Sharing what we experience when we travel can open communities to themselves and others.
Introduction by Ben Speggen
And now for something different, yet familiar and similar.
The following dispatch is different in that it’s reporting from Genoa, Italy, a city, by my accounts, Our Towns has not featured before. It is familiar in that it comes from our friend, Tom Ruby, who has written incisively about localism for the Our Towns Foundation site. It is similar in that Ruby, a retired Air Force officer and strategist who now lives in small-town Kentucky, explores localism again. This time he does so at a global level, discussing what he saw and experienced leading a group of Americans through Italy’s sixth largest city to observe it at the street level.
The goal, as Ruby explains below, was to have travelers transcend the tourist level to import the things they learned upon their returns, export things they could share with locals while there, and build bridges with each other and those they encountered abroad and their respective communities. Ruby introduces some of the people their cohort met, and provides a look at some of the places they visited, along the way offering insight into why local is global.
A longer, more detailed version of this post will appear on Ruby’s website. Here is his account for Our Towns:
We walk into La Medina, the spice shop on Via San Luca in Genoa, Italy. I greet Sabri, the owner.
“Salaam, sadiqi,” I tell him — “hello, my friend” in Arabic. “It is so good to see you again.”
He steps around the counter to hug me. “It is good to see you, as well,” he tells me. “This is your shop.” I advise him he should be careful in telling me that, because I might take something and walk out with it. “That would be appropriate, as it is your shop,” he says, with all earnestness.
I met Sabri, a Palestinian spice merchant, who owns a humble shop on the busy streets of Genoa, in 2019 when I explored the city with my wife, Laura. I was returning to visit him again in October 2022 as part of two excursions I co-led through Italy’s sixth largest city. Known primarily as the largest port on the Mediterranean, the city gave the world Columbus and is capital of the Liguria region. Largely bypassed by tourists for Italy’s larger cities, Genoa’s riches, its natural beauty, its art and architecture, and, most importantly, its people wait patiently to be discovered.
I was leading a group of six guests from various parts of America with my friend Alan Cornett. He hosts the Cultural Debris Podcast, which focuses on culture, architecture, and literature, and is a champion of “permanent things,” those elements of human interaction which endure across time place and change.
We called the experience a “Cultural Debris Excursion,” and took our inspiration from Danielle Oteri, travel writer and host of Feast Travel, and Mountain Butorac, The Catholic Traveler, who regularly lead tours in Southern Italy and Rome and The Holy Land, respectively. They offer exclusive tours with deep knowledge of their areas. Both were generous with their experience and encouragement to make our own tour experience to a region begging to be rediscovered.
Our desire was to offer a unique experience of searching for, pondering, and discussing the Cultural Debris of the city – the interesting things travelers might not see unless they were actively looking. We hoped that the guests would form friendships and want to return both on their own and with us to future destinations. We also hoped they would take the best of what they observed and spread that word to deliberately make their own places into something even better.
We hoped that, because it is easy to say how different certain places are from your hometown when you’re traveling abroad. We’ve all heard how familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t agree. Only through familiarity can you come to love something more deeply. Whether that is your home, your town, your friends and family, or gelato makers you meet abroad.
That love to share what you discover is how best practices spread. Why certain building techniques became so widespread 2,000 years ago. Why people travel to places they’ve never seen but heard of from a trusted friend. Why cities share their successes with others who want to become better versions of themselves.
The buildings, magnificent palaces, churches, fountains, statues you see in old cities weren’t built for their own ends. They are objectively beautiful, good, and true, but were made so by human hands for everyday life. You come to understand that a city that gives its residents a mosaic to walk on under beautiful colonnades does so because it fundamentally understands that its people are created with inherent dignity and are made for greatness, not mere drudgery. Once you understand that, your gaze moves from the beauty of the created object to the object of that creation, and that is when you really come to know the city and want to share what you’ve come to know. Through its people.
Sabri is one such person. He sells spices, including two homemade curry blends, as well as 50 different teas. Sabri talks with the knowledge and intensity of a pharmacist when he teases out exactly what your purpose is for the tea you’re asking about. He can tell you where his multiple varieties of almonds come from as well as which orchards in Sicily produce his dried fruits.
I know this because I’ve asked Sabri about it. Those, afraid, for whatever reason, or uninterested to inquire about the person behind the business miss out. They might marvel at the original Roman-era columns and arches in his ground floor shop, but might not consider they were made to support the building for people to live and work in.
