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One Year in Italy: 12 Months of Memories

Time Flies!

“Time Flies! Stop lying around and write something, will ya?” (Photo of a detail from the facade of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte on the Via Giulia, Rome)

Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.

The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!

Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.

Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.

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Visions of Veronese Green in Venice

When you are the parent of young kids, you often find unusual things in your pockets. After a while, you get used to sticking your hand in your coat and finding a toy car or an action figure. For the past several months, I’ve been carrying around an unopened tube of Veronese Green* paint.

Giotto tempera paint in Veronese Green

Back in the fall, I bought a tube like the one above for my six-year-old son, who draws (mostly animals and Marvel superheroes) first thing in the morning and first thing when he gets home from school. Leo usually uses markers or crayons and has only used paint a few times. Still, I bought him the Veronese Green because it was such a complex shade to be included among the simple reds, yellows, and blues.

For some reason, I never took the tube of paint out of my pocket. Rather, on walks during the grey days of winter, I would pull out the tube from my pocket to spot-check things that appeared to be the same color.

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Everything is authentic

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Trying to decide if a travel experience is authentic or not is like trying to separate “travelers” from “tourists.” That debate separates those who travel along class and age lines, with travelers proclaiming their experiences better, richer, more true than those of the tourists. There’s even a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton that delineates these two types of travelers: “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” Labeling travel experiences as “authentic” works in the same way.

A quick Googling of “authentic Italy” returns 90,400,000 results as of this writing (that’s almost twice the entire current population of Italy) and ranges from recipes (lots of recipes) to group package holidays to farmhouse retreats. I could even find a few bus tours that peddled in the words “real Italy.” The point is that “authentic” and “real” are buzzwords, especially in these days of online trip advising, when the right words will bring more visitors to your website. (I would say that we writers of the Roundtable are guilty of this with this month’s topic. The term authentic Italy comes up too often for us to ignore it.)

So what does make a trip to Italy authentic? How can you make sure that you are living your best travel life, making all the right moves, and doing as the Romans do? I don’t think you can — and that’s ok!

I’ve traveled through Italy in all sorts of combinations: alone, with American girlfriends, with my boyfriend, with my mother, with Italian friends, with my husband and two kids. I’ve lived here twice, first as an au pair with an Italian family and now with my own Italian-American family. Along the way, I’ve explored the “hidden” villages and backstreets, dined at holes-in-the-wall, and immersed myself in the local culture. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes and eaten at plenty of crappy restaurants. Those things happen even when I’m stateside.

While I haven’t, like a few of my Roundtable colleagues, married an Italian and/or started and inn, I have felt that each of my experiences here have been both touristy and authentic. Recently I’ve even turned the concept of authentic on its head, as I’ve become a regular at a very touristy pub that’s near where my son takes weekly music lessons. The bartenders – a young Bangladeshi guy who moved to Rome at age six and speaks flawless Italian and two twenty-something Italian guys who run beers and glasses of wine to British, American, Australian, and German tourists all day – seem delighted to see a familiar face each week. Those three are as hospitable and as “authentic” a representation of Rome’s modern demographics as anywhere else in the city. I’m not saying that you’ll have the same experience. But I am saying that authenticity can encompass a lot.

I think one of the problems of expecting authenticity when we travel is that we are wrapping it into a fantasy of what our trip should be. Rows of Tuscan cypresses, singing Venetian gondoliers, and picture-perfect Amalfi Coast sunsets all figure into our Italian travel dreams or they do at some point. For those who want to delve a little further, there are the Agriturismo (farmhouses) and Airbnb contacts that allow you to live a little bit more among the locals. But make no mistake: you are in Italy to see things and to feel things that you can’t at home. There is a fantasy. While fantasies can become realities, they dwell in a space that is the opposite of authentic. Like the Chesterton quote above, we are, like tourists, coming to see what we planned to see. “Authentic Italy” is all of that but more.

As Robert Reid wrote recently, “No one agrees what’s truly ‘authentic’ about a place. But if you’re near fudge or taffy, you’re probably not where it’s at.” While I do believe authenticity is everywhere in Italy, there are definitely ways that you can travel here and miss it. Try as they might, huge coach tours that whisk visitors around from place to place to show them what they came to see are not where to find authentic Italy. You have to get down on the ground and do some of the seeing for yourself. Seeing what you see, not just what you came to see. That also means stepping back from the camera viewfinder or iPhone to soak in the atmosphere. Look up, look down, look across the horizon. Try to chat with people, even if you can only muster a “buongiorno” or a “ciao.”

I recently stood in a spot that overlooked the Forum, in the Tabularium that connects the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums. It was quiet there until a young tourist walked up next to me and aimed her camera. Click click click click click click click. She did a machine gun burst of photos of the panorama that lay before us then walked away. She’s going to see what she came to see when she gets home and edits all of her photos. I just hoped she took the time to enjoy herself and Rome before she edited out the parts that didn’t fit into the narrative of her trip.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

This month the Italy Roundtable is publishing posts on authenticity in conjunction with COSI, another group of Italy-focused writers. If you’ve ever wanted to read a lot of takes on “authentic Italy,” here’s your chance!

Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
Kate – On being authenticated
Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue

COSI
By Georgette of Girl in Florence
By Pete of Englishman in Italy – How Authentic an Italian are you?
By Rick of Rick’s Rome: The Authentic Italian Culture Debate
By Andrea of Sex, Lies and Nutella: How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)
From Married to Italy, The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
Misty – Surviving in Italy
Gina – The Florence Diaries

Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art

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Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

The first time I realized that my obscure knowledge of Rome had really sunk in was in the early to mid-aughts. Friends of mine had returned from a family wedding in the Italian capital. Specifically, the ceremony had been held at San Silvestro in Capite.

“That’s where they keep the reliquary of the head of John the Baptist,” I said, gleefully. I had most certainly been drinking but I was still impressed with my recall. My friends and I had a chuckle over my delight as we talked more about Rome and its macabre monuments.

For as long as I’ve been attracted to Rome and Italy, I’ve been interested in some of the more gruesome aspects of its history: its slaughter of animals during Colosseum spectacles, the chapels that contain body parts and whole bodies of saints. When you walk into Rome’s churches, you are literally walking on graves. And when you stroll through any part of this ancient city, you are stepping on top of sites where many people, from gladiators to Christians to non-believers, met their ends. Images and reminders of death are everywhere here, which is probably one of the reasons Rome’s citizens have developed a coping mechanism – a zest for life – over the years.

These are heavy things to think about. But Rome’s past is especially fresh in my mind these days when it is hard to turn on the television or open the paper (or browser tab) without learning about the latest horrible way that a human has died at the hands of another human or group of humans. There is no need for me to provide a link to any of these news stories; everyone knows what I’m talking about. But still it has been hard to square my interest in the minutiae of Rome’s destructive past with the horrors of today.

Just a visit to some of well-known tourist stops in Rome remind me of current events. San Silvestro in Capite has the head of John the Baptist in a silver filigreed reliquary. Santa Maria del Popolo has an exquisite and well-known Caravaggio that depicts Saint Peter being crucified upside down. Saint Agnese in Agone, the large church fronting Piazza Navona, has a side chapel with the head of Saint Agnes. She was 12 when a Roman prefect sent her to a brothel (for refusing to marry his son); she was eventually burned at the stake then beheaded. In the upper church of San Clemente one finds the chapel of St. Catherine, which contains beautiful Masolino frescoes of the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the life of St. Ambrose. Catherine’s beheading is depicted on the left side, a calm, colorful, 2-D rendering of a heinous act.

I could go on and on with the lovely art that depicts Christian martyrs and their horrible deaths. The crucifixions. The beheadings. The eventual saints who were drawn and quartered or buried alive or stoned to death. Of course we don’t have as many works of art showing the torture that the Christians, once they came into power, inflicted on the non-Christians. But there are a few. The solemn statue of Giordano Bruno in the center of Campo de’ Fiori is a powerful reminder that there were men (and women and children) killed for putting forward ideas that were not in line with the church doctrine. Bruno was burned alive for suggesting that the universe is infinite, that stars are distant suns.

Likewise, the Stolpersteiner, those tiny bronze pavements embedded in the ground outside homes of those Jewish citizens who were deported by the Nazis on October 16, 1943, memorialize those who were rounded up, tortured, and killed for being Other, for being powerless in the face of those whose power made them forget their own humanity.

I believe art and memorials are important. But the more that I see them around Rome – a city that has thousands of years of history painting on its church walls, engraved in its ancient buildings, and chiseled into statues – the more I am reminded of how torture and death are lost in translation from the stories we tell and the images we create of those stories.

Many of us up until this past year have been able to live with a sense of detachment from death. This is not to say that we have all had it easy and that we have not experienced the wrenching sadness of knowing death on a personal level. But death of the nature that is often depicted in art and enshrined in memorials around Italy has always felt like something that only happened long ago.

I still look at religious relics – the arms and doubting fingers and disembodied heads – with a sort of fascination. But while my thoughts used to be, “Look how barbaric humans once were,” I now think about how much further we – as a society, as humans – need to go.

A final note: as a quasi-agnostic, non-practicing, non-denominational Christian, I wish it were as simple as eliminating all religions. Humans get too exercised over beliefs that other humans have codified, no matter how absurd they may be. But I didn’t want to write this piece as an assault on religion. I’ve lived in majority Christian, Hindu, and Muslim countries and have known most people to be smart and kind and loving, in spite of or because of their religions.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

Please read these other posts on “Lost in Translation” from the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Note that we have a new lady, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso. Welcome!

Jessica – False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria – Senza parole…
Rebecca – Lost in Translation
Alexandra – The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Kate – Things my Sicilian Boyfriend and I fight about
Michelle – Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

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