Thursday, December 17, 2009

When being a tourist just isn’t enough

For the last two entries I have written about being a tourist in Chicago and Dublin: fun, fascinating cities that I have loved visiting and would certainly go back to.

But there is one city for me where being a tourist just isn’t enough: Rome.

Why? Well, that’s the question.


Perhaps Shakespeare’s age old question of “What’s in a name” has had more of a play in my life than I can logically explain. Mardelli. “You’re Italian, no?” “No,” I must always explain. “It was changed from Mardini, which is originally Armenian.” But even Mardini sounds Italian…

Born in the U.S., last name from an Armenian city which is in present day Turkey, grandparents from Syria, father from Egypt, relatives still in Lebanon and Montreal, and all my mother’s side from Quebec practically since the founding of the colony at which point I can only assume they were from France… I have ties to practically every other country except for Italy.

To add to the identity crisis: I have a convincing Italian fa├žade: dark hair, olive skin- I have been told I look Napolitana or Siciliana. I speak the language, which is university- learned not native. And of course, there is the name.

So “What’s in a name?” … Perhaps the seed for an obsession.

If the curse is in the name, then it would explain why the whole Mardelli household is plagued. My dad, his sister, his brother, my own sister, and my cousin all speak varying degrees of Italian, learned in addition to their native French, Arabic and/or English. For what reason? Just because.

My cat’s name is Matteo. My parents dubbed their house “Mardell’amore.” The most popular song at my cousin’s wedding was “Italiano vero.” Why? Inexplicable.

My obsession, however, is the worst. Every time I leave Rome, I feel compelled to return to it. I have lived there three times in my life and visited many other times, and with each departure I feel an immense loss. I almost instantly feel homesick.

To those cynics out there: let me clarify. It is not the stereotypical, cardboard, Hollywood painting of La Bella Italia that I miss. I don’t think all Italian men are intrinsically gorgeous. I don’t think “O Sole Mio” plays from the open windows atop cobblestoned streets, drifting past drying clothes on a line. I know that you cannot turn your back on the Fontana di Trevi and be the only tourist there to throw a coin over your shoulder. I have far from idealized this city.

I have even left Rome disgusted. I have sometimes boarded the plane thankful that I would be leaving Rome’s deafeningly loud, frustratingly defaced, shockingly dirty and unabashedly chaotic ways.

I am by no means blind to Rome’s faults. I know that a large percentage of Romans allow their dogs to use sidewalks as toilets, so that summer often brings with it the strong stench of pee or trash from overflowing dumpsters that have not been collected without good reason. I remember that many older, Roman women will veritably act as if you do not exist, allowing them to run straight into you on the streets, cut in front of you in store lines or push past you on the way into a bus or train…

After living in Rome for a total of almost 4 years, these things have by no means gone unnoticed. I can list Rome’s faults honestly and complain about them fervently.

In fact, with each of my departures I genuinely wonder if perhaps NOW I have gotten my fill: that I have had enough of the discourtesy, that I have seen all that I wanted, that I visited everything I intended, that I amply photographed all that I hoped never to forget, and that this was the stay that would satisfy the craving and let me return to my “real” country without this incessant pang. Nope.

I always miss “home.” And like anyone loyal to their home, I can still defend Rome endlessly, see its magic through the mess, and miss it desperately despite its flaws. These problems don’t drive me away (at least not forever) as you would think they would drive an outsider away. I have a dedication to this city that I do not have with any other…

But why should Rome feel like my home? I have no logical liens with this city: no ancestry, no childhood memories, no living relatives, or long lost first love.

Can I just boil it down to mixed wires? Or is it that Rome offers a perfect combination of letting me be that perpetual tourist while still allowing me to feel at home?

Exploring the illusive, sometimes misconceived, questionably unattainable, notion of home is, in part, where the idea of this blog came from: “For those of us who can’t quite define home.”

