The nearly full moon had just launched from behind the massive San Petronio Basilica as we sat in Piazza Maggiori sipping the last dregs of our Negronis and toasting the bittersweet feeling that accompanies the end of an adventure. As Amber and checked our surroundings a final time, we couldn’t help but feel in awe and immensely lucky to find ourselves in such a beautiful place on such a perfect night. The 15th-century square is comprised of the former city hall on one side, the Duomo on the other, and two imposing medieval buildings on the remaining sides. And throw in a badass Poseidon fountain to boot.
As we sadly considered getting up from our table, we heard an increasing commotion coming from behind and to our left. Within a few minutes, a stream of people made their way into the center of the square, shouting, cheering, and waving ignited road flares. As we tried to sort out what was happening, another crowd of people came pouring into the square from our rear nightside. We had no clue what was going on, but we couldn’t help but get swept up in the fun. Chants gave way to songs as more people piled into the piazza.
As we later learned, S.S.C. Napoli, the Naples futbol team, had just won their first Serie A title in over thirty years nearby and fans in town from the south had descended on the heart of Bologna to celebrate their victory. We got to witness their celebratory joy and got to have a little ourselves.
This is why we travel. It’s not the paintings, sculptures, or cathedrals, and we rarely linger around the highly visited sites. We travel for the street life. We take these trips to feel something we find hard to experience at home, which is simply quality public space and a little bit of community. We don’t go to witness, we aren’t traveling to watch, we don’t care to go stare, we visit places to feel a part of them.
I know many people are moved by art, but for me, it pales in comparison to the feeling of sharing a busy street or a crowded square. That feeling of being in the midst of so many other people reminds me of my own humanity and brings me a sense of joy. I can’t get enough of it and it is upsetting how hard it is to locate that feeling at home.
I am well aware of my good fortune and am incredibly thankful every day that we have the means and ability to take such trips, but I honestly wish we didn’t have to. It seems a bit ludicrous to have to traverse an ocean to experience such feelings. It is not to say we don’t have quality public places in the United States, but they are so few and far between, they end up feeling more like amusement parks than real communities. The irony is not lost on me that we are traveling overseas to experience what it feels like to be local.
I want to feel the same way here. I want everyone to feel the same way here. We deserve a rich civic realm and fantastic public places to incorporate into our daily routines. Considering that we are a country with a GDP equal to that of China, Japan, and Germany combined, which are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest, I feel confident that we can afford to build decent public spaces for our citizens.
It dawned on me that our travels aren’t about going to ogle nice things; instead, we go to places that make us feel nice. Places that give us a feeling of community, a sense of dignity, or even sophistication. We aren’t traveling to look at something pretty, but maybe to feel a little bit prettier ourselves, because we can’t help but feel affected by our surroundings. We take on the characteristics of our surroundings and the nicer they are, the better we feel and the converse is unfortunately true too.
Someone asked me if my trip was for work or for pleasure, and I realized the answer was both. Sadly, no one paid for us to go to Italy, but, I learned so much about my work while we were there. I am not going to try and argue that it was not a pleasure, but that’s exactly the point, the places we live should be a pleasure. We have this insane idea that only vacation places should be a joy and that our hometowns need to be miserable. Why?
These recent visits have allowed me to understand what it means to design places for people and how it feels when local government puts the well-being of its citizens over the profit margins of corporations. I understand that the best part of each of these places doesn’t have to do with location, climate, age, and all the other excuses we make for why we can’t have the same. No, the only difference is priorities. It is not a matter of money, culture, or anything like that. We are of the same DNA, some brain chemistry, and the same values. These places have made residents a priority, they decided that the health, happiness, and well-being of their citizens matter most and it is a decision any city can make.
As we sipped spritz’s in Trastevere, or a cappuccino on a side street in Siena, or polished off our Negronis in Piazza Maggiori, we experienced a sense of joy, a sense of togetherness and the feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves. Maybe we are not part of those cities, or a part of Italy, but experiencing those places made us feel part of something even bigger and more important, we felt a part of humanity and we will always travel for that.