Hewn by steady hands of Michelangelo, the seventeen-foot statue of David is luminescent: one of the world's most important masterpieces. I encircled the statue in awe that anything this exquisite could have been carved by a mere human being from a weathered slab of Carrara marble. I stood before the masterpiece exactly 508 years after the 26-year-old sculptor first put hammer to chisel.
If nothing else memorable happened during our two weeks in Italy, this moment helped justify why we had traveled so far: to behold the work of a master and experience a transcendent moment.
However, a flash of awe competed with nagging background awareness that David came before our eyes at a substantial price, even with many prudent decisions about lodging, dining and transportation. With each Euro representing USD $1.46 and the cost for entertainment in Italian cities equivalent to or higher than prices in large American cities, the investment to stand before David almost besieged my joy to have finally achieved personal witness of such artistic perfection.
The Baby Boomer generation is rapidly moving into a self-actualizing, 50+ stage of life when deeper, more compelling motivations emerge for adventure and educational travel, such as my excursion to Italy. Something about the aging process pries open latent needs to experience new vistas, to connect with the past, to become steeped in other cultures, to learn about the wider world, and to fill each day with uncommon stimulation. The iconic David statue symbolizes all this.
And for over forty years, Boomers have crisscrossed the Atlantic seeking stories and experiences of their Western heritage: history, culture, art and adventure to be found in the Old Continent. In 1969 alone, reportedly over half-a-million Boomers donned backpacks and circulated through Europe, many using affordable youth hostels for lodging, and many prudently getting by on a few dollars a day.
Arthur Frommer's best-selling book published in 1957, Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, is quaintly incongruous 52 years later. During one of my ambitious strolls through meandering streets of Venice, I stopped to rest at a cafe in a stunning square. I ordered a cappuccino, which in Europe consists of about three sips from a demitasse cup. When I was ready to leave, the waiter required five Euros for my brief interlude. Those three sips cost over seven dollars.
Here's the wake-up call for those who are experiencing a renaissance of yearning to discover more about the Renaissance: Europe isn't all that accommodating today for less than $500 per day.
If this seems spurious, then consider that a modest two-star hotel in a major European city can run around 95 to 120 Euros. A practical evening meal - a once-a-day indulgence and nothing too fancy - can easily cost a couple about 60 Euros, especially with a glass or two of wine. Then when you start adding other meals, cab fares, train fares, airline tickets, museum tickets, theater tickets, snacks, cappuccinos and a few modest gifts for family back home, it becomes clear that remaining under $500 a day can be an economic contest of Goliath proportions. A ten-day trip to Europe today can easily cost $5,000.00 and up.
For a peripatetic generation that's lost substantial wealth during the current economic recession, and considering lingering impact of unemployment on those in their 50s and 60s, Europe beckons today at a higher price than many are willing and/or able to afford. Just at a time in Boomers' life-cycle when seeking treasures of antiquity takes on momentous import, the opportunity to cherish Europe's art, history and culture may be fading with progressive weakening of the U.S. dollar.
This also comes at a time when Europeans desperately need our dollars. Near the Rome Termini, my wife and I had a lovely dinner at a family-style restaurant that was almost bursting with grey-headed tourists. The owner came to our table, an unbridled conversation ensued, and she lamented that this day's success is an exception, an exclamation point during a downbeat 2009. The recession has hit hard. This good-hearted restaurateur, who focuses on serving each customer fresh, authentic Italian food, not ersatz, confessed that she worries daily about how to keep her popular restaurant open. She feels enormous weight of rent, wages and taxes. In broken English she expressed her yearning that things would improve for "the whole world" so that her trattoria and similar small businesses might survive.
The Michelangelo statue portrays King David in a reflective moment immediately after his battle with Goliath, serenely contemplating triumph. Given the spurious cost of European travel, both inflationary and due to currency exchange rates, the ongoing battle to attract American Baby Boomer tourists will require equivalent focus, stealth and skill. The lofty cost of European culture is today's Philistine.
Clearly, a journey to Florence, Italy and The Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti, where David's immortal visage poses victorious, has become a luxury that fewer and fewer can and will manage.
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