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Random notes from a summer vacation

So I am standing today with my son outside the cathedral in Pisa, Italy staring at the famous tower and watching it do what it does best in the world.  And my son, who understands hard-science, practical stuff better than I ever will, takes in the spectacle and says, more or less, “Woah, that is truly a mess.  Amazing.”

And he smiles, glad to have seen such an oddity.

Me?  I’m supposed to be the pessimist.  I’m the guy who is reputedly drawn to a constant parsing of human failure.   The Leaning Tower should be pretty much in my philsophical wheelhouse, right?

Instead, I’m standing there thinking of the taller belltower in Firenze, or the Great Fire Monument in London, or the Shot Tower in Baltimore, or the Space Needle in Seattle, or the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in New York.  I’m thinking to myself, “It’s a Homeric fucking triumph that every other one doesn’t just tilt on over.  It’s a victory for all of humanity that this one Italian edifice is world famous for doing what other structures just don’t seem to do.

Maybe there’s cause for hope.  I dunno.  This bears some more thought, anyway.

*          *          *

And while we sit here in Tuscany, shoveling fresh cinghiale carpaccio and mozzarella into our gullets, then washing same down with chianti classico, and finishing with bacio gelati, we are informed by text messages from all over New Orleans that the Hubig’s bakery, home of the sacred pies of that same name, is burning.  A five-alarm blaze.

As a family, we are of course overwhelmed by a guilt-sensation not unlike that of longtime lovers caught en flagrante with fresher, more exotic paramours.   My wife’s immediate hyperbole:  First Katrina, then BP.  Now this.

I assume the Louisiana National Guard has been called out to provide an armed cordon sanitare around Angelo Brocato’s and Sucre.  Damn.

As someone whose Mardi Gras costume a year ago was Savory Simon (!), the Hubig’s mascot, with my one-year-old daughter accessorized as a pillow-cased Sweet Potato pie, I sincerely hope, in all seriousness, that the bakery carries full fire and casualty insurance.  And, indeed, that the policy is with a company that provides a more honorable response than those seen after the flood seven years ago.

Hubig’s is just one of those small, but resonant touchstones.  Sad day in the Bywater, truly.  I know a lot of people in New Orleans,  along with many others elsewhere, are feeling down.

*             *             *

On a day in the Pompeii ruins, on the last summer vacation with my son before he heads to college, the eighteen-year-old scion saved the Pompeiian bordello, with its pornographic imagery carved above the stalls, for last.   It was a seasoned touch on his part, something to let me know he has grown up and that the family dynamic is ever-changing.

He also went into town one morning and bought a bottle of wine.

Like it ain’t no thing.

*           *            *

Pies at Ancien Pizzeria de Michele in Napoli.

Been eating this stuff my whole life.  Except I haven’t.

Marinara or Margherita.  Those are the choices.  And it is enough for a lifetime.

And by the way, Napoli is my Italian default.  Tuscany is beautiful and gracious, but if I have to make my way in this country for any length of time, my inevitable retreat and redoubt will be decidedly Neapolitan.  Lots of trash, rock ‘n’ roll graffitti, loud, raucous street life, old ladies leaning out second-floor windows, shirtless kids kicking soccer balls and breaking soda bottles.  Crime stories on the front page.  Complaints about ordinary corruption.  And they know what to do with seafood.  Outside of a news stand near the port, two guys in muscle shirts tried to sell me a hot iPad.

In short, Naples — bless her — is the Baltimore of the Mediterranean.



  • Glad to discover that you enjoyed your visit in Napoli (maybe… I am not sure about it o_O).
    Could be that we met, who knows…
    In any case I am quite sure that you could find material for ten seasons of a serial in Napoli.

  • Mr. Simon, my suggestion is definitely to watch Matteo Garrone’s movie “Gomorrah”, from the book of the same name by journalist Roberto Saviano about Neapolitan organised crime.
    It’s the film that I (and I know I’m not the only one) use as a comparison when I try to explain to my friends what to expect from “The Wire”, instead of “standard” police/crime series.

    • Chicagoans know what to do with seafood??

      Fish (though I don’t recall Chicago as having a bigtime fish scene) perhaps, but pettine de mari and le cozzi and il polpo and la vongola?? Nope.

      Still, I’ll dine on Chicago pizza ANYTIME, ANYDAY !!

      (PS, love the city and old friends the Haugheys and Stantons !

