I’m writing this on a tour bus back to Rome from Pompeii. We are all covered in volcanic dust, and given the lack of laundry facilities in our current airbnb, will likely be covered in this volcanic dust for the next few days until we leave Italy. This is after a day of hiking up Mt. Vesuvius, then walking (and running and climbing and jumping) around Pompeii for hours.
We signed up in advance for most of the activities and tours we’re doing on this journey. I score as approximately a complete 100% extrovert on any personality test I ever take so, I’m always looking to do tours with actual live human tour guides, but I’m learning that self-guided audio tours are the best way to go with this crew. It’s not what I’d expected – and, not what we’ve signed up for, mostly. But we keep falling behind the group, wandering, playing, happily getting distracted, and then we can’t hear the guides at all, and have to become the guides (to the boys) ourselves… It doesn’t always work out that well. And Reza and I are left wanting to learn more and go deeper than just telling the boys what we already knew before the tour anyway.
Also unexpected is the boys’ appetite for audio tours. They love them. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, we are still quite restrictive on their screen time and any-other-technology-time, so getting their own little audio player to wear around their necks for a few hours feels like a treat. Second, the like to be in control, and they can completely set the pace of moving through a site when it’s up to them to walk to each location, punch in a number, and then listen on their own – once or twice or more times if they want – to the description associated with that location. Third, I think the audio tours we’ve done so far have been particular good, so they’ve been captivated. At Stonehenge, for instance, there was a separate audio tour for children – and I snuck a listen to it a few times, on Asa’s headset, because he wanted to run around and chase the birds and the contraption kept knocking him in the chest and the head when he ran, poor thing! – and the information was exceptionally well crafted just for kids. In fact, in the delivery of it, sometimes the narrator would lead in to a new section by saying something like, “OK kids, now if there are adults around, definitely don’t let them listen to this next part! It’s only for children to hear!” Of course those are the parts my boys basically memorized. Well done. Lastly, the boys are so competitive that, counterintuitively, the self-guided tours move along at a much faster pace than a guided tour for our family, and their attention holds better during that shorter window. The boys often race each other through to the next location, to hear the next description first, so much so that we’ve had to actually slow them down at times.
Well we did not have a self-guided audio tour at Pompeii. We had a live guide. For about the first five minutes. But then the kids were so enthralled with everything, and we wanted to let them explore, and get lost in their own games and discoveries, that we basically didn’t see that guide again until two hours later at the tour bus.
We kept an eye on the kids but let them roam quite freely. The city must have been spectacular 2500 years ago, but to be sure, what remains still struck our boys (and us) as complete and whole and perfectly spectacular for adventures today: streets to hop along stone to stone, platforms to jump from, walls to hide behind, pillars to scale, courtyards to sprint through, steps to race up and down and up again, and on and on and on.
Hide and seek became the game of choice. It always stresses me out when they suggest this game, especially in a new place, but we couldn’t deny that it was sort of the ideal place to play. So we made some rules, set some spatial boundaries, and just cheated (shhhh!) and kept our eyes open the whole time so we wouldn’t lost track of anyone. Jaspar may or may not have climbed into an ancient brick hearth to hide. Cyrus may or may not have crouched down in what I think was an ancient sewage drain. Asa definitely pulled down his pants and, before we could stop him, peed in the grass that grew in the center of what must have been a beautiful, ancient living room.
I get it, the allure of hide and seek. As a kid I remember feeling so proud of the hiding places I would find, and I remember the tension of both wanting to stay out of sight for as long as possible but also waiting expectantly, giddy at the thought of being discovered. The kids in my neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania where I grew up, we had a great thing going; we’d play “night games” where, even as teenagers, my friends and I would stay out for hours and hours after it got dark in the summer, playing flashlight tag or hide and seek, mostly the latter. Each round of hiding and seeking might last an hour. The whole residential street and all its tributaries, a handful of cul-de-sacs stemming off, were within the bounds of our game-paying territory. There were no streetlights, and very few houses had motion sensing security lights then, and one backyard often flowed into another, no fences, so we could dash across lawns and driveways and sidewalks in the pitch-black, hiding anywhere, everywhere. The only rule was you couldn’t go inside of an actual house while the game was happening, even to pee or get a glass of water. Most nights were humid, and warm, and the air smelled earthy and alive. We were the same – sweaty and dirty and alive – and each of us but the one who had to count would run fast to our favorite hiding spots, and tuck in to some chosen crevice and wait, wrapped in the hum of the summer night around us, knowing we’d be there a while, happy to just listen to the night sounds with nothing else to do but wait to be found.
After the boys had hide-and-seeked their hearts out, we got them to calm down a bit and we all rejoined the tour, which by then was clustered near an area where you can see the remains of people whose lives ended after Vesuvius erupted. I had seen photos of them before, frozen in time, lying on the ground as if sleeping. There was a child there too, covered by the ashes, young like my sons. I began to worry that the experience was too macabre for the boys, but they seemed more interested in how the science of it all worked – of the volcanic gases and the ashes and the bodies that were really humans but now looked liked clay sculptures – than they seemed saddened by the tragedy of the event itself. Reza and I felt somber, standing right in that place, taking in the magnitude of what had unfolded there 2500 years ago. I decided to try and ask the boys about other things, not the disaster itself, to take their (really, my) mind off of the darker stuff.
So I asked Cyrus how he thought Pompeii used to be, right before the volcano had erupted. The volcano we had just hiked up. What did he think the city had been like?
Cyrus smiled and replied, “I bet it was really fun!” He looked around. “Just like this Mom, with lots of people walking around and some kids playing hide and seek. I bet everyone was having a great time just like we are!”
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.