Tourist Two-fer

I’ve had an internet drought, due to some intense restrictions that Italy places on access. Basically, everyone has to phsically look at your documentation before they let you on their network. Here in Trento they have free wireless, but before you can use it you have to go to one of several places that are not open until tomorrow. For now I’m on a pay-by-the-minute computer that has a keyboard which is just different enough to make typing a pain. So for now, enjoy a whole bunch of my touristy observations. There is some co-op stuff, but not much. I’m on vacation, after all. If you only want serious stuff, check back tomorrow.


I have to start by disclaiming that my brain is really full right now. I’ve been overstimulated in so many ways, that the part that receives inputs from PowerPoint presentations has shrunk to a very small size. That is a bit unfortunate because I am, after all, at a conference, and that is what conferences are all about. Plus, I’m only about halfway through this thing. I’m learning a lot of good stuff, but only barely. I think it would be better to have conferences in boring places.

On the other hand, at the end of the first day of the conference, we were off on a tour. (!) It wasn’t quite a mind-blowing as I had expected, but still a really inspiring trip to Rovereto, which is one of the province’s larger cities, and Isera, a village on its outskirts.

The first stop was a social cooperative called ITER (or journey), which is a worker cooperative whose members have disabilities. It started with five and now has 27 members, who collectively decide on what projects to take. The projects underway included assembly of product packaging, folders, boxes and small mechanisms. The workshop is bright and decorated with curtains and trophies and a few religious icons. They have no machines, because the point is to provide meaningful work rather than maximizing production. They have a dining hall, but usually go out for lunch at nearby restaurants, providing strong community integration. The hallways are decorated with members’ artwork and dozens of photos of hiking and ski trips. I want to work somewhere that takes me hiking on a regular basis.

The next step was Cantina d’Isera, which is one of about 20 cantini sociali, or wine co-ops. It was a big fancy building on a hill, which processes the grapes of 230 growers, producing about 5 mllion Euros worth of a dozen varieties that could be bought for as little as 5 Euros a bottle in their really nice tasting room. Considering the long involvement of Catholics in the movement, I had to ask whether the church bought its communion wine from them, but found out that it was even better than that: It turns out that “the church drinks for free.”

The next stop was the Casse Rurale cooperative bank in Isera, which had nearly 1000 members in a community of 2500. Even more impressive, this co-op has a 70% turnout for general assembly. I think it is more typical for credit unions and consumer co-ops to get 1%, and if they ever got 7% that would be pretty exciting. Getting 700 people to an annual meeting simply boggles the mind. It was in a gorgeous building right next door to the town grocery store, which was indeed a co-op.

We had dinner a couple of blocks away, at a restaurant that is a joint venture between the wine co-op, the Casse Rurale, and the municipality. It is meant to promote the area and sell lots of wine. It was a really incredible space, stitched together out of several buildings and additions, with a great view from the patio. This is exactly the kind of place that people are trying to imitate when they build something with an “Italian” feel to it. But there is no way to transplant this to the US, because it wouldn’t have the view of Rovereto, another lit-up castle, and the blazing lights at the soccer field. Nor would it have the amazing old wood balcony, vineyard, and stone arch gate across the main road, which would be mistaken for an alley in the US.

And speaking of roads, they have different relationships with roads here. Large chunks of town centers are mostly car-free. But at the same time some central plazas are also parking lots, and a bunch of us foreigners were chided by a local for standing in the middle of the street. Yesterday I also had an encounter with a delivery truck that missed me by about a foot, going about 30mph. And I was right up against an outdoor seating area. I instinctively jumped between some tables, but I don’t think I was in danger. Probably the driver saw me, figured that I was at least six inches out of his way, so he had no reason to change his plans. It was a cultural experience.

This morning, I was once again up early (my jet lag plan apparently hasn’t fully worked). I was fighting off one of the various colds that have been brought here from all over the world, but even so I got restless and decided to get up and walk around at dawn. I wound up tackling the mountain that looms over town.

At first it seemed the path was blocked by a landslide (judging from the taped-off path and multiple serious-looking signs) so I stopped and watched Riva del Garda start its day. At 7am, it was time to get up, as two church bells starting ringing at once, both for a good shake that would be hard to sleep through. A couple of minutes later, a third church chimed in. I couldn’t help but notice that the interval was approximately as long as it might have taken a sleepy priest (perhaps after an evening of that free co-op wine) to be jolted awake by the competition and stagger to his own post.

