Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pompeii: Reflection in the Rubble

        Two point six million people a year shuffle through the high arch of the Porta Marina and into the remainders of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Some of these visitors meander into the town forum, guidebooks in hand, and mentally rebuild towering marble columns from the crumbled ruins. Or perhaps they journey to this sacred spot to imagine the cobblestone streets alive with tradesmen, children, and slaves. Perhaps, like me, two point six million people a year come to Pompeii and reflect upon death. I came face to face with my own mortality in the wreckage.

When I first arrive at the Pompeii-Scavi train station, the only reminder of death is the murderer herself looming in the distance. Mt. Vesuvius erupted last in 1944, killing twenty-six people. Scientists say she is due for another eruption soon. Of one thing they are certain—she, who sits on a 154 square mile layer of magma, will spew lava from her top again and the consequences will be cataclysmic. It’s unnerving how her grey figure stands in the distance above her destruction, watching, waiting. She was made to create chaos and her work is incomplete. Under her watchful eye, tourists explore what she destroyed on that tragic day in seventy-nine A.D. The explosion that brought darkness also brought light by burying the town alive and consequently, preserving it. I am here today because of her. Her hand could bury me tomorrow.

The bits and pieces of conversation that I hear along the walk to the entrance to the site are lighthearted. Signs advertising cheap pizza and free Internet access line the walls. Persistent men push their arrays of multicolored selfie sticks into the face of every tourist who comes within ten feet. People here actually buy these egocentric devices that maximize the amount of people you can fit into one picture you take of yourself; I see a group of teens bartering in Italian for one. It’s not the concept of the “selfie stick” that is so disturbing as the context in which they are being sold. Pompeii is a place where thousands of Romans were smothered under pumice and ash; it is a place of remembrance and mourning. Imagine the disrespect of someone selling selfie sticks at a graveyard. Everyone smile, you’ll make the spirits proud. Why does no one give this practice a second thought here?  We are at the ultimate historical graveyard, eternal home to both young and old, healthy and sick.  Are the Pompeian’s dead to a lesser degree because they died two thousand years ago?  At what point does death demand less respect?

The clicks of camera shutters surround me as I enter the forum. Picking up my own Nikon, I snap a few pictures of the rust-colored rubble contrasted against the bleak sky as I try to push the thought of death from my mind. My group follows our guide to a corner, where the plaster casts of victims are on display. Excavators filled plaster into the hollow spaces left within the hardened volcanic debris after the decay of the bodies, creating lifelike statues from the molds. They are graphic reminders of the last moments of life here. One man crouches with his hands pulled up to his face as if in prayer. Another lies down with his face buried in his arms, too afraid to look death in the face. A jaw with perfectly preserved teeth opens fully in mid-scream. I can barely look at the image of the pregnant woman without feeling a deep sense of sorrow because she never looked upon her growing child’s face. Click. Someone next to me takes a photo of the casts. Click. Click. Click. The clicks grow more prevalent the more I pay attention to them. As the shutters close, my mind opens. Where I see death, some see plaster. When I look at these casts, I imagine myself in their position and suddenly I am screaming, praying, and fearing for my life. Click.

Disturbing thoughts of the dying woman follow me around for hours until I’m unable to separate myself from her. I think of my aspirations and everything that I want to accomplish before departing the earth. I want to love people the way I imagine the pregnant woman loved her baby—fiercely, bravely, unconditionally. Whose faces will I picture in my last few moments? What legacy will I leave behind?

It’s strange and uncomfortable to think about one’s own mortality, but it’s also an important part of the human experience. The technological distractions of this day hinder this kind of reflective thinking. Suddenly, the successfulness of selfie sticks makes sense. It’s not that we intentionally disrespect the dead; we just prefer to ignore them. It’s less painful to smile for a selfie than to face the thoughts of our own death. It’s easier to place these people into a category marked Ancient and snap a picture. When we are unwilling, unable, or too distracted to dive deep into mortality, we lose our appreciation for both the past and present.

“The beauty of things must be that they end,” Kerouac wrote. The beauty of life stems from our humble mortality. We must always seize the day or again in the words of Kerouac, “Climb that goddamn mountain.” The mountain represents our passions—the things that make us feel alive and whole. One-day molten lava may bust down our front door and we’ll never look up from our Iphones. One thing is for sure--the Pompeians never wasted time looking at a screen. The pleasant Italian climate meant they spent a great deal of their lives outdoors. Romans from elsewhere traveled far to vacation in the picturesque setting. The ruins of their houses, brothels, bathhouses, frescoes, and even the grid of their streets reflect a tight knit community of people. Running water and the ingenious design of their bathhouses suggest they were smart, clean, and sophisticated. They valued art, music, family, theatre, sex, love, and the Gods. Pompeians climbed that goddamn mountain. 

Even in death, these ancient peoples embody life. Blood stopped flowing through their veins thousands of years ago, but their legacy marches on for two point six million tourists a year to uncover.  Put down your cameras. Refuse the selfie sticks. Pay attention to the voices of the people who perished here. Learn from them. Life and death intertwine and coexist, and there are few places that shout this louder than Pompeii if only you pause and listen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Italian Man in Seat 37E

         The navy blue cloth of an airline seat back gradually materializes in front of me as I awaken from an uneasy slumber. For a few seconds I lose any sense of my whereabouts as my fuzzy mind struggles to find reality. Who am I? Elizabeth Sager Miller Campbell. Where am I? Somewhere on an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Where am I going? Italy. I’m going to Italy to travel write.

