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Innovation Wednesday: This Post Will Eventually Be About Facebook

I just returned from one of the least innovative places I’ve been in a long time – Vernazza, Italy. Trust me, you should go.

I just returned from one of the least innovative places I’ve been in a long time – Vernazza, Italy. Trust me, you should go.

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I was there for a wedding of a dear friend. About 52 people traipsed in from around the world. The groom is a professional photographer and the bride, my friend, is a producer, filmmaker and media entrepreneur. As a result, the assembled group was a fun mix of creative types who enjoy adventure, people and each other.

My instructions were to take the train (three, actually) from Pisa to Vernazza, a tiny town that is part of the Cinque Terre, five ancient fishing villages along the Mediterranean coast that are linked by train, ferry and a well worn hiking path. Vernazza is impossibly beautiful and delightfully small; my instructions were to get off the train, walk in to town (only one cobblestone street to choose from) and head to a bar called the Blue Marlin, where beer and further instructions would await. It worked. It’s that kind of place, and my favorite kind of innovative. The personal kind.

We made a big impression on the locals, as we estimated that we instantly increased the population by about a third. By the fourth day of our stay, most of the wait staff would join our parties, their friends would wander in to wherever we had gathered and became part of the fun. Not enough for some, sadly. One intrepid boy refused to believe that he was going to strike out with the lot of us. And he tried. With everyone. “But why, Ellen? Why?” he whined of his spurned advances. “I have loved you since you got off the train! Do you not find me beautiful?” Raphael had appeared toward the end of the rehearsal dinner. After an hour of cajoling, he finally shrieked in frustration: “But you’re in ITALY!! There is nothing else to do here!”

The wedding was perfect. It was held in an ancient stone church that overlooks the tiny harbor, the equally ancient priest beaming while he presided in a quavery voiced Italian. Not a dry eye, not even the tourists who wandered in. And took pictures. Of all of us.

We were told in advance to bring hard candy, as there is a longstanding tradition of, well, doing something with it, after the ceremony. We tried to piece together the instructions – someone throws the candy off the balcony. But who? Townspeople? Us? Mama Titti, the local capo who organized the entire event, wrenched the candy away from the arriving guests and dispatched it to points unknown. It wasn’t until after the ceremony, that it became clear that the bride and groom are supposed appear on a balcony and toss sweets upon our heads. The thrilled guests filed into the stone square, joined by locals with their children and some tourists enjoying some vini al fresco. Pretty as a picture. Trouble was, some of the candy looked pretty big, even from three stories. It took about one giddy toss to realize that for all intents and purposes, the happy couple was throwing the equivalent of rocks at us. Tootsie Pops bounced off of tables like grenades, Three Musketeers hit the cobblestone streets like turd-bombs. People dining outdoors looked temporarily panicked. The guests laughed hysterically, covering their heads, dodging the incoming materiel. It was wonderful.

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That night, after an eight hour party with seven courses of fresh seafood and pesto, (they invented it there – pesto, not seafood) the group stumbled back to the Blue Marlin to share the fun. Massimo, the owner, keeps two computers in the back for internet use. And over the shoulder of one local boy, I see Facebook.

“FACEBOOK!! LOOK!” I hollered. Facebook had been a big part of the chit chat at the wedding earlier, since I’d just finished another feature for the magazine. Because most of the wedding guests were part of the 35+ demographic who hadn’t yet been initiated, everyone had questions about it. I couldn’t believe my good fortune as to have stumbled (literally) into a live demonstration. So poor Raphael watched in unalloyed horror as half the wedding party, in their wine-soaked glory, lurched past him to enthusiastically surround a stunned 26-year-old local waiter named Stefano. “Oh! You like the Facebook?” he smiled. While Raphael pouted, Stefano showed us his profile, and bragged about all the places he’d visited in the “Where I’ve Been” application. (He’s been around, evidently.) It was like he had invented the site himself. The crowd went wild. (In vino, facebook, etc.) Stefano, who has no interest in valuations, IPOs or Harvard drop outs, simply likes to keep in touch with his world – which now includes a couple of dozen happily adopted Vernazzians.

Stefano may not have invented the Facebook, but he is, however, responsible for a bit of Vernazza innovation. He and his friends decided last year that they needed to invent a great happening in the small town, to break the endless monotony of the charm, wine-making, fishing, eating and flirting. You know, nothing to do. So, they decided to create a Pirate Event. The plan: A bunch of the young men (I think I basically am getting this right) dress up as pirates, get into boats a few feet out of the main harbor, row into town and theatrically…do….uh, pirate things in the town square. Cue a party. Music was organized, a light show, the church bells were coordinated. The scheming took months. Hours before they were going to launch, however, it occurred to Stefano that this might be a huge embarrassment. “I mean, what were we doing? What if nobody liked it? Oh my God!”

He had reason to worry, as the village elders were not sold on the idea.The mayor was concerned and showed up, tapping his foot and scowling. (Vernazza doesn’t have a police force, a couple of carbinieri had to be imported from nearby Montorroso. The mayor showing up was evidently pretty scary.) The entire town had assembled in the square, waiting for the spectacle to begin. The pirates pressed ahead nervously.

What Stefano could not have known, (but anyone listening to the story would have understood) that all of the people who loved and raised him in this marvelous little village would have stood there and cheered for him if he had shown up and done anything at all. Even thrown sweet rocks at them. So, when the pirates entered the harbor to begin the party plundering, the town roared their approval. To Stefano and his pirate pals, the reception they received was one of the great achievements of their lives. The crowd – the parents, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends – ooh’d, ahh’d, cheered, and danced the night away. And because innovation takes guts, real guts, Stefano has earned the right to be proud. “We want to do it again, make it a thing!” he gushed. “I want the world to know!”

So, now you know.

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Ciao ciao, Vernazza. Okay, bye-bye.

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