I’d heard a lot about Pompeii before I went there. Some people called it a tourist trap. One of my colleagues actively avoided it on a hiking trip to Vesuvius. And, of course, I’d read about the plaster cast corpses that supposedly littered the city’s pavements like garbage bags on collection day.
I worried that the casts would be everywhere, as I’d seen on TV, still taking up the spaces that they’d claimed more than a thousand years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet any of them just yet. Pompeii was, however, just one of those places I felt I had to visit. To be in that part of Italy and ignore it would have been awkward.
As my companion and I inched closer to the ticket office in the sweltering heat, I kept looking at something gray and huddled that lay farther up the dusty road. It was quite a long way away, but I could see the crowds parting around it like water.
We paid for our tickets and began the walk up to the city’s walls. The thing lay right in the gateway to the city, humped over in defeat as though it had just failed to escape the ashy labyrinth that Pompeii’s streets must have become upon its destruction.
The thing was, in fact, a traffic bump.
And that was the closest I came to seeing a petrified corpse in Pompeii. TV had misrepresented the place. The ruins, the faded murals, the mosaics and the quietly lurking mountains were all very obvious. TV hadn’t lied about those. Vesuvius was there, looking kind of guilty and shy, but we saw no evidence of the casts. Instead of being scattered all over the city, they were all gathered in one place — somewhere that we, without a map, couldn’t find and, in the heat, weren’t inclined to investigate further.
I wondered what else I didn’t know. I looked at the small, terraced houses and wondered what it might have been like to live here. I thought about the heat, which was intense, and the sun, from which there was very little shelter. The whole city seemed to be raised up, and the surrounding mountains formed a ring under the blue sky, like we were under a huge magnifying lens.
Then I saw a lizard.
Pompeii, it seems, is absolutely filled with small, vivid green, furtive-looking lizards. They lie around in the sun on someone’s old front steps, climb in and out of cracks in the crumbly walls, and run away when you try to take their picture.
I wondered whether the lizards would have been there when Pompeii was a thriving city. The climate hasn’t changed drastically since then, and neither has the terrain, so I imagine that they would have been. For some reason, this made me think about Pompeii in a very different way.
I imagined Pompeiian bakers opening their shops in the mornings and chasing the lizards out of their shops with brooms, or Pompeiian theater goers delicately shooing them out of their booths. I imagined Pompeiian people sitting, just as we were, with nothing much to do, simply watching the lizards lying out in the sun.
I wondered whether any of the lizards had been caught out in the blast and turned into little, lizard-shaped paperweights.
Like any city, Pompeii has parts that are popular with visitors, as well as quiet parts, surprising parts and parts that you wouldn’t expect. We didn’t see any of the famous casts, it’s true. But meeting the lizards made us feel a little closer to the people that must have once lived in Pompeii. They might have been a little part of normal people’s everyday lives — a part that’s, perhaps, too small for most people to consider.
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— written by Josh Thomas
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