Back from Europe and into the fray

By Dan White – Special to the Sydenham Current

Joni and I have just returned from a three-week journey across the pond. Our travels began in Germany, where we attended my eldest son’s wedding. It was a busy week filled with visits, meeting his in-laws, and assisting with last-minute wedding preparations. The culmination was a wonderful wedding celebration where Joni and I joined the young crowd in dancing until 3 am. While we didn’t delve into Germany’s arts and culture during this trip, it wasn’t our primary focus.

Following the wedding festivities, we embarked on a tour of Joseph’s workplace in Germany. Then, we headed to Italy, where we commenced our 11-day “Best of Italy” bus trip from The Eternal City, Rome. Interestingly, Rome’s title as the “Eternal City” is somewhat misleading, as it doesn’t rank among the world’s top 20 oldest cities. (As a fun fact, Joni’s ancestral homeland of Lebanon boasts four of the 20 oldest cities in recorded history, with Byblos ranking second at over 8,000 years old. But I digress.)

While I may have missed a few stops along the way, I can confirm that we visited at least 14 locations during our journey across Italy. But before I delve into sharing some highlights of our Italian adventure, allow me to digress once more.

As I write this column, the Imagine Chatham-Kent Arts, Culture, and Library Engagement Session is taking place in Chatham. I’m attending primarily because I chair the C-K Arts and Culture Network, and we have a vested interest in supporting and promoting arts and culture throughout CK. Additionally, the outcome of this event may provide insights into how arts and culture will be valued in the planning of the Southside Project in Wallaceburg.

A friend of mine, Karen Robinet, who is well-known to readers of papers across Sarnia-Lambton and Chatham-Kent over the past three decades, posted a thoughtful response to the “Let’s Talk C-K” questionnaire. This questionnaire seeks community feedback on C-K Libraries, the Chatham Civic Centre, and the Cultural Centre. Karen, along with others, argues that the questionnaire is inherently biased and flawed. We can only hope that these issues were unintentional (and based on my attendance at the meeting tonight, I believe that’s the case).

The common thread connecting these two topics, and there is one, is our tendency in North America to discard older structures and embrace the notion that newer is always better. Our leaders often find arguments to tear down the old and build something new. In the questionnaire, the guidance encourages agreement that the best course forward is to consolidate several municipal resources into a central location, with the argument that this will save taxpayers money by abandoning old facilities in need of repair in favor of shiny new monuments to progress. It’s an argument that often gains traction, yet the reality is often far more complex.

In Italy, I repeatedly heard and witnessed the perspective that a 200-year-old building is considered relatively new. “Old” in Italy signifies structures that have endured for 500 years or more, and there is a prevalent mindset of preserving these historical structures across Europe and beyond.

Here in North America, indigenous peoples who have been stewards of the land for millennia follow the Seventh Generation Principle, based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy. This principle dictates that the decisions made today should lead to a sustainable world seven generations into the future.

Too often, our leaders pay lip service to sustainability and environmental concerns but abandon these principles in favor of legacy projects. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the legacy we left behind involved listening to those affected, considering what is best for the entire community for generations to come, and then creating a plan with substantial input and feedback from the community? I believe that the prevailing sentiment leans towards assuming that all politicians and municipal staff have nefarious intentions that will harm the community. Yet, after attending the meeting tonight, I don’t see that.

These individuals live in our community and share the desire to create a better future for everyone. Ultimately, municipal staff are simply doing their jobs, and if they make mistakes, it’s often because of a lack of information or transparency.

I choose to believe that they are good people who are competent, as that is what I have observed in my interactions with them. While hidden agendas may exist, their nature is, by definition, concealed. What do we gain by dismantling arts and culture in our community?

I will continue to attend meetings, listen to various perspectives, and act only after gathering enough information to make informed decisions. No level of government or bureaucracy should have carte blanche to make decisions, but they do deserve the opportunity to engage in conversations within an environment of friendship, hope, and respect. If we, as stakeholders in the arts and culture community, stay informed and engaged, we have a chance to create local masterpieces. If our community desires change, we must step up, be visible, make our voices heard, and demonstrate our commitment through our actions.

In my next column, Joni and I will share our impressions of Michelangelo’s David, our visit to Pompeii, our experience at the Sistine Chapel, insights into Italian cuisine, monuments celebrating great artists, architectural wonders, geographic marvels, and, of course, the delightful wines of Italy.

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