The joys of academic tourism

Academic tourism is a well-known phenomenon in this world. In brief, it means the short days before and after academic conferences in strange countries around the world, which academics would never be able to afford by any other means.

Mine is the fortune of being in Rome for a few days, en route to a conference in Florence, Italy. Rome is a crazy, beautiful city, and a few salient observations follow.

Romans appear obsessed with penises. Or to be a little more specific, David’s penis. This is reproduced (yes, just that part) on fridge magnets, aprons, cigarette lighters, shot glasses and postcards, to name just a few. Liqueur bottles in the shape of a penis and balls proliferate. Cartoon statues of David (with a large nodding head) are found on every street corner. (These are usually accompanied by cartoon statues of Jesus, Trump, the Pope and Messi, all nodding, which I think says quite a lot about the political situation, let alone the national culture, of the country. But I digress).

Seems this obsession isn’t new. In the ancient city of Pompeii, the penis also played a large part. Large penises carved in stone, or carved penises on street stones, point the way to the local brothels. As Anna the tour guide smirked, after volunteering much information about “pornographic artifacts” excavated in the city and a tour of a brothel or two, folk in these regions always enjoyed and valued sex, “until the Christians came along and spoiled the fun”. (Much disgruntled muttering among the group ensued).

We got there on a tour from Rome in a bus with a very excitable driver. Most drivers in Italy appear crazy. They hoot all the time, swerve all over the place, drive with their mobile phones clutched in one hand, with the other gesticulating wildly, and thus constantly narrowly miss pedestrians. Seasickness in a vehicle is a real problem.

Luckily we Sarf Effricans are a tough bunch. My favourite question has been asking Italian folk, “Do tell me: how is Italy doing in the soccer World Cup?” This usually works on beggars as well as street vendors – their eyes glaze over and they disappear, pretending they didn’t hear. For Americans who won’t keep quiet, I’ve asked: “So, did you vote for Trump?” This has worked like a charm.

When one announces one’s country of origin here (ie, Sarf Effrica), the response is “Wow! How long did it take you to get here?” Italians never ask Americans this question: it’s as if Sarffers are some strange species emanating from a country which was part of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, filled with wild animals (used in the Colosseum in ancient times) and inhabited by bone-gnashing barbarians.

Seeing as the next paper in my academic adventure is the deliverance of a paper in the United Kingdom about the ethics of researching anthropophagy, and having visited the Capuchin Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria delle Concezione dei Cappuccini, I’m beginning to believe that no other country in the world has the right to accuse play bone houses with Africa. The Capuchin Crypt contains the skeletal remains of nearly 4000 Capuchin monks, whose skeletons were dismantled and the bones used to decorate the Crypt. This began in the mid-1600s, and was (not surprisingly) admired by the Marquis de Sade.

As monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly reclaimed bones were added to the decorations. They reckon it took about 30 years for new bones to be ready. The Catholic Order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a reminder of our own mortality and the swift passage of life on Earth. The first “room” in the Crypt has a child’s skeleton (whole) pinned to the roof, with a scale in one hand and a death sickle in the other. Shades of heebie jeebies. Roses, shelves, the pelvis room, the scapula room, candelabras, and so on. And a handful of supine whole skeletons in their monk robes. Some might think it hauntingly beautiful.

In any case, using South African rands in Rome could lead to one becoming a sack of bones by the time one leaves, because it is really expensive. The best thing to do is stop working out how much you would be spending in rands, and try to look for street food (not in tourist areas!).

Great things about Rome: it is so safe that you can stroll around at 2am unafraid. There are also drinking fountains all over the place where you can drink and refill your water bottle – clean spring water. The latter, however, are probably necessary, as the old city is designed to keep folk staggering around in circles attempting to find tourist attractions, and it saves many euros being able to fill up your bottle all the time.

I never managed to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain because there were too many tourists in the way, but I will try to return nevertheless. Florence and the first academic conference are next on the agenda, aptly concerning decolonising education. I hope the train driver isn’t as crazy as the average taxi owner.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.


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