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Under the Vesuvius

20. 7. 2023

She walked the streets of a city that had once disappeared.
She walked the streets of a city where time stood still.
She walked through the streets of a city that had remained underground for centuries, silent and still, while the world around her continued to change.
She walked through the streets of Pompeii with a small backpack containing a drink and a small snack, some money, a mobile phone with the ringer off, and perhaps some other small items. She kept her dark, long hair down. She hadn't brought anything to tie them up and it didn't matter. She had reserved the better part of a day for this trip. Her work placement in Naples was coming to an end, she had already accomplished most of what she needed to and she wanted to visit this place with as clear a head as possible. She thought that it was there, on the border between two worlds, the world of the present and the world of the past, that she could best think about how to deal with her own future.
She liked places like this. She regarded them as a kind of monument to a time when some events had not yet happened. When the things that had hurt her in her life were not yet a reality and represented only the distant future.
Pompeii was different from most of the ancient cities she had visited. The streets here retained much more of their former form. The mountain still towered above them, the volcano that had been there before the city was founded, and which now formed something of a terrifying monument to its destruction. Yet it was this destruction that allowed the traces of ancient life, the stories of some particular people, to be preserved for centuries.

People once lived in the places she was now passing through, experiencing their joys and sorrows, their fears and excitements. They probably knew similar feelings, as did the generations that came hundreds of years after them. Before their bodies turned to dust, they too had warm blood in their veins. The world was still theirs then. It almost gave her goosebumps when she thought about it.
She thought about the fact that in those very times, long ages before she and her parents came into the world, back then there was still a chance that her life too would be different one day, many years from now. Back then, it wasn't too late to do a lot of things differently. There was a chance to prevent her from ever being born, maybe even from being separated from her real family.
Or did she? In the days before Pompeii was buried by the lava of Vesuvius, in the days of the Big Bang or even before it, was the fate of all the people in the world already written long ago? If, from the beginning of the universe, various forces have interacted with each other according to certain laws of physics, which inevitably caused the eruptions of Vesuvius at certain times, were all people, including those yet unborn, predetermined to act exactly as they have ever acted in their lives? And this was due not only to their own predispositions, but also to how various differently predisposed people interacted with each other? How has everything in the cosmos been interacting with each other all this time?

She never knew why she did not stay with her native family, to whom she was forever linked by blood. The people who adopted her were always silent on the subject. Either they were ashamed of the truth, perhaps even to themselves, or they didn't even know it themselves. Maybe they were trying to protect their stepdaughter from the truth, even the perceived truth? All she knew was that she had come to them at the age of about four (she did not even know her exact date of birth).
The parents, the stepparents, tried in vain to bring a baby into the world. Eventually they succeeded, their daughter Erika was born, but they lost her when she was three years old. They didn't talk much about Erika either, the memories were probably too painful for them.
Eventually they decided to take on another girl, to adopt a surrogate daughter. They named her Charlotte. They moved to another state and tried to start over in a new place. Then they moved several more times, but most of the time they lived in Germany. Charlotte no longer remembered that period very well, but there was an aftertaste of fear, uncertainty and sadness. Whose was she? Where did she belong? Where would she belong next? And most importantly, to whom? When would she find herself among strangers again? She didn't even know the language of her new parents at first.
Her parents were financially well off, successful in their jobs. Despite all this, perhaps she was to become their new purpose in life. But shortly after they took her in, her mother became pregnant again and gave birth to another daughter. As the younger child, the half-sister required more care from her parents. She was now the more important one to her parents, Charlotte always had to wait for their attention.

No one wanted her, so it seemed to her. It broke her heart, but whenever she cried in front of her parents, they told her she was too big, that she had to be reasonable. But she didn't want to be reasonable, she just wanted warm arms, which she was no longer entitled to. Gradually she learned to behave as expected, or at least to come close to it. She still didn't feel completely satisfied, but at least she didn't have to hear so often that she should behave or even feel any differently.
Although she was becoming more and more able to act reasonable, as her parents had said, the same questions kept being thrown through her head over and over again. Why had her own parents, who had conceived her, disappeared from her life so quickly? Why had her mother, who had carried her for nine months, been unable to prevent it? Didn't they want her? Couldn't support her? Why did it even happen after four years, what had changed in those years? Or had she changed families more than once, she just didn't remember? And if her parents had died or couldn't keep her for some serious reason, why hadn't an aunt, a grandmother, one of her other relatives taken her in? Had they all fallen victim to some crazy stroke of fate that had separated them? Or was she even the victim of a crime? And if so, how could the crime in question have led to her ending up in a fairly decent family? Or was she less decent than she appeared?
Perhaps the only link to her possible past was Italy. As she had come to realize in the course of her life, she knew a lot of Italian expressions without anyone teaching her Italian. At least, not after she'd adopted it.

