20th July, Milano, Piazza della Vetra
‘A new colourful Milan, more and more like the city in which we would like to wake up every day’.
This quote from Ron English’s Absolut Elvis Presley wallpaper in Piazza della Vetra (next to the church S. Lorenzo maggiore) in Milano marked the beginning of my new conscious mode of conquering space: cité-seeing.
Cité-seeing uses the traveller’s body in a physical act of moving as a tool for conquering a new place. The cité-seer shares the sight-seer’s fascination with new places. However, he does not hunt for a limited number of pre-set, universally significant, ‘large’ monuments. He avoids the formidable and instead navigates the new space, immersed in the ‘small’ normality of the everyday life of a city or village. He sees Paris not as the home of the Eiffel tower, but as a bustling web of streets and lives, layers of history, colours, shapes, smells, and sounds. For the sight-seer a city is a predictable entity, pre-digested by tour-guides, neatly packed and served in labelled morsels. For a cité-seer it is novel, endless, and valuable in its own peculiarity.
Cite-seeing differs from sight-seeing in yet another respect: its focus on the traveller’s physical presence in the new place. Compared to the tourist’s homage to a monument, cité-seeing is an egoistic act with reversed perspective aimed at exploring one’s internal self through immersion in an external space. He does not seek monumental sights but ephemeral impressions of normality. He attempts to inhabit the new space, blend into it without passing value-judgements, runs away from his preset expectations, accepts the place rather than measuring it against a default yardstick. For a sightseer, cities can be ‘worth seeing’, or not. For a cité-seer, any city is worth being in.
Sight-seeing is a slow affair, less rushed than the sight-seers’ mission of collecting tokens and snapping images of key sights, albeit it is still faster than the immersed life of the locals. The cité-seer is an invisible quasi-inhabitant: he does not take away anything from the place, unlike the sight-seer, although he does not give to it like a local would, either.
The sight-seer’s trajectory is linear while the cité-seer meanders and lingers. His trajectory does not blindly follow the de-localised ‘highways’ laid between sights of interest (such as famous cathedrals, palaces, monuments, or museums), designated for tourists, and avoided by locals.
All this makes the cité-seer’s position somewhat awkward: although he is less visible, kinder and more appreciative of the place than the sight-seeing tourist, his glance is deeper, his presence – more lengthy, his interference with local life – more annoying to locals. He is an encroachment on both day-to-day local life, and that fraction (if there is one) of local industry that capitalises on tourists. He is not a typical tourists, but neither is he a local: he may or may not speak the language, and often does not look local enough. He attracts attention and disappoints the expectations of eager salesmen. He is an invisible quasi-inhabitant.
Yet in some ways the cité-seer can become more local than the locals, because he appreciates those overlooked or outright dismissed, shameful or unexciting, elements of the urban scene: sights of destruction and decay, incongruencies, empty streets, un-unusual architecture of residential areas, cheap local markets, dodgy local pubs, street signs, and other dusty artefacts of everyday life. Cité-seeing is a crash course in becoming almost local to a particular place by consciously accumulating a significant number of singularly insignificant impressions.
The cité-seer glance hovers both below and above that of the sight-seeing tourist and that of the local. He takes in the overall ambience of a place, as well as a plethora of speck-sized details. If the local’s vantage point makes his vision two-dimensional (lacking perspective), and the tourist’s is distorted and sight-targeted (with monumental sights blown up out of balance and the rest reduced to a blank map); the cité-seer vision is simultaneously micro- and tele-scopic. His glance is fluid, converging with, but never collapsing, into either of those two: one extreme renders the cite-seer blindly insensitive, while the other extreme makes him a quasi-local.
I have sat in front of a church from the 1pm to the 1.30 pm bell. The ice-cream is finished, but no one is kicking me out, because I am not in. Part of my fascination with Italy is based in the relaxed authenticity of the urban surroundings (one can argue that all buildings are a copy of something else, but since the course of time has erased their ancient Greek originals, they now seem authentic to us). In summer especially, the inside blends in with the outside; human-built things blend in with naturally growing things. I am not enjoying ice-cream (with artificial additives) in an Italian style decorated cafe with pictures of ruins or churchwalls and statues on the walls, or witnessing copies of the ruins in a paid museum, under neon lights. Instead, I am physically sitting on the ruins of a wall under an old laurel tree, in an ‘authentic’ old square adjacent to an ancient church that have seen more summers than I ever shall. The gastronomic pleasure of ice-cream is only a fraction of experience: indivisible from the necessity of lunch, the merciless July sun leaving its marks on my back, the cultural consumption of a sight of interest, the linguistic adventure of communicating in a foreign tongue, and countless more minute elements that constitute the act of cité-seeing.
Categories: The Idle Ethnographer