In a time when our society only relishes new and better things, it’s really refreshing to discover a place that still cherishes its rich history. I was blessed with the experience of a lifetime as a junior in high school because I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful city of Florence, Italy.
This was all thanks to my old art teacher and mentor. After retiring, he took a trip to Florence every year and always invited a number of fellow art enthusiasts to join him. This man was probably in his 60s, but his face lit up with incredible youth when he talked about walking on the same streets as Da Vinci had hundreds of years ago, and he got all giddy when he explained to us how amazing it is to see Michelangelo’s handywork in person. See, Florence was the center of the artistic and political world during the time period that gave birth to some of the greatest works of art in all of history. The really fascinating thing to me was that the residents of Florence seemed to really appreciate that fact; evidence of their colorful past was scattered all around, making the town itself a gorgeous work of art.
Our country has a pretty interesting history as well, but everyone is always much more passionate about the future. Since the technological revolution that defines our generation is overtaking our society, no one cares to remember much about the events that got us to where we are today. The city of Florence was different and taught me that I could have a different perspective of my world.
I didn’t realize this at first, however. I had heard so much about how beautiful Florence was, that I was almost disappointed when I caught my first glimpse of the city. I was crammed in a taxi with two or three of the other people on our trip, and on our journey from the airport towards the more central area of the city, all I witnessed were congested blocks of old, run down buildings. This could be a really long week, I thought to myself, rather let down, my excitement quickly waning.
However, later that afternoon, my art teacher gave our group a quick walking tour around some key parts of the city that we might like to visit during our stay. While we were on that leisurely walk, my eyes were finally opened to the unsurpassable beauty that I had heard so much about. The buildings were old, and some a bit run down, but my art teacher’s passion was contagious, and as he spoke about this fascinating town, I realized that was one of the most wonderful parts; a lot of the history of the city was being preserved in these buildings. Most of the houses looked exactly like you would expect in the 14th and 15th centuries. Their exteriors were often a colorful yellow, or something similar, and most had beautiful terra cotta roofs.
One of the most incredible buildings was an old church that my art teacher showed us. Old is actually an understatement, because this church had been around for over one thousand years. It was not an attractive structure by any means, with just a drab concrete faÃ§ade, and limited, if any, ornamentation. But when I stepped inside, a shiver rippled down my spine because I could just hear the echo of voices from the past in this little church, and the whole town, for that matter.
Now, I know that our nation isn’t even close to a thousand years old, but if it was, we wouldn’t have preserved an ugly old church for so long. It would have been bulldozed to the ground, and some huge franchise establishment would have been erected in its place. Our culture is way too obsessed with trying to outdo those who came before us. Proof can be found right in my backyard; all the new homes being built near my neighborhood are so much bigger than my house, and a hundred times fancier. And why? Because families are growing in size and need more living space? No. Simply because we are so fixed on size and appearance. Personally, I prefer my older, less impressive house; it’s where my own history got its start.
Another huge difference I noticed in Florence was that most of the shops closed down completely in the middle of the day for an hour or two during lunchtime, and sometimes for dinner as well. To the Italians, mealtime is a time to enjoy oneself, a time to relax. Although this confused me for the first few days, once I figured out their system, I realized what a great idea it was. They aren’t too wrapped up in their jobs to afford some time for relaxation; they don’t feel the need to remain open just to make an extra buck. During these hours, the piazzas, which are public squares or marketplaces, overflowed with people on break from work, socializing, and prolonging an important tradition.
I wish this tradition had been established in our country. Work would be much less monotonous if we could take some time out of our work day to just get away. Instead, while in the break room at my job, there is always someone in there who is still doing work, or at least discussing work; they never take a real break, because they believe that getting even more work is done is of much higher importance. Heck, some of our businesses are too greedy to close down on holidays so their employees can spend time with their loved ones. Our culture places too much emphasis on doing anything to make that extra dollar, and we’re always trying to move up the corporate ladder. That’s why it was so nice to see a culture that enjoyed a simpler, yet richer life.
Lastly, one of my favorite things about Florence was that the piazzas throughout the city weren’t just for passing through, but for enjoying yourself. In some of the larger ones, there were huge marble statues, hundreds of years old, intermingled with the other structures in the piazza. And these weren’t just some random carvings by a no name, either. There were sculptures by some of the greatest artists who ever lived, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David, which looked heroically over the Piazza della Signoria (the original was in a museum nearby). The past was living in harmony with the present in a way that wasn’t awkward or even surprising. In a place like this, the separation of the two is what would be surprising, because the two worlds connected so naturally.
I’ve certainly never had that kind of experience anywhere around here. Squares in our cities often consist of a traffic light and a bunch of businesses. There usually aren’t many ways to relax in the center of the city and take it all in. To me, it seems like everyone always needs to have a specific destination. They don’t take time out of their hectic lives to slow down and live a little. The flashes of red and green on the traffic lights dictate our lives. Everyone is too occupied with arriving at their destination to take time and enjoy the beautiful world around them. This is the cost of living in a society that forces its citizens to constantly reinvent themselves, instead of honoring their unique achievements.
But that’s not how Florence was. Maybe it was because I only spent a week there, but that place seemed so much more pleasant than here; the people truly embraced their rich history and traditions, instead of always attempting to outdo them. This trip made me realize how many of life’s little pleasures we can miss by always having our minds plowing ahead toward the future. The past shaped our lives now, so we should be less insistent on forgetting it and more excited about honoring it. While doing that, we also have to leave a history of our own.