Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rome ruins vacation

What others have said is true: travel is broadening. You can read about every place we’ve traveled to on Wikipedia or in books, magazines, and newspaper travel sections. You can see all these places in movies and videos. Being there is different.

While the Roman ruins unearthed in England or Germany are treated with a certain respect and presented with a curatorial pride, those in Rome seem largely to be neglected and abused, more obstacles to progress and efficient travel—or rich sources of tourist dollars—than parts of a living heritage. The vastness of old stuff—very old stuff—in Rome is daunting. I can see how Italians might decide it is not possible to maintain all sites and that some can be left to crumble. But even the popular attractions for which tourists pay admission are poorly maintained, with weeds rooting in millennia-old brick walls, slowly dissolving the ancient mortar.

I question too the intellectual integrity of the sites. Archaeological standards and practices have evolved since the Napoleon-era excavations, but no guidebook, map, or (infrequent) descriptive sign made clear what is original, what is repaired, what is reconstructed, what is remodeled and repurposed. I had the sense that there was something not quite honest, something cynical about much of what we saw. Even at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel had a Barnumesque, this-way-to-the-egress (by way of the gift shop) air.

Perhaps my impression was colored by cultural differences. The , ever vigilant in the persons of opera buffa–costumed but well-armed police, seem mostly to be interested in standing around, as professional criminals extract what they can from American tourists. There are con artists, pickpockets, beggars, and thieves everywhere you turn, many of them well-dressed and well-spoken, some of them serving in their official capacity as ticket sellers. The economy of Rome seems dependent on American aid. Or on Americans’ personal aid. This kind of dependency breeds resentment and contempt, which may explain the generally unsmiling and surly service from people presumably in the hospitality business. Or perhaps it’s just visitor fatigue: When will all these stupid foreigners leave?

Everywhere we went in Rome there was evidence of poverty—not grinding, abject poverty, but clearly a stratification of society (as is typical in American cities) that was not at all evident in Germany. At least in the Rhine Valley, Germany seemed virtually classless. The streets were safe and free from beggars, spruikers, and hustlers. Having read of the two-class system that separates those of German blood (citizens) from those, such as the descendants of Turkish gastarbeiters, of non-Aryan heritage (noncitizens), I expected to see evidence of serious social tension. I did not. There were political demonstrations (it was May Day), but there was no anger. It was only in Rome, rife with cynicism and negativity, that I sensed fear, anger, and social tension.

The editor in me says that you should be careful of stereotypes. The traveler in me says that you should be careful of overly friendly strangers no matter where you are but that you are more likely to encounter them in Rome than in other places we visited.

1 comment:

Ampers said...

Liked the article. Over friendly strangers often means saying goodbye to your friends in your wallet :-)