May 29, 2015

The World in a Sneaker

Migrants putting on new sneakers on dock in port of Catania. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Migrants putting on new sneakers on dock in port of Catania. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Dear Blog Readers – This is Part II of my Reporter’s Notebook on my recent time in Sicily.

When I was in Sicily recently we did a report for AP Television together with my AP wire  and photo colleagues on the sneakers given to the migrants in the Port of Catania, Sicily. For some reason, the AP bosses were rather non-plussed by this story thinking that it is really “nothing new” – but I find it a fascinating combination of Global Issues in a sneaker. There is migration, globalization, illegal workers, mafia, charities, and law enforcement all tied into these sneakers.

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Let me explain.

Months ago as we covered migrants arriving in the ports of Sicily, we noticed that they were immediately given spanking new brand name speakers. Just a half hour off the boat, and the barefoot migrants were clad in shiny white Adidas, Nikes, Hogans and Merrells. Someone asked a border policeman when we were standing around in port filming an arrival one day and he explained that all those shoes are counterfeits that have been confiscated by the police and given to Italian charities to distribute.   We all got a kick out of that Italian ingenuity. What better use for confiscated counterfeit shoes than to give them to people who need them.

Migrant putting on his new counterfeit Adidas in port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Migrant putting on his new counterfeit Adidas in port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Then we decided to do a little more on the story. All over Catania, Sicily, we found men selling the counterfeit shoes on top of cardboard boxes on street corners, or peddling their wares in their hands in the middle of the city’s sprawling market.

Senagalese men selling counterfeit sneakers in the main market in Catania. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Senagalese men selling counterfeit sneakers in the main market in Catania. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

When we tried to film the men selling the shoes, they quickly disappeared, popping up again shortly about 100 meters away. Some of them told us aggressively not to film them.

Counterfeit sneakers being sold by men in the main market in Catania, Sicily. May 7, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Counterfeit sneakers being sold by men in the main market in Catania, Sicily. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

A few days later we went back to the market with General Pietro Belfiore of the Catania local police. He had a team with him that confiscate counterfeit items in the market. He explained the whole business to us. He said the counterfeit shoe sellers that we saw all over Catania are part of a Senegalese gang that sell counterfeit items. The counterfeit sneakers are very popular, especially among Italian teenagers who spend 25-30 euro for a pair.   Belfiore estimated that the men selling them on the street make up to 150 euros a day.

General Pietro Belfiore, chief of the local police in Catania speaking to AP at the main market in Catania, Sicily May 8, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

General Pietro Belfiore, chief of the local police in Catania speaking to AP at the main market in Catania, Sicily May 8, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

We asked if the Senegalese men selling them on the street were some of the same men who got off the boats in the port a few days earlier. The answer was NO.

Belfiore then gave us his description of the whole chain of production. The counterfeit shoes, he said, are made in the Campania (Naples area) of Italy, by Chinese workers in small illegal factories. They are then sold to a Senegalese criminal group who bring the boxes down to Sicily to be sold on the streets and in the marketplace. All this is done with the approval and perhaps involvement of the Camorra Mafia. Once the counterfeit shoes are in Sicily, they are sold by the Senegalese with the complicit approval of the local Sicilian crime families. Then law enforcement steps in. Belfiore and his men confiscate the shoes and donate them to the Catholic group Caritas. He said in 2014 they confiscated about 4,000 pairs.

When I visited the small Caritas office near the train station in Catania, hardly anyone was there, it was lunchtime. Outside the train station dozens of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants rested on the grass under shady trees. Many of them were wearing their new shoes.

My colleague Gino Macelli went back to speak to the Caritas woman responsible for the shoes and she said so far they have only handed out 400 pairs so far this year, but they are expected to hand out many more.

Coming soon in the Sicily Series: Migrant Workers in Sicily, Traffickers and Terrorists

Related posts:

May 23, 2015

Baboucar’s Journey

Baboucar Lowe, a 17-year-old migrant from Banjul, Gambia speaking to me and other AP colleagues in Nicolosi, Italy, May 6, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Baboucar Lowe, a 17-year-old migrant from Banjul, Gambia speaking to me and other AP colleagues in Nicolosi, Italy, May 6, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Note for Blog-Readers – I have spent a lot of time in Sicily this spring covering the migrant story and I have not had enough time for posts. I’ve now decided to do several posts as a diary for myself, a sort of Reporter’s Notebook– a write-up of my notes with photos and freeze frames of video shots so it will stimulate my memory in the future. Feel free to either read it if it interests you or skip this Sicily series.

Baboucar Lowe is a tall, thin, dark-skinned Gambian boy.   He came loping across the parking lot of the La Madonnina center for minors in Nicolosi, Sicily and told me in English that he was willing to be interviewed, that he would tell us about his journey.   He was sincere and seemed to want to share his story without asking anything from me. No help, no money. Nothing.

He walked out of the gate and stood near a fence and matter-of-factly began his harrowing tale. He was wearing a new blue t-shirt, matching blue sneakers and Bermuda shorts. If I were seeing him in a different context, I might have confused him for any high school kid. The clothes were given to him in the Italian port of Catania a day earlier. The only giveaway was the 39 written in indelible magic marker on his hand. He was numbered migrant 39 when he came of the Merchant ship Zeran a day earlier. His short hair seemed curled into some funky little corkscrews and when I ask him about it, he pointed to his new friend, also from Gambia, also from the center for minors, with the same hairdo. Baboucar has dark brown eyes, long lashes and when he spoke he demonstrated a sensitivity and maturity that I have seen in few boys his age.

We began our interview and as I heard him earnestly recount what he had been through my mother instincts kicked in and I wanted to grab him and hug him and tell him, “it is going to be alright.” I did not of course. I kept my professional distance, just my arm reaching toward him holding the microphone. I repressed my emotions and tried to forget that this boy was younger than my own son, the same age as my daughter, and had just survived a horrific crossing of the Mediterranean. I also pushed aside my own concerns that maybe it would not be alright for Baboucar. Where will he go? What will he do? Who will help him?

The day before I met Baboucar, I took a flight from Rome to Catania, Sicily with my colleague, video-journalist Andrea Rosa. The number of migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean and brought to Italy was soaring again and AP Television needed more staffers in Sicily. (Note: figures provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees say from January to mid-May 39,000 migrants have arrived on the shores of Italy, and an estimated 1820 have died or are missing).

As Andrea and I waited at the baggage claim for our suitcases, tripod and camera equipment, we got a call that a merchant ship had arrived in the port of Catania carrying hundreds of migrants and apparently some dead bodies. We grabbed our bags, rented a car and I drove as fast as I could towards the port swerving between giant trucks trying to find the right dock.

When we found the pier, we could see the large merchant ship Zeran, hundreds of migrants standing around on the dock, while Red Cross workers and police buzzed around. Andrea jumped out of the car and immediately set up our LIVEU (a small machine that fits into a backpack size carrier that is attached by cable to the camera and allows one to broadcast images live). I began talking to everyone trying to get information. I saw Giovanna De Benedetto from Save the Children who explained that there had been some sort of incident and lots of people had died, but apparently they had only recovered 5 bodies.

Astou Dia Fall, a 24-year-old migrant from Senegal gets her fingerprint taken when she arrives in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Andrea Rosa. May 5, 2015

Astou Dia Fall, a 24-year-old migrant from Senegal gets her fingerprint taken when she arrives in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Andrea Rosa. May 5, 2015

I tried to get close enough to some of the migrants to hear their stories. I managed to speak to a young woman from Senegal named Astou Fall Dia, a 24 year-old migrant from Senegal who was the first one to explain to me what happened. She was in a rubber dinghy with over 100 people, the dinghy “exploded” she said and began to deflate as they were nearing the merchant ship. Sailors on the merchant ship threw down ropes and lifesavers but the people in the dinghy panicked and started jumping on top of each other to try to get the ropes. Many people fell in the water. She didn’t know how many had drowned.

Astou calmly said she was among those who fell in the water but she knows how to swim and she stayed near the dinghy and was eventually saved. Astou said she is hoping to go to Germany and find a job.

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

There were men, women and children standing around waiting. Aid workers gave them brand new sneakers (more on that in another post) and they stood around in spanking new counterfeit Adidas, Merrills and Hogans.   Eventually the sailors from the merchant ship began carrying off the bodies. Four sailors in sanitary suits struggled, heaving the bodies in green bags down the long gangplank to the waiting coffins in the port. They clearly were having a difficult time with the weight. I think the bodies had become waterlogged and were especially heavy.

The body of a migrant who died crossing the Mediterranean being carried off the merchant ship Zeran. May 5, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The body of a migrant who died crossing the Mediterranean being carried off the merchant ship Zeran. May 5, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Once the bodies were off the ship, the migrants boarded buses to go to various centers around Sicily. The minors go to separate centers, the rest to first acceptance centers. We did some on camera interviews and then Andrea walked a short distance away, put the camera on the tripod and got a wide shot – the huge mercantile ship Zeran, the migrants standing around, the police, the aid workers. I continued to wander around the edges, trying to chat with migrants. A little girl who survived proudly reached through a barrier and showed me the number she had written on her hand, 13.

