I needed to go to Italy. Italy had un-gotten the joke of Thomas More before he even told it.
Italy is a veritable museum of utopian thought. Ancient social experiments conducted in the far south are counted as antiquity’s most significant utopian trial runs, and Da Vinci’s two-tiered city plans are just the tip of the iceberg of the culture’s contribution to utopian city planning. More modestly, it’s also the birthplace of a food utopia, the Slow Food movement, which had sprouted up in response to a fast food world, owed debts to France and Communism, proposed a food university, and drew on Charles Fourier.
In a country like a museum—as in a utopia—you need a good docent. I had a great one. My “significant adjacent co-habitator,” as she preferred to be called, was a scholar of Italian legal history, a veteran of years of torturous research in the medieval archives of Florence. She came equipped with six languages over which she displayed a kind of proprietary pride (my Italian, my Greek, my Medieval Latin legal shorthand, and so on), and she was engaged in a lifelong longitudinal study to upend established thinking on the origins of modern law. She always needed to go to Italy. The co-habitator became docent.
Admittedly, our plan was incongruous.
We would land in Rome, and rush to the far north to interview Slow Food’s founder in Bra, near Turin. Then we would rush to a few of the founding towns of the Slow City Movement, vaulting headlong through Italy and history but eating at certified Slow Restaurants all along the way.
Even if you co-habitate with someone significantly, I would argue, you don’t really know them until you travel with them. It’s like eating in that way. A dollop of romantic wisdom is implied in the conventional “dinner date:” watching someone eat offers insight into whether they will make an appropriate mate. Travel is the same. In terms of eating and travel both, the docent and I were a study in contrasts. A dichotomy. We knew that going in. In fact, the docent hoped that our trip would afford her opportunity—as she might phrase it—to civilize me. The docent was a gourmet cook and had been a card-carrying member of Slow Food for years. I was a child of Utopia Road, my hometown—a suburb necropolis. For me, eating was no important ritual. Hunger was tribulation, trial. When I was hungry, the thing I wanted to be, as quickly as possible, was not hungry. I thought of astronaut food as a great innovation. Unwrap it, gobble it down. Nutritious radio waves? Even better.
The docent considered me a terminal case of the fast life.
Ah, but the docent was infected too—a fact that didn’t become apparent until we left for Rome. Travel with the docent was indeed “slow,” but slow in this case meant—slow. As in tedious. As in inefficient. As in a belief that she was such a skillful packer of luggage that she could bring along everything she might ever need or desire, which of course meant that I wound up carrying far more than I would have had I traveled alone. It was even worse than that, actually. Any stop in our journey—security lines in airports being a prime example—was a chance for the docent to unpack one or two or all of her four carry-on items—the four carry-on items that she was certain fell within the traditional airline restriction of one carry-on item—and reorganize their contents on the fly. This reorganization process was entirely self-rewarding. It did not preclude further reorganizations (i.e., the bags were never “organized”), nor did it eliminate crises that arose from an inability to locate the proper item (tickets, keys, toiletries) at a moment of need. The important thing was to be perpetually engaged in a regime of reorganization. Which, to my mind, made it a characteristically post-information age dilemma: to be forever engaged in a hurried process of preparation, and to be so hurriedly preparing for future eventualities that you were not prepared for present realities, was to be unprepared, not to say disorganized. This failure of the idolization of multi-tasking and speed—leaving one harried and unable to carry one’s own carry-ons—was yet another symptom of the fast life, an ailment that slow philosophy was meant to combat.
But none of this, actually, prevented the docent and me from navigating, albeit with tribulation, the dome city dystopias of several international airports, slogging our way to the proper car rental desk, and slicking our way onto the proper autostrade. Almost at once, it proved a wise choice to have acceded to the docent’s slow plan: she offered keen insight into the Roman origin of the cultivation of cypress and umbrella pine trees, both prevalent along highways in central Italy, and she offered interesting observations on the Etruscan hill towns spackling Tuscany. Italy was like being home again for the docent. A good portion of her identity had been formed when she was just twenty years old, here on scholarship, bumbling her way through the culture that would become her life’s work. Now she charmingly regressed to that ardent post-adolescent; she became bubbly and excited. She explained the games that we would play when we visited Florentine museums—“Name that Saint” and “Find the Ugliest Baby Jesus”—and I got the sense that Italy was alive for the docent precisely because she knew its history, from the Umbri and the Oscans down to Rome, and down further to the Goths and the Lombards and the city states and the Medicis, and further still to Garibaldi and Mussolini. This was slow history. To know something, to understand its origins, was to arrive at appreciation of it, to acquire a taste for it. The docent savored Italy is perhaps the best way to say it, and for her it was a stacked affair. Without much room on the peninsula, she explained, civilizations had simply built on top of one another. It was this, I thought, that explained why Italy had failed to get the joke of Utopia. The book had been first translated into Italian by an itinerant doctor and a defrocked monk, and was published in Venice in 1548 with the decidedly un-funny title The Newly Discovered Republic of the Government of the Isle of Eutopia…