Taking a Look

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Conscience Calmed

How brief I wish to make this blog about Italy. Everything you have heard about Italy is true, truer than you can imagine. Italy is a breathing Narnia, and it should be experienced and embraced, not written about with such mediocre description.  But my gut is kicking at me with a steady pounding, forcing me to produce something, since I myself loved reading about Italy before actually touching my toes to it.

If you know your history, you will know that once the European elite began to travel for pleasure and for education, sometimes for months at a time—the so called “Grand Tour” of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign—Italy gained a reputation as a land with healing properties.  Some attributed it to the climate, others to the culture, and almost everyone agreed that the secret medicine was, in fact, the food.  I am inclined to combine them all, for Italy slowly but surely changes you, without your own conscious knowledge, from the second you arrive to the moment you wave goodbye to the fading Tuscan coast on the horizon.

I should make clear that there is one exception to the grandeur of Italy. As every family has a black sheep, so Italy has a black town: the city of Naples. Six years ago, when I came to Italy for the first time, our tour group did not make it to Naples; if only I could have said the same for this voyage. Naples is like the Detroit of Italy. It’s just no longer necessary.

The morning when we arrived in Naples, I looked out the window in my cabin to see shoestrings, an empty McDonald’s cup, clumps of hair, and gum lapping up against the side of our ship. And we weren’t even docked that close to the shoreline. It’s hard to tell where water and land meet in Naples, because trash covers the surface of everything. My advice to anyone who finds themselves in Naples in the near future is to look up, and never look down. There are some intricate architectural pieces and places to check out, but almost all the other monuments are wearing coats of graffiti. I have to say, when you are trying to immerse yourself in Italian culture or mentally wonder back to the days of the Romans, seeing “FUCK” spray painted on castle walls and across stone generals’ faces, the ambiance is effectively ruined.

Don’t blame the people of Naples though, at least not the majority of them. It’s not like they wake up every morning and say “Hey, I think I’ll take a shit in the old palace courtyard today,” or anything like that. The city is suffering a legitimate trash crisis and, as cliché as it might sound, it’s all because of the Mafia. All kidding aside, the Mafia’s presence is very real in Italy. And very far reaching. As part of our pre-port for Naples, when we were being briefed on the politics of the city, we were told that members of the Mafia had gained so much power in Naples that they controlled all of the trash collection businesses, and were withholding cleanup efforts in order to create chaos in the city, for organized crime thrives under chaotic circumstances. 

You think Triple A Travel will hire me after all that? I can really sell a city, huh? 

I will say that it is worth it to put up with all the grime and soot for a couple days, because Naples is the gateway to the stunning volcano Mount Vesuvius, as well as the nearest city to the arcane ruins of Pompeii, in the shadows of the mountain. I didn’t make it out to Pompeii this time around, as I spent an entire day there on my last trek around Italy, but it is an incredibly captivating site even if you are not all that interested in history. You can literally see the food on the table that people were preparing when the city was destroyed, but simultaneously preserved, in the eruption of 79 AD. You can pet the mold of the dog that just couldn’t bite through his chain when the lava hit, and walk through the doors thousands of people found blocked by ash and fire all those centuries ago. It’s also one of the only places I know where a bunch of people can get together in a room and look at pornography without violating some sort of social taboo.* So, you know, if you’re into that kind of group stuff..

This time around, I towered over Pompeii rather than walked through its sustained streets.  Climbing Mount Vesuvius was by far the most physically exhilarating experience of my life thus far. I had never scaled a mountain before (I can barely manage the uphill walk from Meadville to Allegheny’s campus) and didn’t really know how I was going to somehow finagle my way up to the crater. Good thing I live in 2011 and buses exist. Ok, yeah, we cheated for the first 3000 feet, but after that they practically dump you until a pile of ash, hand you a ticket for the gate, and wave goodbye as you stare up at the last one thousand feet like a mute.

Needless to say, I made it. By myself. On my own. Me. 