         My body aches as my legs untangle and I free myself from my contorted position between two armrests. Looking around, I see familiar faces sleeping soundly despite the desperate wails of a toddler nearby. On my right, I notice an Italian man with gray-speckled hair and half-moon glasses snoring across the aisle. His blue striped linen shirt and ironed pants suggest that he is careful of his appearance and his worn leather shoes reveal that he has traveled many miles. He looks like the kind of tired that comes from too much living. His crimson Italian passport peeks out of his shirt pocket and I wonder about the stamps that line its pages. Where has he journeyed? I am acutely aware of the vast cultural ocean that separates this man from me. My mind travels along the deep wrinkles that line his suntanned face—what wisdom do they hold? What is it like—this place he calls home? It is surely not like mine.

        I imagine that he lives in the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside with his apron-wearing wife of many years. She raised the children and cooked the spaghetti. He worked long hours on the family vineyard until his back started to hurt and the heat wore him out. Like his father did for him, he passed the business down to his hardworking sons. He wakes every morning with the sense of satisfaction that he has given back to the earth, and he spends the remainder of his days bonding with his grandchildren in the garden behind his little house. He is never bothered with rush hour traffic and he doesn’t carry a watch. He lives by dawn and dusk, worrying little about what tomorrow will bring. His home is wine, family, and the fresh country air. His home is Italy.

       My home is Arkansas. Memories of my almost twenty years of life flash through my head one by one. I recall learning to ride a bike on the suburban streets of my old neighborhood, playing tennis with my father on Sunday afternoons, and the fast pace of growing up with parents who worked long hours at the office. A product of the technological age, my life has been defined by widespread Internet access, text messages, and impatience for anything that takes more than a few seconds to download. My rural house is a picturesque refuge from the rush of the city. My home is sweet tea, southern hospitality, and thirty-minute commutes.

        The elements of my home make up everything that I am so far. My travels, too, have shaped me. The charming streets of Europe and the breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps have shown me physical beauty. There has been pain in the form of homesickness, stolen wallets, and the weariness of sleeping on another hard hostel mattress. But most importantly, my journeys have shown me humanity. I think of the roofless home of a Moroccan family in Rabat and how they were more than kind to a tiny American girl who did not speak a word of their language and whom they would never see again. There is my Spanish host mom, Elvira, who revealed the pain of losing family members and the joy of welcoming new guests, like me, into her home to stay. I see the tears of strangers and the grin of the elderly man I passed by every day on my way to school in Seville. With each new destination, the differences between the next person and myself shrink. As I explore the cultures of others, I recognize the flavors, colors, languages, gestures, flairs, and backgrounds that make us unique but not divided. We all miss someone. We all lose people we love. We all hurt, laugh, feel and share the experience of the fragility of being human. Perhaps we are not so very different after all. Maybe the Italian man’s home is not so different from mine.

         I aim an ear-to-ear smile at my elderly neighbor in seat 37E, who is now wide awake. He mutters something friendly back in Italian that I do not understand. The language barrier does not matter anymore—the oceans in his eyes seem to write back to me. I imagine we communicate on a deep level, both searching for what holds us as beings under the same constellations; as breathers, thinkers, and lovers; as creatures who start wars and who are simultaneously devastated by them, together. We are both on journeys that have little to do with our destination. I hope he, too, has found true beauty on his.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Travel Writing Through Italy

It's been about a year since I've blogged about traveling because I had to be productive and go to college for a year. While I certainly missed my European adventures, I think there's something valuable in staying put for a long period of time. Stability kind of messed with my not-committed-to-anyone-or-any-place mantra. I'm used to having friends from all corners of the world and I'm okay with losing touch until our paths cross again. But some pretty special people at college taught me that sometimes you need to fight to stay close to the important people in your life, no matter the distance. I needed freshman year to remind me that I don't always need to go elsewhere to find beauty in the people or places surrounding me. I am learning to be content where I am and trying to say, “I miss you and I hope to see you soon" more often.

Back to the traveling part. With a semester in Chile and a deadline for declaring my major(s) looming on the horizon, I continually ask myself the question of what exactly it is I want to do with my life. At a college where the majority of my peers will be among the finest future doctors, lawyers, and CEO's of America, I'm over here suffocating at the thought of sitting behind a desk and between four walls every day of my life. I think know that life is too short for constant misery and thus have committed myself to an occupation that makes me feel alive. So, what makes me feel alive? Traveling. Writing. Photography. Learning new languages. New experiences. Adventure. I'm going to take any and every opportunity to make sure these things are a regular part of my life. 

Consequently, I'm about to spend three weeks roaming across Italy with a group of students and three professors where I'm supposed to contemplate the 'art of travel' and express it through a 5000 word portfolio due at the end of the trip. I'm stoked to have the opportunity to try my hand at legit "travel writing" in an academic and historical setting. I'm more stoked to eat all of the spaghetti and gelato that Italy has to offer. I'm the most stoked to put my restlessness behind me and see the world beyond the United States again. Italy is chaos, art, and romance. It is ruined and thriving, ancient and alive. Pompeii, Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice are calling and I am ready, pen in hand, to capture each place's beauty for what it is. After Italy, I'll travel on to Salzburg, Switzerland, and England for leisure, returning to Arkansas in the middle of June. 

I am currently: keeping my fingers crossed that my Macbook and camera travel safely throughout my journey, trying to figure out how I'm going to fit all of my stuff into a carry-on size bag, considering becoming a minimalist, hoping the Italian wifi isn't too sucky so I can regularly post my essays, and peacing out cause I'm Rome bound tomorrow.

Wish I knew the Italian word for goodybe,