September 22, 2014

A Trip to Albania with Pope Francis

An Albanian woman waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at Mass in Tirana, Albania. Spetember 21, 2014 Photo by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

An Albanian woman waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at Mass in Tirana, Albania. Spetember 21, 2014 Photo by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

We had to check in for the Papal flight to Albania  at 4:45 am.  At Rome’s Fiumicino airport there were the usual young travellers sprawled out sleeping on the floor and the Vatican Press corps stood out.  When we travel with the Pope we dress in black, have big press passes hanging around our necks and drag around lots of equipment — photographers with long lenses and heavy camera bags, cameramen with video cameras and tripods, producers carry back-packs with cables and journalists drag rolling computer bags.

On the plane we drive the stewards and stewardesses crazy because the tripods need to be kept near the exit for the cameramen to grab quickly on arrival, all the journalists want their computers on their laps, and the photographers and cameramen need their cameras with them for when the Pope comes back to speak to us.  As soon as we are on board we have to cable up so that when the Pope speaks into a microphone we get the audio (otherwise all we would hear is engine noise).

So yesterday at dawn the stewardesses were rushing up and down the aisles telling everyone to stow their luggage in the overhead compartments, the Vatican technicians were doing a voice check on the microphone, the cameraman were passing cables under the seats and I was frantically photographing the embargoed copies of the Pope’s speeches for the day that I had just been handed to send to my AP wire colleague before the plane took off so she could start preparing her stories.  Seatbelts anyone?

Pope Francis smiles as he comes back to speak to reporters on the Papal Plane enroute to Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis smiles as he comes back to speak to reporters on the Papal Plane enroute to Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Shortly after take-off the Pope breezed back to give us a quick statement. He was smiling and cheerful and this is what he said,

“Albania is a country that has succeeded in finding peace with the different religions and this is a good sign for the world, for dialogue, for peace… I wish you a beautiful day, a hard-working day, and pray for me. Thank you.”

Albania has a population of slightly over 3 million people, roughly 60 percent of whom are Muslim and only 10 percent are Catholic.  There is a sprinkling of other religions including Orthodox Christians and Bektashi Muslims. Co-existence and co-habitation was a theme for the Pope throughout the day, and the people of Albania also seemed eager to prove it to the Pope.

Woman waiting for Pope Francis at Mass in Tirana, Albania, September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Woman waiting for Pope Francis at Mass in Tirana, Albania, September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis chose to go to Albania yesterday  for his first trip within Europe outside of Italy– as his spokesman explained to reporters, because in typical Francis fashion it is a trip to the periphery, to the edge, to one of the poorest countries in Europe, with one of the smallest Catholic populations.

When we got off the plane we were driven into the city of Tirana,  where banners with pictures of the Christian martyrs fluttered over the boulevard.  Albanians lined the road waving the distinctive red Albanian flag with a black eagle emblazoned on it.

At his first stop at the presidential palace, the Pope unleashed his strongest comments of the day, which he would repeat.  First he complimented the Albanians on their “peaceful coexistence and collaboration” noting that “The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country.”  Then he turned his attention to places where “authentic religious spirit is being perverted” and “religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized.”

Although he never mentioned the Islamic State, it was clearly the object of these comments. He continued, “Let no one consider themselves to be the shielded by God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!  May no on use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman…”

Shortly after these comments the Pope made his way in his Popemobile through the tens of thousands of people gathered in Mother Teresa Piazza for the Mass. Mother Teresa’s name is often followed by the words “of Calcutta” but she was actually Albanian , her birth name Ganxhe Bojaxhiu and she was born in Skopje, then part of Albania (now Macedonia).

An Albanian holding up a poster of Mother Teresa of Calcutta at Mass held by Pope Francis in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

An Albanian holding up a poster of Mother Teresa of Calcutta at Mass held by Pope Francis in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Vatican press was taken into the Piazza ahead of time and I snapped some photos of the Albanians waiting for the Pope.  They clearly wanted to reinforce the message of peaceful coexistence.

A young Albanian man holds up a sign showing pride in his nation's religious tolerance. Photo by Trisha Thomas September 21, 2014

A young Albanian man holds up a sign showing pride in his nation’s religious tolerance. Photo by Trisha Thomas September 21, 2014

The Pope returned to the theme of religion and violence later in the day in a meeting with local religious leaders. He told them, “Authentic religion is a source of peace and not violence. No one must use the name of God to commit violence.  To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”

Albanian Religious leader arriving for meeting with Pope Francis. September 21, 2014.  Tirana, Albania. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Albanian Religious leader arriving for meeting with Pope Francis. September 21, 2014. Tirana, Albania. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Popemobile rushed quickly through the piazza not giving the Pope the chance to do his habitual kissing of babies and blessing the faithful.  I wondered if the rush was for security reasons, but later the Pope’s spokesman reassured me that there were no concerns or threats, the Pope was just trying to maintain his schedule.

The head of the Pope's security, Domenico Giani, eyes the crowd carefully as the Popemobile makes its way through Piazza Mother Teresa in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

The head of the Pope’s security, Domenico Giani, eyes the crowd carefully as the Popemobile makes its way through Piazza Mother Teresa in Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

In 1944 communist dictator Enver Hoxha took power and for 46 years cut off his people from the outside world, driving them into poverty and, after declaring the country an “atheist” state in 1967,  presided over the destruction of mosques and churches and decades of persecution of anyone who wanted to practice a religious faith.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that Albania became a parliamentary republic.

At one event during the day, Pope Francis listened to 84-year-old  Father Ernest Simoni who was sent to labor camps and tortured for 28 years for his Catholic faith.  In a moving description, he told the Pope how he was arrested in 1963 after holding a Mass following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Father Simoni, unlike many others who were executed, survived to tell his story.  Pope Francis was visibly moved by his words and wiped away tears.

Sometimes we have some slow moments on these trips when we are just left standing around waiting outside while the Pope is inside.  Here I am with my Vatican photographer buddies.

Mozzarella Mamma and her Vatican photographer buddies hanging around outside a Papal event. Guess which one is me?  Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Mozzarella Mamma and her Vatican photographer buddies hanging around outside a Papal event. Guess which one is me? Tirana, Albania. September 21, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis is the second Pope to go to Albania, the first was JPII in 1993, just after the country emerged from its decades of isolation under communist rule. Pope Francis’ trip to

Albania was a brief distraction that comes of the eve of the long-awaited Synod on the Family at the Vatican which begins on October 5th. Bishops are preparing to discuss such important issues as communion for divorced and re-married couples and it seems the Cardinals are already sharpening the swords for a fierce battle over marriage.  Last week five Cardinals came out with a book called “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” which proclaims the indissolubility of marriage and counters the recent comments by Cardinal Kasper, a theologian close to Pope Francis, who has opened up to the idea of communion for divorced Catholics.

