Monday, February 19, 2007

The ghost of authenticity

We woke up early the second day we were in Rome because we spent the first day in a post-jet haze, sleeping, eating late, taking showers and trying to shrug off airplane staleness and lethargy. We slid out of our hotel room and headed north toward the Tiber River. Still rush hour, laughably small cars crowded the streets, honking and pushing each other out of the way. At nearly 6-feet-tall, I don't think my knee would fit in one of those common-as-pigeons Smart cars that flaunting their smallness and fuel efficiency (if not tendency to get into accidents at every intersection).

The streets were wet from a midnight rain, but the sun came and went and the light was amazing and I felt so thankful to not be in survival mode. Below-zero windchills caused us to hide like mice in Teru's Brooklyn apartment for part of our New York trip. So I thawed in the Wednesday morning sun in Rome. Filled with cups of coffee (American, churned at our hotel from a machine stamped with Nestle) and slices of bread and cheese, we walked.

If you read anything about traveling, you'll quickly hear this snobby notion of "authenticity" bandied about like a sack of airplane peanuts. It hovers like a judgmental ghost. And surely you'll understand that I'm not the type of person who goes to Paris and eats at Hard Rock. (I'm barely the type of person who wants to go to Paris at all -- a great sacrilege reinforced last night when I said as much to an Asheville artist during her art opening. She gasped, grabbed my right shoulder and looked to the sky as if to dodge inevitable lightning.)

But as we walked, it was as if a tourist tractor beam caught us and here we were, looking to the blue sky filled with the remains of the Coliseum. Before spending a week there, Rome was the Coliseum, La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday. But it became, that morning, pieces of marble where Caesar stood, the spot where clouds of virgin girls help keep a sacred flame going, columns standing in the sky, held together by who knows what. And here, at what is left of the Coliseum, Rome became the flocks of pecking pigeons and the hordes of map-wielding tourists and the shaky stands of souvenirs and pairs of Italians dressed like extras from a HBO set who will charge you 10 Euros for a snapshot with them.

That ghost sat on my shoulder, click-clacking its tongue. No, no. This is not Rome, is it?

In a city where it's really hard to find a restaurant with a menu not translated into English, finding an "authentic" Roman experience is as hard as finding a street without graffiti. It makes the question moot. If you don't live there and speak the language, how "authentic" can your traveling be? I rationalized: to go to a city and not honor its monuments in some way is to ignore its skeleton, the story it tells the world about itself, the things it honors and supports regardless of its motivation to do so. Here, in Buncombe County, people who have lived here for 40, 50 years are still considered "outsiders," people who don't know anything about the community.

So I sat on the wall outside the Coliseum, listening to the English, the French, the German, the Japanese languages swirling around us in the clear (it was winter) Roman air. We wandered the towers and levels of it, gazing down at the maze of a labyrinth revealed below. We hightailed it to the exits when a loud bell announced it would close and darken.

But I still had to shake my head at the Americans who, when we boarded the plane to leave a week later, asked the flight attendant what grazie and prego meant. To come to Italy and not know how to say "please" and "thank you"? That's not just unauthentic. It's just rude.

1 comment:

Frances said...

dang, i love the title of this, the ghost of authenticity. that'll be the name of your travel writings book, how you look all over the world for familiar things. excellent, man. it's so weird how a person can be all the way on the other side of the world one week, standing in the ruins of this ancient place, and be back in a different kind of ancient place. reckon they call that the airline train, but still, it amazes me sometimes. this is from frances.