We went to Italy for the Eid holidays this year because our children are fascinated by Roman mythology and because – well, actually, does one need a reason to visit Italy? Pizza, pasta, gelato, art, architecture, history, shoe shopping – what more does a person need for a family trip?
Unlike the days of travelling with my children when they were little, I don’t have to drag along a satchel bulging with “just in case” items (nappies, clean clothes, aspirin, snacks, toys). Now nine and 12, my two sons manage their own gear, most of which has a power cord. Their carry-on luggage contains iDevices of all sorts, maybe an old-fashioned book (for those times when their e-readers must be turned off), and that’s about it. No longer wide-eyed with wonder at the thought of an airplane ride, my kids lope through the terminals like jaded road-warriors, scanning for the best place to wait for their flight (usually near an electrical outlet, to make sure they can continue mainlining their iFeeds).
Although we had gone “off the grid” with some mixed success on safari this summer (full disclosure: it was hardest for me), when we went to Italy, we took the grid with us. My husband and I had work to do, which necessitated laptops; both children had books and homework on iPads, and the older one seems to have become surgically attached to his iPhone, so that came with us too.
I came home from our trip a few inches rounder at the waist (gelato!), the proud owner of several pairs of new shoes, and with a renewed appreciation for Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. In that poem, a traveller describes a huge and ancient sculpture toppled in the sand, with the inscription “look on my works ye mighty and despair” still visible on the statue’s pedestal. But where once the mighty kingdom must have been so huge as to cause despair in the viewer, now “nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It’s one thing to read that poem in school with a teacher droning on about the fleeting nature of power and civilisation, and quite another to think of it as you walk along the stone streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
To stand in what would have been the marketplace and understand that people bought their bread over here, bargained for vegetables over there, watched the horse races at the bottom of that hill, is to feel history cease being an abstraction and become a living narrative.
The people are gone, killed in the intense heat of Vesuvius’s eruptions, but the buildings remain, offering a moment of double vision: I saw myself in the present, hissing at my children to stop bickering, and also as I might have been 2,000 years ago. Who knows? Perhaps even in ancient Italy, I would have been annoyed by my children’s endless litany of “did not, did too, did not”. One should never underestimate the universal and abiding nature of quarrelsome children, I think, in imagining life in ancient cultures.
Herculaneum did not suffer the same kind of structural damage (or looting) that Pompeii did, which means that many of its mosaics and frescoes are still intact, gleaming through the dust. Dolphins and Poseidon frolic on the floor of the public bath, a peacock graces the wall of what would have been a family’s main living space, vines and flowers decorate the remains of a ceiling. In both Pompeii and Herculaneum you can see entire warehouses filled with the artefacts of daily life – pots, urns, combs, spoons – all of which look like they could still be used today. Stacked in with the artefacts are plaster casts of bodies discovered in the ruins, mute and mortal attestations to the idea of Shelley’s poem.
My children were as awestruck as I was by these vanished civilisations, or so they claimed, when towards the end of our visit I found them sitting on an ancient stone step playing Minecraft on the older one’s iPhone.
In a thousand years, if global warming hasn’t incinerated the Earth, is that what future tourists will find when they wander the remains of our cities? Flat metallic iObjects – rectangles of all sizes – stacked against walls, tucked in what used to be pockets? It’s hard to imagine someone being moved to poetry by the sight of our electronic detritus, but then again, perhaps that’s what Stephanus Jobius thought about the mosaics he created in Pompeii.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi