrison Ford thriller.

“‘The Fugitive’ is the only good movie. We didn’t need any more movies after ‘The Fugitive,’” she gushes. “We don’t need any movies before it either. We should erase those.”

That would be funny if it wasn’t so wrong. I’ve always thought “The Fugitive” was one of the most overrated movies of the ‘90s. But she’s obviously exaggerating for comic flash and bratty button pushing (right?). I’ll give her this: The title of this book, “Shit, Actually,” is also the title of her scorched-earth review of the barfy, saccharine rom-com “Love, Actually.” Good show.

Yet ultimately West is so insincere and strenuously flip that you can’t tell what she really likes or loathes for all the jokiness. She’s a little Andrew Dice Clay-esque — it’s hard to tell where schtick ends and truth begins.

You’d know these characters anywhere: the nervously quivering bodies, gaping grimaces, dark rings around the eyes, skinny arms and big heads. Roz Chast draws consummate depictions of raw, buzzing angst — humanly and hilariously — with squiggly lines that look like she has a bad case of the shakes. Why’s she so rattled?

Well, life to begin with. That’ll do it. But in her 2014 memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” Chast, the longtime New Yorker cartoonist, tackles the dreaded situation of “an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die.” Oof. Grim.

And funny. Because it’s true. Chast, for all her squirms and squiggles, draws and writes with unvarnished precision about the tragicomedy of becoming your parents’ caregivers, when the roles reverse. You could say she goes straight into the heart of darkness, and finds bittersweet laughs.

Notebooks to MacBook — it’s not the same

Used to be a small notebook and a fist-sized camera were my best friends on my travels, each jammed in a coat pocket ready to record spontaneous events. I’d take florid notes in my notebook — usually a trusty Moleskin and always in blue ink, always — and snap shots with my Panasonic Lumix, a sleek digital wonder, like a geeky shutterbug rapt with the world.

Things change. Today I carry along a MacBook Air for writing and an iPhone 12 mini for photos, and of course it’s not the same. Instead of turning my weathered notebooks into lavishly illustrated, ink-splashed scrapbooks, slathered with ticket stubs, business cards, adverts and newspaper clippings, I now find a dark place in uncrowded bars and lobbies or my hotel room to type and record the day’s impressions in the glow of the computer. It lacks all the tactile fun and creativity of the notebooks, which exude an intoxicated brio, but it’s rather utilitarian, and right to the point. I no longer need Glue Stick. 

The iPhone, I hate to admit, takes equal if not better pictures than the Lumix, so I miss little there. Plus it’s far smaller cargo to tote around. Like an Altoids tin.

But it’s the notebooks, those eye-popping documents of doodling, journaling and scrap-bookery that give me pause. I miss crazily jotting in them all that I saw, heard, tasted with a right-now urgency. They pulsed. Popped.

So why don’t I still do it? Sad to say I don’t have the energy for them anymore. I’m a more sedate traveler now. The last time I brought along a Moleskin was to Paris six years ago, and I wrote almost nothing in it and collected limply a few ticket stubs and scraps to glue in it. I’ve gotten a little jaded. And, erm, older. I don’t feel the need to rip out newspaper clippings or save little street flyers and stick them to the creamy blank pages.

But I still record and retain, with passion. The laptop keeps things throbbing. On my last trip, to Italy, I produced five live reports from the airport, the hotel bar, my room and elsewhere, with photos. I blogged them, something I couldn’t do with the chicken scratch of my paper journals and all their scrappy idiosyncrasy and improvisatory punch. They were page-bound, and hitting “send” or “publish” wasn’t an option.

Still, I can’t abandon the idea of a physical journal for one’s travels. If done right, with raging curiosity and a magpie’s eye for minutiae, the books make marvelous keepsakes and souvenirs, stuffed with facts and ephemera, a living gallery of the journey. They’re also a great repository for the names and emails of people you meet along the way.

Scribbling in bars and cafes frequently draws the attention of fellow travelers, who approach and ask what you’re up to. There you are, channeling the absinthe-tippling artists and philosophers of fin de siècle Europe say, or today’s hoary Brooklyn hipsters. It’s an art form, and it’s the best thing you’ll bring back from your trip. Swear.

Istanbul, 2018. It’s come to this.

 

I’m really supposed to hate today

It’s on days like this that I think I need a lobotomy. The sun is shining, a sweet breeze swirls the smells of freshly mown grass and bright new blossoms, children squeal and play, and all I feel is vague dread. What’s wrong with me?

