It had been a long, dusty day in Pompeii. We were happy to get to the Forum, the main square in the city, close to the exits, knowing we could get a gelato at the snack bar. In the square there were a number of modern art sculptures on permanent display depicting historical and mythological figures. The sculptures were made of steel, and very large, and for the most part anatomically correct in that not-so-subtle Greek/Roman way. I enjoyed watching how different groups and individuals responded to Hercules' (I think it was Hercules) most impressive penis. This particular young man was with a group of friends, but he approached the statue alone with a confidence bordering on brashness. He sat down on the leg and put his mouth on the giant penis. The reaction from the group of people around the sculpture was quick and mixed. Mostly there were groans and sounds of embarrassment, but there was also laughter from his friends. The boy, sensing the displeasure, stopped, looked right at the crowd and announced, "It's okay, everyone. We are French."
- click photographs to enlarge
There was a moment on this trip when I realized that I was just another tourist. Until that time I had mistakenly, and arrogantly, believed I was somehow different than the throngs of people around me reading the same guide books, making the same photographs, and drinking the same bottled water they stored in backpacks. Just the number of selfie-sticks, and the corresponding selfies being made with them, was overwhelming. I had the sense people were less interested in the actual sights and more interested in showing the world they had been there. I thought,
that's not me.
I wanted to believe because I was half Italian and could speak a few words of the language, I possessed some unique and intuitive insight into the culture and history. That my photographs and observations would stand alone and mark me as an insider, rather than the outsider I clearly was to anyone paying attention.
Rome and Florence were on the verge of "too much." There are people everywhere. Europeans, Americans, Asians, and all points in between. Rude people, friendly people, tired and hungry people. People ecstatic about being in places they had previously only dreamed of being. People willing to stand in line for hours to see the Vatican art collection or wade through pedestrian torrents on the Ponte Vecchio.
Italy is absolutely dependent on these millions of tourists that flock to its churches and galleries and incomparable vistas and beaches. Tourism is a major revenue producer throughout the country, but some cities and towns would cease to exist without it. It seems that everyone in these places is a tour guide, or runs a hotel, or is an entertainer that caters to the fantasies of visitors.
So, here we are. Pressing flesh with unknowns on packed trains. Sipping wine and coffee in quiet cafes on remote side alleys. Vowing not to enter another church. Relishing the soft voices and respect in a little-visited, underground cemetery for those not able to afford to be buried in a church. A meal with my Sicilian cousins and their wives in a restaurant filled with locals where my cousin Enzo coaxed Leslie into eating things she never dreamed she would put in her mouth.
Throughout all of it, I play the tourist.