It was a fabulous moment that captured the blend of magical and mundane that I see here. On the one hand, I had a great view of town. On the other, there was an electrical tower directly in front of me. On the one hand there were church bells and birds chirping. On the other hand, there were garbage trucks. It is sometimes tempting for me to romanticize the world’s co-op hotbeds, but this reminded me that it is just a bunch of buildings and people and their garbage. It is just like everywhere else, and so anything that is done here, can be done elsewhere, if we just agree that it is possible.

As the light improved, I eventually noticed another path and decided to keep climbing. And I made it all the way up to the shrine I mentioned in my last post: Cappella (chapel) di Santa Barbara, which was at least 2000 feet above town, and probably closer to 3000. The signs mostly pointed to Capanna (cabin) di Santa Barbara, and I was getting a big kick out of thinking that I was heading to God’s cabin. This made a ton of sense, since a church is often called God’s house, and so what else would you call God’s little open-air house way up the side of a mountain. Shack, maybe, but somehow that doesn’t seem very dignified. Cabin works.

Alas, the capanna actually was a cabin, put together by an outdoor society. Even though it crushed my little joke, it was still pretty cool, with picnic tables and firewood and an absurd view. This was one of many other structures on a piece of mountain that would be a national park in the US; a map showed several other chapels and even a cemetery. Other additions included a bunch of huge concrete walls that apparently are intended to impede landslides before they get to town (very good idea), a power line, and a pipeline and tunnel project from the 1920s that had a genuine fascist insignia carved in stone next to the entrance. For those who don’t know, that’s a fascio, or hand axe with a bunch of sticks bundled around the handle.

And speaking of fascists, that is who built the chapel, which was apparently intended to bring God’s favor upon the state and its great engineering project of moving water through and down a great mountain to run a great powerhouse. I have to say I was a bit disappointed that the final steps up to the chapel were flanked by several large artillery shells, about two-footers. Totally not my style, but I have to admit that oughta keep the devil away, just in case the butt-whuppin’ hike weren’t enough. I figure that il diavolo would be smart enough to know that there are only hardy souls up there, and probably in no mood for temptation, too busy catching our breath. Much better to just hang out in town and prowl for low-hanging fruit.

On the way back down, I stopped at what I had previously described as a castle. And once again I wasn’t quite right. That was a bastione, which was basically a place to hide while the Visigoths or soccer hooligans were ransacking the town. I couldn’t find the age, but it looked really really old. Parts of it had already collapsed. Apparently Trentino was a pretty rough neighborhood in the old days, sitting on one of the best routes across the Alps. Whoever was in control, someone else wanted a piece of it. So there are fortresses all over the province, each banking on being too much trouble to come up and attack while being pelted with arrows, stones and dead animals. Much better to just keep going toward the choice targets to the south.


Yesterday, I got word that my book is finally published. Please check it out. Tell all your friends. To celebrate, I went out to dinner with my BFFC (best friend for the conference) Sara, who is an expatriate living in France. She was very excited to be speaking fluent English, and very generously treated me to a fantastic dinner on the edge of town, where I ordered the fillet of horse (and a bunch of appetizers and dessert and wine). But yes, I ate Seabiscuit. What can I say? It was the first word that caught my eye as I opened the menu. I tried to talk myself out of it, but when I eat in another country I like to eat things that I’m not going to eat otherwise. And horse is high on that list. It tasted like chicken.

No, I’m kidding. It was actually a lot like beef. And seriously, I don’t want any judgment here; just because horses are used for racing, and cows are mostly used for tipping, they’re both really cool animals that we should eat with respect. Besides, Sara already twisted that knife when she asked, “So…how was the black stallion?” I totally loved those books as a kid.

This morning I gave my presentation, and it got a reasonably good response, which included someone who was bringing up the predictable argument that I was ignoring all of the badness in religion. Actually, I acknowledged up front that I was focused on a teeny little current in some really big rivers. I’m just pointing out the good stuff to encourage more of it. One really great surprise was that afterward I was approached by a woman from Malta, who handed me a big glossy booklet about the Maltese co-op movement, which seems to be big and well-organized, and was also started by a priest. Seems to be a pattern here, with the priests and co-ops: Trentino, Emilia Romana (central Italy), Basque country, Nova Scotia, Quebec and now I suppose I have to go to Malta to investigate.