During our time in Genoa, the more people actively looked for Cultural Debris, and pointed it out to each other, the more people saw and the more the city opened itself to the group. When they looked for ceiling frescoes in palaces, they could compare those frescoes to the ones in our lodging accommodations, a bed and breakfast, in a former family palace built in 1400 still owned by the original family.
We started each day with a communal breakfast prepared by our hostesses, Elena and Fanny, around our large kitchen table. Almost like phantoms, they were there, but nearly unseen, taking care to prepare authentic food both delicious and beautiful. They ensured the group was not merely satisfied, but happy, while gently nudging the group to look inward and not even notice them, allowing the group to discuss the day’s given topic while being fortified to go exploring.
But that level of care and desire for their guests to have a rich experience drew us all to ask Elena and Fanny about themselves. Once we learned about their families, their friends, their lives, we saw clearly their personal touches in all the rooms. Suddenly the frescoes on the ceiling of the apartment seemed brighter because we knew about the individual souls who make that place available and to be appreciated. Made by people for people.
Genoa has the largest ancient city center in Europe. The narrow streets and tall buildings spill down the steep hillsides and wind around on levels, like contour lines on a map. On the Via Cairoli, a few steps from the B&B and one level up the hill from Sabri’s shop is Profumo di Rosa, the delightful gelateria that has a delightful name (scent/taste of a Rose) owned and operated by the even more delightful Rosa.
“Do you know what flavor all the tourists ask me for every day? Fraaaaagola (strawberry),” she tells us in nearly unaccented English. “You know what we don’t have right now? Fragola. You know why? Because it is out of season, and I will not use frozen strawberries in my gelato, and I will not use strawberries flown in from across the ocean. Only local. Only in season.”
Rosa knows that offering only seasonal ingredients from regional farms, local terrace gardens, and her dad’s garden and orchard limits her availability compared to other shops. But she takes her craft seriously, and seriously produces the best gelato anywhere. Just the week before Rosa spoke to our Excursion guests she was in Manchester, England, leading an international workshop on making gelato.
Between Sabri’s and Rosa’s shops stands the Basilica San Siro, named for the 5th century Saint Cyrus, who was bishop of Genoa, and, as the tales would tell it, banished a basilisk – a serpent king – from the well adjacent to the modern basilica. Stuff of legends, basilisks.
There is a small marble relief plaque above the spot of the ancient well showing San Siro expelling the basilisk. Nobody will make a saint out of a guy, build a big basilica named after him, and put up a marble relief of him banishing the basilisk if he didn’t banish a basilisk, right? That is what Russell Kirk would have argued. As Gerald Russello explains Kirk, “The resources of history are embedded within concrete places and customs, and supplement the individual’s own private stock of reason to provide a framework for decision.” History and modern geology tell us there was well. History tells us of the bishop San Siro. I think there was also a basilisk.
So why should anyone care about whether there actually was a basilisk, or that it wasn’t just some snake that fell in some well? Why not just go inside and look at the magnificent church itself? Isn’t it sufficient to just marvel at beauty and who cares about some bishop 1500 years ago? No way. Without that bishop – and without the story of the basilisk – there’d be no church to admire.
Like the ancient buildings and cobblestone streets, the churches of Genoa are difficult to describe with words. Words are not sufficient to convey the beauty and grandeur. Unlike the buildings that man built for man to live and work in, Genoa’s churches were built by man to lift men’s hearts and minds above men to God. Only people who believed that Cyrus, through the power of God, performed a miracle, would spend decades to build a church like San Siro.
In the old city center of Genoa, there are multiple magnificent churches that can be visited all in a day with a map and firm resolution of a sightseer. You can do that, and you’d never get to meet St Cyrus and learn who he was. Or you’d miss Chiesa della Madallena, the Church of the Magdalene, one of those beautiful – Americans would call grand – churches that sit humbly empty most of the day, known largely only to its neighbors, who are fine with that.
Santa Maria delle Vigne (St Mary of the Vineyard) is another wonderful church almost wholly missed. Like San Ignazio in Rome, its ceiling is so magnificent there’s a large magnifying mirror on the floor to give visitors a better look. But few come to see. Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because most aren’t aware. There are so many pretty churches on the main streets that to walk off the beaten path, even to see something hiding in plain sight becomes a chore.
