But we have the BEST crap!!! Can someone give me a tourist break?
I remember the first time I was“abroad.” I was 14 years old and took a day trip with my dad over the border of Arizona and Mexico into a little town called Nogales. Compared to some of the places I’ve visited over the last year and a half, it’s really not much to write home about, but for a young girl who really hadn’t seen more than my own backyard, it was an eye-opening experience. Seeing young children in the streets selling gum and clay necklaces, the garbage and poverty that appeared almost immediately after crossing the border, and the streets lined with vendors selling postcards and trinkets was enough to make me feel like we had taken a jumbo jet miles away.
As we were walking through the town perusing the shops for the perfect souvenir to remember the day by, my dad in frustration leaned over and loudly whispered, “All of these shops just have the same cheap crap.” A shopkeeper, hearing my dads comment and rather quick on his toes stopped us in front of his store and said, “Well come in here my friend. We have the BEST crap!” Laughing at the fact that he had not only understood us but decided to make a joke about it, we couldn’t resist and stopped inside, emerging a few minutes later with our“crap.”
I often think about that day as I’m exploring a new city. From the markets of Jerusalem to the cobbled streets in Europe, shopkeepers stand outside enticing you with their own knickknacks, knock-offs, and whatever cheap souvenir that will help you remember the city by. From the “I love” (whatever city you’re in) t-shirts, purses, towels, and underwear, to the one of a kind handmade specialty (that the next 5 stores in a row seem to have magically gotten a copy of) it does seem to give you more of that commercial Disneyland feeling, than the “cultural” experience that one should hope to get by traveling. It isn’t enough that I have already shelled out my hard-earned money in getting there, I am then expected to throw out even more for some useless trinket that would eventually end up in a garage sale.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a “tourist.” My camera strap seems to be permanently fixed around my wrist, snapping pictures of cathedrals, monuments, and postcard perfect landscapes as I make my way around the world sharing my adventures with those who can’t come along on the journey with me. And while there isn’t much room in my suitcase to load up on souvenirs, I am guilty of picking up the occasional handbag or scarf (which normally gets sent home as a gift anyway.) But after a few weeks in Italy hitting the essential points of interest on my way through the country, I decided to take a breath of non-tourist air and get away from the crowds for a while.
My first stop was to a town on the west coast called Ostia Antica, which is near an old Roman port abandoned around the 5th century due to barbarian invasions and an outbreak of malaria. There were no tour buses parked outside or vendors waiting to haggle me. Just me, a few students and potential archeologists there to study and learn about a civilization that had been there so many years before. Not as dramatic as a volcano erupting and killing all its inhabitants as the nearby city of Pompeii, but it had just as much mystery and so many more quiet corners to stop and reflect about what life could have really been like.
From there I continued south towards the Amalfi coast, stopping at a hostel a fellow traveler recommended to me. It was a small town that doesn’t even show up in my guidebook, but when I arrived I knew it was just the right place. As I walked through the narrow streets I didn’t see a single postcard or cheesy t-shirt in sight. Just the everyday life in the south of Italy. Fish markets, produce stands,teenagers making out on a bench, mopeds whizzing by, the occasional old man sitting on the corner with a beer, and best of all the sound of kids laughing and playing in the alleys nearby. A normal town, a normal place, and the chance to finally feel immersed in a culture (which I think we forget to do so often when we are rushing around to see all the sights.)
And now as I am sitting in Pompeii (being this close I couldn’t miss it, even if it is a little touristy) I am happy to say that I have found a nice blend of both. A hostel just outside of the main tourist area and full of Italian hospitality (and the delicious fresh tomatoes and limonchello that I have come to love about southern Italy.) This morning was a catholic mass which brought swarms of people into the city consuming me into the crowd as they recited their prayers in front of the cathedral which I found out has a “Black Madonna” inside. They celebrate the occasion every first Sunday of October since it appeared over 100 years ago. I had no idea what was said (besides the frequent “amen”) but the Italian was music to my ears. Another culture, another language, and an impression that will last much longer in my mind than any figurine ever would on my shelf or even photograph taken for that matter. A small taste of a real place in the south of Italy.