In a moment in time, a seismic pandemic strikes like a bolt of lightning and non-essential travel is banned. We leave Spain three weeks earlier than planned and say, bye-bye Mediterranean cruise. We narrowly escape the European epicentre, cross checkpoints, navigate crowded airports, and board the last repatriation flight to Montreal, late March 2020. My husband and I wistfully welcome Canadian snow, as we land with gratitude and relief.
We are in solemn quarantine and order our groceries on-line. It takes three attempts to eventually get all the items we ordered the first time around. We sanitize and feel safe in our suburban neighbourhood. We look forward to spring, and to decreasing numbers. But the news becomes alarming for North America. In disbelief we read and walk for hours.
I start to experience withdrawal symptoms. Even though we have daily WhatsApp communication calls, when will we visit our daughter and son-in-law in Europe again? Luckily, none of us contracted COVID-19. So, stay home! The John Lennon/Yoko Ono Montreal bed-in becomes the viral stay-in mantra. Once bustling city boulevards are now emptied under strict curfews.
I addictively watched YouTube videos of walking tours in exotic destinations, but push myself to get up and get busy. We bury ourselves in home renovations (the hardware outlets were packed). We discovered our own relics and hidden gems in the process. This was our opportunity to change course, and execute home projects which were overdue, instead of playing victim. The physical work allows our minds to be Zen. Like many, I experiment with baking (yes, yeast was rare), and brought joy to those equally starved for connection and communion.
Life is what happens… The world became curious about the Spanish Flu (1918-1920). Natural disasters happened: hurricanes like Maria, the Black Death, deadly earthquakes, and melting glaciers. The biggest threat is before us: CLIMATE CHANGE. We channel Velikovsky and re-read Worlds in Collision. I need air and distraction.
I get lost in a National Geographic special about the highly-advanced Maya culture. Archeologists used CAT-scans and drone videography to discover cities below cities, dating back over thirty-two thousand years! What did Mayan high-priests offer the gods before they vanished? Imagine travelling back in time (or forward, like in Dark or Outlander on Netflix), to mingle with them?
As we clear our cluttered basement and archive our “artifacts,” we start a “face- mask’”collection and donate half our books. I find vacation pictures of Ischia and Pompeii. I smile. This family adventure with castles, fragrant lemons, salty air, and D.O.C. pizza, comes alive. A symphony of blue skies and blue seas enchant me and chase my blues away. I listen to Almost Blue by Diana Krall. So calm, I sing: “almost blue, almost me, in search of an identity.”
What I thought I knew about Pompeii was as fluid and disturbing as warming ocean water. Nowadays, ground sensors collect data acoustically and electro-optically. Drones produce 3-D imaging of houses. What was lost under that volcanic nightmare was rediscovered because of modern technology. We must preserve Pompeii against the threat of future eruptions and we must protect the hundreds of thousands living near Vesuvius today. Early warning signals are monitored at the Observatory in Naples aided by satellites in space. Will we get it right next time?
A highly trained multidisciplinary team was recently assembled in Pompeii to track the activity. I recalled that during our visit in 2017, a number of areas were off-limits to us, as they were beginning their Grande Progetto.
The ruins were eroding; ruins upon ruins. Pompeii was fading faster than it could be restored. Apparently, the old gladiator barracks collapsed in 2010, among other structures. I pictured bloody gladiatorial fights (sporting events of the era), taking place in front of pleasure-seeking audiences. Lions starved for days were let loose to finish the gory spectacle, as thousands cheered. In retrospect, life is what happens to unsuspecting mobs, as they blindly live each day.
A third of Pompeii has yet to be dug up, and our preconceptions will be challenged again. Most residents of Pompeii believed Vesuvius was a mountain and not a dangerous volcano; in 2020, we believed the deadly virus was just the flu. COVID-19 multiplied like pyroclastic flow, and we lost family and friends in a flash. We clapped feverishly and cheered on our front-line workers, ignorant of what micro-organism was infecting us, or paralyzing the elderly. We were frozen in time and we scheduled awkward Zoom sessions as millions died.
I relive 2017: Mom was still with us. Vesuvius was ominous when we arrived at the ruins that year. Initially, August 24, 79 A.D., was thought to be the red-letter date, but today, experts claim it is October 24. This revelation was another scientific breakthrough.
Wine and dried fruit from the harvest were abundant in each terracotta amphora. Citizens were found to be wearing warmer clothes, but why would they in August? The wood-burning braziers used in homes emitted an enticing smoke signal. People did not need warm clothes in August, but they kept warm in late October. DNA/Carbon-14 dating also revealed that the residents of Pompeii had excellent teeth because of a fibre-rich, low-sugar diet – (useful food for thought!).
Archeologists unearthed another opulent section of Pompeii owned by wealthy nobles. The walls of La Casa di Giove or the House of Jupiter were decorated with great works of art (Leda and the Swan). Revealed were bodies of a villa owner and his slave with three thoroughbred horses intact (bridled with harness, ready to race away). Among others in the rubble were two maidens (or two young men), in a strong embrace and mothers protecting their babies. I tremble at the thought that they were the unlucky ones. The majority were saved. I once believed that no one survived.
In the House of the Enchanted Garden there were shrines to Roman Gods, as affluent residents, with amulets in hand, enjoyed their infamous baths. I was intrigued by their ancient magic and rituals. I learned that they worshipped Vulcanus, the god of fire!
