Love, Lust and a Really Great Dress

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

Today marks the very last essay in this series.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

When I finished my summer school adventure in Europe, I had to write a final paper for my liberal arts class, which had been built on the twin themes of love and lust, and wrapped around the art and architecture of Austria and Italy. What follows is an abridged version of that paper.

My 2014 field school experience was bracketed by two in-flight movies.

Flying into London at the end of June, I watched The Monuments Men, a film based on the story of a group of American art historians who came into Europe near the end of World War II, in order to track down and return thousands of pieces of art plundered by the Nazis. I didn’t know it at the time, but Austria, the country I was ultimately headed for, had been a key target of the art-stealing Nazis, and Adolf Hitler had planned to house all this stolen art in his Führermuseum at the Austrian city of Linz.

When I flew back out of London at the end of July, I scrolled through the list of movies, but my choice this time was easy: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Based on Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, this charmingly wacky movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H, a man who is most certainly ruled by lust but also proves to be capable of great love. (Ironically, Gustave H also steals a masterpiece, and has several brushes with pseudo-Nazis.)

As well as love and lust, my weeks overseas were an education in European history, especially the history of Vienna. And how I loved Vienna! I was quickly at home in this genteel café society. Vienna is driven by intellect, always asking questions, earnestly discussing, exploring ideas and looking for innovative ways to do things.

At one point in our classes, we were asked if cities have souls. Indeed they do, as do countries. Austria and Italy are countries with entirely different souls. Austria is smart, creative and industrious. Italy, on the other hand, is excitable, fun-loving and single-minded in its pursuit of enjoyment. Which is not to say that Italians don’t work hard. I believe that they do. But there’s a careful and joyful attention to the small sensual details of life: food, drink, dress.

American author Elizabeth Gilbert put forth the idea that every city also has its own word. She decided that Rome’s word is “sex”. I didn’t get that. I think Rome’s word is “look”. Look up, look down, look now – because you might miss something. Vienna’s word is “be”. And Salzburg’s word somehow eludes me.

Florence’s word, on the other hand, is “relax”. Relax, and take in all this beauty that’s in front of you. Relax and listen to those musicians in the piazza, or the ringing of church bells on a Sunday morning. Relax, and stop shooing away the sparrows that are helping themselves to your lunch in an outdoor café. Relax and sit on the steps of your hotel, with the proprietor, who wants to know where you came from and how long you’ve been speaking such hilariously awful Italian.

The things I have seen in these four weeks! The Sistine Chapel, Galileo’s own telescope, the cremation ovens in one of the SS’s most lethal concentration camps, a gravesite that contains the bones of the disciple Peter, the house Mozart grew up in, and – one memorable morning – Pope Francis himself. I’ve also had the incredible good fortune to stand in front of some of the world’s greatest art treasures, works that bear signatures like Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Kandinsky, Vermeer, Raphael, Botticelli, Bernini, Giotto, Michelangelo, and da Vinci.

I’ve come back to Canada with some interesting souvenirs. From the monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg, two tiny pewter medallions bearing the image of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. One has gone to my friend Royce, who wants to sail around the world. The other will go to my friend Linda, who has just won a bid to run for the Wild Rose party in Alberta’s upcoming provincial election. These strike me as equally perilous journeys, and both in need of some divine protection.

And there’s more. Dozens of postcards, little candies made of Murano glass, fashion magazines, and one serious luxury: a green silk dress which cost more than I’ve ever paid for a garment in my life. But it’s beautiful. The clever design of this dress delights me, and wearing it makes me feel sophisticated, chic and … a little tiny bit Italian.

Let’s roll back to love and lust now, and finish with a quote that comes from another great travel memoir, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together;
sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk — real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

If we’re fortunate, we get to travel. And if we’re very fortunate, our travels show us moments that we hold onto – in our hearts — for a lifetime. Jack is right. Life is holy. And those moments are indeed precious.

Very, very precious.
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The Wisdom of Ferris Bueller

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Life moves pretty fast.
If you don’t stop and
look around once in a while,
you could miss it.
— Ferris Bueller

I had a Ferris Bueller moment sitting on the steps of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. It was a sunny Sunday morning and I was on my way to the Galileo Museum. There were church bells ringing everywhere, and I had a takeout latte and pastry in my hands. As my backside touched down on the ancient stone steps, all I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Part of that luck was the fact that I’d stopped whizzing around for a moment and actually thought about where I was. By nature, I’m a frugal traveller, and so I’ll pack as much as I can into a trip, especially in a place like Florence. I’d arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities on a Friday night, and had to leave again less than 48 hours later. There wasn’t a moment to waste! Except … there was. There were lots of moments.

So I stayed on the steps a little longer than I needed to. Florentine life swirled around me: families heading to church, tourists getting lost, and itinerant street vendors laying out fake Louis Vuitton bags on blankets. It was marvellous to be a speck in that busy summertime universe.

And then I picked myself up and headed off to behold  a telescope that had once lived in the mighty hands of Galileo Galilei (known to us as Galileo). As well as having an interesting name that sounds like the Renaissance equivalent of “Obla di Obla da”, Galileo brought us the concept that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. For this groundbreaking thinking, he ended up spending nine years under house arrest, accused of heresy. La la, how the life goes on.

A sparrow in Florence helps out with my pie crumbs. Il bel far niente at its finest.

A sparrow in Florence
helps out with my pie crumbs.
Il bel far niente at its finest.

A week later, I had another Ferris Bueller moment, this time in Rome. I’d gone to see a Caravaggio painting at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo on a Saturday night. Not just any Caravaggio painting, but “The Conversion of St. Paul”. I’d fallen in love with St. Paul in 1986, in a first-year Art History class. 28 years later, we finally got to meet face to face.

When I was done, I sat down on the church steps and tapped out “I just saw the painting” to one of my nearest and dearest back in Canada. The man at the other end of the phone would squint at the incoming message and then slowly smile. He alone knew that this Caravaggio masterpiece was my single most important quest in Italy.

And then I cast my gaze over to the square that adjoins the church, called the Piazza del Popolo. It was about 7:30 PM, and the sun was starting to go down, drenching the square in beautiful golden light. Someone was playing an accordion and I could see a man making long trails of huge transparent bubbles. Small children laughed and danced around him, like he was the Pied Piper of Dish Soap. All I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Italians use the phrase il bel far niente to describe Ferris Bueller moments. In her landmark travel memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about il bel far niente:

This is a sweet expression. Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ … even against that backdrop of heard work, il bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement.

I think Mr. Bueller was right. Life does move pretty fast. You don’t want to miss those moments. Take a picture with your heart — and tell them that Ferris sent you.
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