Dear Blog Readers,
I am sitting in the airport waiting area in Catania, Sicily trying to take advantage of the sugar high from yet-another cannolo to get started on a post about the past six days in Sicily working on AP coverage of the G7 summit in Taormina. Thanks to a well-timed Alitalia strike at the end of the summit, I had an extra day in Taormina to play tourist.
If you haven’t been there blog readers, you must go. Taormina is spectacular little town perched high on a rocky outcropping which plunges down to the sea. According to a booklet provided for journalists covering the summit, the town was founded by the Greeks 2500 years ago and named Tauromenion or “bull-shaped hill.”
On top of that bull-shaped hill the Greeks built a magnificent open air theater with views out towards the turquoise sea and up the green slopes of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano which was gently puffing out white smoke the entire time I was there. Taormina’s walls and buildings are draped with deep pink bougainvillea and pale pink oleander. Palm trees, lemon trees, and cactuses dot the hillsides.
Italy chose the location for the G7 summit, as Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni repeated throughout, to draw attention to the island’s location in the Mediterranean and role at the center of Europe’s migrant crisis. In the end, the migrant crisis was barely touched.
Associated Press descended on Sicily with a team of 19 people –from television, print and photos– to cover the leaders of Italy, France, Germany, the UK, the United States, Japan and Canada for their two days of discussions on world issues from terrorism to climate change.
By now you already have heard about the results of the summit. As predicted, US President Donald J. Trump was the elephant in the room, squashing any agreement on climate change and making matters difficult on questions of free trade. The only strong conclusion they came to was an agreement to forcefully combat terrorism with a focus on cracking down on internet companies and social media that allow the spread of radical terrorism on line.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel began showing signs of weariness with Trump during the summit and as soon as she returned home she declared the United States is no longer reliable and that, “we Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands.”
Many people pointed out that Trump is clearly more comfortable with autocratic leaders like Erdogan in Turkey, al-Sisi in Egypt than with the democratically elected leaders who share the same values and traditions as the United States.
So we all walked away from the Summit wondering what is going to happen with the Paris Climate Accord. Trump asked for more time to think on that, and it is unclear if the United States will be getting into trade wars with all its former friends.
But that is not what this blog post is about. The post is about some of the behind-the-scenes moments with the Associated Press.
I got to Sicily two days ahead of the summit with AP cameraman Gianfranco Stara only to find the whole area completely sealed off. We were not allowed to go up into Taormina to film our preview story and were stuck wandering around the perimeter, filming in the town of Giardini Naxos below. The security was intense with thousands of police and soldiers everywhere on the streets, coast guard and military boats patrolling the coastlines and lots of helicopters buzzing overhead.
The streets were mostly deserted but Gianfranco and I found cousins Salvatore and Carmelo Cannizzaro playing Brisciola, a popular Italian card game, at a coffee bar along the shore. I asked them if they were concerned about the invasion of their town with 7,000 police and soldiers and an expected 2,000 journalists on top of all the delegations.
Carmelo gave me a gigantic toothless smile and said they should do it every year because finally someone has cleaned up all the trash and the roads have been repaved.
I was worried that Italy might not be able to pull off a complicated operation in a little jewel of a town like Taormina. They had placed the TV Broadcast center in a 5-star hotel on a peninsula at the base of Taormina and the press center in the Hotel Hilton in Giardini Naxos, a 15 minute ride down the hill and along the beach. There were supposed to be regular shuttle buses between those locations and the Catania airport, a 45-minute drive away. But in the days ahead of the summit nothing was working too well and my colleague Helena Alves who flew in from Lisbon declared it was the “tipico casino Italiano” – the usual Italian mess. But as she pointed out herself, the Italians always pull it off in the end and everything is beautiful, and everyone eats well and drinks wine and is happy. So that is more or less how it went.
