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Archive for September, 2008

As we prepare to head off to Orvieto today, I was writing this morning about it. You would think, after 10 trips, I would be somewhat blase. Yet I am not. I am as excited as ever. The reason, I think, is that there something magic about the city. Every time I am there all the shoulds of the world, all the ought-tos, all the little admonitions running around your mind melt away. I become the whole person I was when I was born into this world. People who travel with us feel the same way.

Certainly when we travel we pay much more attention to the present moment. We are gathering in the experiences like an absorbent sponge. After 10 trips, I know the city probably better than my own. (This is true in part because we walk everywhere and we therefore really see – something you can’t do in a car going at speed.) The novelty is gone, yet it still has the same impact.

What can I say? It is simply magic.

I might write while there, but I most likely will not. Not sure I want to interupt the magic! Ciao!

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I just started a book written in 1982 called “Time and the Art of Living.” I’ve always had a fascination with time. Robert Grudin, the author, made an interesting observation related to my place making work. Vacant space has no meaning to us as people unless it relates to our human stature. So big empty spaces are meaningless, while spaces that are of a human scale, relate to the stature of people, have meaning. Except for grand open natural spaces, this is true.

And its why we love medieval scaled towns and any human scaled place. Why we find suburbia so depressing, Why vast expanses of parking around our retail and office spaces makes them not worth caring about. We love places that are on a human scale because we can relate to them and therefore can have meaning. Designing, as we have for 60 years, for the car removes the humanness of a place, because cars require much more space – particularly when going fast. An interstate and pedestrian street carry the same number of people per hour. But the interstate requires 6 car lengths between cars thus handling many fewer people in the amount of given space.

Enough already. This is one reason we love Italy, Orvieto, our trips there. It is human.

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Back to My Roots

Street space occuppied by cars, just the drivers, drivers on a bus!

Street space occupied by cars, just the drivers, drivers on a bus!

It is hard to get away from your roots. Mine are in building community, a sense of community and place. Actually, our trips in Italy, have this as one component. It is the tremendous sense of human-scaled community and place that touches people on our trips.

I just read an article on a concept I first learned about eight years ago. To make car dominated intersections more friendly for all users of the road, remove all traffic signals/direction and separation between cars, pedestrians, bikes, etc. It seems crazy, but it works. The article was on a German town that has adopted the policy developed by Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. When all users of the road have no direction on what to do, they slow down, look at each other to see what the other is going to do, and proceed cautiously. The result is fewer accidents and less serious ones.

It reminds me that one of the reasons we enjoy Orvieto is that it is mostly pedestrian. A few perimeter roads are devoted to cars, but some are completely car free. Where the car is present it does not dominate. It makes for a great experience.

By the way the article was in the Christian Science Monitor. I am not a Christian Scientist, the paper only has one article per issue on Christian Science, yet it covers a greater variety of useful information on multiple topics than any other publication. It covers all major news events, but without the hysteria of advertising driven papers, with much greater fairness and impartiality. I recommend it.

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Going Home

Mt Desert Island Sunrise

Mt Desert Island Sunrise

As we prepare to return to Orvieto there is a great sense of anticipation. It is like going home. Orvieto is such a comfortable place for us. For some reason it brings out different things. Inexplicably we are more ourselves there than anywhere. There are other places that do this as well: the wonderful cottage in which we stay on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. But this will be our 10th visit to Orvieto and it has not diminished in the least.

I term this the magic of Orvieto. I can’t explain it, but it happens. It happens with those who come on our trips, too. The mystery of it, our inability to understand it, is part of the appeal. If we could figure it out, bottle it, it wouldn’t be magic anymore. Happy me to be returning!

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I am reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. It is a great book, if you are at that questioning, looking deeper stage of your life. In it he makes a wonderful observation, and I paraphrase:

Seeing earth from space makes you realize it is precious and, paradoxically, insignificant.

It is precious because it is so beautiful, and perhaps, unique. Yet it is insignificant in the vastness of space.

This made me think of our Adventures in Italy trips. What I truly love about our time in Italy and what we do there is that we focus on what is precious and let go of the insignificant. In Orvieto we pay attention. You have to pay attention to really live, to have quality in life to have quality of life. We do not multitask. We don’t watch TV. We don’t surf the web. We don’t talk endlessly on our phones. We don’t check e-mail or voice mail. We live. We live fully, robustly, intently, joyously, richly, intuitively.

It is a precious time, and, in fact significant. Ciao!

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Orvieto on a table

Logo: Orvieto on a table

We leave for Orvieto shortly. Incorporated into our trip is Orvieto’s Slow Food Festival, what they call Orvieto With Taste. The festival has been going on for years with multiple partners including the city and the Slow Cities movement, headquartered in Orvieto.

During the week most restaurants in town have a “Slow Food Menu” that uses traditional recipes, methods of cooking and ingredients. Because chestnuts are in season some restaurants offer pasta made with chestnut flour, chestnut desserts. One of our favorite restaurants makes a chestnut soup that is simply fabulous.

The Progressive Meal

The Progressive Meal

During the week there are wine tastings, food tastings, lectures and discussions about food, displays of local food, and more. Five nights during the week there are special dinners. These include regional fare as well as food from around the world. This year there will be a traditional Thanksgiving dinner cooked by folks from Orvieto’s sister city, Aiken, SC. A food market takes place on the last weekend with delectable cheeses, meats, breads, pastas, beans and more from the area. The last Saturday there is a progressive meal taking place at 4 historic sites. Appetizer, first course, second course, and dessert all with local wines are served.

It is a great week of fun, food and wine. We always schedule one of our trips during this week to take advantage. So much food to learn about, so little time!!

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James Howard Kunstler achieved fame for his book “The Geography of Nowhere” a critique of the way we have designed and built since World War II. When I was at Community Builders and did an annual conference called Lovable Communities, we had Kunstler come and speak. This was in the middle to late 1990s. He is a caustic, cantankerous critic who pulls no punches. Most of what he says is accurate. I recently was sent a link to a 20 minute talk he gave in 2004. If you don’t like swear words, don’t listen. Click here to connect to the talk.

The reason I began doing trips to Italy was because it is such a great instructor of what civic design and human places are. It remains so. And what happens on our art and culture based trips is that the wonderful human scaled environment of Orvieto softly and subtley caresses people. It makes them more human, more in touch with humanness. We have forgotten what this is like in so much of America because we mostly live in suburban blandness. One gift of these trips is the reconnection to that which is human. We have so many places we can reclaim in the U.S., even suburbia. First, we have to know what we are missing. Then we can act. We hope our trips begin the process of awakening that will lead to better communities at home.

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