Now while the Cardinals are preparing for battle, Mozzarella Mamma has something else to do before diving into the delicate intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I have to go to Venice to cover George Clooney’s wedding.  Yes indeed, if you haven’t heard yet the 53-year-old actor will be marrying his gorgeous Lebanese born, Oxford-educated, lawyer for Julian Assange, girlfriend Amal Alamuddin.They are planning a mega-event involving luxury hotels, super-star guests, high fashion, fine food and tons of glamour next weekend in Venice.   And I am going.   Well, to Venice at least.

Now, dear blog readers, you may think, “oh how lucky you are to be covering such an event.”  Well, it is not exactly as though I have an invitation.  I won’t be sipping Bellinis on the roof-top of the 7-star Aman Hotel, or accompanying George and Amal on a romantic gondola ride around Venice.  Hell, knowing the way AP Television works, you will probably see me in waist high rubber boots standing in the middle of a canal with a cameraman trying to get a shot of George and his guests. It is sure to be a media circus and I must be nice to all my paparazzi friends because they are always the ones who know where to go and what to do.

Just to make you laugh– when Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes outside Rome in 2006, AP Television rented a helicopter and my APTN cameraman colleague Eldar Emric (who learned the cameraman trade during the war in Bosnia) found himself strapped into a harness, hanging out of a helicopter flying over the Odescalchi Castle near Lake Bracciano.  Don’t worry George, you won’t see me hanging out of a helicopter over your wedding, AP doesn’t have the budget for that kind of stuff anymore.

More blog posts coming your way soon from Venice….

Related posts:

A Voyage in Search of Happiness

The Temple at Segesta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. August 30, 2014

The Temple at Segesta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. August 30, 2014

Dear Blog Readers– I had the honour of being invited to visit Sicily the last four days of August to take part in a book presentation in the medieval town of Erice. I accepted immediately not even knowing what the book was about because the only times I’ve been to the enchanting island of Sicily have been for work and I’ve always wanted to spend more time there.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was taken aback.  It was something I knew very little about.  The title, translated from Italian, is “The Voyage of the Romantics in Search of Happiness”, and is an in-depth look (over 400 pages) into the lives, voyages and poetry of the British Romantic poets by Italian author Luigi Giannitrapani.  At first I panicked and then scratched my head and tried to remember the last time I had read a poem by John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Coleridge or Lord Byron.  Fortunately, I had the entire summer to read the book, go back and read some of the poetry and prepare my questions.

More on the book and the presentation later. First a few words on how I was immersed in the incredible sights and culture of Sicily.

I arrived at the Trapani airport a few days ahead of the presentation and was met by my friend and author Lynn Rodolico (see Blog Post “Small Change – A Novel of Parenting and Love”).  She immediately whisked me off for a seaside drive and a visit to some interesting local sites.

A salt worker at the Stagnone Lagoon on the Salt Road between Marsala and Trapani, Sicily. Photo by Lynn Rodolico, August 29, 2014.

A salt worker at the Stagnone Lagoon on the Salt Road between Marsala and Trapani, Sicily. Photo by Lynn Rodolico, August 29, 2014.

On the Salt Road (Via del Sale) between Trapani and Marsala we saw workers using wheel barrows to haul salt crystals from saline flats.  The long pinkish colour squared off pools are interspersed with windmills that look like they came straight from Holland.  People have been producing salt here for centuries.  Apparently the salt flats were first established by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, and eventually taken over the by Normans, Arabs and Spanish.

A windmill at the Stagnone Lagoon on the salt road between Marsala and Trapani, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

A windmill at the Stagnone Lagoon on the salt road between Marsala and Trapani, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

Over my few days in Sicily, I realized everything seemed to have a dramatic history –changing hands between different populations who took control of that area of the Mediterranean. Near the salt flats we found a gorgeous group of pink flamingos hanging out enjoying the sunshine.

Flamingos along the Salt Road between Marsala and Trapani.  Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

Flamingos along the Salt Road between Marsala and Trapani. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

Lynn and I made several stops along the spectacular coast — in an around the mountain known as Cofano (which means “Trunk”) and which looks like a gigantic traveller’s trunk sitting on the edge of the sea just waiting to be opened to reveal all sorts of  useful items inside.

The view down to Scopello with the old Tonnara building and the rock formations known as the "Faraglioni". Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 30, 2014

The view down to Scopello with the old Tonnara building and the rock formations known as the “Faraglioni”. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 30, 2014

We hiked down to the Scopello shoreline where Sicilian fisherman once launched their famous Tonnara Mattanza, an annual Tuna catch–a dramatic, bloody event, rich with cultural traditions.  The fishermen no longer do the catch there but the old Tonnara building and boat launch are still there along with aging, rusty anchors from fishing boats.  Further on we passed through the forlorn town of “Purgatorio”  (Purgatory) which is famous for its red light that never changes.  We were lucky enough not to be held forever in “Purgatorio” by the red light.

A rusting old anchor once belonging to a tuna fishing boat outside the Tonnara at Scopello, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 30, 2014

A rusting old anchor once belonging to a tuna fishing boat outside the Tonnara at Scopello, Sicily. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 30, 2014

Another stop was at the stunning Temple of Segesta, built in 430 BC by the Elymians (ok, I humbly admit I had never heard of Elmyians before I visited Segesta) It is a majestic Temple with 36 Doric columns.  And a short hike up the hill from the Temple is a spectacular Greek theater with a view out to the sea.

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma in front of the Temple at Segesta. Photo by Lynn Rodolico. August 31, 2014

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma in front of the Temple at Segesta. Photo by Lynn Rodolico. August 31, 2014

Since I am too lazy to do my homework here, I will quote the brochure: “The ancient city of Segesta, probably founded by the Elymians, was certainly the most important in the Mediterranean Basin….Segesta was destroyed by the Syracuse tyrant Agathocles (end of 4th century BC).  At the start of the first Punic war the city was reborn, allying itself with Rome…Settled by Byzantine, Arab and lastly Latin communities, the city was progressively abandoned from the Suevian period onwards.” (Ok, I already admitted I know nothing about Elymians, now I have to admit I have no clue what the Suevian period was, and who was Agathocles.  A quick google search reveals that Agathocles was the Greek Tyrant of Syracuse and the Suevians were an ancient Germanic tribe )

A Greek theater with a view out to the sea at Segesta, Sicily. (The little red spot is me, Trisha Thomas). Photo by Lynn Rodolico, August 30, 2014

A Greek theater with a view out to the sea at Segesta, Sicily. (The little red spot is me, Trisha Thomas). Photo by Lynn Rodolico, August 30, 2014

Despite my ignorance of history, I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent temple and the striking Greek Theater.  There it suddenly dawned on me why all those British Romantic poets left the gloomy British climes to romp around the ruins of Greece and Italy in the sunshine in search of inspiration for their poetry.