So my travels help me examine this concept of home:

To discover if home is something innate or something cultivated…
To figure out if everyone needs a home or if it is an outdated concept …
To hear what has defined home to other people…

These questions are increasingly poignant to me, and they are significant at this moment in my blog because, as part of my trip to Ireland, I, like clockwork, felt compelled to return to Rome. And so I did.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Trip to the End of the Rainbow

Some of you caught that in my last blog entry I mentioned being in Ireland. Yes, I did mean Ireland the country. And yes, it was random… part of that hopping around on a bum of springs that I also mentioned.

I decided to test the beautiful concept of reward air miles to see whether or not they are solely a marketing apparition. It turns out that, with enough finagling, they’re real! I had accumulated many in my various jaunts across the ocean, and with my currently flexible schedule, I thought why not use this blank slot in my time to insert a visit to a new country.

I also had another incentive; my sister is studying for her Master’s degree in Dublin, or more correctly, Blackrock, a little city-suburb just south of Dublin.

I had never been to Ireland, but liked the idea of a country represented by a fictional character such as a leprechaun. I would just as readily make it a point to visit a country symbolized by, let’s say, a unicorn. (What country would that be do you think?)

I had no specific touristic goals for my trip to Ireland except to try a real, Irish Guinness, and I didn’t think I would need any researching or planning to do that. And indeed, no; you do not need any maps or plans or list of instructions to find a pint of Guinness. In fact, aside from its pint form being at any of the 1,000 pubs in Dublin , Guinness can also be found in chocolates, stews, steak sauces, mustard… you name it. The list is quite exhaustive.

I can happily report that I more than sufficiently fulfilled my goal. I even went to the source of the matter, the Guinness Storehouse, where I not only learned how one makes Guinness, but how one stores, markets, pours and tastes Guinness. On that note, yes; it does taste different than what we have here. I had heard this urban legend and was suspicious of it. However, knowing the difference that local water makes on espresso and how nothing we can do here in the U.S. can make an espresso taste like that of Italy, I suspected that the same could be true of a Guinness. Unlike the Italian espresso, however, the Irish Guinness did not ruin me for all other Guinnesses.

Aside from imbibing Guinness, I spent my time in Dublin re-learning some of my high school English knowledge by revisiting the poetry of W.B. Yeats. I think that the theme of unrequited love, his Maud Gonne and the sad tale of Yeats’s one-sided affection, was particularly touching to me as a high school student. Could you not see teenagers, chin-deep in emotion and angst, taking an affinity for a poem like the one below?

by: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Were you but lying cold and dead,
And lights were paling out of the West,
You would come hither, and bend your head,
And I would lay my head on your breast;
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead:
Nor would you rise and hasten away,
Though you have the will of wild birds,
But know your hair was bound and wound
About the stars and moon and sun:
O would, beloved, that you lay
Under the dock-leaves in the ground,
While lights were paling one by one.*

I also visited two of Dublin’s major Cathedrals, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, and was a little puzzled by the fact that neither one was Roman Catholic, the religious majority in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, both cathedrals are Anglican (Church of Ireland)… which made me doubt my historical knowledge of the country, but, as always, things are more complicated than they seem.

From what I gather, both were Roman Catholic at one time, Christ Church having been consecrated as the Cathedral of Dublin by the Vatican. St. Patrick’s having been Roman Catholic before the English Reformation. After this movement, both became Anglican, making Dublin one of the only cities with two Cathedrals of the same denomination.

So in sum, though the majority of Dubliners are Roman Catholic, their city does not have a Roman Catholic Cathedral. It has a pro-Cathedral (or acting Cathedral) called Saint Mary’s. Meanwhile, the city has the unprecedented circumstance of having two Anglican Cathedrals, a conundrum they finally handled by making one, St. Patrick’s, the national cathedral, while Christ Church the cathedral of Dublin.