This little migrant girl proudly sticks her hand through a metal barrier in the port to show me the number 13 written in magic marker.  Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 5, 2015

This little migrant girl proudly sticks her hand through a metal barrier in the port to show me the number 13 written in magic marker. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 5, 2015

Many spoke some French or English. (Note: this boat had all West Africans, the following night a boat was brought into port with migrants from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea and I had much more difficulty communicating with them. All the women had brightly colored scarves on their heads and none of them seemed to understand me or want to talk. One boy from Sudan spoke English, but he was the only one I was able to chat with).

While I was talking to migrants and aid workers, Andrea was approached by three Polish crewmembers from the Zeran. They had taken video and photos of the rescue and wanted to know if we were interested in seeing it. Andrea called me over. One sailor pulled out his phone and showed us the images. Andrea and I were struck by the drama and horror seeing the migrants in the dinghy panicking, climbing over each other, sheer desperation in their faces. One end of the dinghy was deflating and the whole thing was filling up slowly with water.

Chaos aboard deflating rubber dinghy as migrants try to get to safety on merchant ship. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015 (Video belong to AP archive -www.aparchive.com )

Chaos aboard deflating rubber dinghy as migrants try to get to safety on merchant ship. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015 (Video belong to AP archive -www.aparchive.com )

The sailors were throwing down ropes and lifesavers and yelling “easy” – but no one seemed to understand or care. Migrants were falling out of the dinghy and trying to climb back in, others were trying to swim towards the sheer side of the merchant ship, others were emptying plastic gas canisters to use to float. We immediately began negotiating with the sailors to have access to their material.

Migrant climbing up ladder to safety aboard the merchant ship Zeran. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015. (video copyright AP archive - www.aparchive.com )

Migrant climbing up ladder to safety aboard the merchant ship Zeran. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015. (video copyright AP archive – www.aparchive.com )

AP Television eventually broadcast that video around the world and it was picked up by lots of networks – BBC, SKY, RAI, the New York Times website.   We are often provided with Italian Coast Guard or Navy video of rescues at sea. However, by now the Coast Guard and Navy have the rescue technique down. They keep the larger ships at a distance from the migrant boats and approach the dinghies or fishing boats with small craft. They yell and gesture at everyone to sit down and then throw large garbage bags full of orange life vests to them. When every migrant is wearing a life vest they pull up beside the dinghy and ask for just the women and children and transfer the migrants in small groups to the larger ship.

The crews of the merchant ships do not have the same experience and training and there is more chance for disaster. A merchant ship named the King Jacob was trying to rescue the migrants aboard the fishing boat that sunk on April 18th with an estimated 800 migrants below deck.

Mothers with children yell at sailors on board merchant ship Zeran asking for help as their deflating dinghy is filling up with water.  Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May, 2015 (video copy right of AP see www.aparchive.com )

Mothers with children yell at sailors on board merchant ship Zeran asking for help as their deflating dinghy is filling up with water. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May, 2015 (video copy right of AP see www.aparchive.com )

A day after covering the arrival of the Zeran in the port of Catania, cameraman Andrea Rosa and I went out to “La Madonnina” center for minors with Frank Jordans from AP wire and Antonio Calanni for AP photo. We found Baboucar and he told us about his journey.

 

Baboucar is from Gambia and is an only child. His father is not alive. He was working painting cars in Banjul, Gambia but then travelled to Libya in January of 2014 to try to make a better living. He said, “Libya was very hard. Sometimes you will work and go out, they take your money.” He decided to take the risk of leaving Libya and attempt the crossing to Italy. He said he paid 700 dinars (roughly 500 dollars) for his spot on the packed rubber dinghy. Baboucar said there were 137 people on board. Only 91 arrived in port.

Baboucar calmly described the appalling scenes of panic that we saw on the video and said he remained seated because he doesn’t know how to swim. This is what he said,

“The boat was spoiled. ..It was going up and down. It was crazy…They tried to get up to the big boat but they could not do it, some people they could not swim….Many people jumped but they could not swim…It was very hard…Some people climbed up on them, that’s why some people died…It was very hard. I saw people were dying…Some people rose but not me. I wait my turn…I don’t know how to swim… I thought I was going to die.”

We knew what he was talking about because we had seen the sailor’s video of the dead bodies floating in the empty dinghy.

Sailors taking bodies of dead migrants from dinghy and putting them in body bags. May 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. (Video copyright AP Archive. www.aparchive.com )

Sailors taking bodies of dead migrants from dinghy and putting them in body bags. May 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. (Video copyright AP Archive. www.aparchive.com )

Baboucar said that earlier he had been given the opportunity to phone his mother in Gambia and she had cried when she heard that he was safe in Italy. When I asked about his future he shrugged and said simply, “I want to paint. I want to work, Inshallah.”

Note: I used freeze frames in the post of AP video and the video we acquired from the sailors – the video is property of the AP Archive aparchive.com

Coming soon in this Sicily series: Migrant Workers in Sicily, Counterfeit shoes, Traffickers and Terrorists

Related posts:

May 11, 2015

Tom Hanks and the Salone del Cinquecento

Dan Brown's "Inferno" in the hands of Beatrice Fabbrani Tour guide for FlorenceInferno.com

Dan Brown’s “Inferno” in the hands of Beatrice Fabbrani Tour guide for FlorenceInferno.com

“Cinquecento, Cinquecento”, Tom Hanks says quickly and I start giggling.  “I just like the sound of that,” he adds, “Salone del Cinquecento, that sounds so much better than the Hall of 500.”  I am standing in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence interviewing Tom Hanks about his work on the film “Inferno” and he’s given my cameraman Pietro and me a case of the giggles.

Tom Hanks saying "cinquecento" during interview with AP Television on set of "Inferno" in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman  Pietro De Cristofaro May 11, 2015

Tom Hanks saying “cinquecento” during interview with AP Television on set of “Inferno” in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro May 11, 2015

But first a little background.

This week I had the good fortune to go to Florence for the Inferno “junket”. “Junket” is a word used by our Entertainment department when we are invited onto a movie set to interview the stars and director of a film. I just looked up the word because I am not sure how it evolved to describe interviews with stars. The second definition in my American Heritage dictionary defines a junket as: “ an excursion or tour; especially a trip covering some professional circuit.”  So I guess our use falls into that definition. During a “junket” you don’t have a free hand to cover as you wish. It is an invitation by the production company and they set the rules.

In this case we were given an appointment at the Pitti Palace in Florence at 5:30pm while the cast and crew were in the middle of filming in the Boboli Gardens visible from the balcony. We—the main news agencies – AP, AFP, Reuters, and ANSA– were taken to an elegant room with beautiful chandeliers and set up in a media line. When the actors and director arrived we each got more or less five minutes with each of them.

Tom Hanks, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ron Howard, Omar Sy, Dan Brown and Felicity Jones during photo-opportunity in Boboli Gardens during filming of "Inferno" - Freeze frame of video shot by Columbia Pictures.  Florence, May 11, 2015

Tom Hanks, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ron Howard, Omar Sy, Dan Brown and Felicity Jones during photo-opportunity in Boboli Gardens during filming of “Inferno” – Freeze frame of video shot by Columbia Pictures. Florence, May 11, 2015

For anyone who does not know, “Inferno” is the third film being made by director Ron Howard based on the best-selling thrillers by Dan Brown that follow the adventures of Robert Langdon, a Harvard Professor of Symbology. The first film “Da Vinci Code” was mostly shot in Paris, followed by “Angels and Demons” in Rome, and now “Inferno” which is being shot in Florence, Venice and Istanbul. Tom Hanks has played Robert Langdon in the first two and is now again in “Inferno.”

Ponte Vecchio -- The famous bridge stretching over the Arno River in Florence. Note the Vasari Corridor, the secret passageway that runs along the top, that Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks use to escape their pursuers. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

Ponte Vecchio — The famous bridge stretching over the Arno River in Florence. Note the Vasari Corridor, the secret passageway that runs along the top, that Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks use to escape their pursuers. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

AP Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro, AP Photographer Andrew Medichini and I took a morning train from Rome arriving at noon and hopped in a taxi to go to Piazzale Michelangelo for the spectacular “top-shot” of Florence with the Ponte Vecchio bridge stretched out over the Arno River, and the Cathedral with Brunelleschi’s Dome with its orange tiles. We then headed back into town to meet up with Beatrice Fabbrani from FlorenceInferno.com who leads tours of Florence following the trail of Robert Langdon and his female lead Sienna Brooks.

In the book Professor Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital room in Florence with a gunshot wound to his head and no memory of ever being there. He has to make a quick escape from the hospital with a beautiful young British doctor, Sienna Brooks when a hired killer tries to shoot him dead.

View from the window of Palazzo Pitti in Florence of the crew and cast of "Inferno" filming in the Boboli Gardens. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 11, 2015

View from the window of Palazzo Pitti in Florence of the crew and cast of “Inferno” filming in the Boboli Gardens. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 11, 2015

Langdon and Brooks set out on a wild, intellectual scavenger hunt that starts with Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” part of “The Divine Comedy”, an epic poem written in the 14th century, which dramatically describes a descent into Hell. The scavenger hunt then turns to Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Map of Hell” which visually depicts humans in various forms of torture as described in Dante’s “Inferno”

Close of up head of Dante Alighieri on a statue on the side of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

Close of up head of Dante Alighieri on a statue on the side of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

Beatrice led us to the statue of Dante Alighieri on the side of the Uffizi Gallery and pointed out a few key spots that appear in the book, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Vasari Corridor.

