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Slopes of Vesuvius

Dostoevsky said the lives of the prisoners were like those of the “settlers on the slopes of Vesuvius.” That gave me pause, I tell you. I barely paid attention to the rest of the chapter so taken was I with imagining the lives of the settlers.

It was eight in the evening. I had just slipped into a tepid bath after spending 13 hours on the computer troubleshooting my relationship with Verizon. Well it wasn’t all about Verizon. Much of it was about the relationship with the new ISP. I was coordinating between the two, trying to decide which one was going to get the kiss-off. The blame game had been ongoing all day: whose operating system was too old, whose upload speeds were atrocious, whose set up was on the very edge of storage capability. And always running underneath the conversation, a current of competition, a pissing contest about who really understands the mechanism of Internet delivery.

Of course I had a blistering headache as I slipped into that lukewarm bath. I generally like my water scalding but I’m trying to go green, compromise, so you get the picture: bad day, no reward at the end.

I chose light reading to unwind with, hence the Dostoevsky. He hits me with that line about the prisoners lives and those on the slopes of Vesuvius. How could I not jump out of the tub and fire up the Internet? I wanted to know what those slopes were like. Were these prisoners subject to misery that knows no bounds or were they merely daredevils? I so wanted to tap Wikipedia.

I have no doubt there are ten or twenty readers here that instantly know not only the present state of the slopes of V, but what they were like back in the 1800s when Fyodor was coming up with his metaphors and comparisons. But I’m not one of them. I am ignorant of most things, geologically-speaking. And there was no way in hell I was going back on that torture machine, that, that computer!

So I’m left with my imagination. What bliss! All that was required was to, gasp! think. No rules. No undermining. No one else in the world even existing for once.

I imagine, on the one hand, thin shacks made out of tarpaper, clinging to concreted lava, black and painful to walk across even in wooden shoes. The terrain is impossibly steep. Your back breaks as you drive piles into the ground, hoping to create some sort of anchor for your little home of cast off building materials collected from the dumps of southern Italy.

Only squatters live on the slopes that no one owns. No one wants them. No one with a day job anyway. Or small shop. So who lives there? Drug addicts. Village idiots. Foundlings, perhaps. Children dressed in rags. Lepers. Three-legged dogs and cats with tumors on the left side of their faces. Goats of course. They are the only ones living well, but their milk is dry and bitter, their flesh stringy.

Do these settlers have evacuation plans? Emergency drills? How much advance warning do they have before V explodes? Does the Italian government take full responsibility when they are covered in magma and ash?

On the other hand, maybe the slopes are gentle and green. Extremely fertile from the minerals cast up through the years. The soil’s a bit thin, so no trees or shrubs, but verdant just the same. When did V last erupt? Have the slopes weathered and eroded and exploded with alpine vegetation since then?

Perhaps those slopes are the best real estate around. Maybe Frank Lloyd Wright or I.M. Pei has designed a neo-modern structure there, aesthetically-pleasing and able to withstand 1000 feet of molten rock on its head. The structure is designed specifically to take advantage of the fantastic views of Naples, to say nothing of the solitude.

Perhaps the slopes of Vesuvius are where it’s at for the wealthy Italians. Romans have summer homes there. They go to provide totally mod experiences to their clients and friends. The type of thing the middle class could never understand and so for that reason the visit is elevating and elitisizing. No matter how south the Italian economy goes, everyone wants to own part of V, just for the sheer bodaciousness of it.

I picture nicely-dressed people drinking champagne, stilettos (heels and knives, these are Italians after all) holding them to the slopes as they laugh and ignore the peril.

Soon my headache subsides and my body threatens to fall asleep in the water. To prevent drowning, I reluctantly leave my bath and head for bed. This is the pleasure left to me at the end of the day: thinking and dreaming. It refreshes and soothes. The next morning I will wake up ready to face the next chapter in the house of the dead.

Sue Lange

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