Johanna Wand on Naples “The people here aren’t so easily insulted”
Neapolitans take things with a pinch of salt, says Johanna Wand. In our interview, the Goethe associate explains why it’s crucial that the blood of the city’s patron saint liquefies once a year and why she shares a commute with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Is it true that pedestrians in Naples have to watch out that scooter drivers don’t slap them on the back of the head?
Wand: There are spots where there are no pavements for pedestrians in Naples, so pedestrians, scooters and cars often cannot avoid one another. So there are some gangs of kids, which is what I’d call them, who get a laugh from slapping passers-by on the backs of their heads, but it’s luckily not all that common.
What surprised you the most in Naples?
The sea. The city is so densely built that you don’t really perceive the sea anywhere. But when you look down at the city from an elevated spot like Castel Sant’Elmo, it’s a genuine revelation to see the Gulf of Naples. It’s like having a view of paradise.
History hands on: Underground, Naples stretches for kilometres | Photo: Johanna Wand Can you tell me one of Naples’s lesser known claims to fame?
Everything is there to grasp. For example, you hardly notice the ancient amphitheatre in the cityscape. You only discover its remains in the rear courtyards of some palaces. They were simply integrated into the structure of the buildings. I like the way that the past is linked to the present here and how things from the past are given new functions.
Speaking of buildings. Where is the Goethe-Institut in Naples housed?
Two and a half years ago, the Goethe-Institut Naples moved into a very special building, the Palazzo Sessa. In the late 18th century, this was the home of the English ambassador William Hamilton and his wife Emma. When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stopped in Naples on his tour of Italy, the illustrious couple invited the poet to visit them many times. When I take our large stairway to the institute in the morning, I always imagine how Goethe once climbed these stairs.
What presumption about Neapolitans do we need to revise?
Neapolitans are not nearly as chaotic as their reputation makes them out to be.
Came to Naples for an internship and never left: Goethe associate Johanna Wand | Photo: Private What are the people in Naples concerned most about right now?
The economic situation, which is a pan-Italian problem, is the main topic. Naples is the largest urban conurbation in southern Italy and has major infrastructural problems. There is practically no industry here and a growing lack of trade. The unemployment rate is 25 percent and unemployment among young people is even almost twice as high. On the other hand, one third of Neapolitans make very good livings from real estate or other investments. The breakdown of the middle class is leading to a major social unbalance that is quite tangible in society.
What cultural highlight should visitors to Naples be sure not to miss?
If it can be managed, they should see the international Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, which is held every June. Also, the international Comic Salon, with which the Goethe-Institut has collaborated for nine years and is held every year in late April. In 1995, Naples’s old city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the city’s surroundings, the Gulf of Naples, the ancient sites, are also very worth a visit.
UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1995: the Baroque palazzi in the old town of Naples | Photo: Johanna Wand A question of decorum: What should one never do in Naples?
One should never approach the city with preconceived notions, for example about the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. In the words of Pope Francis, “If someone curses my mother, he can expect a punch.” But fortunately Neapolitans aren’t so easily insulted. They take things with a pinch of salt. It’s not without good reason that they’re famous for their carefree attitude, their spontaneity and their talent for coming to terms with things.
Talisman to give away: cornos are said to keep bad luck at bay | Photo: Johanna Wand What distinguishes the southern Italian from the German culture?
Superstitions and saints play big roles here. Saints are very important. San Gennaro is the supreme saint and patron of Naples. His saint’s day is celebrated every year on 19 September with a big mass during which the blood of the saint liquefies. If it doesn’t, it’s seen as a bad omen for the city. Many expect the worst, a volcanic eruption or earthquake. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced those here in the past eight years.
The questions were asked by Christina Steenken.