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How Italy Made Me Think About America

Italian cities are home to traditions and built environments that were established before our country even existed.

Travel can be an occasion for escape and relaxation. But it can also spark reflections on our habits and on the things we consider normal and everyday in our own country and community. This goes beyond the cliché of travel “broadening the mind.” Visiting foreign countries can give real insights on topics from food (how we grow and prepare it) to architecture (how the forms of our built environments influence experience and behavior).

I can’t claim to have experienced all of Italy—my wife and I flew to Naples, then visited Rome, Florence, Parma, and Venice, relying mostly on high-speed intercity rail but also trying out the freeways in a rental car. Nor could I guarantee that I would come away with the same impressions after a second trip. Nonetheless, even this brief tour proved fruitful.

Naples was of more interest to me as an urbanist than as a tourist. The bustling, ancient center is among the most congested places on earth, and is also one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. The lack of tourism infrastructure in Naples is frustrating. You are thrown into the rough and tumble without much guidance. This becomes especially problematic when you explore beyond the city, such as visiting adjacent Pompeii.

Other than driving or reserving an expensive coach bus, the only way to get to this world-famous site is to take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples. It sounds budget-friendly and efficient, and you might think the abysmal online reviews are just griping. But when the worn-out commuter train with a few hard plastic seats, no air conditioning, and lots of graffiti rumbles in at a time somewhat resembling the schedule, you know you’re in for a ride. If you weren’t wary of the pickpockets, you’d pull out your phone and reread those reviews, especially the ones detailing the thieves, who apparently work so rapidly and intricately that you almost have to admire their mastery of the trade.

The train chugs along through Naples’ urban fringe, littered with abandoned buildings and faded apartment towers, with regular stops at poorly maintained stations, some of which are barely more than crumbling concrete platforms. When you get to Pompeii, there’s barely any signage. Ask the wrong person for help, and you might end up buying a tour that is either massively overpriced or nonexistent. In taking stock of the place, my wife compared it to Mexico City; I was more generous and went with New York in the ’70s (at least I think that’s more generous).

If this were the whole story, Naples would be utterly devoid of charm. But it isn’t, not in the slightest. The lack of an entrenched tourism industry seems to correlate positively with the vitality of native folkways and cultural practices, which, ironically, make a place more memorable as a tourist. Naples is teeming, for example, with dirt-cheap street food eaten by the locals—sfogliatelle pastries, rice balls, spaghetti frittatas—along with scores of cafes. There are bustling outdoor farmers’ markets, the kind that Americans view as lifestyle adornments for the affluent and that the rest of the world sees as grocery shopping. Naples is also full of churches, historic landmarks, and even museums, mostly without long lines or ominous security infrastructure.

All this makes one think about larger questions. Is there any city in the world with manicured-suburb levels of crime and social pathology but Manhattan or Naples levels of chaotic, vibrant life? It’s a tough question, and it forces one to wonder whether there wasn’t some truth in the protests—during Rudy Giuliani’s tenure in New York City, for example—that to clean up graffiti and prosecute turnstile jumpers was to assault the very character of urban life. American suburbanites’ and urban professionals’ zero tolerance for crime is extremely unrealistic compared to the reality of life in most places on earth, and even in America. What if this security and comfort is only achieved—or more ominously, only achievable—by repressing the impulses that lead both to crime and to vibrance? Must safe places be soulless and vibrant places be dangerous? Probably not. At least not completely or all the time. If they are, however, joined at the hip, perhaps we should rethink our attitudes about urban crime and culture and even how we categorize them.

While most Italian cities are lively, none that we saw were quite at the level of Naples. Every time I stopped to stare at salamis hanging in a window or found myself floored by a medieval church, my wife asked if I wanted to “escape” America. One can dream. But tourism has changed these places. When you think of moving to a hallowed Old World city, you almost imagine that the tourists disappear. When you’re a tourist, you grin and bear the metal detector and bag check to see the cathedral. But imagine being a resident, not allowed to walk into your own church. When your city is a global heritage site, it is also no longer your own. America’s lack of such deep history is one reason we don’t have to worry about such crushing international crowds. That tradeoff seems worthwhile to me. Perhaps the Romans and Florentines find their own tradeoff worthwhile, or perhaps they do not, but in any case they no longer have a choice.

After one of those many security lines, we entered the Florence Cathedral, a stylistically unique architectural marvel with a massive dome. We climbed a claustrophobic staircase some hundreds of steps high—300 or 400 or 500; it doesn’t feel very different—that snaked through the inside of the dome until we came out an attic-like door and onto a viewing deck.

The tour guide noted that this view of Florence was almost unchanged since the 1500s, a few decades after the cathedral was completed. In Europe, such a thing is perhaps unremarkable. But that particular view has remained constant for two centuries longer than the United States has existed.

One wonders just how deep into the American soul the throwaway ethic goes. Whole cities have come and gone, continuously rebuilt and reinvented. Despite a few impressive counterexamples, consider how few of New York City’s early buildings survive. Will there be layers to excavate when America finally gives up the ghost? Or will it all be demolished, carted away to the dump and grown over as though never settled? It is ironic that early Americans fancied themselves superior to the Natives because they left little of the physical residues of civilization. Yet except for our outsized impact in damaging the planet’s environment, perhaps we will have left very little either.