The streets of the medieval town of Erice are not meant for heels! Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

The streets of the medieval town of Erice are not meant for heels! Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

Finally — up, up, up to the town of Erice, 750 meters above sea level.  I loved the oddly cobblestoned streets winding through the town making it nearly impossible for anyone in heels to walk around.  At the top of the town there is the Castello di Venere (Venus’ Castle) with its intriguing history. It was built in the 12-13th century as a Temple to Venus and became a destination for sailors from around the Mediterranean region.  In an unusual pilgrimage, the sailors made their way from the port, up the steep slopes to the Temple where they reached for the Goddess (of fertility and love) through the Priestesses, who were more or less “Holy Prostitutes” who, according to the brochure dispensed “sensuality and passion”.  Apparently when the area was taken over by Christians, they built churches at all the entrances to the town to dissuade the eager sailors from visiting the Temple of Venus.  I’m not sure how successful that endeavour was, or perhaps the visiting sailors covered their bases by kneeling before both the Christian and Pagan Gods.

The Venus Castle in Erice. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

The Venus Castle in Erice. Note the spectacular view down to the sea below. Photo by Trisha Thomas, August 29, 2014

And finally on to the presentation, one cannot but be charmed by the utterly erudite Luigi Giannitrapani– although he is 80 years old, he exudes enthusiasm, energy and passion for his subject matter that leaves listeners much younger reeling in awe.  We met before the presentation to go over some of my questions and he filled me with delicious details of the lives and works of the romantic poets.  During the presentation the audience was enraptured as he described the lives and works of these men. First, I learned a lot about the travels of the romantic poets. They were not tourists — they were dreamers in search of beauty, of freedom, of truth– they did not want to arrive– the attraction was the journey, not the destination.  The Romantic Poets were intellectuals, narcissistic, egotistical, sometimes arrogant, infantile and naive– but each, in their own way, was a genius.

Me with author Luigi Giannitrapani at the presentation of "Il Viaggio dei Romantici alla Ricerca ella Felicita' " in Erice, August 31, 2014. Photo by Lynn Rodolico

Me with author Luigi Giannitrapani at the presentation of “Il Viaggio dei Romantici alla Ricerca ella Felicita’ ” in Erice, August 31, 2014. Photo by Lynn Rodolico

In particular, I loved all the details that Luigi shared both in his book and in his talk.  I didn’t know that Lord Byron was a “celebrity” poet equivalent of our Hollywood stars.  A sort-of George Clooney of poetic verse. When he went to France he had a carriage built that was similar to Napoleon’s pulled by two pairs of horses with inside a bed, a library, a chest with a set of porcelain dishes and his coat of arms emblazoned on the door. I loved Giannitrapani’s quote from Lady Caroline Lamb, lover of Lord Byron who said he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” after waking up from an intense nap (probably after smoking opium) and was busily writing what he imagined in his dream when he was interrupted by a guest who stayed for an hour and broke off his train of thought, impeding Coleridge from properly finishing the poem.

Percy Bysshe Shelley got kicked out of Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism. He later died on a shipwreck off the coast of Italy and his friend Lord Byron was called in to try to recognize the three bodies that washed up on shore a few days later.  Byron fished in the pockets of one cadaver and found the poetry of Keats in one pocket and the tragedies of Aeschylus in the other and declared that man was Shelley.

I have seen the gravestone of Keats (next to Shelley’s) in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome on which is written, “Here Lies One whose Name is Writ in Water.” But I did not know about Keats’ miserable life fighting off illness and constantly in search of  love.  Luigi Giannitrapani gave us a moving explanation of his poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” — in which a Knight is left by a mysterious “Belle Dame” with a sense of alienation, desperation and fear.  Keats could be referring to his failures in love or his poetic inspiration that carries him away and then deserts him.

If Italian readers want to get a copy of Luigi’s book, it can be found on Amazon.com.

From high brainy thoughts about the romantic poets I have to descend to the stomach and mention the Sicilian food.  While these poets were pursuing happiness, by any chance did they find the time for some happiness-inducing food?   Sicilian food is fabulous.  Just to mention a few of my favorite items: ricotta-cream stuffed Cannoli, fried rice balls stuffed with meat sauce, mozzarella and peas called Arancini, the Siclian Cous Cous made with fish, the eggplant dish known as Caponata– but I will leave the description of these delicious items to the Food bloggers.

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This is when, where and why I have visited Sicily in the past for work. Many of these trips were before I started this blog, so there are no posts about them, but I am attaching some related posts and reports for anyone who is interested.

Palermo — Former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s trial on charges of Mafia Association (see Blog Post “Divine Julius – An Italian Politician“)

Catania – Mount Etna — Explosions and lava flows on Sicily’s active volcano

Lampedusa — various visits to this small Sicilian island for reports on the arrival of migrants (See Blog Posts “Lampedusa, Europe’s Port“….)

Corleone- A visit to this small town for a ceremony in which the home of a sequestered Mafia boss was being given to a group called a non-profit group called Libera (see Blog Post “The Catholic Church and the Mafia“)

Near Trapani–Donna Fugata — A visit to film the night harvest in the Donna Fugata vineyards. Here is my video report:  Sicilian Winery Harvest Grapes at Night

Related posts:

The Bear Necessities

Daniza looks warily at the camera as she nurses her cubs.  Freeze frame from a video shot by forest rangers in Italy and provided by the Trentino Provice

Daniza looks warily at the camera as she nurses her cubs. Freeze frame from a video shot by forest rangers in Italy and provided by the Trentino Provice. Note: these are an earlier litter of bear cubs.

There is a fierce debate raging in Italy about a Mama bear named Daniza.  Daniza lives in the woods in the Italian alps in the Trentino region.

On August 9th a 38-year-old “fungaiolo” (a mushroom hunter) came across Daniza as she was with her eight-month old cubs.  He apparently hid behind a tree but she went after him mauling him a bit as he tried to escape.  The mushoom hunter spent a few hours in the hospital and left with 40 stitches from scratches to his arms, legs and back.

The Region of Trentino then decided that it was too dangerous for Daniza to be on the loose and has set about trying to capture her.  If and when they will capture her, they will put her in a 10,000 meter fenced in area to live out the rest of her life. According to Roberto Mase’, Director General for the Forest Department of the Province of Trento, Daniza is not wary enough of human beings and it is too dangerous to leave her free.

Daniza is one of 50 bears in the Trentino region of the Italian Alps. In 1999 Italy began taking part in a bear reintroduction project  called Life Ursus funded by the EU to bring bears back to the region. According Mase’, nine bears were brought into the region from Slovenia and have reproduced rapidly – there are now a total of 50 bears in Trentino.  These bears have a roughly 400 square kilometer area in which to live.

