I often forget that this well known phrase comes with a second part, in which we are instructed to “do as the Romans do.” I’m not sure that I managed this on my recent visit, as I didn’t meet or see a single Roman while staying in Rome. Thousands of tourists, and plenty of people attempting to sell them things, but no true Romans. It was as if the entire city were populated with visitors, and people that were just passing through. The transience and short attention span of the crowds, the constant parry and riposte between tourist and hawker, and the emptiness of the back streets if you dared to wander away from the tourist trail, gave the entire city a sense of being one giant theme park. I think that the queues to see the sights might have had something to do with it too …
Time and again as I walked the streets, dodging raindrops, I would see people taking selfies beside beautiful buildings to prove to the world that they had seen Rome, and would wonder if they really had. I certainly feel like I barely scratched the surface of the city during my visit. So much of it felt window-dressed, a show put on to amuse visitors, a facade to hide the realities of what the city is really like and the problems it is facing. Historic squares were packed and bustling, but moving just one block away, the side streets were deserted. Walking down them felt like sneaking backstage, as if this was the part of Rome that you weren’t supposed to see. Not that they were unloved, or had the feeling of pure functionality that backstage areas often possess. Quite the contrary. In fact I wish that all cities had side streets that were quite so beautiful.
No, they just felt closed off, as if tourists were welcome to come and see the sights, and were certainly welcome to spend their money, but were not welcome to see anything more intimate than that. Visiting had to be purely transactional – you were there to marvel at Rome, not to become acquainted with its people or its customs. Visitors were a commodity to be exploited, not potential friends, yet to be made.
And yet, this begs the question of why we have allowed this closing-off to happen to what is arguably, one of the most beautiful and historically important cities on the planet? Why have we turned it into a place of spectacle, where visitors work their way through a tick-list of monuments, but miss out on the heart of the city; its people? And who’s fault is it anyway? Are the people of Rome to be blamed for treating visitors as commodities, or are successive generations of tourists to blame for using and abusing the city, taking away with them cameras full of memories, and leaving behind piles of rubbish?
Personally, I feel that most of the blame lies on the sunburnt shoulders of the tourist, and is a problem that has been developing over centuries. Tourists are consumers at heart, and so much of the time we chose to consume the sights, the food, the monuments, and overwhelmingly nowadays, the alcohol, of a nation that we visit. How few of us visit a country with the intention of getting to know the people and their customs, even though they are the lifeblood of every nation? I am to blame for this as much as anyone. As an unashamed ancient history geek, I often overlook everything in the pursuit of getting to see an ancient monument.
But I have found that on every occasion in which I take the time to seek out the places less visited, to speak to the locals, to try the food that I can’t pronounce, and to learn about the country or city from those that live there, that I have gained the most. It is only through attempting to understand a country through the eyes of a local that you can truly form an opinion of it, or truly appreciate it’s beauty or accomplishments. The cycle of exploitation that exists between tourist and local is not an easy one to escape from, but it is worth trying to rise above. Only by reaching out to people with an open and inquisitive mind can we learn to love them, and it is only by loving its people that we can truly claim to love a city.
I shall have to return for a longer stay and fight through the crowds of tourists, looking for locals not yet jaded by the transient hordes, because I really really want to be able to say that I love Rome. Unfortunately, at the moment, I honestly cannot say that I do.