June 25, 2015

The Toilet Paper War

A wonderful, soft, much beloved roll of toilet paper. Photo by Trisha Thomas. June 2015

A wonderful, soft, much beloved roll of toilet paper. Photo by Trisha Thomas. June 2015

It all started on a Tuesday morning at 7am a few weeks ago when I went into the bathroom and discovered there was no toilet paper. I sleepily shuffled over to the other bathroom where my Italian husband was shaving and knocked on the door and said:

“Hey, can you hand me out some toilet paper, there isn’t any in the other bathroom.”

Pause for a sleepy second and then explosion”

“WHAT, there is no toilet paper!!!???!! I bought 4 rolls last Saturday and you 3 (my 2 daughters and I) have used four rolls in 4 days. This has go to STOP! We are not buying any more toilet paper until next Saturday!!!”

“What the hell are you talking about!” I yelled back, suddenly wide awake (we are in Italy –I’ve learned to be vociferous when I argue even at 7am). “WE CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT TOILET PAPER!!”

“USE THE BIDET!!!!” came the response from the other side of the bathroom door.

Well, as much as I appreciate the qualities of the omnipresent bidets in Italy (see blog post: The Fabulous Bidet), it is not a replacement for toilet paper. By that time I was getting really worked up, so I shouted:

“I don’t get it, you buy plastic little clean-up-the-poop bags for the dog, and you don’t want us to have toilet paper!!!???!!!”

Silence for a moment from the other side of the bathroom door, then:

“Yes!! That’s right – and don’t you dare write a blog post on this!!”

“Great Idea!!” I grumbled and shuffled off to the kitchen to look for dinner napkins.

Let me just add here that despite what you have just read, my husband and I are not completely ignorant, boorish individuals. We are relatively well educated and well informed and know that there are terrible events happening in the world–wars in Syria and Ukraine, a massacre at a church in the US, migrants fleeing Libya—clearly issues that we should be more concerned about, but somehow we could not resist the temptation to launch our own personal TP war. What is it about marriage??

(If you are a regular follower of this blog, you will know that marital bickering is not new. See blog post: Romantic Ravello and Lacing Wars)

Well that Tuesday happened to be an insanely busy day and I didn’t get around to buying toilet paper (made do with Kleenexes and dinner napkins) and I ended up finding myself at a pizzeria for dinner with a group of Mamma friends who were all telling stories about things that husbands do that drive us crazy. So I spilled my toilet paper war beans. My friends were shocked. They immediately began plotting their revenge—they said they would roll me up in toilet paper like an Egyptian TP Mamma-Mummy and deliver me to the door of our home, ring the doorbell and escape. Another suggestion was that they all hide in the courtyard area outside my building with rolls of toilet paper and when my husband left to go to work the next morning they would bombard him with rolls of TP. Gotta love the Mamma-Mafia at work, they made me laugh and the TP war seemed a little less dramatic.

But as things were, I didn’t manage to buy any TP on Wednesday or Thursday and of course my daughters took their aggravation out on me. Then on Friday at work I got a call from my husband sounding very sheepish. He said:

“Guess what, I just found the four rolls of toilet paper on the floor in the back of my car, they must have slipped out of the shopping bag when I was coming home from the supermarket last Saturday.”

AAARRGGHHH!! I can’t believe it, all that TP abstinence for nothing.

Saturday morning I headed to the supermarket to end the battle once and for all.

Forty rolls of wonderful, soft, dearly beloved, much appreciated toilet paper.  Photo by Trisha Thomas, June 2015

Forty rolls of wonderful, soft, dearly beloved, much appreciated toilet paper. Photo by Trisha Thomas, June 2015

Forty rolls should last us for a while.

And yes, since he gave me the idea, I cannot resist the temptation to write a blog post—my final salvo in the TP war.

Moral of this story: Don’t mess with TT and her TP

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June 22, 2015

Michelle Obama at Vicenza Army Base, Italy

Michelle Obama greets the crowd at Vicenza Army Garrison in Northern Italy. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman  Gigi Navarra

Michelle Obama greets the crowd at Vicenza Army Garrison in Northern Italy. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

At a certain point last Friday morning when I was covering Michelle Obama’s visit to the US Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy, I was rushing with AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra to get into position to film the First Lady and her daughters serving ice cream to kids on the base. I was dragging my computer bag filled with cables and equipment with one hand and had the fuzzy microphone in the other hand, the long cable draped around my arm like a snake.

