Happiness in Italy and eternal optimism in Pompeii

Even the dirt and noise of Naples failed to quench Clancy’s joy in Italy


One of the most admirable qualities of Carl Stearns Clancy, the first round-the-world biker, whose route we are following 100 years on, was that although he often went to bed with a grudge, he never woke up with one.

Although he had been driven to distraction by the Italian shipping company ripping him off then refusing him dinner, he was so delighted by the sight of Palermo the next morning that, while the boat sat in the harbour for five hours, he and an Englishman he’d met on the boat went for a wander, enjoying the brightly painted donkey carts, with their elaborately painted Biblical motifs, and the novel beauty of the cathedral.

Polishing off a glass of freshly made lemonade and happy with life again, he was back on board in time for the sailing to Naples, waking next morning to the glory of its bay and the sight of Vesuvius wreathed in cloud.

Mind you, he was bound to love Italy, which his research told him would be a land of love, romance, beauty, architectural wonders, and lakes and valleys flooded with sun or bathed in moonlight. After all, it’s probably the only country in the world which could have a word like asolare , meaning to pass time in a delightful but meaningless way.

In Naples, even the dirty, noisy inhabitants failed to quench Clancy’s happiness as he hopped on a tram to the National Museum to gaze in wonder at relics recovered from Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Forum.

Coming from a country whose history was measured in a handful of centuries rather than millennia, his vivid imagination found joy in the smallest things, such as a bunch of grapes, charred English walnuts and a half-baked loaf of bread recovered from Pompeii, “all carbonised into immortality, and each with its own story of the end of its world.”

The loaf, the walnuts and the grapes are still there, and still looking almost good enough to eat, even though they’re 1,966 years past their sell-by date, but how strange it felt to stand there in my own boots on the very spot on which Clancy’s had stood all those years ago.

Like him, we rode south for a few miles and took refuge in the cypress glades of what was once Pompeii, where he paid 60 cents admission and, armed with a local guidebook and a well-thumbed copy of Edward George Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii , fought off a horde of guides offering to show him around for $20.

He emerged from the city of death shaken by the experience and wondering what New York would look like 2,000 years from now. I’m not surprised he was shaken, for Pompeii is astonishing. Although 20,000 people lived there, most of them had scarpered by the time it erupted after several days of ominous rumblings, leaving only the city’s 2,000 optimists, who put the noise down to indigestion, and were in any case reluctant to leave a town containing 25 brothels.

What the eruption in 79AD left behind was the world’s most perfectly preserved Roman town, buried under 8m (27ft) of ash which preserved the bodies of those who stayed.

And although the faces of some are contorted in agony, others have the strangely peaceful expression which can only be gained from the sort of optimism which takes the rumbling of a volcano as a spot of indigestion.

Next week:

The glories of Rome and departure for Sri Lanka

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