All in all, Dublin was a fascinating city. It wasn’t difficult to see what inspired the legend of the rainbows and leprechauns. It rained almost every day I was there, and being a fairly temperamental climate of rain intermittent by minutes or hours of sunshine, I also saw 4 rainbows in my time there. Sadly, I did not have time to chase the pot of gold, but you always have to leave something for the next trip.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chicago: the latest in a long list of residences

A bit paradoxically, like most of my thoughts and actions, I am writing about Chicago, Illinois today as I am in Dublin, Ireland. I suppose it is not a total paradox as usually leaving some place always gives you a better perspective on it... Regardless, for the last 2 months, I have made Chicago my new home. I have learned that some of Chicago’s nicknames are “The Windy City” (very appropriately) and Chi-town, which is actually pronounced “shy”-town, but which I pronounced Chi (like Chia pet)-town until corrected.

Chicago is massive. I don’t know why this perpetually astounds and even disturbs me, knowing full well that it is the third largest city in the USA. Yet, it still strikes me as odd. Even New York, the first largest city, seems smaller to me. Or perhaps it just feels more concentrated. Chicago seems to go on and on and on. It seems like a downtown that should be walkable, but miles sneak into the total revealing that something is not .5 miles away but 1.5 miles away. This is a bit distressing for me since I am navigating the city without a car and with a recently stress-factured foot. On the other hand, it adds to the intrigue. There is no end to this city’s discoveries.

I like Chicago perhaps because I believe it to be the most international, American city. Many might get defensive at this claim and point to New York City as the obvious choice. And, don’t get me wrong, I grant that New York is very international. At the same time, New York is so much of the world believes to be “American.” It always felt to me that this is a city where people go to be, see, buy or sell America. New York City represents the entire United States of America to so many people.

New York has also always struck me as the quintessential “melting pot.” People of all cultures, languages, religions, traditions and lifestyles come to New York to swirl about it this pot. No matter how varied the ingredients, it is its “Americanism” that New York puts on display. Flags abound in New York, on ads, buildings, caps, statues, restaurant fronts, and shop windows. In New York City, amnesia could not stop you from recognizing what country you are in.

Chicago on the other hand doesn’t feel melted at all. America is definitely here, but so is Poland and Greece, and Ethiopia, and Italy. I live in Edgewater, and virtually every day that I step out of my building, the first language I hear is one other than English. In fact, it is usually a language I can’t quite pin down. Even in my little neighborhood of 10+ streets, there is a fascinating mix of restaurants and stores as well: a bakery that serves bubble tea, 2-3 Ethiopian restaurants, an Asian fusion restaurant, and an Afro-Caribbean market place. Even in my tiny, neighborhood library, there is a whole section of books written in Cyrillic.

This mix is comforting to me. I don’t know why. My background being its own interesting mix of nationalities, cultures and languages, perhaps this variety has always been my experience of the world. Or perhaps, like a Tigger* who doesn’t recognize borders, I have spent the last 30 years bouncing around on my tail, hopping into different countries and cities with every bound. In Chicago, I have shorter distances to go; I can bounce into Germany or Sweden by hopping a couple streets instead of a continent. For someone who can’t sit still, who has proven to have a theoretical “bottom made out of springs,” this keeps me highly entertained.

* For those of you who might not have ever met Tigger:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Perpetual Tourist’s Necessities & Accessories

I am generally known for carrying around a "momma's bag," in other words, a purse in which a small-to-large animal could make himself a comfortable home. In that momma bag, a camera (not a small animal) is almost always the most significant item nestled in its depths. My camera is with me everywhere.

Though perhaps secretly aspiring to be so, I am not a highly trained, techy photographer. I consider anything that can point and shoot to be a camera, and I do not discriminate against any machinery providing me with that option. For me, capturing the moment is the raison-etre of photography. And if that raison presents itself, and the machinery at hand is a AAA-battery run, thinner-than-a-coke-bottle-plastic camera, then that is part of the moment.

A camera is the most essential item in living like a tourist. Imagine packing for any trip, to any city, in any country. What is the one item that is always brought along for the bus, train or plane ride? Point is: a camera is the tell-tale sign of a tourist OR a life enthusiast as the perpetual tourist might prefer to be known.

I have taken over 16,800 pictures in the last 3 years. Let me break that down to more manageable numbers. This means 5,600 pictures in one year, or 15 pictures every day. If we assume that we are generally awake for approximately this number of hours in the day, I have taken the equivalent of one picture every waking hour for the last 3 years. A little hard core, I know. I don’t encourage or justify this behavior. Yet, I have no intention of stopping.