A crowd of people pushed up against the barrier holding up cell phones and ipads in the air to try to get a photo of the First Lady. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder from someone behind the barrier, I turned and there was a woman smiling at me. “Hi Trisha,” she said. I responded “Hi!” racking my brain trying to remember who she was or where I had met her. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I am confused. Where have we met?” “I am a reader of your blog,” she answered.

I nearly dropped all of my equipment on the ground. Someone out there actually reads my blog and even recognized me?!?!! I felt momentarily like a celebrity blogger, a blogging star instead of a slogging dimming satellite of a TV field producer, and much-maligned mother of three teens. The press mass pushed forward and I had to move closer to the First Lady so I lost my blog reader in the shuffle, but I have to say she made my day. I was walking on air for at least an hour. So, even though I didn’t catch her name, I am doing this blog post about my day covering the First Lady at Vicenza for that nice woman at Vicenza Army Base who reads my blog. Thank you!!!!

Just a little background, the Vicenza Army Garrison in Italy is home to about 200 military families. The Vicenza base is the home of the 173rd Brigade with paratroopers currently deployed to six countries: Turkey, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. It is also the headquarters of US Army Africa who were the first American forces to fly in to West Africa to help with the Ebola crisis.

AP Television Team Gigi Navarra, Pietro De Cristofaro and Trisha Thomas waiting for Michelle Obama to arrive at Vicenza Army Garrison.  June 19, 2015

AP Television Team Gigi Navarra, Pietro De Cristofaro and Trisha Thomas waiting for Michelle Obama to arrive at Vicenza Army Garrison. June 19, 2015

The First Lady was scheduled to come to a barbecue and address the crowd. I had been calling and messaging her press people starting the afternoon before urging them to give us a comment on the attack on the Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina -it was the top story and we needed her reaction.

Combat camera specialist Gibson was in full fatigues and boots as she stood near me on the riser waiting for Michelle Obama to arrive. June 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Combat camera specialist Gibson was in full fatigues and boots as she stood near me on the riser waiting for Michelle Obama to arrive. June 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When we got to the base there was a stage set up, a barbecue underway off at the other end of the field, lots of kids waiting for their ice cream, and great danceable music blasting all around. I stood with my colleagues on the riser across from the stage, barely able to control my urge to dance, and doubted that the First Lady would use this lively atmosphere to address such a tragic issue as the massacre at the Church in South Carolina.

Soldier-singer Amanda Donohue singing "The Star Spangled Banner" prior to the arrival of First Lady Michelle Obama at Vicenza Army Garrison. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Soldier-singer Amanda Donahue singing “The Star Spangled Banner” prior to the arrival of First Lady Michelle Obama at Vicenza Army Garrison. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

But before she arrived the atmosphere changed slightly. A young woman soldier named Amanda Donohue came on the stage in her fatigues and burgundy beret and sang the most beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” I have ever heard. When I heard her sing I got goose bumps all over my arms and suddenly felt very emotional. I noticed my colleague Pietro did too—and he is not even American. When I asked him he said, “Oh, I love national anthems.” Anyway, that Amanda has got talent!!

Finally the First Lady came jogging up on stage in a bright red dress and the crowd went wild. People were yelling at her “We love you!” And she responded, “I love you more!” Then after the first greeting she dove directly into the topic of the day, the massacre in Charleston.

Michelle Obama speaking about her "heartache" over the "senseless tragedy" in Charleston, South Carolina.  June 19, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Michelle Obama speaking about her “heartache” over the “senseless tragedy” in Charleston, South Carolina. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

This is what she said,

“I just want to take a moment to talk just a little bit about what happened in Charleston, because I haven’t had an opportunity to speak to this.   But as my husband said yesterday, simply saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and the community of Charleston simply doesn’t convey the heartache that we all feel. We’ve seen too many tragedies like this, and there is something particularly horrifying about something that happened so senseless in a house of worship,  so my heart goes out to the people of Emanuel, and to the people of Charleston.  I pray for a community that I know is in pain, and with the hope that tragedies like this will one day come to an end.”

