Our group was walking through a back street of Naples on the way to an historic cemetery when the tour guide assured us that our destination was only about a kilometer away. We Americans are often illiterate about the metric system, but I knew that one kilometer was less than a mile but more than what I, who had been hobbled by a back sprain, was able to walk at that moment. So, as the group turned a corner, I huddled with the guide. She assured me that the group would be coming back along the same path and if I just sat in the small public square across the street I could rejoin when they returned in about 45 minutes. That sounded good, though I was disappointed to be on the injured list.
There was nothing fancy about the square, just a few benches and chairs and a table. The block contained mostly shops where the clerks stood at the front entrances hoping for customers. In the distance I could see the tour group waking away like troops on a mission. I, on the other hand, sat on a bench hoping to absorb Italian life. Then something strange happened. I doubt if I had been seated two minutes when a man walked past me. His steps were very pronounced, as though he was marching, as his arms swayed. Most notable, though, was that he was whistling, quite nicely, not just any tune, but the “Triumphal March” from “Aida.”
Now, by my unofficial account, there are three cities in the world where that march, one of opera’s most stirring, is most significant. They are, in ascending order, Cairo, where Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece about an Ethiopian princess premiered in 1871; next is Milan, where the opera, with Verdi present, made its official debut in 1872; but first is New Orleans, where since the 1880s the march, because of Carnival, has frequently been played between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras, as kings and queens have made their promenade on ballroom floors. My guess is that the march, through the centuries, has probably been played more in New Orleans than in any other city.
Not that there is anything unusual about an Italian whistling an opera, but the moment seemed too theatric to be true as though a character, listed as “The New Orleanian,” took the stage and sat on a bench. Someone behind the curtain signaled to cue the whistler who then walked by while performing a professional rendition of the march. If there was an audience, it would have applauded. I just sat, perhaps too mesmerized by the moment, to respond.
Little did I know but that in the final scene something else strange was going to happen… .
That estimated 45 minutes stretched past an hour. I, however, had not moved from my bench. I was fascinated by watching the locals, many of whom were shopkeepers, assemble as the day wore on, joining in animated discussions. As the lone American I was no doubt conspicuous. Then one of the shopkeepers, a friendly-looking man wearing a tweed cap, broke from his conversation and approached me. He spoke in a broken English that was far superior to my broken Italian. Pointing down the street he said, “your group is coming back, it is about two blocks away.” I thanked him and looked in the distance where I could see bobbing heads moving in my direction. I did wonder though, and still do, how he knew both that I was waiting for a group and where it was located at the moment. Maybe he had been standing outside his shop and overheard the initial conversation with the tour guide, or maybe it was just the mystique of old Naples. Either way, I realize now that as I sat there alone in a strange city, he was watching out for me.
When I rejoined the tour group, I learned that it still had about another half-mile to its march which I endured, if not triumphally, at least steadily. Those who had gone to the cemetery had stories to tell. Amazingly, though I just sat on a bench, so too did I.