Summer in Venice means tourists. Do I hate them? No more, I assure you, than a patient stricken with a mortal illness hates the individual viral agents, or virions, which are draining the nucleic-synthesizing energy of his body cells to replicate themselves. He hates the disease, which is making him weak, old, and ugly even as he awaits death, but it would take an extraordinarily perverse human mind to revile a faceless submicroscopic particle of the kind first described by mv compatriot Dmitry Ivanovsky in 1892 and finally shown to exist by W.M. Stanley in 1935.

We loathe and fear epidemic plagues, evil tyrants with atom bombs, and even fairy-tale ghosts and dragons, because they and their like have left a record of suffering in our collective cultural memory, but the truth is that our emotions simply cannot reach beyond the light stage of the microscope. Imagine asking a grieving widow, who has just lost her husband to cancer, which characteristic of his killer she finds most repellent. Is it the nucleic composition? The structure of the capsid?

The whole deadly drama of the epidemic that strikes Italy in summertime is the faceless uniformity of the tourist mass. As soon as the patient begins to run a high temperature, hoping to allay the feverish, sweltering afternoon heat by cranking up bar awnings, opening cafe umbrellas, and hosing down the sidewalks, millions of faceless virions in white sneakers throng every vessel and swell every node. I have no medical training, and the term “sneakers” is, I am quite certain, a hopelessly obsolete way of describing what the travelers in Europe have on their feet.

All I can say is that these bulky polymer parcels are nearly always white, which, given the variety and abundance of consumer desires, and of technical means for satisfying them, in the United States and elsewhere, is genuinely puzzling. It is as though there existed in the world but a single shade of lipstick, and just one sort of perfume, both manufactured in a factory by the name of Red Moscow. Why not make them black, pink, pomegranate? Why not brand them as eclipse black, whisper pink, passion red? Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that tourists in Italy are almost invariably Caucasian, and white people think that so long as they are white, thick plastic foot coverings are elegantly understated. In Russia, people used to think that army boots, unless they squeaked, were inconspicuous.

Here are two posters snatched from a fairly expensive hotel in Rome, where I went to meet the conductor Evelino Pido, down from his native Turin for the season premiere of La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera. I was waiting for the maestro at the reception with our mutual London friend Didier de Cottignies, when my eyes fell on a bulletin board completely covered with dozens of similar announcements. Though mystified and apprehensive, Didier nonetheless collaborated by diverting the desk’s attention while I harvested them in sheaves:

       Michigan Catholic Radio

Your Escort: Carrani Incoming s.r.l.

6:45 Wake Up Call

6:30-10:00 Breakfast

7:45 Departure St. Peter’s for Canonization Mass Meeting in Lobby Free Afternoon

Another memorandum, which deals more explicitly with aspects of dress and behavior, is headed “Your Daily Tour Itinerary LPRL/239”:


          Welcome to Rome!

Friday 28th. Optional: Rome by
Night &’ Dinner. Casual Clothes.

Saturday 29th. Optional: Vatican
Museums. Comfortable Clothes
but No Shorts.

Optional: Tivoli Gardens &
Dinner. Comfy’ Shoes,
Smart/Casual Wear.

Sunday 30th. Airport.

Your Tour Director:
Susan & Veronica.

There you have it, 239 canonization mass meetings in hotel lobbies and comfy shoes, 239 casual afternoons in optional clothes, 239 Romes by Night, and that’s only the bookings of a single tour operator, “Trafalgar: The Best in Europe.” Multiplied by what, 20 loyal employees of Michigan Catholic Radio? That’s 4,780, or 9,560 sneakered feet. How many Michigan Catholic Radios? How many Trafalgars? Oh, thousands, so we’re easily talking about a white sneaker for every man, woman, and child in Italy, a kind of global Imelda Marcos wardrobe in reverse, with identical items of footwear as far as the eye can see. No, what am I saying! If they all stood on a single wardrobe shelf, at three sneakered feet to a sneakered meter they would stretch for something like 12 million kilometers. The circumference of the earth at the equator, it may be recalled, is a mere 40,000 kilometers.

Naturally, here in Venice, as everywhere else in Italy and in the rest of tourable Europe, the tourists wear the same-looking jeans, have the same-looking knapsacks on their backs, and eat the same airline food as they approach their destination. When the human virions deviate from their cell-block, uniform norm, it happens as inexplicably as a prison riot on a hot summer’s night. For instance, why is it that airlines provide their passengers with metal forks, spoons, and knives when everything else on their folding trays, including of course the food, is made of plastic? Why is it that visitors to the Vatican may not wear shorts, when it is quite clear that the last vestiges of respect and decorum (to say nothing of any more narrowly religious sentiment) were shed by the tourist mass a generation ago? Why is it that Susan and Veronica are not lesbian activists, or at least single mothers?

If one believes, as I do, that the most lethal disease ever experienced by mankind is totalitarianism, one can only assume that European tourism is yet another of the many ways in which the citizens of Western democracies are preparing themselves, and are being prepared, for this imminent global plague. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote of the nonconformist who, in escaping from Rome, could once hope to find:

a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and, when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and drear)’ prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.

In other words, it is not enough that an American should eat hamburgers in Philadelphia; he must also eat hamburgers in Venice. It is not enough for him to dress like a globetrotting athlete at home, in the United States of America; for the homogenizing process to be effective, he must also dress like a Harlem athlete in the United States of Europe. To resist must be fatal; it must also be impossible to fly.