How Italy Looks to Me
It had been two years since I'd visited Italy, and that was for a short spell. This summer, the three of us returned after four years for a longish (3 weeks) stay. As always, I'm on the lookout for how things have changed and what has endured.
Cheap intra-Europe travel, a relative novelty, means that Europeans are traveling their continent more than ever. Flights for as little as $70 round trip are available from, say, London to Florence. There were certainly more Europeans than Americans or Chinese by far. It used to be that besides Italian you'd hear mostly German, some French and British English and lots of American English in the tourist towns, but now you hear Polish, Russian, Romanian, Spanish everywhere.
By "everywhere" I mean that the swarms have explored every part of Italy. It is a beautiful place, with art and landscape worth savoring in almost every small town, so Italy Minore is no longer off the beaten path.
But many of these tourists travel simply for a change of scene and care little for the Piero della Francescas and Pontormos, and really just want to eat, drink and be merry without spending a lot of money. Italian businesses have begun catering to these crowds, with a not so pleasant result at times.
Italy has really learned how to merchandise and market itself as a brand -- the good life, beautiful people, food and wine, art. The advantage of that is that now you can actually have longer access to more museums and historic buildings, and the lavatories are better.
It is not only possible, but downright probable, to find really bad food in the tourist towns of which there are more and more. It used to be that restaurants actually cared deeply about what they served. Now, if you don't know where to go and are not willing to pay, you will be really disappointed, or not note any difference from eating a bad Italian restaurants at home. I can now get better pizza in Portland than in a lot of places we visited.
The markets are now the domain of Chinese vendors, selling very cheap "Made in China" clothing, imitations of name brands and bric a brac.
Italy is multiracial! France got there 30 years sooner, but now Italy has its share of Italians of African and Chinese origin. The Church is actively seeking adoptive parents for African orphans and is getting lots of takers, a situation that Italians of previous generations might not have embraced. Today some of the best African musicians live in Paris; tomorrow in Milan?
The dollar's crash is terrible news for travel to Euro land. Japan is cheaper. Hard to imagine being able to budget for a return any time soon.
And yet...you still gasp on a daily basis at the driving habits of Italians; when you go to your favorite pizza place or regional trattoria you still marvel at how they turn out such fabulous dishes; you still slow down at midday to recharge for an evening of outdoor eating and clinking of glasses; and the landscape still summons up the inner artist.