I believe that a picture is a little piece of magic. It makes any ordinary moment, item, detail, or facial expression special. By taking a photo, we assign significance to it. That once inconsequential moment is now interesting enough to share with others; it turns us into storytellers. And the commonplace becomes memorable.

We expand our memory to smaller events like a really strange face our best friend made to an oddly shaped cookie that came out of the oven. We remember and relive the small moments as well as the large ones as we flip through albums (or CDs) and stumble across them years later.

Weddings, graduations, birthday parties, the coliseum, the Eiffel tower and other famous creations… all forever warrant the use of a camera. But the perpetual tourist will not likely run into a Mona Lisa or the great wall of anything in the day-to-day.

Yet, I can vouch that my favorite photos end up being about the ridiculousness of everyday life: a squirrel flattened to the sidewalk in stealth mode, a particularly appetizing gelato or ice cream sundae, the fog settling in rings around a building, someone’s hair sticking straight up after a roller coaster ride.

So try making something “special” about an ordinary day: Take a picture of it. Remember, to beat me, you have 14 more to take before going to bed.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Before already turning people off to this concept, perhaps I should define tourist. This word summons up resentment and outcry from people who prefer to define themselves as the more cultured, refined and worldly “travelers.” The wish is to implement an obvious and wide rift between them and the “tourists.”

We all know the image that the word “tourist” conjures up, both the cartoon caricatures and the real life models that have inspired them. We have all seen them in our own cities or travelled with them to other countries. We have observed them on the streets of foreign places, and have sighed with relief or even a little bit of hesitation and thought “Thank God, I don’t look like that.”

Do you need more of a description? If I said fanny pack, would that help? Yes, it is the slightly overweight, shorts, sneaker and brightly colored shirt -wearing, camera and guide book -toting, and for the worst of sinners, fanny packing -sporting tourist. Thus you understand the chasm that exists between those of us who seek to transform and enhance ourselves through a foreign culture and those who prefer to, knowingly or not, stand in stark opposition to it.

But here is where I will defend the tourist. What type of person is more enthusiastic, more inquisitive, more energetic than a tourist? It is the one role that people don that reawakens our child- like instincts. Tourists are easily amused by everything: a stop sign in a different language, a cow statue wearing a beret, a supersized, plastic Dutch shoe that you can climb into. Stop to observe a tourist at any given moment and just see what they photograph; you’ll get the idea.

Industries have been built on this notion; the world’s largest or smallest anything will attract visitors. Not to mention replicas- replicas of people, places or things are sure to have a following. Take as an example the world’s largest peanut monument or America’s smallest churches. Roadside America also features a variety of Stonehenge replicas.* Everything is interesting again to a tourist. The world is not mundane; it is fascinating.

This is the primary feeling that draws us to travel. We miss seeing the world like we did in our youth. We appreciate being in an environment that can once again easily entertain us. It is not like our normal lives where TV shows have to be increasingly dramatic, movies increasingly high-def and 3-D and video games increasingly hyper real and interactive. The goal of marketing is now to wake us up. They attempt to open our eyes and engage our interests again, and they try to do this by giving us MORE.

We are immune, unconscious to the average world around us. The monotony of our routines has made us sleepwalkers.

But a trip… A trip wakes us up! We rub the sleep from our eyes and put on the clothes of a tourist, and we see the world again.

In this light then, being a tourist really isn’t so bad, is it? My hope is that even “travelers” then retain that part of the tourist within him. Because a traveler, who may spend more time in different cultures than his own, can just as easily fall into a coma of local design; he can find himself somnambulant just as easily in France as in Macon, Georgia.

So this blog is my toast to tourism, to keeping our eyes open wherever we are, to exploring whichever city we inhabit or visit, to noticing the odd, interesting, off-kilter things in our own world as in others, and to staying awake for life. Here is to being a perpetual tourist, and this is a blog about how.




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