Everything is authentic

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Trying to decide if a travel experience is authentic or not is like trying to separate “travelers” from “tourists.” That debate separates those who travel along class and age lines, with travelers proclaiming their experiences better, richer, more true than those of the tourists. There’s even a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton that delineates these two types of travelers: “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” Labeling travel experiences as “authentic” works in the same way.

A quick Googling of “authentic Italy” returns 90,400,000 results as of this writing (that’s almost twice the entire current population of Italy) and ranges from recipes (lots of recipes) to group package holidays to farmhouse retreats. I could even find a few bus tours that peddled in the words “real Italy.” The point is that “authentic” and “real” are buzzwords, especially in these days of online trip advising, when the right words will bring more visitors to your website. (I would say that we writers of the Roundtable are guilty of this with this month’s topic. The term authentic Italy comes up too often for us to ignore it.)

So what does make a trip to Italy authentic? How can you make sure that you are living your best travel life, making all the right moves, and doing as the Romans do? I don’t think you can — and that’s ok!

I’ve traveled through Italy in all sorts of combinations: alone, with American girlfriends, with my boyfriend, with my mother, with Italian friends, with my husband and two kids. I’ve lived here twice, first as an au pair with an Italian family and now with my own Italian-American family. Along the way, I’ve explored the “hidden” villages and backstreets, dined at holes-in-the-wall, and immersed myself in the local culture. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes and eaten at plenty of crappy restaurants. Those things happen even when I’m stateside.

While I haven’t, like a few of my Roundtable colleagues, married an Italian and/or started and inn, I have felt that each of my experiences here have been both touristy and authentic. Recently I’ve even turned the concept of authentic on its head, as I’ve become a regular at a very touristy pub that’s near where my son takes weekly music lessons. The bartenders – a young Bangladeshi guy who moved to Rome at age six and speaks flawless Italian and two twenty-something Italian guys who run beers and glasses of wine to British, American, Australian, and German tourists all day – seem delighted to see a familiar face each week. Those three are as hospitable and as “authentic” a representation of Rome’s modern demographics as anywhere else in the city. I’m not saying that you’ll have the same experience. But I am saying that authenticity can encompass a lot.

I think one of the problems of expecting authenticity when we travel is that we are wrapping it into a fantasy of what our trip should be. Rows of Tuscan cypresses, singing Venetian gondoliers, and picture-perfect Amalfi Coast sunsets all figure into our Italian travel dreams or they do at some point. For those who want to delve a little further, there are the Agriturismo (farmhouses) and Airbnb contacts that allow you to live a little bit more among the locals. But make no mistake: you are in Italy to see things and to feel things that you can’t at home. There is a fantasy. While fantasies can become realities, they dwell in a space that is the opposite of authentic. Like the Chesterton quote above, we are, like tourists, coming to see what we planned to see. “Authentic Italy” is all of that but more.

As Robert Reid wrote recently, “No one agrees what’s truly ‘authentic’ about a place. But if you’re near fudge or taffy, you’re probably not where it’s at.” While I do believe authenticity is everywhere in Italy, there are definitely ways that you can travel here and miss it. Try as they might, huge coach tours that whisk visitors around from place to place to show them what they came to see are not where to find authentic Italy. You have to get down on the ground and do some of the seeing for yourself. Seeing what you see, not just what you came to see. That also means stepping back from the camera viewfinder or iPhone to soak in the atmosphere. Look up, look down, look across the horizon. Try to chat with people, even if you can only muster a “buongiorno” or a “ciao.”

I recently stood in a spot that overlooked the Forum, in the Tabularium that connects the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums. It was quiet there until a young tourist walked up next to me and aimed her camera. Click click click click click click click. She did a machine gun burst of photos of the panorama that lay before us then walked away. She’s going to see what she came to see when she gets home and edits all of her photos. I just hoped she took the time to enjoy herself and Rome before she edited out the parts that didn’t fit into the narrative of her trip.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

This month the Italy Roundtable is publishing posts on authenticity in conjunction with COSI, another group of Italy-focused writers. If you’ve ever wanted to read a lot of takes on “authentic Italy,” here’s your chance!

Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
Kate – On being authenticated
Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue

COSI
By Georgette of Girl in Florence
By Pete of Englishman in Italy – How Authentic an Italian are you?
By Rick of Rick’s Rome: The Authentic Italian Culture Debate
By Andrea of Sex, Lies and Nutella: How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)
From Married to Italy, The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
Misty – Surviving in Italy
Gina – The Florence Diaries

The Monumental Trees of Italy



Have you seen this book?

Many years ago, I found this book while browsing the clearance stacks at a used bookstore in Washington, DC. Published in 1990, Gli Alberi Monumentali d’Italia is a beautiful coffee table book full of color photos of legendary trees from Italy’s islands and central/southern regions. Roman pines, Holm oaks, olive, cypress, sycamore, lime, beech, poplar, carob, and other trees from Sardinia, Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, Campania, Molise, Abruzzo, Lazio, and the Marches are given biographical treatment with descriptions in Italian and English.

