In some senses, I dreaded going on my second business trip because I knew I’d work at least three twelve hour days — no easier fare than my work life in Charleston. However, at the end of the trip, I knew I’d be able to visit friends in Italy — the same friends whom I had met in Paris in 2011. This time, the destination was Florence, and rather than rush the trip like I did in 2011 (three full days in the city), I decided I could do better: I’d halve the time and be touristing in Florence for less than 36 hours.
What I learned in those 36 hours is that I grossly cut short my vacation — so much so that even after three weeks, I’m still finding it difficult to summarize exactly what I saw. The city has, in a word, persevered: art that to this day sparks discussion and interpretation, habits that still govern behavior (and meals), construction that has lasted centuries and centuries. It’s hard not to notice walls added on top of older walls or old doorways blocked in so that new ones could be opened.
The only full day I had in Florence, we spent a morning at the Galleria dell’Accademia (which doesn’t allow photography), had a quick — but delicious — panini for lunch, and then ventured into the narrow side streets. Germany has narrow streets, sure, but nothing like this…
The goal for that evening was to see the sunset from the Boboli Gardens on the last day of the summer schedule; the next day, the winter schedule would close the gardens before the sun set. The views were magnificent: down to the city, out toward the vineyards and distant hills, and of the gardens themselves.
Clouds masked the sunset, but the quiet, calm evening put a visceral exclamation point to the growing realizations that I should return to Florence and spend some proper time there and that I need to change my work schedule to allow myself the time to take in the beauty of the Lowcountry. How curious and yet expected that I realize this most while not working.
When Brian, Matt, and I visited Paris in 2011, I wanted to take in as much of the city as possible and get back to working on vehicle radar systems a few days after. I spoke the language and felt in my element, so a quick trip was almost second-nature. This time, not speaking the language or otherwise having a plan in mind, my goal was only to unwind and not pay much attention to what was going on the west side of the Atlantic. The lack of planning worked, but it also meant I left unseen a great deal of Florence. As the loudspeakers blared that the gardens were closing, I felt tiny in this city — normally, only the mountains make me so conscious of my surroundings and how greatly my time on this planet pales compared to the passage of time itself.
Whirlwind tour of Florence complete, we visited Siena the next day. It has a very different feel to it — there is no traffic on the inner streets, and during the day the city seems much quieter. Indeed, with the rolling hills in the background and without obvious throngs of tourists, Siena was a nice place to relax and enjoy the time away from work.
As with most European cities, the central square serves as a gathering place — a warm November afternoon proved perfect weather to sit and talk at the Piazza del Campo. No sounds of a big city, no urgent texts, no blatant signs of commercialism.
That evening, I missed what was probably a decent sunset over Tuscan hills, but my time in Siena (and Italy) wasn’t meant to be a photographic expedition, either. My vacation in Italy was limited so I knew I would miss certain elements of a full cultural or photographic immersion. We ate a quick lunch the next day at a delicious panini shop just off the Piazza and headed back to Florence.
One subtle but pertinent distinction between Italian and American restaurants is the hours during which dinner is served. Frequently, we’re accustomed to eating at, say, 6 PM — but at this fairly pedestrian hour (by US standards), most Italian restaurants are closed. And yet still, placements are set and the restaurant completely ready for welcoming the dinner crowd in just a couple hours’ time.
Admittedly, a large part of the reason I noticed the restaurant difference was that all of Florence was out celebrating All Saints’ Day: the contrast between the packed Ponte del Vecchio (and just about every other Florentine street that night) and the closed restaurant was striking!
Generally, when I look for ways to unwind I flee to the mountains. I like the solitude and tranquility of a crisp Alpine morning, as it permits a breathtaking disconnect from the daily pressures of manufacturing. Going to Italy was a step almost completely opposite to my normal hiking routine, but yet it satisfied to a similar degree. I would have preferred to really see Florence and embrace its legacy and beauty, so with just a few days total in Italy I grimaced that I wouldn’t be able to see it all.
And that was okay. On this trip, I got to see how far my lead plant had gone to reduce cycle time on their assembly lines, fly on the Boeing 747-8i and on the twinjet that revitalized Boeing, and spend time with friends whose schedules are arguably denser than mine. This last bit occurred in two cities whose characteristic description is probably simply “enduring” — buildings that have lasted several hundred years, a social fabric that has evolved to permit individuality but yet still emphasizes the importance of family and neighbor. I can’t pretend that I have truly seen Florence, or that I really understand this culture, but seeing such a strong spirit is almost intoxicating: what we build today forms the foundations for tomorrow.
To this, a mild case in point: people near mountains climb mountains. The buildings of Florence and Siena are still sturdy enough that locals climb the buildings themselves. And that can be a powerful image for friends, students, engineers, and planemakers alike.