When you reach the top they offer to stamp a piece of paper or a postcard to prove that you made it (in case everyone at home doesn’t believe in pictures or something) and there is a small stand where some residents of a nearby town have fashioned different artifacts from the ash of Vesuvius. Other than that, you are free to wander the rim of the crater and take in the view. 

I’m not sure where the calming feeling comes from, when I am up high, but it absolutely smothered me at the top of that mountain. All of my senses suddenly changed, as if they were adapting to the shift in atmosphere. Looking out at the Amalfi coast, I didn’t hear the labored breathing of those behind me who thumped up the last few steps; instead I heard the leaves scratching against each other on the trees that sprouted between the crags. I didn’t feel the beads of sweat racing each other down my sideburns; I felt the tickle of the ashy ground on my feet. I didn’t see people suckling their water bottles; I saw black snowflakes clinging delicately to my arm hair. I didn’t taste the desert on my tongue; instead I tasted the sweet spice of Vesuvian air. I didn’t smell dirt and dried blood; I smelled rock, wet from the mist of the fog that weaved in and out around the mountain’s peak. 

My heart responded to this moment, there at the top of one of the four most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  I felt the thumping in my chest slow to a gentle pulse, the blood in my veins glide slow instead of run fast. And no, it wasn’t because of the change in altitude. It was because I was standing on the edge of an active volcano. That I had climbed. Alone. Without assistance. It was because that moment, up there, was mine.

Not to sound unpatriotic or anything, but that was the most emotional Fourth of July I’ve ever had. No question.
By that evening, I was watching the mighty Vesuvius shrink into a mole hill as we sailed for Civitavecchia, the port city that shuttled us to Rome. I began thinking how I had a new understanding for why Italy bears this reputation of being a medicinal nation, and how I had been so afraid that perhaps, in short of all my grand expectations, this voyage would not heal me. The wounds, both inner and outer, would not mend. I had reassured myself, not to mention those I left behind at home, that this was it: after these few months I would be my old self again. Taller than bigotry. Stronger than ignorance. Wiser than harassment. But it wasn’t happening. There was progress, yes; moments I moved forward, absolutely, but there was no major shift in my mental state all throughout the Atlantic crossing, and my time in Spain. Not until the (literal) mountaintop experience at Vesuvius. Oh how I detest that I am now a cliché. 

But yes, that was when my fear began to subside. Or, rather, to change. Into something different. Into hope. Fear and hope are not so different at their cores. “Twin Destinies” the poet Shelley calls them. They are your feelings and emotions about the future; how you perceive what is still to come. One can fret and distress over the potentially difficult hardships on the horizon, or one can adopt a more optimistic sense of looking forward to both the rewards and challenges of living. For so long I had been living in fear, I saw no convincing evidence to think otherwise, but I could feel the tides turning inside me as I watched Naples disappear and turned my gaze forward, to the Eternal City.

Sure enough, my “Aha” moment did arrive in Rome. Though not, I must say, in a clichéd or overused location this time. One might expect profound moments of inner discovery and self-reflection to occur at grandiose Roman destinations like...the Vatican. If you are one of those people, you have clearly never been to the Vatican.

I have now, being lucky enough to have explored Italy twice since I was fourteen, been to the Vatican two times as well. I have no desire to see if three times is the charm for the center of the Catholicism.  When you enter the Vatican, you literally become a sheep in the largest, sweatiest, loudest, most irritating flock this side of the Atlantic. The Pope himself could not shepherd this mass into obedience, and he wasn’t even there. It was too hot for him, so he peaced to his summer home. Which is also in Italy…….Catholic logic. I love it.

To begin with, there are so many damn rooms in the Vatican museum, with artifacts and statues and paintings and busts and a whole mess of saintly crap all piled on top of each other, that it would take something like twenty-five years to look at everything for five seconds each. We were fortunate if we got to stand in one place for three. You get herded from chamber to chamber by the crankiest security guards (national police perhaps in this case?) that I have ever met. Judging by their looks I think we woke them up from nap time when we arrived. Anyway, they are constantly glaring at you and patting the firearms at their sides so you won’t forget their divine right to shoot you full of holes if you touch the altar you were only supposed to take a picture of, or take a picture of the fountain you were only supposed to touch.

