I’ve always had a fascination with history. Especially history that reminds us how connected we are to the somewhat removed and impersonalized people of one’s textbook. Trying to imagine what a famous hero of our past actually thought and felt and loved on a daily basis, looking past the simplistic textbook identity, gives me the chills! I mean, do you ever wonder how much Columbus loved apple pie? Did he despise potatoes? Who knows? Has anyone ever cared, besides his wife, cooking him meals, never knowing when he was going to return from his long journeys? And who made the first apple pie, anyway?!
What’s awesome about Europe for me is seeing this kind of history, real history, coming alive in the people who belong to it. In Orvieto, we watched a parade of medieval colours, divided as if by guild, or even by feudal landlords and serfs. It was so easy to see them as the distant impersonalized medieval characters from a legend or something until I saw the wink or the wide grin shot towards a friend and the head bowed wearily in the sun. Then I suddenly remembered that these were men in today’s world, today’s workforce, wearing jeans and sneakers on every normal day (as opposed to this day’s bright tights and squeaky leather boots). In fact, they might not even live the serf-type life described in my grade 10 history text!
Even still, I was forced to come full circle in these thoughts as I walked around the town and saw their moving veneration of Corpus Christi day and the flags recently marched through the streets hanging from townhouse windows; I’m left wondering with intense curiosity how much the history I was seeing and experiencing might mean to each of these Orvietians. Is it as consequential as their parades make it seem, as a personally defining history? Is it part of them as much as I want it to be? In Siena, we learned of the vying contrata, each with their own church, and alliances and feuds, all of it as old as the hills. So my full circle is this: these people may not be their ancestors in the flesh; they are very much a part of this world, this era, today’s events; but they are something more, a continuation, a passed-on torch, from the oh-so-distant and romanticized past.
But the coolest part of all this is that, though things have obviously changed, progressed, developed, the past doesn’t seem so distant here. It’s here now, just as it was here, and the future is here as well. That’s something that’s missing from Canadian identities, Canadian histories and presents; thus, I am absolutely loving this very tangible sense of ancestry so thickly rooted in these ancient places, of these ancestors whose history we (as in Canadians) also claim. The people are very rich here.