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A Southerner in the Old Country

When my wife and I had the opportunity to back to Europe, we took along our 13-year-old son. It was wonderful for us to see the sights again, this time through his eyes. Being as it was his first time, we made it the "prime-time" swing-through, with the obligated visits to all of the "must-sees" in the major cities. In Amsterdam we saw the Rijk's Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. Dutch art has always been my personal favorite--you can almost read the minds of the portrait's subjects by looking at their painted faces. Since Amsterdam was really an accident of embarkation, we had only limited time there before moving on to London. My only regret of the whole trip is that my son didn't get a chance to see Anne Frank's house, which is truly a moving experience. Not that we weren't busy, however. Theater in London, plus the Tower, crown jewels, dungeons, and the flea market at Portabello Road were worth the time spent. Paris, briefly, offered us the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. The Vatican, Coliseum, and Forum in Rome were more highlights, adding to the seventeen-day "tour"-de-force. I could go on and on about all of these famous sights, all of which I've seen a number of times myself, but that isn't very interesting. It would be the magazine version of pulling out the home movies. Instead, I'd like to talk about two places in particular which I found amazing.

The first was the monastery of the Capuchin monks in Rome. Within walking distance of the Spanish Steps, this humble group of holy men have saved the bones of about 400 years' worth of their predecessors. In the monastery the bones are arranged into geometric shapes on the walls, pyramids of skulls on the floors, and even chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It was dark and quiet as we walked along the corridor that opened into separate chambers that displayed bones from the 1500's on. There were stacks and arranged piles, ribs and femurs, vertebrae and pelvic rings. And there was a monk at the door, his long grey beard adding to the whole sacred effect. Silently entreating donations, I wondered if in his hushed calm there was an unspoken excitement for the time when his own bones might join the shrine here. Truly, this is one of the great tourist secrets of Rome.

This trip offered me my first chance to see the ruins of Pompeii, having always in the past opted for Capri as a day trip. It struck me as ironic that we were there on August 6, the fiftieth anniversary of the bomb over Hiroshima. Pompeii is very eerie, because the people there were killed in mere moments, choking on poisonous gas and ash which rolled through the town suddenly. After their anguished deaths, their bodies were covered in cool ashes which continued to rain down for three days, burying them and their city under 35 feet! When the excavations began, cavities in the solidified ash and rock were filled with plaster and the ash chipped away, leaving perfect casts of the dying victims where their rotted bodies had long since disappeared. The details on these casts were so disturbing, even to showing the grimaces on their faces, their hands at their throats.

What moved me as an OB-GYN doctor is that one of the victims was pregnant. I looked and could see that she was probably in her sixth month. I knew what was going on in her condition before she died, what she was experiencing, what her complaints probably were. Mother and child were stopped dead in their tracks in A.D. 79 by a sudden choking gas. Almost 2000 years later an obstetrician in private practice from Mandeville, La., had to stop to think about her. Like great Dutch art, you could almost tell what she was thinking by looking at her sculpted face.

Northwest, the city of Herculaneum got the firestorm, 180 MPH of flying super-hot embers. The fleeing citizens never made it to the beach. And 50 years earlier to the day that I saw Pompeii the people of Hiroshima experienced their own firestorm by the war-ending power of the atomic bomb. One disaster natural, the other man-made. One a tourist site, the other a cause for protest banners I saw that day in Naples and Rome. And as I sipped coffee in the Piazza Navonna that evening in Italy's capital, just a few hundred miles east evidence of mass graves in Bosnia was being photographed by satellites from space. What is the point of all this?

It's just that Europe is a place that makes it so clear that there are good things and bad things happening all the time, often obliviously right next to each other. We often live in a bubble in the USA, with our tidy lives and our news at ten, and it can be eye-opening if we just open our minds that there really does exist the rest of the world. My son learned this, even if it meant lugging around his seven-pound copy of "The Oxford Companion to the Second World War" he made us buy him. Because evidence of it is everywhere, Europe is a place that painfully points out that we live and that we die, and things keep going on.

Many of us will be forgotten after our own personal contacts themselves die off, but if there's a point to our life--or death--someone just may show off our house one day. And if we're really lucky, maybe someone will save and revere our bones. ©1995 GERARD M. DiLEO, M.D.

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