Co-op Geek Geeks Out!

Yesterday I became overwhelmed. After church, Sara and I spent the rest of the morning at a crowded café on the piazza. There, we ran into someone from the conference who lives in Trento, and Sara had a long conversation with an immigrant street merchant from Senegal, where she used to live. They talked for about 15 minutes in Wolof, as I sat there boggling at the improbability of it all. Actually, it turns out that it was no surprise to her, because most African immigrants in Trento are Senegalese.

Adding to my list of remote places to investigate, Sara told me about Tuva, which is a major center of western African Islam. It has a strong communitarian flavor which she contrasted with the more conservative Middle Eastern forms. It t turns out that many Senegalese spread out from there to make money in a variety of ways, and then send much of it home. Harlem is a major center for this diaspora, and so is Trento. Who knew? This is the subject of her doctoral thesis, which I hope to read in order to know more before I can work an African trip into my schedule and budget (i.e. not right away).

Things generally shut down for an hour or three every afternoon, so we got booted from the café and went in search of lunch. I had a pizza that was even better than the previous pizza, an amazing tiramisu, and my fourth espresso drink for the day. We also had a really intense conversation that I somehow can’t remember. The sugar, caffeine, and mental workout put me in a state where I decided that I needed to stare at a wall for a while.

Luckily, our afternoon café was facing the blankest wall in all of Trento, on this weird 60s architecture thing that had a couple of floors of nothing but white marble (above which were several windows festooned with Berlusconi posters and flags (it is election season here, too, and there are posters everywhere, from the communists to some guy whose slogan is “Enough privileges for Gypsies and immigrants!” Ahem.) So I stared at the wall and perhaps it was just the sun reflecting, but the whole thing brought tears to my eyes. I was in a deeply altered state, and about all that was missing was the candidate himself opening one of the windows to give some fiery nationalist oration.

Eventually the sun faded a bit, and the espresso wore off, and my brain stopped fizzing. And I had a nice mellow evening that included working on my homework and eating some bad pizza (at the only place that was open late Sunday, a German restaurant that was only serving pizza–go figure). By that time, a little imperfection was welcome.

This morning I went to one of the food co-op stores and totally geeked out. I was taking tons of pictures and buying all sorts of random co-op label stuff (which is produced by Co-op Italia, a national purchasing group). They have crazy co-op things: Batteries! Floss! Toothbrushes that actually say Co-op on the handle! Plastic plates! Dozens of types of cookies! Canned goods of all sorts! Insecticide spritzers! (!?!) There were several areas of the store where most of the products on a shelf were Co-op brand.

Not only this, but many of the products were originally produced by farmer cooperatives, which you may recall grow about 90% of produce in Trentino. A lot of the cleaning products looked kind of scary, but there was also a reasonable selection of organics and a “solidarity” line of fair trade goods. It is a full-blown integrated co-op food system, which is still open to other products. And the prices are really reasonable, showing what economy of scale and community ownership can do.

There is a tram that costs. 0.90 Euros that goes from the edge of the town center, over the river, a huge abandoned factory, and the freeway, up to a conference center perched on a huge cliff overlooking the Adige valley. I took a ride up and spent a while in the village of Sardagna, which appears to be a couple of thousand people. After stopping by a Cliffside church that was started in the 13th century but somehow didn’t have anything in the cemetery older than about 1850, I wandered the town. Here is a summary of the businesses: A restaurant (closed Mondays), a bar/café, a Casse Rurale co-op bank, a food co-op (with a staffed deli/meat counter), and a now-closed branch of a common convenience store chain.

Apparently this sort of cooperative-heavy mix is pretty typical. Out of 223 municipalities in Trentino, a food co-op is the only grocery store in 200 of them. The Casse Rurale has neary 400 branches, and provides advanced financial services for many other banks. I’m having some trouble wrapping my brain around all that.

This afternoon is the highlight of the trip: I will be conducting a series of interviews on the role of religion in the movement here. I hope to learn how faith plays out in daily operations and overall governance. I saw a crucifix behind one of the counters today, and notice that the federation’s values include equity, humbleness, peace, social responsibility and self-help.

I also have a lot of questions about the way that an intensely hierarchical church–the world’s largest owner of property–has paradoxically supported and nurtured many of the world’s greatest expressions of cooperative economics, which is essentially based in equality and sharing of resources.

This is probably more than I can learn in one visit, but I hope to at least discern the outlines of this dance between coercion and cooperation. I’m trying to keep my mind as open as possible, because one thing I do know is that religion here is way different that the North American Protestantism that is my background.


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