What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.


When bad stuff happens

by Steven Brenner

We lived in Indonesia for 2 years from 2009 to 2011.  The first year we had no insurance (everyone thought we were crazy).  The second year, having felt like we’d pushed our luck far enough, we finally broke down and bought some. We were worried that one of our girls would get Dengue fever, break some bones, get bit by a rabid dog, or suffer from any number of things that were commonplace in the tropics.  Instead, I was the one who ended up breaking my hand in two places from a “martini accident” and needed surgery.  I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia twice for two surgeries over 6 months and didn’t have to pay 1 cent of what probably added up to over $10,000 worth of medical and travel expenses.

The 5 very expensive screws that held my hand together for 6 months

Insurance may not be sexy or cool, but I can’t imagine how screwed (no pun intended) I would have been without it.

If I think back over the years, and tally up the misfortunes of others that I’ve witnessed, as well as our own, it’s a shocking amount of loss:  from my own mother getting robbed by street thieves in Rome, to my wife having her purse snatched from around her feet in a local restaurant to a good friend arriving all the way from Bali, Indonesia and having her wallet stolen between Termini and our hotel, The Beehive.  These are just the cases of people close to me.  If I add in our hotel guests, and the many fellow Americans I’ve seen at the Consulate getting stolen passports replaced, the amount of misfortune skyrockets.

Even though the odds are still in your favor that nothing will happen, if your number does come up, you’re going to lose big.

My point should be pretty obvious – bad stuff happens and when it does, there’s not much you can do to fix it.  There’s a wide range of things that can go wrong – whether you’re adventurous, unlucky or just temporarily stupid (yes, it happens to the best of us).

Get insured – it doesn’t cost that much and you’ll be covered for health, your personal things both on you and left back in your accommodations, and for any costs (flights, hotel, etc.) associated with cancellations.

We’ve partnered up with World Nomads to offer quick, inexpensive insurance to our guests.  You can get a quote by following this link.

To read about stuff you should worry about, and CAN avoid, in Rome, read Linda’s recent blog post about safety in Rome here.



The Slow Web Movement

by Steven Brenner

The Slow Movement advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. It began with Carlo Petrini’s protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna, Rome in 1986 that sparked the creation of the Slow Food organization. Over time, this developed into a subculture in other areas, such as Cittaslow (Slow Cities), Slow living, Slow Travel, and Slow Design.” – from Wikipedia.

So what does “The Slow Web” mean?

For me, the key element to The Slow Movement is that we don’t strive for slow, simply because we prefer it and think it’s better.  The movement is about doing things in the amount of time it takes to do them right, and to avoid speeding them up, thinking that faster is always better, and sacrificing the quality as a result.

If you want to make a kickass Ribollita (bean soup), you have to soak the beans overnight, then boil them for at least a few hours, checking almost constantly that it’s not drying out, but that it’s reducing enough, while not sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Cutting any of these corners to save time will yield a disaster of a soup.  The time it takes is the time it takes and it happens to be a fairly slow process.

For us, The Slow Web means using technology and the internet to be speedy and efficient, but not to replace human interactions with automated algorithms and canned responses.  Instant gratification is nice, but getting things done right is certainly better.

Taking the time to do things right.  This means waiting a few hours for a response from a human instead of an instant response from a machine that’s guessing the human’s response.  It means waiting up to a day to get a confirmation letter but knowing that once confirmed, it’s been done by human beings who have connected with each other.  It means that when you need help, there are real people and not just a page of FAQs; and that those real people, to get things done right, might need to request some patience from you and take the time to make some phone calls to resolve your problems.

We think your travel plans deserve more than an automated system.  We can’t accept someone’s plans getting ruined based on a “glitch in the system”.  You deserve that someone take the time to read your questions and comments and notes and do what’s best for you.  We do this as fast and efficiently as possible, but believe in maintaining this inherently slower approach because we believe it’s better.

The benefits of “Old School Travel” (i.e. without a smartphone)

by Amy Knauff

I’m going to start this off by saying that I’m not as much of a Luddite as it might seem. I have so far successfully resisted getting a smartphone and that might just make me one of the last thirty-somethings to NOT have one. Not only do I not have a smartphone, but the cell phone I do have is pretty outdated, even for non-internet-having phones.

circa 2005

Yes, one of the reasons is a resistance to technologizing every aspect of my life: I do find it depressing when I see a group of friends or a family sitting together and everyone’s checking email on their phones instead of talking. And it’s sad to lose the spontaneity, say, when you’re traveling, because every question mark can be eliminated in a second (train times? hotel in the city you’re about to get to? shady neighborhoods to stay away from? best or worst restaurants? which route is faster?). Right after graduating from college, I took a cross-country road trip from Atlanta to Eugene, Oregon, with my best friend and neither of us had a smartphone or any phone at all. We had a stack of CDs, a map book of the US, and a few pages of hastily printed-out info we’d found online the night before about some places we thought we might want to visit. To this day, that was one of the best trips I’ve taken, and not because everything went smoothly, but because it didn’t, which made it an adventure.

We found the Badlands without a GPS or a phone!

