Tag Archives: Economy

Time, Money, and Crocodile Skins

On Valentine’s Day, we had our second City of Florence field trip. While the last trip took us into a funky artist studio all the way over in the Oltrarno, this trip took us to a much bigger business: Scoula del Cuoio in the city center.

Looking up at Santa Croce in Florence.

Looking up at Santa Croce in Florence.

The Scuola del Cuoio, or “school of leather” for my Anglophones, was founded in 1950 in the old monastery behind Santa Croce. A family of Florentine leather artisans collaborated with Franciscan friars in order to open a school that would allow orphans of the war to learn a practical trade so they could earn a living. Santa Croce, which lies on the banks of the Arno River, had been a center of leather manufacturing in Florence since the 13th century, due to its amble supply of water needed for tanning.

Over years, the school and business has grown. While the Scuola del Cuoio still offers courses for aspiring leather artisans, it also specializes in creating quality, hand-made leather goods: wallets, handbags, jackets, and so on. Today, the business is highly profitable. Nevertheless, the same family owns and runs the business, ensuring that the focus remains on creating a limited number of quality products.

The current day school operates on the lower level.

The current day school operates on the lower level.

Just like with the other artists we met, TIME remained a theme stuck in my head as we toured the workshop and school––as in, how much time it takes to choose the right materials, how much time is required to construct every piece by hand in limited quantities, and how much patience all this time ultimately necessitates. On the limited occasions that I’ve sat down to draw something or create something by hand, I remain solely focused on the finished product. I then do what I need to do to get there in the most efficient way. As a product of the 21st century, I think efficiency is of prime importance, and I don’t have much patience if I believe things could go a faster way. Nevertheless, these conversations with artisans who unabashedly embrace the time it takes to create quality have encouraged me to question my own mindset.

A master artisan was constructing a handbag from pieces of ostrich leather.

A master artisan was constructing a handbag from pieces of ostrich leather.

At the same time, I was surprised to find myself getting uncomfortable with the discussion of how they buy the leather and what kind of animals they use. I understand the use of animals such as cows or sheep. I’m not a vegetarian, so I cannot draw any double standard. However, the workshop also constructed handbags of crocodile, ostrich, and stingray. These animals make for beautiful leather, but there’s something wrong about using endangered or exotic animals for handbags. Even if all the animals were farmed, the continued use of such skins creates a market for the illegal poaching of these animals in the wild––especially when a small crocodile skin can easily garner a price of several thousand dollars.

Looking at the different kinds of leathers they use.

Looking at the different kinds of leathers they use.

Furthermore, while TIME was prominent in my thoughts on the field trip, MONEY was another. I couldn’t stop seeing dollar signs––or euro signs––flash everywhere throughout our visit. That baby crocodile skin in the photo above? It easily cost over 3,000 euros, wholesale. I may appreciate skilled craftsmanship, but there’s no way I can afford it. Why spend 300 euros on a handbag when I could fill an entire closet of handbags for the same price? In this sense, I was reminded of my own priorities: I’d much, much, much rather spend money on traveling or food or to a good cause than an expensive handbag that I’d be too scared to take outside.

In the end, our lunch afterwards was much more my style: a chaotic, busy trattoria in the middle of the market where only locals go and dishes cost 4 euros.

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That’s what I’m talking about.

Coveting the Handmade in Florence

Once again, I’m participating in the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network this semester, where I’ll be posting two academic blogs on my experiences here in Florence. I’ve included my most recent blog below, although the original can be found here.

Enya playing in the background and hands covered in paint, I put the finishing touches on my work—dabbing red and blue paint on the stenciled flowers that I had painted on the scarf. As part of a fieldtrip for our “City of Florence” class, we were crowded into an artist’s studio in Oltarno, the neighborhood of narrow streets that lies on the south side of the river in Florence. The studio itself was eclectic. A nude cartoon baby statue sat near the front window next to a gigantic traffic light. Canvases in various stages of work leaned against the walls next to containers of half-used tubes of oil paint.

At Villa le Balze, the “City of Florence” class provides students with the opportunity to further explore aspects of the city itself. Last Friday, this kind of exploration took us to Le Zebre, a small shop owned by a couple that specializes in handmade garments and accessories. After touring their shop, we had the opportunity to create something of our own by using stencils and paint to decorate a scarf.

In a time dominated by huge department stores that demand cookie cutter mass production, it is refreshing to find artisans who put time and thought into each work. Art requires a type of patience that seems increasingly hard to find in our automatized and factory line world. This makes handmade works even more of a treasure.

