PR, personalized

As the 21st century dawns and the blogosphere takes over, journalists at print newspapers aren’t the only professionals who are worrying.

Public and media relations journalists don’t quite know how to handle the new phenomenon either. Gone are the days when a standard, canned news release sent out to the same e-mail list day and and day out suffices as “public relations”. Because blogging is all about injecting personal opinion and using filters to skip to what you really want to read about, public relations has to be about personalization too. As PR expert and blogger Steve Rubel put it, “For the first time, public relations means relating with the public.”

Unfortunately, anyone who’s been in the PR industry for more than five years probably doesn’t have formal training in blog-speak. They’re used to the standard news-style press release; how do they approach bloggers and customize their response for each and every one of them? How, some might think, is it possible to cultivate a relationship with someone whose face they’ll never see and whose voice they’ll never hear?

PR professionals have to resign themselves to the fact that connecting with people in the blogospohere is simply more difficult than typing up a few paragraphs and hitting the “send” button. They also have to get used to the fact that their role is no more significant than the perhaps thousands of other commentators of a blog, and their carefully-crafted messages might get lost in a sea of comment threads. A white paper released by the PR firm Edelman shows how these new obstacles can actually be used to a PR company’s advantage.

The white paper points out that bloggers don’t want to hear things that don’t obviously interest them, so strategic communicators can’t simply send a them press release that’s “scattershot” because it’s designed to interest everybody at once. Sending the kind of information that might pull a blogger in requires research–reading the blog–and selection–picking the elements of a general release the communicator thinks will be most valuable to the blogger.

Suddenly, with the advent of blogs, strategic communications has just gotten a lot more strategic, and I believe that’s the way it should be. After all, public relations journalists have always striven to connect with their contacts and build a relationship of trust, and what better way than to do it through blogging? Whereas in a traditional PR situation communicators might not know much about the convictions of their clients, in the blogosphere it’s increasingly more possible to intimately get to know your target audience. Companies should take advantage of online buzz by using it to direct the buzz in their favor.

The same applies to communicators of the future, even if they’re not strategic communicators and even if they don’t plan a future in PR. Every journalist should understand not just the power a blogger holds, but the power anyone who comments on a blog can hold. Were I to pick three blogs where I commented on a post and left a link to my blog, I may be able to double my traffic level in a matter of days depending on the popularity and audience of the blogs. (Now that’s power journalism!) I myself am not a strategic communicator, but in blogging, all communicators have to think strategically.

Tales of an expat

Everyone thinks the best stories come from the wildest adventures, like getting lost in the Himalayas or kayaking down a hundred-foot waterfall in the Amazon. But sometimes a great adventure story comes from the simplest act of moving outside one’s comfort zone. In the case of Dominic Standish, this act was moving from England to Italy and getting married four days later.

To be fair, it’s not quite as adventurous as it all sounds. “All the men wondered how I’d managed to find a wife in four days,” Standish said, “and I pointed out to them that I’d met her a while ago in England.”

Still, a permanent move to a country whose culture and language was at the time totally foreign to him was adventure enough. Though he knew little about the way Italians behaved and could barely communicate with them, his eyes helped him discern the subtle differences. “Because I was coming to a new culture and a new country, I was making observations all the time,” Standish said.

And he began to write about them, shedding light on the interesting quirks of Italian life that Italians themselves weren’t aware of. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a position as a contributing writer for the International Herald Tribune by an editor interested in input from a fresh pair of eyes. The fact of his expatriatism was, then, the secret to his success.


Starting out a writing career as an international reporter, Standish said, “gives you the chance to get our foot in the door because you’re immediately perceived as having a different perspective on things,” something publications always look for in a prospective employee.

Hearing Standish’s story made me think about the role of the expatriate journalist. While expats in general are enthusiastic to immerse themselves in a different culture than that of their home country, to what extent should journalists living in a foreign country do so? Do they have a responsibility to retain vivid memories of their upbringing in their respective former homelands for purpose of cultural observation? If they become completely immersed in another culture, will they lose that essential talent for observing culutral differences once they take life in their new home country for granted?

I wonder this because, if I were to move to a different country permanently, I’d want to truly immerse myself and be one with the community. Perhaps in the process, though, I’d forget things about life in the U.S. and consequently stop spotting the cultural differences that were once what made my writing stand out.


