The Lay of the Land

My jet lag mitigation strategy didn’t go as planned. After less than 5 hours of sleep to catch a 7:30 flight, I quickly conked out and slept the whole way to Dulles. So of course I couldn’t sleep on the jaunt to Munich.

My first impression of Germany was from the air, that they have a very clear idea of where the town ends and the countryside begins. The buildings are clustered tightly and surrounded by pretty much pure agriculture. It was vividly different than the sprawl of suburbia back home, which in at least 5 cases that I saw leaving Sacramento were only half built, with no sign that anyone intended to finish them.

Munich is really amazing old eye candy. There is simply no end to the architectural detail, much of which is badly weathered but still gorgeous in its own way. This town has some really amazing churches and other architecture, but also a number of modern buildings, including several with green roofs.

This is my first time in Europe and I have a strong sense of how it is a crossroads. There are all these languages and people mashed together in a land that isn’t particularly large but is kind of in the middle of things. Alternately, it is the other end of a new pole of economic power that runs through Asia. This past weekend the European powers announced a coordinated response to the financial crisis, which is what finally arrested the stock market’s free fall. Now, I don’t really give much credence to the stock market as an indicator of economic health or order, but it is worth noting that it now seems to be responding to European signals more than those from the US, which showed itself to be quite unable to provide leadership.

This is made all the more interesting because I’m currently reading about various theories of political economy. It’s a long story, and maybe I’ll write more about it soon. But for now, the short version is that a functioning global system seems to rely on the presence of a leader (or hegemon) with whom other nations can cooperate. The current international regime is based around the hegemony of the US, which was in decline even in 2001 when the book was written (Global Political Economies, by Robert Gilpin).

It is obviously a bit dangerous to make predictions about where this all is leading, but it seems increasingly likely that we may see a major retrenchment that moves the global economy’s center to Europe and Asia, with Africa acting as a deep pool of cheap resources. The Americas may increasingly be out of the loop. I could be totally off here, but it would behoove us to keep an eye out for signs of such developments (such as, say, the world’s stock markets–including the US’s–taking the lead of Europe. But I digress…

The train ride over the Alps was like a train ride over the Alps. You had to be there. But once we started approaching Trento the trip went to an entirely new level that had me spinning in ecstasy.

First, there is the geography: The land reminds me of a cross between the Alps, coastal California and the most amazing canyonlands of Utah, with vineyards climbing higher than I would have ever thought to plant them, and the occasional mountaintop monastery or castle, and the most incredible collection of gorgeous churches that I’ve seen since, well, since Munich. These people don’t mess around when it comes to churches. There are many new buildings and the place generally looks very prosperous. The rest of the older architecture is pretty Italian-looking, but there is also a scattering of more Alpy-looking stuff, which reflects the region’s history as a crossroads. All of the train stops between Innsbruck and Trento have both Italian and German names.

Then there are also some really impressive roads: Riva del Garda was a bit more than an hour by bus, which was full of bored commuters chatting or reading as we drove through some of the most stunning countryside I have ever seen. We drove up a two-lane highway that made a few switchbacks, entered a slot canyon, and then passed through a series of tunnels until we got up into a higher valley that was full of villas, vineyards, and a really startling number of apartment buildings under construction. Whenever we passed a town, which was invariably gorgeous, there was often a bypass or an off-ramp featuring a sort of elevated roundabout that allowed the traffic to zip through unimpeded.

Another feature is–what else–the cooperatives! Sure enough, we passed through several towns where there was a large co-op supermarket, or a Farmacia Comunale. Many winery signs announce that they are run by consorzios. There are also Casse Rurale branches everywhere, which is a cooperative bank. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more over the next week, and these obvious ones are only the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, one of my professors who is at the conference has just come from a study trip near Bologna, where he got to visit a city of perhaps 100,000 people where 60% of the businesses are worker cooperatives.

Riva del Garda is situated at the end of a long lake, with really massive mountains looming right over the town. At night, a shrine and castle are lit up on the hillside and seem to hover in the sky, much higher than my brain can remember that there is land. It constantly startles me to see them up there. There are also numerous shrines in town, which seem to be maintained by some sort of private societies that keep candles burning behind locked gates. The waterfront features a line of tour boats facing a line of olive trees. I haven’t caught the right lighting yet, but there are some really amazing pictures to be taken here. A couple of times (like now, as I have breakfast at 8:15) a church bell starts ringing madly for a minute or two.

Whenever I remember that I’m going to be here for a week, my heart soars with joy, and then breaks at the thought of leaving. I am already in love with this place.

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