Animal rights groups are up in arms.  According to Pierpaolo Cirillo, a activist for the Italian group “Animalisti”, “The mushroom hunter knew he was entering an area where bears are present. Luckily, he did not get seriously injured as the bear did not mean to kill him but only wanted to protect the cubs. I do not understand why authorities are talking about interrupting the project and re-capturing the bear after she finally settled down in the new environment.”

Daniza, who is now 18-years-old,  has been captured before and like the other bears in the program wears a radio collar around her neck, so they generally know where she is although sometimes she moves through areas with little radio range.  Forest rangers have set up cages around the woods and have put tempting food items inside in the hope of getting her.  So far she has avoided the cages.

Bear trap set up in the woods in Trentino to catch Daniza.  Freeze frame of video shot by Italian Forest Rangers and provided by the Province of Trentino. August 22, 2014

Bear trap set up in the woods in Trentino to catch Daniza. Freeze frame of video shot by Italian Forest Rangers and provided by the Province of Trentino. August 22, 2014

Meanwhile, the tale of Daniza and the possibility that she might be separated from her cubs has sparked an uproar on social media.  Hashtags on twitter #iostocondaniza (I’m with Daniza) or #Danizalibera are filled with pleas to leave Daniza free.  In addition there is an on-line petition to save Daniza titled “Save Daniza, the Mama Bear” http://www.thepetitionsite.com/212/812/645/save-daniza-the-mama-bear/ which the last time I checked has already gathered over 100,000 signatures from Italy, all over Europe and as far away as Thailand, South Africa and Venezuela.

Officials in Trentino say that given that Daniza’s cubs are eight months old, they will not have any difficulty surviving without her.  However, with a quick check on the World Wildlife Fund website I found the following about brown bears “Cubs usually remain with the mother until the third or fourth year of their life. Although they mature sexually between 4-6 years of age, the species continues to grow until 10-11 years old. In the wild, the brown bears can reach 20 to 30 years of age.”

This morning I checked in with Giampaolo Pedrotti, the spokesman for the Trentino region, and he said that Daniza is still free.  I think given all the media attention, they may even be hoping that Daniza avoids the cages.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have seen plenty of bears in the wild.  The first was while camping with my father and sister in the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia.  A nice big black bear came wandering down the trail towards our tent as my sister and I were washing the dishes and my father was setting up our sleeping bags.  The bear veered off into the woods and sat down to enjoy our horrible freeze-dried beef burgundy that my father had bought at Eastern Mountain Sports (the latest thing in the 1970s in light weight camping food, use the same freeze dried dishes the astronauts take to the moon).

While the bear enjoyed our dinner, we fretted around our campsite until a Forest Ranger came down the path and warned us that we must tie up every possible item of food or the bear would come into our tent to get it during the night.    As we thought about throwing a rope over a tree, the ranger headed away adding, “Oh, and don’t even keep your toothpaste in your tent, unless you like snuggling with a bear because he’ll be heading in straight after that too.” This last comment made us so apprehensive that we packed up all our stuff and made a two hour night hike out of the park.  It was a thrilling adventure.

Another time we were staying at a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and as people were waking up and getting breakfast, a bear walked into the campground.  The people next to us were just sitting down to a big pancake breakfast and had a small tub of butter on the table.  The bear walked up to the table — as the campers scattered — grabbed the tub of butter and stuck his nose and paw into, in sheer pleasure.

As a mother, I bumped into a grizzly bear with my youngest daughter Chiara while walking down a trail in the Canadian Rockies.  We had heard there were grizzlies around and were well-versed on what you are supposed to do if you meet one. “Throw your pack with any food in it far away, and make yourself into a ball, protecting your vital body parts.  Whatever you do, do not climb a tree or try to run away, a grizzly bear will get you.”  Lucky for me, I got a good glimpse of that grizzly bear as she ran along a lake at the bottom of the valley, my daughter and I were half-way up the side of the valley and she seemed to be running past and away from us. Maybe she was well-versed on what a bear should do when she meets a human Mama with a cub.

Finally, this summer while driving near Crawford’s Notch in New Hampshire, heading out for a day which included a long hike, we saw a great big black bear cross the road and head into the woods. All this is to say I love seeing bears in the wild and I hope Daniza remains free.

However, I do understand the problem the Trentino Province is facing.  There are too many people living in the Italian Alps and the forested area is not wild or vast enough for the bear population to increase much more. If you are interested, here is the video shot by the Forest Rangers of Daniza with another litter of cubs two years ago.

UPDATE: An important thought from my mother who has spent considerable time in Northern Maine, where there are a lot of bears.  A quick look at the Maine Fisheries and Wildlife website indicates that in Maine there are between 24,000-36,000 bears (think of that compared to a mere 50 in the Trentino Province of Italy).  There is also legal hunting and trapping of bears which they call “harvesting”.  In 2013, according to a graph on the website, 2,845 bears were “harvested” (killed) in Maine.   My mother–who is not in favor of killing in animals, but is always interested in obtaining information–  has chatted with bear hunters who have told her that if they really want to catch a bear, they  put out an entire box of Dunkin Donuts.

Good thing there aren’t any Dunkin Donuts in Italy — Daniza may remain free for a while longer.

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August 16, 2014

Simone’s Smile

Simone Camilli on the balcony of the AP office in Gaza. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

Simone Camilli on the balcony of the AP office in Gaza. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

This week my AP colleague, 35-year-old Simone Camilli, was killed in Gaza while he was filming a Palestinian bomb squad disarming an unexploded bomb from an Israeli airstrike.  The bomb blew up also killing AP translator Ali Shehda Abu Afash, and four Palestinians from the bomb squad. AP photographer Hatem Moussa was badly injured. The news left us in the AP Rome Bureau shocked and devastated.  He was one of us. Simone is the second staffer to die while covering the news this year and the 33rd since AP began in 1846, but he was the only one I knew well.

The same photo of Simone on his coffin during the funeral in Pitigliano, Tuscany. August 15, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Riccardo De Luca

The same photo of Simone on his coffin during the funeral in Pitigliano, Tuscany. August 15, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Riccardo De Luca

On Friday I travelled with many of my colleagues from Rome, London, New York, Paris, Brussels and Jerusalem to the small Tuscan town of Pitigliano for the funeral.  Much has already been said about Simone, but I wanted to add just a few of my own thoughts.

Simone came to our office in Rome in 2005 to work as an intern.  He was tall, with long gangly legs and a messy mop of hair which he held in a pony tail.  I remember my boss Maria Grazia and I teasing him that we would loan him hair clips or pony-tails for covering events at the Vatican.  He would laugh, give us that sweet smile and tie back his hair.  It is that gentle smile and easy going style we will miss the most.

