UN,,,UN,,,,Kapu-chino?’, asks the German woman, her voice revealing that she is having what she considers an ‘international moment’.
One of a party of twenty-five or so, the middle-aged Germans line the outdoor cafes along the main corso here in Noto, drinking rounds and rounds of milky coffee while sitting in the sun.
Nearly in uniform (hiking socks with re-enforced woollen heels, clog-type sandals that have been shoe-polished, Gillian hats and those khaki pants that can be unzipped at the thigh, rendering them into cargo shorts), the ladies are chirpy and euphoric with one another. In the centre of each table is gathering of coffee cups, indicating that they’ve now had 3 or 4 cappuccini each. It’s four in the afternoon, the culinary equivalent here of eating bowels and bowels of cereal all afternoon. (Cappuccino is a breakfast drink here in Italy).
I listen to the ladies while I snap pictures of the monuments and buildings I came to see.
It’s an incongruent formula, 17th- century Southern Italian architecture with a Modern German sound track.
I’m fond of saying that there is always one more tourist than we ever see while travelling, and today is no different. I too have a guidebook in my bag, a camera dangling off my back.
A group of Americans walks behind me, the two children wearing Italian sports jersey. The two boys have spiky peaks around their nipples, revealing that the well-pressed shirts just came out of packaging only moments ago.
Here in Noto, a question that has been nagging me for years has really come to the forefront again: how much does tourism ‘wreck’ the South? And how much is it necessary or even desired to maintain the style of life in today’s world, when folks here no longer raise chickens and rabbits for meat, sew their own clothing or heat their homes with homemade charcoal. In short, how much do you need to revive Southern cities and maintain a lifestyle, and how much is just pure greed at the expense of the local colour?
I know that it’s not an easy question, as each viewer brings something different to the table.
The German ladies, for example, are in ‘Italy’, and want to profit from that in their own way. They want to eat pizza. They want to drink Chianti. They want to drink breakfast drinks all day while sitting in the sun. Never mind that nothing erodes Italian regional culture quite like thinking of Italy as a single nation, rather than many, independent nations rammed together in a hundred and thirty-something years ago.
Here in the Italian south, the sixteen and seventeen hundreds were hard times, and towns that experienced anything other than that- Noto, Ragusa, Lecce and Martina Franca, most famously- stand out, their former heydays going back only centuries rather than millennia. These cities work hard to promote this fact, and in the end, each town experiences the tourist effect slightly differently.
And as individuals, each tourist must measure the pro’s and con’s, of enjoying the services that untouristed-towns lack, versus having the thing he or she came to see mangled by the sheer act of being seen. If you’ve been to Lucca, Sorrento,Torbole or Cinque Terre in the last ten years, then you’ve certainly seen the fall out from success, formerly-charming locales rendered horrific by low-quality tourism’s affect: Ceramic shop after ceramic shop, lines of internet points catering to flip-flop-wearing, Barcardi-Breezer consumers, racks and racks of industrial limoncello- labelled ‘lemoncello’- in every-shape bottle imaginable.
But the opposite is also true and a lot of the south is simply not ready for international tourism yet. There are no hotels, public restrooms, restaurants with printed menus. The towns have not yet to registered on the RADARS of those that promise to tell you about those little, out of the way places.
This question is answered instantly in Noto. I suspect it is for the German ladies as well. As it is for the barista frothing the milk in the stainless steel container. As it is for those in charge of paying for the upkeep and restorations of the buildings the tourists come to see. The answers are probably as different as the demographics: those looking for sun and a change of pace. Someone looking for steady work. Someone Else looking to preserve something that keeps their upbringing special. And me, trying to figure out how to promote one kind of tourism over another.
We ride out of town a few hours later, and begin the makings of one of those perfect picnic, the landscape opening up below us to the point of awe. A glass of wine on an empty stomach as we lay out the foods. Our various cheeses from Ragusa, both the ones we made and the aged ones (ours is chewy and nearly-flavourless, the aged-version, complex and seductive). Some good bread, studded with sesame seeds. A local spicy salami. Two kinds of cured olives, one jacked surprising with caraway seeds. Warm, over-ripened pears sliced with a pocket knife. Long before I poured myself a second glass of Occhipinti, I began to seriously consider the iron bench overlooking the gorgeous valley below us. ‘That’s the spot’, I said, the bench’s metal nearly hot from the sun. The trees below rustled. Far away a dog barked. The warm orange sun filtered red through my fluttering eyelids as I drifted off. The occasional car passed, the passengers inside, no doubt, shaking their heads at the napping tourists.