It’s 10:01 p.m. in Florence, and seven hours earlier in Chicago.  According to the live map on the back of the headrest in front of me, we’re somewhere over Canada, making a beeline for Sault Ste. Marie, still in the daylight, but rapidly losing ground.  As we turn ever more to the south, the darkness will catch up, and shortly after we touch down, the first tendrils of dusk will be snaking their way through O’Hare.

Two years ago today, Aaron Wolf and I spent the night together.  The March 2011 issue of Chronicles was scheduled to go to press on February 2, but as the blizzard moved in that February 1, we began to suspect we would be unable to make it back to the office the next day.  We did two days’ worth of work in one, and not long before midnight, when we finished uploading the pages and approving them online, we found that we could not leave.  A few ounces of beef jerky served as a belated supper, and more than a few ounces of my homemade cherry liqueur made sleeping in our office chairs slightly less uncomfortable.

The next morning, before I waded through the waist-deep snow in the driveway of Chronicles’ editorial office and made my way home on foot down the center of the freshly plowed streets of Rockford, Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow.  Oddly enough, none of the good folks shoveling out their front doors on Harlem Boulevard found it as amusing as I did that all of the national media were announcing that an oversized rodent had just declared winter to be at an end.

We’re returning to Rockford—my son Jacob, Mark Kennedy, and I—not in the midst of a blizzard (thank God) but in the first real stretch of winter weather we’ve had all year.  A low of -10°F and four inches of snow on the ground tell me all I need to know, no matter what Phil may see (or not) tomorrow.  Winter has finally arrived, and it will be sticking around for a while.

We’re on our way back from Jacob’s first trip to Italy, my second to Florence, and my third to Rome.  The weather we experienced over the past two weeks was no Tuscan summer, but it was no winter on the Midwestern prairie, either.  The rain and the cold just made the sun, when it did come out (which was often), seem that much brighter, and neither could dampen the warmth of the camaraderie at Chronicles’ annual Winter School.

I have long disliked Florence, but I realize now that my dislike is entirely for the Florence of the 15th and 16th centuries and all to which it gave rise, philosophically and theologically and artistically.  Until this trip, I thought that I preferred modern Rome to Florence, but this was my first time experiencing them one after the other.  I could now see spending several months or even a year in Florence, once my Italian finally takes hold; I am not as certain about Rome.

Oddly enough, given my anticonsumerist bent, what sold me on Florence this time was the shopping.  We stayed on the edge of the Mercato Centrale neighborhood, named for the gigantic central market of Florence that even in these final days of January is packed with fresh fruit and vegetables, and of course meats, fresh and cured, and cheeses, hard and soft, and bread and wine and oil and sweets.  Visit the most elaborate year-round farmers’ markets in the United States—Pike Place Market in Seattle, for instance—and you can catch a glimpse of the Mercato Centrale, but only a glimpse.  And then imagine each of the stalls in the market multiplied a hundred times, and scattered throughout the streets and alleyways, and you can begin to understand Florence.

The restaurants of Florence are delightful, and the smaller and older they are, the more wonderful they tend to be.  Of course, they purchase their ingredients every day from the markets, big and small, and keep their menus simple and seasonal.  Two meals per day in a restaurant would put a healthy dent in one’s fine Florentine leather wallet, even though I spent no more on any single meal than I would on most meals at Rockford’s own Olympic Tavern.

Walking through the Mercato Centrale, I feel a twinge of the jealousy that I remember from my first trip to Tuscany, in 2002.  It’s not just that Florentines can get a passable tomato at the end of January, or even better-looking pigs’ feet at half the price I pay at Valli Produce.  No, it’s the existence of the market itself, and the miniature versions on every street in town, that make it all too clear what we in Rockford are missing.

Geographically, Florence is roughly the size of Milwaukee, or three quarters of the size of Rockford; its population is about the same as that of the greater Rockford area.  Yet Rockford could not sustain such a market, because our population density is too low, and the city is no longer walkable.

The urban sprawl that characterizes Rockford and most cities of its size in the Midwest is a reflection of what we value, just as the Mercato Centrale is a concrete creation of the desires of the citizens of Florence.  If we wanted to eat as well as the Florentines, we could; but it would require daily shopping, and urban living, and walking instead of driving, and a dozen other little things that we regard as inconvenient.

And so, for convenience’ sake, we pay more for food of a lower quality at supermarkets that may be the size of the Mercato Centrale but bear no other resemblance to it.  We make our legs into extensions of the vehicles that were meant to serve us, but instead have turned us into slaves.  And at the end of the day, too tired to cook from making the commute to earn the money to purchase our daily (presliced sandwich) bread, we pay as much for a dish of overcooked pasta at Olive Garden as we would for a fabulous four-course meal at La Falterona, in the alley behind our hotel in Florence.

Long ago, we Americans decided that convenience and consistency and “always low prices” were the values that would define our lives, and those values have led us to live lives of a consistent and convenient mediocrity.  But most of us do not know what we’re missing, because we have nothing to compare to our day-to-day experience.

That, it seems to me, is the greatest value today of international travel.  Forget the archeological treasures of ancient Rome, the spiritual treasures of medieval Siena, and the high art of the Florentine Renaissance.  What Americans today need is to walk the still-thriving streets of a city that was ancient before Christopher Columbus first sailed the ocean blue, and experience firsthand how man once lived—and still does, everywhere but here.

Home at last, Jacob and I are reunited with our family, but now I cannot sleep.  It is midnight here in Rockford; yet in Florence, the sun has just begun to rise.