Monday, August 22, 2016

Anniversary of Pompeii


In honor of this week's anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius,
(August 24th, 79AD)
I am re-publishing this post on Pompeii.
Enjoy! 



Growing up in the relative poverty of the American Hippie movement,
Europe was an exotic and distant planet to me
and one I barely dreamed of ever seeing.
My heart raced and I believe I may have even drooled slightly
when my 3rd grade teacher filed us into the library
and read to us about artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci,
the places they lived and worked
and the creations that fired from their brilliant, brimming minds. 


As long as I can remember, pictures of far-away lands fueled an ache inside me,
a fierce longing that churned and burned, roiling like lava itching to spread itself out onto the planet. 


When I was 14 and living in San Francisco,
an elder from my extended family handed me a book,
 and told me to read it. 
by C.W. Ceram.



Then he told me about a place described in it that I'd never heard of;
about an ancient city buried in ash; about Pompeii. 
The book was a bit hefty and dense for a teen to slog through
but I kept it for decades and never forgot the incredible story of a city buried alive,
lost to the world and found nearly two thousand years later. 



So visiting Pompeii was a dream come true for me,
A place I thought I would only ever see in books.

(Temple of Apollo
built in 2nd century BC.)

(Statue next to Temple of Apollo)

By then, having realized my dream of living in and traveling through Europe,
I was still in awe when I arrived at Pompeii,
at actually seeing the place I had only heard about. 
And while having seen many of the famous ruins of Greece,
I still wasn't prepared for the astonishing volume of buildings still standing,
not just 'ruins' but entire walls and fountains, columns and reliefs
still displaying their colorful paintings and intricate mosaics. 









This past weekend on August 24th, between noon and 1pm,
was the anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius 
and the complete burial of two entire cities
(Herculaneum being the second.)
(And apparently now the day of a 6.0 earthquake in Napa Valley!)

On this day in the year 79 A.D.,
in the Campania region of Italy,
the baths were open and people gathered for lunch. 
There had been a few warning signs,
small earthquakes, water sources drying up
but they hadn't recognized them. Tremblers were common. 
To them, Vesuvius was just a neighboring mountain.

While the citizens of Pompeii sat down to lunch,
the skies darkened and hot ash and rock fell from the sky. 
People ran through the streets with pillows over their heads for cover.
Many escaped the city
but those who stayed, about 5,000 of the approximate 20,000,
were caught in the deadly wave of red-hot ash and gas on the second day.
This pyroclastic flow, reaching temperatures of 475 degrees celcius 
and moving at 100 miles an hour,
killed instantly those who stayed with their city. 
Their bodies, surrounded and buried by the hot ash,
left an ashen crust with cavities large enough for technicians of modern day
 to pour plaster casts of the body's exact positions,
sometimes even facial expressions. 





What's left of the city itself
is a stunning glimpse into ancient Roman life. 

Pompeii was founded around the 6-7 century BC.
(though some of the oldest carbonized tests date back to the 8th century BC.)
The houses of Pompeii were used by the wealthy
which accounts for the size and beauty of the interiors;
Holiday villas for wealthy Romans. 








Some of the homes were equipped with 'alcoves'
specifically for sexual entertainment
and in 1599, during the digging of a channel,  a few frescoes were uncovered
but were considered so salacious
they were re-covered and left for a few more hundred years. 




Many of the wealthy townhouses
had ornate fountains and dazzling mosaics and frescoes...










(House of the Faun)

The above photo shows the House of the Faun,
 excavated in 1830 by the German Arch. Inst.
which took up 3,000 square meters
(a full city block.) 

It is so called because of the dancing faun in the marble impluvium.
Fauns were considered woodland spirits or forest gods similar to Pan
or followers of the Greek Dionysus or Roman Bacchus.
The impluvium was the sunken section usually located in the atrium 
 used to collect rain water,
 the atrium being the open space allowing for light and ventilation. 
Water collected in the impluvium was filtered through the cracks into a cistern below. 
During hot and dry times, the naturally-cooled water 
could be drawn back up into the pool and used to cool the atrium
and the house. 

