A loud banging jarred me awake and out of bed. I was in such a stupor part of me thought perhaps a beautiful, Italian supermodel was at the door of my sleeping car, waiting to serve me espresso and fresh Italian cornetto pastries. Wrong! In reality, Italian authorities had stopped my Rome-bound train at 3 a.m. to search for contraband, hustling my two friends and me out of bed.
We were halfway through a two-month, twelve-country trip across Europe and were looking forward to nice weather and beautiful Italian architecture. Instead, an Italian poliziotto just smirked at me as I stood there in nothing but Spider-Man boxer shorts, freezing, and begging him to let me use the restroom.
To say that Italy is one of the world’s premier tourist destinations would be an understatement. Once the most powerful empire, Rome is known for its rich culture and historical relics. Italian culture has influenced most of the Western world. It is also home to A-list artists who know no rivals: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Donatello. People from all over flood into Italy’s nooks and crannies, and I was hoping to get in on some of the action.
Upon arriving in Rome, I was blown away by all of the new sights and wanted to experience the city as fully as possible. I wanted to gawk at all of the beautiful people and scenery, eat traditional Italian food, and tour the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Despite my sincere attempts to enjoy everything, all of my insecurities came out with the influx of good-looking people who didn’t want to give me the time of day. The city was vibrant and every person was gorgeous, but any confidence I had as a tourist in a new city quickly disappeared.
All I could do was gaze at passersby as my insecurities mounted: That girl would never go out with me. Could I pull off a stylish pink sweater? Why do I own only T-shirts with emo bands’ names on them? That girl would never go out with me. Why am I sweating so much? And it got worse from there.
When I would walk into a café to order a sandwich, I was consistently ignored by the employee taking orders. There was no line. I guess Italy believes in large crowds shouting orders, while doing the hand gesture that looks like people are holding a phantom teacup above their heads. In a good-humored attempt to follow local customs, I tried raising my hand up similarly but was still ignored. Maybe it was because I wasn’t wearing a pink sweater? Maybe they could see my Spider-Man boxers sticking up from my waistband? I finally ordered the sandwich, but was made to feel like my business was a nuisance to the delicatessen.
I would have been willing to overlook the terrible service if it weren’t for everything else that went wrong. First, a very attractive Italian twenty-something was checking out my friend Slava. Sure, he was taller, darker, and more handsome than I, but what gives? Do I look that bad that not one girl can check me out? One girl! Second, it felt like the entire country of Italy only served Italian food. After two weeks of pizza and pasta I was jonesing for a kebab or fish and chips. And when we finally got to glimpse the Mediterranean, it was from a 100-foot-long public beach, infested with leathery locals and next to a polluted river run-off. Italian beaches were far from what I had imagined.
With all of these problems, I thought things would never look up until I overheard some girls laughing flirtatiously next to me. However, when I glanced over, I realized that it was a group of preteen Irish tourists who were giggling in Gaelic.
Despite the group of Irish adolescents gossiping about me, I longed to be back in Ireland. It was the first country on our trip and it was by far my favorite. The country is so cold and rainy that people have to wear multiple layers to stay warm and dry, my scrawny arms looked full and strong, and my doughy belly was hidden by not one, but two coats! It was perfect! People drank and talked about culture and music in countless pubs. I talked to a stranger about the differences in Irish and American cinema for hours.
Ireland might not have the most beautiful and pleasant spots, but its people make it a great place to visit. They are always laughing and swearing and looking for a great time. I felt appreciated when I was there, as if I was visiting close friends.
In Italy, I felt like an outsider. I felt like everyone there wanted me gone the minute I walked in. I don’t know Italian, but it felt like random people were saying, “Oh look. Ryan is here. Let’s make him feel really uncomfortable so he will leave.” Mission accomplished, Italy. Everything about the country was beautiful, but I was miserable.
When something is so beautiful, too many people want to see it. It’s hard to gaze upon beauty when you have to gaze over the heads of hundreds. The passion for beauty in Italy eventually made me uneasy. Aesthetics, whether personal, fashionable, or decorative, are something I struggle to comprehend. I believe more in people’s actions and discussions than how they present themselves. I recognize that how one looks is an important part of society, but if people obsess about it, I believe it takes away from their personality and common decency. And even though Italy loves the way it looks, at least it and its people are genuine in their vanity. They do not compromise their love for aesthetics, and that is all you can really ask for.