Florence, after all, is a city of art. Every year, millions of visitors flock to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Bargello, or one of the many museums in the city to gaze at the famous works of the Renaissance masters. Yet I found it surprising to discover how much the tradition continues to thrive.

After our time in the art studio, a couple of us wandered the streets nearby, ducking into the tiny shops and workshops that line Via Romana. In a store called Reciclò, we met an artist who constructs innovative pieces of furniture out of salvaged parts from eBay—a bedside lamp made out of a retro hairdryer, a chair made out of a Vespa, a table constructed from sea wood. The artist took the time to talk to us, showing off his various creations and recommending a flea market in Arezzo to visit. Further down the street, an artist named Gianni Silvestri encouraged us to not only look but also touch his oil paintings. In another boutique and workshop, an artist named Chiara invited us to come back for a jewelry making class.

Repeatedly, I was struck by the openness of the artists and how willing they were to listen to our questions in halting Italian and to let us to peek around their studios. They were proud of their work, and they wanted to share it in whatever way they could. Quickly, we figured out that if we stayed in the shop long enough and attempted to speak Italian, they would return the efforts. In a specialty chocolate shop, another customer commented to the owner in Italian that we wouldn’t understand because we spoke English. After responding in Italian that we could—somewhat—understand, the owner graciously warmed up to us, describing the different types of chocolate and giving recommendations on what she liked best. At the end, she asked for our names, and we promised to return again.

Globalization may be changing the kind of products we use and how they are made, but there remains value in the kind of handmade work that can never be replaced by mass production or factory lines. It’s the difference between receiving something off a shelf and knowing personally the individual who made it. The latter requires patience, skill, and care. It necessitates love.

And that, after all, is the beauty of art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

Raw Materials and Raw Meat

Probably one of the coolest aspects of my program is that we have the opportunity to do all kinds of unique things in Turkey, whether it’s meeting with guest speakers, performing with a folkloric dance group, or navigating situations that would otherwise be difficult with my shaky command of Turkish.

And sometimes, it means getting to tour the largest mattress factory in Turkey.

I’m taking two economics courses this semester on Turkey, where we’ve been discussing the development of Turkey from an economy based on import substitution industrialization to an export-driven market, so it was interesting to see what’s behind Turkey’s remarkable growth. For our day in Kayseri, we spent the day touring two factories: the Yataş mattress and furniture factory and the Mercan sausage factory.

The Yataş Group is one of the largest retail companies in Turkey, with an umbrella of mattress, bedding, and furniture brands. The company was originally founded by a businessman who returned to Turkey after receiving his MBA in the United States and realized there weren’t any mattress factories in Anatolia; they were all being made in Thrace. Seeing this opportunity, he opened his own factory which today produces over 1,000 mattresses each day, plus a large furniture production, in a facility that includes over 80,000 square meters of enclosed space. (A far cry from the home textile looms we visited earlier in the semester!)

Today, Yataş is the largest brand of mattresses in Turkey, catering to the country’s large and growing population. Recently, the company has begun to expand into Russia and the Middle East, an interesting turn considering the debate in Turkey over whether to focus East or West. In fact, Yataş had opened 14 retail stores in Iran before the Iranian government instituted import restrictions. Now, the company is investigating whether they could open up a production facility in Iran, due to the low labor cost and large domestic market. However, business in Iran remains extremely difficult due to international restrictions, especially on money transfers. (On another note, it will be interesting to see what direction Iran takes following the recent election of a new president.)

In between factory visits, we had some free time to walk around Kayseri.

Kayseri is well-known for its pastırma, a type of cured, spicy dry meat, so it only made sense that we would complete our time in Kayseri with a visit to a sausage and meat factory. The origin of pastırma reportedly comes from when Turkish warriors would put meat under their saddle, where it could last for months while they went on military campaigns.

First, we had to suit up and be properly sanitized to enter the production facility.

Then, we were given a tour of the process.

#sausagefactoryselfies

#sausagefactoryselfies

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I didn’t know quite what to expect from a visit to a meat factory, but I thought that for sure I’d end the tour as a vegetarian. Yet unexpectedly, it wasn’t that bad as you would think. Sure, there was raw meat, but it by far wasn’t as gory or disgusting as I thought it might be. (And by the end, I was hungry and ready to taste some!)

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Afiyet olsun!

Meeting the Muhtar

At last, we checked out of our final hotel today, bags packed for the final trek to Alanya, the city that will be our home for the semester.

