I’m a weirdo who always ate my veggies, even as a child. No ranch or coercion necessary—just knock off the dirt and we’re good. I realize, however, that a lot of children need to learn to like their vegetables. Parents tell kids that veggies will make them grow big and strong and, when all else fails, permit them to play with their food in order to make it more appetizing. Even I would pretend I was a lumberjack and my broccoli were trees ready for the chipper.
My weekend trip to Pompei was a lot like broccoli. Not exactly good, but good for you. And by the end of it all, I learned to really like it. We began our trek to Pompei with a pleasant, roomy train ride from Florence to Naples. The attendants even brought us cookies and juice! (I’m still a child, don’t be fooled). Then we boarded a tram from Naples to Pompei. Only it was the wrong the tram. But not to worry, we just got off at the next stop and waited until the correct tram pulled up. No sweat, right? Wrong. So much sweat. So much.
When we got off that tram, I was drench in perspiration, mostly not my own. I had also nearly been pick-pocketed by the sweaty man who was leaning on me for most of the thirty-minute ride. I mean, everybody was leaning on everybody (standing room only), but not everyone carries a coat around in that kind of heat to conceal their hand as they flip open the clasp of your purse. Fortunately, I caught on to him before he snatched anything; I gave him my best Godfather glare and he scurried away to another train car.
At last, we arrived in Pompei. Allow me to summarize 12 lessons we learned there:
- Scafati is not Pompei. Hotel Pompei is in Scafati (next town over). Surprise!
- 40 € is way, way too much to pay for a taxi ride to Scafati.
- According to our friendly hotel staff, that taxi driver is a “stronzo.” Yes. Yes, he is.
- Do not pet the Scafati cats. They’ve seen too many things.
- Fish pizza is always a bad idea.
- Zucchini is always a good idea (unless it’s on fish pizza).
- Italians don’t wear seatbelts, but you’ll probably want to.
- Public restrooms are not free. You must pay to pee.
- Always validate your train ticket. Always. Even if you have 5 minutes to run from one train to the next. If you neglect to validate your ticket during your mad dash to catch the next train, that 17 € ticket is now a 67 € ticket courtesy of a 50 € fine. Yay math!
- The person dressed like a train conductor who kindly loads your suitcase onto the train and escorts you to your seat is in fact a gypsy, not a train conductor, and said gypsy will expect you to pay him for being nice. Trust issues will ensue.
- If you encounter an actual train conductor, trust that they know where you need to get off, even if you’re salty about the fact that they’re fining you 50 €, don’t understand most of what they’re saying because you speak poco Italiano, and the stop where they tell you to get off is not the destination printed on your ticket. That way you can avoid missing your stop, eating dinner from a vending machine and taking two additional trains to get home. Not that I’m complaining—I’d marry those vending machine paprika Pringles if I could. (In retrospect, Italy’s pretty progressive. I probably could have married them.) Missed opportunity.
- Everything at the train station is personal.
So there it is. The broccoli before you liked broccoli. The green stuff that makes you scrunch up your nose then leaves you stronger.
I know those twelve lessons are mostly negative, but growth rarely occurs from getting your way. There’s no adventure in everything going according to plan, no romance in being handed everything you desire. Hiking up Mt. Vesuvius is hard. You battle gravity. Your legs and lungs ache, but the view from the top is far more breathtaking than the climb. The ruins of Pompeii aren’t exactly picturesque. It’s an entire city of dilapidated stone and faded frescos, not to mention it’s flooded with tourists. But if you put the camera aside, press your hand to the stone and just imagine what it was like to be there in that city 2,000 years ago—at the height of its glory and the day of its demise—those are the images that will stick with you. Not photos of stone, but the feeling of it.
Call it a lesson in silver linings. Practically nothing went according to plan during our stay in Pompei (or Scafati, rather). Like I’m genuinely hard-pressed to recall a single expectation that was met. Anything regarding trains, for instance, fell miserably short of my expectations. And yet, there were some experiences, often the unexpected ones, that utterly exceeded them.
That’s what I thought about on my return journey, staring out a grimy window of the fifth train I boarded that day. I thought about the staff at Hotel Pompei who had become our friends and allies in a city where we didn’t quite belong. They cooked for us, toted us around in their family van, and kissed us on both cheeks when we left. I thought about the bus we took from the ruins to the volcano that longed to be a souped-up convertible, with all its windows down and its door wide-open as Italian jazz blared across the radio. I thought about how the twists of the road forced us to sway with the music and how we couldn’t stop laughing as we contemplated the very real possibility of flying out that open door (or window at the rate he was driving) at any turn. I thought about the clouds I tasted on top of the world’s deadliest volcano and the wildflowers growing in the ruins of Pompeii. How very alive I felt in a place so notorious for dealing death and destruction. I thought about nearly missing the last shuttle down from Vesuvius. How we literally ran down the steep slopes of an active volcano, laughing all of the way and sliding for most of it. I thought about how the trail shimmered with the dust of volcanic glass as we ran. It was like running through diamonds. We were like diamonds. Under stress but better for it in the end. Changed in the end.
I’m not kidding when I say this was a grimy window, greasy even. If you told me that window bore the full brunt of the eruption in 79 A.D., I wouldn’t have questioned it. But as I feasted upon those paprika Pringles, listening to “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World (talk about mood music), I was completely captivated by the view outside that grimy train window. Prior to our journey to Pompei, I adored train and bus rides—just staring out the windows with my earbuds in, marveling at the sights. However, getting lost, cheated and fined on my recent taxi and train rides had since left a bitter taste in my mouth. Broccoli, if you will.
I’m not sure at what point I stopped sulking and started marveling again, but I did. There wasn’t a precise moment, but it happened. Italy through layers of grime and smudgy handprints, I discovered, is still Italy. And it’s still beautiful. I never stopped seeing the filth, of course—it was impossible to ignore. And I didn’t turn away from the window or pull the curtain over it. It’s just that, eventually, I was able to see through it. The greasy, grimy glass and the rolling hills beyond. The filth and the beauty at the same time.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that was one really, really dirty window. But it helped me see things more clearly that day.
[Train photo cred: Dakota Niles]