Under the Volcano

Naples and Pompeii, Italy
November 2005

Dark-haired girls dressed to the nines pull down the gratings of the smart fashion shops at 1930 (7:30pm), hurry up the street for the subway or home. It’s not that Italian women are more beautiful, it’s that they think they are and they dress the part. Sophisticated, yet earthy, like Sophia Loren intermixed with Monica Vitti. On the subway and bus, they look bored, except the teenage girls with boyfriends — teenage girls are Juliets with their Romeos. Young Italian women are always wary, always in a hurry. Mama’s boys, Italian men, still living at home. They whistle at girls in the street like it was the chauvinist pig fifties. Romantic lechers.

Girls definitely are more mature here. Currently the most popular movie in Italy is about a teenage girl’s sex life, the kind of movie that American parents would condemn. It’s life. No objections. Church versus sexuality. They wear it on the street. Vespas, like wasps, Santo Diego Maradona’s face on the front: Bless you Napoli, never the same since he left. Santo Diego stares down from billboards selling watches. Hand of God.

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Palazzo Real and Castel San Elmo, Naples

Next morning on the Circumvesuvius, in the station, a woman with shopping bags yells at a stray dog who stole her bread; he gobbles it down while she threatens him. On the train, a mother smacks her little daughters for misbehaving. The girls hop on the seat beside me and giggle. Some Americans under the cloud. Rainy, windy, too wet to go to Vesuvius.

Half an hour later, I enter Pompeii through the main gate, along the paths, past Apollo’s Temple, the Basilica, like a church, the Forum, like Rome. What amazes me is that it still stands, so many ruins, so much in place from before. A mosaic of two dogs fighting in front of the house of the tortured poet: cave canum (“Beware of dog”). Poets lived better then. Rain and cold and tourists.

Walk the streets of Napoli, and it’s Pompeii 2005.Today Pompeii is sacked by Asian tourists, throngs of Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese in huge groups — always huge groups. Asians are just happy to be here. They’ve come a long way. They take millions of pictures, get it all on tape, watch it later. Some of them wear surgical masks, protection from the pandemic. It’s disconcerting. They swarm and go, new packs follow. The tour guide speaks to the site guide and translates.

Americans always are complaining. A burly guy in an Alabama Crimson Tide sweatshirt and shorts. It’s freezing and windy. Damn it, he’s saying, it’s my vacation. I’m going to wear shorts! His wife is bundled as tight as she can be. The look on her face says you can never tell him anything. Italian school kids on field trips besiege the house of the faun. Scene of a battle partially obscured. Can’t wait for them to pass to take pictures, but my camera’s malfunctioning.

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Out front of the house, a mosaic says “Have,” Latin for “welcome.” I’m most impressed by the gardens, and the scale of things. Two theaters like someplace Yanni might play on a public TV pledge drive. An amphitheatre overgrown but intact. And always Vesuvius.

Painted walls in the villa. Too dark to photograph. No flash, but the man outside says it’s okay because there’s no light today. The unfortunate part is so much is roped off from the hordes — from tour groups, kids. I came this far to see. It’s troubling that so much of the world’s cultural treasures are roped off. I understand the need to protect them. Maybe if you paid UNESCO a couple hundred euros a year, they would give you a special pass, and you could call ahead and somebody would let you in to see things up close. Only for the serious traveler. What can we learn from behind ropes and locked gates? What can we tell others?

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I stay late until the guards escort me out. It gets dark too early in late November, but I’ve seen most of it. Three hours, you say, Rick Steves? You’d hardly see it in that time.

Walk the streets of Napoli, and it’s Pompeii 2005. Vesuvius is beckoning. It could happen at any minute. Live now. Santo Diego will watch over you.


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