But maybe there’s no cause to worry: Dominic Standish said he still feels like he never wears the right leather shoes to fit in completely with his Italian friends, and he still expects his children to sit at the table until they’re done with dinner even though sitting down to dinner as a family is no longer a common practice among modern Italian families.

But, Standish jokes, “we don’t have a bonfire in our backyard” on Nov. 5 to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, nor does he yearn for the supermarket aisles of Marks & Spencer. He’s let some of the Italian culture seep in while retaining his own identity, blurring the lines between expat and Italian citizen.

Or, as he puts it, “My role is less defined by patriotism. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.”

Blogs: What works and why

There’s no accounting for taste. My dad loves primitive, crackling old recordings of bluegrass singers that bore most people (my mom, for one) to death. My uncle loves the kind of jazz where anything goes, all improvisation and squealing saxophones and pounding piano keys. Some 80-year-olds can’t get enough of P. Diddy. Some 20-year-olds are hooked on the sounds of the 17th century.

(OK, so “some 20-year-olds” is actually code for “me.”)

Luckily, there’s a blog out there for every taste. For my dad, there’s, a place where he can hook up with his vinyl-loving brethren. For my uncle, there’s Free Jazz, where a girl named Stef regularly reviews new jazz CDs and groups; he can even filter the blog to only display entries that discuss modern jazz. For me, there’s a whole myriad of blogs, and I visit them regularly. Author Alex Ross, who wrote a book on 20th century classical music called The Rest is Noise, keeps a blog of the same name where he discusses classical goings-on and muses about the future of the genre. I can filter The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog to only show entries about classical music. Best of all, I can see what’s going on musically in my own backyard with David Stabler’s almost daily updated classical music blog on The Oregonian’s web site.

Why do all these blogs work? For one, because they’re all regularly updated. People who keep a blog with the intention of gathering a steady readership must give their following something to read about at least every few days. For another, all these blogs–with the possible exception of Free Jazz–are kept by professional writers who are diligent fact-checkers and grammar Nazis. The better you write and the more authoritative you are on the subject you’re writing about, it seems, the more readers trust you as a news source and appreciate what you have to say on subjects they care about.

But in blogging, what’s even more important than writing skill and frequent updates is niche appeal. All the blogs above have those in spades. It almost seems that the more specific the subject of a blog, the more zealous the followers. I once interviewed a Palo Alto couple who started a blog about the accordion, and they told me that when they changed the title of the blog from “Let’s Polka” to “Let’s Banjo” for April Fool’s Day, one outraged follower left the most negative comment the couple has ever seen on their blog thus far.

In an article printed in the December 2006/January 2007 American Journalism Review, Dana Hull describes how “the Fourth Estate has fallen fast and furiously in love with blogs, from news-driven ones about professional sports teams, real estate, crime, Hurricane Katrina, immigration and local and national politics to zanier ones that dive deep into niche subcultures.” Newspaper staffers have found that blogs are a nice place to put pieces of information that are interesting but don’t fit into the print edition and may not appeal to a wide public audience.

Since the Internet took over the world of news, increasingly more online newspaper subscrubers have demanded the world of their hometown newspapers and have even customized the main page so that they see articles about subjects they prefer to read up on at the top of the page. Because the possbilities the Internet offers know no bounds, people have come to expect a myriad of information on their specific interests in their newspapers as well as their Google search engines. I, for one, am glad newspapers have wholeheartedly accepted the challenge set by their readers; ten years ago, I couldn’t find a classical music article in the news to save my life. Now, thanks to cyberspace, classical news is all over the place.

On the dark side, Hull mentions in her article that newspaper-affiliated blogging has raised questions about how true to news style blogs must stay while maintaining their casual, breezy and sometimes snarky style popular with readers. Just how honest and opinionated can reporters be in their blogs without losing credibility as a neutral source in their regular news stories?

I say, don’t touch the sensitive issues–religion, politics, going bald–and utilize the blog as a way to divulge information that either wasn’t important enough to make it into the paper or wasn’t interesting enough to the general masses. People will appreciate a more casual, behind-the-scenes personal touch to news they didn’t get in print.

Climbing Verona’s Scalone San Pietro

Photo by Jill KimballWe were hopelessly obvious tourists, my mother and I. We sported unintentionally matching black fleece jackets, bags decidedly not made of leather, and confused expressions as we stopped at every corner to consult a city map.

