Monday, September 19, 2011

If You Have To Ask....

No pictures today - just a little story chock full of life lessons! Actually, as most of these things go, the more time that goes by, the sillier it seems.

So it was our last day at the agriturismo and Jacob and I wanted to go by the pottery studio up the road and take a little tour. As I mentioned in my last post, the woman who owns the property is a fairly notable ceramicist and her workshop is in the lower half of her home which also happens to be a renovated church. Since Jacob used to have a little pottery workshop of his own, naturally we were curious to see her operation.

Her husband met us at the studio and began to graciously show us around and explain the operation but she was more stand-offish and seemed preoccupied in the operations of the studio and her two staff. The studio is huge with four kilns and multiple rooms, including one just for shipping orders. It turned out her work was more prominent than we had realized; her husband showed us orders destined for restaurants in New York and Chicago and retailers such as Calvin Klein and Saks Fifth Avenue. It was lovely but fairly standard functional pottery- plates and bowls and such with the occasional teapot or vase. Like many larger artists, the bulk of the actual work is now being done by staff that work in her studio with the artist herself overseeing the work and stepping in to sign the pieces at the end.

When it came time to go, Jacob and I quietly discussed the idea of maybe asking if we could purchase an item as a souvenir. Her husband explained that the front room was full of 'seconds', pieces that had slight imperfections in the glaze or minor cracks and that these were for sale. After a few minutes of walking around, we settled on two mugs with a glaze of tans and creams. Not quite a set but close enough that they looked nice together. We set them down on the table and the woman went to get her pricing book. Fourteen Euros a piece we were told. Okay, a little pricey for a coffee mug but they were nice and thought it would be fun to have a memento from this time. Jacob pulled 28 Euros from his pocket and set it on the table. The woman frowned and looked at the money but said nothing. Sensing something was wrong I asked, "Is that correct?" "No," she scoffed. "Forty Euros. Forty Euros a piece." At today's exchange rate that's about $56 a mug.

This is what has become known to Jacob and I as a "sticky bun moment", so named for the time that I bought a $4 sticky bun that I never would have paid so much for but it was too late to back out graciously. The coffee shop employee had located a vegan treat for me, described the baking process and was already bagging it up when I was told that my treat cost way more than I ever would have paid had I known.

The artist, her husband and visiting daughter just looked at us. Jacob and I looked at each other. "Oh," I said sheepishly to Jacob, "Maybe we could buy just one?" Jacob shot me a look that said You're out of your mind. In that moment I realized that, assuming these mugs even survived the trip back to the U.S., there would be no way we'd be showing them off artistic collectibles (as if anyone we know would even be knowledgeable about or impressed by a famous Tuscan ceramicist); they would become symbols of our foolishness. And how could we ever let anyone even use them ("Say, could you please use the 'World's Greatest Mom' mug? That's our $56 Tuscan mug. I'm sure you understand").

And so we said, "I'm sorry, we just don't have that much money - we cannot afford these" and quietly reclaimed our 28 Euros. The family said nothing. Had we insulted the artist by implying her work was not work such a large amount? Were they embarrassed for us? Stunned that we had refused to pay the requested amount?

I can say with confidence that I believe in living within your means, not buying status symbols and that there is no shame in not having a lot of money but at that moment I felt only embarrassed, a little naive and maybe even a tiny bit backwoods. We thanked them graciously and made a hasty exit, confused as to how we could have been so misguided. Back at the house, Jacob went immediately on-line to find retailers selling the sugar bowls he had been quietly considering for $222 and the medium sized serving bowls I admired for over $600.

I felt on edge from the experience for a good hour. Surely no one was to blame and I don't blame the artist for her prices. If anything, it is refreshing to see that an artist can make a living in these times of everything being mass produced so cheaply overseas. Even if I could afford $56 for a mug, would I want to spend so much money on a mug? I can't say that I do. But it's funny how your mind plays tricks on you in these moments.

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