Firenze: People and Places / Gente e Locali

It has been three weeks since I moved offices to The Student Hotel, out on the viale and close to the Fortezza.

The move has been positive. I love the rooftop gym, and the bathrooms are spotless. We have two dedicated office managers who resolve requests (internet stuttering, air conditioning too strong), place fresh water and fruit in the kitchen, and in general provide a friendly, calm presence as other professionals come and go in the space. As a shameless lay cultural anthropologist, I am also very interested to observe the dynamics among my new coworkers.

The space is divided into desks and offices, with a general work area out front that can be leased more cheaply. I am in a desk, as are three others – all British men. There are a few Dutch people who float in and out, and a small clutch of Italian women who are designers and architects on the back row. They keep to themselves.

The small glass offices are occupied by Italian startups or small companies – it is set up to be an incubator situation. One office is truly overfull of Italians. I don’t know what they do, but they are beautiful people. There are eight of them in that small room, wearing headphones, and having what appear to be client meetings in the shared workspace out in the front foyer area. They have purchased their own Lavazza espresso machine, and walk over to the kitchen with tiny cups and saucers and espresso pods. The man who appears to be somewhat in charge of the group is named Marco.

One morning last week Marco approached me in the kitchen, and under the assumption that I actually speak fluent Italian, unleashed a small monologue about “Dangerous Dragons” and his friend Simone. I looked at him for the duration, mostly making sounds like mmm, oh, and si, while trying to look intelligent, and when he turned and walked away I realized he had been talking to me about Jason’s D&D group in Italy – I heard only Dangerous Dragons, and was certain he was telling me about a soccer league or something, which didn’t make sense because aren’t all dragons, by definition, dangerous? Oh, Dungeons and Dragons, not Dangerous Dragons. In any case, Marco is friends with Simone, the Italian Dungeonmaster who Jason plays with weekly and who owns an agriturismo with a pool in Arezzo where we will relocate with the children for the final week of August.

Jason’s adult study abroad curriculum.

The space hosted a cocktail hour last week, and we came with the kids, after promising they could swing on the giant swings, and Victor could look for Pokemon with Jason’s phone playing Pokemon Go. I also brought a soccer ball to play with in the piazzetta, because Italy.

Victor and Eleanor played with the soccer ball in the huge internal courtyard. We spied the pizza being brought out from the restaurant to the work space. A huge bucket of cold Nastro Azzuro beer on ice was placed on the counter. The pizza was hipster pizza on foccaccia, with anchovies and jalapenos and foamy ricotta – hardly the fare of the school-aged set.

I found a piece of margherita for Victor, and he nibbled at it. “What’s this leaf here for? Where is the cheese?” he wanted to know. He put it down, and five minutes later Eleanor was wheedling about her empty tummy.

Jason picked up the piece of hipster margherita pizza and showed it to me, asking “Did Victor lick the top of this all over?

“No,” I said, “it looked like that when it came out.” The kids looked glummer and glummer. Jason finally took Victor back out to play more soccer.

Eleanor meanwhile had met Marco’s two young sons, bilingual Britalians, and quickly formed a play group of three, crawling among the adults and giggling. Jason and Victor came back in, and I introduced him to Marco. They had a long conversation about Simone and Dangerous Dragons and the agriturismo. Marco took a picture of him and Jason and immediately WhatsApped it to Simone the Dungeonmaster.

We still cannot work out how Marco initially began talking to me about Simone and Dangerous Dragons and my husband’s RPG hobby – eventually it will become clear. What I can say is this: in true Italian fashion, as my gens here increases, my social capital becomes more firm. Now all Marco’s coworkers in the small glass office greet me warmly, engage in small talk in the cucina condivisa (shared kitchen), compliment me on my Italian (um ok thanks), and share their coffee with me. Thanks to Dangerous Dragons and Simone and Marco and my husband, I can now be placed in the vast Net of Indra that is Italy. Adding this to Andrea, whom we know from the kids’ school, and Maria, friends with our friend Megan in Turin, and it’s feeling like a proper workplace.

The added amusement of cross-cultural puzzling is easily my favorite activity, and it is available in spades with the Brits. The anglophones in the area have all spread out to opposite corners, where we are not looking at one another; in contrast, yesterday an Italian man made himself at home across from me, while his colleague, an Italian woman tapped away at my right elbow. Were they close enough? Were they cold? Did they need something?

Hey? Kinda tight here.
Do you see all the space here in this huge space?
Can you please use some of that space? Grazie 

Culture! 

