May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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Italian Idyll VIII: Lava for Sale: Pompeii, Vesuvius and Neapolitan Negotiations

As the Rabinowitzes faced the reality of their Italian idyll coming to an end, there were still several tourist spots they wished to visit before heading home. In particular, an excursion to the ancient ruins at Pompeii, a climb to the top of Mt. Vesuvius and a shopping spree in adjacent Naples seemed a worthy itinerary to follow. Accordingly, they arranged with the local guides to make such a trip on the following day.

“We’ll take the same highway you took to visit the Amalfi coast last Sunday, but it’s much shorter this time,” advised Davide who was back on duty as the Rabinowitz chaperone.

“I’m glad of that,” commented Belle as she got comfortable in the second row of the van.

Soon our travellers had left Fiuggi and the mountains of Ciocheria behind and found themselves on the main highway, which connects Rome and Naples, a modern thoroughfare reminiscent of the interstates back home.

“We’ll head for Pompeii and Vesuvius first, before it gets too hot, and finish off in Naples in the afternoon,” said Martina, our guide for the day, who met us roadside at a stop outside of Naples.

Pompeii and the region surrounding Vesuvius lie on a plain near the Bay of Naples. At the time the Rabinowitzes were visiting, the local temperatures reached near 100 degrees in the sun. While there was little humidity, it was an uncomfortable environment for being outdoors. Nevertheless, Jake and his entourage slogged through the outdoor exhibits as best they could. The site that they were visiting consisted of the remains and exhibits of a bustling ancient Roman city that had been destroyed in 79 C.E. by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Along with a smaller village nearby called Herculaneum (today a modern, bustling suburb at the foot of the mountain), utterly destroyed by lava and ash, Pompeii and its residents at the time were covered in an estimated 13 to 20 feet of debris from the volcano and “preserved” in situ for all time. These frozen Roman “specimens” formed the subject for the grisly exhibits viewed by the Rabinowitzes as they walked among the columns and statues preserved at the site.

After 20 minutes in the hot sun, all rushed back to the shadowy comfort of the van, feeling twinges of sadness for the helpless victims of the catastrophe.

“Next stop, Vesuvio!” shouted Martina, as the van made its way back on the highway. Everyone used the opportunity to drink from the cool bottles of water they had prepared for the trip.

“It’s no more than 15 minutes away,” began Martina, as the van began to ascend the winding road to the summit of the famous mountain.

“I read that Vesuvius is the only active volcano in all of Europe and stands 4,190 feet above sea level,” Jake said, having boned up on Vesuvius facts the night before.

“That’s right, Jake,” said Martina. “The road stops short of the actual top, but you can walk up the final 600 feet to the cone of the volcano if you wish.”

Soon the van was parked in the lot that held all vehicles that had managed to make it to the comfort area below the summit where food, drink and souvenirs could be obtained. Jake and Belle opted to purchase beverages from the kiosk and sat at picnic tables overlooking the distant valleys below. Davide and Marissa alone among our visitors chose to make the final ascent to the summit.

“Good luck,” joked Jake. “Don’t forget to come back!”

It took the brave pair about an hour to complete the trek to the top and back.

“The climb was really hard and hot,” said Marissa, “but the view at the top was spectacular!”

Jake wondered at the lack of any bird life at their location, as if the birds knew to stay far away from the dangers inherent at active volcanoes. The last serious eruption at Vesuvius had occurred in 1944 and consisted of what is known as a pyroclastic flow, a high-density mix of hot lava blocks, pumice, ash and volcanic gas. In theory, an eruption could take place at any moment. Clearly, given its proximity to the city of Naples and surrounding towns near its slope, Vesuvius deserves its reputation as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

The Rabinowitzes and crew headed for the parking lot to resume their excursion to Naples, but before boarding the van, Jake began a conversation with some Italians who finally offered him two pieces of hardened lava from the site, presumably as souvenirs. Jake thanked them and packed these remnants from the 1944 eruption (?) in his pack.

The trip down the mountain and the drive to Naples were uneventful. In stark contrast to the rugged terrain they had left behind (and above) them, the city of Naples, capital of the province of Campania, spread before them brightly in the afternoon sun. Naples is the third largest city in Italy behind Rome and Milan and is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. The Rabinowitzes had one major objective in visiting Naples: shopping! As mentioned earlier on their trip to Amalfi, the Rabinowitzes wanted to put their negotiating skills to a successful test against the Neapolitans, especially because of their notable lack of success doing so versus the Amalfitanos.

Upon entering the city proper, Martina pointed out various famous sites—theaters, a museum and Roman ruins—and finally arranged for the van to let the Rabinowitzes out in a shopping district on Via Toledo in the center of Naples. Jake led the way through several streets lined with upscale stores selling an array of items that would appeal to an international clientele. Every so often, they would pass colorfully dressed, bearded carbinieri (state police), outfitted in black and red uniforms, who eyed the Rabinowitzes with more than a little curiosity. Finally, Jake noticed on his left a large sign indicating an interesting-looking leather good shop located on a side street:

“Let’s go in,” he suggested to Belle, “maybe we can find something here for the boys.”

They entered the store down a series of steps, and the shop owner came forward to greet them, eager and friendly. Jake went to work immediately:

“I’m looking for some wallets to buy as a gift. Do you have anything you can recommend?”

The owner pointed out a collection of wallets from which Jake selected the black model most to his liking:

“How much is this one?” Jake asked.

The Italian pulled out the tag from the wallet on which the amount—€85—was written.

Jake was not eager to spend that amount on one wallet.

“I wish to buy four wallets; how much if I buy four wallets? I will pay you €40 for each one, a good price.”

The owner paused and said with a smile: “You drive a hard bargain. Let’s say €50 for each, that’s not bad, eh?”

Jake wasn’t pressing his luck so without hesitation he agreed to that price, satisfied in his mind that he had successfully “negotiated” with a Neapolitan! The fact, as Belle later pointed out, that the storekeeper probably obtained a 100% markup on the transaction at Jake’s reduced price was lost on Jake.

As they walked up the Via Toledo to rendezvous with their van for the ride back to Fiuggi, Jake noticed that his half boots were covered with a fine gray dust—ash, in fact—that he concluded was a “gift” of sorts from Mt. Vesuvius, a memento of that ancient day when the mountain poured forth its earthy contents and rained terror on the surrounding populace.

“I’m not wiping this off my shoes any time soon; let time remove it!” he remarked to Belle, who nodded and smiled at her husband.

By Joseph Rotenberg

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for more than 40 years with his wife, Barbara. He has spent most of that time searching his surroundings for signs of intelligent life. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” will be published by Gefen later this year.

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