My parents and I are huge Seinfeld
freaks fans. One of our favorite moments, from one of my favorite episodes, involves Jerry flying first class sitting next to a model. During meal service, the oh-so-corteous flight attendant informs them what the gourmet meal will be, highlighting the fact that they are featuring wines from the “Tuscany region.” Ooh, Tuscany!
Learning Italian means learning Tuscan, though there are a few variations. I have never associated Tuscany with Italy, their images united only on tacky wall calendars. The kind I passed over for images of quaint English villages. Didn’t everyone think Tuscany is simply a region, not the region to visit? After my recent tour around Italy, I’ve seen that the reality is not so clear.
Tuscany is tourist-land. You can’t get around them, just like flying involves take-off, tourists are a necessary evil of travel (you, after all, are one as well). Yet, in Tuscany they’re always around you; more and more and more they crowd into churches, museums and restaurants. You may not realize it at first because they look like you and act like you, but they slowly create a barrier between you and the country. Italy is resolutely not Tuscany; Italy is not Florence or Siena.
When describing the less-than-joyous parts of my year abroad, people meet me with resistance. No, you didn’t do it right if you didn’t have the best time of your life. No, it doesn’t snow in Italy; they only eat healthy foods. These romanticized notions of Italy take hold and we collectively imagine that every traveller to the peninsula is romping around a picturesque country-side with skies that are a blinding blue and clouds that look like cotton balls.
It rains in Italy, it snows in Italy, there are processed foods in Italy and many Italian cities are very new looking. Italy is not Tuscany; Tuscany is a slice of Italy.
Americans often forget how that other countries are bigger than Rhode Island because our own territory is so large. We group together New England, the south, the mid-west, the pacific northwest, but forget about the differences that exist within each region. Bolzano and Siracusa may be in the same country, but their climates are as different as Caribou, Maine and Richmond, Virginia. Not that similar. With different climates comes different foods, different attitudes and different lifestyles. It snowballs from there.
I wish more tourists to Italy were willing to adventure off the beaten path. For so long, I thought Naples and further South were popular destinations. They aren’t. People go to Tuscany, taking a jaunt to Rome and probably Venice. While this is to be expected — I certainly don’t think everyone should spend a year in Italy, save yourself the trauma — it’s sad. Why can’t we search to better understand foreign cultures when we travel? Why must reaffirm a stereotype that is more of our culture than theirs?
This happens in every country — France and England certainly aren’t exempt — but people discuss Italy, not Rome and Florence. Let’s take some time to think about how we travel, to think about how we interact with foreign cultures. We’ll all be much happier if we’re open to change, open to being a bit uncomfortable and, most importantly, open to having our own opinions and a sense of adventure.
What’s your image of Italy? Do you think of a Tuscan hill town or does something else come to mind? What about other countries?