Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Venetian Faces 1

There are afternoons when I get on a vaporetto and feel like I've stepped onto a ride at Disneyland--the old Monorail, perhaps, or the Jungle Boat. Every single seat is occupied by a tourist, and while an individual tourist is an interesting as any other individual, an uninterrupted boatload of them is generally quite suffocatingly dull.

It's not really their fault. We must travel light as tourists; no matter how many bags we may bring along we leave behind our ordinary life: all those weighty things and daily demands we typically labor beneath. This is one of the great things about going on vacation--but it can make a mass of tourists feel, well, lighter than a mass of other folks going about their daily "real" lives, less individuated, less differentiated, less detailed.

Of course it doesn't help that in Venice a boatload of tourists is often a boatload of people poring hopelessly over maps, whose conversation is often necessarily limited to some version of the following: "Where are we now?" "We might be here." "No, I don't think so." "Wait, I'm pretty sure we just passed that place--whatever that was." "What do you think they did there?" "I don't really know."

In any case, when one steps onto a vaporetto full of Venetians, as one usually does in the early morning, it feels and looks quite different. It's a wonderful experience and one, I fear, that is becoming harder to come by with each passing year of declining and aging population.

But that's not something I want to think about right now... Better to post the above image taken this morning while Sandro and I were on his way to school, and marvel at what a wonderfully expressive instrument the human face can be. Why anyone would want to botox its capacities into paralysis is beyond me.


  1. I agree with you about the botox but am surprised that someone who grew up in the States would have such a low and demeaning description of tourists as you were once a tourist yourself, even if you do have Italian blood. It's not even that they are being particularly annoying as when standing in the middle of a bridge looking at a guide book for example. But simply sitting or standing on the vaporetto trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B. And therefore they are not worth noticing.

    1. I suspect that being from the US is one of the main reasons why I put forth what you found to be such a “low and demeaning description of tourists.” I don’t know about other nationalities, but it seems we American have a strong hankering after “authenticity”—it’s one of the most effective ways of selling us anything. And while spending one’s time with other tourists in some foreign locale may certainly be an authentic HUMAN experience, most people wouldn’t consider it a particularly authentic TRAVEL experience of whatever country it was one traveled to.

      Also, paradoxically, I suspect that Venetians--having grown up among tourists (and often making their living from them)--take tourists more easily (or resignedly) in stride than an American such as myself who came from a different and, yes, foreign background. More generally, I also suspect it’s usually the newest arrivals (like me) who are among the loudest lamenters of the vanishing “old ways.”

      But I did distinguish in my post between tourists encountered as individuals—who are always interesting--and tourists encountered en masse who, in my opinion, usually aren’t.

      In fact, mass tourism is a huge problem here in Venice and one that the mystical make-believe “invisible hand of the marketplace” is not going to solve—unless one considers the complete destruction of a culture a “solution”. Some people do.

      I’d be lying to you if I told you that it makes me happy when, far from the historical center, 7 out of every 10 people I see seem to be tourists. It makes me (and many others) wonder how a city devoid of actual residents can survive. Maybe I’m missing something… But as there’s nothing I’m trying to sell anyone on this blog, I have no reason to lie about what I admit may be—and probably are—my own dumb biases and blind spots.

      Thanks, Anonymous, for taking the time to read the post and to comment.

  2. Some years ago my wife and I moved to a beach community where we owned a home used previously for a few weeks of summer holiday for ourselves and then as a rental to others. When we became "locals" rather than tourists our attitude toward tourists took a dramatic downward plunge...not, as you say towards individuals, but towards the whole situation. Tourism drove the economy..the town both prospered and suffered...and in the end, only the mighty dollar seemed to matter to those in charge. There's more...subtle things implied and understood best by residents.

    So, as a tourist..we'll soon be in Venice for a week and then on to other places...it's intimidating to realize that we're really not welcome...and yet understand it completely. All we know to do is be kind, thoughtful, and treat your home as if it is ours...which we try to do. This will be our third trip to Italy...parliamo gl'italiano, non molto bene, ma OK...and we don't wear baseball caps, white sneakers or have culoni. So, we'll try to be good american tourists...best we can. :) PS ...agree about the locks...same in Florence with cables over the Arno covered with locks.
    Cute name...non lo so. Enjoying your writing.

  3. It's interesting, Stan, that even though you owned the home before, and stayed there for weeks at a time, it's only when you became full-time residents that your sense of things changed.

    The more I think of what you write the more it strikes me how the word "tourist" itself has now become (or I guess has long been) an insult. Unless we stay home all the time, all of us are tourists at one time or another--some of us quite often--but it seems all of us cringe a bit at the thought of being recognized as one--or called that "name" (as though we were being called a "thief" or a "peeping Tom": singled out as the perpetrator of some disreputable or shameful act).

    Oddly enough, if you were to wear a NY Yankees cap and a T-shirt with American English words on it, you might end up looking MORE Italian! Those things are quite popular here. In any case, starting tomorrow we will be tourists ourselves in Rome, and will have to remember your ideas about how not to be obnoxious ones.

    Thanks for you thoughtful comment & I'm glad to hear you enjoy the blog.

  4. Many, if not most, Americans are handicapped by their lack of language skills and many end up on "tours" so they can see stuff but let someone else have the hassle of dealing with everything else. How can a "native" not be offended when a gaggle of folks are trailing behind a tour guide, umbrella held aloft to mark his/her location, pushing people off the walkways in their urgency to keep up and "not miss anything." We've done that, and it's humiliating to be part of it. That said, it's not just Americans who are part of the problem. If I lived in Venice I think I could make a very nice living serving tourists AND providing jobs for locals, but that's anotther story.

  5. It's certainly not only Americans who are the problem--far from it! After 2 1/2 yrs of living here, I believe one of the best ways of telling if a tourist is American is if he or she does NOT shove you out of the way to get on or off a vaporetto, then he or she is likely from the States. Europeans--and of course Venetians, too--will for the sake of boarding or disembarking a fraction of a second before everyone else will gladly separate you from your 3-yr-old child whose hand you are holding.

    But knowing a bit of the language--even just using the basic "per favore," "permesso" (to get through a crowd" etc--makes a big difference. Just making the attempt--it's okay to get it wrong. While those big tour groups, now matter from what country, are really horrific in a place like Venice & should be reserved for the wide boulevards of Paris.

    And now, Stan, if you will, I'm probably not alone in being curious about your ideas for serving tourist and providing jobs. If you can share them, please do!