She then went on to give a brief but rousing speech praising them for all their sacrifices saying that she wanted to “shine a light, a really bright light, on all of you and everything that you do for the folks back home.”

17-year-old Camilla Oetlah who described the First Lady as "awesome".  June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

17-year-old Camilla Oetlah who described the First Lady as “awesome”. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Following the speech, she headed for the crowd and handed out hugs and greeted people. I spoke to one 17-year-old girl from Oklahoma City named Camilla Oetlah who had a chance to greet the First Lady and she described Michelle Obama as “just awesome.”

 

Arlington Chandler and his little girl shortly after listening to First Lady Michelle Obama at the US Army Garrison at Vicenza. June 19, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Arlington Chandler and his little girl shortly after listening to First Lady Michelle Obama at the US Army Garrison at Vicenza. June 19, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Arlington Chandler from Birmingham, Alabama carried his little girl on this shoulder so she could catch a glimpse of the First Lady. He said he really appreciated her words recognizing the sacrifices that military families make.

The First Lady eventually made her way over to the ice cream tent where she joined her daughters Malia and Sasha and her mother Marian Robinson in serving up ice cream sundaes for the children on the base.

First Lady Michelle Obama serving ice cream to children at the US Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy. June 19, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

First Lady Michelle Obama serving ice cream to children at the US Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra.

We got a brief chance to film that before being whisked off to the next event in which the First Lady and her daughter took turns reading to a group of 150 children gathered in the gym. The First Lady had some words of advice for the young children that I wish my teenagers would listen to as well. She said, ““But you know what I want you all to do this summer, now that you are out of school and now that you have all these books? What do I want you to do?  What do you think? Read!  I want you to read, read, read because if you read a lot you will be really smart and you will be able to do anything in the world that you want. Ok?”

Michelle Obama telling kids to read at US Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. June 19, 2015

Michelle Obama telling kids to read at US Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. June 19, 2015

And if I had to add my own Mozzarella Mamma two cents on to Michelle’s words for the sake of my teenagers it would be: “yes READ, and get off those damn cell phones and forget about Facetime and Facebook and Instagram and Youtube and read a blooming book or two this summer.”

Sasha (left) and Malia (right) Obama read out loud to children at the US Army Garrison in Vicenza Italy. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Sasha (left) and Malia (right) Obama read out loud to children at the US Army Garrison in Vicenza Italy. June 19, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

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June 19, 2015

Michelle Obama in Italy

First Lady Michelle Obama jogs into event at Milan Expo 2015. June 18, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

First Lady Michelle Obama jogs into event at Milan Expo 2015. June 18, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

“Non ha la puzza sotto il naso” AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra told me after spending two days following Michelle Obama on her visit to Northern Italy. Translated directly that would mean “she doesn’t have a smell under her nose,” or more specifically: she isn’t stuck up, she’s not a snob, she does not have her nose in air. Gigi is right. Until this week I had never seen Michelle Obama in person but after following her visit in Milan it is clear that she is down-to-earth, natural, self-assured and easy and fun to be around.

The First Lady came to Italy this week to visit the Milan EXPO 2015, which is actually what was once known as the World’s Fair. The Milan Expo is dedicated to food, the theme being “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” and the national pavilions both showcase each nation’s food, and explore ways to make more sustainable food production.

Food and healthy eating has been a big theme for the First Lady while at the White House, five years ago she launched her project “Let’s Move” to combat childhood obesity in the United States. So she was the logical candidate to inaugurate the American Pavilion at the EXPO.

The US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. June 18, 2015

The US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. June 18, 2015

The Pavilion stands out at the EXPO area with its huge American Flag wall with the sign “American Food 2.0” and a plate, fork and knife replacing the stars. All along one side of the pavilion is a vertical vegetable garden designed by architect James Biber. As we stood under it waiting for the secret service to go through all our equipment, I looked up at the cabbages, lettuces, red peppers, green beans, and parsely that look like they are growing out of the wall.