For times when the streets ran with water,
stones were placed to create 'crosswalks.' 



One set of buildings sustaining the least amount of damage
were the baths (discovered in 1958) also known as The Suburban Baths.
They housed a dressing room (apodyterium),
a lukewarm room (tepidarium),
a hot room (calidarium)
and a cold room (frigidarium.)
It also held an exercise and steam room.
And of course, some gorgeous artwork.








One of the many things I found most astonishing at Pompeii
were the huge quantities of artifacts still sitting on site. 
Shelves and racks and racks and shelves
and glass cases of pots, jugs, art and plaster cast bodies
sitting in the open, a museum in itself. 



Pompeii was a flourishing city and commercial port 
with much import and export trade.
Nearby fertile land provided abundantly with grapes, wine, olives and oil, wool, cloth,
animals, vegetables and cereal. 


Some of the foods produced and consumed by Pompeiians included
walnuts, chestnuts, garlic and onions, 
figs, pears, peaches, and grapes, carob and beans.

The same plaster cast process done on the bodies of Pompeii
have also been done on tree and garden plant roots
yielding information on their planting patterns.

Much of the wine, olive oil and grains were exported 
and Pompeii was known for their own specific wine
known as Vesuvinum:
vinum being Latin for wine and you can guess where the rest comes from. 


Mastroberardino, a family winemaker in the Campania region,
is working on recreating Pompeiian wines as they might have been in Roman times.
With permission, they are replanting the same vineyards using the same grape varieties.
They've uncovered underground cellars of terracotta jars 
used to store the wine beneath the ancient vineyards. 
I've got The Chef working on 
how to get our hands on some of these new Pompeiian wines
they're calling the Villa dei Misteri project,
named for one of the well-preserved, out-of-town villas
called the Villa of the Mysteries.
One of the heads of the project, Antonio Mastroberardino,
has been called "The Grape Archaeologist." 




We're hoping to take some friends to Pompeii for their first visit.
Having done this before with friends from Greece,
people who are used to their lands dotted with the many Greek ruins,
it is a gift to see the looks on the faces of those who have heard
but never really understood the full extent of the beauty of what has been preserved. 

And for myself, 
I'm just looking forward to my next visit. 
Each time I go, certain 'Houses' are closed to the public 
for various maintenance reasons
so each visit yields something new,
some miraculous new discovery.


Just as when I was 14...



the story of Pompeii is imprinted on me.



And after having been there,
their personal stories




keep calling to me...


And one day I will tell them. 


(All photos copyright: Kirsten Steen
Sources: Wikipedia, 
Judith Harris' 'Pompeii Awakened'
and DVD 'Pompeii, the doomed city.')



(Aside: After spending the better part of August 24th,
off and on, putting together this blog post,
The Chef found a local wine shop who carried a few bottles 
from the Mastroberardino family wines.
They are not from the Villa dei Misteri Project
---recreating the same varietals of grapes on exactly the same vineyards the Pompeiians used
of which very few bottles have been made and even fewer make it to the States
 costing in the $200/bottle range---
but they did carry Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
or 'The Tears of Christ of Vesuvius.'
The name is derived from an old belief that Christ cried at Lucifer's fall from heaven, 
that his tears touched the land and gave divine inspiration to the vineyards. 
The deep lava gouges along the sides of Vesuvius make it easy to see why it got its name. 
And so far, according to archaeologists who have analysed the residue on the ancient taps,
this wine is the closest equivalent to that which the ancient Romans enjoyed.)


Friday, July 22, 2016

Happy St. Mary Magdalene's Feast Day (and MM's Cave Part 2)





Arriving back at the abbey (l'Hostellerie de la Sainte Baume) after my first trek to the cave, there was not enough time to shower before dinner so I cleaned up as best I could and hoped there might be other weary travelers at the table as possibly ripe as myself.