But I was sure the Italians who walked past us and made a concerted effort to ignore our Americanness must understand our befuddlement. Their hometown of Verona, they must know, was a distracting place. For every sight we intended to visit, there was another equally interesting sight not marked on our maps that we stumbled upon and consequently forgot where we’d been headed in the first place.

This time, we were on our way to the Roman theater across the river from Verona’s historical center. The city dropped us off two blocks from the ruins along a busy traffic artery. Which direction should we go? We pulled out the map once more. Then it happened again. Verona’s distracting nature reared its too-beautiful head in the form of a narrow column of stone steps lined with sherbet ice cream apartment buildings. The engraved stone street sign on the wall, which read “Scalone San Pietro,” begged us to climb the stairs to the top, where we knew the hill palace of Castel San Pietro stood.

Balcony on the Scalone San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

With thoughts of Roman ruins gone from our minds, we climbed the stairs. It might have been the red of the first apartment building on my left, a color that reminded me of the Early Girl tomatoes that spilled over the sides of the planter box in the backyard one summer, that pulled me in. Or it could have been the quaintness of the basket-adorned bikes strategically locked against the ground-floor windows covered by iron bars. The paint on Number 7’s facade was a splotchy salmon shade, the kind of color foreigners try to duplicate with sponges when they want the Tuscan look but that can only truly be achieved by the erosions of time. A grape vine snaked its way in and out of the iron-bar balcony, and I wondered why there weren’t crowds of people gathered here, because surely this was the real balcony on which Juliet called for her Romeo. As far as I was concerned, this house, with its gently creeping greenery framing the wooden doorway, was the realCapulet family home.

In two more flights of steps, an iron gate stood open and a sign vaguely mentioned restoration. We curiously walked through and found ourselves in what looked like the Irish countryside. A deep thicket of grass stretched out to the base of a brick wall at the edge of the hill. Crudely hewn prisms of stone, placed all around the grass, served as benches. No one else was there, nor had anyone left evidence of having visited recently, adding to the park’s austerity. Yet somehow the blank expanse of grass and stone was inviting, and I felt an urge to sit down with some panini and wine and gaze out at the mist. For even on this gray day, the city’s entire expanse was visible from here. Past the River Adige, red spires and domes stuck out of the tile-cielinged maze and mopeds the size of ants scooted along the bridges. On a hill opposite the park, on the outskirts of the city, sat a massive Palladian-style columned creation above dots of houses.

View from the Parco Scalone Castel San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

Why was no one here, I thought? Could there be a better view of Verona anywhere else in the city? Shouldn’t Rick Steves let people know about this?

Perhaps, for all our fashion faux pas and touristy tendencies, my mother and I had the capacity to be trendsetters.

The clash of the Italians

I had just finished my oil-covered bruschetta appetizer when the young waiter appeared to whisk our plates away and clear the table for our main course platters–gnocchi, rice, octopus. Before he could walk away, I stopped him by asking in my most polished Italian accent where I might find the bathroom.

I knew, however, all was already lost. It was clear by the way he silently appraised me with an up-and-down sweep of the eyes that to him I was just another foreign tourist. Perhaps it was my flared jeans, which had gone out of style two years ago in Italy, or the emerging holes at the hem of my black cotton v-neck t-shirt. To He Of The Impeccably-Pressed Black Button-Down, to this twentysomething Florentine waiter whose white apron remained spotless in the face of innumerable drink spills, I was an underling. He did not, nor would he ever, consider us kindred spirits.


Nevertheless, out of politeness, he asked my parents and I where we were from and what brought us to Florence. My mom explained that she and my dad were on vacation from the States and that I was studying in Italy this term.

“Here?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “in a really small town. Near Venice.”

“Which town?”

You’ve never heard of it, I thought. “Paderno del Grappa? In the Veneto?”

At that last word he wrinkled his nose, as if physically repulsed. “The Veneto?” He waved his hand in a dismissive shooing motion. “Why would you want to study there?”

Florence, I knew he meant to imply, was the only place worth studying in all of Italy. And why not? It is, after all, the home of all the great Renaissance thinkers, painters, sculptors and architects and houses most of the relics of these great men within its city limits. Couple Florence’s historical significance with the fact that it’s cradled neatly in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany and that it’s made up almost entirely of red-roofed buildings and you’ve got yourself an extraordinarily inspiring place to think and create. Picture the perfect study spot, multiply it by a few square miles, add some mint-green and pale-orange stripes of marble, and viola! That’s Florence. A study spot for the ages.