Giving San Siro a run for its money in the beauty department are two breathtaking (as in, they really do take your breath away) churches on opposite ends of the ancient city center. The Basilica of the Annunciation was hit twice in World War II by British naval gunfire and destroyed. The Genovese had choices. They could have had it torn down and built apartments. They could have had it torn down and built a modern church building. They could have left it as a monument. They made a deliberate decision to rebuild it to its former grandeur. It has taken 75 years, and the ceiling frescoes are still not quite complete.
It does cheer the heart to see local people turn to their forebears and decide that what was there was already transcendentally good instead of trying to do something different. da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” may be the best known, but Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s “Last Supper” above the main doors in the basilica is every bit as good. A “smaller” study (the size of da Vinci’s own painting) of the gigantic painting can be viewed up close in the Galleria Nazionale della Pallazo Spinola around the corner from San Siro.
On the other side of the city center, adjacent to the Instagram-ready fountain in the Piazza dei Ferrari, sits the Chiesa di Gesu. Smaller than both Annunziata and San Siro, the Gesu is no less stunning. The difference, though, is the palpable sense of reverence. Tourists talk in other churches. Everyone is quiet in the Gesu. Perhaps it is because of the confessions being heard all day and the long line of penitents that can be found there daily. Perhaps it is the great frequency of Masses offered there. Perhaps it is the sheer number of master paintings from the Peter Paul Rubens Altar backdrop to the Gentileschis, to the ceiling panels, which Alan said he could spend a week studying just in themselves. Pastors in the U.S. wondering what might increase their attendance might learn from this.
Here is where the internet, and perhaps Providence, come into play in the mountain town of Ovada, just shy of an hour’s train ride north of Genoa.
While walking Ovada’s winding streets, I posted some pictures on Twitter. Shortly after, I received a Direct Message from a follower I didn’t know I had. He asked if we might meet in the city. He told me he had something to give me.
After wandering through this delightful town and its churches and streets, Alan and I settled into the cafe on the main piazza for a panino and beer. I let my follower know where we were.
Within five minutes, up walks a beautiful silver pit bull leading a young man holding treasures. He introduced himself as Angelo. He told me he had started following me on Twitter after I posted how to make homemade liqueurs. He sat with us and told us how he and his father bought land in the valley near Ovada four years ago and planted 20 acres of almonds. This year was their first harvest, and he wanted me to have three bags to take home.
There is a lot to be gained by looking at, and experiencing, a place beyond its surface level, particularly places once foreign that have the power to become familiar. These examples, from just one region, are just a few among the many.
This past November, I cheerfully recalled my interactions with Matteo, the poulterer who I met near the church of St. Mary Magdalen. I put on the apron he gave me as a gift, the apron one cannot buy anywhere because they were made specifically for his family. I wore that apron while preparing the Thanksgiving turkey and sent Matteo the pictures.
Our Excursion guests are still in touch with each other, and with Alan and me. Many are already signed up for next year’s trips, eager to find more linkages between some other past and their present lives. They’ve told their friends about basilisks and fig trees growing out of mortar walls, and gelato and widened the circles of those interested in making a big world small.
And since that day in Ovada, Angelo has met Rosa and offered to supply her with almonds for her gelato. He’s met with Sabri and offered to provide him almonds for his dry goods shop. I even received a message from Fanny, our B&B hostess, telling me that Angelo saw her on the street, recognized her from one of my pictures, and introduced himself. This large world can be small in practice.
Oh, and yes, of course, I made liqueur with Angelo’s almonds. Now I think about who here could connect with Angelo, and the many others, to share best practices, and wonder who next will embark on a Cultural Debris Excursion of their own in this big little world of ours to see what they might exchange, and bring back.
Tom Ruby is CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions, a business and leadership consulting firm. He is a retired Air Force Colonel who served 26 years on active duty in positions from Squadron Intelligence Officer, to Chief of Special Programs for the Air Force Materiel Command where he oversaw a $3 Billion annual portfolio of classified programs. He was Associate Dean of the Air Command and Staff College where he developed exchange programs with the NATO School, the French École Militaire, the German General Staff College, and Poland’s National Defense University. He served on General Petraeus’ Joint Strategic Assessment Team as well as in three combat deployments. He earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Kentucky, and actively mentors graduate students and aspiring business leaders. He is widely published and speaks globally on topics from critical thinking, to leadership, to strategy, to morality in warfare.