22 February 2007

The Best and the Worst

I will begin by bluntly stating the bad news, I was pickpocketed on a bus during my last day in Rome. Fortunately, the thief stole only my camera and not my wallet or passport. Unfortunately, all of my orginial photos from Venice, Pisa, and Rome are gone forever. I grimace to think that some grudgy twenty-something man looked over them with a criminal smile before deleting the whole lot. I had many photos of which I was particularly proud, especially those of the Vatican and the leaning tower in Pisa.

When I first noticed the camera was missing from my pocket I retraced all of my steps from the morning, searching around and asking various offices if anyone turned in a camera. Eventually I accepted the truth. The worst is that I'm fairly certain when and how it happened, and it could have easily been prevented.

I was on a bus and a young man came from the back of the bus and stood beside me. I even remember thinking it was unusual but I decided not to raise my guard. He leaned down as if to look at the window at a bus stop, and exited the bus at the next corner.

For all of the other days of the trip I have been extremely careful, having read again and again the dangers of pickpocketing. I have kept my valuables in front pockets with my hands inside, or in zipped jacket pockets. On the subway and around transit stops I have taken extra vigilance, holding my backpack in front of me, sitting when possible instead of standing, and observing my surroundings. On this bus ride however, I forgot all that.

I left my jacket pocket with the camera inside unzipped. Worse, my jacket was unzipped and I remained standing, so the pocket was hanging loose and easy to reach.

Now I can only learn from my mistakes. I refuse to allow this incident to repeat itself.

Incidentally, I bought a new camera the next day in Naples. The same model which I previously had, only twice the original price. A costly mistake to say the least.

With the bad news covered let's try to put behind us and move on to the more cheerful events of the past few days.

On the morning of my last day in Rome, before my camera was stolen, I visited the catacombs of Santa Sanbastiano Church outside of the city proper. This turned out to be the most interesting place for me to see in Rome. The church allows entrance to the underground tombs only with a guide, in my case one of the Brothers. There are three levels of tunnels, running 8 miles in total. The first earth removal began around 150 AD. Today the upper portion is accesible for visitors to see the creepy environment, but the bodies have been moved to the lower levels out of respect for the deceased. While these facts are interesting alone, the story behind these catacombs is even better.

Some of the first generations of Christians started work on these catacombs, and many others around Rome, as a place of worship and burial for their dead. At this point in time, 150 AD, Christianity was still illegal in Rome; therefore, churches and Christian cemetaries could not be located in the open. The early Christians secretly dug these tunnels underground in what was then the far countryside in which to lay their family to rest and worship. Today, the original tombs and altars remain. In order to pass through the maze of tunnels, the people used a system of early Christian symbols to guide themselves, so only they knew the proper way in or out. The complex grew overtime and came close to a Pagan necropolis (cemetary). The area around the necropolis collapsed a little time before 300 AD, forming a giant pit in the ground. The locals eventually named this area the necropolis of the catacombe, or the cemetary of the pit. From this we obtain the modern meaing for catacomb, an underground cemetary. However, the story for this site continues.

A family soon built their house over the pit, which they filled in with dirt. Modern archaeologists found the perimiter wall to this home, which one sees during a visit, and were perplexed by the amount of graffiti covering it. More so, the exact words of the graffiti, which were Peter and Paul. After further research and detective work this is the conclusion the archaeologists deduced.

A little after 300 AD the Roman emperor cracked down on the Christians in Rome. Fearing for the survival of their religious artifacts, the early Christians hid many of them around Rome. The remains of St. Peter and St. Paul were brought to this house for safe keeping. Christians in the know would come to this site and pray, leaving their prayers scribbled into the outer wall's plaster. When Christianity was accepted by Rome, the holy remains came to their present sites in Rome, but saints throughout the ages continued to visit these catacombs out of remembrance for their significance.

To think, I only thought I was going to see a bunch of old tunnels. I had no idea these catacombs would introduce me to such surprising history.

Later in the day I would visit a church in Rome which contains, according to tradition, pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Then I spent the rest of the day in a frantic and enraged state of mind of the loss of my camera, and travelling to Naples.

The next day I explored Naples while also searching for a new camera. At best, Naples is trashy and cheap; and at worst, it exists as a city edge of self-collapse. At one point while walking the streets I even questioned if I was still in Western Europe. I have never seen such quantities of litter and graffiti. Perhaps it was because I was a victim of crime the day before, but I could not feel calm walking the streets. If Rome is filled with energy, Naples is simply chaos. Of course, there is also this city's notorious reputaion with crime and the mafia. Put simply, this was probably not the best city for me to come to after being stolen from the day before.

In the afternoon I visited the ruins of Pompeii south of the city. The extant of which this Roman city existed, before volcanic ash covered, destroyed, and preserved it in 79 AD, amazed me. In many ways it was like a modern city. It possessed houses, offices, bakeries, theaters, brothels, and even a stadium. Many of the domestic frescos and mosaics remain intact. In fact, the frescos in the best preserved brothel display sexual positions used to advise clients. Authorities have moved most of the famous body casts to museums for further protection, but a few remain in Pompeii.

As the ash solidified around the citizens of Pompeii, their bodies slowly decayed and left behind cavaties in the rock. Later, archaeologists filled the cavaties with plaster, creating amazing statues of people in their final moment of life. The morbidly fascinating reality is that these are not statues created by an sculpter, rather the casts derive themselves from true human beings. A viewer can all to easily recognize a man covering his face in agony, or a women cowering in horror and fear. For this reason, I understand why many of the casts have been removed. If they remained, I think Pompeii would be too grusome of a site to visit with entire city's residents forever frozen in the state of dying.

At night I dined at Da Michele Pizzeria, one of the most famous pizzerias in Napoli, the birthplace of this world famous dish. I ordered the classic margheritta style, thin and covered in tomato sauce and mozzarella. Thanks to the Italians I befriended in Eichstaett, I remembered to look the part and eat it with fork and knife. While quite the tasty treat, I have to say that I still prefer the thicker American style pizza. Sorry Italy, you may have invented the pizza, but America perfected it.

That night I ventured to the top of a hill looking over the harbor of Naples. It's my first time in this city, but it was view I had seen over a hundred times before.

In my grandparents' bedroom, over their bed's headboard, hangs a painiting with nearly an identical night-time view of the scenic Naples harbor. When my father was young, he and my grandparents lived in the area of a Naples for a short period of time. As a small child during visits to my grandparents' house, I would sit on their bed and stare at the painting. I would wonder what life was like in Naples, Italy, and on the other side of the world. I imagined seeing it for myself for someday.

It was a surreal moment to finally find those shades of oil paint replaced with real twinkling city lights, the calm night-black water of the harbor, and the silhouette of the mountains in the background. A gripping reminder of how far I have come from that curious little boy to this world-travelling, yet ever still curious young man.


DaddyO said...

Grasshopper!! Have I not taught you to always be aware of your surroundings !! The only true lost, was the lost of your pictures. Sounds like you have put it passed you and moved on. I had no idea the Naples painting was a source of muse for you. I have a vivid memory as a young boy sitting on our balcony over looking Naples harbor and watching the tourch bearer for the Olympian games run by on the way to Rome.

Nick O. said...

Dad: I think you have, but maybe the message was lost in the alluding to the Kung Fu Kid.

I think I saw some of the same views you must have seen as a little boy.