I had to coordinate our TV team of 11 in the midst of all this. One of the complications in this “tipico casino italiano” was that there were 12 pools in which camerapersons and photographers were allowed to go up into Taormina and film the leaders at various events. But they had to leave on buses three hours before the event so I would lose a cameraperson (video-journalist) for 5 hours sometimes. Then there were all sorts of side-bar events popping up, for example the French President Emmanuel Macron held one-on-one meetings with almost all of the other leaders. The spouses had their own separate schedule of events that needed covering too. Demonstrators protested outside and clashed with police, and that needed covering. Donald Trump made a speech to US troops and their families at the nearby military base in Sigonella, Sicily and that needed covering.
In the end, I spent a lot of time in our tiny workspace in the broadcaster center with AP Television’s Senior Producer from Greece, Theodora Tongas. There we had access to all the Host Broadcaster material of events and could quickly turn around edits and write scripts. We could also slip out on the balcony and enjoy the fabulous view. Here is Ted in a slow moment when we are waiting for the final communique from the summit.
Here are some amusing moments:
French President Emmanuel Macron was making his debut on the world stage and was clearly thinking about his approach to his fellow world leaders. In a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump many people noticed the two leaders seemed to be momentarily stuck in a jaw-clenching handshake. No fishy handshakes from these alpha men.
The spouses got to have a trip in a helicopter from Taormina over Mount Etna and down to the town of Catania where they had a luncheon followed by a visit to a Benedictine monastery and a Roman theater. Everyone was eager to see the interaction between Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump.
The first lady of France has made waves on social media because she is 24 years older than her husband whereas no one seemed too bothered that Melania Trump is 23 years younger than her husband. Anyway, for their first event Brigitte, sporting a bright red t-shirt and comfortable looking white slacks and espadrilles, was quite happy to don some big headsets and get into a military helicopter. Melania chose a different route arriving in an armored jeep at the Piazza degli Elefanti in Catania for the event. My print colleague Colleen Barry scored a mini-scoop when she reported that the elaborate coat that Melania was wearing was a floral applique jacket made by Sicilian designer Dolce & Gabbana and costs $51,000.
One of the most delicious pastries you can find in Italy is the Sicilian Cannolo – a tube of pastry stuffed with a sweet ricotta cream and drizzled with chopped pistachio nuts or perhaps some chocolate or candied fruit. It is impossible to describe how scrumptious they are, but I am a total addict…and I am not the only one.
During the summit, we were provided with great meals in the dining area at the ATA Hotel Capotaormina, where the TV Broadcast center was located. We loaded our plates sky high with gamberoni, pasta alla norma, melanzane parmigiana, cous cous alla Siciliana, caponata, mozzarella, etc.
On the second day we found giant silver trays laden with cannoli.
We brought a plateful over to our table by the French doors that looked out towards the sea. An Italian soldier carrying an automatic rifle paced up and down the balcony outside ostensibly looking for terrorists, but clearly keeping on eye on the cannoli inside. I dove into my cannolo getting my fingers all gooey with ricotta. My Greek colleague, the beautiful and tutto di un pezzo, Theodora Tongas, was not convinced she wanted a cannolo and was looking on curiously. Suddenly Paolo Santalucia, who was eating his cannolo beside me, started reenacting the most famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally.” He began make loud, gasping and groaning noises “Uh, uh, Oh, oh….this is so good, Yes! Yes! Yes” as he bit into his messy cannolo.
Teodora, slowly lowered her dark sunglasses over her eyes. The soldier on the balcony peered through the French doors curiously. People at the other tables began to turn their heads. I gobbled my cannolo down quickly before Paolo could get his hands on it. AP’s chief photographer Domenico Stinellis looked on slightly perplexed.
Paolo’s cannolo performance became a memorable moment of the summit and as we recounted the story to AP’s Frankfurt Business Writer, Dave McHugh, while exploring Taormina the day after the summit, he reminded us of a famous film line about Cannoli from “The Godfather” – a line which I can’t help but agree with wholeheartedly.
“Leave the Gun, take the Cannoli.” This line is said by a henchman to a hitman after they have shot their driver– a purported rat– in the back of the head. The cannoli were on the seat of the car.
Well, I am back in Rome now. No more cannoli for me for the moment…and it is a good thing too because if I kept on going at that rate I wouldn’t fit through my front door.
A FEW MORE PHOTOS OF THE AP TELEVISION TEAM: