Today, I invite you to inhabit the body of a tourist.
You’re staying in Bagnoregio and wish to lunch in charming Civita. Still digesting your breakfast of cappuccino, a sweet roll and yogurt, you leave your hotel in the warm late morning. Your wife pushes a stroller with your baby son inside while your three-year-old girl skips around with wild energy you once possessed.
You find the shady side of the streets as you wind through town, taking a shortcut by the little cafe in the pine trees (your daughter demands a soda, but you refuse), finding a set of brick stairs. Your wife takes the stroller’s handles while you take the other end, carrying your son like the Pope in his litter down the stairs to the road.
A donkey brays. You take photos of your family with the donkey’s head peering over the fence. It stinks, so you move on.
Calves and thighs burning a bit, you walk three abreast, blocking cars and tour buses as the descent steepens near the causeway. You pause several times going across the bridge to snap photos of the sweeping views of forests and vineyards below…as well as your wife as she tries to restrain your daughter from climbing over the railing to her death.
As the grade climbs, your pace slows. You wish you hadn’t brought the heavy stuff, including one of your children. You pause several times to take photographs — of Civita, of the agriturismi and the neighboring hill towns. And, of course, your family.
Fellow tourists huff and puff about you, stopping for a cigarette to ease the journey as the smooth path turns into large cobbled stairs. In spite of an ever-steepening grade, you breathe a sigh of relief as you round the corner with the stroller (your wife gave up pushing it), drenched in sweat but seeing the end in sight.
Upon passing through the ancient gate (yes, you stopped to take photos before going through), you collapse for a moment in the shade, your children demanding water from the bottles you trucked along. Around you sit equally sweaty and famished Italian, Australian, Chinese, French, and German tourists speaking in unison.
As you enter Civita, you find a small piazza to your right (Bellissima! Snap, snap), a gift shop to your left (must remember to purchase cartoline on the way out), and the main piazza. Your daughter jumps into the dirt and drags large grooves with her feet across the piazza to the church, which is disappointingly under renovation scaffolds.
You make note of famous Peppone’s Bar on your right, a retail shop of a local agriturismo selling olive oil and wine, and a grotto bruschetteria. As you move through Civita, you snap hundreds of photos: of the ancient ovens, the quaint stone buildings, and the pink and red flowers in terra-cotta pots lining staircases up which you send your daughter for posed shots. Her squeals echo off the walls, as do your admonitions and your wife’s complaints, punctuated by your son’s shrieks when he spots each resident cat.
Peering in windows, you wonder where the people are. It’s a ghost town – all these homes must be props…although the guide book promised there were about 10 residents. You peer into gardens, not deterred by the blue “Privata Propria” sign, crunching around after your daughter in someone’s gravel yard as you snap more photos of their garden and three black cats until a gray-haired man emerges to shoo you away. You take photos of him, too, as well as the woman typing on a laptop at the table.
You stop for another cigarette, dropping the butt in the alley next to a seemingly deserted home, confused at the sound of opera music coming from above. So, someone lives here? With you distracted, your daughter pushes aside a wooden sawhorse to run into an open door. You command your wife to go get her. Again.
Finally, you dine al fresco at the small cafe bar next to Peppone’s (their prices seemed high) after your daughter stomps her demand for lunch down the once-serene alley. The picturesque town has great views, but you wonder why anyone would live all the way up here where there are only cliffs, gardens, stone buildings and weed tendrils curling around the walls.
Shame on you, I say! (And also, yikes.)
I came to Civita with a desire to look at how public and private life is carried out in Italy, and I realized that what exists elsewhere isn’t necessarily true here. Turns out, when a place is billed as a dying city, people treat it as if there are no residents, no sacred spaces – everything is a quaint backdrop.
Much of what might otherwise be public life here is lived in private in order to block tourists from intruding on meals, times of tradition or repose, and family gatherings. Even when you attempt to stop them, i stranieri walk in and appear perplexed at your existence…and annoyance.
True, too, of last night’s Pizza in the Piazza, intended only for the Civitonici and certain “in the family” non-residents, like Father Marco and Alessandra’s brother, Maurizio. Still, there were tourists who tried to scam free wine and pizza. Tony gestured to their sly attempt as they circled nonchalantly, saying to me, “Loro fanno il Portoghese,” referring to Italians who posed as Portuguese in the 18th Century to gain free admission to the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
I’ll carry this lesson with me as I travel to Venezia later this month, another apparent ghost town where life happens quietly above the street. In public, the tourist mob smeared with gelato and sweat; in private, hundreds of stuccoed rooms with large ceilings and open windows from which sensuously exude aromas and sounds of people cooking, eating, laughing, loving, living, praying, and resting.
Of course, I hope someone there will let me crash.