Monday, 26 June 2017

The chore of sightseeing

I am fortunate to be able to travel within Europe from time to time and I particularly enjoy my city trips. Milan and Florence were the latest destinations. As much as I love my time away, I am dreading the questions from friends and family whether or not I have seen this or that landmark, went to this museum and looked at that painting. Those questions used to always give me a pang of inadequacy, of having missed something out. The fact is that whenever I am abroad, I rarely see anything that would make it into the 'must see' list of any guidebook.

It's not that I have not tried. I trudged through the Forum Romanum with hundreds of other heavily persperating tourists on a hot Italian summer day. And I have stood at the back of a sizeable group of Japanese tourists staring at a small rectangular painting hung about 40 meters ahead of me on a Louvre wall. I didn't see much but I was told it was the Mona Lisa.

Have you seen me? 
And yet, if you asked me which way Michelangelo's David turns his oversized head on the famous Florentine Piazza, I couldn't tell you (I did take a lot of pictures though, inexplicably mostly of his backside).

So why does sightseeing mean so little to me? I think it has something to do with the fact that I do not connect with the artifacts I look at. It does not mean anything to me when I am told that while Boticelli painted his famous picture La Primavera he was deeply in love with the daughter of his neighbour. Quite frankly, who cares? And why should it matter? Sightseeing, it strikes me whenever I have to endure it, is not much than a playground for all stories tangential to the artifact in question. And most of the time, the plots of those stories go off the object just as cheap Aldi fireworks dye out on Hogmanay. 


On a recent trip to Florence, I have had enough of tourists hooked up to earpieces trudging mindlessly through narrow alleys following their guide like lemmings. I packed my bag with a towel and flip flops and left the city centre to go to a nearby open air swimming pool. As soon as I hit the outskirts of the city, everything changed. The tourist shops with the naff souvenirs disappeared. People started to look normal, going or coming from work, others resting in front of their houses after the day and chatting with their neighbours. The swimming pool itself was full of locals and I must have been the only foreign soul there. Total bliss!

I will never forget those moments I walked down the street in the neighbourhoods of outer Florence or lying next to an Italian couple trying desperately to keep their two small children in check on the green next to the pool. Yet ask me what I saw in the Duomo, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you a single thing. So please, next time we talk about our trips to foreign lands, don't ask me whether I have seen that famous church with that incredible triptychon. I couldn't care less.

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