What must it be like to live in a town or an area overrun by tourists who wield their cameras and selfie sticks like weapons of mass revelation? You hang out your washing, and someone takes a picture. You go to the market, and get stuck behind a visitor photographing the pumpkins. You go out for a card game with your mates, and the people at the next table surreptitiously record the interaction. Cause they’re all in search of the elusive off-the-beaten-track experience. Authentic Italy. Secret Paris. Dublin where the locals go.
Do those places even exist? Take Venice as an example. I read that the city has 58 000 residents; more than 20 million tourists visit every year. Where can 58 000 go where 20 million have not been already? Sure there are quiet streets and residential areas that are not really pic-worthy. But even there the tourists venture (I know, cause we did in an attempt to escape the milling crowds).
In such quiet backstreets in Lucca, we ran into a man dressed only in shorts and freshly fragrant from his shower, nipping out to empty his rubbish bin. I felt we were intruding and wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of that mundane domestic moment. People deserve to put out their trash in private.
They also deserve to not have their laundry photographed as part of a typical Italian street scene. They definitely deserve to have their dinner without strangers traipsing past their windows.
Before this trip, I never realised just how intrusive tourism can be. Of course it is a massive industry without which many countries – let alone tiny medieval villages perched on hilltops in the middle of nowhere – would not survive. And it would be hypocritical for someone who’s just spent three months travelling to make a case against it. But the fact is that the more people travel, and the more tourists are being advised to avoid the tourist traps and the beaten track, the more they will intrude upon other people’s domestic routines.
As we walked through Burano – the tiny Venetian island famous for linen and lace – I wondered whether the residents have regular meetings about maintaining their island’s picture-perfectness. Surely they have to agree on the colours to paint their houses, who hangs out their laundry when, and who is allowed to buy a tumble dryer. Maybe there is an official record of the decision that allows residents to protect their privacy by hanging a piece of fabric in front of their open shutters. Or maybe they just did it off their own collective bat when the prying eyes became too much.
Tourists expect the locals to embrace them warmly in exchange for their dollars, yen, yuan, pounds and euros. I did too, before this trip. Now I understand a bit better why the bus driver in Pisa gave the Dutch couple a little lecture about coming to Italy and not being able to say where they want to go in Italian. English is not the universal language we think it is. And I suspect refusing to speak it is, in some cases at least, the stand ordinary people take against being treated like characters in someone’s travel memoir.
Not that I’m happy for the lady at the Lucca train station to treat me like I’m unworthy of the time of day, but I can understand that it’s the end of a long summer and that she’s probably had enough of people asking the same questions when they could have read the schedule (yeah, me too!).
Every plane, bus, train and cruise ship bring a fresh wave visitors, all demanding a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s only fair to spare a thought, and a little empathy, for the ordinary men and women who are expected to provide the local colour while getting on with their lives.
As we come to the end of our magnificent adventure, I want to thank the woman in the pizzzeria in Lucca who responded with such kindness to the post-it note on which I had written the Google-translated request for a sprig of rosemary. Also the Frenchman who, without us even asking, interrupted his walk along the Seine to explain how the public bicycle rentals work in Paris. Thank you too, bus driver in Rome, for telling us where to get off the bus and then, when you saw us unfold the map, for hooting and pointing out the street we should turn into.
Thanks to you, and the countless other “ordinary” people, our trip has been richer than any number of museum visits could have made it. Thank you also for making me aware of my responsibility to tread lightly and respectfully when I cross your threshold.