The First Lady has a massive organizational machine that moves with her. We were dealing with press flacks from Washington and from the Embassy in Rome and Consulate in Milan; there were the advance teams, the logistical people and lots of security.   As we waited outside the pavilion, teams went through every item of equipment turning on all our phones and computers and dogs sniffed through everything else.   (I am not complaining though, given recent events in the world, I think it is necessary)

We were among the journalists in the pool covering the First Lady, so we were inside, but as the hour approached for her arrival a huge crowd gathered around the barriers. A group of American College students had been selected to participate in a question and answer session with the First Lady and they eagerly awaited her outside.

Finally she strolled in where a brightly colored, dress, high-heeled sandals and, I couldn’t help noticing, lemon-yellow toe-nail polish. (Lemon yellow seemed appropriate when we are talking food in Italy where lemons are used daily in cooking).

Michelle Obama in sandals with lemon-yellow toenail polish at the Milan EXPO 2015.  June 18, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Michelle Obama in sandals with lemon-yellow toenail polish at the Milan EXPO 2015. June 18, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

She has such a natural warm way about her, and enthusiastically greeted the students who looked at her with awe.

American students greet First Lady Michelle Obama at the US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

American students greet First Lady Michelle Obama at the US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

She then got a tour of the pavilion while we scrambled into our new position to film her question and answer session with the students.

When she arrived at the session, she immediately told us that she had been “amazed” by the vertical garden and thought it was “awe-inspiring.”

Michelle Obama knows a thing or two about vegetable gardens, in 2009 she inaugurated a vegetable garden on the South Lawn at the White House to grow healthy food to be eaten by the first family.

She then said that as she walked around the pavilion, “I couldn’t help but think about all the issues we face around hunger, around food deserts in our countries and places all over the world and when you walk around this pavilion you think the solutions are right in our grasp.”

First Lady Michelle Obama taking question from a student at the US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. June 18, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra.

First Lady Michelle Obama taking question from a student at the US Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. June 18, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra.

During the press events in Milan, the first lady repeatedly pointed out that “globally the prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980; diabetes has increased worldwide by 45 percent in the last two decades, and 42 million children are overweight before they even finish pre-school.”

Michelle said her goal is to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation.

According to the White House, as part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign kids are now getting fruits and vegetables instead of milk and cookies at daycare centers, children are finding salad bars in their school cafeterias, restaurants are making healthier kids menus and companies are lowering the calories in drinks and food products.

At the end of her visit to the American pavilion, Michelle Obama gave us a hint about what is in her future after she leaves the White House. She said, “I know that I for one, long after I leave the office of First Lady, am going to continue to work on these issues because our children deserve better. And we can do better.  We can.  We’ve seen it here.”

First Lady Michelle Obama cooking with American kids at the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan. June 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra

First Lady Michelle Obama cooking with American kids at the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan. June 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra

The day before she visited EXPO we covered an event at the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan where Michelle took part in a cooking session with 7th and 8th graders from the American School in Milan. There Michelle was in her element chatting with the kids, chopping chicken and making a lentil, barley, rice and chicken salad. She even sat down to eat it with them in front of a pack of journalists and at least 4 TV cameras. AP Television was live on the event and I was thinking it has to be difficult trying to chew your food politely, not choke or spit or gulp, and carry on a conversation with a bunch of kids with everyone focused on you. But she pulled it off beautifully. I guess she has some experience with that.

She told the kids that they have to do their part to combat obesity joking with them:

“You gotta eat your vegetables, yeah, sorry about that, but you gotta have some vegetables.”

She also told them the importance of cooking one’s own food and being aware of the ingredients you use and eating together as a family. She explained that at the White House their family tries to sit down for dinner together every night between 6-730 and they talk about their day. She said talking with others helps one to eat slowly, taste one’s food and enjoy it more. Then she added, “you are actually tasting it, and you probably eat less because you are not just shoveling. Shoveling is probably not a good thing. We don’t shovel. Well, the President shovels sometimes.|”

Ok, now we know. The 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, sometimes shovels his food.