She remembered only fragments of her old life. Condominiums in a neighborhood. A fair-haired girl who might have been a relative, or maybe a friend. Walks along the coast. Men in cars who terrified her. Crazy fear, confusion, feelings of hopelessness. Except that over the years, as she tried to replay what had happened over and over again, and as nightmares haunted her at night with themes of abandonment, imprisonment, kidnapping, she was no longer sure what had ever been real.
In her teens, she decided not to think about blood relatives anymore. It was only hurting her and not helping anything. When any thoughts or ancient memories did surface, she immediately dismissed them.


She went to university. Although her stepparents wanted her to study medicine, law or economics, she decided to study archaeology and history, and later social anthropology. She was good at it, and she was completely fascinated and absorbed by all these fields. Her professors were enthusiastic about her term papers and essays. Some of them even recommended her for publication. She once went to a conference with her professors and enjoyed the attention they gave her and her work. Finally, she found herself. Finally someone cared a little, if not directly about her feelings, at least about her work. She finally felt like a fish in water somewhere.
In the end, though, she had to admit the truth to herself. She had to admit to herself that all the things she had put so much diligence and effort into, the fact that she had chosen these fields in the first place, all of it again had to do with the need to find her own roots. She couldn't know who her mother was, who her father was. She had no way of finding out. She felt incomplete, like a tree torn from the ground and buried somewhere far away, while its roots still remained in their original, long-forgotten place.

All of them, her parents and grandparents, both her own and her step-parents, shared a common history. They all shared common roots much further back. The truth was much deeper, perhaps even more mysterious. As old as humanity itself and much older still; it included the ancestors of all humans and all that had preceded them as well. Even if she knew her parents, she could not claim to know her roots, she would only be one step closer to knowing them, she would only have taken one step on an endless journey. Her life didn't just begin with her birth parents, it began long before that.
Despite all this, she kept returning to thoughts of her parents, even now she couldn't change that. Perhaps her story was too convoluted, too complex, with one event building on another and the various players pulling the strings perhaps only knowing select parts of it.


So she decided to work with what she knew. Not only the university was enthusiastic about her work, she gradually reached other people through texts and lectures.
She focused more and more on Italy. She spent much of her free time carefully studying more information about the country, and when she could, she also visited it in person, either for work or on holiday. She toured the various monuments, studied countless sources and, as she walked the streets of the cities, tried to remember if she had visited them in her childhood.
She also set up her own website where she published some of her articles on the history and various interesting facts about Italy, its cities and monuments, but also information about herself, including. She did not forget to mention there that she grew up in a foster family. Nor did she post her oldest photo, the one by which her biological parents might recognize her.
Then she also wrote several historical novels. These were even more widely acclaimed than the factual texts or lectures, however engagingly she was able to present the truth, according to some listeners. Even after several years of these successes, however, no one from the original family contacted her. Many times she opened her email inbox with some hope of finding a message about a relative, only to find only offers to collaborate or emails from fans.

She suspected that she should have arranged her life differently. Regardless of her parents, both her own and her step-parents. Regardless of who all she was and wasn't related to, who she had more or less common roots with. It was just her. A unique being, just like anyone else. As impossible or difficult as it seemed, she had to learn to be happy even with herself. To focus only on what she could control.

She's been through a lot of therapy. She also found interests that she really relaxed at, and even made a few new friends outside of work. Through one of her new friends, she met people who knew members of some Native American or other natural tribes. She became interested in their way of life, their rituals, their way of thinking and perceiving the world. These people revered the planet Earth as their mother and the mother of all creatures living on it, they seemed to be much more tolerant of differences between individuals. She felt perhaps more at home in the presence of these people than she had anywhere else before. She had even met a young man among them with whom she had a great rapport, although, it seemed, both were as yet cautious about taking their relationship any further. Moreover, by the time they met, he was already planning an extended trip to Ecuador. In the meantime, because she had little faith in her own worth (there must have been a reason her family had given up on her), and because she feared further injury, she tended to push men away who might be truly serious about her.

