"Experience the culture like a local--you'll spend less money and have more fun," advises Rick Steves. As travel philosophies go, this is a pretty good one, and, to the best of our ability, this is how we spent our two weeks in Italy. Watching the World Cup final in a small town park in Le Marche was certainly a native cultural experience, but other experiences were not so unambiguously authentic.
Take, for instance, the Piazza Grande in Arezzo, as lovely a public space as you're likely to find in Italy. Unlike piazzas in Rome or Sienna, the buildings surrounding the Piazza Grande are well-maintained and clean. No shutters closed for forty years, no crumbling mortar. Colorful medieval banners, many of them looking like Ferrari logos, hang from the upper stories. This public space is well ordered partly because of the jewelry money that comes into town, partly because the town itself was almost completely rebuild after World War II. The town is a reconstruction of an idea of Arezzo.
Is that bad? American travelers are pretty wary of artifice because so many of our major tourist destinations are pure artifices: Las Vegas, Disney World, even Times Square. As Rick Steves knows, we travel to Europe to see a more authentic and historically-grounded culture. My family and I traveled all over Tuscany and Le Marche to find it, and we did: bad grocery stores, fantastic restaurants tucked into the countryside, silly television, and landscapes that looked incredibly like travel-book images of Italy.
But it was speaking to Italians about traveling to America that clarified things for me. They wanted to travel to Chicago for the skyscrapers and the blues music. I didn't have the heart to tell them the skyscrapers were cubical workfarms and the blues little more than yuppie feel-good music. But the current realities of skyscrapers and blues music--two of Chicago's most significant contributions to twentieth-century culture--were beside the point. As Henry James, the unabashed "quaintness collector," understood, travel is an aesthetic experience, not an empirical one, especially when travelling to Italy. We travel with an idea of what a place should look like, and we seek out the objects that embody that idea. After all, no one travels for the prosaic experience of going to a European hardware store. (No great shakes, let me tell you.) We travel to places like Arezzo because artifice is part of the authentic experience of travel. Otherwise, we might as well stay home and watch television.