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

Simone had a way of getting everything done that was asked of him while absorbing information and learning new skills with amazing speed.  Before we knew it Simone had learned how to shoot video, edit, feed, write in English, do interviews in English and Italian and set up complicated stories and event coverage.  He made himself so useful in the period when Pope John Paul II was dying that APTN hired him to help us with the funeral and the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.  He worked long hours, pitching in wherever he was needed, never complaining, always getting the job done well.

Freeze Frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of a Palestinian man in Gaza

Freeze Frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of a Palestinian man in Gaza

Simone had the perfect combination of great humility, serenity and unusual technical and editorial abilities.  He was the epitome of the perfect video-journalist, he could do it all – edit, shoot, write, do interviews, run a live truck.  In addition he was incredibly easy going.  I never saw him angry or stressed out, and he never raised his voice. As my London colleague Toby Goode wrote, “I remember Simone as a kind, gentle soul, hugely talented, always unassuming.  Whether running around the streets of Rome with him or discussing coverage plans from the desk in London, Simone was a joy to work with.”

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of an Israeli bomb falling on Gaza.

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of an Israeli bomb falling on Gaza.

At the time Jerusalem Bureau Chief Chris Slaney was in Rome coordinating our coverage of the Pope’s funeral and I remember over a coffee at the Caffe’ Doria below our office Simone telling me that he was studying Arabic and really wanted to go to the Middle East. Simone asked me if he thought he could approach Slaney about eventual work in Jerusalem after the Conclave.

As Chris Slaney described it himself yesterday at the funeral, “Simone– young, intelligent, enthusiastic– called me in the spring of 2006 asking me if I could find him a temporary position in Jerusalem.  We had met a year earlier when I was working in Rome.  Simone wanted to expand his experience dedicating himself to something different and more demanding.  Despite the difficulties, the Holy Land was a place that fascinated Simone, and Simone immersed himself in it, not just as a journalist.  Its people, its history, its music, the food — his interests were wide and profound.  Three months became a year, than three years, and then more.”

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

During his years in Jerusalem, Simone often came back to Rome to work with us on stories.  In June 2009, I was asked to coordinate the G8 Foreign Minister’s meeting in Trieste, Italy from June 25-27.  I had several cameramen and a truck engineer but I was anxious that I needed more help, Hillary Clinton was expected and other political big shots would be there and I didn’t want to blow it. Simone was in Rome and AP’s Senior Producer Maria Grazia Murru assigned him to work with me.  I was relieved.  Simone could handle anything, with him present I felt secure.   I made up a coverage plan for door-stepping the leaders, filming their  photo-opportunities, one and one meetings, and press briefings. In addition we had to do scene-setters, filming flags, beauty shots of the city of Trieste, and interviews with analysts.

On the morning the summit was to begin, we were up early doing our set-up piece, when it was ready to go I called into London.  Tanya, the APTN’s Editor-of-the-Day, answered the phone, “Didn’t you hear Trisha?” she said. “Michael Jackson has died.  It’s huge. Forget about what the Ministers are talking about, we need comments on Michael Jackson.  Ask them about that.”

SIGH!  There are the moments when working for a TV News Agency can become extremely frustrating.   I called everyone on the team, time to re-set, switch gears, we still had to cover everything but with a Michael Jackson focus.  Simone laughed, shrugged his shoulders and headed out with AP Rome cameraman Gianfranco Stara to get the job done.  Unfortunately, we all failed miserably.  The Minsters were not game. We could not get the UK’s David Milliband to tell us if he preferred “Thriller” or “Billie Jean” and France’s Bernard Kouchner was not prepared to show us his version of Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk.   We covered everything, but did not get a comment on Michael Jackson.  APTN used nothing.

At the end of the day, we shut down the satellite truck and most of the APTN team had headed back to the hotel. “Come on Trisha, relax,” Simone said. “Tranquilla- nothing you can do about it. There is nothing left to do. Let’s go for a walk back towards the hotel and I will buy you a beer.” Walking along the spectacular port of Trieste we entered the magnificent Piazza Unita’ D’Italia and Simone began telling about a beautiful Dutch woman named Ylva he had met in Jerusalem. He declared he was in love and eagerly pulled out his phone to show me a photo of her. She was beautiful.  He got so excited that he decided he wanted to talk to her right then and asked if I minded.  We stopped in the Piazza and I stood there with my computer bag looking out past the elegant, classical buildings, towards the sea.  The famous Bora wind was blowing and the air was refreshing.  I was still feeling grouchy and aggravated about the wasted day.  I looked over at Simone talking on the phone with his new love Ylva and thought, “here is a guy who has his priorities straight.”

Ylva van den Berg, Simone's long-time companion, embraces Simone's sister Chiara as his body arrives at Ciampino airport in Rome. August 14, 2014

Ylva van den Berg, Simone’s long-time companion, embraces Simone’s sister Chiara as his body arrives at Ciampino airport in Rome. August 14, 2014

Yesterday during the funeral Ylva was a picture of dignity in her simple blue dress, her blond curls circling her face as she came into the church with their three-year-old daughter Nour.   At one point during the funeral Ylva stood to read her message to Simone.  She began, “I remember so well the very first time our eyes met as we walked towards each other from opposite directions in a street in Jerusalem, this month exactly eight years ago. I was immediately attracted by your beautiful warm eyes and your shy and kind smile. We spent the following hours together talking about the Middle East and your work for AP that you had just started and you were so excited about. By the end of the evening, I had simply fallen for you and we have been together every since.”

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of protest in Gaza

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli of protest in Gaza

Ylva and Simone had just moved to Beirut with their daughter Nour.   Last May Simone stopped by the Rome bureau and we went again to the Caffe’Doria for a coffee.  Simone told me how excited he was about his contract with AP in Beirut.  He was so pleased to be going with Ylva and Nour.  I told him that I wanted to give him a little advice as a mother and that was not to cross the Lebanese border into Syria.  I said there were enough stories on the border and it was too risky to go into Syria. It would have never occurred to me to tell Simone not to go to Gaza. He knew the story there. He knew the Israelis, he knew the Palestinians, he knew how to move, where to go and what to avoid. Simone was never one to look for risks, he wanted to tell the story.  Simone looked at me and gave me that easy-going, sweet Simone smile and said, “tranquilla Trisha.”

It is Simone’s gentle smile and laid back style that none of us will ever forget.

