To say that you’re not in love with Rome is to court ridicule.
People will look at you funny, imagining that you’re some beauty-hating rube whose only reason for not swooning over the city was because you couldn’t find a handy Starbucks. Their faces will become masks of condescension and pity, their eyes saying, “Oh, I see, you’re a tourist, not a traveler.”
You know the people I’m talking about.
They post the Where I’ve Been Map on Facebook with the pride of a Girl Scout sewing merit badges onto her shirt. They pronounce the foreign names of cities and countries with a native flair— Knee-Ha-Rahg-Wha— even though they don’t speak the language. They have preppy, little nicknames for cities and speak of tourists as if they weren’t one themselves.
In the cultural context from which I hail, I’m not considered a very well traveled person. I’m a little bit sensitive, even defensive about this, and have always resented the implication that if you haven’t been abroad than you’re operating at a deficit, crippled by a lack in depth and perspective. This point of view, usually coming from people who are witlessly pedantic about grammar and table manners, has always struck me as unnecessarily elitist.
These things are little more than class distinctions and to fob them off as evidence of refinement, sophistication or even a heightened empathy, has always pissed me off. And so, carrying that baggage with me, my lady and I went off to Europe for the first time just a few weeks ago.
Overly elaborate in our attire, self-conscious of the culture of fashion we imagined inhabited the city, we wandered the streets of Rome looking for a restaurant a friend had recommended. TV antennas dotted the rooftops of squat, antique apartment buildings, their wires hanging down and disappearing into shuttered windows. An elderly woman watched from her open window as we waited to cross the street. I caught her eye and began to wave but she turned away and vanished into her flat.
Later, a breathtakingly gorgeous young nun walked past us, followed shortly by a tiny car— practically a Fisher Price toy—that pulled out from around the corner. Spotting Rachelle, the man behind the wheel blew her a kiss, putting his finger to his lips to hush her so that she wouldn’t mention it to me.
Hopelessly lost, we ended up taking a cab to the Colosseum where we wandered the exterior of the ruins. I imagined that upon seeing it, touching it, I would channel something mysterious and true and feel a sense of awe wash over me, but I did not. Instead I had my photograph taken with a couple of hucksters dressed up as Centurians, and as we headed for the Metro it began to rain—so lightly, beautifully and unexpectedly cooling— that the moment suddenly became perfect and ageless.
The subway, gloriously and beautifully covered in graffiti, shuddered down the tracks. It was impossibly full of people, and as this was our first time on the Rome Metro, we had no idea if this was typical and decided to look to a flock of nuns also waiting on the platform for guidance. They did not hesitate, but bullied onto the train, pushing and squeezing and contorting, and so we did, too.
We stood rigid amongst the scramble of people, clutching our bags like the tourists we were. The feelings of vulnerability, shame even, of feeling like an obvious tourist is so strange. We knew we’d never be mistaken for Romans, but still, we wanted to look like we belonged, like we were embedded in a culture we were merely visiting.
It’s funny, this. Rome, more than perhaps any city in the world, is a tourist town. Ten million of us visit the place a year, and we’re as intractably a part of the life and culture of the place as the Trevi Fountain, Vespas and Espresso. As such, tourists are not greeted overly warmly. We’re an unceasing commodity that will be ever-present, and the Roman character, the one that went out conquered the world and built monuments to its own glory, want your money not your conversation or approval.
No matter, even if the interior culture of the city remains relatively impenetrable, the tourist culture is itself fascinating. Religious pilgrims, newlyweds and bus tours from every corner of the world jostle about you. Albania, France, Germany, The United States, Morocco. The world visits more than inhabits Rome, and you can absorb more just talking with other tourists than by trying to engage the imagined Roman lifestyle.
In a sense, touring an iconic city like Rome is like passing through Universal Studios. We’re certainly seeing a historic blueprint for the civilization we live in, but we’re also looking at the sets upon which so much of the film and literature we’ve consumed have taken place. When one looks at the Colosseum, how can we not see Russell Crowe? And is it wrong to see our own popular, current culture in the world around us, or is that a failure of the entire experience of traveling?
There are all sorts of different reasons to travel, and they’re all valid.
We can seek natural beauty or history, we can strive to challenge or better ourselves, help others or simply evacuate our lives and lie on a beach for a week. There’s really no one reason that’s better than another— they’re all ennobling in their way.
The world, of course, is actually becoming smaller. Travel is more affordable and accessible than ever, and with the Internet— an invention I think as revolutionary as the wheel— we live global lives from the comfort of whatever electronic cave we inhabit. We fall in love on-line, we socialize and work there—in short, we live there and it becomes a country unto itself. Oddly, remote communication actually becomes more intimate and sincere than any conversation you might have with a stranger on the streets of Rome.
In the Congo, a friend of mine is setting-up an NGO and he tells me that the only thing the one-time child soldiers he’s working with want are Facebook accounts. In Greece, after a long day, I see Bohemian Romany boys, no more than 10, with their accordions still hanging off their backs like schoolboy knapsacks, settle into an Internet Cafe at midnight to watch Katy Perry videos and Skype friends.
The world and all the corners contained therein are getting more and more similar, and Rome and Toronto have more in common than they don’t. It’s the people we encounter in our lives, and how we interact with them, that matters, and not the the number of places we’ve had the privilege and opportunity to visit. An attentive, examined life, wherever it is taking place, will reveal treasures, mysteries and unimagined beauty, and you don’t have to go to Rome in order to find it— it’s in front of you, right here and right now.