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Monday, September 6, 2010

Neapolitan pt 1 or "Why I hate everyone"

It was like a mini-train platform. The grimy apartment buildings rose up on either side of us, elevated so that the floor for them composed steep walls for us. It kept us locked in this little rail area. So that should we want to escape the platform for some reason, for the company of other humans perhaps, or to buy a Fanta, it was absurdly difficult for us to do so. So here we were stuck on this mini-train platform, waiting impatiently for a train that, by all reason should have been by a long time ago. The six of us were crowded together on it and nobody was in a good mood, least of all me. It wasn’t my fault we were lost. Okay, so maybe I had the map, maybe I was the only one who spoke or read Italian at a passing level, and maybe I had planned this trip, but it sure as hell wasn’t my fault. It was Italy’s fault! Why would they name a city Sarno so close to Sorrento that are on completely different rail lines? It’s Italy’s fault we were lost and stuck on this stupid mini-train platform.

It was our first weekend excursion out of Rome and it had already started off so badly. It had been my idea, not to get out, we’d been there a month and we all needed to get out of Rome for a couple days. No, it was my idea for this trip. I had mapped it all out, picked the sites, bought the train tickets, booked the hostel rooms. This was my trip, my chance to show everyone how completely necessary I was to their having fun. All they had to do was show up on time, but could they manage that? Well, it wouldn’t be as interesting a story if they could. There were six of us going, all guys, the girls had their own trip this weekend. So it was the six of us: Derrick, Jordan, Alex, Andy, Matt, and me. Half of us were on time. The other half apparently forgot to pack ahead of time. Shouting and gesturing to my watch, I suggested that they could just stay home if they so chose. By the time we made it to the bus which would take us from our apartment, a stone’s throw away from the Vatican, to the train station, in the center of Rome, I was literally counting every second that we spent in transit. I cursed silently at every other commuter who dared to flag down our bus, and cursed quite loudly at every car and vespa that cut us off in traffic. Staring at the hands spin around my watch face, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been faster to simply jog the whole way. The bus let us off at what seemed to be the furthest point possible from the train station and, pushing the elderly out of my way, I burst through the doors and went sprinting through the parking lot, the other five guys struggling to keep up with me, with my inhuman speed powered by frustration and an obsessive sense of punctuality. Not waiting for the automatic doors to slide open for me, I literally kicked them wide, eliciting plenty of stares and even a gasp or two, but I was deaf to everything around me except for my train. Somewhere deep inside I knew that after all this, after the delayed start, the late bus with its many, many stops, and that stupid automatic door, there was no way our train would still be there waiting at its platform. And yet there it was, the uniformed conductor smiling pleasantly and beckoning us forward. Safe and comfortable inside our train compartment, everyone relaxed after the stress of our morning, it was a long train ride to Naples. I pulled out my travel clock and set the alarm so I could catch some sleep myself. Then I laughed. For the first time that day I smiled and laughed and laughed and laughed. “Hey guys,” I said, “My watch is twenty minutes fast.”