First Lady Michelle Obama signs aprons for children at the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan. June 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

First Lady Michelle Obama signs aprons for children at the James Beard American Restaurant in Milan. June 17, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra

At the end of the event she hugged the kids and then they asked her to sign their aprons. With a magic marker she signed her name one-by-one on each of their aprons. When she got to one boy he said, “Are you the First Lady?” She burst out laughing and said, “Yes, I am the First Lady of the United States, I am glad we have clarified that.”

Michelle Obama's autograph on apron.   Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra.  Milan, June 17, 2015

Michelle Obama’s autograph on apron. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. Milan, June 17, 2015

Obama is traveling with her two daughters Malia, 16 and Sasha, 14 and her mother Marian Robinson although I have not seen them yet.

Today they will visit US military families at the Vicenza military base which I have to run out to cover now, then this weekend the First Lady will make a private visit to Venice over the weekend.

Note: Some people have been asking me why I have not posted on the Pope’s Encyclical.  It is very important and a huge story for AP.  We are extremely busy in Italy right now with EXPO, Migrants and the Encyclical and I opted for the fluffy story of covering the First Lady.  I will eventually post on the Encyclical and all the buzz and back-stabbing around it when I am back in Rome.

Related posts:

June 14, 2015

A Cool Leader, a Healthy Queen, and a Spunky Migrant Girl

Russian President Vladimir Putin heading for Russian Pavilion at EXPO 2015 in Milan. June 10, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Brian Hendrie.

Russian President Vladimir Putin heading for Russian Pavilion at EXPO 2015 in Milan. June 10, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Brian Hendrie.

Dear Blog Readers –

One of the joys of working for a television news agency is that we are constantly on the move covering everything and anything that falls within our area. In the AP Television Rome bureau we don’t have a beat. So we cover the Vatican, Politics, Migrants, Entertainment, Crime, Natural Disasters, etc etc.   One has to resign oneself to never being an expert on anything and always facing stories like a blank slate ready to learn, absorb and ask questions. Yes, we do build up knowledge on stories we cover frequently (Vatican, Migrants), but never enough.

This week was typical. Here a little behind-the-scenes with AP diary for this past week.

On Wednesday I took the train to Milan to cover Russian President Vladimir Putin who came to Italy for Russia’s National Day at the EXPO 2015 in Milan. He was to visit the Russian Pavilion and join Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for a joint press conference before flying down to Rome to meet with Pope Francis.

Just two days earlier in Bavaria at the ending of the G7 meetings, US President Barack Obama had some pretty harsh words for Putin.   When asked about the situation in the Ukraine and the fragile Minsk accords Obama responded,

“Ultimately, this is going to be an issue for Mr. Putin.  He’s got to make a decision:  Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire?”

I was eager to hear Putin’s response to that comment and was hoping that I might even get to ask the question myself.

We all gathered early in the media area waiting for the opening ceremony with President Putin and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. We were subjected over and over again to a video on a large screen showing food production in Russia and quoting Tolstoy I believe. I listened to it so many times that I memorized it…

“The bounteous steppe awash with rye, nary a castle, sea or hill to marr the eye…” it then went onto say “it is not just about the blini, caviar and honey….”

After hearing the video about 25 times, I wandered around to the edges of the barriers and found a group of Russians with flags holding up a sigh “Putin, Save the World.”

Italian PM Renzi arrived and was left—like the rest of us – cooling his heels waiting for the Russian leader to arrive.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi jokes with journalists as he waits for Russian President Vladimir Putin to arrive at EXPO 2015 in Milan. June 10, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi jokes with journalists as he waits for Russian President Vladimir Putin to arrive at EXPO 2015 in Milan. June 10, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

 

Putin eventually showed up over an hour late. The Russians waiting along the barriers cheered wildly. I was struck by his coldness. The man has a frigidity about him which was in sharp contrast to Renzi’s chatty, friendly, joking manner. In his opening remarks, Renzi joked that he was a little worried that the Russian leader might offer him some heavy-duty Russian beverages when the visited the Russian Pavilion before lunch, Putin did not respond.  There was clearly more feeling between Putin and former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi who regularly joked around at press conferences together in Italy and Russia.

After a brief opening ceremony the two were taken off to the Russian Pavilion where they tried some Russian delicacies (no vodka for Renzi apparently) and saw some Russian dancers.