Meals at the hostellerie are served cafeteria/family style at specified times. Guests are seated along several long tables in a large window-filled room while the nuns sit together at their own table, secluded amongst themselves.
 While each day of the week offers a different menu,
 my one evening here, dinner began with a plate of tiny cubed beets with vinaigrette, baskets of sliced baguette and a carafe each of red and white wine.

 Across the table from me, three middle-aged women were clearly together and next to me an older gentleman, all of whom spoke quietly in French as they passed the bread and wine. The only woman to speak English ventured to ask me a few questions and then tried, occasionally, to keep me informed of the conversation.


 
The women were staying through the week and talked about the paths they had chosen up to the cave, their curiosity about the building next to it (what I guessed were the Priest's accommodations in between services), and what each did for a living. The older gentleman talked about how difficult it had been to find the abbey (on which we all agreed) and a book he had found about the cave at another site.  





Dinner arrived in the form of thick chicken cutlets, semolina and fruit for dessert. Meals are for specified times and the young nuns who served began clearing away food while the older man was still eating. The women at my table tsk'd as they talked, pointing their fingers at him. The English-speaker told me they were unhappy that he wasn't allowed to finish his dinner in his own time.


After dinner I desperately wanted to retire to my room for a hot shower but stopped to peruse the many plaques hanging in the foyer. Each one told of a different century in the care-taking and history of the cave. 



And as I looked around, I realized that every plaque, every piece of artwork, every bit of information centered on Mary Magdalene and the history of the cave.



 I stood in front of the glass door to the chapel and peered in. The English-speaker at dinner opened the door, then turned to me and said, "You can enter." I followed her in and noticed several murals on the walls along the pews. Again, each one was a part of Mary's story. Not having spent much time in churches during my childhood, it seemed to me that the ones I had been in usually told the story of Christ, he being the central figure. I loved that here, Mary was central. 


The murals depicted Magdalene in a boat, standing outside the cave and surrounded by angels. The chapel itself took the shape of a cross with the pews and murals along the base with two wings creating the T. In the left wing sat a piano where a young man played classical tunes, a young woman by his side. In the right wing, another small chapel with the 3 women from my dinner table. I watched them as we listened to the music and they whispered quietly together, staring peacefully at the altar and eventually separating to pray and wander alone. 



I sat in one of the pews taking in the paintings of MM and listening to the pianist practice classical pieces I didn't recognize but which didn't sound like religious hymns. At one point, an older nun came in, stopped suddenly in the center of the aisle, cocked her head as if trying to place the music and then huffed right back out the door (by which I took to mean it was not her kind of music.)



I finally retired to my room and took the best hot shower I can remember, still not having gotten warmed up after my trip to the cave. I settled into my single bed with my lap desk to jot down notes about my first cave visit, occasionally peering out my window to watch a herd of tiny kittens scamper together in the nun's courtyard. 


The next morning I joined the same group for breakfast, then hurried to pack up my room for their rather early (9am) checkout time. I packed the car and went in to the nearby gift shop where I'd seen a purple amethyst gem tree like the one I had as a kid. As a young adult, I'd given mine to a friend (who had long since lost track of it) and I hadn't seen another like it until I arrived here. 



So I purchased it, packed it in the car and went to the Hostellerie's gift shop where I picked out 2 medallions of Mary Magdalene, 2 of the Archangel St. Michael and 2 bookmarks. One of each for myself and one for a friend who lives outside of Paris and whose eyes lit up when I told her of my upcoming journey. She told me her aunt made the trek to MM's cave every single year. I stuffed the medallions in my pocket to make the journey back up to the cave with me and I set out once again.








This time I took the path to the left, knowing what I would find at the top but like last time, not knowing what it would do to me, how it might change me. Again I chanted words in my head. The words Merci. And Mary Magdalene. And Thank You. My pilgrimage of gratitude and guidance. 



