05 March 2010

||: Funiculi, Funicula! :||

Disclaimer: Events recounted hereafter occurred greater than three months before they were described. Details may be fuzzy. But it's the best I can do.

They don't have Thanksgiving in Europe, but as Harlaxton for most intents and purposes isn't in Europe, we had Thanksgiving dinner. It was pretty delicious, especially after what we had come to expect from Refectory food, that is, nasty. But Thanksgiving dinner is probably the least important thing that happened on Thanksgiving weekend, because that was the weekend that Chelsey Tompkins, JR Fralick, and I went to Naples and Pompeii (Pompeiiples, if you will), and it was also the best weekend of my semester.

The first step, if you don't count all the research and packing and booking and all that, was to take a streetcar from Harlaxton to the train station for what would be a very complicated train journey to Gatwick airport, where we were to spend the night.  That went smoothly enough, though in retrospect we probably should have left earlier and taken an earlier train. Because of miscommunication, construction on the trains, a useless King's Cross employee, and about four buses, we stepped out of the Manor at 2115, and stepped into the airport at 0045. It shouldn't take four and a half hours to get anywhere in England. On one of the buses, a man with a ponytail suggested we spend the night experiencing London by going to Camden Town and getting "incredibly high." We politely declined. At a 1am airport Subway dinner, we discussed revisions to the British Studies program and headed off to try to sleep in the closed Starbucks chairs, with some success, until we were awoken at 0452.

I've been told that in travel writing you shouldn't waste time getting there. So let's just get there. Flight landed, we called a taxi, and we learned quickly enough that there are no rules of the road in Naples as the cab rushed honking constantly through tiny wet streets curling around each other and cowering beneath tall old cracking buildings. They say Naples is ugly, and there is a lot of trash, and maybe it is ugly compared to the great majesty of Rome or some such, but I thought it was beautiful. It was like the real Old Country.

Our hostel, Giovanni's Home, could easily have been a murderer's trap, but turned out to be completely spectacular. Upon our arrival, Giovanni himself gave us an hour-long check-in Naples information session, complete with color-coded map on which we learned not to go in the purple, because that's where the mafia is. He then sent us out to lunch at a place whose name I regret I did not write down. It was incredibly full but so worth it. We each got a massive pizza to ourselves for about five Euro. In true exhausted lame people fashion, we returned to our hostel and napped for several hours to make up for the zero we had gotten the night before in the airport.

When we awoke, Giovanni was cooking (for the entire hostel) a spectacular Italian dinner of green pesto pasta and potato croquettes that tasted like they were made of clouds and felt like thick cream in my mouth. We all ate together at a huge table, and suddenly there were two guitars out and Giovanni was playing one and the harmonica, teaching us how to sing in Italian. We later learned that Gio has 59 instruments in his possession.

Chelsey with the man himself, chewin' on one a' them croquettes

We all spent the rest of the evening playing music, talking and learning and laughing it up. Gorgeous. The next morning we slept in a little, having been informed that Italians like to get their beauty sleep and the trains don't run until 10am. It was raining but whoever thinks a little water was going to keep up from going to Pompeii is sorely mistaken. We bought little crappy umbrellas for two Euro and were on our way. At the metro we bought breakfast, smallish pizza-like rectangles that may to this day remain the best thing I ever ate. One stop to a train past Ercolano (Herculaneum) to Pompeii Scavi. I kept wanting to call my Latin teacher from high school and tell her I was really there!

The forum, with Vesuvius looming

JR, Chelsey, and I made a pact to break rules, having decided that we will probably only ever be here once, so we shouldn't let a little wooden gate stop us from seeing anything. We may have paid a fortune for lunch—the only restaurant in Pompeii can charge whatever they want—but we made up for it in barely explored terrain. I climbed on the red roof of a 2000-year-old building. We saw the praying man and the other plaster molds. Most of being in Pompeii was incredibly fun, but occasionally we had to stop and recall why all of this was so well preserved. Just because the whole population died millennia ago doesn't mean they're not dead. They are dead.

The praying man

Early in the day, we met a big white dog JR named Apollo, and he followed us on and off the whole time we were there. Pompeii and Naples have a lot of dogs, like I hear there are in Athens. Mostly we wandered around freaking out about how awesome it was that we were in Pompeii. The Pompeii. We lost Chelsey briefly, I climbed the minor stadium through a hole in the fence, and by the end of the day, all three of our cameras were dead. Also at the minor stadium, we encountered an English-speaking man who was presumably testing out its acoustics by singing the American national anthem incorrectly. Bizarre. The reflection of clouds in the puddles was gorgeous. We made so many Pompeii puns, you'd have thought we were in Punpeii. Wacka wacka wacka.

