A few weeks ago by happenstance, I came upon a young couple from a small town in Wisconsin who, seeing an incredibly cheap “all included” travel package to Italy online during the off-season jumped at the chance. The package cost $1,500 for the two of them, and included a roundtrip flight from Chicago, a rental car, most meals, and a week of hotel stays in smallish Italian towns. So it was dirt cheap. Moreover, it was only a few clicks to buy – just pick the dates, enter your credit card and hit ‘buy.’ So they packed their bags and off they went. What could go wrong?
If you know anything about Italy, a lot. And a lot did. The couple’s rental car was broken into, a window smashed, some minor things stolen. The cops were at best apathetic. However, other cops were not at all apathetic when the couple were twice pulled over for traffic violations that they didn’t understand, and were heavily fined both times. They found almost no one who could speak English well enough to communicate with. As a result, the wife nearly ended up in the hospital due to a severe food allergy. Nor did the couple manage to do any shopping, with local merchants lacking the language skills to engage with them adequately. Both of them were seriously freaked out by agitated Italians chasing after them for blocks yelling some unknown thing, on more than one occasion. In one case, as described to me, it was very likely that the waiter was trying to return a tip because Italian waiters in smaller cities don’t expect tips.
And all of this was only halfway through the trip. By that point, they were understandably dreading the remaining half.
When I mentioned this to an Italian acquaintance he said, not at all unkindly, that it was not a good thing that the Internet made this couple think that coming to “real” Italy (e.g. not just hitting the very touristy areas) would be easy, which is to say just a matter of a few minutes online and ~$1,500. Problems of language, culture, and just general disorientation are still very real – despite Google translate and a variety of other ad hoc high tech aids. He noted that while on the one hand it was his dream to send his basketball-crazed teenage son to basketball camp in a place like Indiana, it was obvious to him that no one there would speak Italian and that his son would be “a curiosity, like a zoo animal” for all of his strange Italian ways. Where was the common sense, he wondered aloud. “Do most Americans really believe everything they read online?” he asked.
It was a logical enough question given the ongoing brouhaha over social media and last U.S. presidential election, fake news, etc. in which exactly this seems to be regularly asserted. But the following is a good example what is so often missed in such analysis.
I asked the couple whether the low price tag made them suspicious that there might be some kind of catch, that for example they were being routed to the Italian equivalents of Podunksville. They responded that they had read in the newspaper that the Italian economy was badly ailing, and so concluded that the sweet deal they got was “Las Vegas logic” – in other words a very cheap flight and hotel room offered in the hopes that you more than make it up in the money you spend (or lose) while there. When I asked why they expected that people in a small Italian town would speak good – or really any – English, the husband, himself a small business owner, replied that if he really wanted American tourist dollars, he would learn enough English to be able to go get it.
Indeed where there are Americans with open wallets, there are sure to be merchants and others who can at least scrape by in English. In fact, the couple’s only real error lay in the mistaken belief that there would be an appreciable number of American tourists outside of well-known tourist destinations such as Florence, Pisa, or Venice; their analysis was otherwise correct. It was a costly error to be sure, but not a lack of common sense as had been supposed by my acquaintance, as opposed to a lack of adequate research. Further, by the point I met them, they had already identified the error and were trying to figure out how to best correct.
In other words, they already had an operative, largely accurate belief – that Italy was “on sale” owing to bad economic conditions – before stumbling upon the discount travel package website that leveraged this pre-existing, factually grounded belief to make the sale. When confronted with real world evidence that was inconsistent with this belief being the full explanation – that Italy might be “on sale” but they had also been somewhat misled – they adapted. They will presumably be more diligent in future.
It’s a good example to keep in mind while pondering the brouhaha.