Yesterday, we took a Trenitalia train from Rome to Venice. I had been looking forward to seeing the Italian countryside. I’d envisioned roomy seats and a glorious view of whatever Italy had to offer. Instead we got cramped seats in second class and a train that ran through tunnels underground for what felt like 50% of the journey.
I studied Arabic furiously on the way, noting to myself with a tinge of despair that I still don’t know how to conjugate a verb.
We arrived in Mestre, an area of Venice beyond the watery canals just before sunset. We strapped our bags on our backs to walk seven blocks to an apartment on the fourth floor of a non-descript building in a quiet neighborhood. Then, after depositing our things we set out to find the grocery store.
Walking the peaceful, unpopulated alleyway leading to the store, I felt suddenly awed about being in Italy. The street lights glowed faintly overhead as we turned onto a busier street where locals were going about their business at a normal pace. As we neared the store, I braced myself for crowded, angry groups of grocery shoppers, but instead, at the store, people smiled and said, “scuzi” if our paths accidentally intersected.
The first time it happened, Lydian and I had turned a corner around some shelves to go into another aisle. A boy about her age, turned from the other direction to go down the aisle we had just passed through. He looked at me, smiled briefly, and then reflexively backed up. It had been seven days since I’d last seen a stranger, a non-American smile at me and behave kindly toward us. I was clumsy about responding to him. I’d gotten into the habit of pushing my way through crowds of both tourists and Italians.
The saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” makes a lot more sense to me in light of our experiences there. The Romans are pushy and snobbish and pushy, snobbish tourists visit their city in hordes. Perhaps the Romans are pushy because they get sick of the way the tourists behave, but whether that’s the case or not, one is faced with no alternative but to become pushy as well. No one will thank you for opening a door or giving way when it isn’t absolutely required. If you don’t push you way through the grocery aisles or along the sidewalks to the Colosseum, you’ll never get your crackers or your view of the marble bleachers.
It makes me think of army ants in Costa Rica. Costa Ricans warned us that if an infestation of army ants ever came into our home that we’d have to leave immediately and come back later only after the ants were all gone, otherwise they would destroy you too. We’d watch the little creatures as we walked innocuously beside the streets. Their uninterrupted march continued for miles as they carried huge pieces of natural or human-made items that were currently in the process of being destroyed. It was both awe-inspiring and fearsome to watch the ants turn something into nothing but inevitably, they’d always succeed. Over the course of a day or a week army ants were constantly in the process of diminishing the recognizable to rubbish.
I believe that without proper controls, tourists have the same impact on the world.
I’ve never been to such a popular western tourist attraction before. Our family has always traveled somewhat off the beaten path and so we’ve never contended with the sorts who favor well-known, heavily marketed destinations like Rome. In Rome, it wasn’t unusual to be standing in quiet awe of something, completely lost as I contemplated some incredible view only to have another tourist walk up to me at that very moment and say, “Will you take my picture?” It wasn’t unusual to be standing eighteen inches in front of a plaque with rapt attention reading a long dissertation about the history of some structure and have another tourist walk up and push their way in front of me. Tourists frolicked like deer-in-the-meadow near every major tourist attraction, completely unaware of the traffic around them, their mere presence a peril to all who pass by. Walking at a fast clip along a straight path, they would step out in front of us suddenly and without any warning. When our paths collided, they never apologized or even acknowledged their role in the catastrophe but just resumed their frolicking as though they were in a strange trance that rendered them unable to see the other people around them. They would walk toward us, down the middle of the sidewalk from the other direction carrying giant cones of gelato or big glutinous gobs of pizza or some other rich food item and walk directly into us in a head-on collision if we didn’t move out of the way (John experimented with not moving a few times just to see what would happen. The results were disastrous.)
To me, Rome was the kind of place that would make me lose faith in humanity, and myself. Though
the creative achievements on display there are fantastic and I would even say perhaps unmatched, it’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate them on an emotional level. There are too many people in the world who feel entitled to seeing them.
Not appreciative about seeing them.
After the painful six hour train ride to Venice, I was glad that we decided to stay in an apartment outside of the main drag in Venice. I don’t like the way that I had to behave in Rome and I don’t like the way that I started to think and feel about other people while we were there. Venice was filled to overflowing with the same breed of tourists that have made Rome into an all-you-can-eat buffet. If tourism, vacationing, travel, whatever you want to call it, is supposed to be inspiring, mind-opening, or uplifting, then Rome and Venice would be ranked toward the bottom of my list in terms of Must-See-Places-in-the-World. And all the small, hardly known places in the world like Mestre would be ranked toward the top.
When we got to Mestre and walked down our quiet little alleyway to the mostly unpopular (to tourists, that is) area filled with normal people leading normal lives, I felt like someone with morals again. Mestre was a place I could adapt to. There are friendly people and parks here and few, if any monuments, works of art, or ancient artifacts to draw a crowd. The little old lady who owns our apartment was a gentle, sweet human being who didn’t speak a word of English but still did everything she could to communicate with us clearly. Another woman at the grocery store actually offered for us to go ahead of her in line. A couple of teenagers offered to help us with our bags. This is the kind of place worth visiting in my opinion; a place that barely exists on the tourist radar.
If we ever come back to Italy or for that matter, any country in Europe, I’m taking up residence in some small community where the people are still friendly and there are things to be discovered that aren’t written about in the guidebooks. I intend to avoid epic destinations like Rome and Venice from now on until the hordes of tourists have completely disassembled the greatness and moved on to some other destination.
If you put tiny replicas of Michelangelo’s sculptures in an ant farm it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an ant farm. All the sculptures and artistic achievements in the world can’t make up for a nasty infestation of crappy, entitled people. It’s best to leave immediately, lest they destroy you too.