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the other reason for not getting a smartphone is that I know I’ll be hooked on it, just like everyone else. Considering my current computer habits, if I break down and get a smartphone, it may be the end of productivity and human interaction as I know it. Being a freelancer who works mainly from home is a very dangerous thing. The hours seem to just slip away as I sit in front of the computer, and it’s scarily easy to go back and forth from being productive to completely wasting time (I’m looking at you, facebook). Physically stepping away from the computer is the one thing that currently forces me to, well, do other stuff – and if I have the internet in my pocket, I’ll never be able to detox.

I made a trip to Barcelona last May for Cross-pollinate to find some more properties for our website, and after halfheartedly digging up Steve’s old iphone before the trip (which turned out to be more broken than not), I just went with my own cell phone. I’ll admit it: being a work trip where I was out and about all day long every day, there were some times when it would have been really, really useful for me to have the internet at my fingertips. To get maps so I didn’t get frustratingly lost on the way somewhere; to get days and hours of tourist attractions so I knew if there was time to see something fun in the downtime before my next appointment; to check metro timetables or how long it would take for the next bus to come. Most notably, a woman my mother’s age who I had an appointment with reprimanded me for not having a smartphone – because she had sent me an email a few hours earlier changing the address of our appointment and assumed I would receive it (because who goes on a work trip without a smartphone?), but of course I hadn’t because I’d been out all day. That one cost me an international phone call on my cell, the price of a taxi across town, and a bunch of sweaty, heart-racing moments as I rushed from one place to another.

On the other hand, I think most of the interaction I had with locals happened as a direct result of not having a smartphone on me. Since I was on a two-week work trip, I was spending most of my time alone except for when I was in appointments.  When you’re eating in a restaurant or sitting at a bar alone, it’s tempting to start busily doing stuff on your phone to avoid the boredom and awkwardness of sitting there alone staring into space. But I couldn’t do that, so I ended up chatting with the servers or nearby diners much more than I would have if I’d had my nose in a phone.

Twice I got lost on the way to appointments and stopped to ask somebody on the street for directions, only to have somebody else standing nearby pull out an iphone and offer to look up the address for me and patiently explain exactly how to get there (and yes, the irony of me refusing to get a smartphone and then relying on other people’s is not lost on me). I’d always heard that Barcelonians aren’t particularly friendly or helpful to tourists, but my experience proved otherwise – something I would never have known if I’d been able to googlemap my own directions in the middle of the street.

My most memorable no-phone encounter happened when I was dragging my suitcase along the street in a residential area called Camp de l’Arpa (not far from the Sagrada Familia), looking for the B&B I was moving to that morning. I couldn’t figure out if I was heading in the right direction or not, so I stopped an elderly lady pulling one of those little personal shopping carts on wheels doing her morning compras. Instead of just explaining where I had to go, she said, “I’ll take you there. But first I have to buy some bread in this bakery right here – wait outside for me and I’ll be right back.” And without waiting for a reply, she went in the bakery, stepping out a couple minutes later with some freshly baked bread – the best in the neighborhood, she assured me – and insisted on giving me some to try (it was delicious). She then walked with me all the way to the street I was looking for (a 5-10-minute walk) and chatted pleasantly the whole way, asking me lots of questions about where I was from, why I was in Barcelona, if I’d been before, what I thought about the city, etc. She deposited me on the corner and waved off my profuse thank-yous as she continued on her way, pulling the shopping cart behind her.

So, let’s summarize:

•  With a smartphone, you can find all the information you need on your trip, so that you keep your misadventures to a minimum and things go smoothly.

•  Without a smartphone, you can get totally lost, end up in a neighborhood you never meant to go to, chat with locals, practice your Spanish (or whatever language it is), find out some insider tips on the area (ie, place that sells the best bread), accidentally end up in a sleazy hotel or a crappy restaurant, and have some great stories to tell about things that didn’t go exactly how you planned.

I won’t suggest that anybody travels without their smartphone – that’s practically blasphemous, and yes, impractical if you already have one anyway. It would be silly to leave it in your hotel room just to purposely make your life more difficult. But I will suggest relying on it less while traveling than you normally do at home. You don’t have errands to run and deadlines to meet: you’re on vacation. So act like it’s a vacation. Don’t stop to look up every little detail that pops into your mind – leave some things up to chance. If you need directions, try asking a local first; you might make a little mini-connection that will change your whole view of the place. If you’re curious about a breathtaking building or church you’re looking at, don’t google it that second while standing there so you can immediately find out everything the human brain knows about it; just stand there, take it in, enjoy the beauty of it without having to know everything, ponder it for the rest of the day or debate about it with your travel partner(s), and eventually look it up later that night in your hotel room, or even after your trip is over – like in the olden days.

Someday, probably very soon, I’ll end up buying a smartphone. It’s getting to the point where it’s so prevalent that not having one is actually becoming a competitive disadvantage in the workplace, and often makes everyday life more complicated than it needs to be. Besides, resistance is futile. But in the meantime I’ll happily enjoy my smartphone-free, inconvenient, somewhat more spontaneous existence, especially when I travel.