Monday, May 23, 2005

More Pythonesque travel writing from the Times

Once again, the New York Times declares war on tourists to Italy. In today's most-emailed article, Christopher Solomon does a tour of Italy whose goal is basically to stay away from tourists, more than any positive goal of seeing anything in particular, or the more general (and respectable) goal of going there and just seeing what's there. If there are already buses, it's worthless. Worse than worthless: fake. Solomon wants to see the real Italy:

[Le Marche] is what Tuscany must have felt like 10 or 20 years ago, before it was discovered by tour groups and their omnipresent buses - carrying thousands upon thousands of travelers who flock there each year to try to recreate the pleasures of "Under the Tuscan Sun." One Tuscany wine-growing area is so crowded with British expatriates and second-home owners that that country's press calls it Chiantishire. In short, Tuscany, for all its undeniable charms, is an increasingly challenging place to have an intimate encounter with true Italy....

After a weeklong visit last month I, too, have found in Le Marche the vera Italia that both the Briton and the Bolognese spoke of - a place where travelers can still feel a genuine sense of discovery and quiet pleasures as they meander back roads and walk on cobbles that haven't yet been polished by the soles of a million tourists....

Our itinerary is purposefully loose, guided only by two pledges. The first: Stay away from Le Marche's 110 miles of coastline. Though the seaside towns of Pesaro in the north and San Benedetto del Tronto in the south are said to hold charm, much of the coast has been developed in recent decades and is unappealing, and crowded in midsummer to boot. Seekers of a Tuscany-like experience will find the region's charm rises in almost inverse proportion to the distance from salt water....

The second rule: Stay off the nation's freeways when possible and stick to the curvy side roads. Unknown Italy isn't found between toll booths.

Now this is just silly. The presence of tourists doesn't make a place more or less "real." And "Italy" as a country hasn't been around long enough for an ancient quality known as "Italian-ness" to reasonably be sought. Solomon's going to Le Marche as a travel writer, not an anthropologist, and is setting out to tell people to go do precisely what would "ruin" this region: to visit it as tourists.

Solomon describes the people of Italy like objects; that much is clear. "If each hill town - its church and its square and its old women - is a little different than the last, the distinctions soon blur like the swallows that race the car to the next town." Yeah, well the women of the East Village and those of Williamsburg blur, too, if the L is running fast enough. We hear of "The tableau - white sheep, undulating ridges, an old man working in the green-scented April sunshine," as though an old man, who for all Solomon knows doesn't feel like working, is simply there to add some charm to an American family's vacation. We also encounter "a man in his 60's who has great tuffets of black hair erupting from his ears." For whatever reason (low birth rate?) all the characters seem to be of the geriatric variety. "For the next 40 minutes, the slightly paunchy, jovial winemaking brothers Vittorio and Mirko Badiali are our best friends." First off, just because these brothers don't speak English doesn't mean they'll appreciate being called paunchy; they might do babelfish translations of articles they find when Googling themselves.

And as for the warm reception he receives in Le Marche... Being a tourist, wherever you go, is about going to a place where at best the people whom you pay to feed and house you deep down don't like you, and at worst where they make this distaste plainly known. It can be safely assumed that the people serving Solomon couldn't all afford to take a similar trip, and that they think him no less a tourist than the ones who arrive elsewhere in Italy by bus.

I'll admit that my mouth waters when I hear the phrase, "artisinal cheese." But in general I find long descriptions of farm-fresh this and that, of the things that can only be found in real Europe, untouched by machines and minorities and liberal democracy, to be somewhat off-putting. It's a bit like the paens to the American exurb, a sort of anticosmopolitan fantasy that could only possibly be held by someone from the big city.

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