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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Dec. 2011
The first time I saw the 1920s delivery van driving around Naples with the company name "Gay Odin" on the side, I was, of course, taken with the name. Assuming the now anachronistic and original meaning of "gay" and assuming the other element to refer to the Norse God of wisdom, poetry, war and agriculture, I came up with "Happy Wotan" (another form of the name in Germanic mythology). "What a strange name for a company!" sez I. As it turns out, that bit of amateur word sleuthing did pretty well in a recent contest for Fallacious Etymologies. (I enter a lot of such contests and do well most of the time!)
The name of the company comes simply from the marriage of Isidoro Odin and Onorina Gay. Mr. Wotan was originally from Alba in Piedmont, way up north. He moved to Naples around 1900, opened a chocolate shop, did very well and, in 1922, with his wife opened what is now the best-known chocolate factory in Naples and one of the best known such establishments in all of Italy. The main plant is still in the original building off of via dei Mille in the Chiaia section of town. It was designed by Angelo Trevisan, one of the leading exponents of the turn-of-the-century style known in Italian as "Liberty" (and in English as Art Nouveau). The building was declared a national monument in 1993.
Walking into the entrance is like going back in time. Everything is burnished metal and dark mahogany, with period ads and illustrations on the walls. The factory uses a combination of functional older equipment and newer machinery. The theory underlying production at Gay Odin is that anything can be made of chocolate (such as gigantic hollow Easter eggs and small wooden logs) or at least covered in chocolate (such as coffee beans and chili peppers). The place ranks high on various lists of interesting things to do in Naples (once you finish with the castles, churches, and ancient Greek and Roman tunnels).
The delivery van—the mechanized icon of Gay Odin—referred to above is, alas, not original, but it is pretty nifty anyway. It is a reproduction of a van from the 1920s manufactured by the Fleur De Lys company in Newark in Britain. The company started reproducing these vehicles in 1983, calling the model the "Newark." They are hand-made and solid. They look old, but are mechanically quite up-to-date. Gay Odin got the one in the photo in 1990.
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