WE TYPICALLY THINK of the grandest, most impressive parts of European culture in terms of physicality: castles, palaces, libraries, gardens, food, cafés, galleries, museums and monuments. These are the items we list on itineraries for a trip.
However lovely these things are, they don’t fully represent the best that a culture has to offer. There’s a touching moment, recorded in his diary, when the American writer Henry James realises this for himself. He’s spent the day in Florence, visiting the Uffizi Gallery to see the works of Botticelli, and he’s strolled through the Boboli Gardens and wandered around the narrow streets near the Palazzo Vecchio. Finally he sits down on an old marble bench set into the wall of a distinguished palazzo, still occupied by descendants of the people who built it. As he leans his head back against the wall, he realises that he’s outside and he wants to know the life on the inside. He wonders what the family might be doing, what they think and feel about their city – and he imagines the kinds of conversations they might have with their friends. It’s these discussions, he realises, that lie behind the beauty and charm of the city: it was built by people who, across many generations, talked to one another about how to see things, what to care about, how to live with grace and dignity.
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