Sunday, April 27, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: the 4th Tale (Cities of the Dead)

The ampitheater at Pompeii

Pompeii ruins with Vesuvius in the background

Ruins at Paestum

Marty and Rebecca entering by the Temple of Athena

A few days after my arrival on Ischia, Marty and Rebecca decided to travel during a holiday weekend to Pompeii and on to the Amalfi Coast, asking if I’d join them. Two Chapman University students, Daniel Fingerhut and Nidzára Pecenkovic, joined us. Daniel was a sensitive Jewish boy who kept kosher (nearly impossible on the Mediterranean diet), Nidzára a beautiful Muslim girl with similar dietary restrictions (nearly impossible on the Mediterranean diet). The other students in Marty’s group had decided to spend the weekend in Rome.

We took the 9.00 a.m. ferry to Naples to pick up a car before setting out on our travels. To get to the car pick up spot, we had to break up into two cabs, I with the two students had a driver who, when he overheard me say something about Norway, asked if I spoke Norsk. Suddenly we were talking Norwegian! He was Swedish. I remembered more of the language than I had for years, in part, I suspect, because speaking Norwegian was almost a refuge in the strange city of Naples, a city at once beautiful but absolutely ugly, poorer than nearly any European city in which I’d traveled—and a more dangerous one.

Our Swedish driver had obviously learned to drive like a Neapolitan, which means operating the vehicle almost as one might a Sherman tank, moving fearlessly in and out of traffic on both sides of the street, even onto the sidewalks if necessary. Since nearly all the others cars drove in a similar pattern, the driving event was more like a bumper-car derby than anything else.
In any event, we eventually found the place, picked up our car, and inched ourselves into the same traffic. Marty, it turned out, had learned to fend for himself, darting into the oncoming lanes with the greatest of ease, even driving, at one point—when we had missed the turn-off for Pompeii—over a concrete medium, as others had done before us, to reach the coast highway. The authorities, in their inexplicable wisdom, had put the sign on the wrong side of the road.
We soon arrived in Pompeii and spent several hours walking through the vast ruins.
I hadn’t imagined the enormity of the space. Pompeii was, after all, a city of about 20,000 people at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 A.D. Although the city had already severely suffered from an earthquake in 62., some of Pompeii had been rebuilt before the volcano.
As I entered the gate to the city, I overheard a young boy ask his mother how did the city get destroyed by the volcano since clearly Vesuvius was too far away from the lava to pour out over it? She had no answer.

Hours later, after we had toured much of the space—one could spend days wandering down every street of the entire space—we stopped at a nearby pizzeria before continuing on our trip. I repeated the young boy’s question, and suddenly we heard a voice of a middle-aged woman from the next table (there is always someone in my adventures waiting at the next table): “The child was right. The people of the city did not die from the lava but from the smoke and ash which fell over it a few days later. Actually, most of the population had evacuated the city by that time, and only 2,000 people actually died of the gasses and ash, those left behind, mostly servants and the children of the wealthy for whom they cared, along with pets.” The woman was an American Latinist, visiting from upstate New York. For about a half an hour she gave us an informative short lecture about Pompeii, Herculeum (where the escapees were buried in caves into which they had retreated) and Paestum. She seemed apologetic for her erudite talk, but we were all transfixed by the information she supplied—a performance far more entertaining than a standard Baedeker entry or conversation with a local tour guide.

A couple of days later, we visited Paestum, after a leisurely drive from Amalfi. I had long known of Marty’s and Rebecca’s tendency to wander, having previously travelled with them to Northern California, and, although I desperately tried to resist my instincts for organized and planned behavior, by this time I had begun to show some impatience with their sense of timelessness.

Although I had hoped to get an early start on our trip to Paestum, where we had decided to go before returning to Naples, I knew that Marty and Rebecca would never be able to rise at an early hour. So I slept it until 8:00. I was surprised when they telephoned me. They were having breakfast already! But it still took another two and one-half hours to get through check out and to gather the students. It was 11:30 before we returned to the road—Rebecca (with the smallest bladder on the earth) had to pee, so a stop in Amalfi would be necessary.

Actually, we had all wanted to visit Amalfi during our stay on the coast, but when we finally reached the town, no matter where we looked, there was no parking. At the beach, Marty attempted to drive down into a lot that looked filled to me, and then, because of traffic, he was unable to exit, and was forced to back up—while several shopkeepers along the way gave various and contradictory instructions—what seemed like miles in a lane that was hardly wide enough to edge forward, let alone to speed away in reverse. Miraculously, he achieved our backward ascent, with a car driving toward us all the way up! But now, it was clear, Amalfi—which truly did look like a beautiful city—was out of the question.

We stopped instead in Maiori, where Becky and Daniel decided to get sandals made, while Marty got hungry and ordered a plate of mushrooms, cheeses, and olives. We weren’t on the road again until 2:00. Then, just before Paestum Marty had to stop for the famed local product of Compania, Mozzarella di Bufala (Buffalo milk Mozzarella). It was delicious, I admit, and well worth the further delay.