There were mosaics with mythological figures, two large snakes slithering toward an altar leaving clues about the origins of life amidst the ruins, and the skeleton of a person fleeing the eruption carrying a bag of silver coins.
A strongbox was also located one mile outside of Pompeii. It was filled with accounting records of assets and real-estate holdings. I thought about the strongbox I keep in my bedroom with precious family jewels. Inscribed are three simple words: Inspire, Create, and Believe. What would someone interpret it as, in the distant future?
What lies beneath the cobblestone via Abbondanza or via Del Vesuvio, but 2000 unsuspecting victims in fetal positions, holding each other. We wonder where the other ten thousand residents are? Do they lie buried somewhere or did they make it out? Could we be their descendants, because life is what happens?
Too many tourists have trampled through Pompeii. I feel like I should not be there in that sacred space. I don’t belong there, even though Italy is the birthplace of our parents; I should not dare intrude or disturb the tranquility and history. Thousands lived there and thousands died there, (vaporized, carbonized, shattered), on that burial ground and timeless amphitheatre.
I stop walking along the main via and I listen carefully to whispers and ghostly murmurs. I imagine what the frenzy at the forum or marketplace would have felt like, or the distant click, click of cart wheels on the smooth pathway. Dice games were played at the Bar of Amarantus. Wine flowed from the wine press, and the smell from the corner bakery was intoxicating. Suddenly, all collapses and they inhale poisonous gases instead. Is that a Gregorian chant, or echo of their desperate voices and hypnotic prayers for survival, as I bend time?
Back to the future in 2017; our heads are erupting with this history lesson of 79 A.D. and our imagination runs like hot lava. We need to cool down and return to Sorrento. We ferry across to Ischia, leaving the Gulf of Naples in a fast getaway, as Mount Vesuvius looms large like an enlightened Buddha. It keeps many secrets, that master of omertà! Whenever we steal a glance, it appears eternal yet still active underneath its deceptive magnificence. The last eruption of Mount Vesuvius was in 1944.
We arrive at our hotel and the next day we plunge and purify our bodies in the curative thermal waters of Parco Termale Giardini Poseidon (named after the god of the sea and earthquakes). This ecological spa in Forio, Ischia, allows us to soak our fired-up thoughts away by the Bay of Citara. Ischia’s inhabitants claim that the modern-day word spa originated there, (S.P.A or Salus per aquam, health from water).
To think that Greeks and Romans enjoyed the same hot springs of volcanic origin, now within our sphere of reality, is overwhelming! We relish the saline-bromine waters and the Roman sauna situated in a dark cave filled with natural vapours and mystery. I envision strange witches brewing fresh potions, and we are mesmerized. The giant statue of Poseidon reminds us of the majesty of the sea.
Then the mystic strega sends us an amber-rosso Sunset. Sky and sea merge in a happy dance; the divine and human intertwine like the serpents at the altar in Pompeii. We rejoice and are rejuvenated by the glow, on this Punta Imperatore promontory. There is but this family moment. Unforgettable!
In Casamicciola Terme, in the northern part of Ischia, a 4.0 earthquake hit just before we arrived in 2017. Twenty aftershocks followed with lower magnitudes. The ground was less consolidated in that region, therefore more fragile. Two people died, about 42 were injured, and about 2600 lost their homes. Several buildings and a church collapsed. This was the closest we would ever be to such a tragedy. Locals shared how they slept under the stars because they were too afraid to remain inside their compromised homes.
I wake up at home in 2021 at peace. But live with a global pandemic and uncertainty. We share the same fate, same fears and same dreams. I store away the vacation albums. Family members and friends contracted the virus with mild symptoms over the holiday season. Dear aunts and uncles passed away; we could not hug or console our loved ones. We grieve deeply for the countless who perished. We vow to tell their stories.
In a century, will our grandchildren listen to our recorded thoughts, appreciate coronavirus rainbow exhibits, or see holograms of their forefathers in museums? Will they watch nurses tenderly holding the hands of those gasping for air, as their immediate family bids them an iPhone farewell? Will they be heartbroken to know that bisnonna’s body was incinerated against her wishes?
Will the curators have survival information saved on the cloud, as opposed to scrolls of papyrus that require bombardment at the speed of light to be deciphered? Will we digitize everything as archeologists and specialized teams digitize Pompeii’s priceless legacy in 3-D models, before it’s gone? Will we learn from the past and use “ethical” Artificial Intelligence to secure our future?
Life is what happens, but we face an existential choice. Will we stop polluting our planet, prevent genetically-engineered disasters, and unleash full human potential? We require true professionals, philosophers and priestesses, not ruthless dictators or irreverent personalities to help propel our quantum leap in consciousness.
How much longer must we socially distance, organize drive-by celebrations, send virtual hugs and e-Love? It’s up to us. I believe that with our own amulets, prophetic will, and collaborative spirit, we will forge ahead. COVID-19 will become history, one that generations to come will hopefully read about, as a cautionary tale.
Maria Luisa Ierfino-Adornato is a Montreal freelance writer. She is the author of the historical novels McCord’s Quiet Rebellion and McCord’s Griffintown (Chronicler). Maria is a regular contributor to Accenti Magazine.
“Life Is What Happens…” is the grand prize winner of the 2021 Accenti Writing Contest. For details on next year’s contest, click here.