New York City – I was chatting via e-mail with a friend of mine recently about my food writing adventures, and the possibility of some sort of future book. We got to talking about books like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence, and other such gems of travel writing that tend to involve a fair amount of food. I have to admit, those types of books, while interesting, tend to strike me as both over-romanticized and also a trifle vicious, usually by presenting local residents in caricature. There’s also the omnipresent attempt to define local culture in terms of one’s own background.
Now, while that’s understandable to a certain extent, it reminds me of conversations I sometimes overhear in Buenos Aires that I’ve become attuned to when I listen in on tourists. Last week when we went to Colonia, seated behind us were two young men, a couple, from Philadelphia, chatting with another young man from somewhere in Europe. The couple were bemoaning the fact that Buenos Aires was not nearly as interesting as they’d been led to expect… the conversation went something like:
“There’s really nothing to do here unless you want to go out in the middle of night to a club.”
“Have you gone to any of the museums or galleries?”
“We have museums in Philadelphia, what could they possibly have here that would match those?”
“Have you gotten out and explored the neighborhoods?”
“We’re staying in the center of town, in “Centro” [note: the downtown financial district], we’ve walked all around that area and haven’t seen anything historical except the “Pink House” and it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the White House.”
“Well what do you think of the food?”
“Who wants to go out for a steak in the middle of the night, besides we can get steak back home. We’ve just been eating in the hotel or at a nearby coffee shop.”
This sort of conversation isn’t unusual. I’ve heard complaints about the lack of peanut butter for “real sandwiches,” the lack of American or Canadian bacon to go with breakfast, the lack of Starbucks, the confusion of not having streets laid out in grid patterns, and even the old “how come they don’t learn to speak English here?” On the other hand, the vast majority of folk that I meet who are visiting Buenos Aires are fascinated by its rhythms and pace, charmed by its architecture and style, eager to seek out new food and wine experiences, and, well, just plain explore.
Back to the conversation, and my friend recommended that I pick up a copy of a relatively new book entitled Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide by Dario Catagno. So, I did, and it was my reading on the train back and forth to Lancaster over the last two days. Well, for me it was more of the same. The only difference is, it was told from the perspective of the local, talking about the tourists, rather than the other way around. But it still over-romanticizes Tuscany with long homages to grapes and olives and abandoned farmhouses and country roads, and from reading it you’d think that every local person is nothing but the most charming and interesting human to walk the face of the earth.
Despite a claim at the beginning that he had no intentions of the book being a vendetta against Americans who write travelogues about Tuscany, in the end, that’s exactly what he has written. With little exception, his “memorable clients” are villified for their lack of understanding of local culture despite his best attempts to guide them through it, and rather than emphasizing the charm and interest of those clients who are actually interested in learning and exploring (whom he dismisses in a couple of paragraphs in a late chapter in the book), he focuses on those who aren’t, and who were problems to guide around. I was left with the impression that he sees Americans as little more than Diet Coke swilling, shopaholics who wear too much makeup and do nothing but complain. In the end, despite his clear passion for the Tuscan countryside and local history, I couldn’t think of anyone I’d less rather spend time with in that part of the world – and I don’t think that was his intent in writing the book!