The curious thing about this book is that the spine has a “I” indicating that there are other volumes. But I’ve never been able to find volume II or even an online reference to it.

If you have a tip on where I can find a copy of other books in this series, let me know at iloveitalia at gmail dot com.

Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

A very crowded Sistine Chapel ( (c) The Economist)

Last week, I finally had a chance to revisit the Vatican Museums. It had been more than a decade since I had gone and I hadn’t jumped at the chance to go once I arrived in Rome because the crowds, which wrapped around the block, were daunting. But my mother was in town, so I had a good excuse to go.

Getting in was easy enough, as we had reserved tickets through the Vatican Museums online ticketing system. Rain poured down on us as we got off the tram and walked uphill to the entrance. Most everyone there at 9:30 a.m. were part of a group or had reserved online so we were all kind of in the same line (scrum) to get in. Getting through the main doors, queueing up at the ticket window to get our “real” tickets (our printed reservations were just that), and walking through security took about 10-15 minutes.  No big deal.

But honestly, the Vatican Museums left me wanting this time. Or rather they left me with the feeling that I never want to visit again.

Although it was early March, not exactly peak tourist season, we were getting jostled from all sides, particularly from large tour groups who were muscling in to take photos of every main attraction they saw. “I swear it didn’t used to be like this,” I assured my mother. And it turns out I wasn’t imagining things.

According to the latest report from The Economist “four times as many people visit the Sistine Chapel as did in 1980; on the busiest days more than 25,000 visitors a day pass through.” The crowds were noticeable in every room and corridor, save for the contemporary art wing (and I think most people who end up there do so because they are lost).

One section that I was most excited to revisit was the Niccoline Chapel, which I once listed on this site as being one of my favorite places in the museums. I followed the recommended course through the Museums, all the while mentioning to my mother how much I loved the chapel but I just couldn’t find it. Finally, I asked a guard where it was.

“Chiuso,” he said. Closed.

“Temporarily or forever,” I asked in Italian.

“Probably for forever. The chapel was too small for so many people.”

I was bummed. I was also disappointed that the Hall of Maps felt more like a long queue instead of a room where one could step back and observe the early maps of Italian regions and cities. People were everywhere. My mother and I were also part of the problem, of course. But the whole experience was too much like a cattle drive.

The Economist again:

The Vatican is starting to grapple with the problem. Last October Mr Paolucci, a former Italian culture minister, unveiled a €3m upgrade of the chapel’s climate-control and lighting systems, which was paid for by the manufacturers. A virtual Sistine Chapel pavilion is now being planned so that visitors spend less time inside the real one. Whether this will be a full-sized replica or a digital simulation is still to be decided. Mr Paolucci has also been talking about handing out intelligent eyewear (Google Glass-type accessories) that would allow visitors to explore the chapel in 3D.

Another plan is to limit the number of visitors. Once they reach 6m—probably some time next year—only those with reserved tickets will be allowed in. Walk-in travellers, even pilgrims coming from afar, can now queue for €16 tickets. In future, they will be turned away. That would further undermine the chapel’s identity as a place of worship, which the Vatican Museums are already struggling to preserve by constantly urging visitors to be silent.

The Sistine Chapel as a place of worship has already been compromised as far as I was concerned. Nothing about the current set up, where the Sistine Chapel is highlighted as the ultimate destination on the slow or fast route through the museums, gives the space its due. The crowd flows into this room through only one door, with the exit door depositing you into a no man’s land of blank stairwells back down to the entrance hall. I understand the security reasons for controlling the crowds in this way, but the Sistine Chapel was probably the least hospitable, most crowded place I have been since returning to Rome. And I’ve been in Termini Station at rush hour.

Pope Francis Soccer Display

Pope Francis Soccer Display

This is going to be a tough call for the Vatican. Francis is a very popular pope. (The photo above is of a display case with Pope Francis addressing visiting soccer stars and various “Francisco” jerseys that were given to him.) He has certainly helped to increase the number of South American visitors to Rome and Vatican City. Plus, Chinese/Asian and African visitors who are now starting to set out on their own grand tours, has made the wonders of the Vatican Museums (and especially the world famous Sistine Chapel) more popular — shouldn’t they, too, have the freedom to see this magnificent art?

But something should be done. I haven’t even touched on how the Vatican Museums left me with a strong distaste for the church as a whole. All of that concentrated wealth in one place, all the spoils of worldwide campaigns and whims of wayward popes (cough cough Borgia), did not fill me with awe but rather disgust. Certainly being prodded and processed through an assembly line didn’t help.

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word “Katholikos” which means universal. There’s a big difference in feeling like you are part of something bigger than you and feeling like you are just one of the unwashed, paying masses. I hope to visit the Vatican Museums again during my time here. In the meantime, there are plenty of other places to go and so much more to see.

Read more: Vatican Museums: Full to bursting | The Economist.

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