Alive Among Italy’s Dead
Illustrated by Sophia Khan
Less than 9km from Mount Vesuvius, near the entrance to Pompeii, a vendor sells bottles resembling penises. The corked bottles are red, white, blue, and yellow and painted with kissy faces or with sad or surprised expressions. Some simply read ‘Saluti de Pompeii’ (Regards from Pompeii) while written on others is ‘Ricordo de Pompeii’ (Remember Pompeii). The souvenir phalluses stand next to bottles cut in that iconic boot shape of Italy, while next door another vendor prepares mozzarella and tomato sandwiches.
Pompeii is a vast archaeological site that defies logic in the way that it lasted so long, untouched, and even forgotten about for centuries. Now, the site draws more than two million visitors a year, so plenty of potential customers pass by these goofy-looking bottles, although I didn’t see anyone buying them when I was there. I just bought a sandwich. Initially, I thought the bottles were a garish way to welcome tourists and school groups to Pompeii, because that’s largely who walks around this ossified 1st-century cemetery. After my tour, I found the penis bottles totally appropriate; they were a welcome respite from seeing so much destruction. I was beginning to understand how Italians embrace life while in the constant shadow of death: volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides — these can happen anytime, and do. Italy quivers almost constantly, its brobdingnagian, vertical landscapes and twisted geological mysteries come with a price. And Vesuvius is a cranky old mountain prone to tantrums.
The tchotchkes, I realised, unapologetically embraced humour and humanity over the seriousness of the situation; there are concerns that if Vesuvius erupts again, it could now threaten 3 million lives, including the vendors’. Italy is a long, narrow country lined by beaches and cliffs and filled with mountains and towns and people. There aren’t many places to escape to. And you feel this when walking around Pompeii, the scramble of not knowing where to turn, the world becoming too small too fast because it’s suddenly all about the here and now of what’s unfolding. You don’t know if you have minutes or hours. You don’t know if you’ll be among the lucky survivors, a future eyewitness to world history, sharing stories about where you were when Vesuvius went crazy. Walking around Pompeii, you feel like a minority simply because you are alive. Two thousand people died that day, and since then, 2,000 years have passed, generations of families less dramatically buried nearby beneath the towns they once called home. And suddenly I am here, walking by what’s left of the Temple of Jupiter, feeling like a blip on some strange timeline.
One of Vesuvius’s last major spills occurred in March 1944, a month after my great-uncle was killed about 240km north in the pivotal Battle of Anzio during World War II. He was buried at a formal cemetery in a seaside town called Nettuno where, after visiting his grave, I ate the freshest fish I ever tasted. Like in Pompeii, I was outnumbered by the dead in Nettuno yet also felt that steady, strong push of life being lived at the same time. It was March 1996, and my friend and I had taken a train to Rome from Paris, where she was teaching at the time. We were going to spend two days in Rome and two days in Florence before heading back to Paris, because that’s all we could afford. It wasn’t a carefully planned itinerary. My relatives, who are not world, or even armchair, travellers, asked me to visit Uncle Bob’s grave while in Italy. His remains were at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, as were the remains of more than 7,800 soldiers, many who died in Anzio. An upstate New York farm boy, Bob served in the US Army for less than a year and a half and was killed in action on 27 February 1944, two months before his 20th birthday. When asked if the family wanted his body brought home, my great-grandfather, a World War I veteran, decided his son should remain in Italy with his comrades. Other members of the family disagreed with him for decades.
I don’t speak Italian, but my friend was fluent in French, and we happened to find a taxi driver at the Nettuno train station who was also conversant in the language. It was late afternoon, and when my friend mentioned where we wanted to go, the driver, an older gentleman, told us the cemetery had just closed. It was already 5pm. Being in our 20s, we hadn’t planned the day as well as we should have or considered taking an earlier train from Rome to avoid missing visiting hours. My friend explained that I had travelled from New York City. She shared the story about my uncle. The driver nodded and hit the accelerator.
The cemetery wasn’t far. When we got to the main gate, the groundskeeper was still there. The driver explained to him in Italian what had just been explained in French while I stood there smiling, all of 23 years old, doing my best to look pleading but not too pleading. I was used to New Yorkers saying no. The groundskeeper said “Si, si,” and let us in without issue, as if we didn’t need to waste any more time delivering our spiel. He led us there, helping us locate the grave among the many thousands of perfectly lined white crosses and Stars of David. I took out some rice paper and charcoal, did a few etchings of the headstone to give to Bob’s brother, my grandfather, and his sister, both of whom served in World War II. I wished my great-uncle peace in the afterlife, and, knowing I was keeping a number of people waiting, I left after only five minutes. It was the last few days of winter, the spring equinox inching closer. It would be dark soon, and our driver, who had waited for us, told us about a great restaurant by the sea. He took us back to town and dropped us off, but Italians traditionally eat late and we were very early for dinner; it was only 6pm. We were told the fishing boats were still out. Dinner was being caught. Waiting and sipping wine, I wondered if my great-uncle ever enjoyed authentic Italian cooking, as I was about to, or if he was confined to Army rations. I then realised I had already lived longer than him. I raised my glass in his honour.