 Associated Press video journalist Simone Camilli in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip.  Credit: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

Associated Press video journalist Simone Camilli in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip. Credit: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

For anyone interested in seeing the two documentaries from which I took the video, “About Gaza” and “Gaza 22″, shot by Simone, you can find them here: Opacomedia

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August 1, 2014

The Tempting Gondolier

A Venetian Gondolier. Photo by Kay Gilmer

A Venetian Gondolier. Photo by Kay Gilmer

Dear Blog Readers — I am on vacation in the US with little access to the internet and a decidedly lazy attitude towards blogging.  Luckily for me, a blog reader named Kay read two of my earlier posts “Italian Men: Masters in Seduction” and “Italian Men: SPLAT” and decided to share her hilarious story about a tempting gondolier complete with an overbearing Italian Mamma, dramatic confessions, a treacherous Doge, hot cornetti and clean undies, so I am posting her story– with a few pictures:

THE TEMPTING GONDOLIER

OK, so I’m late to the party, but I thought I would share “La Mia Storia di L’uomo Italiano.”  It was my first time in Venice and my third time in Italy – a beautiful April’s day and the afternoon sun was glistening on the Grand Canal.  I had an Aperol Spritz in my hand (ok, maybe it was my third) while lounging at the edge of a Grand Canal bar/restaurant watching the glorious afternoon light twinkle on the water like little fireworks.  I was so happy and I know that I was smiling from ear to ear as I was so pleased to be there and feeling that life could not be more perfect than that glorious moment.  Then I felt that little twinge – you know that little twinge of insecurity that slowly travels up your spine and begins to settle between your brain and begins to buzz like an alarm clock.  Well, I felt it… someone was staring – I could feel it – encroaching on my moment.   I looked around and there he was just staring – smiling and staring.  How typical I thought – a gondolier.  I took a gulp of the spritz and buzz, buzz, buzz -  I looked up again and there he was still staring and smiling a pearly white grin.  Tall, dark, thirty- five (younger than me by a few years, but I wasn’t confessing that to ANYONE!) with mirrored aviator sunglasses and muscles peeking from his nicely fitted striped uniform, just typically what a girl would think an Italian Casanova would look like.  I paid my tab and had to walk past Casanova (now with his partner who just rowed up) in order to exit the area.

A Venetian Gondolier. Photo by Kay Gilmer

A Venetian Gondolier. Photo by Kay Gilmer

As I got nearer, Casanova came up to me and told me how much he loved watching me – how happy I looked, how “beeyooteeful-a” I was and introduced himself.  Alas, his name was not Casanova, but Ugo, and he also introduced his friend “dees ees my friend Franco – my partner – but he ees not as good a gondolier as I am and to prove deees-a to you – I will take-a you on my gondola!” At first I thought “how silly and stereotypical all of this is” but then I thought “hell, I’m in Italy and when in Venice – ride a gondola!”  And so I asked him how much for a ride and he said – “No cost-a for you-a, Tesoro mio. I-a just want-a show a bee-yooteeful–a woman my beeyooteeful-a Venezia.”  But I know that nothing in life is ever free.  HOWEVER, I also know kickboxing so I said “sure.”  Besides he was so so so hot and up to now had beautiful manners so I didn’t think I’d be in too much trouble.  The ride started out down the Grand Canal and then took off down some side canals with him reciting some history: “There is Marco Polo’s house and Casanova’s house (later I found out that it wasn’t Casanova’s house as Casanova slept at random places that pleased him all around Venice as I thought Ugo probably did as well) and to the right was the Temple of the Foolish American Tourist” (not really, that was just my rational American conscious berating myself).  I began asking him several questions about the city and being a gondolier, football (yay, Juventus!), and then expanded into the region of the Veneto (Mestre – not real Venetians!) and a then did a quick skip around politics (maybe the words Lega Nord passed my lips once or twice).  I think he was surprised that a girl from Los Angeles knew so much about Italy.  One of his responses was “where did you come from – because you not come from America – ees not possible – how you know so much about my country?” Then he stopped the boat.

“Are you going to say that we’ve run out of gas?”

“Non capito”

“Nevermind…you probably don’t have a car.”

He asked if I wanted to get on the prow of the gondola with him and he would teach me to row.  Heck, I’m game!  It was his way of him getting his arms around me – I acted like I was surprised, but it was kind of sweet and besides, I really thought it was cool to learn how to row one of those things and it’s not easy at all!  He explained that he had one of the oldest gondolier’s licenses in the city. He is a tenth generation gondolier and his license was passed down through generations of men in his family.  Now don’t get me wrong, he was not a groper or a grabber and he was not lecherous.  He was very romantic and yes, seductive all the ride through and while telling me about himself and asking me questions about me, he would stop and come sit beside me and finally he asked – yes ASKED to kiss me.   Hot and charming and chivalrous…a deadly combination in my book.  He slowly touches my face, looks into my eyes like he is looking into my soul and kisses me like one of those kisses you see in the movies, but never have in real life because the men you date are American and they really don’t take the time to learn how to seduce women. It is my firm belief that instead of spelling, penmanship and math, Italian men are taught flirting, kissing and seduction in elementary school.  Anyway, Ugo asked if he could take me to dinner and I said yes (like I was going to say no??)…and then he rowed me back to my canal-side hotel.

That night we had a lovely dinner and seriously made out with under an (almost) full moon on his boat (not the gondola) with a fabulous bottle of Brunello.  It was an amazing night…and he was a gentleman as he surprisingly didn’t push things farther than I wanted them to go.  But things went further as the days went on and he stayed with me at my hotel the next night…because at 35 years old (and even though he makes a VERY healthy income) he still lives with his parents!

Drumming up business. A gondolier in Venice. Photo by Kay Gilmer

Drumming up business. A gondolier in Venice. Photo by Kay Gilmer

And of course who should come visiting my hotel early the next morning dropping off breakfast for her bambino, but Mama herself!  Yes, we get a call in my room early in the morning and it is the front desk saying that Ugo’s mama is insisting upon delivering something to the room.  Ugo grabs his pants and quickly goes down to the front desk and brings up a small box with two paper bags in it.  One for me and one for Ugo?  How SWEET I think to my naïve and stupid self.  But no, no, no, no!!!! In the small bag is a breakfast pastry and there is a small thermos-like bottle with fresh espresso.  On the bag is written some scrawl that I can barely make out that says “NON PER LA AMERICANA!!!!” in all capital letters with four exclamation points.  Like I would deny this boy’s pastry from him!  What does this woman take me for – some cronut snatching hussy? In the other larger bag was…I shouldn’t even write this because you would not believe this, it is so embarrassing, but mama included a clean pair of undies for Ugo.  (She will probably burn the La Americana-infested dirty ones.)  Ugo said that she just wanted to make sure he was OK and had something to eat before he went to work. Yeah, uh-huh.

Being the glutton for punishment I opened Pandora’s Box and reached in with both hands and asked Ugo why he still lived at home.

“Why should I move, and even though I do not like my mama, she takes good care of me”

“You don’t like your mama?”

“No – ees long story… I have confession.”

“Do I look like your priest?”

“I have a daughter. She is 10 years old.”

“You have a wife?”