Russian Dancers performing outside the Russia Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. June 10, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Brian Hendrie

Russian Dancers performing outside the Russia Pavilion at Milan EXPO 2015. June 10, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Brian Hendrie

Then on to the press conference. If anyone out there is interested in knowing what really winds up a television producer it is when some fire hydrant from Russian security with a bad attitude parks himself in front of your live shot a few minutes before a press conference. When all other forms of persuasion failed, I tweeted his photo. He moved. Never underestimate the power of a tweet.

Man blocking AP's live shot of the Putin -Renzi Press conference and driving me crazy. June 10, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Man blocking AP’s live shot of the Putin -Renzi Press conference and driving me crazy. June 10, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Shortly before the press conference, we were told that the two leaders would be taking exactly two questions from journalists – one from a Russian, one from an Italian. Oh well.

Neither of the journalists asked directly about Obama’s comments but they did ask about the US-EU sanctions on Russia and the Minsk accords.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at a press conference on Russia Day at Milan EXPO 2015. June 10, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at a press conference on Russia Day at Milan EXPO 2015. June 10, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

I must say Putin was cool as a cucumber, getting back at Italy over the sanctions right where it hurts he said,

“We talked about sanctions but with our feet on the ground, not about repealing sanctions and reducing sanctions, we talked about how sanctions prevent us from working.”

Then he seemed to be addressing Italian businesses which in northern Italy have been struggling with a stagnating economy as he continued,   “We have some projects together in infrastructure for instance and it is so obvious that Italian enterprises that won the tenders are interested in completing the projects but they are blocked because with these sanctions they cannot be completed so we must find the way out…”

He made it clear he could find other companies from elsewhere to finish the projects for him. Ouch, that hurt.

He also took a whack at his opponents in the West when he seemed to turn the Ukraine question on its head saying:

“We have devoted so much attention to the Ukraine crisis. We all know there is no other solution, only peace can be acceptable and Italy has also supported that.  For the Minsk agreements to be fully implemented the protocol actually included all aspects – political, social, humanitarian, and military aspects — but they are not all being fully implemented.”

So he passed back the responsibility for the flailing Minsk Accords back to the West.

Having cooly polished off his work in Milan, Putin flew down to Rome where he met with Pope Francis. He was also an hour late for that meeting and reportedly sped down Via Della Conciliazione in a 13 vehicle convoy (somewhat less than Obama’s mega convoy see Blog Post: President Obama in Rome). I did not cover the Pope-Putin meeting so I don’t have any particular behind the scenes descriptions other than to share the statement from the Pope’s spokesman on what the two men spoke about for 50 minutes in the library of the Apostolic Palace.

“….the conversation mainly focused on the conflict in the Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East. Regarding the situation in the Ukraine, the Holy Father said that we must engage in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace and emphasized the importance of rebuilding a climate of dialogue and the need for all concerned parties to implement the agreements of Minsk. Another topic was the essential commitment required by all parties to address the serious humanitarian situation and allow wider access to humanitarian workers in the region.”

The Pope has said he wants to visit Russia, but there are still issues to be ironed out with the Orthodox Church before that will happen.

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Next story – we had another prominent figure visiting Italy this week ….Queen Letizia of Spain. The Queen was nominated to be Special Ambassador for Nutrition by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Queen Letizia of Spain at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino. June 12, 2015

Queen Letizia of Spain at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino. June 12, 2015

AP Television Cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro and I rushed to the FAO at the last minute to cover the Queen because our London desk called to tell us the news that King Felipe VI, Letizia’s husband, had just stripped his sister of the title of Duchess. His sister, Cristina de Borbon, is about to stand trial for tax fraud.

Cristina de Borbon was given the title “Duchess of Palma de Mallorca” by King Juan Carlos when she got married in 1997. Juan Carlos abdicated in favor of his son amid a series of scandals last year.

When we arrived at FAO we found a huge pack of journalists eagerly awaiting the Queen. My Spanish journalist friend and fellow twitterer (whose name I won’t mention) quickly showed me some recent photos of Letizia looking anorexic and said that the Spanish press thought it was a bit of a paradoxic that they name her Ambassador for Nutrition when she doesn’t seem to get enough nutrients herself.

