A month later my plane touched down at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and I negotiated Arrivals as quickly as I could, then jumped into a cab. Speeding east along the Gardiner Expressway to the Victorian flat I shared with my partner, I watched intently as the familiar display of skyscrapers, designed by architectural giants such as van der Rohe and Calatrava, shifted into the frame. Soaring above them was the CN Tower, conceived and built to showcase the ingenuity we’d inherited from English icons like Brunel. The mere sight was meant to inspire. But I had just seen life-in-death in Naples, I had witnessed peasants living in the shadow of temperamental Vesuvius. Through those eyes, Toronto’s flights of technical fancy seemed to be little more than markers of a hubristic bid for immortality. I would find no miracles here, I thought.

The next morning, jet lag roused me before the early Autumn sun came up so I made some toast and a cup of sweet, bitter tea and headed for the computer. Within minutes, I’d found an Italian language course just a few minutes’ walk from where Veiled Christ lay. Within hours, I had booked a flight to Naples, leaving two weeks later. While I hoped my partner would understand I knew the point was moot for I had discovered in southern Italy a landscape I was determined to inhabit.

Back in Italy, the language school had arranged room and board in the home of Signora Amato, an English teacher whose pidgin command of the language meant she never dared to utter a word to me in my native tongue. Still, she was fascinating: a former anarcho-communist from the turbulent era of the country’s Red Brigades, my landlady moonlighted as a yoga instructor. One evening shortly after I arrived, she invited me to an Ashtanga class where I spotted a woman who looked oddly familiar, though not Italian. Later Sgra. Amato told me she was Petra Kraus, a member of one of the radical German Baader Meinhof gang’s splinter groups. According to Sgra. Amato, Kraus had been living in obscurity in Naples since her lover was arrested in Germany and died shortly afterward.

My days quickly slipped into an easy pattern: school in the morning followed by lunch with my new friends (Pierre, a gay architect from Paris; Francesca, a Brigitte Bardot look-alike from Zurich; Sandra, a German anthropology student) and evenings spent poring over grammar texts in my room. I became a regular at the small shop run by the consortium of buffalo milk producers, and discovered the favourite pizzeria of Pier Paolo Pasolini who was murdered by a 17 year-old hustler, which offered just two kinds of pizza and boasted a permanent queue around the block. I saw Kate and o’Lione infrequently as most of their concerts were out of town, while my new life was in it. I learned to outfox pickpockets by fixing my keys to the inside of my jacket with a safety pin, and slipping a few thousand lire into the sides of my shoes. It was an exhilarating game of cat and mouse, and at that point in my adventure, ‘who was who?’ was still up for grabs. For now, I was both author and heroine of a vivid and dramatic tale, furnishing its lively detail, eagerly awaiting its climax.

I’m tempted to say it was the shop girl who did me in, and to be sure the routine but notional thievery of the young woman who worked the till at the local deli where I shopped each day – worth pennies in profit but a small fortune in contempt – confirmed what she saw when she looked at me: another sucker to be suckered. Or perhaps it was the ragazzini I chased through the streets of the centro storico screeching like a madwoman about ‘respect’ after they slathered me with shaving cream to celebrate February’s carnival, while black-clad, toothless old ladies cheered me on (‘Brava, signorina! Brava!’)

But I’m quite certain my shift in outlook was more incremental than that. Once my friends were absorbed back into other lives and I stayed behind in Naples to create my own, the edges of my days began to blur. My routine felt makeshift and provisional. Solitude left me awash in loneliness, while the struggle to locate myself in the picture I’d created increasingly evoked the frustration of trying to remember a dream: ephemeral and slight. Or perhaps my fraught melancholy flowed from the aspiration in the first place to fashion a self that could inhabit the panorama that had seduced me with such force. Instead, I began to view myself and the world I’d created like a Chuck Close portrait observed from a meagre few inches: disparate splotches forming no cohesive whole, a self-erasing myopia. I visited the art gallery at Capodimonte but my eyes refused to settle on a single brushstroke in its celebrated collection of Neapolitan painters. I ventured into the national archaeological museum, but I was quickly distracted by its cobwebs and cracked windows and tattered yellowing signs.

Finally, I stopped by the Sansevero chapel to see Veiled Christ, the ghostly figure that had drawn me to Naples in the first place. A masterful sculpture to be sure, he lay perfectly rigid and still. ‘Of course,’ I thought, a mournful smile playing at the edges of my mouth, ‘an artist’s vision, a man-made stand-in for eternal life.’ And in that moment I felt the Naples of my imagination slip away, and with it a version of myself that had never really existed beyond my own mind’s eye.

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