But though Rome was on my Teenage-List-of-Places-to-See, I crossed it off some time ago because it seemed too “touristy”. Something happened between our trip to Turkey and a separate trip to China that changed the way we travel. And after we got off the well-beaten tourist path, I was reluctant to get back on it even if we were going to Rome.
We’d visited China a few months after the tsunami in Japan in 2011 that lead to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. On our final day in Beijing we’d decided to “wander” rather than follow a To-Do list of tourist attractions. From the stairs of the Yongdingmen Hotel on that final day where we’d stayed for three weeks, we could see the top of a large pagoda in the distance. We decided to make our way in that general direction and see what there was to see on the way.
On the way, we met a woman and her daughter working with a Chinese yo-yo in a park. Lydian was wowed by the contraption and the woman stopped us and began teaching Lydian how to use it. Then her daughter worked with Lydian for a while and I tried to talk with the older woman. I learned that she was from Japan and that she’d been rendered homeless by the tsunami. She was living with her daughter.
We also found a tiny music store under a bridge where we bought a very respectable pipa for only $30. Then, we accidently walked into a Buddhist ceremony with monks chanting and incense burning. We’d arrived just on time to see it. Minutes after we arrived it was over.
It had been an excellent day.
In fact, in 2010, after having raced through western Turkey in a rental car in less than 10 days to see every single tourist attraction possible along that route, we were capped out on tourist attractions. We didn’t care about the tourist attractions anymore. We cared about…well, the things we care about. We cared about the people who served us tea at gas stations and little shops. We cared about the evil eyes painted on trucks and the fact that we were being racially profiled. We cared about seeing Turkey, but not necessarily seeing the same things that everyone else saw. But we hadn’t realized it until we’d gone back home.
On our first official day in Rome, we wandered around. We were curious about the distance from our rental to the Vatican on foot. We didn’t know if the Colosseum was within walking distance or not. On this day, we accidentally walked into St. Peter’s Square as the pope gave his Sunday talk. Then, we accidentally caught a glimpse of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum just before it started to rain. It was a great day. We returned to our vacation rental happy and excited for the upcoming days.
But after we got back to our vacation rental that night, we started making plans. We put together our daily To-Do list of Must-See places in Rome. Each morning we would wake with the looming feeling of obligation that we must go and see a selection of these icons of western civilization. There has been no time for wandering. There’s too much to see in Rome.
And all of it feels so…necessary.
Add to that the fact that Romans tend to be rather cold, loud people who don’t know how to move out of the way when they’re walking down the sidewalk. There’s a strong focus on fashion and superficiality that has special implications on cobblestone walkways. Women totter right down the middle of the irregular sidewalks in their high-heeled boots while everyone else must walk behind them…slowly. Occasionally one of them falls down and I have to hold myself back from running over and saying, “Are feeling sexy now?”
And tourists are so rampant on the streets with their dreamy, far-off sense of reality that it’s difficult to navigate without running into one of them, standing in the midst of a busy intersection, camera in the air. They’re a lot like deer in how they pop out into foot-traffic, completely daft to the possibility that there might be another person occupying the same space that they’ve claimed. I started feeling very angry three days ago as we meandered through this mess of tottering women in heels and hypnotized tourists. Today, the feeling is still there, only much stronger.
But we made it to the Pantheon, and the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Vatican. Though I can’t wait to get out of this God-forsaken place now, we’ve still managed to see it all, and very quickly at that! I know that we’ve missed the whole point of Rome, but we’ve satisfied some unspoken travel obligation to go see these things that appear repetitively in school textbooks. I’m so angry and overwrought from the experience that I have almost nothing good to say about it at this moment, except that we saw it all!
I’m not sure why travel tends to be all about tourist attractions rather than just exploration and curiosity, but I suspect that it has to do with profit and convenience. Wandering doesn’t cost anything and therefore isn’t profitable per se (except as non-material rewards for the wanderer, that is). And it takes courage to wander the world without an official, socially sanctioned destination that has been pre-approved by Lonely Planet and everyone at home.
I can say with total honesty that today, I hate Rome. I don’t ever want to come back here. The people are stuck up and pushy. I feel angry with everyone in Rome and I cannot think of anything I like about a single, solitary Roman.
But I also know that this is what a tourist itinerary will do to a person. Maybe as we pass through little-known villages tomorrow on our way to Venice by train, I’ll wonder what’s out there and somewhere in my subconscious mind the tiny seed of a desire to return will be planted. Next time I’ll just explore. On that trip, it would be best for us to arrive with zero expectations and no To-Do lists; no itinerary.
I’ve made no list for Venice. I don’t even know what there is to see there except…Venice.