I understood the waiter’s point, but the fact was, he wasn’t merely suggesting Florence was an inspiring city for scholars. He was suggesting the Veneto was ugly and drab. He wasn’t giving me helpful advice; he was introducing me to the subtle geographical warfare that’s present everywhere in Italy.

My friend Marco was born in Verona, a Veneto city whose residents unconditionally support their now-dismal home soccer team as a Chicago Cubs fan might have done in the 1990s. He was elated upon hearing I was to study in his home region; though he regretted I had to live in folksy Paderno del Grappa, he joyously announced Verona was a mere hour or two away by train. I told him I’d like to travel all around Italy while I was there: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples…

“DON’T go to Southern Italy, whatever you do,” he warned me in an ominous tone. “Not Naples, and especially not Sicily.” As far as Marco was concerned, Italy got worse the farther south you traveled.

Why do people in different regions of Italy despise those in other regions? To an outsider, the entirety of Italy is beautiful and worth visiting. Why do they refuse to admit that parts of Italy other than their own hometowns contain spots of interest and beauty? I understand a certain degree of rivalry; after all, we Northern Californians always joke that Southern Californians are too shallow, fake and sun-drenched for our taste. But we certainly don’t hate each other. I continually tell people that San Diego is one of the loveliest and most culturally rich places in the state. So, Italians, what gives?

To understand these ancient rivalries, Americans must understand that Italy is just that–ancient. Roots here run deep; families raised in a specific Italian town may not leave that town for 10 generations. Thus, allegiance to an Italian region morphs into defense for that region and, ultimately, denunciation of the rest of Italy. We Americans, ever a mobile people whose culture is decidedly not formed from ancient history, don’t understand these multiple generations never uprooting. When I have kids, they will most likely leave the nest and start their own lives somewhere else; their kids will probably do the same. We move on. Italians stay put.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe the Italians can learn something from us: geographic tolerance. That waiter doesn’t know what he’s missing if he’s never woken up to the sight of the snow-covered Dolomites out his bedroom window.

Photo credit:

In the kitchen with Saverio

Jill Kimball

The recipe seems straightforward: dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, whatever else one desires. Stretch out the dough, pile it all on, stick it in the oven. Simple, right?

Not according to Gemmato Saverio, the owner of Pizzeria Cornaro in upscale Asolo. And he’s the ultimate authority: he’s from Southern Italy, the home of the pizza. Creating a decked-out flatbread that deserves the name “pizza” is an art form, like professional Riverdance or singing a Rossini aria. Making a real pizza, Saverio-style, requires an up-to-date weather forecast, a brick oven and toned wrist muscles.

I had only one of these things at my disposal—the brick oven—for my brief foray into the pizza-making world on this warm night in mid-October in Saverio’s cramped downstairs kitchen, but the chef didn’t seem to mind. He had the weather forecast at the ready, and he’d already made a dozen little mounds of dough that corresponded perfectly with the temperature outside. Our travel writing class, the professors and their families all awaited the opportunity to impress Saverio with our cooking skills.

“The main ingredients are the dough and the water, because the amounts change depending on the weather,” Marta translated to us Americans as Saverio spoke lightning-fast Italian. “If it’s cold, use more dough and hot water; if it’s hot, use less dough and cold water.”So it’s not just an art, I thought; it’s also a science. And as I held the little 200-gram ball of grain-flecked white dough in my hand, I understood why. Because Saverio had combined just the right amount of water with flour and yeast and salt, it was soft to the touch, yet so elastic that only an Exacto Knife could break through. Yikes. I wondered how long it would take to digest when it came out of the oven and into my mouth.

I was slightly intimidated when I saw Saverio flatten the pizza dough against the marble kitchen countertop. His hands moved at top speed, so fast that you could actually hear them swooshing in the air in time with the gentle swish-swish of the dough turning clockwise against the marble. Flattening “takes only 10 to 12 seconds per pizza,” he told us.