We then took off to find out where the film crews were working. A taxi driver told us near the Porta Romana roundabout. We briefly stopped there to film some stunt crews preparing for a scene before heading to our appointment at the Palazzo Pitti.

Cool camera car near the Porta Romana in Florence during the filming of "Inferno". Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

Cool camera car near the Porta Romana in Florence during the filming of “Inferno”. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

When the actors finally arrived, it was such a pleasure talking to them. Believe me, this is not always the case. I’ve covered the Rome Film festival for years and also the Venice Film festival and some stars can be pains in the neck. Not on this film.

Tom Hanks came charging into the room with the media line and greeted everyone warmly with a “Hi, I’m Tom.”

During my five minutes with Tom Hanks, I think my cameraman Pietro and I were laughing most of the time. He was really funny. He told us how they are filming amidst the historic works of arts, running around past Botticelli and Da Vinci paintings and past Michelangelo statues. He said that the Italian Carabinieri police, which has a special squad that is dedicated to protecting Italy’s cultural heritage, has sent a team to make sure they don’t knock over a statue or scratch up a Botticelli in all their Hollywood enthusiasm.

Two members of the Italian Military Police known as the Carabinieri

Two members of the Italian Military Police known as the Carabinieri

Hanks thought that having the Carabinieri there was probably a good idea and I did too, but the image it conjured up of these elegant carabinieri desperately ducking between movie cameras to try to catch a falling sculpture or block a stunt man from banging up against a Da Vinci painting was very amusing.

AP Television team Pietro De Cristofaro and Trisha Thomas getting a laugh as actor Tom Hanks describes filming of "Inferno".  Photo by Hanna Rantala from Reuters Television. Florence, May 11, 2015

AP Television team Pietro De Cristofaro and Trisha Thomas getting a laugh as actor Tom Hanks describes filming of “Inferno”. Photo by Hanna Rantala from Reuters Television. Florence, May 11, 2015

I also had to laugh during my interview with Ron Howard who – in addition to telling me some serious and interesting things about the movie—said that one of his biggest challenges in Florence is making sure he doesn’t get any selfie-sticks in his shots. He said they keep on popping in from nowhere. I guest tourists get near the set and can’t resist a chance to immortalize themselves with an infernal selfie.

French Actor Omar Sy during interview with AP Television. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

French Actor Omar Sy during interview with AP Television. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. Florence, May 11, 2015

French actor Omar Sy – the star of  French movie “The Untouchables” –plays the Inferno’s bad guy Christoph Bruder. As far as I could tell, the only thing killer about Omar Sy is his amazing smile. I thought I might melt to the floor when he smiled at me.

Actors Tom Hanks and Sisde Babett Knudsen during photo opportunity in Boboli Gardens, Florence during filming of "Inferno". May 11, 2015.  Credit: Columbia Pictures

Actors Tom Hanks and Sisde Babett Knudsen during photo opportunity in Boboli Gardens, Florence during filming of “Inferno”. May 11, 2015. Credit: Columbia Pictures

I was a bit surprised by beautiful Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen who plays Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, the brilliant 61-year-old director of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the book. Knudsen is probably best known for playing Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in the Danish political drama “Borgen.” But when Knudsen stepped up in front of our camera and I saw how young and attractive she is I wondered how she could play an older woman. She seemed the right fit for the dynamic Dr. Sienna Brooks (played by Felicity Jones). I immediately mentioned this and asked her about the long, silver ringlets that Sinskey has in the book. Knudsen explained that her character in the film has been changed but could not elaborate, so I will be curious to see what emerges.

Actress Felicity Jones who playes Dr. Sienna Brooks during interview with AP Television in Florence, May 11, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

Actress Felicity Jones who playes Dr. Sienna Brooks during interview with AP Television in Florence, May 11, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

Finally I spoke to the lovely Felicity Jones. The 31-old actress with gorgeous green eyes, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Jane Wilde Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Jones told me she is working hard to keep up with the talents of Dr. Sienna Brooks who she described as “incredible”, “witty” and “very, very bright”. She said “I have to be on my game, so I have to take it easy in the evenings and rest, so that when I am at work the next day I can be as quick as she is.”

Well, blog readers, I guess that is about it on my “Inferno” junket and all I can add is that if you want to put yourself in a good mood, try saying “cinquecento” (chin-quay chen-toe) like an Italian five times fast.

Related posts:

May 10, 2015

Alessandra Di Castro – Rome’s Dynamic Antiques Dealer

"Cleopatra" by Leonardo Grazia also known as Il Pistoia.  Hanging in  the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome

“Cleopatra” by Leonardo Grazia also known as Il Pistoia. Hanging in the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome

Alessandra di Castro is sitting on a plush, velvet couch in a curved, cozy recess in her Antiques Gallery at Number 4 Piazza di Spagna in Rome. She speaks rapidly in impeccable English declaring, “I have a very impatient personality.”

I pause in my frenetic note taking and look at her and say, “so do I.”   In that moment I noticed that several ringlets in Alessandra’s curly, strawberry blonde hair, pulled loosely back behind her head, look as though they would like to spring off in various directions. “You see this is a very quick job, you have to be three different places at the same moment,” she adds.

I resume my note taking worried that I might miss something but I am wondering how she pulls it off appearing so sophisticated, cultured, glamorous, calm and in control of the situation.

“With deals and acquisitions you have to wait for things to be mature, you don’t have to insist, things have to come to you,” she explains.

Antiques dealer Alessandra Di Castro at her gallery in Rome. Photo by Fabio Perugia. April 28, 2015

Antiques dealer Alessandra Di Castro at her gallery in Rome. Photo by Fabio Perugia. April 28, 2015

Alessandro Di Castro is probably Rome’s most famous antiques dealer. She comes from what she calls an antique dealing “dynasty” – four generations of Di Castros dealing antiques in Rome. Over the course of several hours with Alessandra, I realized that in order to become the dynamic antiques dealer that she is, she has learned to be very patient in many different circumstances.  A talent that she has perhaps inherited from a family whose vicissitudes would challenge the patience of anyone.

Alessandra rapidly gives me a summary of her family’s dramatic history.

She explains that in 1870 when the gates of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto were re-opened, the Jews already had a tradition in dealing with textiles; something more sought after and appreciated in that era.   She described her ancestors as textile “connoisseurs” dealing in everything from cotton and linens to brocade and elaborate materials. These ancestors established relations with the Pope, members of the Papal court and aristocratic families in Rome. They expanded from textiles into silverware and furniture and began to supply the famous “palazzi” of the Eternal City.

The first family shop, opened by her great grandfather Leone, was near the Vatican, in the area that was destroyed by Mussolini to build Via della Conciliazione – the wide avenue that now runs from the Tiber River straight down to St. Peter’s Basilica. Then in 1944, to avoid being deported to concentration camps, Alessandra’s grandparents and their three children sought refuge in the Chiostro Dei Genovesi – the Genovese Cloister—in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.

Before writing this post, I paid a visit to the Genovesi Cloister in Trastevere with my friend, photographer Antonella Bucci (see website: www.antonellabucci.it ). In the Cloister, some of the brothers from the Confraternity of the Genovesi, showed me the plaque on the wall praising the courage of Monsignor Maurizio Raffa who hid the Di Castro family. One brother said the family was hidden in a small attic apartment above the courtyard, but the children could not stay locked up and sometimes came down to play among the orange trees in the rose garden.

The Chiostro Dei Genovesi or Genovesi Cloister in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome where the Di Castro family was hidden in 1944.  Photo by Antonella Bucci, May 3, 2015  www.antonellabucci.it

The Chiostro Dei Genovesi or Genovesi Cloister in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome where the Di Castro family was hidden in 1944. Photo by Antonella Bucci, May 3, 2015 www.antonellabucci.it

Alessandra told me her father, a young boy at the time, would serve as an altar boy at the masses to make people believe that the family was Christian. But, she noted appreciatively, Monsignor Raffa never tried to convert them.

Italian families living around the cloister knew they were a Jewish family. At that time there was a bounty on the head of Jews in Rome, and if anyone had reported the Di Castro presence, they would have earned some money. Apparently both the Italian Fascists and German Nazi troops came to check the place, but never found the Di Castro family and no one uttered a word.

Alessandra Di Castro continues to be a prominent figure in the Jewish Community in Rome.  Among her many activities, she is currently curator of Jewish Museum of Rome.

After the war, Alessandra said her grandfather had to start from scratch. He moved the family business to Via del Babuino 102, where Alessandra was born. She says her grandfather was strong, courageous and had fantastic taste. With his efforts he managed to make the business successful.

When Alessandra’s father Franco took over the business he expanded the categories of works and began dealing in paintings, hard-stones, colored marbles and ceramics.

Alessandra explained that Rome is a haven for art and antiques dealers because the city has attracted great artists throughout the centuries. She says that such artistic greats as Borromini, Bernini and Pietro Da Cortona – not only made sculptures and painted frescoes, but would design furniture for wealthy Roman nobility. It is these items that antique dealers seek. Then there are all the sculptures, vases, cameos and other works from antiquity. Part of Alessandra’s job is to find these precious works and negotiate a reasonable price for them.

