Taylor Whitten Brown

Sociology PhD Candidate, Duke University

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Duke University (2nd year), with an MA in sociology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and an MSc in evidence-based social intervention from the University of Oxford. I am currently away from my department, being hosted by INCITE at Columbia University while I conduct research in NYC.

I study how group inequalities persist within markets despite cultural change. Specifically, I focus on gender inequality and the role of status systems in sustaining disparity. I'm also very involved with the discipline of computational social science and its application to social media studies. My MSc focused on the design and evaluation of randomized-controlled trials (@DSPI_Oxford), and my MA focused on community norm consensus and its link to individual behavior--specifically intimate partner violence.

Before starting my PhD, I fulfilled an appointment at the National Science Foundation in Washington DC. I have also worked in international development, completed internships in Italy and in Ghana, and served in leadership positions for a number of women's organizations.  

 

On a personal note, I enjoy witnessing and creating art (see About Me).

Again, take it with a grain of salt if you'd like. I won't be offended at all. If nothing else, writing this email was a good journal entry:)

Spencer and I stayed in a charming farmhouse in Umbria--which is owned by the head of the Philadelphia Zoo of all people! It was in the region of sunflowers (click here to see pictures).  

Entrance to where we stayed. 

One night, we went to dinner at the home of a man named Maurizio, who lived just a mile away. By the end of the night, we had nicknamed Maurizio "Zeus", because we are quite sure he is a god. No only does he look the part (tall, strong, Italian complexion, with waves of silver hair)--but he also happens to have the life of god, as I will explain: 

 

Maurizio inherited a large plot of farm land right on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. Over the years he and his brothers have sold a lot of teh land, but he has chosen cultivate and keep part of it for himself. He grows sunflowers and olive trees, in addition to a small organic garden of cherry tomatoes, plums, onions, eggplant, etc. His olive grove has the oldest olive tree in Umbria--over 1,000 years old! 

The 1,000+ year old olive tree owned by Morizio, under study by the local University of Perugia. 

Maurizio also converted the old farmhouse, where he milked cows as a boy, into the most charming Villa that I've seen so far. It has 360 degree fireplace in the entry, with a small sitting area, a bar with many bottles of old wine (near which he parks his vintage Vespa that Spencer drooled over), a porch that overlooks a spectacular view, and a quaint dining room with a large, arched window that overlooks the same. The land around is a mixture of grape vineyards, sunflower farms, and olive groves. Upstairs he has living quarters and a deck with a 360 view of the entire countryside. He also has a garden with orange and pomegranate trees. Perhaps the best part, however, is his kitchen and what he does with it. 

Some of his dried pomegranates from his tree, left over from winter. 

We met Maurizio because he loves to cook. More specifically, because he loves to cook the food that he grows himself on his farm and serve it in his dining room almost like a restaurant. You pay him for his food, but the costs are low and his aim is for you to feel at home so that he can share a true Tuscan/Umbrian experience with, as well as the traditions that were passed on to him by the Italians in pictures (his ancestors) scattered throughout the house. 

Mom would have adored this meal. It began with homemade olive tapenade (made with his olives and olive oil), burrata cheese (pictured below--texture of butter taste of mozzarella), homegrown cherry tomatoes roasted with garlic bread crumbs, grilled eggplant and garlic. Then he brought a pasta with truffle cream sauce (pana sauce technically) in a gorgeous but enormous saucepan. Next was roasted chicken with an olive oil base and ratatouille. Finally, a lemon semifreddo, made with his own lemons, and a side of fresh plums. Amazing. 

Maurizio pulled this out of the cheesecloth upon our arrival. 

Afterwards we sat and drank in his living room while he regaled us with stories of his ancestors' colonial history in Eritrea (Africa) and their return to Umbria--including meeting Sophia Loren, of whom there was a autographed photo on the cabinet next to this charming oil painting of a lemon.

Maurizio's brother is a pilot for the Pope and also flew GW around during his visit to Italy. His motto is to live a balanced life, where the good things take priority. He doesn't have a website, because he doesn't want more customers--which he would certainly have if he advertised at all. He doesn't charge much over cost for his meals because he doesn't need the money (rich man) and because he simply loves passing on the traditions of true Umbrian cuisine to guests who feel at home. He likes to spend half his time in his orchards, a quarter preparing and serving small groups, and the rest Vespaing around the small Tuscan/Umbrian cities, scuba diving, or travelling to visit the people he's met along the way. It's a family of gods, I'm telling you. 

Now, to the point.

Maurizio is selling a part of his land, upon which sits two structures: another old farmhouse (not restored like his) and a large building next door where equipment was previously stored. It's a fixer-upper, to say the least, but it's breath-taking. Like Maurizio's home, it rests atop a hill in Umbria, overlooking Tuscany. One side of the hill is covered in sunflowers (those farmed by Maurizio) and a small pond, the other is covered in olive trees. Beyond the olive trees is a large lake, where the local tows get fish and where the sunsets in the evening. 

Bear in mind that the sunflowers bloom most in June and July--so we missed them. 

The lake on another night--right before a lightning storm rolled in. We sat on the porch until late chatting and listening to crickets and thunder. 

The home itself is a geographical oddity, as it is approximately 1hr from the beach, the mountains, Siena, Orvieto, Florence, Perugia, Assissi, and a two-hour train ride from Rome and dozens of other cities. Here are some pictures from our many day trips:

Fruit in Siena.

An old church outside the city of Orvieto.

The Duomo of Orvieto. 

Rome from the Medici Villa

Yet while it is close to so much, the home is secluded. It is part of a town called Villastrada, which includes one pizza shop, a small market, and church. About 10 minutes away is Chiusi, which has a few more amenities and a darling Wine bar that Spenny and I sat at for hours. Here are some pictures of Villa Strada and Chiusi.

Door in Chiusi (pronounce cue-see)

Grapes that Spenny and I found on our run.

Church in Villastrada.

View from the porch of the pizza place in Villastrada.

Each small town in Italy has its gaggle of old men solving the world's problems and discussing futbol (soccer) with their hands flying. During the evening, they stroll the streets with those same hands clasped behind their back. In the town of Villastrada, this is the crew and the pizza joint is their spot. Half of them are outside on the deck at this point. 

The video above is from Chiusi. This is part of their posse-- these men showed up every day and hung out with one another debating things and waving to the familiar passerby. I have a much longer clip, but I thought this would suffice to prove that Italians can't talk without their hand moving. I wonder how long these men have known each other--how many days they've gathered in this precise spot. 

I'm obviously in love with this place, so I have a model semi-serious proposal. 

Maurizio is asking 750,000 Euros for his unrestored farmhouse and a small portion of his farmland. He could likely be talked down. It would be an AMAZING project fixing up this home. Spen and I would gladly move over there for a time now that I'm done with classes and his work encourages him to live in Europe. We'd love to learn from you and mom how to do it-- garden and all. Obviously we don't have 750,000 Euros, else we'd do it ourselves. Spen and I could only afford to fix up the home. Once it is fixed up though, I have no doubt that this could be both a wonderful place for all of the family to visit, but also a lucrative resell or Airbnb option. You're obviously the expert here, so maybe I'm way off--but I at least have little doubt that people would want to stay in this beautiful area. In fact, our friends that we travelled to Umbria with are also interested in the land--for the main purpose of Airbnb because they continue to make a large amount off their cottage in the Appalachians of VA. They want to have homes in a few places (Paris, for example) that they can visit and Airbnb for income the rest of the year. I'm not interested in snatchign this land out from under them--they just want to lowball Maurizio bigtime and I expressed that I was interested just to keep my foot in the game. 

 

Think about it, if only just for fun. I'm happy to ask for more information.

You think I'm a know-it-all...and you're probably right:) But in this case I'm...

Yours in utter ignorance of real estate but silly love of Italy, 

 

Bratface

 

P.S. Here are some more pics from the plot of land. Hasn't been touched or cultivated in a long time: