When we decided upon the theme of HARVEST for October, the obvious choice was to write about fall harvest festivals in Italy, or simply the joy of traveling in Italy during a season so abundant with good food. But for some reason I wasn’t inspired by that idea. Instead, after a few days of noodling, I arrived at an idea that had its roots more than two decades ago in the middle of the English countryside.
This month, I’m considering what we harvest from our travels.
When I was 20 years old I took a weekend trip with the Mystic Society of the English university at which I was studying. We visited, among other places, the famous standing circle at Stonehenge, where we were admitted after-hours and where the guard dropped the ropes.
We stood in the middle of the circle. We touched the stones. The guard snapped a photo of our group, all of us beaming.
The monoliths of Stonehenge were solid and impenetrable, despite the thousands of years between me and when they were first mysteriously erected, but I pried a tiny sprig of moss from one of the stones. It remains, to this day, pressed between the pages of my photo album.
Wanting to leave our mark, to show where we’ve been, is not a modern invention. Lord Byron scratched his name on an ancient Greek temple, and his graffiti is now part of the ruin’s attraction. Leaving graffiti wasn’t uncommon as far back as 2000 BCE, and later was akin to a guest book. Visitors would leave thoughts on what they’d seen as well as their names. Such practices weren’t frowned upon at all – that change in attitude happened in the 20th century, so it’s really disdain toward graffiti (and not the graffiti itself) that’s the innovation.
Wanting to bring home a tangible travel memory is also nothing new. Souvenir shops have been hawking trinkets outside major monuments and in busy piazzas of popular cities for eons. There’s evidence of travelers collecting memorabilia as far back as the 10th century BCE. And in a perfect storm of what we would now see as vandalism and souvenir shopping, people who went to Plymouth Rock in the early 19th century were actually given a hammer and invited to break off a piece of the rock as a keepsake.
Perhaps since there’s no longer anything trailblazing about such commonplace vandalism as graffiti, 21st century travelers have pioneered their own version of Tourists Behaving Badly. In the past year in Italy alone, there’s an almost unbelievable litany of incidents of tourists acting as if the country exists solely for them.
In August, two Italians stole a gondola in Venice just for a joyride, and six weeks later two more visitors (this time a German and a Pole) followed suit. Venice is also where a tourist leaped nude into the Grand Canal in August, caught (of course) on many a cell phone video.
Two tourists trying to take a selfie climbed on an 18th century sculpture that’s become the symbol of Cremona, causing a huge piece to topple off and break in May.
A couple of Australians were found having sex on a bench in Florence in July, only stopping when police arrived and not when a number of passers-by gawked and pointed.
Proving that graffiti isn’t dead yet, in March, two women from California slipped away from their tour group long enough to try to carve their names into the wall of the Colosseum. In late September, an Austrian woman was caught doing the same thing.
Last month, six British visitors to Rome got thoroughly drunk after attending an architectural conference, stripped down to nothing (or nearly nothing, as the two women involved were merely topless) and cavorted in a busy piazza’s fountain early on a Sunday morning. Back in February, another fountain in Rome was damaged by rioting Dutch soccer fans.
Just last week, four tourists at Pompeii were caught having pocketed ancient wall fragments they found on the ground. They were charged with aggravated theft.
And that’s only a partial list.
It’s not as if Lord Byron worried that his scrawled name on the Greek temple would diminish the experience of that temple for future visitors, but he lived in a different time – a time when that was simply part of what it meant to travel. It has been, however, many decades since that was widely considered normal travel behavior. Travelers today, for the most part, really do know better.
Or do they?
Clearly, there is still some unquenchable desire to be selfish about our travel experiences, to exist only in the moment and for ourselves, to not care what impact our actions might have on whatever place we’re visiting or whoever might come after us. And, of course, plenty of people are inconsiderate buffoons whether they’re traveling or not. Are these incidents merely people acting like they always do at home, only they happen to be in Italy? Or does being outside one’s home country make us more likely to go off the rails?
I like to think of traveling as visiting someone else’s home, and I think we ought to treat that home with respect. I suppose it’s possible that since traveling no longer feels as exotic or rare as it once did, we may be more inclined to be our at-home at-ease selves instead of good guests. Maybe because places like Rome are so flooded with international visitors, it’s easier to forget where you are, or at least to be reminded less often. I know that social norms are different between cultures, and some travel mishaps can be chalked up to that. I also know that being on vacation means indulging, maybe a bit too much, in your intoxicant of choice, and then all hell breaks loose.
Given the enormous numbers of people who travel every year, to Italy and all over the world, I’m glad that even a list like the long one above represents only a tiny percentage of tourists. Most of us are good guests. But good guests don’t make the news.
I am typically behind the camera when I travel, not at all interested in photographs of myself standing in front of this or that attraction. I know I was there, I don’t need a picture to prove to anyone that I saw what I saw or went where I went. And yet? I plucked a bit of moss from a monument more than 4,500 years old. Had the rock not been as hard, I might have left with a pebble.
I take some small comfort in knowing that the moss wasn’t 4,500 years old, or that what I did wasn’t as bad as carving my name into or breaking an ancient monument. Still, my 43-year-old self cringes a little to remember that my 20-year-old self didn’t even think twice.
These days, my travel mementos veer more toward the experiential rather than the material. I have an assortment of pottery bowls from a few different countries, and I love bringing home table linens. But for the most part, I treasure memories. Yes, I still have that piece of Stonehenge moss in my photo album, but the moments I shared that weekend with the Mystic Society are so much more alive and real to me than any thing I could have collected.
Those memories are the real stardust.
Before I sat down to write this article, I asked my friends on Facebook and Twitter what their favorite travel harvests have been. Here are some of their wonderful answers:
Now it’s your turn. What is your travel harvest? Have you ever brought home something that, in hindsight, you probably shouldn’t have? Do things or moments give you more lasting joy?
What have my cohorts harvested this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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