I don’t want to be a tourist. I want to be Italian.
Updated: Mar 1
Last week the kids and I made the rather long and arduous trip from Australia to Italy. It involved five airports (Brisbane, Shanghai, Paris, Bologna and Florence) and I think we worked out from door to door, by the time we arrived at our little apartment in Uzzano, that we had been travelling for 48 hours. On the final leg of our journey, our flight was diverted and we ended up landing in Bologna instead of Florence. We were then all gathered like a herd of disgruntled sheep at the baggage carousel, walked out of the airport and escorted to two waiting coaches. By that time, I was exhausted and could hardly see straight, but I was so excited to be in Italy that I truly could not give a rat’s arse about a 90-minute bus ride. At least we were heading in the right direction.
On the bus I sat next to a man who was coming to the end of a three week whistle-stop tour of Europe. He was with his wife, his daughter, his mother-in-law who had mobility issues, his sister-in-law who was poor and impoverished and was being given the gift of travel due to his generosity, and his niece and nephew who had behavioural issues and who should have been more grateful for his incredible spirit. I know all of this because he told me within 15 minutes of our journey. UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey and Italy all in just under a month.
Perhaps I was reading between the lines and assuming he was a dickhead, perhaps not. Anyway about 30 minutes into our journey he asked me where I was going, and I told him that I was going to Tuscany. He asked me for how long and I told him, hardly believing it as I said it, that I was going for almost a month. He asked me where else I was going, and I said nowhere. He then said, “Shame. Shame you can’t see more of Italy and experience being a tourist.” I told him that I was ok with my plans and that I did not want to be a tourist. He asked me what I wanted to do then. I told him that I did not want to do anything. I just wanted to be Italian for a while. That’s all. And that I couldn’t pretend I was Italian if I was being a tourist. He stopped talking to me after that.
This is the same man who was disgruntled that the flight had been diverted as they had scheduled 2 hours in for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that afternoon and he hoped they would at least get an hour in as they did not have time in their schedule to see it again. I felt like telling him that you did not see the Uffizi Gallery in 2 hours. You needed a lifetime for something like that. But I suspect he just wanted to tick another box. Tick for Germany, tick for Switzerland and tick for Italy. That’s why I don’t want to be a tourist.
When the kids first embarked on our big trip in 2016, I had planned to schedule in three ‘big-ticket’ items in each country. After the nightmare of The Empire States Building and being shoved left, right and centre by aggressive tour groups and being caught up in a wave of people who just wanted the obligatory selfie I sort of lost my interest in ‘big-ticket’ items. Then came the Statue of Liberty where the kids were too exhausted to enjoy Ellis Island and finally the Natural History Museum of New York, the scene of one of our biggest meltdowns when we realised it was all too much. It was only after the Natural History Museum that I threw away the inclination to do anything that resembled a tourist attraction and lost any expectations to do anything but try to live like a local.
My favourite memories of New York did not belong in any of those attractions that cost me a small bloody fortune and took away part of my soul, rather they belonged in Central Park where we got lost for days, where I snoozed while waiting to take the perfect photo of a squirrel. Where I once trailed an incredibly inquisitive squirrel before realising that I was stalking a rather large rat. I have a memory that is etched on my brain forever and that is sitting on a park bench, while the kids played in a water fountain. The sun was setting and those beads of water were like diamonds in the sky that played upon their silhouettes.
In Costa Rica, once we realised everything was way more expensive than even in the States, I gave up on doing anything but being Costa Rican. We stayed for a month in a tiny seaside village and went nowhere except the local town for our weekly grocery shop. But we got to know the tides, the activities of the fishermen, we saw what happens when monsoon rains combined with a king tide and a ferocious storm as the ocean consumed the shore, palm trees and all. We learned to read the rain and spent hours on the beach before the rains came in, then wandered home, knowing that we could say hola to the lady in the shop and she would treat us like we had lived there for ages. In the six weeks we lived in Atenas, we walked for miles to find a waterslide in the jungle. After volunteering at the community centre, I would watch in fascination as I sat in the town square and saw my kids with the Costa Rican kids, and learned that when adults aren’t around, all kids seem to speak the same language.