Though it is more of a threat to Venice, I thought about environmental catastrophe looking at that cityscape, so solid and permanent, and yet, in geologic time, so fleeting. One of the paradoxes of climate change is that while its global scope makes it difficult to imagine and unpalatable to those who would rather preserve and steward their own little places, a planetary problem will eventually become a million very local problems. When a problem is global, globalism is a kind of localism, and localism is a kind of complacency.

It is not fitting, however, to think too deeply or pessimistically while on vacation. It is much more fun to talk about the food, which, beyond Instagram-worthy pics, is a serious topic. The most striking thing about good Italian food is that at first blush it doesn’t really look like much. It’s not as complicated as French, and has far fewer ingredients than Chinese. There’s nothing especially “exotic” about most of it.

What makes the food stand out is its simplicity combined with the high quality of the individual ingredients. We learned, for example, that quality Italian pasta is extruded through bronze dies, giving it a slightly rough texture to which sauce more easily adheres. It also takes longer to produce, which is why it costs more. The tomatoes and other produce are flavorful, both because of heirloom varieties (San Marzano tomatoes) and because they’re not picked green and shipped in by jumbo jet. The sauces are thickened, if at all, with a little bit of leftover pasta water. None of this is remarkable or fancy; it is simply what food is. As in many other places in Europe, Italy is home to foods bearing a legally regulated “protected designation of origin,” or PDO. These are items indelibly tied to their places, like the terroir of wine. It’s a fun thing to learn during a food tour, but it is also a window into real public policy and food culture. It even suggests, despite issues with the PDO system, that hopelessly technocratic, bureaucratic policies can sometimes help steward local culture.

Despite Italy’s unfortunately rising obesity rate, especially among children, natural foods still seem to predominate. It is a curious thing to walk into an open-air food market in a foreign country, especially one with lower incomes but a richer culinary culture than America. People think nothing in particular of shopping there; it isn’t a movement or a political statement. Yet except for places like New York City’s Fulton Fish Market, patronized largely by restaurants and wholesale buyers, such things in the United States almost always have a whiff of political liberalism about them, not to mention a hefty price tag.

The outdoor food market carries none of this odd baggage in Italy. The Italians haven’t abandoned, rediscovered, and reinvented it. It is simply what is done and what has always been done; the remains of the market square in Pompeii suggest that the general form is ancient. This is one of the paradoxes of American, suburban, middle-class life, of the “normative” American life—despite our wealth, we consider things like farmers markets and walkable neighborhoods to be slightly elitist, politically charged luxuries, and this in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is only by traveling that you realize how very odd, counterproductive, and exclusionary this is.

Our trip ended in Venice, perhaps the only city that might have once contended with Paris for its romantic reputation. Yet today, the average tourist’s experience of Venice is hardly romantic and even rather depressing. The polar opposite of boisterous Naples, Venice is a manicured, amber-encased, slowly disintegrating ersatz Disneyland on the Adriatic.

The Venetians don’t like this, but that’s part of the problem—there are increasingly few Venetians left. The population of the historical island city (there are lesser known islands, too, and a much less romantic mainland portion) has dwindled to the point where Venice is very nearly a simulacrum: there are more than 30 million visitors a year, and only around 50,000 residents. There is almost no genuine street food. The odd code of conduct posted in public places around the city prohibits sitting and eating, and the crowded restaurants charge for seats, so it isn’t clear how one is supposed to eat. But that was less of a problem than it might have been, because my wife and I even had trouble finding good restaurants. Venice is what happens when tourism ceases to be driven by the life of the city and instead becomes the life of the city, such as it is.

On our last night, we saw an opera and had a late dinner at a fancy canal-side restaurant. By the time we left, it was after midnight. The waiter hopped on a boat home, and we walked the 20 minutes or so back to our hotel. In any city I have ever been—New York, D.C., cities in China, other Italian cities—there would have been people on the streets. Some might have been drunks, a few might have been criminals, most would be just regular people.

Yet as we took our nighttime stroll, we went minutes at a time without seeing a single other person. Entire streets were ghostly, and even the main boulevards held only a few stragglers. Almost every business had packed it in.

This drove home the Disneyland comparison: it was as though the city was…closed. That odd, mall-like code of conduct drove it home even harder. It is not possible to freeze a place in time without choking off the very life that makes it worth preserving in the first place. Perhaps Venice will muddle along for a few more centuries. But the still, silent air and the sloshing of the waves slowly wearing away the foundations of ancient, fragile buildings carry a feeling of foreboding and vicarious loss.

This is a curious and slightly unfamiliar feeling. Despite the historic preservation movement, there is little in America old enough to mourn like this. In many respects, we are still something of a blank slate, and that is exciting in its own way. I do not think I would want to “escape.” But I also wouldn’t mind dodging the scooters and pickpockets in Naples again.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.



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