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2000s Archive

Under the Volcano

Originally Published December 2002
A volunteer vacation in Pompeii involves maps, measurements, and…paradise lost.

There is a strike in Italy this morning. The various unions representing the guards at Pompeii have decided that they are overworked, are aggrieved by capitalism, or just want the morning off. So Europe's premier archaeological site will not open. The aggravation will end at noon, they announce, at which time life will return to normal.

For visitors, this is dispiriting. But for one group in particular, the problem seems dire. The 15 members of the Earthwatch Institute's volunteer research team, Food and Drink in Ancient Pompeii: Team II, are up, having showered, eaten breakfast, packed lunches, tucked pencils into their shirt pockets, and donned short pants. But there's nowhere to go. They have paid almost $3,000 a person, carved out precious vacation time, and come to one of the most beautiful corners of the world in order to survey ancient buildings, take the dimensions of dining rooms, and sketch kitchen hearths. A collective sense of doom descends upon the group, as if a teacher had announced to the whiz kids in the room, "Sorry, no pop test."

"It could be worse," announces Dr. Robert L. Vann, one of the leaders. "You could be a tourist." The word drips with condescension. "Imagine if you had come all the way to Italy, and this was your only chance to see Pompeii?" Cheered by this bit of schadenfreude, the group exhales a collective sigh of relief and settles into the hostel, preparing to spend the rest of this radiant Italian morning entering data into a computer.

"Ah, life in Italy," muses one volunteer.

Ah, life on a volunteer vacation. The temptation might be to say, "This is not your mother's package tour to Italy." But the truth is, this is your mother's package tour to Italy. And your grandmother's. And your little sister's. Over the past quarter century, a new type of leisure activity has sprung up in which hardworking, well-meaning, eager-to-please Americans-and their counterparts around the world-spend their meager vacation time, and their own money, to volunteer for missions in every hostel, pup tent, and grass hut on the planet. It's the Peace Corps meets Club Med.

This particular mission is sponsored by Massachusetts-based Earthwatch Institute, one of the gray-haired pioneers of the volunteer movement (our Birkenstocks are older than yours!), which began work in 1971 and this year boasts that it will support "138 expeditions in 48 countries on 6 continents," encompassing some 4,000 volunteers. The 15 volunteers on this program are remarkably diverse—a retired teacher, an M.B.A. student, a secretary from Utah—and very well meaning. Going on one of these trips is a bit like going on vacation with a bunch of Al Gores; terms like biocultural diversity and systemic climate flow freely. Inevitably, though, a high-school-band mentality sets in: I almost had to flee the first night at dinner—risotto with mushrooms and pizza Margherita—when the volunteers held a competition to see who could suspend a spoon from his nose the longest.

But in time what emerges is a sort of blood-drive spirit of giving something back, and the earnest sensitivity becomes admirable, even endearing. These are not shop-till-you-droppers; these are people who care. "I feel like doing something worthwhile," says David Monsees, a divorced 59-year-old sociologist with the National Institutes of Health who had brought his college-age son and daughter. "If I had followed my heart instead of worrying about starving, I would have become an archaeologist. Now, all these years later, I get a chance." This is his fourth Earthwatch excursion, and he plans to pursue a master's degree in archaeology when he retires.

In this program, at least, a volunteer vacation is much more volunteer than vacation. Monsees and his children work very hard. Team II is divided into four groups, whose job is to locate, map, photograph, and draw architectural details of the ancient city. It's all part of a six-year study to understand the daily eating and drinking rituals that were a part of everyday life in Pompeii at the time of its destruction.

The city of Pompeii is in the heart of Campania's fertile Sarno plain, bordering the Gulf of Naples, halfway between the grandeur of Naples and the honeymoon paradise of the Amalfi Coast. Once a Greek and Etruscan settlement, Pompeii was conquered by Rome in 89 B.C. A decade later, it was a thriving port with 15,000 residents. Grand villas with prancing fauns and elaborate gardens shared walls with cramped houses. An enormous stone amphitheater held bloody gladiatorial contests; baths offered cold, tepid, and hot water; mansions boasted licentious images of naked men and women in Kama Sutra-like poses. Pompeii could have been Babylon in its Dionysian excess.

Until…On August 24, A.D. 79, the nearby volcano Vesuvius, which had been erupting off and on for 16,000 years, spewed a deadly plume of smoke, ash, and lava. But it was the monstrous pelting of gray ash chunks, known as pumice lapilli, raining down on Pompeii and the smaller town of Herculaneum, that entombed them both.

Pliny the younger describes the plume of debris as having the shape of an umbrella pine tree, rising up like a trunk, then branching out. "Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood." Grasping his mother's hand, he writes, "We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell; not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives…there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying."

