The Least Authentic of All Experiences

          I am in Venice, Italy, in Piazza San Marco, and I am beset by North African immigrants who speak more English than Italian, because they need to make sales to American tourists, not to Italians, with whom their relationship could be generously described as adversarial. Selfie stick? they say. For pictures, they say. Selfies. Vacation. Memories. Five. Five. Sometimes they force the selfie stick into the hands of passersby and then demand payment if someone begins carrying it away. More often than not, this results in a negotiation and a sale. My wife and I are experienced at navigating cities, and we have a well-practiced cold shoulder that indicates to strangers: Keep walking, I am not here to be a part of your life. We aren’t pretending they don’t exist; we are projecting to them that they should pretend we don’t exist.

          This admittedly fine distinction does not assuage my guilt when I consider the plight of a refugee—likely homeless, ostensibly nameless, hustling to cling to the underbelly of an economically depressed nation. When I get annoyed at their outstretched hands, I’m exposing the worst possible version of myself, the version that thinks my desire for a completely inconvenience-free international vacation trumps their desire to eat and retain human dignity.

          Across five Italian cities, my wife and I will see hundreds of these vendors, all making identical sales pitches for identical products. As a unit, they are incredibly efficient and well-organized, much more so than the Italian police who seem only intermittently interested in doing anything. Sometimes the police take a few aggressive steps toward the guys selling fake designer bags, send them scurrying like pigeons flapping away from a tourist’s kick. Minutes later, everyone will return to their starting places. When it begins raining, the vendors, as if performing magic, swap out their selfie sticks for cheap umbrellas. I don’t know where the sticks have gone or where the umbrellas come from. They scramble to make as many sales as possible before the storm passes, or they charge a couple euros for holding an umbrella over your head while you run for cover. When the rain stops, the umbrellas disappear and again there are selfie sticks, water bottles, and handfuls of food to throw to the pigeons. This level of organization across the bottom socioeconomic rung of Italian society suggests they’re all working for some central authority that provides them with materials and training and, very likely, substandard housing and demanding quotas. Later, when we’re in the grimy, trash-strewn streets of Rome, it will be hard to view the enterprise as anything other than Dickensian.

          When I ask a waiter about the nightlife in Venice, he replies, “Sir, Venice is the most romantic city on Earth. Nightlife means something different here.” This is a city people travel to in order to have sex, because the sex they are having elsewhere isn’t quite cutting it. Some men are willing to fly five thousand miles just to get an erection. I think about who else has been in the bed in my hotel. I order another bottle of wine.

          The gondolas in Venice charge obscene rates because they can. Every day, couples come here to live a scene from a movie, to ride in the gondola beneath Rialto Bridge and to look up at the stars with their lover while the gondolier sings a song in a language they don’t understand. They come here to rekindle a stale marriage, to take the next step in a relationship, to propose, to just have some fun. They come here because romance is a commodity and they want to purchase it. My wife and I do not ride the gondolas because they are too expensive and because there is something particularly unromantic about riding alongside five other couples who are all chasing the same unique romantic moment. I keep hoping I will see two men proposing concurrently on adjacent gondolas, but it never happens. Although the gondola rides are one of Italy’s iconic images, they seem to be the least authentic of all Italian experiences. It is a service that exists for foreigners who want to recreate the Italy that has been imagined for them by a tourism board.

          Men wander past the restaurants selling roses to outdoor diners; they are the most aggressive of all the vendors perhaps because they’re selling the most useless item. A single plucked rose, sold to a tourist, is essentially a weed, and the many men who are guilted into buying one are enacting the laziest possible form of romance, a shrugging acceptance of a traditional marker of love, purchased because they felt they had no other option. My wife does not want a rose. If I were to buy her a rose, we would have to carry it back to the room and then snap the stem and let it sit in a bathroom cup for two days while it slowly died. When a man presses it against her clenched fist, she lets it drop and waits for him to walk away. As we get older it becomes much easier to stop trying to appease strangers.

          In Venice, we will see three weddings. We will take photos of them, because my wife likes seeing people dressed up for weddings. Each of those couples is now in our digital photo album, a part of our memory of the trip.

          The streets of Venice are famously Byzantine and poorly marked. When we arrive at the hotel, the proprietor gives us a map “to help you get lost better.” We spend the next two hours walking, thinking we are traversing large swaths of the city and then realizing we have somehow stayed within a quarter-mile radius of our hotel the whole time. My attempts to frame this experience as a metaphor for the average middle-class American life gain little traction with my wife.