But it took me at least five minutes, what with all the giggling and the preventing the dough from sliding to the floor and the clumsy flattening of the uneven sections. Saverio shouted out one-word Italian phrases at random, apparently assuming we would understand and improve our technique if we listened. “Aspetta…più veloce…bravissima!” I frowned, but said “grazie (thank you)” and hoped it was the correct reply.In several metal compartments above the counter are all the pizza toppings a girl could want: marinara, mozzarella, tomato, onion, mushroom, artichoke and zucchini. I threw them all on, taking care to skimp on the mozzarella after Saverio tells us that “the pizza doesn’t cook right if there’s too much cheese.” But then he sees how little I’ve spread on the pizza and asks, “Un po’ più? (A little more?)” I nod, and he scoops up twice the cheese pieces I’d put on the pizza in the first place. In Italy, “a little” means “a lot”.

Saverio shoos us away from his kitchen when it’s time to shovel the pizzas into the oven, and he brandishes a terrifying six-foot-long metal wand to carefully deposit the pies deep within the bowels of the brick oven, where there’s a large, ash-laden fire waiting to warm them.

When I sit down at an upstairs table to enjoy the result of my hard work exactly seven minutes later, I marvel not at the art and science of pizza making, but with the unusually close contact an Italian chef has with the food when creating the perfect pizza. Usually there are knives, rolling pins or electric mixers between a cook and his food; with pizza, there is no barrier. The whole process, then, is less mechanical and more personal. But when Saverio smooshes his hands into the dough, when he pulls at it on the countertop, when he digs into all his bowls and metal compartments for the toppings, describing the science of proportion and the art of combinations, he neglects to mention the most important ingredient in his pizzas: love.

Are bloggers ‘journalists’?

Over the past few months, there has been much talk of unity between the two presidential candidates and their running mates. It’s been a long time since Republicans and Democrats have been as divided as they are today. Those who vote red and those who vote blue agree on fewer issues than they might have a decade ago. That’s why, according to the politicians who may soon run the country, we need to make an effort to move closer together if we want to accomplish anything; otherwise, we’ll never be able to collaborate and accomplish something.

The same goes for journalism, according to Steve Outing. Think of bloggers and news reporters as red states and blue states. Though they’re positioned in people’s minds at opposite ends of the journalistic spectrum, dependable news may vanish if they don’t band together. But unlike liberals and conservatives, bloggers and print journalists have already begun to adopt each other’s writing techniques and traditions to give readers what they want. However, according to Outing, each camp still has a lot to learn from the other.

Because I’ve freelanced and beat-reported at my school newspaper for two years, I consider myself first and foremost to be a print journalist. I take pride in the fact that I conduct background research on all my sources, ask people how to spell names and places and companies without relying on the Internet for the answer, and make the trip to the courthouse to take a look at the records myself rather than call someone up and ask them to tell me what they say. Therefore, it’s sometimes frustrating to see so many widely-read blogs that can post a link to one of my stories, offer a paragraph of unstructured opinion and garner 40-odd readers’ comments. What do these people have that I don’t?

Well, the answer is obvious: opinion. Newspapers know the edginess and partiality of blogs is what attracts readers to WordPress and Blogger en masse, yet they aren’t willing to give up the impartiality crucial to reliable reporting. In order to jump on the bandwagon, reporters have increasingly tried to incorporate opinion in their coverage by keeping a blog on their newspaper’s Web site–but these blogs still don’t attract as much attention as their unaffiliated brethren. Still, keeping blogs is helpful and, some might argue, crucial to a reporter’s job because it offers the audience a chance to chime in and gives a reporter feedback that helps him or her determine the public mood. Newspapers that don’t know what its audiences think or talk about aren’t good newspapers.

Bloggers, on the other hand, know exactly what their readers want. On the one hand, that’s positive news; on the other, it may adversely affect the blogger’s posted content so that it begins to reflect more on the audience’s tastes than on the blogger’s own. Such an outcome is dangerous both to the blogger and to the audience; while one loses his or her perspective, the other only reads what it wants to read and doesn’t get diverse coverage.

It’s easy to expound on the upsides and downsides of blogging and traditional journalism; it’s better to focus on what both entities are doing right. Both are making an effort to start dialogues with the general public. Both are honing their reporting skills. Both are changing rapidly, and both could become so much like the other that they become one entity.