“No, my mama would not allow me to marry her.  Mama said that this girl was only after the money of a gondolier and did not love me for me.  When this girl got pregnant my mama told me…and my father – a gondolier who was about to hand over his license to me – that if the girl had a son (a son that could, in turn inherit my license from me) then we could get married, but if she had a daughter and we got married, then mama would insist that father give the license to my cousin instead…and I would have nothing. So I had to make a only choice – all I know is the gondola and my mama would make my life and her life hell.”

“Wow. I can understand why you have conflicting feelings towards your mother.  Do you see your daughter?

“Yes, I see her when I can – her mother married another gondolier….”

“Oh…”

Mama continued to come by for the next 4 days I spent in Venice and Ugo and I continued to have the most amazing sex of my life.  Ugo has ruined my life for anything but Italian men.  We made love on his gondola on a moonless night on the Grand Canal and off of the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon.

There also continued to be more revelations as we got to know each other:

“I have a confession.”

“Do I look like your priest?”

“Vianello is not my last name.”

“Who are you?”

“I am so ashamed and can understand if you no longer want to see me.”

“Are you wanted for something? Are the Carbanieri looking for you? OMG is it M-A-F-I-A?”

“No, no, no. Ees bad.  My family carry the shame in our blood. The shame of Venezia.  I have to tell you, but no one but family knows. I use my mother’s name, but my real family name is Faliero.  There you know now.”

“ Huh?”

“Faliero! Faliero! The doge! The doge! The only doge that was for treason in Venezia – the only one that the people of Venezia execute.  I carry that shame in my blood.”

(I am thinking to myself – you have got to be kidding me.  I Googled this Faliero character – not Ugo, but the doge and the guy was executed for treason in 1355! That was over 600 years ago and Ugo is still carrying that “shame” with him? Talk about not letting go…is this a bad sign?)

We continued to see each other with my going to Venice as Ugo had no desire to come visit America.  (He had a dislike of a great many of the Americans he encountered in Venice, why would he go to a land full of them on a holiday he reasoned.) Ugo moved into his own apartment in Venice three years ago and proposed to me shortly thereafter. (The proposal is a story unto itself.)  I considered it thoughtfully and even though I love him dearly, I cannot live in Venice and that is where his life is.   He needs someone who will give him a son to continue the legacy that is so much of who he is and what Venice is.  Unfortunately, I am not that person.  I understand that, although it was hard to get him to understand that. I will always look back to the time with Ugo with laughter and love and with a smile…and not a bit of regret.  I will never regret that third spritz or taking his hand and stepping on that gondola.  It was the best ride of my life.

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Mozz Mamma meets Italian Teenage Summer

Brazilian Bikini Bottom

Brazilian Bikini Bottom

Ok, ok, I know I am a total wimp.  After 20 years of living in Rome,  I have lost my Yankee backbone. My tough New England spirit and American true-grit have morphed into something far squishier, the mushy mozzarella method.

The other day my cell phone rang on my desk as I was busily editing a report on migrants arriving in Italy.  I rushed over expecting it to be my son Nico who was supposed to stop by my office before leaving with a group of friends on a camping trip in Croatia.  I picked up and heard his voice amid a general cacophony of young people laughing and talking:

“Hey Mom, I took the 50 euros that you left on the kitchen counter to buy a tent because we didn’t have any camping gear.”  SIGH

“Nico, that money was for the plumber!!” I burst out before he continued, “And we’re on the bus now headed for Ciampino (the airport), sorry I didn’t have time to stop by your office to say goodbye.”  AAARRRGGH.

My son aggravates the heck out of me.  But being a Mozzarella Mamma, I couldn’t think of any effective response.  I sent him a text message saying “Bad Son” with all the nasty emoticons I could find: angry yellow faces,  red devil faces, thumbs down.  He sent me back a winking smiley face.  How Italian Male can you get.

My son started university this year and my plans for him to have a brilliant, challenging summer internship that would launch him into a future career quickly shrank to demanding that he get a summer job.  There I came up against the European mentality that kids need to relax and enjoy the family holiday in the summer.  My husband did not see any reason his son should be waiting tables or being a camp counselor, and my son thought it was only right that he should spend his summer with his girlfriend and his high school buddies.   I must have told him one hundred times that when I was his age I spent several summers interning at WBZ TV in Boston during the day and working at “The Magic Pan Restaurant” at Faneuil Hall in Boston at night to make money.  “Yeah, you would Mom,” was the impressed teenage reply.

As usual, me being the Mozzarella, Nico won this one.  No waiting tables, or washing dishes or teaching bratty campers how to clean latrines for my more-Italian-than-American Son.  He’s already been to Athens with his girlfriend and now is in Croatia camping with his buddies.

Before he left for Athens he asked me if I would accompany him to get a birthday present for his girlfriend Serena (that’s a fake name, I wouldn’t write about her with her real name because she is a lovely girl and I like her a lot and would not want to offend her.) So Nico and I headed off to a store Serena’s sister had recommended. Nico said that Serena’s sister suggested buying a Bikini and he wanted my help choosing one.  I told him that I have never worn, bikinis.  I don’t tan (too pale) and I prefer to swim, jump, dive, and  play in the water without pieces falling off.  We stepped out of the steaming Roman heat into a very chic store chock-a-block with bikinis (no one wears anything else in Italy), funky jewellery and cool sandals.  I saw a young clerk and passed Nico off to her saying, “My son needs to buy a bikini for his girlfriend, I am sure you can help him better than I can.” I slipped over to the sandal section and was examining some pairs of pretty bejewelled sandals when Nico and the clerk reappeared with two bikinis.

The clerk held up one and said, “how about this?” I did not want to be involved but since Nico was looking perplexed I said, “I don’t think a THONG bottom is really going to work.”  Nico started sinking into the floor.  The clerk, in a rather huffy voice responded, “Signora, this is not a THONG bottom, it is not a ‘BRAZILIAN’.”   Nico had a frozen look on his face as I answered, “Well I am not sure what a BRAZILIAN is, but I don’t see any place for an Italian derriere in that thing, and on top of that the bra part is so small, I don’t think her boobs would fit into it.  Serena’s got bigger boobs than I do, she wouldn’t fit into such a tiny thing would she?” And I turned towards Nico who was steadily backing up into a rack of bikinis about to impale himself on a hanger.  “I don’t know MOM,” he managed to mutter, and the two of them turned and went back to look for others.  Eventually, they found something else and didn’t bother asking for my opinion.

I always say the thing about being a mother is that you never learn to get it right.  I have worked for years and years at being a journalist and a tv producer and I have gotten more experienced and better at what I do.  I am a better interviewer, a better editor, and a better researcher than I was when I started out in my career.  Being a parent, though, you can’t get better because with each year the game changes, the challenges are different.  Dealing with the terrible twos is totally different from dealing with the terrible teens.  Although it is all about bottoms, changing your two-year-old’s dirty diaper is totally different from choosing a bikini bottom for your son’s girlfriend.

