Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 12: CouchSurfers Unite!

I have yet to sleep on someone's couch, but I already love CouchSurfing. Initially I was put off by their website and the amount of material I needed to digest. However, once I dug in, I was enthralled.

The Palazzo Vecchio.

CouchSurfing is more than a resource for moochers. They have done an amazing job at designing a system that allows people to get in touch with one another. Users can find, friend, and message one another – but most importantly, there are groups and events in every city organized by Surfers.

Under construction.

While browsing through the events in Florence, I found one for a historical tour of the city. I'm no history buff but I wanted to see if this CouchSurfing thing really works, and hopefully make some new friends in Florence. So I signed up for the event and waited excitedly for two days…

Some days I'd like to be a statue, watching the world go by.

I left the house with only a vague idea of where to meet the group, an even vaguer idea of how to get there, and no clue who I was looking for. Prepared as usual. I wandered off to Piazza del Signoria, listening to groups of people to see if any of them were speaking English. Needless to say, that strategy didn't work out. I suddenly had a moment of inspiration and used my iPod to zoom in on Alex, the organizer of the event's, profile picture. After a quick look around, there he was, standing on the steps. Win!

The group in Piazzo del Limbo where dead babies were buried.

Excitedly, I went over and introduced myself. He returned the favor with "Oh man… you are from the US? I can tell!" Some first impression. After some friendly abuse, I felt included in the group. They were very friendly and almost immediately I made great conversation with Alex, Paul, and Nirit. Our conversation got cut short as the tour began.

Buildings around Piazzo del Limbo.

Alex is studying for his Ph. D in religious history and beliefs. To that end, his tour of Florence was based around how civilizations are shaped by their beliefs. Essentially, how people acted, based on their beliefs. To understand a person's beliefs enables one to understand their actions. Cool beans. Additionally, he organized this as an open tour. Anyone that had knowledge of a subject could add freely. It was like wikipedia but in real life… Luckily there were more Florentines than American goofs.

Talk about community. There was even a family there.

Our first stop was right around the corner from Piazza del Signoria. The Uffizi. For centuries, these majestic offices have housed the brains of Florence. There are 22 marble statues around the edge of the courtyard. They include revolutionaries such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, plus lots of other names I've never heard of. One revolutionary who was not included, was Savonarola.

The tour continues...

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk who came to Florence in order to reform the Church. In the late 15th century, there was a common belief that the world was going to end. The citizens of Florence were stressing because they were determined to go to heaven. To help assure one's ascension, one could pay 'indulgences' to the church. An indulgence is a gift of money that would reduce the amount of time you would be in purgatory. For example, if you paid $50 to the church, they would give you a piece of paper that says your stay in purgatory will be reduced by 500 years. Because the lengths of time were so great, they strengthened people's fears and raised money for the church at the same time. Pretty ingenious, eh? One adventurer got his purgatory sentence reduced by 35 million years!

The Duomo, where Savonarola gave his sermons.

Savonarola thought this was all a bunch of hooey. He began giving his own sermons that contradicted what Pope Alexander VI was saying. Well Poppie didn't take to that too kindly and… to make a long story short, burned Savonarola at the stake. This public execution took place in Piazza Signoria, right where we were standing. Cool! Heretics (and witches) were burned at the stake, because burning someone at the stake was believed to seal their fate – to ensure that they went to hell. Something to do with fire and stuff.

Where Savonarola was burned. Standing on history.

Besides Savonarola, we also learned a section of Florence was demolished during this period and rebuilt in accordance with a more modern grid structure. If you look at a map of Florence it's easy to tell which part has been rebuilt. This rebirth really helped the city grow. I think the new streets are narrow, the old ones were about half the width. Imagine getting a bucket of dirty water (or worse) dumped on your head. Thanks for the wider streets!

Old Italy, small streets. New Italy, slightly less small streets.

Those are just two of the delicious tidbits I learned about on the tour. I am beginning to realize how much history is imbued in this city – it was the center of the renaissance. This tour gave me something much more important. I made like six new friends! CouchSurfing rocks. It brings out the best in people by bringing people together. Sharing experiences and sharing knowledge for free (as it should be). I'm excited to expand my CouchSurfing network and my heart and brain as well.

What a good time. Thanks everyone!

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