Just before I left New York to study abroad for a full semester in Florence, my friend introduced me to Girl in Florence, an American expat (and immigrant, as she often points out) who wound up in Florence and has become guru for all things Italian. I scoured through her blog, soaking up all of the recommendations I could. I had spent a few days in Florence the last time I was in Italy: I saw all the museums, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, and walked by the Duomo every chance I could. But this time, I wanted to skip the “overrated” tourist stuff (note: the tourist stuff will never be overrated, especially in Florence) and experience the stuff that real Florentines do every day. I envisioned myself slipping down a side street into a hidden trattoria, doing homework in an unknown cafe in Oltrarno, and spending Sunday afternoons in a piazza devoid of English and of people selling selfie-sticks.
But…why? Why has this rejection of all things tourist become so prevalent in modern travel culture? In my case, I do think there are merits to exploring a more authentic Italian experience, considering my past trip to the country, my rudimentary knowledge of the language, and my extended time-period in the culture. While I think I had a pretty healthy balance of tourist vs authentic (whatever that means), I’ve read some accounts (like this piece published on The Florentine) that bash tourists, almost expecting that we (yes, we) shed our native culture upon stepping foot into our host country, regardless of length of stay. This article is from the perspective of an American study abroad student who chose to spend her freshman year in Florence and thus is confronted with a new culture and American college culture at the same time. And while I do agree with her that American study abroad students have a responsibility to be respectful to Florence and its culture, people, and language, there seems to be something else at work within the tone of this article.
My inkling that there is something else beyond the surface level altruism or quest for a cross-cultural exchange is only deepened with more research. I’ve been reading a bunch of other articles lately about “lesser known” travel destinations, marketing them as “alternative,” “unique,” or, even, “unexplored.”
From this rudimentary selection of new wave travel blogs/articles, it seems that the culture is shifting from rewarding bucket list type trips (climbing the Duomo, seeing the Eiffel Tower, posing in front of Big Ben) to rewarding trips of authenticity. There are a few things to unpack with the acknowledgement of this shift, the first being this notion of “authenticity.” How do we define this? We—all of us who visit different cultures, regardless of if it’s for 3 days or 3 months—are still tourists. So how can a tourist decide if their experience “counts” as local? Even if we go to the right restaurants, the right cafes, and the right piazzas, we still come to our destinations with our own cultural learnings in tow, regardless of how hard we try to abandon them somewhere in the air on the plane ride over.
The second and possibly more concerning aspect to this phenomenon is the denouncing of monuments because they are frequented by mounds of tourists. Are the Duomo, David, Ponte Vecchio, and Tower of Pisa more annoying to see because they have flocks of tourists trying to beat you out for the perfect photo? Hell yes! Does that make them any less incredible/awe-inspiring/breath-taking? The answer is a resounding hell no!
So if the amount of people visiting a cultural site doesn’t detract from its historical significance, why do so-called “nomads” (very strange nomenclature if you consider its origins) seem to discount these places and regard them as somehow less prestigious?
If we are not analytical of this new method of traveling, we may fall into the same habit of mindlessly going on trips just for the photographs, stories, and ability to cross things off lists (physical or proverbial), the avoidance of which is presumably part of the reason travelers have begun to explore the backroads of major cities. If we don’t regain our mindfulness during traveling, we run the risk of turning our trips into quasi-imperialistic endeavors rather than the cross-cultural sharing experiences I think many people wish to create. We need to think about what we are actually saying when we call somewhere “unexplored” or “lesser known,” because they are explored and they are known—by the people who really live there.
Unless, like Georgette of Girl in Florence, we become permanent residents of the places we visit, contributing more than just money spent during a trip to the local economy and culture, we are still all tourists, even if you don’t want to admit it. We need to have compassion and respect for the cultures and people of the lands we visit and be realistic about our relations to them. Even though I love Florence, it’s not really my home as much as I wish it was. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. And we need to have compassion for our fellow tourists as well: the Duomo is really really really cool and if someone wants to over-pay at a restaurant because they want to eat some pasta and look at this 700+ year old mammoth of a building, I say we should let them.