“IRL Impressions”

I have, perhaps belatedly, entered the point in life at which I no longer have standing weekend plans to drink with friends. Not coincidentally, I’ve been doing more in the way the contemplative and outdoors-y. A few weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went for a hike on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Credit where it’s due: we got the idea from MassLive’s list of the best hikes in Massachusetts. We’ve tepidly declared our intention to hit them all this spring and summer.)

We opted for the mountain’s most direct root, looking for a challenge. But despite being advertised as strenuous, the trail was mostly tame, its steepest segments obviated by the installation of stone steps. We had a pleasant, if not effortless, ascent, punctuated by this or that detour to examine our surroundings.

After an hour or so, we reached the summit. Monument Mountain isn’t very tall. At a little over 500 meters, it’s about half the height of Massachusetts’ tallest peak, Mount Greylock. But that bit of relativity is less salient when you’re looking down on soaring hawks and the slow-motion lives of the humans below.

It was a beautiful day, and we weren’t the only ones out. In the background, two young women were taking turns photographing each other for the ‘Gram, the perfect receipt of an afternoon well spent. “I’m gonna do some sunglasses on, then do some sunglasses off,” one said. I immediately wrote down the quote in a text to Megan, who laughed.

Every now and again, something like this makes me think about the growing importance of online media — in business, culture, love, politics, and other areas of life. Social media is a mixed bag, but the advantages of scale it offers are pretty much uncontested. I wonder if we’ll reach a point at which the significance of online life — where 10 million can attend a concert and content can be redistributed in perpetuity at low marginal costs — eclipses that of our offline lives. If awareness is a necessary component of significance, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.

A few months ago, my company hired a consultant to help us attract sponsorship for an event. As part of their information-gathering, the consultant asked us what the “IRL impressions” of the event would be — a term that mimics social media analytics and that both parties eventually decided probably meant “attendance.” This struck me as at once amusing and depressing: the internet’s centrality is such that it must now be specified when we’re talking about the real — no, physical — world.

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Summer Vacation to Italy

We’re going to try something a little different with today’s post. Instead of a research piece, I’m just going to tell you about my and my girlfriend’s trip to Italy.

This idea was partly born of my growing distaste for social media—the blog post, that is, not the trip to Italy. Standard operating procedure when someone my age takes a trip is to upload photos to Facebook or its increasingly popular appendage, Instagram (filters and ironic captions appreciated but not required). High on endorphins, dehydrated, and possibly a little drunk somewhere in southern Italy, I hatched this quixotic act of rebellion: to post—no, upload—my photos to my own site, thereby subverting one of the day’s most powerful and opaque companies.

It’s stupid, but I’m sticking to it.

It also so happens that a few people have asked me for more detail about the trip than I care to provide in a comment or photo description. I’ll try my best to cover it all without going overboard.

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Our trip began in Rome. We spent three days in the capital doing the obligatory sightseeing: we went to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Spanish Steps (twice), the Capuchin Crypt, the Da Vinci Experience, and some lesser attractions.

This involved lots of waiting in line, fending off potential tour guides (both legitimate and otherwise, I suspect), and, above all, walking. All told, we walked almost 25 miles in just over three days.

miles walked
Data courtesy of my iPhone. Sedentarism courtesy of my office job and commute.

That kind of tourism, seeing major attractions and waiting in lines, really isn’t my style. But I have to admit, it was worth it. It really wouldn’t have been right to go to Rome and do otherwise. Plus, I kind of have a thing for architecture.

Volumes have been written about the beauties of ancient Rome, so I won’t wax poetic about the Colosseum or Michaelangelo’s greatest works. I will, however, say that the Capuchin Crypt, intricately decorated with the bones of thousands, including some children, is bananas. You should drop by if you’re in Rome. (They also don’t allow photos, but Megan was able to snag some while the attendant wasn’t looking.)

Beyond visiting the usual tourist attractions, we mostly ate and drank while in Rome. It’s a beautiful, humid city.

The next leg of our trip took us to Puglia. We used Lecce, a city of just under 100,000 people known for its baroque architecture, as a base from which we took day trips to towns on the Pugliese coast.

Instead, we spent our time in the south on the beach. We went to Otranto first, a white city with a beautiful port and precise geometric architecture. We ate raw fish (actually, we did that just about everywhere we went), drank wine, and tempted fate by falling asleep on the beach without sunscreen.

Our next stop took us to Castrignano del Campo, a small town on the very edge of the Italian “heel”. The view of the turquoise Adriatic Sea is the kind of beautiful scene you hope for when you buy a plane ticket. Italians, we noticed, have an interesting take on what constitutes a beach. We followed the crowds to a porous, jagged slab of what I believe was volcanic rock. As I gingerly climbed across the “beach”—on all fours after my flip flops broke—the Italians were pretty much treating it like sand, some laying directly on it. America has made us soft.

Heading north toward Bari, from which we would fly back to Boston, we stopped in Alberobello, a town tucked away in the mountains of Puglia. The town is famous for being full of trulli, medieval stone huts built collapsible and without mortar to aid in tax evasion. (Many of the ones we saw looked pretty permanent, though.)

Aside from Rome, Bari was the second largest city we visited. Unlike the capital, it doesn’t feel touristy—which I don’t mean in a particularly nice way. It was definitely safer and prettier than I was led to believe—neither the internet nor Italians from the region are hold much regard for it—but not quite memorable.

The surrounding town of Polignano a Mare was a different story. Of particular interest to me were the swimming spots, though we regrettably forgot to bring our suits. The town center is a beautiful labyrinth of whitewashed buildings, buzzing with amateur photographers, day-drinkers, and crowded gelato shops.

Oh, and while were there, we ate dinner in a cave. It was a little nicer than it sounds—and yes, that is my (vastly inferior) reprisal of Tom Haverford’s espresso shot.

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Other scattered thoughts from my trip:

  • Language: If you know other Latin languages, which I happen to, Italian is really easy to get a hold of. I decided to learn some a few weeks before we took off, and it was actually pretty helpful, especially in the provincial south where multilingualism is rarer. More important, I think, is that it seemed appreciated by most Italians. For you travelers out there: I highly recommend learning at least the basics before you head somewhere. Counterpoint: if you’re not obviously foreign and get good enough at the beginnings of conversations (which are often rote), people will ask you for directions.
  • Getting away from American media was an unexpected blessing. My job is politics-adjacent, and that I managed to get away during the Manafort convictions is wonderful beyond description. A self-imposed Facebook moratorium, aided by a lack of overseas data, was key to this.
  • Trap music has definitely made it to Italy, as has Brazilian funk, oddly. I was also surprised to see—or hear, I guess—how much Italians seem to like reggaeton.
  • Driving in Italy is a rush. The roads, built centuries ago, are far narrower, and there’s basically no delineation between what areas belong to pedestrians and drivers.
  • Food: super expensive, super good.