Links to Steve outing’s articles:
What Bloggers Can Learn From Journalists
What Journalists Can Learn From Bloggers

On blogging and the blogosphere

What’s a blog? According to, it’s a term short for “web log”, a kind of online diary where people can post their thoughts for others to read. Another definition states it’s a “meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life.” Yet another definition: “a rare opportunity to broadcast one’s views to the entire world.” is not a real dictionary revised by editors and printed in hardback volumes annually, but it captures the spirit of the blog more than Merriam Webster ever could. Blogs can argue the merits of peppermint versus tutti frutti toothpaste or discuss the role foreign policy will play in the 2008 presidential election. They can be read by everyone or only by a select group of people. Each entry may have two readers’ comments or 2,000.

The flexibility and the variation of blogs is part of the reason why the news industry is suffering today. Try as they might, they can’t offer the myriad of perspectives on every imaginable topic that the blogosphere serves up daily. But are blogs reliable news sources? Can they replace newspapers?

I have mixed feelings about becoming a blogger myself. On the one hand, this very form of publication may dash any chance I have for becoming a newspaper reporter after I graduate from school in two years. On the other, blogging offers the unique opportunity to reach out to a niche audience that doesn’t necessarily read newspapers.

For better or for worse, however, for the next couple of months I’ll be blogging about journalism and its relationship with the Internet. Stay tuned.

In Barcelona, shabby is chic

Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudi. Flagship of modern architecture. City by the beach. All of this, technically, is true, but it omits the many pieces of grit and grime that define the distinct personality of this Catalan city, pieces that were immediately evident in one short walk to Park Güell from the nearest underground metro station.

Even in this part of the city, where millions of foreign travelers tread every year, Barcelona doesn’t try to clean up its shabby exterior to attract outsiders. Broken windows have been boarded up but show no sign of plans for further repair; they’re already covered with years of graffiti, styled curse words in Catalan and Spanish in brilliant reds and greens. The cobblestoned sidewalks are worn with age and dangerously uneven; some sections have been carelessly filled in with misshapen chunks of concrete. Though the roads were still wet from nighttime street cleaners, back alleys and street corners still stank of urine. Apparently, Barcelona doesn’t care. It likes itself the way it is, and it wouldn’t mind being an unknown European city nobody bothered to visit. So why do people keep coming?


We started the climb to the top of the hill where Park Güell sits, overlooking the city. As if hearing our audible panting, escalators appeared in the middle of the hilly street to whisk us up. We glided past a scarf-laden woman who couldn’t be any younger than 85 making her way down the hill via the stairs. With each step she winced, paused one or two seconds, then grabbed onto the rail with both hands and continued her descent. Why weren’t there escalators for the ride down, I wondered?

When we finally reached the top, I could see nothing but metal stairs and what looked like several piles of packed dirt, which I quickly realized was the foundation for the park’s dirt pathways above me. At the top of the stairs, paths led in several different directions, all promising sweeping views of the city below. We chose a route sparsely landscaped with tear-shaped green cactus plants. Their threatening thorns were ripped off in places, and the green surfaces were mutilated with crude etchings and Sharpie markings of initials and declarations in Catalan, Spanish, French, Basque, and languages I didn’t even recognize.

Several musicians had taken up residence along the spiral dirt path to the top of the park. A twentysomething dark-haired man with a goatee and a serene expression furrowed his brow as he concentrated his energy on the marimba on his lap, tapping up, down, back and forth on sections of the bowl-shaped metal instrument to produce a gong-like contemplative melody. Nearer the top, a stringy, leather-skinned man with a scraggly gray beard and several teeth missing attempted a rendition of “Moon River”, but more spit and Spanish curse words came out of the trumpet bell than did musical notes.

As I tiptoed warily up narrow, rough-hewn stone steps to the circular top of Park Güell without the aide of a railing, I knew the view would stun me. Before I turned around to look, I stood facing the other way, staring at the mutilated cacti and the bearded trumpeter and thinking the view couldn’t give me a better glimpse of Barcelona than did my trip to the top.

Italy’s newest theme park? Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The restaurant had taken advantage of every inch of its tiny corner-of-the-block space. Tables were crammed into the corners and smashed against the front windows, leaving barely enough space between them to allow waiters to pass. Across from our tiny sitting area, pushed uncomfortably underneath the stairs to the second floor bathrooms, was a huge case of chilled five-dollar water bottles. Customers’ expressions revealed feelings of worry, harriedness, stress and slight unease, with the exception of two couples in fluorescent Hawaiian shirts laughing and boisterously singing the chorus of “Hotel California” with the waiter.

