y bedroom window faces onto a terrace. I am not supposed to use it. It is, instead, the patio for the apartments that are rented out, short-term, for tourists.
As a result, I’m privy to a number of noises that I never would have expected to overhear from the sanctuary of my apartment. These have included the thudding of a bouncing ball that went on for several hours each evening one week in August, punctuated by shrieks, screams and cries of “Mommmmy, he HIT me!”; a 3 a.m. bang, bang, BANG, which I discovered was the pounding on the door of two drunk twenty-somethings who’d returned from their festivities to find their apartment locked… and their friends inside dead to the world. And the chit-chattering of the Australian, English, and American tourists who sit on the terrace, drinking wine and trading stories of their travels.
Of all the conversations I’ve (often unwillingly) eavesdropped on, I’ve noticed one common thread. People see what they expect to.
“All the Italians are just so well-dressed. All of them, so well turned out. It’s exquisite,” I overheard one woman commenting to another. (Yes, many Italians are stylish. But after a year here, I’ve also seen more shiny-puffy-hooded jackets and Nike Air sneakers than I can count).
Or take all the restaurant reviews I’ve overheard people reading aloud from guidebooks. Always, a tickled pause hangs in the air when the reader gets to the inevitable, and inevitably big-selling, sentence: “A family-run place, Dad is in the kitchen, while his kids work the tables out front.” It’s exactly what people expect of Italy. And they love it.
Italian friends working in tourism also tell me that they’re asked the same questions by well-meaning travelers all the time: “Do you even eat pizza and pasta for breakfast?” “What do you eat other than pizza and pasta?” “Is your father in the Mafia?”
But it cuts both ways. When travelers experience something in Rome that doesn’t jibe with their expectations, it disturbs them. One woman once told me that, after less than a day in the city, she and her husband were ready to leave Rome. “We loved Florence,” she said, almost tearfully. “But I just really don’t like this city.”
I asked why. “Well, we’re from Toronto,” she said. “We’re used to cities. But this just feels like any other big city. We don’t like it. Florence had so many lovely little winding streets — Rome just doesn’t.”
I frowned. Really? I often feel like those winding streets are all I can find in Rome’s centro storico, often to the dismay of my absolutely-lacking-a-sense-of-direction self. “Where have you been walking around?” I asked gently.
It turned out she and her husband had been wandering around an area that, while hardly unattractive, is much more of a business district than the “cute,” older-looking neighborhoods she had come to expect. After visiting some of those neighborhoods instead, she came back raving about Rome. She’d finally found what she was looking for — and what she’d expected.
It’s hard not to have preconceptions about a city like Rome. Few English-speakers have escaped a unit or two on the Roman Empire in grade school, and of any figure in history, Julius Caesar must have the most widely-recognized name. Films from “La Dolce Vita” to “Roman Holiday” to (most recently) “When in Rome” and “Eat Pray Love” have brought the city’s charms to the silver screen. And for centuries, the city has been immortalized by visitors as famous as John Keats and Lord Byron, Edith Wharton and Edward Lear, Charles Dickens and Henry James. Virginia Woolf once called it “the city where I shall come to die”; Nathaniel Hawthorne grudgingly said that, the drafty palazzo he was renting aside, “the city certainly does draw into itself my heart as I think even London or even little Concord or old sleepy Salem never did and never will.”
With a reputation this grand, it would be all but impossible to come to Rome and not see what you’re primed to. Amidst the abrupt and often-surreal nature of travel away from home, not to mention to a city this chaotic, it’s easy to focus on the familiar. Even if it’s only familiar because you’ve read about it.
I do it, too. But it worries me. I always thought travel was supposed to be an experience best described by clichés: mind-broadening, eye-opening, perspective-changing. You travel to experience the local culture, to think about your own home in new ways. You travel to learn you’re wrong. But if we’re all only able to see what we’re told we’re going to see — the winding streets, the impeccably-dressed women, the family-run restaurants — then what is travel actually good for?
The other night, I was sitting at a restaurant in Testaccio, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the centro storico. In front of me was a table full of happily-chattering Italians. I took notice when I saw that one had started to hand gifts around, including a T-shirt with a screen-printed eagle. The beaming receiver held it up against his chest while the others looked on, obviously impressed. “Molto Americano!” one friend said.
It turned out that the girl had just come back from a trip to the States. Curiosity piqued, I listened more closely. She’d loved California, she told the others. They, in turn, wanted to know why she hadn’t also gone to New York, to Florida, to Boston. Surely, they said, they couldn’t be that far.
Then they started asking her about California. She told them how everyone was tan and happy. The beaches were beautiful, she said, and everyone there played volleyball and surfed, just like in the movies. Of her experience in America, that image-tanned bodies bouncing volleyballs on the beach-was her big takeaway.
Rather than act surprised at how much the reality seemingly adhered to the stereotype, her dining companions looked relieved. The “authentic” California was the iconic California. The expected California.
And then they tucked back into their meal in a neighborhood that few visitors to Rome ever visit or see — one not particularly known for famous monuments, high-style street fashion, picturesque piazzas or winding streets. They were eating at a (packed) Chinese restaurant, no pizza or pasta in sight.
No one seemed to notice the irony.