As a Classics student, I was overjoyed to be asked to chaperone forty-five 11-year-olds around Italy’s ancient sites. The school that I had worked at during one of my gap yaaaahs (that’s right, I took two. And I went to Tanzania during the first), needed an extra ‘teacher’ on the trip because they were struggling to find another willing to spend a week with that many children on the cusp of adolescence.
The children began by testing how much of a hard-ass/push-over I was going to be. I had to arm myself with a metaphorical cane when one brat began imitating my voice while I spoke and with a fire extinguisher when two young girls started screaming at each other, slamming doors and crying in the bathroom – in a public place. I also managed to accidentally make one girl cry when I told her a ‘boob-tube’ dress with bare legs and heels was perhaps not appropriate for an 11-year-old.
However, I would like to think that by the end of the trip we had established a pleasant dynamic. I was ecstatic when the kids’ desperate hands shot up to answer questions on Ancient Greek architecture after a speech I had given on the same topic (I flatter myself that they were listening). The girls loved telling me who was dating whom, who fancied whom and who used to ‘go out’ – whatever that means to a child.
The boys loved to hear about the cannibalism of Greek myths and the girls took up the habit of spontaneously hugging me. We also managed to convince the kids that because of a gas explosion, they needed to plug their nostrils with tissue in order to hike up Vesuvius (implausible for so many reasons, especially as none of the teachers ‘had to’, but they bought it anyway). The groups of staring teenage tourists also climbing the volcano particularly pained the girls, as well as the many photographs taken by teachers while holding back tears of laughter. Most of them found it hilarious when we told them they’d been ‘Punk’d’. Ah, good times…
Rome itself was a beautiful combination of lemon and orange apartments lining tiny cobbled roads with grand, colossal and awe-inspiringly ancient monuments. Ancient Egyptian obelisks, moved into Rome as a mark of Egypt’s defeat, are as incredible now as they would have been then – such a long journey and an even longer time since, and not a scratch to be seen. One could almost hear the 55,000 spectators that would have once cheered in a blood-filled Colosseum.
St Peter’s Basilica silenced its visitors with its unimaginable size, adornment and the cupola’s beautiful view of the city. Pompeii’s amazing volcanic preservation was a tragedy two thousand years ago but is a blessing to historians and tourists today. And when visiting probably the best-preserved Greek temples at Paestum – an ancient Greek colony in Southern Italy – one can taste mozzarella straight from the buffalo on a local farm.
Anyone interested in classics, architecture, art history, history, culture, aesthetics, Michelangelo, St Peter, the emperors, volcanoes, or even just pizza and sunshine, go to Italy. Just remember to take more than one pair of trousers for a week. Washing them in your hotel sink won’t work when they aren’t dry the following day.