Britain and I have discussed our disappointment in the coffee situation (not great espresso by any measure in the coffee bar on premises; not free in kitchen as advertised; no pods available) so this past weekend I picked up three boxes of Nespresso-compatible pods at the IperCoop in Novoli. I am pleased to have coworkers after two years of working in near solitary confinement in the Sprachcaffe on Piazza della Repubblica, and planned to share the coffee.

One of the Brits was raised in Italy, and thus is very calm and culturally proficient. I hear him with the Italians and it is clear he is a native speaker. He completed his schooling in Italy. He works on fintech and has a product that is pretty cool – it moves money around international accounts at the current exchange rate with no wire fee. Take my money Giorgio!
I shyly pulled out the coffee pods that I had put together for the Brits. When I handed Giorgio the coffee, he politely pointed out that he had already acquired his own pods over the weekend. I should have thought of that – he is britaliano. He put my pods on his desk next to his pods, and pronounced me “a legend.”

The second Brit is a sweet Mancunian who does film.
He confessed to me that he accidentally jammed
the fancy Lavazza espresso machine of Marco’s workgroup. He said he did not know that different pods go in different machines, and had stuffed a Nespresso pod into the Lavazza machine, resulting in a loud Lavazza alarm and a bright flashing red alert light.
“What did you do then?” I asked him, intrigued.
“I left the area,” he said. “I came back to my desk and sat down. I asked Oscar the office manager to go have a look at it, but by the time he got round to it they’d fixed it, hadn’t they.”
“Clever,” I nodded. “I don’t see how or why they bought that machine for the kitchen – the Nespresso is just fine. Plus it takes up an outlet, and is huge.”
He agreed.
We chatted briefly about coffee pods versus espresso machines – it really is something you need to know in Italy.
“Here’s some new pods,” I said, handing him the small sack of espresso pods and sugar packets. “They go in the small machine only. Don’t stuff them into the Lavazza machine.”
“Right,” he said.
I relayed this anecdote to Jason later on in the day, and he was highly amused by the level of tamper protection built into the Lavazza machine. Do not screw with the Italians’ workplace espresso machines!
Perhaps Manchester would like to write a treatment of this episode for an indie short. Plenty of action, plenty of farce.

OF COURSE the model is called Espresso Point. 
In Italy, if you make a thing or a business, make sure you append “Point” to the branding.
That way, people will know it is a thing you use.
Imagine this with alarms and red lights going off, and a jammed pod in the chute.

A third Brit showed up a week after Giorgio and Manchester and I had settled in to our dedicated desks. He came with a duffel bag, looking around in a preview with Maria, and five minutes later came back with a key and immediately set to work. He eventually slipped that he is from Bristol. He owns his own tech firm and was very quiet his first week. When I gave him the coffee pods yesterday, he asked me what they were for.
“You don’t drink coffee?” I asked. “Oh, no – are you a tea drinker?”
“I drink both,” he said.
“I do too,” I quickly rejoined. Agreeable American! “Tea in the morning, and espresso after. Coffee is not hot enough for me. I need a … a mug of builder’s brew.” (Note to Yanks: this is Brit argot for a very strong cup of tea.) “I cannot drink the tea in Italy,” I added. “It’s awful.”
“Yes,” Bristol mused. “What we really need is some loose tea.”
“Oh, there is a shop in town, it’s local, called La Via del Te. They’ll have it, and loose.”
“I like Assam and Darjeeling,” he said. “I’ll bring a teapot.”
I laughed. “A teapot! I never know how to drink it all fast enough so that it stays hot. I hate cold tea.”
He looked at me. “It’s called a cosy.”
“But you wouldn’t take a teapot and a tea cosy to work, would you?”
He nodded. “People would.” He thought again. “They would.”

Oddio, will some inglese please bring this to work and set it next to me.
Yes, I find this quite a normal item to have in the workplace.

It’s really nice to be in a workspace where people know I am working, and who are working along similar lines. I often felt the suspicion in the Sprachcaffe – what was I really doing? How could this possibly be work? Where were my coworkers? Did I work at all? No, it seemed I worked too much. I get none of that here. Everyone bikes in, taps away, works out, does a few conference calls. Types some more. It’s good.

Italy: Where Two Italians Gather…

A cultural observation? If I may.

Italians love to consider problems in groups. They absolutely love it. It is a birthright.

My new office space is a recently renovated palazzo, formerly Trenitalia. It has had a lot of work done. There are finishing touches taking place now – painting fresh murals on walls, putting in light bulbs that look like 1920, adjusting air conditioning. This has all been happening around me as I work in the new space this week.

