We enter through the gates in a hot, stuffy tour bus, after climbing Mt. Vesuvius, our lungs full of dust. Our shirts cling to our sweat, etching maps across our backs; it is our freshman year in high school. The nuns come out of stone buildings, hair swaddled in white. They speak in Italian, but in English to us. They show us our rooms, with high ceilings and balconies overlooking the Mediterranean. We unpack, then a bell rings for dinner and we walk down the loop of stairs, until the nuns take us by the forearms and guide us into a room for dinner. They smile and hand us a platter of noodles drowned in red, a basket of bread; a sacrament to us. We eat until the nuns stop eating, wipe their brows, and rise from their seats. Then they gather us outside and we all sit in the tiled courtyard. One nun with white hair tells us the convent was built on the ashes of Pompeii. We are silent as we listen to her. Then an older nun says, “God created the earth.” A boy in my group asks, “What did God make us from?” The frail nun, clinging to a blue rosary, places her hand on his shoulder, and brushes off some dust from his shirt. “We were made from this,” she says, as she flakes dust off her hand, and it falls back to the earth, back to the ashes of Pompeii.
August 18, 2008