Is this Disneyland, or is it the Real Deal?

March 17, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

All Things Italy March 2024

Dear Friends: 

I announced last month that I’d be writing this month about traveling to Italy with children—a topic triggered by a friend’s social media posts. Her family, which includes two sons, posed on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. They were celebrating one of the son’s birthdays. How could they take a short European trip from the US during the school year, I first wondered. Then I recalled winter vacation weeks and homeschooling. And I remembered my sister’s family (including four children) visited me in Sicily for a week in April 2009, when I taught in Catania as a Fulbright professor.

Even 150 years ago, families traveled abroad with tutors in tow. Authors Edith Wharton and Henry James both went abroad as children. (And they include memorable children in their fiction. One of my favorites among Wharton’s autobiographical works about expat life in Italy is The Children.  James’s famous Daisy Miller includes the heroine’s incorrigible and unforgettable younger brother Randolph). Nathaniel Hawthorne and Caroline Crane Marsh traveled abroad with their families, as I discuss in Engaging Italy, but they went because of ambassadorial roles, for sojourns much longer than ten days. Of course, crossing the Atlantic was much slower then. But the idea of family travel triggered this month’s title: Is this Disneyland, or is it the Real Deal?  

That title, announced last week, may have attracted some of the new readers here. (Welcome!) Other regulars to the newsletter may be expecting something on Italian travel with teens or toddlers. But, as I took a mid-winter trip to track a 19th-century research subject, this month’s focus shifted—at least slightly.  

As my trip unfolded and I contemplated the planned title, I partially set aside the Disneyland metaphor—the part related to family vacations. I didn’t see many young travelers as I visited Turkey for two weeks with my husband. However, we did feel periodically the sensations of amusement parks: in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and in the Spice Market, in Ankara’s historic “old town,” and in the port city of Kuşadasi, near ancient Ephesus, for example. The latter site, we learned from our guide, has exploded in population from 7000 in the 1980s, when my husband was last there, to 70,000 today, due especially to cruise ships. (Wikipedia gives a population of circa 130,000). A welcoming sign on the city’s boardwalk mimics the I heart NY logo, instead of conveying any particular Turkish tradition.  

From ancient Asklepion to Ephesus, vendors hawked their wares. “For you, Lady,” rang in my ears as I gazed at objects the vendors fluttered before my eyes.  

Entrance to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

In many ways these scenes were no surprise. Travelers to Italy experience something similar in the markets of Florence, in Venice’s Rialto area, and in the beautiful streets of Siena, San Gimignano, and Sorrento. They are almost too, too touristy. And yet we still go. By the hundreds and thousands.  

Ruins at Hierapolis

19th-century literature reveals that travelers even then wrestled with their responses to sites deemed historic, beautiful, and sublime. They had read about these spots and seen paintings and imprints in advance of travel. On their arrivals to Mont Blanc, the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, or Rome’s Colosseum, for example, their words fell short as they searched for ways to describe the emotions of witnessing these wonders.  Caroline Crane Marsh wrote home after her 1850 arrival in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn: “no language, much less my feeble pen, can give you any idea of the scene. . . . Much as we had heard of it, it far exceeded anything we had pictured, and seemed rather like some work of magic than an earthly reality.” * 

“no language, much less my feeble pen, can give you any idea of the scene. . . . Much as we had heard of it, it far exceeded anything we had pictured, and seemed rather like some work of magic than an earthly reality.”

Caroline Crane Marsh, 1850

Among these 19th-century travel writers, another woman’s writings rippled through me as I experienced Turkey’s famous sites. Margaret Fuller went abroad in 1848 as a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s politically radical New-York Tribune. Sher had longed to see Europe for almost two decades. She had read about its history and studied languages since a small child. When the opportunity opened up, she seized it.   

Fuller went abroad primarily to cover the European Revolutions rocking the ruling monarchies. But she also went as a tutor to the children of the Spring family, with whom she traveled. Fuller already was a contributor to Greeley’s newspaper, for which she reported on topics such as the horrific conditions of women at Sing Sing prison, arguing against the systemic social conditions which led them there. Now, as she traveled first through the British Isles and then through the Continent and south to Rome, the correspondent wrote about the landscape as well as the political life.

The Scottish Highlands above Loch Lomond moved her as much as the harsh and smoky industrial cities did. In Italy’s hilltop city of Assisi, Fuller noted not the breathtaking views across the Umbrian plains but rather a group of adolescent schoolgirls—full of potential, if only allowed more education. “Reading, writing and sewing were all they learned,” Fuller wrote, suggesting with dismay that even with their reading, they would not have access to books to further their education.*   

In Italy’s hilltop city of Assisi, Fuller noted not the breathtaking views across the Umbrian plains but rather a group of adolescent schoolgirls—full of potential, if only allowed more education.

Fuller continually focused on the people she met rather than the tourist sites themselves. In Rome’s church of San Louis dei Francesi, near Piazza Navona, it was not Caravaggio’s paintings of Saint Matthew that drew her attention but rather Domenichino’s frescoes of the life of Santa Cecilia. These depict the noblewoman distributing food and clothing to the impoverished masses.  

Fuller had expressed similar concerns a few years earlier, when she wrote in Summer of the Lakes of women she witnessed on her trip to the then-western US—to Chicago and the Great Lakes. Of the indigenous women on Mackinac Island, especially, she noted their “peculiarly awkward gait, and forms bent by burthens.”* Compared to the men of the area, women were worn down by the tasks expected of them. 

I recalled Fuller’s writings as I travelled in Turkey. At a rug showroom near ancient Ephesus, a man fluent in English explained the tedious but magnificent artistry of the women weavers, who sat silently laboring. They worked only a few hours per day, he explained—any more would damage their eyes. He didn’t mention their backs. They crouched on low stools, weaving weft through the warp and tying knot after tiny knot.

These women are part of a cooperative, working to keep the ancient art alive—but also to make a little extra money for their families. We asked permission to take their pictures. Even so, I hesitated sharing them here, as the women creating such art also endure pain. 

“Reminds me of the The Radium Girls,” my husband whispered to me. He referred to Kate Moore’s book, which tells the story of women who painted watch dials in the early 20th century. They were poisoned by their meticulously detailed but deadly labor, which caused them to ingest radium. 

A day or so later, these thoughts re-emerged, as we visited the stunning Cappadocia province. Deep crevices decorate the lava-formed landscape, also dotted with cave houses. The region booms with tourism, including hot air balloons and camel rides.  

Some scenes from Cappadocia: a deserted cave dwelling, hot air balloons, roadside decor at a popular scenic overlook, and an occupied cave home

One cave-home owner above Ürgüp invited us inside, where we were encouraged to sit on plush rugs and sipped tea. Our translator-guide explained that rugs are a part of the dowry tradition. Mothers and grandmothers make them for their children to take into a marriage. The guide encouraged us to take pictures and ask questions. 

I had noted a loom along one wall of the living area, so I wanted to know more about the woman’s weaving. How much did she work at the loom? How often? Did she prepare her own yarn, from the sheering of nearby sheep? The response was a reality check—a sharp contrast from the presentation at the cooperative near Ephesus. This woman hadn’t touched the loom in several years. One reason: back pain. Another, and more significant: her daughters had chosen a different path—university and professional careers. They had no interest in learning the grueling art, much less of being women who stayed home weaving.  

This woman had no one to teach, no dowry to prepare, no reason to carry on the tradition.  

Loom inside cave home

The response took me out of Disneyland. Like Fuller, I longed to talk more with this woman. I hungered to know more of her life, literally within this hill. Instead, I paid her a few lire to buy some simple handiwork, a cottage industry that for her has replaced weaving. With that purchase, I wondered, had I bought my way back into the magical, touristic world of Cappadocia? 

Women’s handiworks for sale in Cappadocia

Our guide would not let our views be so simple. In Ankara, on a Monday, he insisted that we see a bit of what he called the “real Turkey,” in addition to the historic old town, archeological museum, and national hero Atatürk’s Mausoleum. The guide’s plan: two shopping malls, one for lunch and the other for dinner.  In sharp contrast to the US, where malls have declined and closed, here the malls’ large and light food courts were bustling and near full. We saw professionals taking their lunch breaks and, later, families on evening outings.

Unexpectedly busy mall on a Monday evening in suburban Ankara

In these indoor substitutes for outdoor public spaces, eerily familiar in architecture and chain stores, and looking a little like Disneyland—we witnessed what appeared to be ordinary Monday routines. For them and for us, these malls were the Real Deal—a wakeup call before our departure: looking for “off the beaten track” for tourists often means finding the routine paths of the local population. 

Now I’m back in my home routine, only hanging on to memories and rambling reflections. Thanks for indulging me as I shared some of them with you. Next month, I hope to be back focused more squarely on All Things Italy.

Salve e saluti,

Etta 

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*For specific sources cited, please reach out to me. I love footnotes but don’t want to weigh down my newsletter with those details. And I’m not above errors. If you have questions or corrections, I’m always happy to hear from you. 

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Want to know more about 19th-century women in Italy? March is Women’s History Month, which means SUNY Press is offering 30% off titles. Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks is included! Simply use the promo code HERITAGE324 at checkout.  

Etta Madden