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FLICK my FLINT and SNIFF my TREE on the streets of Naples

Seeking the heart and groin of smart retail

By Alistair Dabbs, 20 Jun 2015

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Youtube Video

"See Naples and die" the saying goes. After visiting the city recently, I can believe it. Hang around there long enough and you’ll be dead.

The likely causes of your imminent death in Naples are many: you might be run over by a motor scooter, stumble into a pothole in the broken pavements, get hit by falling brickwork from the crumbling buildings or come a cropper with the remnants of the abandoned cranes and machinery strewn across the city due to halting public works.

The only lick of new paint is provided by graffiti “artists”, whose tags adorn every inch of space on every wall, from shops and businesses to historical monuments and cathedrals. You have to wade through more dogshit per square metre than in Paris. Public buses are more crowded and less punctual than those in Mumbai.

See Naples and die? See Naples and throw up, more like. Oh, you don’t want to look in there.

Yet the most enduring memory of my brief excursion to see the city’s most famous sites – all of which were shut because it was a weekend – is of disposable plastic cigarette lighters.

I do not smoke. Despite this, we were accosted time and time again by persistent street sellers who wished us to buy from their myriad wares… of disposable plastic cigarette lighters. Nowhere was safe. On every main road and side road, in every doorway and hallway, even in the toilets and on train platforms, there would be sad little men wandering around selling these sad little items from sad little cardboard trays.

They don’t even try to cover up the illicit nature of the transaction. In London, each dodgy seller would grow a Captain Haddock beard, wear his aunty’s cardigan and shoes, and describe himself as a “pop-up shop”, thereby achieving instant hipster credibility.

Of course, as well all know, “pop-up shop” is just a posh way of saying “no receipts; no guarantee; by the time you find out the product’s a pile of shit I’ll be long gone pal ha ha ha toodaloo motherfuckerrrrrrr”.

The Mr Chow Song – Motherfucker (the Hangover)

Anyway, one of these street sellers even followed us into a bar, installed himself next to our table and was very persistent. Indeed, it appeared that his disposable plastic cigarette lighter business had been doing so well that he had expanded his stock offering to include Little Tree car fresheners, too.

Later, I noticed that many other street sellers were pushing both cigarette lighters and Little Tree car fresheners. Behind closed doors, the homes of Naples must breeze with a combined carcinogenic atmosphere of tobacco smoke and the lung-melting fumes of artificial pine.

Mamma mia – whatever shall I do without a chemical stench in my life?

Is the demand for cigarette lighters and Little Trees so great in Naples that it’s not enough that they’re on sale in newsagents, tobacconists, supermarkets and petrol stations already, but that they have to sell them from every kerb as well?

Do Neapolitan smokers take the “disposable” bit of disposable cigarette lighters too literally and throw them away after the first flick of the flint, and are therefore constantly on the prowl for another? Are they forever stumbling out of work and into the daylight saying to themselves “Damn, I’ve run out of matches again... and oh while I’m thinking about it, I really need a small cut-out tree to engulf my car in a chemical reek to make my passengers gag and my kids puke”?

You find one in every car. You’ll see.

Find One In Every Car – You'll See

Half-life, who spent part of the holiday reading Robert Saviano’s Gomorrah, believes it might be evidence of indentured servitude. Let’s say you have upset a gangland boss, or have acquired gambling debts, or be an illegal immigrant or something like that, and now you have to pay it all back by selling a roomful of disposable plastic cigarette lighters in order to achieve your freedom. Except, 20 years later, just when you think you are about to sell the very last box of lighters and clear your obligation to The Family, they open another door at the back of the room to reveal a second room, this time full of Little Tree car fresheners.

Another colourful possibility is that selling cigarette lighters and car fresheners is a kind of street code in the drugs or sex trades. “Hey, signore, my old mate, pal, mucker, you want to (ahem) light something up? Or how about you peel the sheath (heh heh) off my Little Tree? Go on, I’ll let you have a free sniff.”

What’s been bugging me, though, is why do they sell this particular combination of products? Why do they think vast numbers of people would want to buy, quite specifically, a disposable plastic cigarette lighter AND a Little Tree car freshener – at the same time? From a street seller? In Naples? In June?

And what is the mysterious connection that if I didn’t want a cigarette lighter, I’m likely to be satisfied by buying a car freshener instead? “What, you don’t have a cigarette lighter in green? Mamma mia, what am I going to do? Oh, thank God, you have Little Tree car fresheners! I’ll take seven!”

Or vice-versa? “What do you mean you’ve run out of Little Trees? I need something to make the car smell nice, and I need it now! Tell you what, I’ll buy a cigarette lighter so I can light one of the joss sticks in the glove compartment.” Just thinking about the possibilities is doing my head in.

So it was with some relief that I returned home to normality.

Normality is an inbox choked with emails inviting me to buy weight-loss pills, help a Nigerian billionaire move his riches to my bank account and get in touch with 35-year-old Nikita who lives in a small town in Russia. Normality is an online retailer who thanks me for my recent purchase of ink cartridges and asks me if I’d like to buy a bicycle.

Normality is a software distributor offering a $30 cut-price bundle of its wares, including a backup package, an anti-virus utility, a photo enhancer, a calendar maker, a shopping list manager, a home laundry database, a roof-tile explorer, a guttering route planner, a copy of Cathedral Architect 3D, an RPG adventure about the trees of Aberdeenshire, an automatic banana peeler and a year’s subscription for checking the atmospheric pressure on Kaffeklubben Island.

That’s how I prefer my retailers: everything logical and in order. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He would like to assure readers that the software bundle, even at $30, was not worth the money. Worst of all, the scratch-and-sniff card accompanying the tree RPG is faulty, and the automatic banana peeler needs to be lit from underneath in order to work. If only he could acquire, at short notice, a source of pine odour and a means of producing a small flame ...

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