Roman Coliseum just another excuse to hock sunglasses

Amie Van Overmeer

Traveling to Italy over my spring break from classes in Spain, one of my must-sees was the famous Sistine Chapel in Rome.

After winding my way through the entire Vatican Museum so that I could see Michelangelo’s famous ceiling paintings, I stared in awe for several minutes.

The hundreds of people packed into the chapel were talking animatedly about the paintings – others not so interested in the art talked about lunch or the weather.

Suddenly, a pre-recorded voice boomed over the loud speaker: “Attention! Please remain silent in the Sistine Chapel.” The message continued in about 10 other languages for a good five minutes.

Somehow, guards shushing the visitors and obnoxiously loud recordings calling for silence wasn’t exactly what I had imagined to be the atmosphere of the Sistine Chapel.

It’s funny how the way you picture a place becomes concrete in your mind, even when you have no basis for thinking that way.

In Rome, a city that was the capital of an empire that shaped Western civilization, almost everything is at least recognizable by name.

It’s inevitable that a place so rich in history and culture becomes fodder for school textbooks and hundreds of movies. So it’s no surprise, then, that I have so many preconceptions of the city that have affected the way I see it today – preconceptions that don’t include the massive influx of tourists that infiltrate Italy.

I can’t remember the first time I ever heard of the Sistine Chapel.

It’s something that is so engrained in our cultural knowledge that I’ve never really thought much about it.

It’s a good thing I’m not an art major, or I’d be pretty ashamed of myself.

Still, I’m embarrassed by how little I know about the chapel – when I saw it, only a few scenes jogged my memory, and it was nothing like what I expected.

I think the word “chapel” flubbed me up from the beginning.

When I hear chapel, I think cute little chalet-looking place of worship. I stupidly did not realize chapel roughly means a place of worship that is not as monstrously huge as a cathedral.

I also pictured it off by itself on the edge of the city. The paintings themselves, I thought, branched out from the famous image of two men with their fingers about to touch.

I was pretty much wrong about everything.

In actuality, the Sistine Chapel over the years has been tacked on to some other buildings to make an entire museum, and it’s right in the middle of Rome next to the Vatican City.

The paintings were also impressively done in vivid scenes – not faded and more random like I had expected.

The Coliseum is another place we’ve all grown up hearing about or watched in movies. It’s every bit as grandiose as it’s pictured, and I could just picture gladiators running around the arena with toga-clad Romans cheering them on.

I couldn’t stop myself from replaying scenes of the movie “Gladiator” in my head, and I had to mentally smack myself when I caught myself pretending to be Maximus walking into the amphitheater.

Although the Coliseum has stayed fairly true to its original state without an excessive amount of altering restorations, it’s still been affected by the rampant tourism industry. About one-third of the Coliseum’s floor has been restored with a very modern-looking cement floor.

Now the new stage area is used for some concerts and shows. Vendors swarm outside the structure, dressed as gladiators and selling sunglasses. Somehow, I never expect such stately places to be tainted and cheapened by tourism. It’s all quite disturbing.

I always picture an absence of tourists in places that have become beacons for groups with matching T-shirts and fanny packs. It’s such an unpleasant surprise to see that thousands of other people are waiting just like I am to see these world-renowned places.

Since I traveled during Holy Week, Italy was crowded with tourists. It was my first experience being in Europe during a tourist season.

I glared at them, forgetting that I, too, am a tourist.

Italians themselves weren’t quite what I expected, either. In fact, I didn’t really see too many Italians at all.

Most of Italy’s ruins and other cultural beacons cater to tourists, with English many times being listed before Italian.

Places like Pompeii, Venice, the Pantheon and Florence’s art museums are overrun with foreign tourists.

People had told me that when I heard Italian, I would recognize many of the words because it’s very similar to Spanish; however, I don’t really know because I don’t think I actually heard any Italian.

Every bus or tram I stepped on was full of Americans, British and Germans.

There were no Italians to be found in the parts that I inhabited. And those I did encounter quickly switched to English, greatly annoyed by my pointing and pathetic Italian.

Italians have a great love-hate of tourists – the country is dependent on their money, but most Italians who deal with tourists can’t stand them.

I can’t say I blame them, as I automatically tried speaking Spanish to Italians, once again assuming that the only foreign language I know must be the one that is being spoken.

It’s not that I didn’t like Italy – I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back someday and spend at least three more weeks there instead of 10 days.

But the next time around, I hope to remember that nothing is ever going to be exactly what I expect.

In trying to see every city in about a day, I didn’t get a feel for a place outside its most famous landmarks.

So the next time around, I’m going to remember that nothing is ever going to be exactly what I expect and try not to get too annoyed with the tourists I do encounter.

Amie Van Overmeer is a senior in journalism and mass communication from Rock Rapids.