Authenticity–what is it really?

My husband’s and my goal for this summer was to settle: to root ourselves in a place for a length of time, to get to know it well, to accustom ourselves to some new surroundings, to avoid the pellmell back and forth of place-to-place travel, to focus, to breathe, to find some deeper sense of place.

We’re here in Italy now, in Todi, Umbria, a medieval hilltop town founded, says legend, on the spot where an eagle dropped a stolen tablecloth. And as we wander these stone streets, so thoughtfully restored, so romantic and so old, a question returns to us, not with urgency because we are so comfortable, although perhaps it should, of the purpose of tourism, the tangibility of culture, of authenticity, or the lack of it.

Todi in that golden hour. This photograph was taken last night from a road that skirts the northwest edge of the city. Below, a steep wall falls down into the forest.

The details of trip planning frustrate me ad nauseam. My husband loves them. And so in his copious research during the last four months, he sought diligently an authentic Italian town. He landed first on, which caters primarily to academics (although you can sign up as a “non-academic individual” too!), and sent out inquiries to about thirty prospective hosts. When after 24 hours we hadn’t received any responses, we turned in a panic to AirBnB and found the place we ultimately booked.

It transpired that Sabbatical Homes must have had some kind of a server delay, because almost immediately after we booked through AirBnB, a flood of academics wrote back to us offering their spaces for rent. When we responded that we unfortunately had to decline because we had decided to stay in Todi, one of the prospective hosts told us that in Todi, we would not experience authentic Italy.

It was a moment of pause. Because indeed I recognized already the imprecision of that term, authenticity. For all its glimmering exaltation, so often have I used it inauthentically.

Who are you really?

If “authentic” means true, genuine, the real thing, then authentic Italy must be a modern convenience store, a long working day, a government encroaching on the rights of immigrants. The average person in Italy watches a lot of TV, does not live in a hilltop town in Umbria, and probably does not care about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The average Italian is probably more food-conscious than most Americans, and there is a strong tradition of going out in the evenings, yet the average person in Italy is, by American standards, pretty average.

If I have cemented only one thing from my work teaching in an international school, it is that in the day to day, most ideas about culture are revealed as stereotypes. If we are to push beyond those salient Flags, Foods, and Festivals, to deeper culture, things become slippery. Things melt into the individual.

There is a love for the exotic in travel, for novelty, and we so readily romanticize that for which we have few facts to hand. It is a strange phenomenon that the more we fill in the gaps in our knowledge, the more the magic of a place can fade.

I think this pursuit of novelty relies on a kind of essentialism. We see the outlines of a place–Italy, the pasta, the pizza, the Colosseum–and we paint in with our minds a brilliant and eternally captivating essence, which exists for as long as we do not peel back enough of reality to see it clearly.

I think later, we can rebuild a different sort of magic that comes from the much deeper knowledge of something’s truth. I fear getting stuck at the middle stage.

On Friday night, Todi held a music festival. Artists from around Italy gave free performances in squares and doorways throughout town. After an incredible piano-cello duo, we came across the group Tarantarci Perugia, a group preserving and promoting folk music from central and southern Italy. Take a listen:

You can find two more videos of Tarantarci Perugia at the bottom of this post.

“Folk” can be a term as inauthentic as “authentic.” But The Thistle and Shamrock‘s Fiona Ritchie has given a definition I find marvelous, that folk music is more about a process than a product. Folk music is what happens when normal people get together and make music.

I find the songs interesting, if at times spooky. The energy is brilliant. They feel “authentic” to me, whatever that means.

A thought occurs to me here: perhaps “authentic” in a place might be closer to the “authentic” we use for people. That it reveals a true feeling. That it does not dissemble. It does not cover up. I think this music is authentic, if to nothing else, then at least to these performers.

That’s the type of writing I hope we can all aspire to, to cultivate in ourselves and others. An honesty of expression. A sharing of what we really mean. And that requires an encounter first with our own authentic selves.

I think this trip will be a good one. I’m fortunate to be here. I will explore, learn, and take time to write.

Thanks for visiting. Best wishes to you,


One thought on “Authenticity–what is it really?

Add yours

  1. I loved reading this. First, I couldn’t agree more with the fact that the ‘culture’ that tourists seek is so often a stereotype or a caricature and that for the vast majority of the (first) world, life is primarily going to work and watching TV and dealing with the current political/economic. Not that it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preserve or enjoy traditional culture, or history, just that it’s not what most people experience day to day.

    I also loved that you then brought it around to something a bit more profound, I suppose, that you brought it back to feeling and truth, rather than surface-level experience.

    I’m not sure this comment makes sense, but this was thought-provoking and I enjoyed it a lot!


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