I had glanced in the guidebook about Pompeii, and mostly what I remembered was that it was supposed to be fairly large and that Herculeum was a more satisfying experience. Everyone in my travel entourage wanted to go to Pompeii because who the hell has heard of Herculeum and I didn’t want to try to persuade them to try Herculeum instead, so we went to Pompeii.
Getting there from Naples was a trip through Hades. If you have never been to Italy, think of the New York in the ’80s and you’ll have an approximation. You know: noisy, crowded, bad signage, graffiti everywhere, nothing running on time, gruff people (who are occasionally very friendly). The train was stuffed with people and I had to stand for almost the entire 45-minute ride, cheek-to-jowl with tourists and locals.
There was no clear signage to the entrance, so we walked about 200 meters to the exit, only to be told to go away by the unfriendly carbonieri. T. and I met up with some Spanish tourists who thought we could get in the exit if we showed our tickets but basically said we had to go back to the beginning and find the entrance. They told us this in Spanish; I kept wondering why I couldn’t understand their Italian at all.
Mind you, we had a map but in typical Italian style there was nothing indicating where the entrance was on it. (Also on the map were numbers corresponding to different features of Pompeii, but it turned out these didn’t correlate to anything in reality. This, and other similar experiences, led E. and I to start using the phrase “Everything’s normal” instead of “This is so crazy” since SNAFUs are the norm in navigating Italy).
We got in and the place was huge. I thought, well of course, it’s an entire city. I mean, and ENTIRE CITY: ampitheatres, temples, all the houses of 20,000 residents which was its population at its peak. We wandered around for ten minutes and still had no idea where we were on the map. I found a friendly guard and asked him, he pointed to a spot on the map, and finally we had our bearings.
For a long time, we just saw house after house. They were really more like townhomes, as they all shared walls. This went on for a long time and I began to worry that this was all I would see. We were trying to navigate to Garden of the Fugitives where the casts of the escaping people are, but it was slow going. That was kind of weird: wanting to see people frozen in their last moments, something fairly gruesome.
Finally we came upon frescoes and mosaics, and Pompeii started to come to life for me. I could start to imagine how people looked and lived. They were people, just like me, just living their lives.
At some point I was looking in a room which had a fresco with Egyptian motifs. How fascinating: that just as now, people chose to decorate with themes of vanishing or vanished civilizations. A British guy was standing next to me and said, “Look at that! It’s archeology of archeology! I don’t even know what to think about it!”, to which I agreed. He then said, “I’m looking at these rooms and thinking, maybe someday thousands of years from now someone could be looking at my room. It gives me the chills!” to which I also agreed, although I seriously doubt humans will exist in 2,000 years.
I very much enjoyed that exchange because it was fairly amazing that someone unlike me in many ways was having a very similar experience. That is, we felt the humanity in this place and how it echoed our own. I felt a great tenderness towards these long ago people, and then it extended to the other visitors around me, and then to everyone, whatever my concept of that is.
I have these moments of universal compassion from time to time, but they are rare and don’t last very long. I am very appreciative when I can experience them.
Visiting Pompeii was very exhausting, so I could not rally myself to go to Mount Vesuvius the next day as planned. I’m sure it would’ve been amazing, but it would have meant getting on that same train and I just couldn’t bear it. Instead E. and I ended up at the Museo Nazionale, which was filled with objects from Pompeii. I realized this is why there wasn’t much in Pompeii, but was also perplexed as objects from the Colosseum were supposed to be there as well but were not.
The museum had beautiful glassware and ceramics, more frescos and mosaics, surgical instruments, items in silver, and of course the Secret Room of erotic art. Overall, it seemed like life in Pompeii was much like my life, minus the electronics and rushing about. I thought about that British guy, someone who I would only have one conversation with in my life; how I would only see Pompeii and its artifacts this one time; that these thoughts I had about it would be lost after I die, just like the thoughts of the Pompeii people buried in ash.