But first, in the morning, we stopped to tour the beautiful ancient city of Aphrodisias, an important archaeological site of the Greek and Roman period in Turkey. Along the banks of the Meander River, the city flourished from the first century B.C. through the 6th century A.D. Due to the dedicated work of one archaeologist, the site has been beautifully restored, with most of the original artifacts remaining at the site or in its own museum. (Unfortunately, many of Turkey’s precious artifacts from this period now belong in museums in Europe or other places across the world.)

We took this tractor tram from the bus parking lot to the entrance of the archaeological site.

We first toured the museum, which had an excellent collection of sculptures and artifacts found at the site.

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There were also lots of cats outside of the museum! (We’ve been very cat-centric this entire trip over all the cats in Turkey.)

We then headed into the archaeological site. One of the most famous sights of the ancient city is the gigantic sanctuary of Aphrodite, the city’s patron goddess of love.

There’s also an extremely well-preserved council hall in Aphrodisias, where city officials once met to discuss governance.

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Aphrodisias is also home to the second largest stadium of the ancient world (the largest one is in Laodicea, but it wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited). It was huge!

After Aphrodisias, we began to make our way southeast to Alanya, a good 6-hour drive away. Yet several hours into our journey, Nese surprised us with a stop in a small village known for its textile production!

She hadn’t been able to get ahold of the village muhtar by phone, so she asked around once the bus stopped to see if we would be able to get a tour of some of the production areas where they make the textiles. Luckily, the muhtar was over at the local kahve, so we walked over the meet him for the tour.

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The muhtar is the elected leader of a village, chosen due to their status and level of education. After meeting us at the kahve, the muhtar of Kizilca generously gave us a tour around the town, demonstrating the various types of equipment they use to produce cloth—from the fully mechanized Russian looms to traditional looms.

At one point, the muhtar decided to even welcome us into our home to demonstrate an old semi-mechanical machine that is used to produce the spools of thread that are fed onto the looms. As we toured the village, the villagers were incredibly welcoming and hospital, allowing us to duck inside their own homes to take a look at their handiwork.

One of the women demonstrated how to fashion the fabric they were making into a headscarf on our professor, Lauve. The muhtar then gifted the headscarf to her as a gift!

Then it was time to pile back into the bus for our drive to Alanya. We slowly made our way to Antalya. (Good news: The bus’s AC was fixed!) Once we made our way to the city center of Antalya, we finally saw the first signs for Alanya.

As we drove into Alanya, it was dark so you could only make out the outline of the ocean on our right-hand sign. Soon enough, our bus was somehow making it up the steep hill to our apartments.

Oh, how good it was to be home! The apartments are wonderful—with an even more spectacular view—but I’ll write more on that later. For now, it was time to finally unpack my suitcase.

Stuck in small spaces

Turkish elevators and I don’t get along.

This morning, I wanted to drop off my luggage at the bus before breakfast, so I squeezed my bags and myself into an elevator and pressed the button for the first floor. Once at the first floor, the inside doors opened and I pushed against the heavy outside door to get out. However, my push was a little too forceful. I tumbled out of the elevator into the lobby, completely face planting on top of my luggage and sprawled out on the floor. Glorious.

Last week in Istanbul, we were coming back at night and I piled into the small elevator with Amanda and Mara. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, but when we got there, the doors wouldn’t open. We couldn’t get out.

We tried taking the elevator back to the lobby then back to the sixth floor then back to the lobby, but still the doors wouldn’t open. I pushed and pulled on the metal doors, trying to yank them open with my fingers. Our frantic calls to others’ cellphones were unanswered.

Finally, Mara decided that we should try pushing the alarm button. Bzzzzzzz.

“Don’t do that!” said Amanda. “You might wake someone up.”

Several moments passed.

“HELLO?” Amanda yelled, apparently changing her mind. “MERHABA? MERHABA???”

Shortly, a man came and pried open the elevator doors. We decided to take the stairs up instead.

Since then, I’ve been avoiding elevators unless completely necessary, but yesterday I jumped on one to get up to the restaurant on the 8th floor. About halfway through the trip, the elevator then suddenly stopped between floors. The inside elevator doors had opened, exposing the elevator shaft and part of a doorway.

Are you kidding me? Not again.

Luckily, we were able to get it moving again after several moments, but trust me. If I’m given the choice, I’m taking the stairs.

