Sea story: A commuter’s choice: gas or cobblestones? (1987)

The cold, light drizzle, like a heavy mist, envelops the van as it pulls from the curb outside the Banco di Roma below our apartment building. In the rear window, we can see the seven blond heads bobbing in their seats as the scuolabus carries them off for another day at the American school, 33 km north of town. I turn to Carol, and give her a hug and a kiss.

Ciao, cara.” Slipping my left foot into the toe strap as I check the roundabout for oncoming traffic, I roll into the piazza, and make a 270° turn to climb the Via Domiziana. Built by the Emperor Domitian to carry troops between Rome and its naval base on the Gulf of Pozzuoli, today the Via Domiziana carries commuters from the northern suburbs through the “new” part of Pozzuoli into Naples.

The Via Domiziana bends around the Flavian Amphitheatre and climbs to the ridge between Solfatara and the Air Force Academy.

Soon I am passing the Flavian Amphitheater to my left. There is no time today to think about the bloody games and sports that used to take place there. We have our own games out here on the street. The traffic is getting thicker and the climb is getting steeper.

I have to make a critical choice: do I climb the Solfatara, or do I take my last chance for a right turn down to the coast road?

On rainy days like this one, the wind direction is an important consideration. The hill that I am climbing is actually the outside slope of a volcano that has been gurgling since ancient times. If the wind is coming from the east, it carries the volcanic fumes across the roadway.


Fumaroles in the Solfatara. Note the splotches of yellow and orange sulphur.

More than once, I have been caught just as I have to stand on the pedals and climb the last 200 meters to the top. Hydrogen sulfide in the fumes combines with the mist to make sulphuric acid. It burns my eyes and lungs. I can feel my bronchi closing off as they try to defend my lungs from the scarring gas. I have to take very controlled, slow breaths to make it to the top without injury. Frankly, it scares me.

However, the trip into the ancient city and south along the coast adds about 5 km to my commute. A considerable portion of it is on cobblestones. In addition to being bumpy all the time, on a day like this, they are slick. The tram tracks on the Viale dei Campi Flegrei are even slicker in the rain, but if I can cross them at a right angle, I can avoid falling down.

Coast road

Today, 30 years later, the coast road is still cobblestone. The old Roman roads last forever. (The trash awaiting pickup is new)

Neither route is better for traffic: it’s always crowded. Fortunately, I am as tall or taller on my bicycle than the cars, and the motorists are used to motor scooters and bicycles in the mix.

Today, there is almost no wind, and I opt for the hill. It is cold enough that I don’t work up a sweat gearing down and steadily working my way past the entrance to the volcano. A big tour bus from Naples is turning into the parking area outside the ticket office. Solfatara is a major tourist attraction. You can walk among the fumaroles and visit the brick ruins of the Roman baths. A steady stream of Fiats, Alfa Romeos, and assorted European cars creeps past me. No one is going fast.

At the top of the hill, I pass the Italian Air Force Academy which stretches down the slope to my right. We bend around the side of the volcano.


The road to work ran over the Solfatara, between the caldera and the Air Force Academy. Our house (Pozzuoli) was off to the right; AFSOUTH is to the left, behind and below the Academy.

Soon I am passing the other traffic as we head for the light at the bottom of the hill. I take a right turn and pedal up the broad boulevard that leads to the headquarters of Allied Forces Southern Europe. The Carabinieri military police at the gate know the American comandante on his bicycle. They wave me through with a smile and a salute. I will see them later, because the Italian Army mess has the best food on base. I usually eat lunch there.

The base was a Mussolini-era orphanage, and no one has updated the original architecture. The building where I work probably was a dormitory, because all the rooms are the same size: too small to turn into cube farms, but too big for the three or four officers that work in each one. I push my bicycle down the big hall and into my office, where it can lean against the wall behind my desk inconspicuously. The two Turkish officers who share the room with me are right behind me.


AFSOUTH HQ. I worked in the building to the right.

Merhaba! Nasilsiniz?” We chat about our families and other pleasantries as we shed rain gear and overcoats. I change my socks and slip into a dry pair of black shoes that I keep in the desk. As umbrellas, rain coats and other wet things dry by the radiator, we settle into our workday.

Another winter commute is safely behind me…

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