See Naples and die… in a taxi

Posted on June 26, 2015

I’m sure there are normal drivers in Naples. There must be. The entire city can’t possibly be made up of people who act like they honestly believe they’re in a high-speed car chase as soon as they slide into the driver’s seat, although after several (albeit brief) visits to the city, I have yet to see any evidence that this might be true. In fact, I’m convinced that the phrase “see Naples and die” first came to mind in the backseat of a taxi*.

Last weekend, Alessandro and I took a short trip to Procida (which merits its own post, free of transportation drama), a tiny island tucked between the mainland just off of Naples and the slightly larger island of Ischia. The entire journey from Rome to Procida is quick, about two and a half hours in total if the train and ferry times are coordinated properly, but that depends on a number of variables: the punctuality of the train (dubious), availability of taxis (frustratingly sporadic), and traffic between the train station and the port (constantly an angry, honking snarl).

Our train pulled into the station a modest fifteen minutes late, and with a full hour left before the ferry was scheduled to leave, I was feeling relaxed. So when we got into a taxi outside the station, I didn’t see any reason to tell the driver that we were in a rush; I was calm, Alessandro was calm (although Alessandro is always calm, unnervingly so, even when there genuinely is a rush), everything was calm… Except for the driver.

I had barely swung my door shut before gravitational forces were shoving me back against the seat and the taxi was shooting onto the street, nearly flattening pedestrians and barely missing several cars before gluing itself to the back bumper of a bus while the driver beat out a decidedly war-like rhythm on the horn.

I was still trying to fasten my seatbelt (Italians rarely use the rear seatbelts, and I got the distinct impression that the ones in this car had actually rusted from total disuse) when the taxi shot past the bus on the curb side, then (horn still beating out savage rhythms) swung through traffic onto the tram tracks, nearly sideswiping a tram in the process, then over again into oncoming traffic, where we were pointed directly towards an entire helmet-less family on a motorino.

When the taxi slammed to a stop in front of the terminal (which we approached by roaring up a one-way street in the wrong direction because “it’s quicker like this”), I was still fumbling with the un-fastened seatbelt.

Fast-forward to the end of the weekend.

I had, in a moment of extreme lack of foresight, booked us on a train back to Rome that left exactly 45 minutes after the ferry was supposed to dock (it was also the last high-speed train of the day). Considering the extreme efficiency we’d experienced previously in Naples’ taxis, this seemed like a perfectly adequate window of time, provided everything worked out as planned.

Of course, in Naples, you cannot count on everything working out as planned.

The ferry arrived late. We were down to half an hour. We got to the taxi stand, and it was empty. Or, at least the part where the cars pull up was empty – because there was certainly a line of ferry passengers waiting there, all in various states of frustration, angst and incredulity as they stared at the empty stretch of asphalt in front of them.

At some point, someone muttered something about a strike; a strike that apparently prevented the taxis from coming into the port area to pick up passengers. We decided to walk up to the street and hail a taxi from there – at this point, a woman with a Neopolitan accent had joined us, offering to split the taxi fare with Alessandro and I since we were all heading to the train station anyhow and clearly taxis were a scarce resource at that moment.

Except they weren’t just a scarce resource – they were impossible to find. After calling various companies (no response) and waving frantically at passing taxis (all of them full), I had resigned myself to a forfeited train ticket and a night spent in a hotel.

It was exactly at this moment that a car – a tiny, grey car with two heavily bearded guys wearing baseball caps grinning at us from the front seats – pulled up in front of us. Reggae music (with, oddly, Italian lyrics) was blasting inside it. The driver looked at us, three people with suitcases in tow and anxious faces, and said: “Going to the station? Get in. We’ll take you for ten Euros. The taxis are charging eighteen right now… If you can find one.”

I began to say no. I could see the other woman shaking her head. No, we would wait, thank you. And then I heard Alessandro saying yes, and seconds later we were pulling into traffic, the three of us crushed into the back seat and my suitcase balanced across my thighs where it stabbed me painfully every time the car hit a pothole, swerved, or careened into a turn, which was often. There were fifteen minutes left until the train pulled out of the station. Traffic was a mess.

We made it, surprisingly. We squealed up to the curb in front of the station in record time, handed over the ten Euros (hands shaking slightly), and then our bearded makeshift taxi drivers nonchalantly wished us a nice trip home before disappearing back into traffic.

Five minutes later, I collapsed into my seat on the train, giggling hysterically.

* In reality, the phrase “see Naples and die” very much predates the existence of taxis and refers to the former splendour of the city: Once you’d visited Naples, no other city could ever possibly compare. 

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