Monday, September 7, 2015
Pompeii was on the itinerary for our second day in Italy. In the months leading up to the April trip, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most. I first discovered Pompeii as a child in the pages of old National Geographic magazines, and so had waited a lifetime to experience the reality of the place.
I can conjure the memory: I'm 10, or 8 or 12. It's a North Idaho winter and I'm home sick with pneumonia or mumps or the flu. While snow drifts down outside, or blizzards as it so often did, and ice frames the inside of the windows, I'm tucked in on the couch in the living room surrounded by old magazines and Readers Digest Condensed Books, all donated by customers from our milk route. Mom and Dad are out working the dairy, my brothers are at school, and I'm left alone with that bounty of print, and my imagination.
I would study the detailed and lifelike illustrations of Pompeii endlessly. I read enough of the text to understand the basics of what happened to the residents on August 24, 79 AD, but it was the pictures that captured me. Vesuvius loomed large in my mind, an evil force with the power to wipe out an entire town in a day. Herculaneum was mentioned, but it was the streets of Pompeii I walked during those long winter hours.
Two years of high school Latin cemented my fascination with that ancient city. In the years that followed I read everything I found about Pompeii and was determined I would walk those streets for real one day.
The morning of our Pompeii day dawned cold and blustery with the sun and clouds wrestling for possession of the sky. Still slightly jet-lagged from our arrival in Rome and then Sorento the day before, and buzzing with the excitement of a ten year old's dream finally coming true, I saw Vesuvius for the first time from the train carrying us to meet our guide for the day.
That was the first clash of imagination and reality. Not even close to evil looking, Vesuvius sat serenely in the distance, a soft green mound, and the only landform to break the flat horizon. While it grew larger as the train approached Herculaneum, our first stop, the gentle slopes became more appealing rather than less. I found myself wishing we had another day so I could hike the mountain's trails.
I hadn't cared that we were seeing Herculaneum, but looked forward to it as a part of the whole adventure. The first view as we entered the gates and proceeded across the bridge brought tears to my eyes. The reality of the ancient ruins exposed in the center of the towering apartment buildings of an active town overwhelmed everything my imagination had created.
As Pina, our amazing guide with two PhD's in Pompeii history, led us through the streets and the homes telling stories the whole time, I struggled to absorb both the information and the sensations. I was walking the same streets, standing in the same courtyards, viewing the same mosaics and frescoes as the people who perished centuries ago. I was in Italy, in Herculaneum, with a group of incredible women, falling in love with this little town. And Pompeii was next.
Where Herculaneum was small and intimate-feeling, with only a handful of other people present, Pompeii was a production. The lines to get in were long. The city was huge, the streets crowded enough our progress in was often slowed. It was much harder to imagine life during the time of the eruption, to find the city of my childhood dreams in the crowds and endless walls and streets of stone.
And so I released the dream and fully claimed the reality. A reality that included both ruts in the stone roads left by chariot and cart traffic and a tacky modern cafeteria/bathroom built smack in the middle of town. A reality that included plaster casts of bodies and litter on the streets. A reality that included seeing the actual Cave Canem mosaic with my own eyes and souvenir stands tucked in random corners.
I discovered that day following Pina through the streets of Pompeii that I no longer needed the dreams of childhood to sustain me. They had gotten me through unbearable realities. But I was, I am, no longer that powerless child. A child who found her power in the pages of books and magazines, in a past not her own, and in her imagination.
I am now a woman of a certain age, newly retired, just days into this new adventure. I didn't actually dream of retirement as a child, or even as a young adult. It was never my intention to live a conventional life, so retirement wouldn't have been a need. In the later years of my teaching career, in the midst of much more convention than I ever expected for myself, retirement became the light at the end of a very long tunnel. The dream of unlimited choices for my days, no schedule, and travel kept me going through some challenging times.
So here I am. With unlimited choices for my days. A schedule I set, or don't. More travel possibilities than I ever imagined possible. A dream come true. Yet I know, as was the case with Pompeii, that the reality will be both a bit disappointing and a far greater adventure than I can currently grasp. As I travel these new streets of my freed days, I will remember how the disappointment of the grit and crowds of Pompeii turned so quickly into wonder at what it meant to be standing in the sunshine on stone streets in the shadow of Vesuvius.