Every problem, even the smallest problem, requires at least six to eight Italians to consider it and bring it closer to a point of resolution. I do not know if the problem could be solved with just one Italian.

Is this a union thing?

A vent was malfunctioning in my new space yesterday. Eight Italians came to look at it and talk about it. One man held something that seemed like a precision instrument, to measure air flow. The other Italians looked up and made comments.

Comments included: crap; this makes no sense; why, what are we going to do; who knows what to do. Et cetera.

The man holding the precision instrument seemed not at all confused, nor did he seem to be consulting any of the other Italians in the group. He calmly measured, squinted, looked up a few times, jotted down some numbers, and left. The other seven Italians trailed out after him. I would wager they all went to get an espresso.

We’re not done here. There’s more to say.

I mused a bit.

The American way.
Do it yourself. Work with no one else. Suffer. The job is probably too big.
Do it anyway.

This would be like eight cable guys in the U.S. coming to your house to hook up your cable, or to resolve a cable issue. One guy’s got the needle-nosed pliers to fix the thing, and the other seven guys are all standing around talking about the NFL draft or pre-season, and how silly their employer is. One is saying to the other, hey, I like those pants, the flat-fronts are flattering. Other dude is stroking his sideburns. Afterwards, they all leave together in three trucks to go do it again.

Where two Italians gather, let there be more. And as they solve the problem in front of them, let them suggest further unrelated problems which they might easily resolve, on macro- and micro-levels.

This. Pretty much. Every day. Your civic right to public debate
with family, colleagues, friends, and strangers.
C. Oliver Stegman Photography

Florence: Turning a page / girare la pagina

This whole post is about my new workspace!

As many of you know, I work remotely for Terra Dotta, a software company based in North Carolina. I am going on six years now with the company, and find my work engaging and fulfilling on many levels. It is a boon that the position has been remote since they hired me for the second time in 2013 – good for me, good for my career, good for our family, and frankly, good for Terra Dotta, as I remain deeply involved in our product development from Oklahoma and Italy, in way that would be impossible had I been issued an ultimatum to relocate to Chapel Hill.

It has long been a discussion in our marriage that I am easily employed, with a wide latitude in my career encompassing immigration, marketing, writing, editing, publishing, software development, testing, end user documentation … the list goes on. Foreign language teaching. Branding. I fall quickly into often fruitful employment situations: freelance, contract, full-time. A random conversation many times has turned into income for me.

This hasn’t always precipitated pleasant discussions in certain years in my marriage, when Jason felt stymied professionally. He has a profundity of education and a level of specialization I don’t; he is supremely qualified for a handful of positions that turn over infrequently. So it worked out well that when Jason was offered the position in Florence, I was able to bind up my roots and transplant my work to Italy with relatively little churn or burn. Happily, my position continued, and continues, to grow and change and expand in ways that remain interesting and engaging for me from abroad.

However, Italy is not San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland, in the sense that jobs are very rooted to a sense of place and the Roman concept of gens – who you know, and who is in your network, and who your parents are, and where your clan has lived for the last, oh, one thousand or two thousand years. The job market in Italy is tight and sewn up. Publicly posted positions are almost always mere formalities, as they were filled some time ago in name, and now only the details remain to be completed.

Italy is not also San Francisco, or Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that remote work is barely an idea here. If an Italian asks me what I do, and I explain it to them, they are usually astonished. The entire concept of full-time remote work is so far beyond their hermeneutic horizon that I am met only with disbelief.

And, most importantly, Italy is not San Francisco, Seattle, or South Korea, or Germany or Finland in the sense that, more often than not, the lack of reliable internet here is a constant source of stress. I think of the places listed here as places with awesome internet! Fiber! superfast speed! Very reliable, and new networks. Italy does not really have that. They try. Oh, they try. They place paper flyers on the doors of buildings, “La fibra vi arriva!” I no longer believe it. It is like trying to wire the Colosseum to be a tech incubator. Italian infrastructure at times can seem truly hostile to modernization. Can’t drill a hole… walls will crumble, stones will break… historic building … not to mention every time they rip up a street or piazza it seems to be that some very suspicious bundles and braids of blue and yellow ethernet cabling are snipped, and carelessly tossed about with abandon.

And so it was that my rented office situation in Florence began its quick, explicable descent. From my office balcony since March I have watched the commune tear up Piazza della Repubblica, digging holes and planing old flagstones. The ruins of the razed Jewish ghetto under the piazza merited further academic investigation, and an anthropologist wearing a white sunhat was soon seated at a desk in a pit. My internet got worse and worse, and in the old building, there was nowhere to plug in. I did not have an option to wire. My afternoons were frequently fraught and gave me minor chest pains as I failed to complete call after call and meeting after meeting with any kind of grace or success.