We were lucky enough to travel around parts of Italy with Mum and Phil when we first got to Italy and I got to see places like Matera, a place I simply must return to. We climbed 1300 steps up the Amalfi Coast and drove hundreds of miles. My visits to Pompeii and the Rome Forum reminded me that right now, for me, big-ticket items did not work. Unlike the Empire States Building, I know I must return to Pompeii and the Forum, but I need to do it when I have days. Not hours. Days, maybe weeks.
Then I was lucky enough to live in Italy for 2 months with the most amazing group of people and this is where I have returned. You see, I don’t want to be a tourist. Today the kids and I stopped by our local gelateria for a gelato on the way home, it was closed. I am increasingly becoming disturbed by the fact that I have been advised that it is common for gelaterias to close over January. Not knowing if this was my last day of gelato in Italy, the kids and I took a drive to Montecatini. We got lost as I could not quite remember the way to the train station. Then I got confused in a jumble of one-way streets that were so narrow that I was constantly sucking in my breath to make the car thinner. We eventually found the station but could not find the gelateria though Archie thought he saw it and it was closed. We returned deeply saddened to Uzzano and just before our turn off I told the kids that I would revisit the local gelateria again to see if it had opened. And it had! We literally clapped and cheered. Our car was a tiny little scene of gelato pandemonium. Then I sat slowly and savoured my gelato as the Italians do. It took about 90 minutes to get gelato, but it was worth it. Tourists don’t do that sort of thing or realise the exquisite joy of a gelato that is a precious moment at the end of a day.
Our first morning in Uzzano, we woke in the wee hours and headed off at dawn to get some fresh schiacciata from a small bakery that we had visited during our last trip. We left our walled village, leaving the gate that took us out through a grove of olive trees. Through the grove and onto a steep bitumen track that led to another road. 20 minutes later and I was clutching fresh schiacciata, just out of the oven, in a paper bag that was already glistening with warm olive oil. The kids were munching on mini tomato and mozzarella pizzas that had just been baked that morning. Then it was a 40-minute walk back up the heart-stopping hill, for a breakfast of schiacciata and nothing else. I don’t think you would do that if you were a tourist.
On New Year’s Eve, I was reminded of the Italians and their ever so sweet obsession with food, wine and family. Every mouthful is discussed, the flavours are few and the food is seasonal. I am truly fascinated by watching the Italians drink. A bottle of wine is put on the table, it is tasted and revered. One bottle is shared between many. Each course a different wine. Each occasion a different vintage. I think on New Year’s Eve we tasted 6 different wines, but it was just a taste, each mouthful to be enjoyed and rolled across the palate. My bus companion had told me that on New Year’s Eve he would be in Rome and the hotel had promised the guests fireworks. My New Year’s Eve involved a display complete with paper lanterns that floated into the sky as we sent Tiney wishes in our heads. These fireworks were done out of love for their family, and whilst I wondered if someone was going to lose an eye, as our little sky exploded with colour, outside the back of the Nonno’s house in Tuscany, I was glad that I was not a tourist.
Last night my beautiful Italian family had their lovely friends organise a pasta making demonstration for us. Then we would sit and dine all together. It took hours, I was told to relax as otherwise the pasta would be affected and no-one suggested that those types of comments were not to be taken seriously. Pasta truly has emotion. I heard stories of how various family members made their pasta and some hours later we sat down to our homemade pasta. The Italians discussed how food for them was about everything, it was not just about the eating or how good it was, it was in the preparation, the ingredients, the company and the occasion. I loved sitting there listening to the Italians speak, thrilled if I could understand a word or two. I love their ever so sweet obsessions. It was about 10 pm when the kids and I took our leave, despite the lure of gelato as I could barely stay awake. The passata we used was bottled every year using tomatoes from a home vegetable patch and the harvesting and bottling was an annual family occasion. Homemade pasta, family bottled passata, wine shared and revered. I was glad that I was not a tourist.
I couldn’t tell the man on the bus all that. I just didn’t want to be a tourist. I wanted to be Italian, how else could you possibly understand a lovely way of life. After the man on the bus stopped talking to me, he turned around to his wife and asked her if she thought they could have a burger that night after their hour or so at the Uffizi.
I am not sure if I have been too influenced by E.M. Forster or Marlena de Blasi but in Italy, it is impossible to experience Il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, without being Italian. That’s why I do not want to be a tourist.