It was at the weekly school dinner at the Trattoria di Benvenuto in Florence that I first met James.
He was 22, from the UK, and beyond British. I was delighted – he spoke of “glorious serendipity” and “travelling Hesperia,” and already seemed to know everything there was about the city.
As luck would have it, James was a Roman Historian by education, and a teacher, tour guide, and travel writer by trade. I was intrigued, but also wary – he spewed knowledge while I hated museums – how was I to hang out with someone that insisted I go to the Palazzo Pitti ‘if it’s the one thing I do’? I smiled politely when he asserted I would have a “renaissance of the mind,” but told him: it just wasn’t me.
I was wrong.
I stepped into the Palazzo Pitti and hung onto his every word. For the first time in my life, history, culture, politics, architecture – they were things that I actually cared about, things that made sense. It was all right there in front of me, and for the remainder of the week, from museums to galleries, I inhaled it all.
James taught me about Greek mythology, Florentine history, Christian theology, and Italian art. He turned me into a museum geek, an art snob, and a history buff on the microuniverse of the renaissance.
And the inherent teacher that he was, he was always supportive, patient, and willing to correct me when I needed it:
Me: Was that the same Austrian dude on the ceiling?
Him: Austrian duke.
Me: …That’s what I meant…
I hold James in my highest regard. Not only because he articulates with eloquence and potency that rivals French romanticism, or because my unexpected transformation in Florence is attributed directly to him. No.
James, because of who he is and who he strives to be, is simply a great person, in the grandest meaning of the word – moral, just, and seemingly unafflicted by the daily woes of mortals, like weather, exhaustion, or uncomfortable shoes.
I’m not sure what he actually meant by “renaissance of the mind” but in the end, that’s what I know happened. By teaching me in context, about Italy in Florence, James woke something in me that reveled in learning and in understanding, and by doing so, he effectively changed the way I travel forever.