The Queen breezed in looking absolutely gorgeous in a white tailleur. I was checking her out closely to see if she looked skeletal and anorexic, but to be honest she just looked beautiful.

She made a speech about food and a healthy diet that didn’t make much news and unfortunately did NOT feed us journalists with some juicy tidbits on her sister-in-law’s new duchess-less state.

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And on I go….from the Queen to a poor little, spunky migrant girl sitting on a piece of cardboard on the street outside the bus station in Rome.

Little migrant girl sitting on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015.     Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra.

Little migrant girl sitting on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, the migrant situation is out of hand in Italy. Hundreds of migrants are trying to cross the Mediterranean every day from Libya in cheap rubber dinghies and old wooden fishing boats. Italy has asked Europe for help in rescuing them and Europe responded with Navy ships. At the beginning of this week, our office had the pleasure of dealing with the Irish, British and German navies who were all involved in dramatic rescue operations off the coast of Libya and provided us with footage. They then brought the migrants to Italy.

Other European nations are happy to help only so much. Europe is discussing the possibility of taking 40,000 migrants from Italy and Greece, but so far there has been no agreement on the date (the UK will not take part in this).

According to the Dublin II accords from 2003, an asylum-seeker must ask for asylum in the EU member state where he or she entered, and that is decided by the finger-printing upon entry. While in Sicily, I have seen the police finger-printing migrants upon their arrivals in the ports, but not everyone is being finger-printed. Syrian, Eritrean and Sudanese migrants avoid being finger-printed so they move quickly out of Italy to the north and ask for asylum elsewhere.  Italy, overwhelmed by migrants, often does not insist on the fingerprinting, instead leaving the migrants free to go.  Keep in mind, The International Organization for Migrants says that nearly 55,000 migrants have arrived by sea in Italy from January – June 8 of this year.

So this week hundreds of migrants – Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Syrians got blocked in Italy because the border controls were tightened into Germany due to the G7 summit and because France blocked the border at a key crossing point at Ventimiglia where travelers pass into France to the Cote D’Azur.

Migrant women lying on cardboard on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

Migrant women lying on cardboard on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

I was sent to cover the story in Rome at the Tiburtina bus station where I found hundreds of people lying around on cardboard, waiting for people to pass buy and give them something to eat. I spoke at length to Abdul Aziz from Sudan, who told me he was from Darfur, his whole family had been killed by the Janjaweed fighters and he has spent six months traveling through the desert and into Libya to get to Italy. He said he was 28-years-old.

Henriok from Eritrea and Abdul Aziz from Darfur, Sudan outside the Tiburtina bus terminal. June 11, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Henriok from Eritrea and Abdul Aziz from Darfur, Sudan outside the Tiburtina bus terminal. June 11, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I asked Abdul to tell me about how he got from Darfur to Rome and he said sighed and said it would take too long.  Then I asked him about his trip across the Mediterranean.  He said he was on an old wooden fishing boat and was one of the migrants put below in the hold.  He said the smell of all the humans sweating was sickening and suffocating.

Abdul wore a baseball cap pulled down over his head. He told me that when they were in Libya ISIS fighters attacked him and others and demanded they give them everything they had. He said the only thing he refused to give was his cell phone which has contacts of people in Europe. They then beat him on the back of his head with the butts of their guns. He pulled off his hat and turned to show me the gash on the back of his head. He had a lot of gray and I wondered if he really was 28. I thought about how everyone says Obama has become so gray while coping with the pressure of being President.  I figured the pressures of surviving such a journey can turn a young man’s hair white. Abdul told me he was traveling with a young boy from Sudan and they hadn’t eaten in two days. He explained that someone gave them 53 euros for a bus from Sicily to Rome and now he just had to wait until he found enough money to get a bus to Milan or Turin.

 

Gash on the back of the head of Abdul Aziz, migrant from Darfur, Sudan who said he was hit by an ISIS fighter with a rifle butt for refusing to hand over his cell phone. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra. June 11, 2015

Gash on the back of the head of Abdul Aziz, migrant from Darfur, Sudan who said he was hit by an ISIS fighter with a rifle butt for refusing to hand over his cell phone. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra. June 11, 2015

After the interview I told him I would take him to a nearby coffee bar and get him a sandwich and to bring the boy he was travelling with. As we walked off, an Eritrean man came up and walked with them. He was very agitated and spoke aggressively in Arabic. They exchanged a few words and then the man walked away. I asked Abdul what the man had said. “He said you are going to take me to the police and get me finger-printed.”