          In Venice, one must always be aware of befuddled faces emerging, prairie dog-like, from blind alleys. Their arms outstretched, wielding selfie sticks like sabers, they stumble into you, sometimes even shoving you. The primary means of communication in this country is impersonal shoving. No matter where we go on this trip, we are joined by several thousand others who all clump together as if magnetized. Navigating crowds of foreign tourists is a task that requires equal measures of saintly patience, hound dog agility, and brute force. Tourists stop in the middle of a narrow bridge and raise their arms to snap a couple haphazard shots of the water, of their faces in front of the water. Crowds move erratically like toddlers, darting across a street with their camera above their heads because they have seen a thing and want desperately to record having seen that thing.

          Moving safely about the country is made more challenging by the seemingly improvised traffic laws. In Florence, we are weaving along a crowded cobbled street for about ten minutes before we learn that this road is open to traffic and find ourselves suddenly surrounded by Vespas. In Rome, we spend most of our energy trying not to be run over by buses. Train stations are so crowded that pickpocketing is a national epidemic. The Roman authorities have addressed this problem by installing TVs in Metro stations that play a cartoon in which a pickpocket named Rubicchio is murdered by Jack the Ripper and then sent to Hell.

          On this vacation, I take 389 photographs, an average of thirty per day. Forty are immediately deleted due to poor quality or redundancy. My favorites are posted on social media with captions I think are funny. Sometimes I take pictures just for the caption, because I am vain and I want my jokes validated on social media. The pictures from this vacation are similar to the pictures from all my vacations: sunsets, funny road signs, crashing waves, panoramic shots from high vantage points, my wife smiling with a coffee mug or a glass of wine in hand.

          If I had to pay for film, I would take half as many photos. Maybe I would take more careful pictures. Or maybe I’m romanticizing physical media. As you get older, you develop irrational attachments to the technology of your youth. I am approaching middle age, but not yet nostalgic for my childhood.

          Recently, my niece asked why I would ever use a regular camera instead of just using a phone. I’d never questioned it: I use a regular camera because I want pictures and the camera is a tool designed specifically to complete that task. Last week, one of my students asked me if I knew what a meme was. She asked if I’d ever heard of Uber. In some of the pictures from this vacation, you can see how far my hairline has receded. You can see the creases around my eyes.

          I have no real understanding of how my camera works. But I can point it and I can click it, and I can make it perform its basic functions. Does my limited understanding of the technology devalue the pictures themselves? If someone compliments the quality of the photo, should I just shrug and say, No the camera did all the work ?

          On this trip, we will see so many priceless artifacts that I will get tired of seeing them. Before this vacation, a friend described seeing the Pietà as one of the most moving experiences of his life, witnessing such a profound testament of love and beauty. I look at it for a long time and agree it is well-made, and then I look longer, wondering why I haven’t been moved in the same away. I take a picture and walk to the next sculpture. When we get to the Sistine Chapel, the woman in front of me falls to her knees in tears, and my first thought is: okay, we get it. You’re moved. And my second thought is a deep well of regret for being so cynical I would assume this emotional reaction is contrived. I want very much to be the sort of person who sees amazing art and falls to his knees in wonder, but this doesn’t seem like something you will yourself toward.

          Inside the Vatican Museum, I see two teenage girls—they appear to be sisters, close in age—standing back to back, each taking a selfie. They are mirror images of each other and their phones are reflecting these images back onto them. As soon as these girls are able to access Wi-Fi, they will upload the photo to Instagram or Tumblr or Snapchat or some new thing I’ve never heard of.

          A few steps later, there is another teenage girl with her arm stretched out to take a selfie. She is standing in front of an open window, which stands in bright contrast to the somber interior of the Vatican Museum’s collection of grim, violent art. She contorts her body in a very particular and practiced posture. Everyone I see seems to have a personalized pose that they’ve perfected and that marks them, like a fingerprint, on social media.

          Generational definitions are hard to pin down, but by most definitions I straddle the blurry line between Millennial and Generation X. Whatever it means, I consider myself to be a non-Millennial, particularly in the sense that Millennials are the group that my peers and I most often disparage when we’re lamenting the decline of polite society. So my first instinct watching these girls is to shake my head and complain about young people and their obsession with social media and their own faces. This is where I’m supposed to lament the bleak future ahead, these myopic young people who will ruin everything good that we’ve built. But as I walk through room after gilded room, I have a hard time blaming them for anything. This generation did not invent vanity; they had it invented for them long before they were born. While I’m considering the tired arguments against selfies as markers of destructive self-absorption, I’m standing in front of marble busts that were commissioned by ancient Roman aristocrats as a show of wealth. I’m standing inside an opulent palace, each room piled high with literal treasure, built to honor the vanity of a man who claims to be the infallible voice of God on earth. Compared to the monstrous crimes committed by the Catholic Church, it doesn’t seem all that bad to take a picture of your own face now and then.