Twenty years later, I would find myself walking among Italy’s dead again.
I came back to Italy married and a mother to a tween girl who has my blonde hair and green eyes and her father’s height and love for cold weather. Before all that, I dated a few guys; dropped out of graduate school; fell in love; lived on both coasts of the United States; got engaged in London; got drunk in Spain; turned 30; became broke in Cuba; had a kid; baked several pink-frosted cakes for birthday parties; ice skated in Belgium; bought a house; got promoted; quit jobs; turned 40; visited more countries; attended eight weddings, seven baby showers, and one funeral; adopted a few chickens; went back to Cuba; and learned how to dance salsa and the tango at a studio in suburban New Jersey. And then my timeline intersected with Italy once more.
My second visit in March 2016 involved better accommodations. Instead of a cheap hotel in Rome whose name I can’t remember, I now stayed at Le Sirenuse, whose name I will always remember. Le Sirenuse is a five-star renovated villa in Positano on the Amalfi Coast, where Steinbeck used to roam. It was off-peak, so I scored a discount rate. We were in the throes of almost-springtime in Italy that week, swinging between cool, rainy afternoons and outbursts of intense sunshine. Gelatarias were just starting to unlock their doors after the winter break. You could feel the coastline exhale and breathe the changing air.
Just a few days earlier, the skies had been much moodier; I went to Pompeii bundled up in a heavy sweater. The drive there, about an hour north of Positano, had been a crazy expedition that made most of my travel companions carsick. I sat in the backseat wearing acupressure bands, trying to maintain a focal point so as not to feel queasy. I’d been on subway rides that involved less jolting. I didn’t want to arrive in Pompeii only to puke where so many had abruptly lost their lives.
Our driver had grown up in Positano. He learned as a teenager how to handle a car on these hairpin turns. He knew Italy’s curves. We asked him to drive slower, none of us in the mood for insouciance that afternoon. I tried not to think about the lack of guardrails along the road. He willingly obliged, just as the cemetery groundskeeper had so many years earlier.
Looking out of the car window, I saw that Italy hadn’t changed much. It was still an ancient, gorgeous, fragile place, only now wired with Wi-Fi. I tried to think of another country that wore its age in this way, so defiantly, so proudly, like some perfumed matriarch admiring herself at her vanity. I wanted to age this way, stare down fate with eyes outlined in mascara, and say, “I’m still here.” Because backpacking around Rome with my college roommate didn’t seem so long ago. Because I’m now 43 and can see the past and future in equal measure. Because back in 1996, I should have tossed one more coin into the Trevi Fountain and made one more wish — for time to slow down.
At Pompeii, we were thrilled to get out of the car. I studied the penis bottles while our friend bought tickets. We only had two hours, which is not enough time to see anything thoroughly but long enough to know whether you want to go back. Vesuvius was capped in cloud that afternoon, completely disinterested. We paid for the audio guides but found them useless, so we walked around on our own, read placards in English, and made up stories in funny accents as we went. We felt free to go about our day, meander through the preserved city that once bustled with commerce, gossip, trysts — chipped frescoes found in Pompeii depict erotica as well as nature and daily life in 79AD. Ruins are obviously everywhere, and not too far from the main entrance there’s a modern-day pizzeria in case you need a nosh.
Pompeii is a time capsule, though on this quiet day it was difficult to imagine Vesuvius’ fury. The volcanic surge lasted 18 hours, moving at a speed of 160kmph, spewing a toxic cloud that reached a height of 33km and generating thermal energy said to exceed the Hiroshima bombing. Victims were buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash, some clutching each other as they died, mothers holding babies, lovers holding each other, the outlines of who they were now visible for 11 euros.
We did not get to the Garden of Fugitives — fossilised men, women, and children who mirror a sculpture park, not people anymore. From the pictures I have seen, the Garden is another kind of graveyard, its stillness reminds me of the cemetery in Nettuno. I really would have liked to have seen it — the name itself intrigues me — but that’s what happens with planning and schedules and another driver waiting for you and having to be somewhere at an appointed time while trying to slow down and absorb the natural disaster and all its staggering loss you now stand on. There are only so many hours in the day.
