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  • Writer's pictureLindy Hughes Pfeil

On not being a tourist

colosseum, rome, italy
The Colosseum, Rome, June 2024.

In 1988, I arrived in Italy with a backpack containing tarot cards, traveller’s cheques (remember those?) and a purple journal in which I wrote to friends and family, using carbon paper. (Remember carbon paper?) As I criss-crossed Europe, I mailed the letters back home to South Africa, never imagining that the carbon copies would someday find their way into a novel.

It was my first time away from home. High on my newfound freedom (and a dash of self-righteousness), I vowed to be a traveller, not a tourist. Isabel Allende, one of my favourite writers, says, “tourists go through a place and travellers try to become part of it.” At age 24, it is easy to live in black and white: to become part of a place, I reasoned, all it would take was to pack no camera. Five months. Countless countries. Not a single photo. Because I was not a tourist.

Today, 36 years later, I am back in Italy. I still pack light: only hand luggage, which this time includes a mother-of the-groom dress (and tarot cards). I still worry about being a tourist – about stomping obliviously through other people’s homes. But times have changed. My iPhone is now my wallet, my GPS, and my recorder of life, effectively replacing my little purple journal . I rationalise that my memory is not what it once was: I have become a person who takes photos.

church ceiling, Rome
A photo hurriedly (and somewhat guiltily) snapped at St. Mary Major Basilica, in Rome recently.

I have always been drawn to places of worship. I don’t attend services, but I love the sense of calm that drifts over me when I enter a church. So, it’s with great anticipation that I head into the Italian sunshine, in search of the churches that struck me with awe all those years ago.

The statues are still here. The fantastic frescoes. Jesus bleeding on the cross. Mary. But this time, the churches bring no peace. There is no silence. Only tourists. Walking, talking, snapping photos of one another in front of bouquets of dead flowers. I sigh, pull out my phone, take a few photos to remind myself that I was here, and move on to the next church.

And then I stumble across the Church of San Michele in Cagliari.

The dome of the Church of San Michele in Cagliari.

Signs on the doors warn: no photography. I pocket my phone and make my way down the aisle. There is no one else in the church. Not a single soul. There are many interconnecting chapels, and as I move towards the third one, a man approaches me from a side door and asks if I have time for a little tour.

“Yes, please.”

He tells me that the church was built using precise Baroque concepts. He points out the pelican (a symbol of sacrifice, I learn) and the phoenix rising from the ashes. He invites me to touch the altar – touch it! – explaining that it is made of wood and painted to look like marble. He points out the twisted pillars, the compass on the floor. Then he asks if I would like to see the sacristy. I almost hyperventilate (even though I am not Catholic).

We enter through a secret door. I can barely speak. This is more fantastic than Narnia. The paintings! The gold! The inlaid woodwork! The air vibrates with holiness, or something.

“You have two more minutes?”

I nod. I would stay all day if he offered.

Another secret room. Statues of Jesus behind glass doors. Paintings of missionaries being crucified. Stories of miracles, of faith, and hope.

He tells me he must leave, but that I am welcome to stay. I thank him and slide into a pew. I kneel in front of the altar. Just me. And the silence. And my breath. In. Out. A miracle really.

My 24-year-old self was right: no photo could ever capture this moment. The blood running through my veins. The peace. The sense of awe - of being here, now. Fully alive. A traveller.

This story was written from the balcony of a gorgeous airbnb in Cagliari, with its view of the dome.


This story first appeared in the July/August 2024 edition of the West Van Beacon.


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