I almost saw Luciano Pavarotti on the streets of Bologna. Steps away from the Cattedrale di San Pietro, I was surrounded by a mass of people on a spot that, a few moments before, had been virtually empty. At first I was confused and curious. Here I was, without any sense of what was going on, being physically swept away by a group of excited Italians.
When I figured out we were anxiously awaiting an appearance by the opera legend, I caught myself acting with a mob mentality: looking intently only because everyone else was looking. I was trying to act like one of the crowd in a country where I only spoke an elementary, idiosyncratic version of the national language.
Maybe all tourism is misguided in this same sort of way. We tease ourselves by exploring the boundaries between being insider and outsider, between belonging and just visiting. We boast that we were not taken for tourists … until we opened our mouths to speak.
It’s a conscious effort that is not mine alone. “When in Rome,” advises the old saying, “do as the Romans do.” Try to fit in. Obey the customs of the host. Nevertheless, legions of invading tourists flout this sage advice.
Consider the following: On our first day in Italy, my husband and I stop to purchase a telephone card. Pausing for a moment to consider whether we need a 5,000- or 10,000-lire card, a tall, blond American pipes in: “Let me help.”
Turning to the man behind the counter, she shouts as if he were hearing impaired, “teleFONO!”
We were simultaneously amused and offended by this woman, and felt the conspicuous embarrassment of guilt by association.
So began our efforts to keep far away from Florence, Venice and other tourist centers of Italy, an ambitious goal in June of the Jubilee year.
What we found, as a result, was an Italy that welcomes the inconspicuous tourist.
Armed with several guidebooks, a detailed map and a rented car, we drove north from Rome, feeling confident and self-sufficient. The sun was going down, we were barely acquainted with Italy’s rural roads, and our lodgings — in a small town called Torri, 15 kilometers southwest of Siena — proved to be a good deal farther away than we had realized in our naive enthusiasm.
We drove — foolishly and valiantly — in the dark on unfamiliar mountain roads, taking Route 2 north past Buonconvento, and west through Vescovada and Fontazzi. We made it to the central piazza by 10 p.m., but couldn’t find the farmhouse in the dark. The directions — “turn left at the end of the row of cypress trees” stumped us city-dwelling Americans. Luckily, there was a pay phone and we were guided to the unmarked dirt road that led to the idyllic Il Colombaio, where baby artichokes grew in the window box of our room.
The following day, we drove through Montalcino and on to the dramatically situated Montepulciano, where we happened upon the final joyous cheers of a wedding celebration in the town square.
That night, as we returned to Il Colombaio on roads that were now less daunting, we came across rows and rows of cars. Hundreds of them. We found ourselves at the Festa in Collina, through which we wandered invisibly, gazing in vicarious inebriation at the youthful revelry of what appeared to be a county fair.
Days later we left Tuscany, journeying up along dirt roads into the Ligurian mountains, staying at La Carnea, where Donata and Ugo, our hosts, took us to a local restaurant, Il Vecchio Mulino. Over a table spread with incomprehensibly good food — including a regional specialty of testaroli slathered in pesto — Donata helped us plan our itinerary. Coaching us on where to go to avoid the tourist masses, she directed us to Parma, Bologna and Urbino.
As we followed her route, each place rewarded us with a tempting glimpse of a relatively untouristed Italy. Many of our memories are beautifully simple and ordinary. For Italy, that is: sipping anisette liqueur at the grand cafés on Piazza Garibaldi in elegant Parma, inhaling the spicy scent of the salumerias in Bologna’s marketplace, walking the cobbled streets of the hill towns which dot the countryside.
In Urbino, we sat by the fountain in Piazza della Repubblica, watching the passegiata, the evening stroll, which plays out in towns across Italy like a well-rehearsed performance.
I never did see Pavarotti that day in Bologna. But being a tourist is, ultimately, like being a member of an audience. You share an experience with many others who also sit apart, gazing silently at the action. But you don’t want to be distracted by these companion-voyeurs. Your focus is on the play.
What’s more, even though you may find yourself emotionally connected to what’s happening on the stage, you always know that the curtain will fall, the spectacle will end, and you will make your way back to the comfort and familiarity of firstname.lastname@example.org