Not that you have time to get your bearings and figure out what you are and are not allowed to touch in each section. This is due to the fact that once you enter the Vatican museum you instantly find yourself in the natural habitat of the infamous tourist. A people of pale skin, occasionally identifiable by multiple layers of caked on sun screen, the tourist will make its way towards you. Unlike other creatures, if you don’t bother it, it will bother you. Generally this occurs when the tourist makes use of its hands; one is used to swing a camera on a string around their neck back and forth, and the other gesticulates, waves, points, and flaps about in attempted communication with the stoic shepherd-guards. 

At the Vatican, the tourist tend to travel in packs. This we understand because they don jewel-colored shirts emblazoned with certain descriptions of their pack, like the name of their troupe or “Family Reunion 2011.” This is as much for their own identification, as well as for outsiders. The more well off packs utilize walkie talkies, but the majority rely on their exceptionally loud vocal chords. While in the Vatican, tourists can be spotted anywhere, but you might try finding them getting impatient in lines, creating traffic jams to take pictures of that thing they saw in a book once, or otherwise walking very quickly in a space where such movement is disruptive to all present. An interesting phenomenon occurs when they pass dilapidated statues and half-completed sculptures: It must be something important—let’s take a picture! Say cheese, oh, I mean ‘formaggio.’ Tourists are always happy to use of the many Italian phrases they have picked up along the way. As they clutch their belongings into their cleavage, wary of the pickpocket (the tourist’s natural enemy) they can often be heard saying “When in Rome…” without finishing the sentence. 

Have I expressed myself clearly? Very good. Moving on.

I finally understood that I was beginning to heal from the pain in my heart while sitting in a dusty, cramped library during my last afternoon in Rome. I spent it on a small trip with a friend and one of my teacher’s at the Keats-Shelley House, next to the Spanish Steps. Only an out and proud English nerd such as myself could appreciate the momentous privilege of walking where Keats walked, hearing his story in the very rooms it unfolded in, reading the poems under the roof he composed them, and visiting the quiet corner of the world where he now rests. I won’t go into detail about the house or why it is significant, because very few people out there will care, but something during my time there woke me up. My brain shifted and fell in line with my heart, and I found myself believing, actually believing, that I could find peace on this voyage, and in my life. I had fallen prey to the spell of Italy. The healing has begun.

I could go on and on in this blog to help you understand the enchantment you fall under while staying in Italy. I could assure you that American ice cream is simply a cheap imitation of Italian gelato, and that no matter where pizza originated (Manhattan or Italy) nothing will ever taste better than an Italian pizza margherita. I could express my firm belief that no matter where you travel in the United States, the Italian countryside will trump even our best efforts at natural loveliness. But that would be a disgrace to Italy, because I don’t have the word prowess to accomplish such a task. 

So that really only leaves you one choice: make your way to Italy. Even if you don’t feel as though you need to be healed, I guarantee that no matter what you do, you feel leave feeling tranquil. Serene. 


*To elaborate, there is a room in the ruins of Pompeii covered with stone penises and frescoes of erotic images. Apparently, displaying a penis in the home or a public building was a sign of good luck. Take that as you will.

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are” –Samuel Johnson



  1. Ahhhh I absolutely loved this!! Of course, I love all of them, but especially this post. I am very glad to hear you're starting to heal. Hopefully it gets even better from here :)

  2. Only you would climb a volcano in a button-down shirt and a pair of khakis. I flipping love you.

  3. I'm so proud of you for climbing that volcano! :) And I'm so happy to hear about your steps towards healing. It sounds cheesy, but it warms my heart. Also, I really want to go to Italy now.

  4. Craig, loved your post on Italy. It lifted my spirits to readthat you are healing and feeling better every day. Love you. Keep up the good work. Gramma Lois