When I was a schoolgirl in my hometown of Bath, a genteel and picturesque spa town in the southwest of England, the onset of early summer heralded the inevitable influx of tourists. Most were American and many would stop and stare, as we filed past, in our school uniforms, complete with straw boaters and white cotton gloves. The boldest of them would ask to take our photograph, and we, like the demure young ladies we appeared to be, would graciously oblige, without so much as a murmur.
Little did these snap-happy visitors know that as soon as we had turned the corner, we’d be ripping off the hated gloves, undoing our plaits, stuffing our boaters into our satchels, hitching up our skirts to show as much leg as possible and rummaging in our pockets to find our Mary Quant eyeliner, before going off to meet our boyfriends. At the time, my friends and I found the American visitors an amusing diversion, and none of us could quite comprehend our parents’ irritable mutterings about the crowds and the extra traffic.
These days I live in Spoleto, a genteel and picturesque hill town in the center of Italy, and I now understand what riled my parents so. Here, the tourist season is already well under way. The Americans are few and far between, and those who do come no longer belong to the species that sports huge cameras and asks to take photographs of schoolgirls. But just about every other nationality seems to be here. There are red-faced Scandinavians, puffing up and down the hills on bikes and darting into churches with their helmets on; British families, with bored-looking children being dragged to see yet more frescoes; the Japanese, with their sophisticated digital cameras and videos glued to their faces.
Finally, there are Italians, hordes of them, torrents of them, a never-ebbing tide. Now this may seem rich coming from an Englishwoman, who is, after all, a foreigner in this country. But how tired I am of not being able to find a parking space, how weary I am of having to drive at snail’s pace through the narrow streets, trying to dodge doe-eyed visitors, caught in the throes of the Stendhal syndrome, and how fed up I am of having to pay through the nose for things that should cost half the price.
Not that Rome was much better.
I remember during Jubilee Year being practically pinioned to the front door of the building where I lived in Via Merulana — half-way between the two basilicas of San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore — as pilgrims filed past relentlessly, all wearing silly hats and following someone up front with a handkerchief tied to a stick. And I’ll never forget the time in St. Peter’s Square when a large group of burly East European ladies ruthlessly crushed me and my infant son against the barrier in their blind desperation to get a better view of the pope.
But somehow, the tourists are even more irritating in Spoleto.
It’s probably because the town is small, and most visitors follow exactly the same sheep-like pattern, traipsing down from the castle, pausing to take the obligatory photograph of the Duomo and continuing on, past my apartment, to the quaint Piazza del Mercato, where they obediently stop at one of the alimentari to pick up the standard pack of strangozzi and salsa tartufata. If I see another coglioni di mulo, the unappetizing-looking salami that dangles in almost every shop window, I think I’ll scream.
Within two minutes of where I live, I can, if I so choose, buy a ceramic dish made to look as if it were painted by Perugino, or a full suit of armor. I can pick up a Persian carpet, a Louis Quinze mirror or an antique four-poster bed at the drop of a hat. But finding a dry cleaner is just about mission impossible. Tourism is, of course, here to stay, and it provides a living for a great many people. But for those of us who get absolutely nothing out of it, it’s a question of grinning and bearing it or moving to somewhere no one would ever want to visit.
I don’t suppose the residents of Scunthorpe or Tor Bella Monaca have to suffer such tortures.