Spiral staircase at the Ethnographic Museum in Izmir

Spiral staircase at the Ethnographic Museum in Izmir

 

Anyways, today’s main attraction was a tedious 7-hour bus ride from Eskişehir to Izmir, so my main challenge was to find out how many hours of Candy Crush I could play before I got tired of it.

Nevertheless, before we left Eskisehir, we visited a model of the Devrim, the first ever automobile designed and produced in Turkey. In 1961, President Cemal Gürsel issued an order to build a prototype engine and car to jumpstart Turkey’s automobile industry. He assigned the job to a group of 24 engineers, who had 130 days to build the car from scratch. It was called the Devrim, after the Turkish word for “revolution.”

Two of the four prototypes produced were shipped to Ankara for demonstration. On the day, President Gümal got in one of the cars for a ceremonial ride. However, the driver had forgotten to put fuel in the tank. So, after approximately 100 meters, the vehicle came to a halt. As a result, the car became the subject of jokes for many years.

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Of course, the Devrim has a greater significance in the history of Turkey’s economy, particularly in Turkey’s attempts to prop up its own manufacturing industry through heavy import duties—something I’m sure we’ll cover in my economics classes this fall.

We then stopped for a visit and tour at Anadolu Üniversitesi, a public university in Eskişehir that has the second largest university enrollment in the world due to its large online open education programs.

After that, it was on the bus for the long haul to Izmir! During the drive, I was amazed at how relatively quiet the roads were—there was none of the kind of traffic that I’m used to during road trips in the U.S. At one point, our bus backed up some 50 feet on the highway because we missed our exit (which was quite terrifying, considering the driver couldn’t see behind him).

California-themed poster for sale at a Turkish pit stop

California-themed poster for sale at a Turkish pit stop

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Nevertheless, we finally arrived at our hotel around 9 p.m. and settled in for the night. Tomorrow, adventures in Izmir!

Turkey’s Next Top Model

An employee uses a kind of "fabric saw" to cut through many pieces of fabric at once

You’re constantly reminded of the importance of the sea everywhere you go in Istanbul. You catch a glimpse between buildings when you’re in the middle of town. You watch the incredibly busy channel from the shore, where one cargo ship after another passes through, loaded down with hundreds of steel containers. At tourist sites, you learn about the two empires that helped build this city, but particularly how their ability to control the seas enabled them to acquire such great wealth.

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And so, it was only right that at least one of our days be spent on this important channel. Today we took a ferry along to Bosphorus to Anadolu Kavağı, a town on the Asian side of the Bosphorus strait at the entrance to the Black Sea.

The trip took about two hours, so we had plenty of time to gaze at the beautiful houses that line the coastline. I even taught some people how to play Connect, a.k.a. the best game ever, which was how we got through many hours of car rides for Mock Trial.

Once in Anadolu Kavağı, we decided on a fish restaurant for lunch. Interestingly, fish isn’t too big of a part of Turkish cuisine, so it was nice to get something different for a change of pace.

After lunch, we had some free time to hike up to the top of the mountain to see the Yoros Castle that once guarded the entrance to the Bosphorus, which is commonly known as the Genoese Castle because it was under Genoa’s possession in the mid-15th century. It was an incredible view.

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We then took the ferry back to Beşkitaş, where our residence director had arranged for us a tour of clothing factory.

The company, called Miarte & Neri, produces clothing of a variety of styles to be sold in mainly Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. It was incredibly special to see the various stages of production—design, pattern making, sewing, and fabric cutting—as well as talk to the owner about how he runs his business. The owner talked about how he traveled to other countries to seek out pieces for inspiration, then brought them back to Istanbul to see what aspects they could incorporate into their own designs. At the location we visited, they created the model garments and cut the fabric for production. After that, the fabric pieces were taken to another location where they were fully sewn.

Later on in the program, we’ll be visiting a textile factory of a larger scale, which should often an interesting comparison between the two. Textiles, after all, are a huge part of Turkey’s economy—most likely the towels in your bathroom will have a “Made in Turkey” tag on them. Nevertheless, in the words of my economics professor, the textile industry “leaves wherever it touches”—as evidenced by the once huge textile industry in the United Kingdom or United States—because it requires such high labor costs. As such, Turkey will have to find other options if it hopes to continue to modernize.

Three cups of tea

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Each night, right after we come back from dinner, the evening call to prayer filters in through the street noise from our open window. It’s one of those stereotypical sounds you’d expect when you think of the Middle East, but I can’t put words to how special it is to hear it echo throughout the city. Yesterday, we were passing by a mosque on the ferry just as it sounded the call to prayer:

Call to Prayer in the Bosphorus Strait

Oh Istanbul, you enchant me more and more!