Alessandra’s family lived in an apartment next to Piazza di Spagna and she said she grew up surrounded by art. Her father would involve her in his work, taking her on trips to art fairs and auctions around Europe. Her home was a gathering place for famous art historians including Federico Zeri, Giuliano Briganti and the head of the Vatican Museums Carlo Pietrangeli. She said as soon as she got her driver’s license her father sent her traipsing around Rome with photographs of works of art to get opinions from art experts.

Alessandra Di Castro at her desk in her gallery at No. 4 Piazza di Spagna, Rome

Alessandra Di Castro at her desk in her gallery at No. 4 Piazza di Spagna, Rome

Now she has inherited the family business and is running the show on her own. She said she tries to continue the distinctive Di Castro taste which is based on Rome-centered works of art. She describes her pieces as “strong objects, with something original that make them interesting.”

Times have changed dramatically since her grandfather and father’s days and she says unlike her father who spent probably 80 percent of his time hunting for objects, she divides her time 50-50 between looking and selling. And both looking and selling require a lot of patience. Alessandra is aware of a lot of art; she knows of works that her grandfather or her father sold that she thinks she might want to buy back some day, and she knows of items belonging to families which she hopes they might some day want to sell. In these cases she cannot push, she must wait.

She explains that she buys with conviction, she trusts her artistic judgment, but there are items that are sometimes not yet “fashionable” or simply not appreciated. Alessandra says there are “empty spaces” in art history “dark areas” that have not yet been explored. An example, she explains is Caravaggio, who was never much appreciated until art historian Roberto Longhi started writing about him.

She says that often dealers arrive first – they see the beauty or value of an art object and then have to wait patiently until there is a market. Another example, Alessandra explains is fascist-era art. Fascist-era art and architecture was disregarded and disliked in the post-war period, but eventually art historians came around to seeing its value.

So who does she sell to? Alessandra said 80 percent of her clients are non-Italian, mostly European and American. She has never made a sale to a Chinese or Russian client. This statement surprised me because the luxury shops in and around Piazza di Spagna have been full in recent years with wealthy Russians and Chinese eager to spend on Italian fashion. Alessandra explained she thinks it is simply a question of culture and communications. Europeans and Americans are more familiar with the culture of western civilization, the source of her objects.

Alessandra’s greatest “fear” is forgeries. She says a big part of her job is detecting forgeries – again, something that requires patience. Before buying a work of art she has to study it, get expert help, and use the Internet. “Technology is moving very fast,” she explains, “every day the forgers are investing in new ways to reproduce objects made in the past.” She also notes that there are plenty of instruments to help discover a forgery, but the most important thing is to never rush. “I haven’t made many mistakes,” Alessandra notes, “if I am not 100 percent certain, I do not buy.”

Another part of the job is working with a client to restore an object to its original splendor. Alessandra says she is lucky to work in Rome where there are an incredible number of restorers who can help return objects to their original state. She reels off the list of some of the more obscure restoring talents available in Rome, “tortoise-shell restorers, mother-of-pearl restorers…”

Antiques dealer Alessandra Di Castro looks at "Cleopatra" by Leonardo Grazia hanging in her gallery at Piazza di Spagna 4, Rome. April 28, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Antiques dealer Alessandra Di Castro looks at “Cleopatra” by Leonardo Grazia hanging in her gallery at Piazza di Spagna 4, Rome. April 28, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

After our interview, Alessandra takes me for a stroll around the shop. It is hard not to notice the fabulous “Cleopatra” painting by Leonardo Grazia, also known as Il Pistoia. He lived from 1502 to 1548, was born in Tuscany and died in Naples. Alessandra explained to me, “he understood the appeal of semi-naked women so he used sensual figures from antiquity, such as Cleopatra. It was basically just an excuse to show bare breasts.” Alessandra bought this work at the end of 2014. She said it was dirty and yellow and restorers carefully cleaned it. She has not sold it yet, but has had some interest.

There is a walnut chest of drawers with a collection of small marble squares in a variety of colors and patterns. Alessandra opens a drawer and pulls out a small square “pink onion” marble and a “malachite” square. She then shows me the old paper with the numbers and lists of each marble square.

Pastille boxes from the 15th century on display in the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 28, 2015

Pastille boxes from the 15th century on display in the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 28, 2015

There are pastille boxes from the 15th century with what Alessandra explains are scenes from medieval literary sources such as Boccaccio. The boxes, she tells me, were used for perfumes and balms. Alessandra said she recently acquired these and noted, “it is an old-fashioned taste and the challenge is to bring back to fashion things that contemporary sensibilities do not appreciate.”

Madonna with Baby, with St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome and Angels by Matteo di Giovanni.  Born San Sepolcro around 1428 died Siena 1495 or 1497

Madonna with Baby, with St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome and Angels by Matteo di Giovanni. Born San Sepolcro around 1428 died Siena 1495 or 1497

She then stops before a spectacular painting of the “Madonna with Baby Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome” by Matteo di Giovanni, also known as Matteo di Siena. The gold around the Madonna’s head glitters under the lights in the gallery. I am amazed at the apparently perfect condition of the painting. Alessandra says this is due to the excellent quality of the wood the artist chose to paint on. She says this item was in a private gallery in Rome and her father already had his eye on it, she managed to acquire it last year – always employing the patience she says she does not have.

At the entrance to the gallery Alessandra shows me another new acquisition.  It is “View of St. Mark’s Basin in Venice Under the Snow” by Ippolito Caffi. Half of the painting is the sky above the city. She explains, “he was a painter of atmosphere, he covered the war in Crimea like a reporter but demonstrates changes in atmosphere in the cities he loved most.” Alessandra goes on “there is a silence in that painting that is very touching.”

"View of St. Mark's Basin in Venice Under the Snow" painting by Ippolito Caffi. Born Belluno, 1809 - died LIssa, 1866.

“View of St. Mark’s Basin in Venice Under the Snow” painting by Ippolito Caffi. Born Belluno, 1809 – died LIssa, 1866.

As we walk around the gallery she points out a sculptured head of Trajan, a column of porphyry with a pinkish glow, and a group of carved ivory cameos.

Small ivory sculpture on display at the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, April 28, 2015

Small ivory sculpture on display at the Alessandra Di Castro gallery in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, April 28, 2015

She knows the history of each one, the details of the artists lives, and the materials that were used to make them. She is patiently dedicating time to me and the phone is ringing and several people are waiting to see her so I gather up my notes, say goodbye and slip out into Piazza di Spagna. I turn down Via Babuino, my mind swimming with all the spectacular objects, paintings and works of art and by this impatient and captivating woman who knows everything about them.

If anyone is interested in seeing some of the works of art from Alessandra Di Castro’s gallery you can visit it at Piazza di Spagna No. 4 in Rome or she will be participating in two upcoming fairs:

Masterpiece London 2015 from June 25 to July 1 masterpiecefair.com

International Biennale of Antiques in Florence from September 26 to October 4th

www.biennaleantiquariato.it

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May 1, 2015

Silla’s Story

Freeze frame of close up of Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast.  Video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 21, 2015

Freeze frame of close up of Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast. Video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 21, 2015

Dear Blog Readers –

After spending nearly a week in Sicily working on the migrant story this month, I had so much material for a blog post, but no energy left to write it, so this post will be brief. The AP team was working around the clock covering ships arriving in the port of Catania, Sicily, or ports further south – Augusta and Pozzallo. In between migrant arrivals we visited centers for migrants, including the biggest center in central Sicily, the Mineo center, and centers for unaccompanied minors. We interviewed lots of volunteers and people from non-profit organizations who work with migrants – Save the Children, International Organization for Migrants, and Sant’Egidio. We filmed prayer services and candle-lit marches and spent time talking to the police and prosecutors investigating the human-trafficking in the Mediterranean, and a lawyer defending the Tunisian accused of being the trafficker commanding the fishing boat that overturned leaving probably 800 people dead. But mostly, I interviewed migrants. There were so many different stories, but one that struck me most was that of Silla, a 23-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast.

I met Silla at the Mineo Center a vast complex in the middle of the Sicilian countryside where over 3200 migrants are waiting to see if their requests for political asylum will be granted. The complex was once a housing facility for the US Navy and it looks a bit like an American suburb with small houses with green lawns and nice wide streets running down the middle. What distinguishes it from a US suburb is that there are mostly African men on bikes and no cars. There are plenty of dogs, but unlike the plump, spoiled dogs you might find in an American suburb, the dogs at Mineo are scrawny, flea-bitten strays.

Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast sit by a soccer pitch at the Mineo migrant center in Sicily.  Photo by Trisha Thomas April 21, 2015

Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast sit by a soccer pitch at the Mineo migrant center in Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas April 21, 2015

It is hard to find any women migrants willing to speak, so as soon as I saw Silla, I immediately approached her and asked her if I could take her picture. She had sauntered up to a large dusty soccer pitch where a bunch of men were in a heated game. She is young, pretty and very thin. She told me I could take a picture of her feet, showing me the strange reindeer child’s slippers she was wearing under some rubber sandals. She said she had no money to buy clothing so had to just rely on charity donations she gets at the camp.

Eventually, I convinced her to give us a TV interview. She told us that she had come over on a boat from Libya and had spent three days sitting still and throwing up before they were rescued by Italians.

She explained that she has no money, no family and nothing decent to eat or wear.   At the center she is provided with 2 euros and 50 cents every day, and that is all she has.