  • Mr. Simon,

    I’ve been a fan of yours since I read Homicide when it came out. I was a journalism major at Loyola and you were once on a panel discussion there, talking about how the media report crime. You said, and I’m paraphrasing since it was about 20 years ago, “if you’re white, your odds of being murdered in Baltimore are the same as in Omaha, Nebraska.”

    I was a Navy brat growing up and from 1996 to 1996 my dad was stationed in Naples. He and my mom lived in Pozzuoli. I was out of college by then and got to visit several times … two Christmases and two summer trips. My sister was still in college so she spent two entire summers there and got to know it well. She dated a couple Italian boys (one with a Vespa) and got street-smart on the streets of Napoli.

    When I visited, my sister and I could go into Naples in a half hour on the train. At Christmastime, people stared at us. “What are they doing here?” We went in a cafe and a waiter said, “Bonjour” assuming we were French. I loved the way the young men in Naples were affectionate with one another, and the way little old ladies walked out into traffic and all the cars stopped for them. Naples was totally messy and chaotic. The people were poor but they seemed to be enjoying life. It was definitely a memorable time for my family. My mom was terrified of driving in Naples, but she eventually mastered it and excelled at it, to my horror.

    One year, the four of us (Mom, Dad, Mike and Heidi) were returning to Naples from Florence. We’d spent a few days in that very fancy and cosmopolitan city. We were on a train that was supposed to be an express but it turned out to be a local. Typical. We were in the non-smoking car … in 1996 this meant nothing. A group of young men were playing cards at the other end of the car, smoking furiously. They were loud and boisterous. When the conductor announced, “Napoli, Napoli Centrale” one of them leapt up and shouted, “Napoli! Bella bella Napoli! NAPOLI! NAPOLI!” He was so thrilled to be home.

    My sister looked at me knowingly and said, “Naples is the best.”

  • Never got to Napoli — but when Bonnie and I visited Italy in the 1990s, the friends we stayed with gave me a clipping from its newspaper — of a chart showing the prices of a variety of sexual acts with ostensibly female prostitutes of varying race and nationality — ranging from oral sex from an African in an alleyway (about 5 bucks) to all-nighter in a hotel with an Italian (300). I could not believe a real newspaper — I assume if was, seeing how it was a big-city rag — would conduct and publish such a study. But of course I brought it back to The Sun for the graphics department’s entertainment.

  • You know of course, that a while back they installed a bunch of cables and stuff underground to keep the Tower from falling over. There was a documentary special about it on PBS. So they’ve preserved the Homeric Fucking Triumph more or less in perpetuity.

    As for Naples and Baltimore, I guess one man’s pizza is another man’s crabcake.

  • Hi David, welcome to Italy, if you are staying a bit I’d love to interview you for the italian braodcaster of the Wire. I sent a message also to the Contact page of this site.
    Anyway, have a good holyday.

  • Thanks for the smile – I love that you simultaneously find hope in the continued upward thrust of architectural gems AND fascination for the violent and vibrant home of the Camorra.

    Brings up memories of traveling in Europe with my father, a sociology professor, who took us to parts of every town that most people don’t see, where we had adventures that most American tourists don’t have – getting pulled over, separated and questioned by the military in what was then Yugoslavia was particularly memorable.

    So sorry to hear about Hubig’s – hope they rebuild because I would really like to try one of those pies.

    • Duly noted and corrected. Given that I always viewed it as George Jetson’s abode, my error is inexcusable.

  • cinghiale – c and g are soft before an i – the h hardens them. Like in Chianti.

    Marinara and Margherita are indeed all you could ever need.

    • I am corrected. If I ever get the Italian “c” and “ch” correctly, I will be dangerous.

  • You guys are pikers when it comes to being a grump! I look at the phallic edifices mentioned here and feel wonder and awe, not that they don’t fall down, but that they were built at all. It’s hubris to see achievement in the destruction of nature. Nothing that man makes can be nearly as awe inspiring as what nature makes.

  • Even better than a visit to the Shot Tower, is a quick (depending on the line) stop into Attman’s for a corned beef on rye w/ swiss and mustard. That sir, is what gives me hope.

  • I share many of your opinions on current American life, which typecasts me as a bit of a grump. Still, I can;t look at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and not feel what you’re talking about here. Not so much for what it represents, but that people were able to build the damn thing and it stays up.

  • This reminds me of the Kafka observation: “If it were possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been allowed to stand” I guess that in this context, we should be happy with a tower that leans.

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