Now here comes the ice cream truck, that pied piper of push-ups and popsicles, and the kids squeal even more. Bees buzz, birds sing, dogs yawp. It’s Sunday in the springtime. What next, the 90-degree sweat fest of summer?

I’m playing devil’s advocate, as today is actually pleasant, what everyone refers to with unabashed triteness as “such a nice day.” Highs barely nick 65 degrees and wisps of clouds filter the sunshine for a matte finish. You can even wear a light sweatshirt and not have a stroke. 

(Oddly, many people are wearing shorts, that most unflattering of attire, when it’s not even close to called for. But humans do love their shorts. And, equally unbecoming, their flip-flops. “Summer fashion” — the great oxymoron.)

No, really, I like this day, and I’m not a spring or summer person. I start to get nervous when the 70s encroach, and when it’s 80 or more I’m gone, chilling with the AC set on igloo.

I’m sitting on the patio writing this, the dog basking in the sun on the toasty deck, a leaf blower roaring in the distance with fossil-fuel fury, a babel of voices in the air. “I think your sister has a crush,” a girl no more than seven informs her friend as they pass by and I wish I could hear more of that gossipy gab. “Jason. Come. Here. Now.” says an aggravated mom. A man calls his dog. Its name is Swoosh.

I feel like an interloper, because, really, I’m not supposed to like this weather, this kind of squeaky, sunshiny suburban idyll. But on this day it’s alright. Now I’ve really lost it: I think I’m going to take a brisk walk.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

A trip that’s up in the air

This is the book I just ordered:

Big and bold it announces “Buenos Aires,” and you can gather from it that Argentina’s capital is in my sights for my next destination. The nerve, the gall, you might huff, considering I got back from Italy a mere four days ago. But see, I’m a greedy globe-trekker, scheming my next move on the plane back from my latest journey like a cheating lover. 

Buenos Aires wasn’t on my bucket list. Though I almost went years ago, I’ve never been to South America. As I was decompressing after my flight home from Rome, I was chatting with a woman, a friend of a friend, whose entire life is an unbroken blur of world travel. She asked where I was off to next and I had no answer. I really didn’t know. I just knew it would happen in the fall, my prime travel season.

I told her I never travel in the summer because of the heat and the crowds, and she, a veteran of Argentina, suggested Buenos Aires. Below the equator, our summer is their winter, of course. I could go in July and luxuriate in 59-degree temps in a jacket and jeans. And it’s the off-season, so crowds are thinner and prices cheaper. I was on my computer researching the city within minutes. 

I was taken. Infused with Spanish, Italian and French colonial influences that lend it a lusty European sheen, yet still boldly Latin, the city of 13 million people is famed for a dizzying eclecticism that runs from its architecture to cuisine, including ubiquitous beef steaks and flowing Malbec. Street art animates facades, baroque cemeteries lure the living, and, if you’re into it, clubs smolder with tango. (I’ll watch the dance, but not partake, lest I cause an international incident.)

It’s all enticing until you shop for flights, which run a stroke-inducing $1,200 to $1,300 in July. Argentina also requires you to buy travel insurance to cover any hypothetical Covid treatments. That’s in addition to a negative Covid test, proof of vaccination and some other minor paperwork. 

That’s the downside. The upside is stylish and affordable boutique hotels (I already have one picked out), 15-minute taxi rides costing $2.50 USD, dinner with a full bottle of wine for $10, free museums, jumping cafe and bar cultures and, by most accounts, loopy, lively people. I’ll tell you more when my book arrives. 

Buenos Aires is Spanish for “fair winds” or “good air,” and isn’t that nice. It’s not certain that I’m going there; I’m thick in homework and investigation. I’m vetting this city that seems magnificent on paper, and might be even more so in the flesh. I’ll see where those fair winds carry me.

P.S. If you don’t think I’m already pondering my fall voyage, you are grossly ill-informed. Scotland? Iceland? Poland? Peru?

Italy finito, beautifully

As I write this, 35,000 feet in the sky on a jet back to the States from nine fine days in Italy, I’m swollen with that cruddy reverse homesickness in which you miss the place you visited instead of your actual home. Rome and Naples were wonderful and I wasn’t ready to leave and I wanna go back. I’ve got the home-bound blues.

Still, my last rueful day in Rome was brilliant, quite literally — balmy mid-60s, cloudless, cerulean skies, sunglass weather. The kind of conditions that make people dress way too skimpily for the actual temperature. I was perfect in jeans, a light jacket and t-shirt. The guy in the short-shorts and tank top, not so much. 