Silla said she was better off in Abijian where her mother owned a restaurant, but now she has lost all contact with her family and has no way to go back.

Volunteers who spend time in the migrant centers say often the women are left in the worst conditions.  With no way to get out or to earn money they end up prostituting themselves to survive.  Silla says she knows about this, but would never do it. Obviously this was not a subject that she would have opened up about with me, but I wondered how such a beautiful, young women would be making that journey alone. I have heard terrible stories from volunteers and police of African women being sold into prostitution and sent across the Mediterranean to be sent up to Holland or elsewhere to work as prostitutes in brothels or on the street. I am not sure if that was what someone had in mind for Silla. If it was, she is better off where she is.

Migrant woman walks off ship in Catania port after being rescued at sea by Italians.  April 23, 2015.  Freeze frame of video show by AP Television camerawoman Helena Alves

Migrant woman walks off ship in Catania port after being rescued at sea by Italians. April 23, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television camerawoman Helena Alves

Silla Zelia says the women go crazy inside the Mineo center because there is nothing to do. One just has to wait, but now that she has been turned down for asylum, she should be ordered to leave the country.   But where can she go?  She has no money, no family, no relatives, no boyfriend, no one to help her.  So she says she passes her days sleeping and crying.

My colleagues and I spoke several times to Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration who told us they are very worried about this situation because there are lot of people in Silla’s position who get rejected for asylum and then just end up staying in Italy and working on the black market mostly in the orange groves and tomato farms as under-paid illegal workers.

I have passed Silla’s name on to the Sant’Egidio community which is a Catholic group that works closely with migrants of all religions helping to get some of the younger migrants out of the centers and involved in volunteer projects. Through Sant’Egidio I met Ibrahima D’Amic, a 21-year-old Muslim man from Senegal.

21-year-old Ibrahima D'Amic from Senegal at the Sant'Egidio center in Catania. Photo by Trisha Thomas. April 22, 2015

21-year-old Ibrahima D’Amic from Senegal at the Sant’Egidio center in Catania. Photo by Trisha Thomas. April 22, 2015

Ibrahima reports the date of his arrival in Sicily with precision. It was September 12, 2013.  He was adrift in a rubber dinghy with 114 other migrants when the Italian Coast Guard saved him and brought him to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

From Lampedusa  Ibrahima was transferred to the Mineo Center.

Ibrahima spent over one year in the Mineo center and there he became friends with others his age, both Muslim and Christian and evenutally got involved with Sant’Egidio.

Now in his free time while he waits to get political asylum, Ibrahima hands out sandwiches to homeless people on the streets of Catania and helps other migrants.

When I asked why he does it Ibrahima shrugs and says, “a poor guy helping the poor, that is really enjoyable.  I wish I could do more. ”

Below are just a few other photos from my time in Sicily.

Here are my AP Colleagues photographer Alessandra Tarantino and cameraman Luigi Navarra at the edge of the dusty soccer pitch at the Mineo Center for migrants in Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas. April 21, 2015

Here are my AP Colleagues photographer Alessandra Tarantino and cameraman Luigi Navarra at the edge of the dusty soccer pitch at the Mineo Center for migrants in Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas. April 21, 2015

Just to give you all an idea of what it is like working in the field for AP television — check out the picture of me below.  It was taken by my friend, photographer Alberto Pizzoli, who works for Corbis images when he saw me on the phone near a field outside the Mineo center for migrants.

Besides the goofy headphones and hat, note all the equipment that we have to haul around. I have my small knapsack with notebook, pens, cellphone, and battery chargers.  Then inside the rolling backpack is my computer for editing video and what we call a LiveU, a small backpack with 8 phone cards in it that we can attach by a cable to the camera and deliver images live all over the world.  We did not use the LiveU at the migrant center, but we used it for the arrivals of the ships with migrants in the port.  Then there is the boom microphone on top.  What you do not see is the camera and the tripod which Gigi had at that moment.  Overall it is a lot to lug around.

Trisha Thomas outside the Mineo Migrant center in Sicily.  Photo by Alberto Pizzoli. April 21, 2015.

Trisha Thomas outside the Mineo Migrant center in Sicily. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli. April 21, 2015.

Despite the title of this post, this is not really “Silla’s Story” — it was just a brief conversation with Silla, a quick peek into her life, but I feel as though I barely scratched the surface.  I did not understand what her life was like in Abijian, or what drove her to leave, I did not get a clear enough idea of what her time has been like in Italy, and I certainly have no idea what will become of her now.  I am now back in Rome working on other stories, but if I get a chance to go back to Catania, I will try to find her again so I can get more of her story.

 

 

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April 24, 2015

The Weight of a Word

Pope Francis with Armenian Religious leaders His Beatitude Nerses Bedro XIX Tarmouni, His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I at Mass in St. Peter's Basilica April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video

Pope Francis with Armenian Religious leaders His Beatitude Nerses Bedro XIX Tarmouni, His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Aram I at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video

In over 20 years working as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever covered a story where one word counted so much. Genocide.

Prior to Pope Francis’ Mass on April 12th to mark the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, we debated the question all week. Will Pope Francis use the word genocide? I spoke to Vatican journalists, I spoke to Armenian officials and I spoke to Turkish journalists and every last one of them told me they did not think he would.

I was a bit perplexed. Pope Francis is known for being forthright and not beating about the bush.

Pope Francis celebrates and Armenian-rite Mass to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis celebrates and Armenian-rite Mass to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

My colleague Nicole Winfield, AP Rome Bureau Chief, pointed out to me that when Pope Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires he was close to the Armenian community. Nicole and I confirmed this when we were invited to a gala dinner a few nights ahead of the mass with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and had a brief moment to chat with the President.

But speaking to Turkish colleagues inside Saint Peter’s just before the Mass, they convinced me that the Pope would not do it. They said it would create too many problems with Turkey and that if he did say “genocide” the reaction by the Turkish government would be fast and furious.

The Mass started. Pope Francis came straight down the center aisle of Saint Peter’s walked up to the altar and delivered a greeting that blew us all away.

He started out…

“…today we are experiencing a sort of genocide created by a general and collective indifference….in the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered “the first genocide of the 20th century” struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks. Bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

I was standing with AP cameraman Luigi Navarra and two colleagues from Turkey on a platform for TV cameras at the side of St. Peter’s Basilica. We looked at each other in shock and muttered, “he said it!!”. I rifled through my purse for my cell phone and squatted down between the tripods to call Nicole Winfield – “Do you hear that???!!!” I whispered. “I’ve just filed an alert,” she responded calmly.

So then I frantically took notes on the rest of the speech and began to tweet.

The Pope went on:

“The remaining two were perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism. And more recently there have been other Mass killings, like those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia. It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood.”

I tweeted “#PopeFrancis does not mince words. Refers to “genocide” 2 times in mass with Armenians

The Pope continued passionately, “It seems the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today too there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand by. We have not learned yet that war is madness”

As he headed towards his conclusion, Pope Francis said:

“Dear Armenian Christians, today, with hearts filled with pain but at the same time with great hope in the risen Lord, we recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honour their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”

I tweeted:

#PopeFrancis at Mass for 100 anniversary of #ArmenianGenocide “where there is no memory evil keeps the wound open and allows it to bleed”

WOW! Talk about calling a spade a spade. Talk about not mincing words. This Pope doesn’t mess around.

Pope Francis presides over Armenian Rite Mass to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in St. Peter's Basilica. April 12, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis presides over Armenian Rite Mass to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 12, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The Turkish government doesn’t mess around either. Shortly after the Mass, the Turkish government summoned the Vatican Ambassador to Turkey for a dressing down and then the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican was recalled for consultations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted “The Pope’s statement, which is far from historic and legal truth, is unacceptable.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Pope Francis not to repeat his “mistake” of calling the slaughter of the Armenians a “genocide.”

According to the English language Turkish daily the “Hurriyet Daily News”, Erdogan told a meeting of the Turkish Exporters Assembly on April 14th:
“Whenever politicians, religious functionaries assume the duties of historians, then delirium comes out, not fact. Hereby, I want to repeat our call to establish a joint commission of historians and stress we are ready to open our archives. I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him.”

(A little aside here, I covered the Pope’s visit to Turkey and his meeting with President Erdogan in November 2014 – see blog post: Pope Francis in Turkey- Post 1 and even back then the relationship between Erdogan and Pope Francis did not seem very warm and fuzzy) Nevertheless, Erdogan referring to Pope Francis’ comment as “delirium” is a clear indication of his government’s anger.

So back to the question of the Armenian “genocide”. I have never studied the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 20th century so I will just quote what my colleague Nicole wrote in the AP wire:

“Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.”

Turkey denies that is was a genocide and both the United States and Italy have not ever officially recognized the massacre as a genocide.

So what does the word “genocide” mean and what qualifies as a genocide? A little fishing around the web and I have come up with the official United Nations’ definition from 1948

“Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

This definition seems a bit vague to me. How many people have to die to call it a genocide?

Aram I  Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church speaks in St. Peter's Basilica. April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV.

Aram I Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church speaks in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 12, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV.

So, why so much sensitivity about what seems in the case of the killing of the Armenians an obvious genocide. During the Mass I was struck by the powerful words of some of the Armenian leaders present. Aram I, Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church stood on the altar in St. Peter’s and declared forcefully in English: “According to International law, genocide is a crime against humanity and international laws spells out clearly that condemnation, recognition and reparation of genocide are closely interconnected.” Earning the applause of the hundreds of people gathered in the Basilica.”