The format for the conference was to put three presenters with related papers in a session. They had me teamed up with two other panelists talking about social enterprises, which were fairly specific and not really that close to what I was talking about. Of course, I was totally the oddball, and definitely the only presenter who was slinging scripture this week. The main challenge was that I only had 20 minutes so I had to skip a ton of stuff, but it was still great to do it, and several people seemed interested enough that they’ll check out the whole paper (which happens to be available in the readings section at

Once the conference ended, it was off to the fabled co-op city of Trento, where I spent the afternoon with Sara. She is spending another week in Trento as a visiting scholar for the new European Cooperative and Social Enterprise Research Institute, which is yet another organization to set up shop here. I’ll learn more about them all on Monday, but today it is the weekend, so time for leisure!

Sara and I got me checked in to a fairly cheap hotel right across the square from a huge onion-domed cathedral that seems to be the main one in town (although there is a lot of competition). The square also has a castle, a big fountain in the middle, a couple of outdoor cafes, and a drinking fountain that might be an artesian well. I’m quite pleased with the accommodations. For lunch, we had real live Italian pizza. It wasn’t sliced, but each section had a different vegetable, including asparagus spears and corn.

Then we went across the street to the Castello del Buonconsiglio, which was built between the 13th and 17th centuries, was the seat of the Episcopal government back when the bishops were running the show, and also the location of the Council of Trent. The building was amazing and the various murals were fabulous. We also saw an archeological exhibit that blew my mind. The oldest parts reminded me a lot of Native American museums, but then instead of being obliterated, it just kept going. It made me wonder what would have happened if the Europeans hadn’t taken over the Americas. There was another interesting dynamic, in that various nationalities have used archaeology as a tool of conquest, claiming that various artifacts are of their own ancestors and using that to lay claim to the land. This is a big issue in a frontier place like Trento, where Mediterranean and European cultures have clashed for many centuries. We also saw a Rembrandt exhibit, but I was in full art overload by that time.

Now I’m sitting at an outdoor café, drinking wine and eating potato chips. Potato chips? Yes, but that’s what they brought me, so I guess it is the thing to do. When in Trento…

This town is amazingly vibrant. There are just hundreds of people passing through and hanging out talking, and it is everything a city should be. After a few nights in Riva, which is a summer tourist town, I am really digging this. There is even a fairly integrated immigrant population. Sara tells me that a lot of the stores here are rarely found outside of the more affluent areas of major European cities, so I guess the comparison would be Aspen or Carmel. But I don’t think that those cities would be so vibrant, with no cars for blocks. It really sounds like a party here, and I guess it is.

While I was with Sara I totally got to coast on il italiano. She lived in Trento before, so she knows the language well enough to arrange hotel rooms and such. And of course, the conference was in English and most attendees were relatively fluent. But now I’m on my own again. At it turns out that I have misplaced my phrasebook. I still have my dictionary, but this does complicate things a touch. Never a dull moment.

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One Response to Tourist Two-fer

  1. I agree that the comments about the negative effect of organized religion were predictable, but I also think that it is important to recognize it. I’m not sure that it is enough to simply narrow the argument to a small current in a big river. The point is that organized religion doesn’t always (in some opinions, never) realizes the written or ideal version of the belief.
    I think that your project is interesting precisely because it demonstrates that the ideal of organized religion can be a practical reality. However, even the reality of coops can often divert from the ideal. It is the nature of how predatory economics changes the human spirit.

    I think that it is worth being a bit more critical even of the successes. Priests have played a big role in cooperative development because they had the power. If a town had an enlightened priest (and a Bishop who didn’t care) they could do great things (Mondragon, Antigonish, etc). However, can’t the same be said of the post-modern figures with the power that the priests had in the pre-Chicago School days (CEOs)?
    I’m looking forward to reading the book, but my beginning prejudiced is that religion a tool to organize and little more. As a tool, it can be used both ways. I think that it will help worker coops organize in areas without being red-baited much in the way that union workers and peace activists in a bygone era waved the flag at rallies to show that they weren’t really communists.

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