While so far we’ve been very much tourists, today we had the opportunity to truly appreciate the benefits of traveling through Turkey as a study abroad—using the city and its people as an educational platform.

After another wonderful breakfast at the hotel’s extensive buffet, we drove from the hotel to the Saliya district to visit Koç University. Koç University is a private, English-instruction university that was founded by the Koç Foundation in 1996. Since its founding, the school has had a long education with Georgetown, namely through exchange programs and its emphasis on modeling the Western liberal arts-style of higher education.

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The campus itself was beautiful, located high atop the hills overlooking the Black Sea. At the university, we had the chance to meet with both the university president and their director of international programs. We were able to learn about the history of the school, as well as the innovative programs they’ve launched to enrich Turkish higher education.

For example, Koç University offers very strong financial aid to each class of 900 undergraduates. About 40% of the students receive full tuition scholarships, and around 70% get some sort of scholarship. The university recruits from the top 2% of Turkish students, and partners with corporations to help sponsor the tuition of students from otherwise underrepresented districts in Turkey.

Another thing we discussed was how to promote innovation within universities. Traditionally, Turkish universities were not allowed to have their own patents, making them often unable to benefit from their contributions to their respective fields. However, more private universities, including Koç, have created ways to benefit from their intellectual property through foundations that put the profits back to the school. Due to this success, there is currently a law pending to allow public Turkish universities to own patents as well.

Turkish hospitality is the best—we were served some lovely tea during the meeting, and then they gave us some rosewater-covered Turkish delights as a farewell!

After the meeting, we had some time to explore the campus. The buildings—let alone the views—were beautiful.

We had lunch in their cafeteria, and then took the bus to meet with representatives at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. When we got to their building, we were taken up to the top floor of the building and into this absolutely amazing conference room. Look at this view:

During the presentation, one of the economists at the Chamber of Commerce gave us a basic summary of the role of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce—which is the 5th largest chamber in the world with some 350,000 members—then gave us an excellent presentation about characteristics of Turkey’s economy, namely how Turkey got out of the financial crisis so quickly and strongly. For example, Turkey’s GDP Growth Rate (% – Annual) went from -4.8 in 2009 to 9.2 in 2010, 8.5 in 2011, and 2.2 in 2012.

For an explanation of this trend, he pointed to five aspects of Turkey’s economy: a strong financial sector, private sector investment, the condition of Turkish public finance, diversification of exports, and a successful monetary policy.

Of course, the sliding Turkish lira, where the exchange rate has reached a new low of $0.50, might threaten this economic prosperity. While the Turkish central bank has said it does not intend to hike interest rates to defend this depreciation of the lira because they believe it is a temporary condition, this could be too optimistic.

Overall, the discussion was a great precursor to the two economics courses that I’m taking this fall. (And at last, those lectures of International Trade and International Finance came in handy!)

Yet again, we were served some pastries and more glasses of tea (this time two rounds!). I even got to take with me a stack of books with statistics on the Turkish economy—I guess for some ambitious free reading?

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We then took the bus to Mor Çati, an NGO for women’s rights near Taksim Square. It was one of the first organizations founded in Turkey to fight against violence towards women, and today runs a shelter for women along with promoting women’s rights through political activism.

The woman we met with was more comfortable speaking German than English, so one of our professors, Katrin, translated the discussion for us. We learned about recent developments in Turkish law regarding women’s rights then had the opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about the current situation in Turkey. One of the most interesting comments she made was how the Turkish state is quick in enacting laws to protect women, but slow in enforcing them. As a result, many changes end up being fairly superficial. Of course, this is a struggle for many feminists—the greater structural issues caused by patriarchy that infiltrate both politics and society.

After the meeting, it was back to hotel for dinner. I plugged in my new Turkish cell phone to charge, but about 5 minutes into charging there was a loud popping noise and the outlets stopped working. Luckily, the phone is fine, but the charger they had provided me doesn’t work anymore.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

My flashback-to-middle-school cell phone.

Amanda and I went down to the front desk, and after about 15 minutes of very confusing pantomiming and trying to explain the problem, the manager told us he would get someone tomorrow to fix it. But until then, only our bathroom outlets work, so I’m currently sitting on the floor in the hallway so I can charge my laptop.

Tomorrow we’re in for the “greatest hits” of Istanbul: the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern, and, of course, the Haghia Sophia!