Across the island of Sardinia there are more than 7,000 ancient towers built with large blocks of local stone. Known as nuraghi, they resemble giant beehives, jutting out across the landscape. Little is known about the nuraghi or their Bronze Age architects but almost every Sardinian I met had a theory about their purpose. Some told me that they were forts; others that they were residences, places of exchange, even communication beacons. “The amazing thing is that from every single nuraghe you see another nuraghe,” Carlo Mancosu, a 34-year-old Sardinian, told me. “Now imagine a system of communication with flames or light or mirrors. I think there existed a people in a network.” ... It was this system, real or imagined, that inspired Mancosu and a group of childhood friends to found Sardinia’s first local currency: Sardex. Arts and humanities graduates with little financial experience, they built it from scratch in their home town of Serramanna as the island reeled from the financial crisis. Their hope was that the project would give them a job in the place where they had grown up. But six years later it has turned into a symbol of local action, spreading to create a new network of thousands of businesses. Together, they have traded nearly €31.3m in Sardex this year. ... For at least 150 years, business people, utopians, social reformers and eccentrics have tried to introduce local currencies, often in response to money scarcity. Their creations have taken an array of different forms, such as credit systems, time banks or paper money, and ranged from the ingenious to the absurd. Many have been shortlived — but others have outlasted the conditions that brought them into existence. ... “The permanent feature of monetary systems in Europe throughout the period from Charlemagne to Napoleon — for a good millennium — [is] a distinction between different moneys for different purposes,” says Luca Fantacci, an economist and historian at Bocconi University in Milan.
Renzi and Merkel are the European Union’s odd couple. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, they get along. They enjoy each other’s company, and, if their unlikely friendship includes a large measure of amusement and incredulity, they are well matched when it comes to the steel behind the strategic courtesies that each deploys. Merkel, unflappable and seemingly untouchable after ten years as Chancellor of the Continent’s biggest economic power, is Europe’s reigning austerity hawk, and pretty much calls the shots in Brussels. Renzi, who at the time of his invitation was entering his eleventh month in office, was still known abroad mainly for his youth, for the jeans and sneakers he wears to meetings, and for the barbed tweets with which he documents his uphill battle to solve Italy’s social woes and persistent fiscal crises. He had produced an ambitious package of reforms, and kept the budget deficit at a safe, if hovering, three per cent of the country’s G.D.P. (Any E.U. member with a higher deficit risks sanctions from Brussels.) Now he needed to finance the kind of infrastructural, technological, and economic innovations that would create new jobs and generate enough investment and enthusiasm to put Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone, back into what he calls the “European conversation.” ... Italians who admire Matteo Renzi call him “our best hope.” More skeptical Italians say, “Well, maybe our only hope.” The Western press hedges its bets with “brash” but “confident.” And his enemies use the term il rottamatore, the demolition man. ... There is no doubt that Renzi wants to save Italy from itself, or that he considers himself the only person who can do that. ... Italy’s Democratic Party, in its new, “Renziani” incarnation—think Clinton-Blair for the twenty-first century—is a warring clan of former Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and liberal entrepreneurs, each faction circling the others warily and hoping they will go away.
To traders at the famous Royal FloraHolland flower market near Amsterdam, Vincenzo Crupi was just another businessman helping to make the Netherlands the largest exporter of cut flowers in the world. ... To the police, Crupi was a mafia suspect allegedly concealing drugs worth millions of dollars alongside fragrant bouquets he trucked to Italy. By last year they were hot on his scent. So they bugged his offices at the flower market. ... In conversations recorded by hidden microphones and cameras, the 52-year-old Italian was heard speaking at length about mafia affairs, according to previously unpublished details of the investigation contained in 1,700 pages of Italian court documents reviewed by Reuters. ... Crupi was heard allegedly discussing drug deals, arms shipments and a lethal power struggle between mafia members in Canada. ... Police and prosecutors say the case sheds new light on the ‘Ndrangheta – the Calabrian mafia – and the way it has spread its tentacles from southern Italy into dozens of countries across five continents. ... For much of the last century, the Calabrian mafia made its money from extortion and kidnappings. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s the group, which consists of about 160 patriarchal clans, bet big on the cocaine trade. ... Its success at drug smuggling catapulted the ‘Ndrangheta past its more storied Sicilian rival, the Cosa Nostra, in both wealth and power. Italian authorities now consider the ‘Ndrangheta to be Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.
Residents here still speak Sardo, the closest living form of Latin. Grandmothers gaze warily at outsiders from under embroidered veils. And, in a modest apartment in the town of Nuoro, a slight 62-year-old named Paola Abraini wakes up every day at 7 am to begin making su filindeu – the rarest pasta in the world. ... In fact, there are only two other women on the planet who still know how to make it: Abraini’s niece and her sister-in-law, both of whom live in this far-flung town clinging to the slopes of Monte Ortobene. ... No one can remember how or why the women in Nuoro started preparing su filindeu (whose name means “the threads of God”), but for more than 300 years, the recipe and technique have only been passed down through the women in Abraini’s family – each of whom have guarded it tightly before teaching it to their daughters. ... Last year, a team of engineers from Barilla pasta came to see if they could reproduce her technique with a machine. They couldn’t.
Brazil does not produce cocaine. But it plays a crucial role in the international trafficking of the drug, which even Brazilians know little about. Cocaine is smuggled by the Colombian cartels and other South American producers through Brazil’s porous borderlands, which stretch for almost 17,000km. ... The drugs are most likely to end up in Santos, a sprawling, rundown place 50 miles south of São Paulo. No city of its size – it has a population of less than half a million – has such a prominent position in Brazilian history. Santos FC nurtured Pelé, Brazil’s greatest footballer. It was in Santos that most of Brazil’s European immigrants landed, and it was from Santos that most of its coffee departed. In the ornate but decrepit city centre you can still visit the old coffee exchange where dealers used to sit in throne-like chairs and negotiate prices. ... The ’Ndrangheta (pronounced ehn-DRANG-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syllable) originated in Calabria, the toe end of the Italian “boot”. Over the past 20 years its reach has extended to the farthest corners of the world. ... A study from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, commissioned by the Italian interior ministry and presented in 2013, concluded that the earnings of the ’Ndrangheta rivalled the Camorra’s, and were almost double those of the Sicilian Mafia. But there was a significant difference that set it apart from its rivals. Whereas the other two groups derived an estimated 40% of their revenue from outside Italy, in the case of the ’Ndrangheta that figure rose to 80%.