Thursday after class, we quickly packed up and got out the door, ready for our first adventure on our own in Italy. After the bus to Arezzo, the train took us to Florence and then Pisa, where we got off long enough to go take tourist-y pictures by the Leaning Tower and get back on the train. At this point we split into our two groups that had booked separately, so from here on out it was Teressa, Llew, Katie, Bri, Elizabeth, and I. From Pisa we traveled to La Spezia and then Riomaggiore. Twice we accidentally got off on the wrong stop; in Florence we basically played Chinese Fire Drill and got out of the rail car and back on. In La Spezia, however, we realized too late that we were at the wrong La Spezia stop and had to wait for another 40 minutes to get to a stop that we knew was five minutes away at most. Once in Riomaggiore, we trekked up THE hill (there’s really only one main street that’s a 45 degree or more hill) to the office of our hostel. We got checked in, hiked up some more to our room, and got settled in. The rest of Thursday was taken up with eating, finding a good place to go hang out (on the string of giant rocks by the marina) and taking up the Wi-Fi (our room didn’t have any) at the Zorza, which was a local bar and the only place playing any kind of good music.
Friday was planned as a beach day, but of course the one day that we decide to go to the beach is the only truly cloudy/rainy day I’ve seen since we got to Italy. Later we went for a nice dinner and hogged some more Wi-Fi. Saturday our plans included kayaking, horseback riding, and maybe some time on the beach. Our actual day included some time on the beach. Later that night we had supper, went shopping, went out on the rocks again, and mainly hung around town (or around the street, since it made up the whole town). Sunday we were up early, left the hostel at 8:30, and made it back to the palazzo earlier than I had dared to hope. We did have to run to make one connection in Pisa and stood for a good half of that ride, but hey! All part of the experience.
One of the first things I noticed upon our arrival in Riomaggiore was the amount of non-Italians walking around the town. The longer we stayed, the more I realized that the proportion of tourists, especially Americans, was extremely high, even compared to supposed tourist traps like Florence. The majority of other people in restaurants, on the rocks, or at the beach were not Italian, and a large number of those were English speaking: American, British, or Australian. The likelihood of being able to say “hey” and have an English conversation with a passerby was shockingly high. This being said, it was also somewhat evident in the shops and restaurants themselves that this was an expected phenomenon. For one thing, many restaurants actively advertised the fact that they had takeaway, which is distinctly non-Italian. Multiple establishments—one in Rio and one in Manarola, at least—sold fast food in a paper cone to make it easier to carry around and eat. Even nicer, traditional Italian restaurants had signs letting customers know that they had a takeaway option. The other interesting piece of this was the actual food offered. French fries–patate fritte, as they’re called in Italian—were everywhere, even as sides in nicer restaurants. The places that sold food in cones had fish and chips—a definite nod to the Brits—and chicken nuggets, classic American food. Compared to a small, relatively untouched town like Sansepolcro, Riomaggiore smacked of tourism and American tastes. For such a tiny town, Rio’s shops were extremely kitschy, also a hint to the catering being done to tourists and out-of-towners.
Slowly, a phrase came to mind that seemed to describe the situation, and the longer we stayed the more appropriate it seemed: “vicious cycle.” To begin with, I’m sure Cinque Terre attracted tourists simply because of the beautiful views, great hiking and swimming, and the attractiveness of the small, hilly towns. As more tourists came, the restaurants and shops started to bring in a few things that everyone seemed to be asking for; French fries and takeaway, for instance. Then the tourists heard the news: Cinque Terre has beautiful views, great hiking and swimming, attractive towns, and FRENCH FRIES. More tourists come. The businesses change a little more. And on the circle goes until half the population is tourists and half the businesses sell specifically to those tourists. This is somewhat similar to the article we read about the problems with students in Florence and the takeover of the tourists in Venice. Increasingly, the beautiful sights of Italy are being overrun by those from other countries with enough money to come see them. Unfortunately, Italy needs the money from tourism, and there is no good way to stop this spread and the subsequent tamping down of traditional culture. However, it is a definite tamping down and not a stamping out. Italy is one of the most tradition-rooted places in the world, and tourists will never be able to rid the country of its customs, food, and appeal. Riomaggiore will stay small and beautiful, but also touristy and a bit of a sell-out.
I also had a giant breakthrough while on this trip that I’m going to struggle to do justice to in print. After talking to a particularly annoyed train ticket clerk, I walked away thinking “no one really wants to deal with our Italian. It’s like at work (Chick-fil-A) when I fill in what the guest is trying to say because they’re taking so long and don’t really know what they’re talking about. They have no patience for anyone trying to speak Italian badly so they speak English at us.” And then suddenly the thought hit me: they have the same impatience for people who don’t know their language that we do for non-English speakers in America. Ethnocentrism had never struck me quite as fully as in that moment. We as English speakers get annoyed when someone can’t speak English well enough to communicate what they need or want. We think to ourselves, “Why can’t they learn English?” But in other countries, I’m the annoying one. They are thinking “Why can’t they learn Italian? If they’re going to be here they need to speak it well enough to get by.” To them, Italian is the language worth learning and English is what they sometimes have to speak to communicate to tourists. Here I was, walking along in a train station, having one of the most intense reversals of perspective I’ve ever had. It wasn’t that I had some unrealistic expectation that every person in every country should learn English so that they can communicate clearly with me as an American; however, I was still considering others knowing English a better option than me knowing Italian, or Spanish, or anything. While I can’t particularly relate this to Italian culture, it was practically a life-changing experience. It showed me that study abroad really is opening up my mind and allowing me to see the world in new ways, and hopefully it will continue to do so.