What we did get to see included what was left of temples, bathhouses, gymnasiums and courtyards, and people’s homes adorned with very detailed frescoes, some still retaining their reddish hues. At one point, we had wandered into someone’s living room, then a bedroom. Lives were lived here. We took selfies in front of the frescoes — a quintessential tourist move — because it was the only way we knew how to say, “We were here, too.”
What moved me most was this pavilion brimming with stacked piles of salvaged everyday items: vases, bowls, crockery, a statue, most sharing that dusty pewter colour that had become Pompeii’s revised palette. We could not enter the pavilion, but we could stand on the edge and peer inside. The ordinariness of these found objects felt most alive to me. The columns of an old temple or a faded drawing on a ceiling clearly belong to another era, but a bowl to hold food or a vessel to hold wine is timeless. Two millennia later, we still need the same stuff.
Time pauses in Italy, takes a cigarette break perhaps, allowing the rest of us to catch our breath. And for this, I was immensely grateful. Elsewhere, life moves at such a frenetic pace; too many of us walk heads-down, reading our smartphones, missing out on something. Italy compels you to look up, stop for a moment, gaze around you. Know that Vesuvius and the other mountains were here long before you and will be here long after you. Know that its beaches — now playgrounds for residents and tourists alike — have their own stories, that they have seen storms and ships and men swallowed whole. Know that someone at this temple under this same sun once prayed for the same things you did: love, prosperity, the health and safety of loved ones, a future filled with possibility.
After a nauseating ride back to Positano, I walked alone down to Marina Grande beach to take in all I had seen so far. Everything in Positano is either up or down; narrow, winding staircases that zigzag between people’s gardens, behind a church, past boutiques to take you either down to the beach or back up to your hotel. Italy keeps you grounded, however, not allowing existential thoughts to take you too far. The demands of daily life abound; lines of laundry hang everywhere. Across the street from Le Sirenuse, someone dried a giant bra and men’s underwear from a balcony. Like at Nettuno, a few boats dotted the sea, preparing the day’s catch. Menus at Positano’s waterfront restaurants featured spaghetti with sea urchins and local fish soup, comprised of fish, squid, octopus, shard, mussels, clams, and perhaps whatever else got tangled in the net that day. I ate at Chez Black, a very popular restaurant that has been in business since 1949 and faces the Tyrrhenian Sea. I studied the view.
Why does sitting by the water trigger reflection? Did my uncle remark on the sea while anticipating battle? Did fishermen out on the Bay of Naples forget their nets and worry they were being punished by the gods as Vesuvius raged? There on the beach, I felt too aware of how brief life can be. My husband and daughter were more than 6,000km away, back home, going about their day, maybe doing their own laundry, too busy to consider the whys. Being busy is such a deceptive, delightful distraction. I didn’t want to think about life’s whys or hows, but Italy’s landscape keeps you on your toes. Positano, literally built into the side of a cliff, nudges you to acknowledge risk. “Look at this glorious view,” it says. “You won’t see all this beauty if you stand too far back.”
One morning in Positano, it was finally warm enough to enjoy a swim in the hotel’s rectangular in-ground pool surrounded by potted lemon trees. People sipped cappuccino while I scrambled into my bikini, because I have a thing about sampling hotel pools like a dessert tray. Italy’s vertical charms were even more seductive looking up during a backstroke. Completely vulnerable on my back, arms and legs out, I thought about how Italy could shake again, sending rocks and debris crashing down into the pool, how we all blithely go about our days until something bigger than ourselves interrupts whatever we’re doing. I thought about how Italy’s zest for life isn’t like some phoenix dramatically rising, but is quieter and steadier, like its on-going harvests of lemons, grapes, tomatoes, and olives, this ubiquitous yet persistent pushing forward followed by partying over the bounty.
Italy celebrates everything, so I celebrated Italy. The raising of the glass. The gratitude to do it all over again tomorrow. There’s an unspoken recognition of the impermanence of things yet a stalwart commitment to keep going: prepare dinner, hang laundry, wash the dishes. Le Sirenuse would host another night of prosecco, music, dancing, and food, food, food. Because those who live and work on this precipice know there is no imagination without fear; there is no trauma without memory; there is no love without loss. The earth pulses with paradox, below the surface, where tectonic plates shift in their sleep, and above, where people toast the day’s accomplishments, laugh under the stars, dance until night yields to morning. It could all disappear tomorrow, all this complicated beauty and possibility. But tonight, beside the mountains, beside the sea, beside the dead, we dance.
Katrina Woznicki is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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