Tourist Traps…and Other Thoughts on My Italian Vacation

Last week, several friends and I visited Rome and Florence for our February break.  We hit all the predictable spots—the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Forum, and the Trevvi Fountain in Rome; the Ufizzi Gallery, Medici Palace, Piazzo de Michaelangelo, and the Duomo in Florence—and while I could certainly spend this blog post gushing over the breathtaking beauty of the Sistine Chapel, or the savage history of gladiators at the Coliseum, or even the moment of spiritual bliss at the Trevvi Fountain, where, between gangs of Asians gorging themselves on gelato, I threw my coin over my head into the shallow, copper-speckled pool like so many others had done before me, I’d rather discuss something I find much more interesting, and spare you the lengthy descriptions of monuments you can find pictures of online, or in our generation’s collective memory of Rome as defined by The Lizzie McGuire Movie.  (Side note: why wasn’t LaLaine a.k.a Miranda a.k.a Lizzie’s BFF in that movie?  And more importantly, why did the actress only have one name?)

What I want to discuss goes beyond the ingenuity of ancient Roman architecture, the artistic prowess demonstrated in Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, and the unparalleled bliss of looking out upon the entire city of Florence, draped and dimmed by sunset colors—in fact, it cuts to the core of the study abroad experience, and, dare I say, life itself: it is Prison Break, the moderately popular television drama which aired on Fox from 2005 to 2009.

For those of you who don’t know (losers!), Prison Break is the story of two guys who try to break out of a prison, only to be sent back to prison, only to break out again, or something.  There’s probably a fair share of stylized violence, car chases, kissing, crying, and people delivering dialogue with narrowed eyes, and low, serious voices.  I don’t really know because I haven’t actually seen the show, but I have seen other people watch it, obsessively, sprawled out on beds or in front of the TV for hours on end, missing meals and losing sleep, hypnotized by the suspense of cheap cliffhangers.

One such person is a friend whose floor I slept on for four nights in Florence.  While a wonderful host, friend, and football player, Michael seemed, ironically, unable to escape the confines of Prison Break.  Yet, to his defense—and here’s my long overdue segue—I too felt trapped in an environment that was supposed to represent freedom, and the prospect of escape: my own vacation.

Planning my trip to Italy, I knew I wanted to visit the most popular, touristy places—after all, I might not get another chance to return (especially if I continue to pursue a career as a writer).   Yet, in doing so, I feel as if I’ve left these cities without even an inkling of what they’re really like.  Rome, if you’re only there for a few days to take pictures and go on the obligatory guided tours  (as I was), becomes a sort of historical amusement park, complete with overpriced food stands and irritating vendors selling you the type of junk you spent all your tickets on at the arcade when you were, like, five.  By the time I left Rome, all the cultural goodwill accumulated from tours had been stained by a nasty combination of fury and confusion, because seriously how many more Senegalese men are going to ask me if I want to buy the same crappy Italia keychain or flubber thingy?  In all, the city manages to pair the most priceless things in the world with the most worthless, the confluence of which constitutes a synecdoche of the entire tourism enterprise, wherein a monolithic capitalist drive renders the value of the very thing that was of value to them in the first place completely and utterly valueless.   Call me hyperbolic, but is nothing sacred, when, during a tour of the Sistine Chapel, the supposed “mandatory” silence is broken by none other than a voice on a loudspeaker, telling everyone they have to leave?  Is the integrity of the Vatican not compromised when souvenirs are being sold inside of what’s supposed to be the center of Catholicism?  (You don’t see people selling puzzles and audio books at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—just saying).

This isn’t to say that I had a bad time in Rome, or that most places in Rome don’t transcend tourism—I definitely didn’t, and there definitely are.  But I also wouldn’t say that I wasn’t a bit relieved to head off to Florence, which, by comparison, seemed to be a much realer, more accessible city.

For five days, I stayed with my two friends from high school who are currently studying abroad at a fashion school in Florence, which is ironic considering their wardrobe consists entirely of things my Dad would wear to a casual bar-mitzvah and sleeveless t-shirts.  (They can call me a hipster all they want—sorry I’m not sorry that my pants fit properly and I own a scarf).

Style aside, both made sure to walk us around the city and take us to the best restaurants, all the while averaging a shocking 1.5 kebobs per day.  At night, we all went out to popular Florence bars and clubs, where, in a city of 370,000 people with 40,000 American students, I saw more people I knew than I would walking around back in Madison, which was both kind of awesome and kind of weird.  It’s like one minute I’m getting a drink and the next minute I’m standing next to someone I played Newcomb with one time during summer camp 10 years ago, or I’m dancing with my friends at some club and all of a sudden it’s like, oh, there’s that guy who received one of the only recorded red cards in the history of AYSO soccer when we were in third grade.  (I wasn’t at Abroad Fest this past weekend in Barcelona, but I can only imagine this phenomenon was heightened there; no doubt fate would’ve brought me back together with that girl with curly blond hair and Sketchers I fell In love with on vacation 15 years ago at Club Med, while dancing the Macarena with my parents.)

If anything, I’ve returned to Aix with a newfound appreciation for the city, and for my ability to at least somewhat communicate with its natives.  After being in Italy for a week, where the people are loud, expressive and boisterous, I realized just how much I missed the subtle and understated nature of French society.  Perhaps Prison Break sums it up the best, when that one guy with a tattoo says something deep to that bald dude after he escapes from prison.