During our free time at the Vatican, I spent a few minutes pausing to take in my surroundings in St. Peter's Square. Even though thousands of people stood in line anxiously awaiting to enter the museum and church, I sat down in a relatively empty area to enjoy the peaceful minutes by myself.
Within a few seconds, I was approached by a couple from Venice to take a photo for them. I obliged and each of us took our respective spots, me behind the lens and them posing in front of the Basilica.
After the photo was taken, we struck up a conversation about our travels to different parts of Italy. They were just as curious to learn about my perceptions of Italian culture as I was to learn more about their country.
The night before this encounter, I witnessed from just a few yards away the Prime Minister of Italy endure shouts, threats, and items being thrown towards his car as protesters voiced their opinions about some of his actions that were unfitting to a man in his place. I wanted to know their opinion and learn more about it. They were more than happy to share the latest news and personal opinions about his government and personal actions.
Neither myself nor the couple wanted to stop the conversation, so we began to walk and talk as we each headed to our destinations. They questioned me about travels to Asia and Central America. I asked them where the best hidden gems of Europe were located to which they rattled off names that I could not spell.
When it came time to part ways, they asked one last question. "What do you think of pushy salesmen trying to force you into buying unneeded souvenirs from Rome?" I expected a more in-depth question considering our previous exchanges, but this was the item on both of our minds as we were being approached every few seconds with a new offer for the same products that no one needs.
I told them that these men flock to tourist attractions in the same way as tourists themselves do. This was not unique to Italy. It is the same, and sometimes worse, in other parts of the world.
Their fears of me and others basing our opinions on their country from these few men subsided. I stated that if you want to know the real culture of a country, do not go to the tourist spots, go to the small towns and meet local people. They agreed and invited me to look them up the next time I am around Venice.
This cultural exchange was better than a few silent moments by myself. If you want to understand a country, talk to its residents.