Sunday, August 16
Umberto greeted me with a big smile and the tiniest coffee in the world. Is there an espresso shortage in Italy? I feel like we are having a childhood tea party, but gulp it down, ending the fantasy instantly. The drive from Positano is pretty quick and though there is a threat of rain, I am oddly excited to see this ruin.
I have always enjoyed a good ruin. Canada does not have many. I could probably count my studio or clothes closet as such. There is something charming and wonderful to me about old and broken things. Like gateways to ancient secrets and flights of fancy, they light my imagination and conjure all manner of fears and wonder.
The plan was to meet in the cafe by the parking lot at 3pm. Confidently leaving my worldly possessions in his care, Umberto ushered me through the gate and left me to explore.
I cannot stress how important it is to get a mappe and an audio guide, so one does not have to wish walls could talk. Unless you are a scholar in such things, you will miss the spirit of the whole adventure. I already had a map, so when an old Italian offered me one and I refused, he said "You stupido! You won't know anyzing! Screw you old guy, I am a master of preparation.
On August 24, a day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire fell victim to the rage of the volcano Vesuvius in 79AD. Molten rock and pumice spewed from the volcano at a devastating rate of 1.5 million tons per second. It was excavated much later revealing a city taken by surprise and frozen in it's last moments by fatal gasses and then buried in pumice and ash.
The streets of Pompeii are tricky to walk, so I opt for the gutter and peek into small and grande homes complete with stone beds, welcoming hearths and bits of furniture. Together, they evoke a simplified reflection of any given community with homes, shops, theatres, parks and monuments. It is amazing to think our basic creature comforts have not really changed.
La mappa is a tricky riddle on it's own. It doesn't seem to match the roads I am walking along. There are sign posts here and there that point like the forest in the wizard of oz. I can go this way, or that. Like my map, the signs are equally indifferent about my journey. I make my choices and often end up blocked by steel or bright orange fencing and retrace my steps often. I find the baths, The House of the Fauns, The Temple of Apollo and The House of The Tragic poet with it's ancient "beware of dog" mosaic. Many of the sculptures and other artifacts have been moved to galleries and replaced by impostors. I am okay with that.
The Forum Granary is said to have been a market, but now stores neat rows of vessels and bowls on scaffold wooden shelves. Statues, pillars, an ancient cart and the bodies that didn't make the cut for display fill the floor space. It looks like an abandoned garage sale. I consider the age of these things and how well preserved they are after 2,000 years. It amazes me since I can't keep a wine glass in tact for more than a week.
Pompeii is not without it's sexy little secrets. If you are like me, you do a bit of research before you visit a place. This documentary embellished my visit in scandal and sex: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uHuFYYO4go. I was desperate to visit the Lupenar (the den of the she wolves), the oldest brothel in the world. Apparently, the place is full of bars, brothels and sexual images including a few penis portraits carved into roadways and over doorways.
There are so many areas of Pompeii that are blocked it is annoying and though peering through chain link fence is making me cross-eyed, it adds to the menacing spirit of the place and gives it a sense of a present day disaster.
I abandon my map and decide to let the time worn streets lead me where they will. I start to imagine the tourists as residents and replace their sunny attire with togas and sandals. They move in and out of buildings, rest against walls, or stoop to pet stray dogs. I fancy myself a ghost and smile to myself as I float amongst them. I try to feel the confusion of a sudden snowfall of ash beginning and the ensuing panic as people began to flee this place. I wonder why so many stayed and the horror of being consumed by poisonous gas. I look up at Vesuvius and sense a bizarre arrogance. No matter where I wander, I sense the ominous dragon is watching only me. I feel like Jack creeping around the sleeping giant. I hallucinate a smug and sinister whisper "I did that."
I pick up my pace and finally arrive at The Garden of The Fugitives. At first, it reminds me of a George Segal display, but these are not modern artworks to be fawned over. They are the plaster encased bodies of real people frozen in fear by a violent act of nature. Some are displayed in glass boxes and others on bizarre stilts like a human butterfly collection.
Something about this unnerves me completely. It's clear the most expressive bodies have been chosen for this display to elicit a certain response, and though I appreciate historic value, there is something very intrusive and dishonouring about it all. These deaths were horrific and the idea of that last intimate moment of life being displayed for a price seems so insensitive. I try to give each a moment of compassion, think of my children and leave sombre and tearful.
The sun dries my eyes, but moments later a drizzling rain begins dotting the ancient path. I ask the time, and as fate would have it, it's time to meet Umberto, so I thank the rain for the reminder and join the exodus to the parking lot.
Hardly to my surprise, I feel disoriented and nothing looks familiar, so I walk for a bit, verify I have no idea where I am and return to the gate. I ask a guard if there is another exit. "Si, ci sono quattro." There are 4. "Posso tonare?" No lady, you can't come back in but walk along the road and you will find them. "Grazie."
I walk for hours but none of the exits look familiar. I come full circle and pass my starting place, eliminating it with confidence and walk hastily in the now pouring rain back to exit 2, 3, 4. For the third time, I find myself staring blindly at my original point of departure. I am 3 hours late and the sense of panic which has been rising is about to erupt.
I hate carrying stuff, so I have left my purse, phone, water, money and suitcase in the car. I try not to think of Umberto being long gone and as the gates close and darkness begins it's descent, I remember the first words I heard in Pompeii. "Stupido."
I am not sure why, but I seem to have demons that like to take me to the edge of darkness and angels who whisper rescue direction in the nick of time like invisible super heroes.
Standing soaking and pitiful as a child lost in a mall, I take in my surroundings and have an epiphany. Umberto did not leave me at an exit. He left me at an ENTRANCE!
I pivot slowly and hopefully look in the opposite direction. Like a mirage it's appearance makes me giddy and wild eyed. I KNOW THIS PLACE! The ticket booth I walked through, the little cafe, the rack of wooden penises! It's all here and so am I! I run drunkenly toward the parking lot. I see the tree we parked beside. I remember how it blocked my door and we pulled forward and I stepped out into a puddle instead! I have never felt endeared by a puddle, but when I saw it I cried like a joyful idiot. It wasn't so much the puddle, it was the car sitting in it, which partly to my chagrin, but more to my joy, proudly displayed my purse, passport and phone on the driver seat.
Two old italians watching from the cafe waved me over babbling and chuckling in drunken italian. The only word I understood as they lifted a glass of cold limoncello to me was "Umberto."
And like a vision, there stood my salvation.
In his Italian english he scolded me and comforted me. In like manner I explained my plight and he put his arm around me sympathetically and sighed "mama mia Nancy. Attenzione!"
As we walked toward the car I asked if he would have left me.
"Si Nancy. Si.
On the way to Naples he told me he had the police announce my name. Nancy Zimmerman, Nancy Zimmerman, Nancy Zimmerman. You no come. Nancy Zimmerman, Nancy Zimmerman.
As I was not on the grounds, rather circling them like a deranged hyena, the calls were as lost as I had been. He went on to tell me how the streets around Pompeii are no place to wander as the Naples Mafia has a stronghold there are gang gun fights and all manner of shady dealings go on outside the gates. He tells me of a tourist bus that once got caught in the crossfire. He relentlessly continues to poison my newfound sense of security from Pompeii to Naples.
When Umberto leaves me at the train he hugs me, kisses both my cheeks and tells me.
"No, Nancy. I never leave you."