 I stopped for short breaks and took photos of hearts I found continuously along the path. When I got to the top, I  again arrived during a service and waited outside in the courtyard with a few others.











 I watched one of the women from my dining table crouch before the courtyard's statue of Mother Mary holding the body of her crucified son, Magdalene crying at their feet. The woman rocked back and forth and held her hands together in prayer. One of the other women joined her and they locked hands, crouching together. 






I finally edged my way into the cave and slid into the nearest pew to watch and listen until the service was over. Then I wandered the cave for a 2nd time... and looked for places where a woman could sleep inside a freezing cave. 



This time when I went downstairs, I pulled the 4 medallions from my pocket and held them in one hand while I dipped the other in the pool of cave water the monks had tried to fence off. Using my right hand, I cupped the cave's own holy water to my left hand and soaked the medallions with it. Then I did what I always do with holy water in any church I enter wherever I am traveling: I rubbed a drop of it at the site of the 3rd eye, the 6th chakra, the place of intuition and wisdom. And from the small pile of leaves that had fallen from the two potted olive trees, I pocketed a couple which now sit on my altar at home near the amethyst gem tree and medallions, all of which I consider my gifts from Mary Magdalene.
(The identical medallions blessed with the cave's holy water I sent to my friend in France.)



On the backside of the altar, I took a staircase I'd missed the day before. 
At the top sat another statue of Mary Magdalene,
the area beneath her strewn with notes written to her
or the names of those prayed for in her name.


Each of the stained glass windows depicted a story with MM.




And a laminated poster board told the locations of each statue 
and stained glass window and its history. 


Most of my 2nd day in the cave I spent asking for guidance, praying for my channels to be open, for help finishing my novel and my writing to grow. And for the people I loved and my deep appreciation and gratitude for the blessings in my life.

When I first put Mary Magdalene in my novel, it was with what felt like guidance to do so. But when I began asking for further guidance about her role in the book, I heard very little. I meditated on it, I prayed, I listened, I got scared in the quiet. Finally I did a meditation putting myself in the cave with her... and   the   Guidance.  Was.  Huge.  Apparently, I had to come to her. And I decided someday, some way, I would get myself to her cave in the South of France.


When my family announced they were spending 2 months in Provence in the summer of 2015
and inviting all family and friends to come visit for any length of time,
I put us down for a couple of weeks about a year before the scheduled date. 
As it drew near, I began to question the wisdom of taking 2 weeks vacation 
when things were feeling tight
and my partner wasn't sure yet he could make it. 

Then I looked at a map...
and suddenly realized MM's cave 
was not far from Aix en Provence,
which was not far from Avignon
which was very close to where we were staying. 
And I knew I had to go. 


And somehow I am different...
not only for having made this journey,
but for making it alone. 
I was able to break through barriers of fear,
so many fears of doing this by myself:
of making reservations by phone with a monk who doesn't speak English,
of driving myself there alone, of finding it alone, 
walking it alone. 
And now at any given time or place at any moment's notice,
I am back there in my mind. In her cave. Back there in the mystical, special, holiness of it.
And I am changed again.

When I returned to my family's vacation house, the first question to me was,
"Well, was it for real??!!" 
And I had to answer that it doesn't matter. 
It doesn't matter because the centuries of prayer to her, with her, for her still linger in the air, 
painted onto wet walls, dripping and skimming the surface of the pools making them holy,
filling them with the magical essence of prayer. 
The people who inhabit it every single day to offer services, 
to sing and pray and feel what is there all make it real. 
Their belief, CENTURIES of belief, makes it real.  
I can't say if she truly slept there,
if she spent the last years of her life and widowhood there
or if her relics actually grace the inside of the stunning reliquary
but today,
on St. Mary Magdalene's Feast Day,
crowds of believers will carry what they believe to be her relics 
through the town in communal reverence. 
And I will return to see her again.

Happy Feast Day! 



(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)