But we didn’t reach Paestum, the 7th century B.C. Greek City lying in that countryside, until 5:00. And we had still to visit every tourist shop in Paestum, eat gellati, consume a few more drinks, and tour the ruins before we could even begin our return to Naples, which would acquire several further stops along the way. I pondered if it would be possible to reach the last ferry in time. Oh well, I said to myself, if we miss the ferry, to quote both the Bourbons of Naples and James Bond, I’ll “see Naples and die.”

We had agreed to spend only an hour in Paestum, although I knew from the start that it would take longer for Marty, Rebecca, and the students to accomplish the task. I immediately bought my ticket and entered, and even as I moved toward the larger temples in the far distance, I knew I would have toured the entire place before they even entered it. They could not resist the many tourist shops gathered at the gate.

This fabulous Greek city on a flat dusty plain beside the ocean is an awe-inspiring sight. This is agricultural Italy, and corn and other crops grow up right to the fences that separate the ancient site from the farms hereabout.

There were three major temples: the Temples of Hera, Apollo and Athena, all in quite good condition, along with the amphitheater.

I walked very slowly to the far end of the site, discovering a beautiful tree-covered ristorante with a bar at the far end, where I sat down and ordered a campari and soda. After finishing it I returned to the park, having seen almost all of the major sites. I tried to dawdle, even loaf as best I could, wandering back toward the first gate, where the lovely white Temple of Athena stood. But all of this took only about thirty minutes. There—as I had predicted—came Marty and Rebecca, having finally entered the place.

I’m not complaining in reporting this; their sense of time was just different from mine, and as much as I tried to accommodate for the strolling-wandering life, I remained more clock oriented. I was impatient. But they so enjoyed their journeys, and the two of them were so similar in their patterns, that it was really was quite lovely to observe their peregrinations.

I left the park and sat at a café with another campari. Fortunately, the drink is light and not terribly alcoholic (and relatively inexpensive—each about 4 euro). I waited forty-five minutes longer for Marty, Rebecca, and the students to return. Then, as I had predicted, they had to have gellati, buy some water, and wander about the tourist shops a bit more! We left Paestum finally, at my urging, at 6:30 p.m.

Almost immediately we were in a long line of cars stalled bumper to bumper to Salerno and the entrance of the autostrasse. We thought perhaps that it was the pay lines at the entrance that had so held back traffic, but after about an hour and a half, we saw that it was the autostrasse itself that was backed up! We entered the highway and sat in bumper to bumper autos for 5 ½ hours all the way to Naples (what might normally have been an hour trip)! Of course, we had to stop for the bathroom along the way, and everyone was hungry again (except for me), and it was now clear that we probably would miss the midnight boat. There was nothing any of us could do but tell stories, sing, and laugh. Indeed, we had such a raucous time that Daniel suggested we meet again the next day in a car and “just hang out!” Our imitations of various family members might have made for a hit comic-skit.

Finally, we arrived in Naples, where all could observe that Marty was utterly exhausted as he seemed almost to change personalities, doggedly determined to get to the garage where we were to leave our car. The closer we had gotten to Naples, the more crazily he had begun to drive, and by the time we entered the city again he was a Neapolitan, speeding down streets on the left side of the road through red lights, traffic and anything else that crossed our path as we made our way back to the garage. I suggested he should be awarded a medal for all the driving he had done.

At the garage, they called for a taxi, which soon arrived. If Marty had developed some Neopolitan techniques of driving, we suddenly realized that the taxi driver was the “real thing.” Yet he was also used to tourists and respected their fears. He calmly drove a block as Marty explained that we were attempting to make the last ferry from Bevellaro. He turned back to the rest of us and beseechingly requested: “Permisso?”

The kids were confused, but I knew exactly what he meant. Marty and I shook our heads in reply: “Yes, permisso.” Suddenly we were tearing through the streets jutting in and out of traffic, ignoring every red light, missing other cars my inches, jumping over medians, and generally creating havoc in space. Each time he broke through the traffic, Michali (taxi drivers each tell you their name, as if it were a personal relationship with them that you had established by entering their cab) shouting “Permisso!” Laughing joyfully, like a terribly bad boy, he sped on. I believe we had clipped at least two cars along the way. We now realized that, although Marty had passed all the tests for Neapolitan driving, he was not yet a full-fledged citizen! The ride was breathtaking, as if he had gone into some amusement park—“the taxi ride!” Disneyland should add it to their fantasyland park.

We arrived at Bellevaro just in time to get tickets to the last boat to Ischia—not to Florio, but to Porto Ischia. It didn’t matter; we’d make it home that night.
The boat was a comfortable one, much nicer that the one I’d taken that first day, and roomier than the hydrofoil we’d taken across three days earlier. We also stopped, as I had on that first day, in Procida, that beautiful little town. I tried to snap some photos with the night vision setting, but the shutter took so long, that any hand movement blurred the image.

When we finally arrived at Porto Ischia, the Nakells were determined to stop for pizza, but the students and I desperately needed a shower and bed. I was one of the first ones off, quickly capturing a taxi. The others were the last to leave the boat—indeed all passengers had departed about 15 minutes before these stragglers finally dragged themselves forward, nearly frozen in space once again!
As the three of us sped away to Florio, Marty and Rebecca, looking like exhausted refugees returning to their homeland, trudged down the street for their 2:00 snack! I think perhaps Marty just needed to decompress a while before entering another car!

Forio, Ischia, July 3, 2007

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