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Meeting Mr. Long

The value of doing nothing


Tucked away in the Tuscan hills of central Italy is the little town of Lucignano (pronounced loose-in-YAN-oh). It's off the beaten track, south of Arezzo, the largest city in that part of the beautiful wine country. The town doesn't appear in many guidebooks: it merits only a few lines in Frommer's Tuscany guide. Apart from a couple of nice pieces by Luca Signorelli, the distinguished Renaissance draughtsman, and a triptych by the medieval Sienese painter Bartolo di Fredi, there isn't much famous art to see.

There are no renowned architectural masterpieces either, although for the urban specialist, the town is a marvel, comprising four concentric rings of streets bounded by a medieval wall. But it lacks the cultural blockbusters demanded by international tourists.

Lucignano is simply a beautiful little town, quintessentially Italian, with a tight, elliptical cluster of ochre stone buildings and terra cotta tile roofs perched on its slopes and approached by a winding road from the plain of the Valdichiana several hundred feet below. The town caters minimally to tourists, with a nice hotel and couple of gift shops just inside the main gate, but otherwise a timeless sense of Italian life permeates the stone-framed spaces. The streets, alleys and piazzas are full of Italians, not Americans, Brits, French or Germans.

With a few exceptions, that is. My wife and I were there, returning to one of our favorite places in Tuscany with friends from Charlotte visiting Lucignano for the first time. This summer, however, we spotted another, more famous visitor, someone Charlotte has claimed as her own although he doesn't live in our city. Sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe was Ben Long, well known in Charlotte for his frescoes in the Bank of America Building, Transamerica Square, the police station and, before it collapsed, in St. Peter's Catholic Church. Mr. Long explained he was working on landscape studies for new paintings, and indeed there are few landscapes in the world more evocative than the rolling Tuscan hills and craggy outcrops crowned by tight little towns.

Like our own routines in Tuscany, Mr. Long's work seemed to involve plenty of rest and relaxation, immersed in a rhythm of life and sense of place very different from daily existence in America. These times for reflection are so important for thoughtful work in all creative pursuits, and especially in the development of art.

Differences between Europe and the USA are far more reaching than geography or history, although these two factors certainly influence the character of urban places like Lucignano. The buildings are hundreds of years old, constantly adapted and rebuilt (not demolished every couple of decades like in Charlotte), and the structures seem to grow directly from the native earth and stone with their timeless consistency of local building materials and styles. A seamless connection exists between people, buildings and landscape.

But the cultural disparities run deeper than this. Most Europeans believe their way of life is superior to that of Americans. With more leisure time, Europeans feel they can foster family life and cultivate community better than Americans, trapped in a system where economic success is valued above all else. Life in the States is dominated by the frenetic pursuit of wealth and possessions -- symbolized primarily by larger houses and bigger SUVs -- leaving us little time to enjoy the sensory and cultural pleasures taken for granted by residents of Lucignano and countless other towns across southern Europe.

In his book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Eclipsing the American Dream, American author Jeremy Rifkin observes that Americans define freedom as individual autonomy and ownership while Europeans characterize it as a function of community, or "belonging, not belongings." Central to this European belief is the practice of taking time away from work to nurture true community relationships.

The key issue for the European economies is whether Europe's more relaxed balance between work and play can withstand the global creep of America's unremitting Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic, where idleness is equated with sin. Europeans' treasured balance between work and leisure is central to their sense of identity, and I know from professional experience that architects in Italy and Spain, for example, produce buildings as good, or often better, than their American counterparts. They achieve this by working typically from 9am till 1pm, enjoying a leisurely lunch and a three-hour siesta, then getting back to work from 5 till 8:30pm, followed usually by a family supper till late in the evening. The periods of relaxation enable them to be sharp and focused at the drawing board.

Will the pressures of the global marketplace doom this less hurried, less hassled, less materialistic way of life? I can only surmise how Ben Long's sojourn in Lucignano will inform his future frescoes, but I know for a fact that Long's art enriches Charlotte because of the time he spends in places like Lucignano, "doing nothing."

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