Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chins and Volcanoes

on November 14, 2013

So at age 6, I learned the first important life lesson: Nothing in a child’s life is really immutable. Suddenly a test I was studying for wasn’t important any more. The teacher I feared was never to be seen again. But also, the friends I made now started their gradual fading into oblivion.

Yet, all paled in importance compared with our great adventure. We drove southward, and along the way, we read books. I remember reading The Last of the Mohicans, translated into French and simplified, with a number of garishly realistic illustrations. I would look up from the dangers befalling Alice and Cora Munro and glance at the French countryside, green shutters, red roofs, cows grazing.


South of France. Papa asked us, “What is the last city in southern France before entering Italy?” I racked my brains. Not Nice? So… Papa looked up and started scratching his chin. Saadia immediately shouted, “Menton! Menton!” meaning, “chin, chin!”  Papa smiled and patted her head. The clever one.

“Then,” asked Papa, “what is the first city we shall drive through after we enter Italy?”  I could not remember anything from what he had told us previously. I only had images of Hurons waving tomahawks in my head. I was desperate. Again, I was going to look stupid. Papa scratched his ear. “Oreille! Oreille!” I shouted. Meaning, “ear, ear!”  Papa broke out in laughter, “Fawzia, you are always falling in the pits!” Saadia joined in the laughter.

Once in Italy, Papa started telling us the story of Pompeii and how Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city and its inhabitants. He said some were caught by hot lava while running, others while eating and they all became statues petrified in their last position. We were eager to see this city of dead statues.


When we reached Pompeii, we only found locked gates. This was their day off. I was amazed. So dead cities also needed days off?

So we drove off to the volcano. We reached the foot of the mountain. Mama started nagging Papa about refueling. Papa insisted we had enough to go up and back down with no problem whatsoever.

Mount Vesuvius

Up the mountain, the view was beautiful. Unfortunately, all my fears of smoking craters and smoldering lava rocks came to naught. No heat, no lava, nothing. Just a nice quiet mountain. On the top, we parked in a spacious parking lot. Papa took lots of photos, perching his grey rectangular boxy camera with the two circles in front on a tripod. He climbed to the edge of the crater as far as we were allowed. Mama was getting impatient to leave, but Papa took more pictures. Finally, all tourists had left but one other car. We all climbed into the car, and Papa turned the ignition. Nothing but an insistent whine. Again and again.

“I told you so, I told you so…” nagged Mama. Papa insisted that there was enough petrol but because the car was parked on a slope, the liquid could not reach whatever piece of machinery was supposed to turn the car on.

The last tourist talked to Papa. He was going to give Papa a ride down the mountain to the nearest gas station. Then Papa would fill a gallon of gas and hike back. Off they went. We girls jumped and played in the back seat while Mama barked at us to keep all doors and windows locked.

The sun slowly descended down the slope and started disappearing behind the mountain. Suddenly, a knock on the rear windshield startled us. An old hunchback waved and shouted in Italian. Mama yelled, “Don’t pay him any attention! Don’t unlock the doors! Stay put! Be quiet!” We became frightened. We kept away from the windows. The hunchback went round the car and kept knocking at every window, and trying to say something in Italian. He gave up and left after a while. The sky turned dark. We sat quietly, now scared by Mama’s fear more than by the hunchback.

Finally, Papa arrived with a jerrycan. We shouted with joy. As Papa got busy pouring fuel into the tank, the hunchback reappeared. It turned out he was the caretaker and was simply trying to help.  Mama gave back to Papa his switchblade that she had been hiding in her tightly held fists.

We drove on.Mount Vesuvius


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