Ah, reparations. That is a whole other issue that I will not get into.

And if that was not enough for one papal event, following the Mass, the Pope issued a message to all Armenians in which he said:

“It is the responsibility not only of the Armenian people and the universal Church to recall all that has taken place, but of the entire human family, so that the warnings from this tragedy will protect us from falling into a similar horrors, which offends against God and human dignity. Today too, in fact, these conflicts at times degenerate into unjustifiable violence, stirred up by exploiting ethnic and religious differences. All who are Heads of State and of International Organizations are called to oppose such crimes with a firm sense of duty, without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”

So not only was the Pope unabashedly using the word “genocide” he also called on other heads of state to do so. Is the Pope accusing the US, Italy and other nations of ambiguity and compromise? It certainly sounds like it.

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan at the Armenian Rite Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 12, 2015

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan at the Armenian Rite Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. April 12, 2015

Following the Mass, I hopped in a taxi with Luigi and Nicole and rushed from the Vatican to Via Veneto where we had an interview with the Armenian President at the plush Baglioni Hotel. The Armenians were packed in the lobby clearly rejoicing in the moment. Up in his suite, President Sargsyan was positively glowing., “I think that Pope Francis has delivered a powerful message to the international community,” he told us, adding “We are getting messages from Armenians all over the world who are touched by this message. They consider that this 100 years long fight for recognition is still going on, but there are already significant results.”

I wanted to write a blog post on this topic earlier, but I have not had the energy and feel unable to tackle the full question. I exchanged emails with a Turkish friend who said while he personally believes the slaughter of the Armenians was genocide and needs to be recognized as such, there are many delicate issues among which the question of reparations and the intermingling of Turkish and Armenian blood. He wrote me the following:

“Another factor is that there is so much mixed Turkish and Armenian blood among present day Turks. For example, my grandmother’s family adopted an Armenian orphan during that time period in Erzurum where my mother’s family is from. She was found naked in a field and they knew she was Armenian because of the Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by the family and raised as a Muslim but was found one day burying a necklace with the Armenian cross in the backyard for fear of someone finding it – years after being adopted around age 8. So she had a sense of the danger. We are not the only family that has mixed blood of this nature. I think somehow admitting the genocide interacts with not wanting to reveal the mixed blood.”

Since this blog is about being a mother, I would like to conclude on this moving story of this child. The debate has been about a word, but as usual it is the children who are always caught in the middle. My heart goes out to that young girl with her little Christian tattoo on her arm. She was adopted by a kind and generous Muslim family, yet was still frightened enough to bury her necklace with a cross in the yard.

 

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April 17, 2015

The Exodus

A young migrant stares forlornly off in the distance as he waits in line in the port of Pozzallo, Italy, shortly after disembarking from Italian Coast Guard ship after being rescued at sea.  April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

A young migrant stares forlornly off in the distance as he waits in line in the port of Pozzallo, Italy, shortly after disembarking from Italian Coast Guard ship after being rescued at sea. April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

“It’s an Exodus” sighed Sargeant Marco DiMilla who works in the press office for the Italian Coast Guard when I called him frantically Wednesday morning trying to figure out which ports the Coast Guard ships would be landing at in Sicily and disembarking migrants rescued at sea.   He reeled off some numbers and places as I rapidly took note, four hundred in the Sicilian port of Trapani, 500 arriving in the port of Augusta, another 300 in the port of Pozzallo, and hundreds disembarking at that moment in the port of Palermo.

Over 10,000 migrants have been rescued at sea by the Italian coast guard, navy and merchant ships this past week. In Sicily, migrant holding centers are overflowing with thousands of migrants and the Italian government is flying and bussing them to centers across Italy stirring a national debate as Italy’s northern regions resist cooperating.

A migrant rescued at sea disembarks from a Coast Guard ship in the Italian port of Pozzallo with one shoe and one bare foot.  April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

A migrant rescued at sea disembarks from a Coast Guard ship in the Italian port of Pozzallo with one shoe and one bare foot. April 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

I’ve written a lot about the migrants on this blog, in my most recent post on this topic (see blog post: The Dinghy Debate) I explained that 170,100 migrants arrived on the Italian coasts in 2014, so far in 2015 the number is over 21,000 according to Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who spoke to us today.

The figures on the dead at sea are a rough calculation based on survivors estimates of how many people were on their ship and how many died when it capsized. Di Giacomo of the IOM told us today that they believe there are at least 900 who died trying to make the crossing so far this year.

The figures get fuzzy but the facts are simple. Libya has descended into chaos. The traffickers in Libya have free hand to run the show, filling up rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats until they are crammed with the poor, hungry and desperate, shoving them off to sea with not enough petrol to get very far and phones to call the Italians for help. Now that the weather is getting warmer and the sea calmer, the boats attempting the crossing have increased dramatically.

Italian police arresting an alleged Tunisian trafficker aboard the Coast Guard ship Fiorillo. April 16, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Gino Maceli

Italian police arresting an alleged Tunisian trafficker aboard the Coast Guard ship Fiorillo. April 16, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Gino Maceli

This week the police in Ragusa, near the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, were busy arresting human traffickers. So far they have arrested 16 suspected traffickers this year. They explained to us that the traffickers charge 600 euros for a spot in a rubber dinghy – mostly taken by poorer Sub-Saharan Africans from Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Eritrea and Somalia. The cost for a place on wooden boat is higher, and mostly goes to migrants who can pay more, in particular the Syrians. Those prices can run from 1500 dollars to 4000 dollars, according to the Italian police.

As the traffickers raise the prices, they become increasingly violent. Flavio Di Giacomo of the IOM described for us today the scene on the Libyan shores as survivors have described it to them. “When they arrive on the beach (on the Libyan coast), when they are ready to leave, some people are scared, they change their mind, but there is an unwritten rule that some migrants told us about, it is once you pay, you can not go back. Even if some migrants see that the weather conditions are bad, the vessels are really unsafe, unworthy, and they change their mind, they can not do that. So they are forced to get on board with sticks, and with guns.”

A young migrant with a number, 208A, looks determined and hopeful as he stands in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily after being rescued at sea.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra April 17, 2015

A young migrant with a number, 208A, looks determined and hopeful as he stands in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily after being rescued at sea. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra April 17, 2015

On Thursday we also had the unexpected arrest of 15 migrants following reports of a fight breaking out between Christians and Muslims on a migrant boat. Survivors said the Muslims threw the Christians overboard. A police statement said those arrested were accused of multiple homicide aggravated by religious hatred. This news made headlines around the globe. An investigation is underway, however, an interview by one survivor today on Italian State Television threw some doubt on the story as a Christian survivor speaking in minimal English described it as a fight between Christians and Muslims with most of them ending up in the water.

So what happens to all these migrants once they arrive. The ones who have relatives in other parts of Europe try to head north to France, Sweden, Germany as soon as possible, the poorer migrants remain.

Two young migrants playing soccer at "Umberto I" holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Two young migrants playing soccer at “Umberto I” holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I was in Sicily a few weeks ago where I visited the migrant center “Umberto I” near Siracusa. There I found 195 African men who were trapped in limbo with nowhere to go, no money to get there, no legal documents and sinking hopes as they waited, perhaps in vain, for political asylum. They had all arrived by boat, making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean in the past few weeks and were just standing around waiting to see what would happen to them.

According to a report on asylum seekers released in March by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees there was a stunning increase in the request for political asylum in Italy in 2014.  The report shows 63,700 people requested asylum in Italy making it the highest year on record and a jump of 148 percent from 2013.

While Syrians and Eritreans have been the national groups with the most people arriving on Italy’s shores, they tend not to request asylum in Italy.  The top number of asylum seekers come from Mali (9,800 requests in 2014), followed by Nigeria and Gambia.

A migrant sits near a cat and plays with his cell phone as he passes the time at the "Umberto I" holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas March 24, 2015

A migrant sits near a cat and plays with his cell phone as he passes the time at the “Umberto I” holding center in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas March 24, 2015

The men from Mali, Nigeria and Gambia at the “Umberto I” center were wearing an odd assortment of clothing clearly provided by charity groups. Many were in bright green and red sweat suits, one man was in a professorial tweed jacket and another appeared to be wearing a girl’s coat with fake fur collar.

The center provided them with phone cards worth 2 euros and 50 cents every day so they could communicate with their families back home, or they could opt for a packet with 10 cigarettes.  Most of them appeared to have cell phones and seemed to fill the long hours glued to them playing games and listening to music.

Some of the younger men kicked around a soccer ball on a concrete court with some nets at the back of the center.

A migrant turns back to look at me curiously as I take his picture as he walks past some graffiti with the word "Somalia" outside the "Umberto I" migrant holding center near Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A migrant turns back to look at me curiously as I take his picture as he walks past some graffiti with the word “Somalia” outside the “Umberto I” migrant holding center near Siracusa, Sicily. March 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The men were free to leave the center and walk around the town as they pleased, but if they fled before they had appeared before a commission to request political asylum, they would lose their chance to get it.

