Learning from Afar

As an American living in the heart of Rome (for almost thirty years now) and involved in teaching and travel consulting, the changes that I’ve seen since the start of the year and their impact on me have been enormous.

In February I was scouting a program in the southern Italy and heard people on the Naples subway jokingly commenting about the Asian tourists they saw and the disease they thought they might be carrying. A month later I was getting concerned calls from friends in the States asking how we were handling the pandemic and the lockdown. My travel business came to a halt, all immediate programs cancelled, and my study abroad students returned home and switched to following lessons online.

Now, a few months later, the tables have turned and European’s proverbial thoughts and prayers are going to America. I am especially sorry for those who planned to come to Europe and cannot, although I support the decision to bar people coming from any country which has been unable or unwilling to contain Covid-19.

However, I’ve been working on a number of projects to allow people anywhere in the world, including Americans, to engage virtually with Italy. For me a great part of the thrill of travel is the preparation, the planning (and then afterward the unpacking, remembering, reliving). Goethe said that nothing prepares you for Rome like Rome but he didn’t have the digital tools we have today. 3D imagery, BIM, Big Data, live streaming, massive digital archives…Rome exists on a virtual plain which far exceeds the physical city that one can experience in person.

I started out the lockdown producing a series of amateur videos like this one under the title Remote Rome. The idea was to bring viewers along with me on walks and hear my observations about the situation on the ground, since at the time Italy had the most tragic Covid cases in the world.

Then as it became clear that the summer schools I had organized with the association ISAR (International Society for Archaeology, Art and Architecture of Rome) couldn’t happen onsite my colleagues and I threw ourselves into online learning, trying to push its limits. We created a virtual learning environment, thanks to available platforms from Google and Zoom and others, where we could still give students an engaging experience. I have to say it exceeded my expectations by far. You can get a sense of the program we ran in the Roman Forum in June by watching this very short video.

And as I write our 2nd international summer school is taking place, remotely addressing the challenges of a remote mountain town in the Abruzzo region, Castelvecchio Calvisio. Partners from various universities, from Florence to Istanbul to California (thanks to my own affiliation as professor at Cal Poly) are carrying out digital surveys and processing them from afar, working in teams on staggered time zones to design innovative solutions to inject new life in this nearly abandoned medieval town. As one of the few physically present here I went out there for three days and shot video including interviews and am streaming these gradually to the students and to anyone else who follows (our sessions are usually held on Zoom and streamed live on Facebook).

As I told my students who hoped to come to Rome this fall, the online option isn’t necessarily a downgrade. Instead of experiencing a chapel with a pack of peers and tourists, I can take them there alone, live streaming from my iphone, and they can look at high-definition teaching aids rather than a dimly lit fresco which they can’t see behind glass anyway. Sure, it’s not a replacement for being there, but that trip will have to wait. I’m not suggesting that they substitute their study abroad experience with a watered down option. When the time is right, they will experience places directly. I went through 4 years of undergraduate studies without leaving the classroom and then after graduation set off on the most engaging experience of my life, backpacking around Europe. That can’t be replaced with remote learning and it’s not my intention.

As travellers you should always try to give back to the places you visit. But this year, you can give back by not visiting. Not just because you don’t want to make the locals sick (a pretty important reason not to travel) but because without the millions of tourists who normally come to Italy, local culture is given a chance to regenerate itself.

It’s like the practice of leaving a field fallow to restore the nutrients in the soil. So you go without crops for a year, but they come back stronger. Similarly, while Italian cities are suffering from the drop in tourist revenues, locals are repopulating their cities. Romans are visiting museums they haven’t visited in years, considering them the realm of tourists. A few weeks ago Lucia and I ate at a fantastic pizzeria (Baffetto) which we had avoided for decades because of the hordes of tripadvisor tourists.

When travellers do return, hopefully in smaller numbers for longer stays, they will find that cities, temporarily evacuated by most foreigners, have regained some of the cultural topsoil that mass tourism had washed away.

reporting from the (soon to come) lockdown
teaching drawing remotely
reporting from a ghost town in Abruzzo
Lucia and I have our long-awaited pizza at Baffetto