We went down to Pompeii and Naples this weekend.
I was disappointed that we couldn’t get the guide we’d had in previous years, the wonderful Fiorella Squillante, who was already booked, but her replacement turned out to be great also. His name is Frederick Poole; his father is an American from Massachusetts who emigrated to Naples, his mother a Neapolitan woman. He grew up in various places in Italy and the US (including that well of English pure and undefiled, the city of Minneapolis). His English and Italian are flawless, his learning immense, his wit quiet, shrewd and always ready to flash out. He was, in short, a riot.
The highlight of the visit was when he got us into the House of Menander, closed to the public. It’s been beautifully restored and has some marvellous wall-paintings (illustrating, among other things, the sack of Troy), a private bathhouse and some resident skeletons. These guys did not die in the eruption; they were early looters, evidently after a trove of silver that archaeologists have found buried in the garden. They made their attempt shortly after the town was destroyed and they were killed in the aftermath, either by poison gas or a cave-in or both.
We stayed at Hotel Napolit’Amo–same as last time, but a different location. The students went off to dinner together while I went to lie down: I had had a long string of short nights. (My room in Rome is right by the municipal flower market, and they show up around 1:30 AM, with trucks and banging handcarts and shouting and singing and those are some noisy flowers, is all I can say. Except that I can now also say, “earplugs” in Italian.) And I did lie down, but I couldn’t sleep: I kept worrying about how we were going to get to the Museum the next day. So I got up and scoped out a route with a map. But I still couldn’t sleep, because a theoretical route is one thing; a route that will really work is often another. So I got up and travelled the way myself.
It was interesting. The Neapolitan transit system includes these weird steep-slope subway-cars-on-cables called funiculars (funicolari–I know: “funiculi –funicula” etc.). I had carefully mapped out a route from the funicular’s end-point through the boisterous, Carnival-like streets to the subway-line that would take us to the Museo Nazionale, and it worked… but on the way back I found that there were long tunnels connecting the funicular station to the Metro station, and the Metro station with the museum. It made for a direct, hard-to-miss path, but a somewhat mole-like experience. I also got a sort of funny picture of a copy of Hercules Farnese that they have in the Metro station by the Museum. He looks as if he’s puzzling over which line to take. Probably only forty-two billion people have taken the same picture.
On the way back I passed an ATM that had been robbed and the already-lively streets filled up with overfull police cars, from each of which six or seven suspicious eyes glared at me suspiciously. I sang ”Veni, Veni Emmanuel” and Dan Hicks songs to fit in. It must have worked because I made it back to the hotel alive and undeported.
I got back to the hotel to find there had been some sort of unspecified “drama” at dinner which had people whispering in varied groups in the hallways and rooms. Score one for one for the moles: there was relatively little drama on the funicular odyssey except for the major felonies and for all the feloniously hot Italian women showing off on Sabato sera.
That night I slept, I kid you not, eight full hours–better than any night since my jetlag wore off. And I had a fiercely hot shower under fire-hose pressure when I finally awoke. It was very, very hard to leave that hotel room.
We got to the Museo without incident. Some of the coolest stuff from Pompeii (lunch on that fateful day and related frescoes) was blocked off; we couldn’t see it. But we did see lots of great stuff, including a famous painting I had heard of but never seen, with the timeless inscription CACATOR, CAVE MALUM (“Shitter, beware of evil!”), which shows the alleged shitter being bitten by snakes while a tutelary deity tut-tuts at him. Indiscriminate public crapping seems to have been one of the perennial problems of Roman city life (at least in Pompeii).
Then we went to lunch. Finding a restaurant by the museum was unexpectedly difficult: not only were most businesses closed on Sunday, but there didn’t seem to be any restaurants, closed or open. We did finally find one and were crossing a parkway to get to it when we ran afoul of some feral dogs (which pervade Naples and Pompeii the way feral cats pervade Rome). We had evidently crossed into what the dogs considered their territory; they got up and started moving toward us, barking aggressively. So naturally, I barked back: “NO!” I shouted, “Get lost! I’M the alpha dog!”
They looked so startled, as if no one had ever talked back to them in Dog before. They ran like hell and, dominance having been established, so did we.
Lunch was a semi-disaster. The little pizzeria we had found was utterly unprepared for an invasion of 12 patrons, irrespective of their nationality. Our first clue was when they had trouble filling our water order: 2 large bottles of acqua frizzante, 2 large bottles of boring water without bubbles. They had to send out for the latter. But eventually everyone got some food and we got out of there in time to catch our train back to Rome.
It was good to go; it was good to get back. I love Naples and I always enjoy being there. But I always have a sense relief in returning to Rome.
And I slept eight hours Sunday night as well. I woke once at six in the morning, looked at the clock and wondered why it was so quiet. Evidently the flowers were all tiptoeing around that day. I decided not to complain and went back to sleep.