I stopped and said, “Abdul, if you don’t trust me, you don’t need to come with me.  I want to buy you a sandwich, that’s it. But I understand if you don’t want to come.”

Fortunately Abdul trusted me and we got some sandwiches and they headed back to the cardboard seat under a tree at the bus station.

AP television Cameraman Gigi Navarra and I continued to wander around trying to get others to speak to us. Nobody wanted to talk. One 18-year-old Eritrean boy named Henriok, who spoke perfect English, told me that all he wanted from me was money. I don’t want to give you an interview, I don’t want you to give me anything but money for the bus to go North.  I said I could not give him any.

And although it wasn’t an interview, I think this gritty little girl sitting on the ground watching us best summed up how they felt about journalists and TV cameras.

Little migrant girl sitting on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015.     Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra.

Little migrant girl sitting on ground at Tiburtina bus terminal in Rome. June 11, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra.

 

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May 31, 2015

La Scivolata

BANANA PEEL

It was with a certain pleasure that my husband, Professor of Economics at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, handed me the newspaper today and said, “I think you might want to do a blog post on this letter to the editor written by an economist colleague of mine.” He knows me so well. I never miss an opportunity to point out the rampant male chauvinism that sadly still exists in some parts of Italian society, unfortunately often among the political and intellectual elites. Many women thought perhaps things had changed with the political decline of Silvio Berlusconi and his famous Bunga Bunga parties (See Blog Post: The End of Italy’s Bunga Bunga Era), but no, this time the scivolata (slip—as on a banana peel) as they say in Italian, was made by Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome, Sapienza.

Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome Sapienza with the three top finalist in the Miss University competition. May 6, 2015

Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome Sapienza with the three top finalist in the Miss University competition. May 6, 2015

On May 6, 2015 Eugenio Gaudio, President of the largest University in Italy, headed the Jury of the “Miss University” contest in which female University students were judged, among other things, in a bikini.   The contest was to find “The most beautiful and wise student from the Italian University.” The participants were given a free coupon for a center for esthetic surgery.

Now the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato of the University of Sussex, together with a long list of top Italian female professors and researchers have written an open letter to him calling for him to step down. They have put a petition on the website Change.org gathering signatures in favor of his resignation.

Let me quote the letter, they say it much better than I could:

Dear President…

“…We consider that your participation as a jury member for the selection of Miss University, held in Rome on May 6, 2015 at Billions is not compatible with your institutional role, and represents a scandalous stain on the university that you were elected to lead.”

They went on to say:

“In a context in which the international reputation of Italy is more linked to Bunga Bunga instead of its enormous scientific and cultural heritage, your participation at this event does nothing but further diminish the fundamental role of the University (with a capital U) and of women.”

“…We expect that the President of the largest University in Europe would use his strategic position to push his students to believe in themselves and not in the way in which men value their bodies; to convince them that the future is in their hands and in their heads and not in their bikini; to encourage them to fight to reach their goals, to put into practice, in the working world and outside of it, everything that they learned at the University.”

“Your participation at this event demonstrates how backwards our society still is.”

The women academics conclude by demanding he publicly apologize, that he also declare that the University of Rome Sapienza will never again participate in a similar event, and finally that the University will support initiatives designed to promote the careers of its female students.

I just checked and the petition on Change.org now has nearly 1,300 signatures of individuals demanding the President’s resignation.  Looks like the “scivolata” may become a “caduta” (fall).

I will keep you updated.

UPDATE

The President of the University of Rome, Eugenio Gaudio, has responded, and here is what he had to say:

“I do not have to apologize for anything.”

“My participation was a way to be close to the students and was carried out with full respect towards the girls, and I want to emphasize, they were not in bathing suits but evening dress.”

“I decided to accept this invitation…after a careful analysis on the part of my secretary.”

 

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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

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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

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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.

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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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