No, this wasn’t Disneyland. This was Venice, Italy.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Or was it? I doubted many other Italian cities considered English their primary language and attracted about 20 times more annual visitors than permanent residents. Maybe this was Disneyland after all.

Though the claustrophobia of the restaurant did nothing to calm my nerves, it was at least an escape from the hordes of tourists and pigeons only a block away in St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visited spots in the city.

When you’ve only got a day to spend in Venice, as my friends and I did on this rainy Sunday, seeing the square is a visitor must—especially when the visitor in question, like me, has gazed at photos of the cathedral, the clock tower and the Doge’s Palace in wonder for years. I had dreamed about visiting Venice, particularly this venerated square where so many scholars and poets before me had passed through, since eighth grade, when I sang in a play called “Viva Vivaldi!” which celebrated the life of the famous Venetian composer and his lovely home turf.

Photo by Jill Kimball

With all my senses, I routinely imagined the red-roofed city’s atmosphere: the tiny, romantic canals lined with orange and yellow houses, clothes strung between the crumbling balconies; wafts of warm pasta and pesto sauces lingering in the air; a cool, salty breeze from the Grand Canal.When I finally arrived at the square in person, though, only two of my senses awakened: sight and smell. The former spotted dark, ominous clouds threatening to pour rain down on us, and the latter couldn’t ignore the repugnant rotten-egg smell emanating from the canal 200 feet away. To make matters worse, a large construction banner covered a ring of scaffolding around the red-brick bell tower, obscuring the full view of the square and making it even more difficult for the huge crowds to maneuver around each other.

Was Venice always like this, I wondered? What happened to “bella Venezia”, the city of Vivaldi, the capital of romance?

Here’s what happened: the Disneyland effect.

Photo by Jill Kimball

In June, city officials estimated that somewhere between 18 and 19 million people visit Venice every year. This statistic looks astronomical even by itself, but juxtaposed with the number of residents within city limits—62,000, according to a 2006 census—it seems downright insane. Actually, it closely resembles tourist figures at Disneyland. In 2007, nearly 17 million people visited Disneyland, which means in the high season visitors staying in hotels could easily have outnumbered the fewer than 350,000 Anaheim, Calif. Residents.

Venice wasn’t always so overrun with non-Italians, though. Fifty years ago, its population was twice that of today, and according to an article in the New York Times, the city saw half the amount of current annual tourists 20 years ago. No wonder my high school Spanish teacher, who visited Venice in the 1960s, reported a very different experience from mine: she called the canals and the square “charming” and said most people there were Italian, not foreign.

Venice has changed, and mostly for the worse. In 1960, I could have gotten off the train at Santa Lucia station and said, “What do I want to see first?” When my friends and I got off the train, we spent 10 minutes elbowing our way through the crowds to reach the station and my friend Mark aptly said, “So basically what it comes down to is, where do we want to wait in line first?”

Photo by Jill Kimball

We chose the hundred-person-long line to the baggage storage room. Then, we waited in line to buy tickets for the “vaporetti,” or water taxis. Then, we waited in line to get on the taxi. By the time we had waited in line twice more, once to ride the elevator to the top of the bell tower and again to see the unfurnished, musty and dark interior of the Doge’s palace, we were entirely too hungry and tired of crowds to bother with the line that snaked from the cathedral’s wrought iron entrance doors all the way to the edge of the canal.

There were no lines in front of the restaurant. But there was a Venetian waiter there who, when I tried to ask him about life in the lagoon city, drowned out my questions with talk of L.A. and another rousing chorus of “Hotel California”—all because I told him I was from San Francisco.

Clearly, Venice is no longer the cultural destination it once was—the city seems more American than it does Italian—but it is nevertheless home to 62,000 more people than Disneyland. It must, therefore, retain some sort of distinct local spirit, though it may be buried deep in the narrow, windy streets and tiny straits of water a little further from the Grand Canal. I hope to return to Venice in the off season and with a little more time on my hands to veer from the oft-tread path and discover the city as it once was. You’ll probably see me: I’ll be the underdressed American attempting fluid Italian sentences and murmuring under my breath about Disneyland tourist traps.