I was in front of the Pantheon, sweat was seeping through my shirt, and I was on the hunt for some tourists.
I scanned the crowd and decided to approach two tall, unshaven backpackers.
“Hi, my name is Ray,” I said, beginning my usual banter. “I’m a reporter for the Associated Press, and I was hoping to ask you a few questions for an article about tourism and the economy.”
Silence. I repeated myself in Italian. Still silence.
“Wie?” one of the backpackers responded quizzically.
I finally found a pack of tourists from northern Italy, as well as several Americans. I got my quotes and proceeded back to the office.
When my work shift ended at 10 p.m., I happily popped the buds of my iPod headphones into my ears. The belting tunes of Akon reminded me that, until the next morning, I had no obligations.
Walking back to the Pantheon listening to the serenades of T.I., I stopped at my favorite gelato stand for the last of my three daily regimens of chocolate ice cream.
One iPod bud still in my left ear, the other swinging against my shirt, I spoke to the gelato salesman, who I saw every day, and explained my order in Italian.
Back on the street, now listening to “The Fray,” I headed back to the Pantheon to savor my gelato. Like the ice cream in my hand, my stress from the afternoon melted away.
Finding a spot at the base of a centuries-old fountain and staring at a monument erected nearly two millennia ago, I stared up at the majestic dome, reveling in the sight and in the sweet melodies of Britney Spears.
And as Britney shrieked that I was a womanizer, baby, the furthest thing from my mind were my toils of that afternoon. Given that I was spending the summer working alone in a foreign country, she was also welcome company.
Only after my iPod went through Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Flo Rida did my thoughts finally wander back to my work that afternoon. The last time I had been in front of the Pantheon, my ears were open to the cacophony of different languages that fill Rome’s hot summer air. Now they were taking in some of the most heinous sounds ever produced by man (or machine).
I contemplated ripping the headphones out of my ears.
But I didn’t.
The trashy music insulated me in a familiar world — a world that reminded me of home and could be recreated anytime, anywhere, with a touch of a button. After all, I visited museums almost daily, I spoke Italian at work and nearly everywhere I went and I was working in my dream job as a journalist. Who cared if my spare minutes were spent flooding my ears with the comforts of American pop music?
But, somehow, it wasn’t authentic. My iPod helped me find release, sure, but it also shut me out from the environment around me. I had one foot in Italy and one foot in America, and no matter how closely I stared at the Pantheon, my powers of observation were blurred by Beyonce’s singing.
I’d like to tell you that I snapped my iPod in half when I got back to my apartment. I wish I had forgotten it on a bus. I wouldn’t have minded if one of Rome’s ubiquitous pickpockets pilfered it from my backpack.
But none of these things happened. My iPod trailed me almost any time I was in transit, or whenever I felt bored or lonely. And, at times, it was great. After all, I rationalized my iPod use by saying that I always left my iPod behind when I visited Roman monuments or toured museums or churches.
Turning my iPod on and off allowed me to delineate when I was ready for cultural exchange and when I wanted to feel like I was at home.
But what if I had looked up at the church of San Giovanni in Laterano on my walks to work instead of bobbing my head to Katy Perry?
I don’t know the answer, but the possibilities tempt me to snap my iPod in half.