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TRAVELER'S JOURNAL

Time Away? It's time to lighten up

A mom's anger about a missed curfew fades as Pompeii offers a lesson in seizing the moment.

August 31, 2003|Wendy Lichtman | Special to The Times

Sorrento, Italy — Sorrento, Italy

"Good kids, good kids," the concierge assured me as I stood in the lobby waiting for my 15-year-old daughter and her friend to return to the hotel.

It was 1:05 a.m. in Sorrento, and the girls, who were out with a group of Italian teenagers they had met that evening, were supposed to have been back at 1 a.m.

"Very good kids," the concierge said as he smiled and shifted his weight from the heels to the toes of his shiny black shoes. "It is better not to worry," he told me, rocking back and forth.

Sure, I thought, as I walked out the door into the darkness and began pacing the circular driveway. In front of me were the gardens that I had found so lovely in daylight. Behind me were the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, which I had thought were breathtaking a few hours before. But now I didn't care about flowers or the beauty of the landscape.

Right now I was furious at everyone. At the kids for being late. At myself for giving them so much freedom. At my husband for being able to sleep. And if this concierge guy didn't cut out the platitudes and the advice and the rocking, I could work up a little rage at him as well.

Earlier that evening everything had been glorious. I had watched an opera singer perform at a sidewalk cafe as I ate a chocolate banana gelato, I had found a wonderful woven silver bracelet made by a woman who told me her grandfather had taught her to weave silver, and, when I met my husband and the kids in front of a cafe, I was delighted to see the girls, who are deaf, laughing with four other deaf teenagers.

"This is my mom," my daughter, Bekah, signed, her arm around my shoulders, and I was charmed when one of the boys showed me the Italian sign for "mother."

"Can we go out with them for a while?" my daughter asked privately.

As my husband, Jeff, and I considered the request, I checked them out: three boys and two girls, a little older, but nice enough looking kids.

Well, sure, Jeff and I said, after telling ourselves that meeting new people is, after all, one of the main purposes of travel, is it not?

Go, dears, enjoy the world. Be back at the hotel at midnight, I instructed.

At midnight there was a gentle knock at my door.

"One more hour?" they begged in tiny, sweet signs. I couldn't resist.

At 1:15, I went upstairs and woke my husband.

"We know nothing about this place," I told him, shaking his shoulder. "Maybe those kids were dangerous and the girls are in trouble. Maybe Italians hate deaf people and they're all in trouble."

My husband got out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants. "Why would Italians hate deaf people?" he asked.

By 1:25 even the concierge looked concerned. "It is better," he admitted, standing perfectly still, "to be home at this hour."

A few minutes later, the girls appeared and waved goodbye to their new friends.

The concierge got back in form. "Good kids," he insisted, the forward motion bringing him all the way up to his tiptoes. "It is better if you not yell at them."

But before the carload of Italian teenagers had even pulled away, I was demanding to know where the girls had been and why they were late. While they explained some nonsense about two watches with two different times, I scolded them. Didn't they know how irresponsible and thoughtless they had been?

The concierge, looking down and shaking his head, was not happy with me.

"We've been worried," my husband told them, and with closed hands circling their hearts, both girls signed "sorry" before they ran down the hall to their room.

A day in ruins

The next morning I woke still angry. None of us said much on the hourlong drive to see the ruins of Pompeii.

I didn't point out the goats on the side of the road or the old man riding a bicycle up the steep mountainside. Nobody pointed out anything, even as we walked around the city obliterated by a lava flow from Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

When we came upon a glass case that held lava molds of people caught by the ashes, the four of us stood close together. A small child's body lay with his thumb about to go into his mouth. Frozen adults clung to one another in terror.

"You never know," my daughter signed, "when your life can just end."

"Seize the time," my daughter's friend, Tara, replied, one hand grabbing the air out of her other open palm.

When we reached the home of the man whom the guidebook called the richest person in Pompeii, the kids strolled away to look at the 2,000-year-old artwork painted into its stone walls. I stood with my husband in an alcove as he read from the guidebook.

"The male genitalia," my husband recited, "was an artistic symbol for power and prestige, and should not be taken as accurate anatomy of the times."

"It's an artistic symbol," I told the girls when I found them standing in front of a portrait of a man who was proudly exposing what ought to have been covered by his toga. "It does not reflect the anatomy of the times," I explained, parroting the guidebook as they took turns photographing each other in front of the painting.

Very artistic, the girls concurred, posing with the portrait as though he were an overzealous prom date.

Very symbolic, they agreed, grinning.

My favorite pictures of our trip are the ones we took that day.

In one Bekah, Tara and I are sitting in front of a Doric column with our arms linked. In another shot, my husband and I are holding hands next to pink flowers sprouting in the volcanic ash.

It's obvious that, by then, I had forgiven all. I can see in the photos how glad I was to have teenagers to travel with. For that moment, at least, I was seizing the time.

Wendy Lichtman is a freelance writer from Berkeley.

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