Being a tourist is a weird experience. I enjoyed my recent trip to Italy with my mum very much, but it kind of felt like we went to Venice-land. Venice is so tourist oriented that it is too expensive for many local people to live there. Instead they live on the mainland and bus in to their jobs in hotels, restaurants and shops in the unique city where everyone travels on foot or by boat. Birmingham may have more canals but we also have exponentially more roads. Our few days in Florence were quite a shock as we suddenly had to get out of the way of many cars, taxis and the ubiquitous mopeds.
We saw beautiful buildings and gardens, museums and galleries as well as eating mostly lovely food in medium priced restaurants. I guess Venice and Florence have always catered to the more middle class travellers but it felt a bit like what was on offer was now so much more targeted. Many places clearly thrived or suffered on their TripAdvisor reviews. Most people spoke English and didn’t seem too bothered if you made an effort to speak any Italian or not (although we did try).
I’d encountered some pushy street sellers on my visits to Italy before but the selfie stick sellers were something else. At every key viewpoint or site in either city there were many men, often of African or Middle Eastern origin desperate to sell you this technical arm extension to allow you to capture yourself within the famous view you were ignoring in order to take the picture. Somehow it’s not about what you see but that you can be seen to be there. I actually did take a few selfies with my mum (using my arm) and this seemed novel enough to capture her smiling which is a rarity in a photograph. But this was a real reflection of us on a trip that we absolutely enjoyed, even while I was doubting that we were seeing the real Venice, or if the real Venice even exists to be seen any more.
We did tend to avoid the busiest parts a lot of the time, seeking out quieter restaurants and a trip out to the islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello as well as a trip out from Florence to Fiesole. However, even these were recommended by guidebooks and attracted plenty of tourists. Burano has to be one of the most deliberately photogenic places I have ever visited with rows of houses painted in various bright colours alongside canals and bridges. Articles I have found state how this dates back many years and is about helping fishermen to identify their houses through the fog. I’m really not sure I’m convinced as it seems like a perfect gimmick to attract tourists to visit a small place where there really isn’t that much else to look at. There were plenty of shops selling lace for which the island is famous, but I was sceptical that many of the items were particularly local.
Similarly Murano is famous for glass, and there were numerous shops here and on the main Venice islands selling jewellery and other items from the brightly coloured glass which may have been made on Murano, made from Murano glass but assembled elsewhere or inspired by Murano glass but entirely from China. Depending on your budget you could buy the genuine, authenticated item, a piece of related glassware or a cheaper knockoff – some of which looked much cheaper and nastier but others of which might have been quite convincing.
The masks which are also a part of the Venice mythology may also imported and machine formed in plastic or they may be locally made of the traditional leather or cartapesta (papier-mâché) and painted in the shop – they even had some mask painting workshops for tourists. When I went to Venice in 1999 I got chatting to a man in a mask shop who showed me more about making the cartapesta versions and I used the skills later in my drama degree and dramatherapy work. This felt like a much more genuine experience of mask making, although of course, masks by their nature allow you to put on a front and conceal what’s underneath.
But any good drama or dramatherapy student will tell you how work with masks can also be revealing, and that in portraying even a stereotypical part we may get in touch with a deeper and hidden part of ourselves. And similarly, I think there was something revealing about the Venice experience, however inauthentic. The rampant consumer culture where almost all the shops and services were targeted specifically at tourists, hotels which sought to look the part even if underlying corners were cut to reduce costs and maximise profits, even that selfie stick which made it all about you and looking good on social media. I think this does say something about our society and about what the average tourists wants, even while they scour the guidebooks and websites for the unspoilt corners and the authentic restaurant that is popular with locals but will also supply an attractive Instagram picture of your meal you can upload using the free wifi.
The heat was real, and the peeling paint and graffiti once you got off the main tourist tracks also seemed more real. My affection for my mum and our occasional mis-steps with public transport and baby octopuses made for a bit more reality too. While some service seemed more formulaic, there were staff in one hotel who did make more of an effort to be more personally welcoming. I guess you need an insider track to get to see the real place underneath and I have been lucky enough to get this through hospitality with more local people when I have visited Canada, Bolivia and Peru and even back in 99 when I was inter-railing, feeling more like a traveller than a tourist.
But I guess most people go on holiday to get away from real life and to experience a fantasy dream world where you don’t have to work, where it’s all about having fun, relaxing, or seeing beautiful, interesting places and things. Maybe I should stop analysing it all and just be grateful and show you some nice photographs. Even if it wasn’t real, it was lovely.