The cruel irony of Pompeii is that the cataclysm, which may have killed as many as 1,500, also hermetically sealed the city for nearly 1,700 years, making it the best-preserved Roman town of antiquity. In recent decades, archaeologists have intensified their efforts to examine what might be called the House & Garden aspects of the place. Wilhelmina F. Jashemski published a pace-setting study of the gardens in which she filled empty root cavities with plaster, compared the casts with existing plants, and determined which bushes and flowers once adorned the town. The Earthwatch project, designed by a protégé, Dr. Betty Jo Mayeske, of the University of Maryland, studies food and wine.

This is where the volunteers come in. Seventy-five years ago, during the golden age of archaeology, oversize professors with colorful personalities would camp in the wilderness for months, dining at tables set with sterling and crystal, and delegating the work to local laborers. Such excesses disappeared with peer review, tighter budgets, and the end of imperialism. Perhaps the most important contribution of volunteer vacations is that they provide highly educated workers who pay their own way. I asked Mayeske, the expedition's leader, whether this Pompeii project would have been possible without Earthwatch. Her answer: "No."

The volunteers also contribute to the scholarship, she stressed. One morning, a handful of them were measuring one of the rooms that make up the warren of mostly scarred structures on the 160-acre site. The primary task of this summer's research was to document every facility used for eating and drinking: a thermopolium (shop that served hot food) here, a triclinium (dining room in a wealthy home) there. This group discovered something previously unknown: a large public room that seemed to be used for eating but that had no facility for preparing or purchasing food. Scholars and volunteers huddled to discuss. Previous research that listed the room as a hostel was unhelpful; there was no place for beds.

After several minutes, Jonathan Cross, a 47-year-old management consultant from London, lobbed a semifacetious notion. Perhaps the room was a food court. "There are three shops nearby," he noted. "Maybe people picked up the food and came here to eat."

Dr. Mayeske liked the idea, but her colleague Dr. Robert I. Curtis, of the University of Georgia, demurred. "You can't make a connection between the way people eat today and two thousand years ago."

"Without evidence, I agree with you," Dr. Mayeske said. "But the climate has stayed the same; the topography has stayed the same. There is possibility."

Moments later, as the conversation moved on, Cross was beaming. "For me, the principal reason to do this project is to spend not just two or three hours at this site, but two or three weeks. And to be part of a team that is contributing to its understanding. Here you aren't spectating on the world, you are participating."

So what has the team been learning? Late one afternoon, I sat in the dining room of our hostel alongside Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, Italy's leading expert on ancient food, who was serving as overseer. Her personality was uniquely suited to her role-patrician, alluring, dismissive, all-knowing. And wickedly funny. At one point I asked her what she would do if I could take her out of the present and place her back in August of A.D. 79. She looked at me with withering disdain. "I would run."

Archaeologists know quite a lot about Roman eating habits, she explained. Accepting that class differences were enormous—Pompeii allegedly had two slaves for every three people—some conclusions seem possible. Wealthy people ate roasted meats (lamb, pork, venison, boar), sauces (the base was a fish sauce called garum—an early predecessor of Worcestershire sauce), and vegetables. Bread was baked in circular loaves with high-gluten wheat that made it chewier and more durable for travel. They ate cheese but no butter. Wine was drunk morning, noon, and night, usually diluted with water. "We can find literary references to people being accused of drinking their wine unmixed," she said, "which basically meant you were a sot."

Romans ate two small meals a day, followed by the evening supper, which often began in the afternoon. This meal was held in the triclinium, which was furnished with couches where guests reclined. "Only poor people, or slaves, ate sitting up in chairs." It was these meals that often became the sybaritic feasts of legend, complete with eggs, fish, partridges, parrots, songbirds in asparagus sauce, sow's womb stuffed with sausage, followed by honeycakes, nuts, and peppered dried fruit. Guests openly belched, girls danced provocatively, and most hoarded food in their napkins so they could eat it the next day. Periodic sumptuary laws were passed to control the profligacy.

"So who gave the biggest banquets?" I asked.

"Augustus ate practically nothing. Neither did Cleopatra. Mark Antony liked to eat. He ate a lot of boars. You can see on his coins that when he was young he was handsome; but the older he got, the fatter he became."

"So if you could go to one banquet, thrown by one emperor, which one?"

"At my age," she said, "I wouldn't go."

"But what about me?"

"At your age," she said. "I'd go to any one I could."

Before going to Pompeii, I had heard about another of the volcano's legacies—a mineral-rich soil that still covers the ground and yields potent, flavorful vegetables. I mentioned this to the owner of a local restaurant, who invited me shopping.

Salvatore Gramaglia is an Italian restaurateur out of Fellini—colorful, in his early sixties, with warm, gesticulative pidgin English he picked up in the Caribbean. We began our day at a farm, where we found basil leaves the size of my hand and red peppers as bright as lipstick. This part of Italy has lemons that look like yellow sponges, with thick rinds (to keep out bugs) and sweet nectar. The water buffalo responsible for mozzarella di bufala graze nearby. "The best tomatoes to eat with mozzarella are not very red," he said. "Save the red ones for cooking."

Afterward, he drove me up the volcano. Vesuvius is just over 4,000 feet high, nearly a third as tall as Etna, on Sicily. It has erupted more than 30 times since A.D. 79, most recently in 1944. The pines grew thicker as we wound higher on the volcano. Gramaglia was looking for a farmer. After 45 minutes, he spotted a man by the roadside.

"We are looking for the best tomatoes," he said.

The man didn't move. "I have the best tomatoes."

Antonio Sorrentino showed us around his small farm with Lacrima Christi grapes growing overhead, mixed with apricot, plum, and loquat trees. His ground was covered with short, spindly tomato plants, bobbing with reddening fruits the size of a baby's palm. These tomatoes are grown in soil that is two-thirds volcanic ash, which provides such intense nutrients that he never waters his tomatoes. The resulting fruits are small but incredibly sweet.

Still, isn't he scared to live on an active volcano? He shrugged. "Vesuvius talks with Etna. If Etna laughs, Vesuvius stays quiet. If Etna stays quiet, Vesuvius will make a problem. Now, Etna is in trouble, so we are good."

Living in this region has other consequences. As we drove back down the volcano, Gramaglia told me his bitter history. He opened his first restaurant at the foot of Vesuvius 28 years ago. For three years, the business thrived. "My name was a star," he said. Until one day a gentleman telephoned and instructed him to leave town immediately or face consequences. He was taking business away from another restaurant. Gramaglia went into his restaurant at two in the morning, left the keys on a table, and moved his family to Belgium that very day.

I didn't understand, so I had him repeat the story.

"It's the Mafia," he said.

For years he traveled in exile, then moved to Sicily, and finally returned to nearby Terzigno, where he bought another restaurant. Once more, he thrived. "For seven years, my restaurant was number one." And then it happened again. Angry that they weren't getting protection money, local thugs turned up one night with guns, asking for cash. Gramaglia handed them his keys instead and walked out the door. Food was in the kitchen, linen on the tables, customers in their seats.

I was so stunned by the story that I hadn't noticed where we were driving. Suddenly he came to a stop in front of an abandoned building on the outskirts of Terzigno. A sign over the door said, "Taverna del Buongustaio." This was the restaurant Gramaglia had left behind. He hadn't seen it for eight years. The shutters were still closed. One window was broken. The building looked haunted, as if no one had touched it in the intervening time. We stared for a few minutes, until he started to cry. "I am very sad," he said.

"Do you want to look?" I said.

"I want to leave."

As we drove back to the city, I asked Gramaglia what he would like to eat if he had only one meal left. Spanked spaghetti and fish sauce, he said, with boiled tomatoes cut with a finger, not a knife. A fresh fish, and fruit. As he talked, a smile crept back into his face. Suddenly, I understood this place a bit better. That moment when the fall is first tinged with cold, that mix of beauty and pain. That is the moment of Pompeii. It seems only fitting that Italy, so bathed in the perpetual glow of travel brochures and best-selling dross, should still be this today. Still be not the paradise received, but the paradise created. "I love my family, I love my family," Gramaglia had said so many times. Now I understood why. He gave up everything for them.

And yet he came back—to Pompeii, where to enjoy life is a noble pursuit. Because death hovers just overhead.

Earthwatch Institute (800-776-0188), one of the largest sponsors of volunteer vacations, is offering Food and Drink in Ancient Pompeii (earthwatch.org/) next year from June 22 to July 5 and again from July 6 to July 19. The tax-deductible cost of $2,995 per person covers accommodations, meals, and ground transportation but not airfare. Volunteer vacations offer a lot more than excavations, of course. The possibilities include everything from surveying butterflies in Vietnam to tracking elephants in Kenya, from working with women's textile cooperatives in Bombay to interviewing salmon fishermen in the state of Washington. Habitat for Humanity (800-422-4828) is another large organizer of volunteer vacations, placing about 5,000 people each year. Global Volunteers (800-487-1074) is smaller but has programs in eight states and 17 foreign countries. For a complete listing of organizations, pick up a copy of Volunteer Vacations by Bill McMillon (Chicago Review Press), a great aid to finding the trip that's right for you.