I assume we all have things our parents said to us when we were younger that we just can’t get out of our heads, for better or for worse. Maybe your dad commented on your weight, or your mom thinks you sleep around too much. Even the idyllic Bernabeis, who magnanimously sponsored the last post, carry such unavoidable baggage. Let me tell you about the most recent instance.
In Barcelona, on one of our last days together, I started asking my parents what I should see in Italy, as they had recently taken an anniversary voyage to the quinquagenarian trip trifecta of Rome, Florence, and Venice.
“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll like Italy; the people aren’t incredibly friendly and it gets very touristy and crowded. Plus it’s gonna be hot.”
My mom, as moms have done for ages, often makes assumptions about how I think and feel that prove to be inaccurate. Just in the last few weeks, she has made a series of contradictory accusations to the effect that A) I am secretly gay but haven’t realized it yet, B) had sex with my best (male) friend of half a decade back in high school, and C) will, one day, marry a woman older than myself. I have no reason to believe that any of these three beliefs are true, let alone all three, which stand in opposition to one another like the eternally warring parties of rock, paper, and scissors.
Ponder this: If I was attracted to men, wouldn’t I be aware of it if I had sex with my friend in high school? Furthermore, if I did discover my latent homosexuality after laying my buddy Will, I imagine I would have trouble committing to a marriage with some older woman with that knowledge, seeing as I have trouble committing to one country, continent, or even hemisphere. And finally, if I did find sexual gratification in the caress of my dearest friend, I surely would not be marrying some lady, as Will and I are practically platonic soulmates. Marriage with a woman would be futile, as he completes me in all manners except sexual, and always has. Like I said, my mom’s accusations are preposterous.
However, when she told me I was not going to absolutely fall in love with my ancestral homeland, I believed it. If Italy is so great, why have four generations of Bernabeis only gone for brief visits--like short, sweet sips of limoncello—to the country's more touristic locales, rather than a full journey of self discovery from the roots up? Furthermore, conundrum as to why my great grandfather decided his life would be better in Steubenville, Ohio (to where I recently tracked down his immigration papers) than in the land of sun, wine, goat cheese, and Parma ham adds additional intrigue. I never knew the man or his son (my grandfather), who died well before I was born, but from what I heard he was a real wild, running around-type guy. Allegedly, he got run out of some town in Pennsylvania for trying to unionize coal miners, just another chapter in a life of changing towns, losing interest, and moving on. Some genes skip a generation. That one seems to have skipped two.
In Italy, I am very interested in how I fit into this whole “thing.” Will I get special treatment for having an Italian name? Or will I be another obnoxious tourist who doesn’t know the language and insists on speaking English? The only preferential treatment I seem to receive is not having to pull up my ticket when the Italian bus driver calls my name in France. I am the last one waiting and he is waiting for one more to board, so he just waves me in. I choose to think he does this because he doesn’t want to stand in the way of an American Bernabei returning to his ancestral homeland, and not because he is impatient or lazy.
No one I meet in Italy is mean or rude, but no one is particularly friendly. In fact, I sort of connect with the keep-to-yourself Italian attitude, where no one is your friend except your actual friends. It’s not unlike New York City. In fact, I would be more than willing to bet that this is where New York gets it from, several waves of Italian immigration later after no-time-to-talk pizza-shop culture has sunk into the five-boros mindset. I get to enjoy many a Roman argument from afar, as people try to exchange money for less-than-desirable rates, buy tickets from the bus driver with less than the assigned fare, and walk by the Trevi fountain without getting mauled by guys selling bracelets. I enjoy it all. Did their mothers not warn them Italy would be this way?
When a Senegalese man tries to lure me into buying a 10-Euro Louis Vuitton purse, we play with each other in Franglish until he gives up on trying to make the sale, but smiles at my humor and sense of fun. The truth is this: these tourist joints are objectively terrible. Regardless, I have a lot of fun watching the tourists, the locals, and the salesmen all interacting. For those who love realism and performance art, it is the best-value ticket in town, even compared to the other free stuff. Why go to the leaning tower of Pisa, when you can watch a thousand sunstroked Staten Island relationships sink underground more quickly and spectacularly? True people-watchers can find a nice shady spot near the Vatican and watch as God’s children grow to hate one another more and more as they try to just enjoy a nice Italian vacation, waiting in a mile-long line to see St. Peter’s Basilica.
Spoiler alert: they won’t.
While I enjoy my cleverly laid-out, nearly-free tour of Rome and the Vatican (Spagna-Trevi-Pantheon-Navona-Sant Angelo-Pizza by St. Peter’s Basilica-Colosseum for those following along at home), what I most enjoy are the people. Not just the aforementioned triumvirate of tourist, Italian, and refugee, but the mad pizza-makers who dance around one another with impressive speed and tact, the flamboyant tour guides who impressively don’t hate their jobs in 90-degree heat, and the Vatican Guards in big blue pantaloons who ask where-do-I-think-I’m-going when it is more than obvious I’m trying to split a slice of prosciutto pizza with the Pope. In this way, my mom is wrong: I love Italy. It’s just that the monuments, buildings, and the general idea that Rome has the best preserved remnants of early Western society is kind of a cop-out for me.
As I wait for my bus, the Pakistani men in the kebab shop by the bus station are happy to tease me in both Urdu and Italian as they kindly charge my phone gratis, and take my order for dinner. It is hot, I am dehydrated, and this is going to be my third night of travelling in a row. And yet I am in good humor. Previously, as you may have noted, I have been staunchly opposed to night buses on the account of decreased security, discomfort, and my own inability to sleep in an upright position. My opinion, however, has flipped on this matter entirely as I have begun traveling on higher-quality buses in the much more expensive region of Western Europe. I have made it my mission to never spend more than $20-25 on a hostel, and so I have ended up skipping many nights of good rest to feign sleep on a bus. Partially noting how expensive Italy would be, and realizing I didn’t want to do three whole days on exhausting tours with much more exhausting tourists, I decided it might be best to spend most of my time in the land of my ancestors without a bed, wandering from place to place, in the spirit of my great-grandfather who came to my country hoping to make it his own.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.