In the Pacific Northwest of the United States where we used to live, people often refer to Mount Tahoma (or Mount Rainier, if you simply must) as “the Mountain.” It’s not like it’s the only mountain in the area; hell it is only a mountain in a technically-correct kind of way. Granted that’s the best kind of correct, but still. Point is, Mount Tahoma is a volcano. A biggun. People don’t really think about it, even though we had “lahir evacuation route” signs posted along some roads in the area. And yet, while it is an *active* volcano, it is spoken of as a thing of beauty. Even a life-giver – the glaciers up there help provide water to the greater Seattle area. It is the lodestone of life out there.
Mount Vesuvius doesn’t feel like that. To this visitor, at least, it feels like somebody has an authentic 18th century guillotine in their living room as a conversation starter. Yeah it’s neat, and you can’t help but look at it, and the odds of it just up and cutting somebody’s head off are incredibly low but still… it’s got a body count, ya know? And to stretch a metaphor, visiting Pompeii is kind of like watching “Les Miserables;” it’s really neat, and even beautiful if that’s the direction your tastes run, and let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about how the story actually turned out.
Looking at the above paragraphs, it has occurred to us that it may read a little gloomy, and that may have something to do with one of your authors having just crossed his 50th birthday off of his life’s calendar (no points for guessing which of us). Also, we are writing this on the evening of the same day we actually went into Pompeii, which means the emotion of the visit is stronger than the likely-lasting memories of ancient, revealed wonder. For example, during the tour we were on the guide led us into a room where a plaster cast of a victim of Vesuvius was displayed. He explained in great detail how the cast was made, and how it showed how this woman had her shawl over her face to try and block the boiling-hot ash from going down her throat… and without consulting each other we both just wandered off for a minute. If it catches you in the wrong mood you may find yourself thinking “I hope my incredibly horrible death isn’t a tourist attraction in two thousand years’ time.”
This seems like a dreary take on one of the wonders of the world, and it wasn’t (mostly) like that. We got up from the AirBnB we’re staying in at a respectable hour and went downstairs to throw a dart and thus choose which pastry place we’d eat breakfast at. We may have been awed by the love the Portuguese have for their pastelarias, but the Italians are no slouches. In Pompei*, at least, pastry joints are just bars that were looking for something to do in the morning, but they clearly still believe that if you’re going to do something, do it well. We had yummy sfogliatella (and if you don’t think I had to look that up just now you’re nuts) and preferred beverages, then walked to meet up with the tour that Lisa had arranged as part of John’s birthday surprise. As a mild point of curiosity, because there is a piazza porta marina inferiore some people, even some professional direction-givers, might refer to the other possible entrance as the piazza porta marina superiore, but in fact there is no such place and if you go looking for it (hypothetically) you’d get very irritated very quickly. It’s just the normal-sized piazza porta marina. ANYWAY.
Our tour guide was a very pleasant man with an education in archaeology who worked part time doing.. something… at Herculaneum and full time teaching middle schoolers. I’d like to think us tourists are actually a relief for him, but who knows. In any case he did a really nice job of providing a twoish-hour overview of a place that would probably take a week to consume in depth. We saw the baths close to the entrance, of course, and the big public square that was a market pre-Romans and a religious zone post-Romans, because Romans. He led us to the best of the residences that are currently open; between COVID uncertainty and… labor supply, maybe?… Pompeii is short of docents so they can’t keep every place accessible to visitors. It isn’t all that hard to impress us; the place is inherently awe-inspiring. Unlike most of these ruin sites that are equally mind-blowing to the newcomer, I think Pompeii bakes your noodle extra hard if you’ve been to a lot of other sites. Pretty much anywhere else you go, whether it’s Turkey or Greece or Northern England or Iraq or… well, anywhere, what you mostly get are the foundations of buildings with the occasional lucky building still partially intact. Consciously you know better, but it can start to sink in that that’s what Roman life was like – horizons in 360 degrees with plenty of fresh air. Going into such a robust remnant is this blast of a reminder that they could generate urban claustrophobia as well as anybody. Of course it’s not like New York, but the roads are also much narrower, so that when you have intact walls on both sides of you, for hundreds of meters in either direction, you actually have that same sense of being closed in. You can imagine Pompeiians of 90BC (or whatever) thinking thoughts like “I’ve got to get out to the countryside one of these days, I haven’t seen open sky in a year.”
When our tour was over we found a spot that clearly had been communally decided upon as an acceptable place to cop a squat and eat your lunch; we were beaten there by a few dozen schoolkids doing likewise. We nibbled the sandwiches we came prepared with, then ambled down one of the longest avenues in the joint until we jogged right at the amphitheater and headed for the exit. One small detour: there’s a temporary exhibition right now on erotica as found in the houses of Pompeii. Basically, examples that show that Pompeii may be famous for its illustrative brothels but there was plenty going on behind the other closed doors in town. That said, it was far more academic than prurient; you have to remember that a depiction of a maenad offering mead to a satyr was considered bawdy. The kama sutra it ain’t. Still, it was another instance of the ancient world being made more human. There were some people who were really into sex, and they prepared rooms for the purpose. Just like today.
2 pairs of dogs were barking at this point, so we made for a nice cafe that had been pointed out to us for some truly excellent pizza, and now we are ensconced for writing and relaxing. Tomorrow is actually still up in the air a bit, but you’ll read all about it next time. 🙂
* “Pompei” with one “i” is the modern-day city, “Pompeii” with two “i”s is the ancient city. And now you’ve learned something.