Their stories were all similar; escape from their own countries – Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Ivory Coast – harrowing trips through the desert with people falling off the back of 4-wheel drive trucks and left to die, little water and food.  When they reached Libya many were persecuted, thrown in prison, and harassed by bandits.  Eventually they made it onto a rubber dinghy headed across the Mediterranean.

Koffi Kouodio Hermann of the Ivory Coast said he was escaping war and killing in his own country and now wants to try to find a way to bring his wife and children to Europe.  He said he studied natural science, history and geography at University and hopes he can find something to do in Europe.

Lamin Beyai from Gambia wore red headphones on his head and slipped them up on to his forehead as he chatted with me.  He said he is waiting to see if he can get political asylum, but he cannot go anywhere because he has no documents.  He described his recent trip across the Mediterranean, “It is not easy being in the sea where anything can happen.  Only God can save you there.”

As he told his story, Landing Sono, a 25-year-old from Senegal, threw his hands over his face saying, “if I think about it I want to cry because I have no money, not even these clothes are mine.  I was a man…in the name of God.”

The Italians are desperately calling on the rest of Europe to do its part to help with this crisis. There pleas are being met with tepid enthusiasm by the rest of Europe. I have been struck however, by the determination of the Italians to continue. My colleague Andrea Rosa interviewed a Coast Guard Lieutenant this morning who is Captain of the Fiorillo ship. The ship had just brought 301 migrants into port. Captain Giuseppe Di Maggio told Andrea, “I think all of us wish that a mediation and a solution can be achieved at a European and international level to this emergency, which is affecting our country now more than ever. As for us, we have a moral, ethical and professional duty to save people at sea, no matter what the international agreements are.”

As I went through the video and photos to decide which ones to put in this post, a few lines came to my mind — “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”  Those are the words of poet Emma Lazarus whose lines appear on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Migrants packed on the deck of a Coast Guard ship as it docks in port eagerly looking towards the shore.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 17, 2015

Migrants packed on the deck of a Coast Guard ship as it docks in port eagerly looking towards the shore. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 17, 2015

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April 11, 2015

The Return of the Sexy, Brilliant, Bald Guys

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.  Note the lack of tie and untucked shirt.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Note the lack of tie and untucked shirt.

This whole question of the sexy, brilliant, bald guys popped up the other day because my colleague Paolo Santalucia and I were trying to get out of an assignment. It was Friday afternoon in the office and Paolo called across from his desk to me and said, “Hey Trisha, I’ve got the perfect assignment for you, a romantic weekend in Venice with your kind of man.”

That got my attention and I asked for more details so he forwarded an email to me from our beautiful, talented, super-mamma colleague in Athens, Teodora Tsongas. Teodora was informing us that the new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis would be attending a conference in Venice on Sunday. We needed to send a cameraperson and a journalist to Venice to stand outside the conference all day and try to get a comment from Varoufakis on the ferocious negotiations going on with Germany over the Greek debt.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis with leather jacket, jeans and no tie.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis with leather jacket, jeans and no tie.

If any of you blog readers outside of Europe are not familiar with Yanis Varoufakis, he is the Greek Finance Minister in the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who came to power at the end of January. Varoufakis has taken Europe by storm with his confident manner and his brazen challenge to his nemesis German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. While Greece has been struggling to hold up its head amidst its humiliation in the Eurozone, this guy oozes ego. No humble pie for Greece with Varoufakis. He has become the star of anti-austerity movements in Europe, and made Greeks proud.

But as sexy, brilliant and confident as Varoufakis may be, that did not mean I wanted to ruin my weekend standing around outside a doorway in Venice hoping for a thirty-second soundbite.

So I emailed back to Paolo and Teodora something along the lines of: “I am not into brilliant, sexy, bald men, personally I prefer them hirsute. So, I guess someone else will have to do the romantic weekend in Venice, Paolo???”

Paolo shot back: “I am not into men. And besides, didn’t you marry a sexy, brilliant, bald man??? How can you say you’re not attracted to them???”

And then an email from Teodora popped up with something along the lines of: “Don’t worry Trisha, we’ve got hirsute for you. Our new Prime Minister Tsipras is headed your way, he’s certainly got a full head of hair and with his government’s “no-tie” policy you are free to enjoy his chest hair as well.”

Oh good grief. I hope our AP bosses aren’t reading our internal emails, this could get embarrassing!!

Let me first explain Teodora’s response. For those who are not aware, the Greek government has created a fashion revolution in Europe. Prime Minister Tsipras has declared that they will not wear ties until the debt crisis is resolved. This fashion statement has probably sent more fear through European capitals than concern over Greek default. In Italy, where elegance is everything, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promptly presented Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with a tie on their first meeting. British and German officials have appeared quaky and queasy when Varoufakis shows up to meetings in leather jackets, no tie and shirts untucked. But the key to Varoufakis’ rock star success, is that he clearly thinks he is gorgeous. He exudes confidence and seems convinced that he is the hottest guy in town. No insecurity about lack of hair on his pate.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presents tie to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the Prime Minister's office in Rome.  February 3 2015

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presents tie to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the Prime Minister’s office in Rome. February 3 2015

So that explains Teodora’s email. On Paolo’s email, what can I say? Yes, I do happen to be married to a brilliant, bald guy who is similarly convinced that there is no need for hair on your head to be hot.

I met my husband, Gustavo Piga, while we were both graduate students at Columbia University in New York. Back then – age 26 – he was already well on his way to baldness and it did not seem to bother him a bit.

My husband, Gustavo Piga.

My husband, Gustavo Piga.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with bald men. After all, my Dad had a full head of hair (and still does at age 81—you can see a photo in this blog post “Keep Your Eye on the Ball”). Although, I do remember once my mother mentioning that she thought Yul Brenner was “quite something.”

Actor Yul Bynner - bald and beautiful

Actor Yul Bynner – bald and beautiful

But back to Gustavo in New York.

He had a little curl that was the last remaining holdout just above his forehead. As he spent long hours bent over his books working towards his PHD in Economics, he would distractedly roll that little curl around and around and around on his index finger. When he would jump up from studying and charge off to do something else, he would not realize that it looked like a lonely unicorn’s horn on the top of his balding head. I, who clearly had more hair hang-ups than he did, urged him to stop messing with that lone holdout or it would soon be lost forever. He ignored me and I believe that lonely lock went down the shower drain before we even got married. But he didn’t care. He knew he was a brilliant, beautiful, bald guy.

I have to say that I admire that. If you are going bald you might as well love it. You could be like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who has spent so much on hair transplants that when you get near him, his head looks like a Christmas Tree farm. Or those sad fellows who wear toupees and actually think people believe that the strange looking mini-rug on their head is real hair. Or those poor suckers who spend fortunes on creams, liquids, drugs and other hair growth treatments hoping in vain for a little extra fuzz on top.

And for all those lucky men with full heads of hair, beware of the return of the sexy, brilliant, bald men with Greece’s Varoufakis leading the charge.

By the way, we sent a freelancer to do the door-stepping in Venice. (If you want to know more about door-stepping, check out this post (Doorstepping the High and Mighty)

p.s. If you actually want to read something intelligent about Greece and their economic crisis, you can check out Gustavo’s blog www.gustavopiga.it

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April 4, 2015

Darkness, Despair and Light at the Via Crucis in Rome

With a full moon overhead, a crowd of faithful packed around the Colosseum in Rome waiting for Pope Francis and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

With a full moon overhead, a crowd of faithful packed around the Colosseum in Rome waiting for Pope Francis and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers,

Just a quick follow up to the “Tired Pope Post” yesterday. Last night I covered the Via Crucis at the Colosseum. As I mentioned yesterday, it is one of my favorite events on the Vatican calendar because of the intermingling of the violent history of the Colosseum with gladiators battling to the death, the cruelty of the Roman Emperors with their famous thumbs-up or thumbs down to decide the fate of a gladiator – the brutality and the spectacle in the Roman tradition. Then mix that with the brutality and the spectacle of the death of Christ, and it is quite discouraging.

The Colosseum is stunningly beautiful on this occasion. Huge crosses are lit up with candles, whose flames blow and flicker in the wind inside the Colosseum and on the Velian hill facing it where there are the remains of the ancient Temples of Venus and Roma. Two people carrying meter-long white blazing torch-candles accompany the individuals who take turns carrying the large cross. Among those who carried the cross last night were men and women from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, China and Latin America, and there were families, nuns and people with handicaps all taking turns.

Pope Francis praying during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at Rome's Colosseum on Good Friday. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis praying during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The Pope sat up on the hill facing the Colosseum in and took part in the readings as the participants made their way through the stations.

Each station marks a moment in the route Jesus took towards his crucifixion and the readings linked several moments of Christ’s agony to current events. At the second station the reading spoke of Jesus being dressed up as a king and a crown of thorns placed on his head. The soldiers made fun of him and spit on him. The reading went on to say, “even in our day there are men and women who are imprisoned, condemned, and even slaughtered just because of their beliefs or because of their work for justice and peace.” The reading then recalled the words of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian who was assassinated by armed men on March 2, 2011. He was serving as Minister for Minority Affairs and was trying to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The “Way of the Cross” readings quoted a letter Bhatti wrote in which he said he wanted to give himself “to the service of Christians, especially the poor, the needy and the persecuted…”

At the 10th station the soldiers remove the clothes of Christ, violating his dignity. The reflection in the reading spoke of modern day violations of dignity—“human trafficking, the condition of child soldiers, work that becomes slavery, children and adolescents robbed of themselves, wounded in their intimacy, barbarously profaned.”

