I marked or celebrated my post-IBM, 90 day Sabbatical with a visit with my son now stationed with the Navy in Naples. My trip began with an EZ Jet flight from London to Rome and ended with a couple of hours at The Viking Exhibit at the British Museum. I’m sure that the raiding from the far north required a hearty crew as they traded and plundered their way about Ireland, Scotland, England and the coast of France some 1,000 years ago. On the other hand, I doubt if there was much hassle about the size and cost of an extra carry-on bag as I saw a young Italian woman demolish one suitcase and abandon another at the gate in order to comply with the carry-on luggage policy. Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think.
Italy quietly delivers a humbling and historically disorienting experience. Everything is supposed not to work the way that things are expected to work or the way that it works as it should in Germany. Except when one has a coffee or a pizza or shops for shoes or inspects the civic art or considers its foundational contribution to the lives that we each live nearly everywhere (I don’t know much about India and China). I got the sense that Italians measure time with amplitudes different from my own.
In Naples (named Neopolis by the Greeks), one refers to the Greek streets, the Norman protectors and the Bourbon kings all of whom cultivated this culture long before it became part of modern Italy. Then there is Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Capri and Amalfi. I had this notion that they’ve seen most of it already and experienced the rest. A generation here or a government there or an inevitable looming crisis of some fashion will be outlasted. I still can’t get over the sight of lemons the size of large grapefruits or small American footballs. I am cross with the Neopolitans now that I know what is the texture and which are the proper flavors of genuine pizza.
Enroute to Naples, I visited the American Cemetery in Nettuno where 7,500 are buried. Retirement from a large company marks some personal milestone causing one to wonder what has one accomplished and what could be accomplished with whatever months and years and decades remain. Walking the rows of graves of young men younger than my elder son was an inspiring experience. Seeing the Italian landscape crew carefully tending each site, even scrubbing by hand the green mold from the base of the individual headstones (actually, crosses in most cases), yet again reminds me of our collective good fortune. So, I had Kid’s Meal and an Italian coffee at the MacDonalds across the street from the cemetery’s entrance. Of course, it’s not what they died for and I feel they would have understood such an indulgence on a beautiful afternoon in a quiet place so far from home.
I kid my friends that the genuine splendor of Italy is not another church -boy, did those guys have a 1,000 year racket! – nor another incredible sculpture and not another ‘how did they figure that out moment?!, which is how I especially felt as the train travelled alongside the lengthy stretch of still standing Roman Aqueduct, but the food, the food, the food and the myriad of visual pleasures, principally human. Every Italian seems to make a statement just by being and acting Italian. My joke was turned on me when a I visited the Sansevero Chapel and saw the sculpture of the Veiled Christ. This is art bordering on magic.
I returned through London quickly touring the 007 exhibit at London Film Museum. No collection of rocket-firing cars will ever eclipse the first sight by a 10 year old boy in New Orleans of Ursula Andress in Dr. No. The splendid British Museum hosts The Vikings. After Rome and Naples, they seemed like such newcomers even with their tougher than James Bond aura and actual Q-like inventions.
We’re good and not as novel as we think that we are. All that we’ve accomplished is predicated on what others have done and even failed to achieve. I read that Vesuvius collects a depth of five kilometers of molten material so that when it explodes, the scale will be similar to that of 79 AD. I suppose that Pompei will be resealed. Meanwhile, in honor of those who lived full lives, those who lived memorable lives, those who gave much and those who gave it all, we should treasure our individual amplitudes over coffee or a pizza.
12 April: related editorial in today’s NY Times.