          A group of octogenarians that proudly refer to themselves as The Greatest Generation will happily watch endless 60 Minutes stories on the crippling vanity of Millennials. The Baby Boomers have spent the past three decades glorifying themselves in popular culture and starting wars just to remind the world that they exist. Millennials haven’t even had the chance to become the monsters that their ancestors turned out to be. Until then, they’re just taking fucking pictures of themselves.

          The real complaint seems to be one of access. For millennia, the immortality conferred by having your likeness etched into stone or painted by a master was granted either by heroism, or more likely, inherited wealth, an accident of birth. Now anybody gets to do it. Vanity has been democratized.

          What I spend most of the trip looking for is something like an authentic Italian experience. I’m not entirely sure exactly what this constitutes, but I hope I’ll know it when I see it. I want to leave feeling like I’ve experienced some version of what an actual Italian person lives through on a daily basis. I want more than just pictures of nice scenery.

          Our guidebook refers to Venice as “a Disneyland for adults” because relatively few Italians actually live and work in the city, and the place is overrun with tourists. Most of the restaurants have menus printed in five or more languages, and most people are eating pizza. There are so many people wearing Hard Rock Café t-shirts it boggles the mind. Some of these people have decided, in advance, that one essential stop in this country is the place that has a signed Joe Perry guitar on the wall. The restaurant closest to our Venice hotel has a big sign advertising hot dogs and cheeseburgers, for people who want to be in Italy, but still feel like they’re in America. For people who came here mostly for the pictures.

          But what did I come here for? Gelato?

          I came here mostly to be with my wife, who wanted to come here. I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this trip, besides a few stories. I’m not sure, sometimes, why I’m traveling anywhere except that I want to be with my wife in front of a different backdrop. I could tell you I’m interested in broadening my horizons and enriching my soul, but what I do in most cities is no different from what I do at home: walk around, watch strangers, have a couple drinks in the afternoon, eat a moderately-priced entrée at night and split a bottle of wine with my wife. Somehow this makes me feel like I’m experiencing a truer version of this place than everyone else. I enjoy these times, because I am not working, and because I am with my wife, who is relaxed and happy, and who is my favorite person to be with. And we have the freedom of anonymity—nobody here knows us or expects anything from us.

          Sometimes, though, I need to remind myself that despite my pretensions of being a free-spirited world traveler, I can’t even take a weekend trip to Baltimore without packing two emergency outfits. I’m not even sure when I became a person who thinks in terms of outfits.

          On our penultimate night in the country, we fail to make dinner reservations, and so end up wandering through Rome in search of a place decent enough to serve food that won’t make us sick, but unpopular enough to offer immediate seating. We pass a traffic-stopping event that turns out to be a major fashion show. Limos pull up, supermodels step out, and are led inside by their handlers. These women look, more than anything else, like women who are models. In the context of the celebrity fashion show, their job is not to be people but to be bodies on which a variety of fabrics can be artfully hung. They are not just pretty; they are skilled in the art of making an artificial situation seem a little more real. Bystanders take pictures with their phones while paparazzi jostle to get their own pictures, and someone in all the flashing is a person. Later, we will find the paparazzi photos online and wonder if this is what we’d actually seen.

          We eventually settle for eating dinner in a very bad restaurant where we are seated in a back room full of replica sculptures. The owner is an amateur artist and he uses the restaurant to display his aborted efforts and replicas. If you’re not concerned about craftsmanship, history, or monetary value, then this room is not unlike the famous museums we’ve visited – there are hundreds of sculpted things, with no context, staring at us. Many of the busts watching us eat are versions of David. Some are Roman gods. Dozens are animal heads. Directly over my wife’s shoulder is an enormous sculpted penis.

          The couple next to us is from England. Until we get through the first bottle of wine, we assiduously avoid eye contact. I’m embarrassed to be eating in a tourist trap, and I’m annoyed that I allowed the waitress to upsell me to an extra appetizer and a more expensive bottle of wine. I’m hoping nobody thinks I actually want to be here. Finally, the Englishman next to us says, “This is about the ugliest fucking room I’ve ever seen,” and it’s such a relief to hear someone say it. We are in a funhouse version of Italy created specifically to extract money from lost tourists. We spend the next hour complaining about the country’s inefficiency and corruption with the English couple, and yet, we all agree we would come back. In a way, this feels like the most Italian sentiment of all – hating the place but also having a great time doing it.

TOM MCALLISTER is the author of the novel The Young Widower's Handbook and the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He works as nonfiction editor for Barrelhouse and is co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. His shorter work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Black Warrior Review, and some other places. He teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia.