Gold Among the Ruins

“Look at me. LOOK AT ME!” our guide Carmine is standing before us, holding up the book on Pompeii, which illustrates the city’s charm and beauty and provides a dramatic counterpoint to the ruins in which we stand. I get the feeling that Carmine could have easily stepped into its pages and been right at home in its cosmopolitan atmosphere. He is a wiry, sensual man, about 5’6″ and deeply tanned, with a mostly silver mane of longish hair that is swept comfortably back. He glides before us like a bullfighter in the ring, easily engaging our puny tourist comments or questions, dispatching them with graceful parries. His somewhat raspy voice speaks in low melodious tones. His accent carries a bit of French, but perhaps that is just his imperious nature and sophistication peeking through his discourse. “Before we go in, there are the restrooms if you need to make the quick peepee.” If you crossed Mick Jagger with Al Pacino, you would have a tour guide very much like Carmine. Somehow he seems Italian to the core. With his pastel striped sweater, chic sunglasses, and his European man-purse, he is utterly at home in his own skin. He wears a dark blue bandanna tied jauntily as a neckerchief, completing his devil-may-care look, and he struts more than walks. There is a bit of ennui in his delivery, (after all, how many times has he led tourists on this same path?) but he still has traces of his passion that redeem his presentation and give it personality. He is a bit disgusted with us because, like Gilligan, we have only signed up for a three hour tour. It is not adequate, but he is not responsible for our limited time and resources. He can only make the best of our plight. “If you had a week to see Pompeii, it would not be enough. Perhaps it would take a month.” Since we will not be there a month, his attitude suggests that there is only so much he can do with us. “Everything you see is original”, he tells us, which does not preclude us from asking several times, as we see some detail of ancient life or construction, “is that original”? After a couple such inquiries, the diminutive Carmine turns to our 6’2″ friend Buddy and says, “if you ask me one-a more time-a, is that original, imma have to kill you.” Carmine does a very good job explaining what we see before us, enlarging our perspective and helping us to visualize the sophistication and beauty of life in Pompeii. We are dazzled by the amazing public baths, and by the house of the Faun. Carmine gives us details about customs which we did not know. He describes how people would socialize while sitting on one of the holes set in the common bench of the public toilet, and how rich people would have servants go sit on the cold bench for them in the winter before they would go use it– which prompted Buddy to say, “that must be where the term, ‘bench warmer’ came from”. Makes sense. As he leads us through the ruins, there are some not-so-subtle clues to Carmine’s sexual orientation. He helps women over steps, but says, “I am allergic” to men, who must navigate rough spots on their own. He cannot help but react to the youth and prettiness of a young Russian woman who asks him a question in passing, and the Italian in him appraises her with the confidence of a man who believes that, given the opportunity, she would want him. He is proudly heterosexual, and it is natural for him to be available. He takes pleasure in showing us some of the things they DIDN’T tell us about Pompeii in elementary school– the erotica of Pompeii…There are paintings or pieces of pottery for sale that illustrate passionate embraces and Kama sutra-like positions. But the one he enjoys pointing out the most (pun intended) is the picture of the man (or is it Bacchus?) whose extremely large phallus, which extends to his knee, is balanced on a scale. In the opposite side of the scale is a large amount of precious metal. Carmine tells us this is where the phrase “worth its weight in gold” came from… He is enthusiastic as he tries to get my wife to buy this artwork, but he remains professional. While he is suggestive, he never really crosses the line to crude, and although he is open to flirting, he never openly flirts. We are customers, after all. But he enjoyed our reaction to the gold on the scale, and traversed the line between tour guide and rake without being too naughty. And this is what I found noteworthy about our tour: Carmine was professional and informative, and he was doing a job for us that he does all the time. He was, yes, perhaps a bit bored, and yes, perhaps a bit disappointed that we were not giving Pompeii the time and attention it truly deserved, but when all was said and done, two things stood out to me about him: first, he was thoroughly professional, and he delivered scholarly content with ease and authenticity. He never spoke down to us, and guided us without being too condescending or, on the other hand, too familiar. Second, there was something a bit more subtle. Even though he was a bit of a true Italian ladies’ man, I noticed a couple of times his taking time to assist a couple of our group members who encountered difficulty navigating Pompeii’s rough streets or steps, and he cautioned us a couple of times about going too fast for some to keep up. As I heard his gentle reprimand about going too far ahead, and as I watched him gently assist a couple of our ladies to negotiate a high step, I thought, “the precious metal on the scales is not the only gold in these ruins.” There is a little in Carmine’s heart as well.

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