Venus sits brightly in the night sky. In a few hours, it will be visible over the skies of home. As the faintest outline of Mt. Vesuvius begins to appear in the first hint of sunrise, I wonder if Venus was watching from above almost 2000 years ago when dawn came for the last time for the inhabitants of Pompeii. Lights glitter like stars up the side of the mountain and the immense breadth of time and distance looms over the tiny piece of eternity we hold for a few moments on this planet.
As I’ve watched more of the driving in Naples, I now see it as an improvised dance that has its own beauty and efficiency. The movements of the individuals often seem chaotic but there is an order and flow to it that actually works pretty well in how it all comes together. No one seems to get too worked-up over the injustice of rudeness or disobedience of laws (one might wonder what the laws are).
Everyone just goes with it. If there is an opening, you take it. If someone moves too slowly, you pass them. If you come to an intersection with no signs or lights (which seems like most of them), you work your way into it and somehow find a path through. If you are backing up onto two lanes of busy traffic, you just edge your way in and make your own space. If someone finally gets out of your way, you cheer them on with “Bravo!” (This self-talk is to help me in preparation for driving our rental car out of Rome later today).
A Trip Back in Time
Our last full day in the Naples area centered on a visit to the area around Mt. Vesuvius, beginning with Pompeii. Giuseppe returned to cart us around and greeted us warmly as we exited the building into the explosion of life that is Napoli. Driving to Pompeii, I peppered Giuseppe with questions about the Italian language. He was patient with the questions and enthusiastic about his language and culture. I am far from commanding even workable Italian but the words and patterns are beginning to emerge.
Pompeii is a 165 acre museum of incredibly well-preserved ruins. In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted (Pompeii is literally at the foot of it on its eastern side). The shocked population watch as it spewed massive amounts of ash and mountainside into the air. A day later, all of that ash and poisonous gas came down upon the city, burying it (under about 20 feet off debris) and creating a couple of miles of new shoreline – Pompeii originally sat on the edge of the sea. The ash preserved the city underneath and Pompeii disappeared until rediscovered in the late 17th Century. The population of the city was around 20,000 when Mt. Vesuvius buried it.
I was fascinated by the story and the city – the central forum area, the commerce, the various altars for both Roman gods and the emperor, the basilica (a place for oration and argument). However, it was the tour of the home of a wealthy business owner that struck me as most profound. The house was large with many living spaces and numerous remaining elements of its opulence. The walls were painted with frescoes depicting the various industries its owner was involved in: agriculture, weapons making, perfumes, even laundry services to the elite of the community who felt that a urin-based cleaning process was below their status.
The merchant was clearly industrious. However, everything about the house was built to impress. For the second time since arriving, our tour guide pointed out that there were no Rolex’s or Ferrari’s to use to demonstrate wealth or status. Most of the house was one big advertisement for the wealth and power of this merchant – all accumulated on the backs of slaves. A reminder that the quest for more, the cries of “look at me,” and the vanities of status have been a real thing from the beginning.
Our Pompeii experience was made exceptional because of our tour guide, Emanuela. Within about 2 hours, she took us through the high points, walked us across history, and explained the importance of this ongoing excavation. Her insights made a dead city come alive. At one point, she took us to an area that held plaster casts of people who were entombed in their final positions – including a man on his knees, covering his nose and mouth in an effort to not inhale the toxic fumes. Powerful.
Lunch was spent at the Cantina del Vesuvio, a winery near the base of Mt. Vesuvius. The no-sulfites approach to winemaking is hard to argue against and we appreciated varieties from grapes completely foreign to us. This was the first time we really noticed other Americans but everyone pretty much kept to themselves. Talk with folks from New York and Chicago was cordial but my sense was that no one came to Naples to chum around with strangers from home.
Giuseppe treated us to an afternoon cafe and we bid him farewell. Alla prossima! Until next time Giuseppe.
Walking around our corner of Napoli, I realized that everything had become familiar. What was disoriented chaos a few nights ago was now clear as I recognized streets, piazzas, fountains, and restaurants. We strolled through our neighborhood with new eyes, now able to take it in patiently and at our own pace. Looking up Via Romana, I knew where it led and what I would find. At least to a point.
We took the time to attend Mass at Our Lady, Undoer of Knots and, though we could not understand the words completely, we could participate in the celebration fully. Considering the many people and experiences over our days in Naples, I’m reminded that there are many threads connecting us and most of the barriers we create between each other are born of ignorance and lack of effort. Departing from Naples, I feel less of a tourist than when I arrived. Giuseppe told me I was on my way to becoming a real Napolitano…well, perhaps an adopted one.
Today, we head back to Rome to get our rental car and journey into Tuscany. Thank you Napoli. I now know you a little better but more importantly, I begin to understand you.