When I asked why the wifi was not working, the staff insisted it was my laptop, that the wifi was fine.
But the wifi is not fine, I said. I want to wire in, I begged.
You cannot, they said. All these outlets are non-functional.
Meanwhile I further annoyed my colleagues with an audio that sounded like the aliens from the movie Mars Attacks, and no video.

So I went home to work for a week.

I should mention here that Jason is in the US for work and the kids are home on summer break. Working from home has been touch and go at best. Even with sitters, and we have many, my life at the working parent switchboard is like a military CentComm.

In a midnight moment of insomnia, I remembered the pleasant lunch I had had recently with one Maria, a marketing manager and host of a co-working space a bit out of centro. Maria and I had been introduced by Megan, another remote tech professional whom I met a year and half ago on Piazza della Repubblica. Megan had since moved to Turin, leasing office space that was hosted by Maria and her company, The Student Hotel.

The Florence location opened this month, I  remembered. I had missed both of the events to which I had been so kindly invited, due to scheduling conflicts. I had not seen the space yet. Maria is colleagues with another person we know, Andrea, a mom of kids at our kids’ school, whose bambini are roughly the same age as ours. Why didn’t I email Maria? What was I waiting for? 

My loosely structured gens, such as it is, could be put to work for me here.

I contacted Maria the very next morning. She immediately responded and invited me to come look on Friday at lunch. It’s a quick ride from our palazzo on the bike path.

What’s the internet like? I grilled her. I would like to remain employed, and to not have a cardiac in my remote position due to my lack of connectivity.
It is good, she affirmed.
The building is newly gutted and renovated – it is a former HQ of Trenitalia, the state rail system. They maintain a very pretty office building next door.

Trenitalia HQ next door.

Can I wire in?
Yes, Maria said. It is a LAN too. Bring a wire.
 

She took me around. New furniture, functional air conditioning. Office space, social space, classrooms and cafes. A juice bar. A deejay booth, I am not kidding, for a nightclub that seems to start at a later hour, like 10 or 11 pm. A recording studio which I will be using to rehearse. A rooftop gym with a sweeping view of the Florentine skyline. A rooftop pool (can’t use) and bar (can use). Laundry and kitchens. Restaurants. A bike shop. A salon. A retail design store. Big swings.
A LAN I could wire into.
This place was off chain. The Student Hotel is a Dutch enterprise, and it shows. Design is thoughtful. Spaces are clean and inviting.
Maria and I passed Andrea in the hall, and soon we were three for lunch at the fancy restaurant, which is leased by La Menagère, which is a high-end eatery in centro.

I said I would return on Monday for my free trial day to work. But my mind was made up the minute I unlocked my bike from the pole on Friday. This would be my new, reliable office. With a wired LAN. I was so excited I could have screamed.

My new office building.

I came on Monday with my work backpack and got down to it. Wow, it is so easy to work when you have internet and a tiny bit of air conditioning! It was nice to have an ambient cohort also all working and doing their things in the vicinity. I struggled in Oklahoma and Florence with feeling isolated. I do not love to have people on top of me, but I appreciate being around professional people if they’re not eating stinky leftover food they’ve just heated up in the office microwave.

Seriously, people. I got so much done with minimal stress. Wifi was awesome. Wired LAN was dreamy. I cannot overemphasize how stressful this was on Repubblica. Then I hung out in a little nook and got even more done!

Work nook!

This morning I messaged my rental colleagues on Repubblica to let them know I was not coming back to work, and that I would bring the keys back. It feels a bit like a breakup (sniff). I started working there the second month after we moved here. Through all four seasons, the vagaries of that grand palazzo, the thin heat in winter and the stifling rooms in summer. The Evita Peron balcony from where I spied on all the activity below each day. The six months of Italian language classes that I took. The clipclop of the carriages carrying tourists. And oh, all my friends at Caffe Paszkowski, which is fortunately on my regular route home from St. James on Sundays after I sing at mass. The buskers in the piazza below, and my easy access to the bustle.

I’ve got a new neighborhood now to explore, though, which isn’t Piazza della Repubblica, but is still plenty full of caffes and restaurants. Plus, the fact that I will be able to ride a bike path for the full commute is wonderful – no more playing Frogger (TM) in centro with aggressive Florentine taxis.

Up and away! Turn the page.

Fresh fruit, fancy water, keycard. Feels like old times in Seattle.