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Las Vegas: hedonism or just plain fun?

The moment I stepped off the plane, it hit me: Loud music, glitz and grit, scantily-clad women sidestepping college students in skinny jeans and dirty shirts.  The smell of money, car exhaust, and spilled cocktails.  It was a hundred degrees out, the sun was relentless, and the neon signs cast tawdry light over the casinos and cars and malls and people from all walks of life, from the drunk and disillusioned to the men with dollar signs in their eyes.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

Our cab driver—a stubby man who was no more than thirty—looked at us sideways and told us, straight away, that he wouldn’t be talking on the ride to our hotel because he didn’t “like people.”

Did I tell you we were in Vegas?

Our hotel was a gargantuan golden structure that brought to mind the James Bond classic, Dr. No, in which the protagonist is painted in solid gold and ultimately dies of suffocation.  Gold was everywhere, but it failed to sparkle much in me besides terror: it rendered the place surreal and frightening.  I thought I might faint.  I thought I, too, might die from asphyxia.

This isn’t news: Las Vegas is contrived.  It’s an adult’s playground that’s filled with temptation.  Parts of it are opulent and beautiful; other parts are seamy and unkind. It’s filled with smoke.  It’s at once great fun, and, depending on the season and the time of day, either mildly or wildly offensive, even dangerous.  As my girlfriends and I rode the elevator up to our room, a large part of me shifted (and not just my body as I avoided the couple in the elevator with us—a middle-aged men with a chin that reached his chest and his wife, whose mouth was turned down like she’d just received impossibly bad news, both of them carrying half-filled glasses of white wine that were most likely dispensed ‘for free’ while they gambled away their kids’ college educations).  I found my mind reaching for the solace of nature, quiet amidst the angry house music that pounded through the burnt-out speakers.

I decided to take a walk along the strip.  This wasn’t my first time in Las Vegas, and despite the blistering weather and aggressiveness all around us, I was looking forward to our main reason for visiting, which was to see the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show.  Since I’d last been to the city, however, hotels had sprung up like mushrooms after an abundant rain.  It made me feel small and insignificant and yet  crowded in, and I thought of the panic-attack-inducing claustrophobia I’d experienced during previous visits.  But I tried something new.  I tried to see Las Vegas with fresh eyes.

I stood on the sidewalk, peering up at the ways the city had attempted to reproduce the natural beauty of Italy—my country, my original home.  Take The Bellagio, built after the style of the town of Bellagio on lake Como in Italy.  Fountains sprung up out of water that mirrored the faces of passersby every fifteen minutes, in sync with the sensuous music of Andrea Bocelli.  I walked on, towards The Venetian, where gondolas manned by men and women in black and white traveled across chlorinated canals, giving visitors views of the luxury shops that constellated the hotel: Gucci, Prada, Roberto Cavalli.  Then there was Paris Las Vegas, albeit not Italian, but which tried to capture the majesty of the Eiffel Tower.  The reproduction shot over three hundred feet into a blue, twilit, manufactured sky.

I laughed quietly as I continued on my trek up and down the strip, imagining how my ancestors would feel if they saw these imitations of Italy, with its geographical wonders, its architectural achievements, its complex, layered history, its divine artwork and culture.  They would have been amused, annoyed, flabbergasted.  Just as I was.

I concluded the evening at Cirque du Soleil. Spellbound by the heart-stopping, perfectly in-tune dancing and singing, I realized that despite all its imperfections and its naïveté, America is indeed the ultimate pioneer of creativity and inventiveness.  Italy cannot be recreated, but you can’t blame anyone for trying.

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