My last few weeks in Rome, I started going out to a restaurant every couple of days. It was right after my last burst of travel, when I finally realized that I was well and truly burned out on discount airlines and hostels, and that all I really wanted to do was waste the time I had left in Europe in cafés. Early on in the term, my RA had taken everyone in my apartment out to dinner at a little restaurant called Il Conte di Montecristo, where I had probably the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life; I decided I’d blow a little money going there a few times a week and work my way through the menu. I was mostly alone, since my roommates were all skiing in Switzerland or hallucinating in Amsterdam, so aside from the food, most of the fun was in eavesdropping on my fellow diners, who were almost always an enormous crowd of Romans who all seemed to know each other.
The second-to-last time I ate there, though, there was a trio of American students sitting at the table across from me, all dressed in university sweatshirts whose logos I couldn’t see, with their iPhones out on the table. American students in Italy look at pasta the way a soprano looks at her rival during a photo shoot—all choreographed smiles while the Instagram cameras are rolling, then suspicious, antagonistic glares as soon as they’re off, like they don’t quite trust the stuff. The sauce is always too rich, the pasta always too al dente; they inevitably leave almost half of it to get cold and lumpy on their plates. It’s not that they don’t like it; it’s more that they hate themselves for liking it, like they know they’re going to have to run an extra half mile tomorrow morning and hate the food for doing that to them.
The students in question had just petered off and left their forks stuck in the wads of pasta they had left. The waitress, an oldish Roman woman, walked by and clucked at their half-full plates. They’d just hit the bottom of the two bottles of wine they were sharing and started talking about the check. The waitress, no doubt attuned to this kind of crowd in her years of working here, zoomed around again, and one of the Americans said, in a SoCal drawl, “Scusi, cecche?”
The waitress stood, momentarily confused. Cecche is not an Italian word; it sounds a little like ceche, which means “female Czechs.” They eyed each other for a moment before the American switched to English. “Can we get the check, please?”
The waitress said, “Yes, of course,” in effortless English and breezed off. The Americans laughed among themselves.
“I still don’t know the Italian word for ‘check,’” one of them said, “And that’s practically all I ever say to them.”
“I used to hate it when I’d ask for coffee and they’d give me espresso. It took me so long to learn the word for coffee. I wish they’d just guess,” said another.
Here’s the real difference between students and tourists: the tourists are the ones who are really there for the experience. I’d see tourists wandering around with their dog-eared travel books under their arms, looking up at egg-and-dart cornices with no idea what they were seeing, but with so much enthusiasm that they were practically on their knees in front of it; the only things I’d ever see students looking at intently were their phones. To a tourist, a city is a collection of images and stories, a confusing, overpowering place full of silly foreigners and strange smells. To a student, it’s a commodity, a football scarf, a pair of Gucci sunglasses.
It’s a tough racket being a representative of a global empire, you know? Not because of the men who try to sell you roses on the street, not because of the bartenders who charge twice when you conjugate a verb wrong; rather, because of what underlies all of those things: that you become a target because of what you represent, which is power, control, an institution that can afford a rose or another Negroni. You don’t get to stop colonizing just because you’re a nice person. It’s not in your power do so.
You can go with it and ask for the check in English, which is conceited but at least honest, or you can try to go native, start going to neighborhood bars and speaking the local dialect, but even if people buy it you won’t be any less colonial for your appropriation. Alternately you can remind yourself constantly that this isn’t your country, that you have to respect pluralism and keep a bemused distance from the people around you even as you learn their language and customs, but if your approach is so cerebral, so detached, what do you have to show for it when you get back to America?
I’m not an expert, but my guess is that you have your column in the college newspaper.