Florence, Italy may well be the cultural capital of Europe. With art and architectural treasure comparable to Rome or Paris and a walkable central district smaller than some American mega-malls, Florence packs a serious cultural wallop. Add some of the best food and wine in the world and an ethereally beautiful countryside, and you have an unstoppable combination of attractions for practically anyone willing to apply for a passport and board a plane.
But, there is another side to European travel. Each year, tens of thousands of college-age travelers (from all over the world) convince their parents to foot the bill for a few weeks or months knocking around on trains and hostels all over the continent. The draw is the ease of travel, the culture, and the foreignness of it all. Folks who would never dream of putting their kids on Amtrack or letting them show up in a large American city without a confirmed reservation at the Hilton Garden, loose their kids on Europe with a backpack, a cell phone, some cash, and an emergency credit card.
What follows from the often unprecedented freedom of student travelers isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, twenty-something’s do just as they told their parents they would when they talked them into opening their wallets – they go to museums, eat unfamiliar foods, meet interesting people, and write in their journals. Many, however, sleep until the hostel kicks them out in the morning, start drinking around lunchtime, and tend very little to their cultural heritage. They spend much of their time getting into marginal situations, and the rest of it trying to get out of them.
Here is where Jersey Shore comes in.
No one would mistake Snooki and the crew for cultural connoisseurs, and few would accuse their fan base of good taste; so why are they in Florence, and why is there a crowd of people hovering over their every move in this tiny, beautiful town? Well they’re in Florence because they are (sort of) Italian American and the producers of the show are brilliant. They have a huge following here because (don’t let this get out, but. . .) not everyone is here this summer for the culture.
Florence makes millions of Euros every summer from students telling their parents that they are going to museums and then spending their time drinking and shopping. They need those students to keep coming. (Italy isn’t the least economically stable country in the EU, but it isn’t the most solvent either.) They also need those parents (many of whom are in the US) to keep sending them. They can’t shut down the party, or students will get off the train somewhere else. They don’t want the party on TV, though, in case a parent accidentally hits the wrong button on the TiVo and runs into what actually happens on the streets of Florence in June.
This is all more complicated than it appears, though, since there is nothing inherently contradictory about gazing at Michelangelo’s David in the morning and drinking too much vino rosso at night. I might, in fact, be willing to argue that they are mutually enforcing activities. Florence doesn’t want you to see it, though. That’s why they’ve put so many restrictions on the cast and crew during filming. Truth is, little Sally college grad doesn’t want you to see it either, since she’d really like to be able to tell Paolo that she’ll meet him next summer at “their spot” on the Ponte Vecchio, and she needs Dad’s emergency credit card to make it happen.
So, Jersey Shore is calling Florence’s bluff. They’re selling pizzas, frequenting discos, and wrecking cars in a city that is supposed to be all about chiaroscuro and Brunello; and they’re surrounded by throngs of tourists who can’t get enough of them. Will they change anything? Who knows. You’d think a city that could survive the black death, the Medicis, and Savanarola could weather The Situation, but you never know. I’m guessing that when the show airs in August there will be more than one co-ed hoping that her father is not watching, and more than one parent who swears he will never foot the bill for a Eurail pass.