Tourism or Narcissism?

I stood in the early spring sun soaking up the majestic beauty of Trevi Fountain. There was a seething crowd of tourists all around, with groups of every size competing in every language to be heard. It was happy noise and smiles abounded. Though it seemed a little excessive and quite deafening, the excitement was understandable. Or was it?

A woman near me sat on a post with her legs wrapped around the shoulders of her male companion, who was standing in front of her. It struck me as strange both because of the over-zealous public display of affection and the decibel of the unnatural woman’s laughter and because both were facing away from the fountain. Then I realized they were monkeying around for the camera.

Scanning the crowd, again and again I glimpsed people posing for an image of themselves. Except for the occasional solitary soul–no doubt one of the brooding sort like me–rarely did I see someone actually turn around and look at the fountain.

One teenager had furry boots the size of a Clidesdale’s long-hair-draped hoof at the end of her spindly tights-clad legs. As she struck various fashion-magazine-type poses, she seemed oblivious to her surroundings. All I could think is why all the trouble of leaving home if they just wanted pictures of themselves.

It is even endearing at times that people would want pictures of themselves in front of a monument that means so much to them–if it does, that is. It was the sheer number of poses and photographs that added up to what seemed like something other than what it claimed to be.

It is not that I wish to bash tourists. Perhaps it is more a certain tourist sensibility that is responsible for the less pretty pictures one can see even on a glorious day like this one. It actually troubled me a bit to see so few Americans, the usual culprits when it comes to this kind of self-obsession, because self-flagellation was not an option. Was this the culture of narcissism, à la my Dad’s book, gone global?

But lest we get too grim, I really do not think tourists are to blame, pure and simple.

One time I set out on one of the least attractive sections of the Erie Canal walk in Central New York. It was off season and the area really looked down in the mouth, in that distinctive upstate way. This thirty foot section of the path, at the head of the trail just out of the parking lot, was now rural after a fashion, if you consider overgrowth from apathy or neglect the countryside. The postindustrial-looking cement and rusted iron was typical for one of the ersatz grand old cities that form a constellation across the state along Route 90, which parallels the old canal route.

Just starting or finishing my walk, I noticed a small group of Asian visitors ooh-ing and aah-ing, pointing at this and that–a tree branch, the pitiful dirty stream, the sky, the birds? Somehow the sight of these strangers admiring terrain I knew so well as to take it for granted, moved me deeply.

This memorable encounter changed my opinion of tourists permanently. Seeing other people appreciate things can make one see them completely differently. Since then I have a special fondness for the place, the understated charm of which it took the eyes of strangers to make me see.

But there is another kind of tourist, unlike those who were looking at the run-down area of the canal path. The latter gazed with what appeared to be near reverence; theirs was a demeanor of respect and openness to what they could glean from the setting. They wanted their pictures taken with it as the background, to treasure later.

The other kind of tourist has, of course, been much maligned. We know this character from literary portrayals of American tourists in works from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad to The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, with the film version starring Marlin Brando. Nineteenth-century reformer Margaret Fuller, the most prominent female member of the crowd of Emerson and Thoreau, was greatly influenced by her Italian travels, as was Henry James later on. She thought Americans abroad fell in the categories of “servile” (those who voraciously imbibed everything Italian out of pure self-indulgence) or “conceited” (those who thought American achievements to be progress over the old ways, which they saw as inferior by definition). She preferred, naturally, the “thinking American,” who recognized the advantages of the American context (her passion was for democracy) yet did “not wish one seed from the Past to be lost”:

“The history of our planet in some moments seems so painfully mean and little, such terrible bafflings and failures to compensate some brilliant successes–such a crashing of the mass of men beneath the feet of a few, and these, too, of the least worthy–such a small drop of honey to each cup of gall, and, in many cases, so mingled, that it is never one moment in life purely tasted….” (Dispatches from Europe, 1846-60, “Dispatch 18: New and Old World Democracy.”)

What a beautiful phrase: “one moment in life purely tasted.” Fuller’s sensibility is so much more helpful than the supposed cultural expert qua tourist, like one who informs us in Bon Appetit that Trevi Fountain is “overrated” (May 2011). Just what would he think of that little patch of the canal path?

In an act rare for me, I decided I wanted my own picture of the magnificent fountain on this glorious day. With some serious manual calisthenics, I was able to get one without any of the tourists in it. That is, unless when I upload the photographs, it turns out their reflections appear, like that of Narcissus, marring the exquisite pale green of Trevi’s pure waters.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn