Experiencing Florence

Go with the flow

Larry Basirico
April 3, 2014

For many Americans ‘old’ means a few hundred years, and ‘history’ is found in books, museums and historic sites. For Western Europeans, a few hundred years is borderline ‘contemporary.’ There are very few places on Earth where the ubiquity of the distant past is as ‘in-your-face’ as Florence, home to some of the greatest cultural achievements of humankind. What happens to us when we walk down the same streets as Dante, Michelangelo and Leonardo, and see evidence of them everywhere? What do we feel when we drink in the same view of the Arno as they did? How are our spirits lifted when we hear the bells of Giotto’s campanile echoing through the city, the same haunting sounds heard 500 years ago?


While serving last fall as Elon University’s faculty-in-residence with its partner Accademia Europea di Firenze (AEF), I had a view of the Duomo from my office window. My wife, 13-year-old son and I lived in an apartment 50 meters from piazza della Signoria. Once or twice a week, a parade passed beneath our second-floor window, as if out of nowhere. Each time was as exciting as the first. One of us would call the others to see the marchers dressed in medieval garb, carrying colorful flags, celebrating some part of Florentine culture. Every day on my way to class, I would stop midway just to stare and take it all in, almost in disbelief of what surrounded me. Occasionally, a local shop owner or a new Florentine friend would shout, ‘Buongiorno, Lorenzo, come stai?’ which resonated through me like a chord strummed on a guitar. Florence and everything it represents permeated our family. We have never felt so alive and connected as a family, as well as focused both on daily living and our work.


Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent most of his career conducting research into ‘optimal experience.’ The ideas described in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience help to explain the fulfillment we experienced in Florence. An ‘optimal experience’ is when we feel most alive and experience intense enjoyment, concentration and deep involvement in the immediacy of the moment. ‘When the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly’ is how Csikszentmihalyi describes it. These optimal experiences ‘are situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against. We have called this state the flow experience.’In flow, we are in complete harmony with tasks, allowing full, uninterrupted, seemingly effortless immersion in meeting a challenge or task. Our confidence is heightened, our self-consciousness disappears and time seems to stand still.


Florence promotes this state of being because it is an ‘idealistic’ culture. Csikszentmihalyi says that idealistic cultures ‘combine an acceptance of concrete sensory experience with a reverence for spiritual ends … Probably the most satisfying way to unify life into an all-embracing flow activity is through the idealistic mode.’ What is unique about Florence is the inescapable, ubiquitous presence of the idealistic mode of culture that characterized the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


It is not just the antiquity of Florence that promotes a flow experience; the omnipresent art, museums, street musicians and mimes all contribute. So, too, do the leather shops, gelaterias, cafes, shoe stores and panini shops, with people socializing outdoors with a glass of wine, even at midday. It is having a real cup of coffee (a proper espresso, not coffee’s more watery American counterpart) at a bar. It is the thick throngs of tourists that remind us that this is someplace important. It is the joy of hearing and trying to speak the language and participating in the strong social connection that lies at the heart of Italian culture. It is the life of Florence that flows through its veins like the Arno.


Flow does not just happen by being in Florence. An important ingredient of flow is being prepared to match the challenges of a situation. My family did its homework, before and during our stay. I studied Italian for a year prior to our trip. While there, my wife, son and I attended Italian class daily. We made every effort to speak Italian in public, despite failing miserably at times. We attended soccer matches and concerts, and we visited museums. We frequented the same shops and vendors for fruit, shoes, leather, ceramics, grocery and coffee, and were sure to strike up personal conversations with each of them. We interacted regularly, socially and professionally with the staff at our partner school, who became integrated into our lives.


Perhaps nothing better summarizes the flow that my family experienced than an observation from Antonio Vanni, director of the jazz performance program at AEF: ‘When you are in Rome, you visit the monuments. When you are in Florence, you ARE the monuments.’

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