One of the things I really wanted to do in Italy was visit some catacombs. That is a totally morbid and disgusting wish, but ... well. Have we met?
There are tons of catacombs in Rome, so how did I know which ones to visit? (I hear you ask). The decision was really made for me, as the Callixtus Catacombs were about five steps away from the bus stop. So it was really easy to choose.
I bought my ticket and waited for the tolling of a bell which would indicate the beginning of the tour. About ten of us English speakers joined an Australian priest, who led us down stone stairs that have existed for thousands of years.
[This is what I love most about traveling: walking the same paths that people walked so long ago. It grounds me; it's like I'm TOUCHING HISTORY. In unrelated news, I am a big ol' nerd.]
I thought I was going to be really scared, walking into what is, essentially, a Dead People Cave. But they've taken all the dead people out, and all that's left is a bunch of rectangular holes in the walls. The priest/tour guide told us that, back in the 1800s, the catacombs were opened for tours, and that some of the tourists would reach into the crypts and PULL OUT PIECES OF BONE and take them home. For SOUVENIRS. I can't even fathom the kind of nerve those people had; I'd be afraid of invoking a real-life version of "Whoooooooo's got my golden aaaaaaaaaaaaaarm?"
And now we have reached the Embarrassing Part of this story. Since the catacombs were graves, some of the earliest families decorated them with frescoes or even just line drawings. Some of these are still visible today, and the priest pointed them out as we walked through the crypts. We got to one drawing that he seemed especially excited about, and he stopped us to give a little speech.
I cannot emphasize enough that these drawings are thousands of years old, and are therefore very difficult to see, and also I am no student of Art. So the priest asked, "What do you see here?" and I tried to avoid eye contact so I wouldn't have to answer but he was not having that. So then I looked at the guy next to me--he was all of sixteen years old--like I was expecting him to answer, but he stared right back at me because he didn't know either. So we both looked at this minuscule, practically invisible line drawing, and the priest, taking mercy, said, "It's a bird."
Well, this did not help. So then he said, "Think about Harry Potter. What kind of bird is prominently featured in those books?"
And--oh, I still cannot believe this--I could not think of but ONE bird in all of the Harry Potter books and I knew I could not be right, but I said it anyway: "Um ... a hippogriff?"
I don't suppose you've ever wanted to climb right into a six thousand-year-old open grave-in-a-wall, but I certainly have. Hippogriff. Hmph. I do dislike feeling stupid in foreign places, but boy, I have had no end of practice.