(I think they were referring to children and adolescents who are victims of pedophiles.) The reading went on: “You (Christ) push us to humbly ask forgiveness from those who have endured these offences and to pray so that finally the consciences may be awakened in those who have darkened the sky in the life of these persons.”

At the 11th station when Christ’s hands and feet are nailed to the cross, the reflections said, “And in our consciences urgent questions arise. When will the death penalty, still practiced in numerous countries, be abolished?  When will every form of torture and the suppression of innocent people be cancelled?”

Pope Francis takes part in the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis takes part in the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

After the 14th station the Pope said his brief words. What struck most of us listening were his comments apparently referring to the Christians recently massacred in the Middle East and his J’accuse of our silent complicity. He said, “we see even today, before our very eyes, and often with our silence and complicity, our persecuted brothers and sisters, decapitated, crucified for their faith…”

Pope Francis has been vocal in denouncing recent tragedies calling this week’s massacre students at a Kenyan University “senseless brutality”, and the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS militants in Libya in February a “barbaric assassination”.

Pope Francis deep in prayer during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis deep in prayer during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony at the Colosseum on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

So from the brutality of the ancient Romans in the Colosseum, to the cruelty and humiliation of Christ in Jerusalem, and to modern day massacres and decapitations, the Way of the Cross was a grim reminder of the horrors humans can inflict on each other.

Note: Tomorrow is Easter and certainly that is a more uplifting event at the Vatican. When I cover it, I love to get the Vatican press office’s list of the different flowers on display around the altar in St. Peter’s Square and learn where they have come from. The TV crews are positioned up on the top of Bernini’s Colonnade and get a fabulous bird’s eye view of the Easter Mass below. But I will not be covering it this year. Instead, I have 11 people for lunch. One friend is a vegetarian and I am using her as an excuse to avoid cooking lamb.  After all the references in the Via Crucis last night about taking the lamb to slaughter, I am definitely not up for it.  So, I am making Eggplant Parmesan, which I have never done before. My cameraman colleagues and Mamma friends – all excellent cooks, unlike me– have been giving me conflicting advice on whether it is better to fry or grill the eggplants. My Marcella Hazan cookbook is telling me to fry. Any suggestions foodie friends?

Workers light candles on cross inside the Colosseum as they prepare for the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) with Pope Francis. April 3, 2015.  Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Workers light candles on cross inside the Colosseum as they prepare for the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) with Pope Francis. April 3, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

And once again, a big thank you to AP photographers Gregorio Borgia and Alessandra Tarantino for handing over their beautiful “throw-away” photos to Mozzarella Mamma after they filed for AP.

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April 3, 2015

Is Pope Francis Tired?

Pope Francis holding the Gospel during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis holding the Gospel during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers –

Pope Francis is neck deep in Easter Week celebrations and I have the distinct feeling he is tired. He said it himself Thursday morning in the Chrism Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Chrism Mass is the annual Mass held on the morning of Holy Thursday during which the Pope blesses the silver vats of oil that will be used in the sacraments in the parishes of Rome throughout the year.   Although it gets little attention, I always love this ceremony – the large silver vats being wheeled into the Basilica, and the Pope leaning over to blow his blessing. The Mass is celebrated in the Basilica with the bishops, priests and nuns from Rome.

Pope Francis blowing inside a vat containing oil to be used in the sacraments in parishes in Rome throughout the year during Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Holy Thursday.  Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis blowing inside a vat containing oil to be used in the sacraments in parishes in Rome throughout the year during Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

But what struck me this time was the Pope’s Homily. It was entirely dedicated to the tiredness of priests, the weariness caused by the efforts made in their work. The whole time Pope Francis was speaking, I had impression he was talking about himself. Just a few weeks ago, on the 2nd anniversary of his Papacy (March 13th), the Pope said in an interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki that he did not think his papacy would last long, he also said that what he would really like to do is go out and get a pizza without being recognized.

So here are a few quotes of what he said at the Chrism Mass.

“The tiredness of priests! Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it, often, especially when I am tired myself.”

So, he is tired. He went on to say:

“It can also happen that, whenever we feel weighed down by pastoral work, we can be tempted to rest… We must not fall into this temptation.”

So, the Pope is tired, but he is not going to take a rest. We already knew that. In addition to the Easter activities, this Pope keeps a frenetic schedule, wearing down all those around him. In the next months he is planning to go to Sarajevo (June 6th),  take a trip to South America visiting Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia in July, and visit the US in September, going to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, followed by a visit to Washington to speak to a Joint Session of Congress and a visit to the UN in New York. He has also said he wants to visit Africa this year.

And if that were not enough he’s got to gear up for the second round of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October where the bishops will have to hammer out some definitive conclusions to all the questions left hanging after fierce discussions in the first round – communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and how the Church treats homosexual relationships, and co-habitation to name a few.

And once he’s wrapped up the Synod, it will be time to dive into the Jubilee Year preparations. Pope Francis announced a Jubilee Year starting December 8th dedicated to forgiveness and mercy.

An angel and cherubs struggle under the weight of the cross on a relief on the wall in St. Peter's Basilica. Photo taken for Mozzarella Mamma by Gregorio Borgia during the Chrism Mass April 2, 2015

An angel and cherubs struggle under the weight of the cross on a relief on the wall in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo taken for Mozzarella Mamma by Gregorio Borgia during the Chrism Mass April 2, 2015

During a Holy Year, the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica and doors in three other churches in Rome are left open. People passing through the doors will receive salvation. The first Holy Year was declared in 1300 by Pope Boniface and the last one was under Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Next Saturday, April 11, there will be a special ceremony in front of the Holy Door with the reading of various passages of the Papal Bull of Indiction announcing the Jubilee of Mercy.

And now back to his tiredness speech. Here is another quote:

“There is what we can call “The weariness of people, the weariness of the crowd.” For the Lord, and for us, this can be exhausting…yet is a good weariness, a fruitful and joyful exhaustion.”

Could it be that the Pope who throws himself passionately every Wednesday into his weekly audience, frequently stopping his popemobile as it tours St. Peter’s Square to kiss every baby presented to him and to caress and hug every handicapped person he sees, is getting weary of all the crowd and people who want a piece of him?

Pope Francis kisses baby during weekly audience in St. Peter's Square, April 1, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara.

Pope Francis kisses baby during weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square, April 1, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara.

He also spoke of tiredness of dealing with the bad guys. He said:

“There is also the kind of weariness which we can call “the weariness of enemies”. The devil and his minions never sleep and, since their ears cannot bear to hear the word of God, they work tirelessly to silence that word and distort it. Confronting them is more wearying.”

Could the Pope be thinking about those trying to block his reforms of the Curia?  Or is he thinking about recent terror attacks in Kenya, and Tunisia?  I would not know.

An orc from "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from “Lord of the Rings”

(A little aside here – I am taking these quotes from the official Vatican translation into English. For big events, the Vatican provides official translations for journalists in a variety of languages. In this case – French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. I love the choice of the translator to use the word “minions” in English to describe the devil’s assistants. It brought to my mind the wretched orcs from “Lord of the Rings” but then I mentioned it to my kids and they said they thought of the new film “Minions” with the little guys dressed in yellow and blue with goggles on. )

A Minion from the film "Minions"

A Minion from the film “Minions”

The Pope concluded that one should feel “impelled to go out even to the ends of the earth to every periphery.” In this way we can bring the good news to the most abandoned, knowing that “he is with us always even to the end of the world” Let us learn how to be weary, but weary in the best of ways.”

I felt – and this is just my personal opinion—that the Pope is telling us what he is thinking about his own mission. He is tired. He is weary, but he feels “impelled to go out to the end of the earth, to every periphery.”

And that was just the morning Mass. In the afternoon, he traveled across Rome to the Rebibbia Prison where he said Mass for the prisoners and washed the feet of 12 inmates and one child. There were five male prisoners and five women, one with a little boy in her lap. The Pope also washed and kissed the boy’s foot. The boy stared at the Pope with big brown eyes and such an serious expression as though he understood the importance of the gesture.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015.  Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015. Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

 

 

 

Addressing the prisoners, the Pope said: “Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord…so that the Lord also washes my filth… so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did.”

This evening Pope Francis took part in the Celebration of the Passion of Christ Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.  He walked down the center aisle of St. Peter’s wearing a burgundy colored robe.  He then lay flat on his stomach on a a rug at the center of the basilica and prayed for several minutes.  Again, I thought he seemed tired.

Pope Francis lies on the floor in prayer during the Celebration of the Passion of Christ in St. Peter's Basilica. April 3, 2014.  Freeze frame of Vatican TV video.

Pope Francis lies on the floor in prayer during the Celebration of the Passion of Christ in St. Peter’s Basilica. April 3, 2014. Freeze frame of Vatican TV video.

Tonight is one of my favorite events in the Vatican Calendar, the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, at the Colosseum. I love to cover this event because of the beauty of the spot, the history of the Colosseum — the brutality of the deaths of all those gladiators and animals mixed together with the history of the Catholic church and the brutality of the end of life of Jesus.

I will update on that tomorrow.

Note:  A big thank you to AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia who passed on to me some of his extra photos after he finished filing for AP.

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