Gradually she began to think that she too could try living with the Indians for a while. But she still felt some doubts. Would they give her time off work for a longer period? And if not, should she leave it? Was it worth it? Would she not regret it? On the other hand, she would probably get a similar job sooner or later if she decided to return to the field later.
Before she could make a final decision, she was invited to Naples for a work placement of several months. The opportunity to get to know Charlotte better still beckoned, the city had already fascinated her because of its proximity to Pompeii. So she postponed her decision about her future plans until later.
The streets of Naples seemed familiar to her. In other Italian cities, she had sometimes experienced feelings of déjà vu, but here they seemed more intense and happened more often. Perhaps, however, she was so intrigued by the city that the more interesting things she learned about it, initially more so that she could write something about it, as she had been assigned to do. And, as had been her custom before, when she was enthusiastic about a subject, she ended up writing and publishing more about it than her work duties required.
She first visited Pompeii when she was still a student with some friends from university. At that time, she was completely captivated, feeling as if several realities were colliding at once, as if a kind of magic emanated from every stone, as if she could hear the voices and feel the sights of the former inhabitants. It didn't scare her. They weren't doing anything wrong to her. And death was part of life. But now she needed to rethink what to do with hers. That's why she visited them alone this time. Under different circumstances, she would have gone into nature, tried to meditate for a while, as she was learning to do with her new acquaintances, and if she couldn't, at least try to relax. But Pompeii had such a special status in her eyes that she simply preferred it.

Even there, however, she was unable to reach a definitive conclusion.
Yes, it was tempting to go to the Indians.
Or would she just be running away from herself?
Shouldn't she learn to be content as she was, in Europe, near people she liked after all? And associate with Indians or people of a similar disposition, perhaps in her spare time, after work, as she had been doing? She could have gone to Ecuador as part of her vacation, she didn't have to move there right away and just leave everything behind.
She could also try yoga. She had heard from one of her friends that it can help to find inner peace, that through yoga you can tune in to yourself, be able to accept yourself better, be more content.
But if she stayed in Germany or somewhere else in Europe, wouldn't all the civilizing influences disturb her from herself, wouldn't they hinder her self-development, would she be able to detach herself from them?
While she could not make up her mind, she kept reminding herself: She was part of the same world as everyone else. Like her own and her stepparents, like the people at the university, like the Indians and the yogis, like the people who had come thousands of years before them. They had common ancestry, everyone was related to everyone else. No matter what part of the planet anyone lived in.


As her internship ended and she watched Italy below her from the window of the plane heading to Germany, she couldn't help thinking that she might just be flying over her family's home. Maybe she'd even caught a glimpse of him.


She went to work with a cup of coffee she had purchased on the way, as she had many times before; expecting to find a lot of messages on her desk and in her work email telling her who to call, what needed to be done. She also anticipated lots of questions about Naples from her colleagues.
She could still try - stay. Work less. Not to try to find out as much information about Italy as possible at any cost, or to constantly look up interesting facts and historical facts. Not to be so conscientious about her work duties, and especially her website, at all costs. And when she learns some of this, when she is more relaxed, more accepting of herself, she might finally be able to allow a man closer to her, enough so that they might one day start a family together. Maybe it wouldn't even have to be someone with a relationship with the Indians.
She entered the building, said hello to the receptionist, and continued down the hallway. She walked to her office, glanced at the post-it notes on her desk, took a sip of coffee from her cup, and turned on her computer.

She expected the phone to ring in a moment. It rang more often than usual when she returned from business trips or vacations.
And yes, it started ringing only a few minutes after she arrived. The first caller that day was the lady at the front desk. "Hello again," she said, "you have a visitor."
"What visitor?" She took another sip from her cup. Unfortunately, she hadn't gotten much sleep that day and needed to wake up.
"An elderly lady, she was looking for you last week."
Did she have an appointment with some elderly lady she'd forgotten about? "Did she say what she needed?"
"I'm sorry, I can still try to ask her... I assumed it was someone in your family."
"Someone in my family?" Charlotte was a little confused. What would any of her relatives be doing there right now? Why wouldn't they have contacted her themselves first? Unannounced visits to her work were certainly not their custom.
"They don't actually speak German properly," the receptionist said, lowering her voice despite the content of her words, "but you're very, very similar. Really, it's as if you've fallen out of her eye!"