What we saw of Naples, that is to say, the train station, was far from inspiring. We had our lunch there in the train station at a McDonald’s. And so, without a single picture taken of the famed city, I ushered us all onto a different platform where we waited to board yet another train. I don’t recall now what I had been expecting to see when we reached Pompeii. No, that’s not true. In all that I’d read of Pompeii, including fantastic descriptions of the city by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, I had heard it described as a city “frozen in time”. Reading about it, I’d always pictured in my mind an exact replica of an ancient Roman town, a bit dusty, perhaps, a bit covered in ash, but otherwise exactly as it had been two millennia ago. After all, hadn’t the eruption caught everyone so unawares that people were perfectly frozen in ash, doing whatever they’d been doing at the time? Well that’s not exactly what the city of Pompeii looks like today. In fact, I rather think that it’s a problem of representation. The romanticized notion, which I’d succumbed to, of a city frozen in time, is nice but misleading. More accurate would be to say that Pompeii is a city completely destroyed by a fucking volcano. Pictured: hopefully not what Roman towns looked like.
Okay, I’m being unfair. And in fact, once I’d got over the initial shock that Pompeii wasn’t a literal time machine to the first century AD, I could really savor the beauty and mystique of what the city is and what it means for historians. So for those of you unfamiliar with the true story, Pompeii was a vibrant and bustling city in the Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire. It was where many wealthy Romans kept their vacation homes. In the year 79 AD, however, the volcano Vesuvius erupted suddenly, instantly killing the inhabitants of the city and covering a vast swath of territory around the mountain in a thick layer of ash and soil. The city was not instantly forgotten but was in fact lost to memory over the long passing of the centuries and only rediscovered by accident in 1599. Today much of the city, along with its less famous but equally important sisters (Herculaneum, Oplonti, et al) has been uncovered. The near instantaneous destruction of the city continues to provide archaeologists and historians with a look at what Roman life looked like at the city’s height. It also makes for a delightful afternoon of sightseeing.
We were immediately greeted upon leaving our train by souvenir vendors hawking little plaster penises with wings, decorative vases of all different sizes featuring penises with wings, coins, mini-frescoes, and parchments all decorated with little flying penises. This I was not prepared for. I opted instead for a full-color information booklet and map of the city and a bottle of water. I bought the six of us our entrance tickets and, leading the way under a marble arch and into the city, adopted my best tour guide voice: “Gentlemen,” I said, “Welcome to the lost city of Pompeii.” To which my five partners generously greeted me with oohs and aahs.
Once inside the city I stuck the over-priced map I’d bought into my pocket where I promptly forgot about it and we spent the next several hours wandering aimlessly through the magnificent city of ruins. We explored the ruins at our own relaxed pace managing to mix in the typical sightseeing of temples, villas, and fora with the more eccentric travel games of six college students running on a lack of sleep. And so as we ambled down the 2000 year old roads we made fun of the tourists in their sun hats and fanny packs. We made a habit of naming every one of the many stray dogs we found along the way and experimented with how many ruins we could climb on before being yelled at by security (answer: 2). Somewhere along the way we managed to stumble upon a magnificent assortment of ruins, beautiful in their own special, decaying way. I was stunned by the bodies on display, mummified in ash and frozen mid-scream, writhing forever silently, motionless in pain. The frescoes on many of the walls were remarkably well preserved, the colors as bright as anything I’d seen during my time in Rome. The faces in the paintings were strikingly beautiful and life-like.
I have no doubt we didn’t give the ruins all the time they deserved that day and I know there were many great sites we didn’t see, but in our defense it was obscenely hot that day and the six of us were sharing two bottles of water. Plus we had a lot more adventuring to do that day. We were going to climb Mt Vesuvius.
Back on the train we made the short hop from Pompeii to Ercolano (Herculaneum) at the foot of the volcano. This was actually as far as my preparations had gotten me. I know that this was the town where you started your trip up to the rim of the volcano but I didn’t actually have the slightest idea how one goes about climbing a volcano. I mean, it’s not like the train let us off at the literal foot of the volcano. No, we were in the middle of the town, a rather small, dirty looking town, the volcano towered above us but it was a good several miles away. Eventually we found ourselves in the town’s tourism center, a tiny little hole of an office in a back alley somewhere where I asked the man behind the counter how we get to the volcano. He looked at me like one would look at a small child asking where the bathroom is. My Italian being as simple as it was, I’m sure he actually thought I was asking where the volcano was, a rather easy question to answer. Finally exhausted from dealing with me, he gestured to a man standing outside the building smoking a cigarette and yelled “Sergio!” Sergio looked up and waved at us so we walked out to talk to him instead. Through my mangled Italian and Sergio’s mangled English I got across the point that we wanted to climb to the top of the volcano. “Ah!” He said finally understanding. He smiled. I smiled. The other five guys smiled. “You can’t,” he said. I was no longer smiling. “Pardon?” I asked. After more torturing of our languages he informed me that the volcano closed in about an hour and a half (“The volcano closes?” Matt asked) and that it would take at least two days to walk from here to the top of the volcano by which point the volcano would be closed. Twice. Instead, and boy was this a convenience, we could pay him to drive us up the mountain where we’d only have to hike the last mile up to the rim of the volcano. “I geet yoo,” he said smiling broadly, “beefoor eet closses.” I looked back at the guys and shrugged. We had to get to the top of that volcano today. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s do it.”

Stay tuned for part two of our adventures in southern Italy where we almost die climbing Mt Vesuvius only to be horribly murdered in Portici. And, as always, check out my shutterfly page for all my travel photos in full resolution.

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