COEUR D’ALENE, IDAHO, USA – These days, I go to Italy for very specific reasons. My first couple of trips were inspired by a fascination with classical Roman history, and the general curiosity that most of us have when it comes to Italy. (How are the museums? The landscapes? The art? The pizza? The pasta? Gelato?) It was on my first trip that I began taking pictures, with a little point-and-shoot I bought myself with money I had made at my first high school job. After coming home and loading my pictures on my little MacBook, I found myself enchanted with the shapes, colors, composition and light I found throughout the country. I would come back to the images time and time again, and found myself going through them often. I thought they were fantastic, beautiful. Pure art.
I bought myself a better camera, started playing with it at home in America and then at home in China, and when I arrived in Italy the second time I began seeking places out not only for their historical importance but for their overall beauty. At the end of that trip, whether or not I could find a striking image in a place had become as important to me as what great deeds were once realized there. I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with the beauty of the land, of architecture and art, than with the beauty of the history that brought me there.
Photography has become one of the main reasons I return to Italy so frequently. Whenever I am complimented on my images from Italy, I tell people this simple truth: it’s really just difficult to take a bad picture in a land so beautiful. I can hardly take credit for how spectacular some of these images are – the subject does most of the work for me (any photographer’s dream, really).
When I moved to Rome two autumns ago, photography was one of the things I hoped to work on, but other things took precedence. I needed to start formally studying the language, and – most exciting of all – I was going to participate in my first archaeological excavation. Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill composed entirely of broken amphorae, sits in the south of Rome’s historical center. We spent a number of weeks tucked into its side, cleaning, categorizing and trying to reassemble giant containers from millions of tiny pottery shards. We bundled up together at a nearby hotel, had lunches as a group at the most wonderful tavola calda in the neighborhood, explored the city together. My experience on that site, with my team, was one of the most rewarding of my life, and I have been hungry for more of the same for years now. This September, I went back to try and find it.
The Archaeological Institute of America lists fieldwork opportunities on their website for those interested in volunteering and working on archaeological excavations around the world. It was through them that I discovered the Monte Testaccio excavation and again through them that I found my second site, Pollena Trocchia.
Pollena is a small town about fifteen minutes out of central Naples. It is an area that knows Vesuvius, the still-active volcano famous for covering the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in pyroclastic flows, very well – for eruptions as recent as 1944 have disrupted and drastically altered life in this town and the surrounding area for millennia. Our site was an unlucky structure that had been hidden away under many layers of volcanic debris since the eruption of 472 AD, a Roman bath complex that had been attached to a villa. The remains of the villa were, unfortunately, buried beneath the apartment complex next to our site. We would go to a small cafe and sip cappuccinos atop what could have been the peristyle of a most impressive ancient structure. I often wondered what exactly could be found beneath us. I will probably never know.
We would wake up early and trek across town to the site, hoping to get the most laborious work out of the way in the coolness of the morning and save ourselves from the afternoon heat. It almost never worked out like that. We found ourselves spending many hours under the hot sun, doing everything from pickaxing and shoveling to sifting through dirt with a trowel, or our hands. Drawing and recording different layers turned out to be the most difficult work – we spent three days working on (and reworking) a drawing of one single layer. (Below you can see three layers. We had to draw every single rock in each layer and measure it all before we could remove anything – talk about time consuming.)
The work never felt tedious, but there was a great deal of repetition. Those of us who were there were so steeped in a nerdy love for ancient history and archaeology that even the most tiresome, mundane tasks were accepted, and usually done with joy. We had paid to do this back-breaking work in the hot Neapolitan sun. All of us were hoping for different types of discoveries, both on-site and off.
When we had down time, we kept busy. Somedays it was our afternoons after finishing on site, more often it was our weekends. Getting into Naples was a five minute walk and a twenty minute train ride, and we explored the underground of the city, went limoncello tasting, searched for authentic pizza, wandered through the collections of world-famous museums. We were taken to archaeological sites in the region, not open to the public, that were run by the organization we were working for – a bath complex beneath a church on the edge of a mountain, a massive villa that might have witnessed the death of one of history’s most celebrated figures, Augustus. We would pass grand castles on hills and whizz through quaint local towns, admiring small piazzas and the slow-strolling Italians they held. Jazz concerts on rooftops at sunset, hiking up active volcanos and gazing out over the bay, standing atop our roof and looking across Campania into Naples, a mountain drenched in green at our back.
It was a beautiful experience. We discovered ancient coins, hair pins and dice, fantastic pizza on a tiny side street in a residential area of Naples, cultural similarities and differences, so many things besides. While I did not find a repeat of the experience in Rome I had so been hoping for, I found other things – things I might have been less surprised to find, had I gone into the experience with a better understanding of what I actually needed at this point in my life.
Traveling abroad and working abroad reminds me of living abroad. Walking around with a curious eye and a camera in hand reminds me of my creative potential. I feel very much alive when I am surrounded by foreign cultures, languages, food, people. Trying to break down barriers with people of other cultures and marveling in situations where you find you don’t have to – it’s a rewarding challenge. Everything is a learning experience. Everything stimulates and inspires me. I am engaged, fascinated. I am productive. I am happy. All of it reminds me of who I am, and who I want to be, and how it is entirely possible for me to have everything I have ever wanted… and everything I never knew I always needed.
Two years ago, I was very conscious of these things. I lived and breathed these things.
But life isn’t like that for me anymore. This time around, I needed to be reminded. I needed to find all of these things again. And I did.
This is the most important reason I keep returning to Italy, and keep traveling in general. I need it. The art, the food, the history, the opportunities to photograph and capture beauty – I need it for all of these things. But I also need it to learn. To learn about the world, differences, people. I need it to better learn me.
Have you ever had an experience of a rediscovery, reaffirmation of self?
Do you find that, for whatever reason, you can forget yourself? How do you find yourself again?