Especially if he wanted to get into the Pantheon, the almost 2,000-year-old Roman temple turned Catholic church, where modest dress is a must. Leaders, popes and artists, including Raphael, are buried in the cylindrical building, which is famous for its oculus (or big hole) at the tip of its dome, shooting down a thick beam of sunlight like a celestial Bat-Signal.

Our lovely tour guide in Naples told us he gets chills whenever he enters the shrine. I did not get chills, but I was aptly awed by the ambient beauty and unimaginable feats of engineering. So often in Italy, if you regard your surroundings for just a moment, astonishment floods in and you wonder what hit you. It’s called the sublime.

I didn’t care if I found it or not, but fate planted an unmistakable sign in front of me — a literal street sign — so I ambled over to the vacantly majestic Trevi Fountain, where mugging selfie dolts and preening sun-worshippers congregate on days like this, as if Nicola Salvi’s pompous 1735 fountain is a swimming pool or the beach and not just a glorious repository for Bernini-style sculpture. I do respect this extravagant splash machine, but it’s a brief pitstop, not a gawk spot, despite its iconic role in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a personal favorite. 

A local beer, a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich, and a cappuccino later, I headed to the Vatican for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, a riot of artistic riches. Our tour guide barely made it on time, and my mood was starting to curdle. But she materialized at last, a petite Italian who used a plush Woodstock doll dangling from a stick in lieu of the boring old tourist-group flag for us to follow amid the crushing, claustrophobic crowds (many of them terrible teenagers, lolling, laughing and leering). 

She gave each of us little radios with ear buds so we could hear her literate narration of highlights in the museum. But the contraptions were on the fritz, all buzz, fizz and crackle — sonic flatulence that drowned out her spiels about each grand piece of art, from writhing statues of men and lions and Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” to the visual commotion of Michelangelo’s peerless Sistine Chapel ceiling. The works spoke for themselves.

As we finished, I asked the guide for the nearest taxi line, and she warned me to be careful with them, that they quote outlandish prices and don’t use the meter. And so it was. I approached a driver and told him my address and he promptly said it would cost 40 euros because of, you know, that zany Tuesday traffic. I scoffed and said, “You’re crazy,” and he responded, “You’re crazy.” Genius.

I hailed a passing cab, got in, and paid 14 euros back to my hotel, where I wound down, went out and ate pasta, sipped wine, and, reflecting on the past nine days, sighed: perfetto. Which in English translates simply as: damn

The trivia of travel travails

My taxi driver was having none of it. On a bright, brisk Sunday in Rome, he wove through traffic and bowled down skinny cobblestone alleyways clotted with gelato-lapping pedestrians. Amusement was at a premium. “Everyone walking! Tourists! Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!” he fumed. (Earlier in the day, I had some gelato. Suddenly, I felt like a putz.)

His car horn bleated. Gaggles of walkers reluctantly parted like the Red Sea. My driver grumbled to himself. Someone said “Sorry” as she jumped aside. “Sorry!” the cabbie repeated mockingly.

What a sourpuss, I thought, yet I understood his frustration. And soon enough, I became the grouser. As he took detour after crazy detour, I could recognize none of the scenery, and finally I blurted, “Do you know where you’re going?” 

The meter skyrocketed and my exasperation flared. I quietly seethed and loudly sighed. The driver apologized. It’s Sunday, he explained. Swaths of road are closed, traffic is atrocious, people are eating ice cream mindlessly in the street. A normally 10 euro ride quickly ballooned to more than double that. “Ridiculous,” I sniffed. “Sorry,” he said, this time without mockery.

So goes travel, with its minor irritations, unpredictable hassles, junk that seems like a big deal in the moment but is so often just life doing its thorny thing. The drama becomes but a fleeting speck in mere minutes. The intoxicating mists of travel return.

Seriously, I had just finished marveling at three massive and magnificent Caravaggio canvases in a 15th century church, strolled the Spanish Steps and Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, gawked at the Roman Forum, and, yes, licked dreamy gelato in the Italian capital under sparkling spring skies. Espresso was sipped.

Where does complaint possibly fit into this scenario?

It doesn’t. And the day’s splendor continued undimmed, including a celestial dinner of grilled tuna, carbonara, Italian meats. Because it’s hard to douse the naked joys of the journey, to discount the novelty of uninhibited voyaging.

Make a plan but don’t be too rigid. Then hit the streets and let life unfurl in its own mad fashion. You’ll find frustration, no doubt. But also, I promise, the divine. 

Colosseum, April 4

Naples, knockout

Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact). 

Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.

Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians. 

Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life. 

But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.   

Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished. 

But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more. 

He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.  

Me, I already see it that way. I’m sold.