Two Students’ First Days Studying Ancient Rome

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following two posts were written over the weekend, an oversight on the Editor’s part. But the students’ insights and experience are worth it.

Brad Hopper ’14, Saturday Nov. 17 – Wow.  I have said this word easily more than a million times so far and we’ve only  just begun this trip. This is my first ever trip overseas (and my first blog post so I’m really breaking barriers now) and I was scared to death of what to expect when I arrived in Italy. I had been reassured by many back home that Italy was “a lot like America only the food’s better and the money looks weird,” but those many are very misinformed and I cannot wait to tell them so.

We arrived first in the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, France. Long lines, longer walks, and stressing over getting to our plane on time were the highlights of our typical airport experience. But for me, because I had never set foot in another country before, just being in a foreign airport was special. For the first time in my life I was fairly unable to communicate effectively with others nor was I able to understand if I had done something wrong or if I had been disrespectful. This was a culture shock in itself, and I was just in the airport of another country!

My fear and anxiety levels were quickly approaching maximum capacity, but approximately three quarters of the way through the flight, my nerves were instantly calmed. Our plane was soaring high over the Alps and into Italy. As soon as we were able to start seeing small Italian towns, Dr. Hartnett transformed from simple professor to full-time tour guide as he jumped excitedly from seat to seat pointing at the bay at telling us facts about an island whose name I couldn’t pronounce. This was my first real look at a different country, and I was shocked at how many mountains there were and how hilly the geography was. I am so used to driving through flat, straight, Indiana roads that a long mountain range and a great sea were sights for very sore eyes. My heart was racing, my adrenaline was pumping, I was so ready to land and start exploring, I just couldn’t stop shaking … then we came to baggage claim in the Naples Airport. Bags rolled out one by one and the other passengers picked them up quickly and started on their merry way.  The crowd of others diminished, but we were left standing, staring at the same three suitcases that just kept passing by again and again. Our bags were officially lost. After almost an hour and a half of listening to the baggage claims ladies tell us that “they think they know what happened” we had given up hope on waiting further and decided to leave anyway, praying that our bags would arrive to our hotel soon.

Our bus arrived and we all shook off the anger and frustration that had plagued our last hour because of our lost bags, but we were in Italy, so who really cared. Our official start (I call it official because sitting in an airport is not in my mind “part of the trip”) to the trip began at an elite, aristocratic home of an empress at the House of Oplontis. Ah yes, finally, my very first experience in an ancient Roman structure and it certainly did not disappoint.

The whole house was very well preserved and Dr. Hartnett gave a great presentation on its history but I just could not get over the sheer size, complexity, and beauty of the home. It was like absolutely nothing I had ever seen before. Let’s just say, in the short hour to an hour and a half that we spent there, I took 97 photos. The amount of pictures I had saved on my camera since 2008 was only 134, that shows how fascinated by it I was. Reluctantly, we had to leave the house, even though I could have spent months there, and go to our hotel. The hotel is very charming. It has smaller rooms, a beautiful and intimate lobby, wonderfully nice staff, but the best thing is that Mt. Vesuvius is visible clearly and magnificently visible from my balcony.

I wish we did not have so many other wonderful things to see so that I could instead just sit outside and stare and that volcano for the rest of the week, but I can’t, which I am just fine with as well. We then proceeded to shower and leave for dinner in a quiet, cozy little restaurant as a group where I had, quite literally, some of the best food and wine I had ever eaten. I have always lived Italian food, but my Italian food experience has never gone further than the Olive Garden. This was finally my chance to indulge in real, AUTHENTIC Italian food, and believe me I did. I ate four plates of food, including a pork quiche with spinach, buttered pasta with oysters, potato dumplings with tomato sauce, fried calamari, shrimp, and steak that was cooked to perfection.

After the meal was over, I craved for more, I begged my mind to keep eating even to stay out all night just going to every restaurant I could possibly find and eating everything on the menu.  But, after a very long day of flying, walking, standing, and eating, my bedtime hit me like a brick wall and I reluctantly went to sleep. My first day overseas had gone very well, except for the fact that my luggage could be halfway across the world. I was certainly unprepared for the complete change in culture that I encountered in Italy and I certainly was not prepared to deal with the language barrier. Nevertheless, I went to bed excited and ready to start the day. Also, I went to bed smiling because while at the restaurant I correctly asked the server in Italian “may I have another fork” and he understood what I said. I spoke Italian to an Italian, which meant I had officially made progress. Ciao!

Joe Granger ’13, Sunday Nov. 18 -  Today we toured the sight of ancient Pompeii and visited many of the sights that I had only previously seen in various textbooks. For instance, many are aware of Pompeii’s Villa of Mysteries; as this structure sports one of the most famous and complete Roman frescos. In person, the fresco was much more magnificent than I imagined. The painting had a smooth texture and possessed a background composed of a splendid red. The scenes in person had more depth, intricate detail, and action than is possible to envision on a Wikipedia page.

As a bio-chemistry major, it is very difficult to obtain an immersion experience. However, at Wabash we offer a true liberal arts experience; here the ability to study abroad and experience the world is possible with any major. In the spirit of liberal arts, even ancient Pompeii had many problems that were solved by chemistry. The first of these is: how were the baths heated? The ancient Romans solved this problem by using simple convection. They had a boiler chamber connected by piping to the bath chamber. When the boiler was heated, convection spread heat from the boiler to the above baths. Another issue in Pompeii was that they used lead piping to transport all of their water. Normally lead poisons the body and can lead to death. However, the soil and sediments in Pompeii were found to be very high in magnesium. Magnesium is used in many of the bodies’ processes for toxin removal. It is possible that the high amount of magnesium in the area was also transferred to the diet so the toxic lead was removed quickly from the body.  Outside the sphere of chemistry, there was also much to look at; one of the most magnanimous being the amphitheater. This structure was massive, and when entering gave the feel of being on the field at a major football stadium like “The Horseshoe” or “The Big House.” From the top seats of this structure, one felt on top of the world, and a view of most of modern and ancient Pompeii was possible. This trip so far has been filled with enlightening information of art history, and yes even chemistry.

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