JR and Chelsey, with Apollo nearby as ever

Our plans to climb Mt. Vesuvius that afternoon were thwarted by the rain. How do you close a mountain? we asked, but soon accepted it and headed back to Naples. On the long train ride we eavesdropped on a rich white family and talked about what we are going to do with our lives. We talked about the colleges we got into but turned down to come to UE. That night we visited Napoli Sutteraneo because evidently I have a thing for underground communities (see Scotland). We held candles and squeezed through a 70m-long tunnel 50cm across, then emerged into a huge clear blue Roman cistern. The entrance to the whole thing was through a hole in the floor under a bed in a regular house, and I thought we were going to get kidnapped and murdered, but we didn't. On the stairs down I found a little heart pendant and took it.

Upon returning the Giovanni's home, we played cards in the common room with a Canadian boy called Tristan who was touring Europe alone. Chelsey tried to invent a game called "The Best Game" but it was really just a very conceptualized version of every game. Then we invented "Egyptian War," which is ridiculous and has a page worth of rules in my journal. JR won. Tristan taught us Crazy 8s the Canadian way, which is much more intense. There was a print of a DaVinci in the kitchen, and while Giovanni was making us fried pizza for Chelsey's birthday, he told me DaVinci was the second best Italian of all time, after St. Francis of Assisi. "San Francesco, he understood everything. Leonardo understands some things."

Sunday morning (don't give up now!) began ambitiously with plans to climb Vesuvius and visit Herculaneum, Pompeii's less famous but even better preserved sister in destruction, all before about six o'clock, when we had to go back to the hostel, pick up our possessions, and get to the airport for our late flight back to Stansted. In our excitement, we got to the metro before the trains started, so we decided to kill some time by buying donuts and playing on the nearby playground. That crooked balance beam was tough, you guys.

We are five years old, yes.

Sadly, somehow, somewhere, someway, amidst our play and childlike glee, we missed the first bus, and having looked closely at the schedule on the Vesuvius-Herculaneum combo ticket package we had just bought, we realized that, with everything closing at dark, we did not have time to do both, so we settled on Vesuvius. Chelsey was most disappointed, as Herculaneum had been her most anxiously-awaited activity of the trip, but the day was not lost! Waiting for the bus to the mountain, we bought more pizza and then ran frantically up and down a hill with it, not sure where the bus was after all and terrified we had missed it. We hadn't. It was nearly empty and much too nice for going up a mountain, but we had to get there someway. Note: When you climb Vesuvius, you don't climb all of Vesuvius. You get bussed a large potion of the way up; otherwise you would never make it unless you had a few days to spare. 

Halfway up, the bus stopped at what I can only describe as a gypsy house for a break. There were cats everywhere, every inch was full of items presumably for sale, and Chelsey said the bathroom floor was covered in sand. So naturally, we were excited when it was time to move on, though the view was lovely.

The cat that tried to take Chelsey out

Finally we reached the actual drop-off point and began the still very long trek to the crater. It was steep as a bitter tea but praise God we made it, despite very insufficient safety regulations. There we were, standing at the top of a mountain and looking down at the hole left from when that mountain exploded and wiped out three cities. We took about a thousand pictures, threw stones into the crater, played "Anything" by Mae on Chelsey's iPod, and got free tiny lucky crater rocks from a vendor at the top. For the first time, I legitimately could not tell where the sea became sky. It was breathtaking if anything is. I bought a postcard for Ms. LaFon so I could tell her (read: brag) about my ancient Roman adventures.

Foreground: JR, me, Chelsey. Background: freaking Vesuvius crater

I may or may not have fallen on my face on the slippery way down, but Chelsey almost fell to her death (only to be saved by a strong old lady coming the other way) and JR about missed the last bus down the mountain because he had to go to the bathroom, so we all have our moments. At least I didn't bend the postcard or break the fragile present I got at the summit. We made it down and sat mostly in silence on the train back to Piazza Cavour in Naples. Dying for some savouries, we stopped on the walk home by a little stand and bought some treats I can only describe as unbelievably delicious. Maybe the best Euro I've ever spent, not that I've spent that many. After the Mountain, the 66 marble stairs up to our hostel that usually just taunted us came right out and kicked us in the shins. Ouch.

We had more time than we thought and sat on the terrace in short sleeves in the wind playing Never Have I Ever and waiting for the cab, which got us to the airport in 15 terrifying minutes. Through security and waiting for our flight, Chelsey bought a bottle of water and a box of crackers, because she is insane and panics under pressure. We touched down in London twenty minutes before the last train to Grantham, but there was no hope. Immigration itself was a good half hour, and once we made it through, we settled down with some BK Lounge and watched the BBC before curling up under an "Edinburgh Sparkles!" sign for a few hours and shivering ourselves into delusion. We were awoken at 445 and took a 521 train back to Grantham. That ride was easily the most delirious of my life up to that point. Little did I know it would be trumped the very next morning. 

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