That’s just my son, I also have two teenage daughters I am dealing with.  Caterina managed to harangue me one Saturday until I finally agreed to take her to Rome’s water park  Hydromania on that Sunday.  I would not recommend Hydromania to any middle-aged Mamma. Actually, scratch that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  It’s a cheap water park on the outskirts of Rome with no rides but lots of water slides.  We got there at 9:25 sharp so we could be there precisely at the 9:30 opening, my goal being to be out of there as soon as possible.  The place was packed with a massive crowd pushing and shoving in front of the several ticket windows.  Cate and I took our place in line amidst a group of “coatti” — I sound so terribly stuck up and snobby using such a term in Italian that I hesitate to translate it but basically it means sleaze balls (My on-line dictionary says it means a “lout, a cad, or a low-life”).  Most of them were teenagers with several tattoos and an incredible amount of body piercing.  Their language was atrocious with the word “cazzo” popping out about every 30 seconds.

Their conversation went more or less like in this:

Coatto 1: Ma quanto cazzo ci mette questa cazzo di fila?

Coatto 2: Ma che cazzo ne so io?

Coatto 3: Cazzo ho scordato l’asciugamano.

Coatto 4: Cazzo!

Here is a rough translation for those of you who don’t know Italian.  Let’s just say the word “cazzo” is similar to the F word in English.

So translating the conversation it went like this:

Sleaze ball 1: How the F Long is this F-ing line going to take?

Sleaze ball 2: How the F do I know?

Sleaze ball 3: F! I forgot my towel.

Sleaze ball 4: F!

At this point the cashiers opened the windows and the crowd shoved forward.  Two of the “coatti” sleazeballs figured that it was a good time to start making out passionately in line.  My 16-year-old Caterina stood staring at them in shock.   I was rather shocked myself.  Then one turned to the other and said, “Ma che cazzo sta guardando lei?” (“What the F is she looking at?” ) At that point I sent off my sweet, innocent, still un-tattoo-ed or pierced Caterina to wait at the side while I continued the ticket torture line.

I won’t even go into the description of Mozzarella Mamma in her one piece bathing suit on all the water-slides (at least it wasn’t falling off) with all the coatti.  Let’s just leave it to say, I nearly lost my lunch in a long, completely dark tube that turned and flipped Caterina and me around in a rubber raft before spitting us out into a swimming pool far below, and when I flew into the swimming pool and all the water went straight up my nose, I was almost tempted to say that C word myself. (Cazzo!) But I didn’t.

So Mozzarella Mamma is doing her best to keep her daughters tattoo and piercing-free and hoping they never use the big C word.   I got some helpful advise on surviving the teenage girl summer from my sister across the Atlantic (who still has her Yankee backbone).  Ten pm is “check-in time” for all electronic devices; all cell phones, iphones, samsungs, ipads etc, get handed over to Mom at that time.   My sister diplomatically uses the word check-in instead of “confiscate” or “sequester” and if she gets a complaint she suggests “try reading a book or chatting with someone in the same room with you.” Brava!!  I am going to try to enforce that one.

I have two beautiful daughters and several gorgeous nieces and I made a mozzarella mamma attempt to tell them today before a mid-morning trip to Cambridge that they are all so pretty and there is really no need for mascara or other makeup, they just do not need it.   Chiara let out a pained, “Mommmmm, stop it.  Mommmm, it is none of your business. Can you just CHILLLL,” from the backseat of the car. Chill.  Short for Chill Out.  I hate that expression, and Chiara says it to me all the time these days.  I tried to abolish it but failed, so I am concentrating on making sure the other C word remains out of her vocabulary.

Chiara is now with me on vacation near Boston.  This morning we were contemplating a swim at Walden Pond.  Chiara said, “I can’t go swimming Mom because my new orange bikini is not cool for Walden Pond and I hate my one piece.  I asked her if I could take a look at the orange bikini that I had given her the money to buy in Rome before she left. SHOCK AND HORROR!! It was an itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny BRAZILIAN!!  HELP!, “The Life Guards’ eyeballs will be popping out of their heads and the American Moms at Walden Pond will have me arrested!” I thought to myself, “Brazilian bikinis are not a New England thing.”

“Yeah, you’re definitely NOT wearing that to Walden Pond,” I said.

“CHILL MOM,” she replied and went back to her cell phone.

So that is where things stand so far in my Italian-American-Brazilian Teenage summer, and it is only July.  I think I will go make myself an ice tea (American style, filled with ICE) and CHILL. Or maybe I should make that a Gin and Tonic.

(Postscript: I took the photo off the internet, it does not belong to anyone I know, not my daughters or my son’s girlfriend!!)

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July 12, 2014

Excommunicating Mobsters Is Not That Simple

Pope Francis at Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria.  June 21, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis at Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria. June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

In June Pope Francis travelled to Calabria in the toe of the boot of Italy.  Calabria is home to the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia (see blog posts: “The Catholic Church and the Mafia” and “Mafia Claws Sinking into Weak Flesh“).  There, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people, the Pope said, “The ‘Ndrangheta and this adoration of evil, and disrespect for the common good, this evil should be fought, should be pushed away, we must say NO….those who in their lives have taken this path of evil, as the mobsters have, they are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated.”

No Pope has ever said something that strong before against the Mafia.  The only one who got close was Pope John Paul II.  In 1993, Pope John Paul II delivered an impassioned call for members of the Mafia to convert on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily.  From the pulpit he intoned:  “I say this to those responsible- Convert!!  One day the judgment of God will arrive.”

The ‘Ndrangheta is now considered Italy’s most power Mafia organization, outpacing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Naples area Camorra syndicates. The ‘Ndrangheta is involved in worldwide drug-trafficking, money-laundering and extortion. But despite its global reach, the group sticks to its Calabrian roots and rituals that are closely linked to Catholic traditions. It didn’t take long for there to be a reaction to Pope Francis’ excommunication comment.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace in Oppido Mamartina in Calabria. July 2, 2014 Photo Credit: Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace in Oppido Mamartina in Calabria. July 2, 2014 Photo Credit: Toni Condello

On July 2nd, in the small town of Oppido Mamertina in Calabria, hundreds of residents took part in the procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace.  Twenty-five young and old men in white t-shirts shouldered the ornate statue with its crowned Madonna and Child and winged cherubs as they made their way through the town. Women and children surrounded the statue and a marching band followed along behind.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

The mayor, with his tri-color sash and dark shades, and the local priest and altar boys and girls led the procession. Then, to the surprise of the carabinieri military police,  the procession took an unexpected turn and headed towards the home of the Peppe Mazzagatti a known ‘Ndrangheta boss sentenced to life in prison for murders and Mafia activities and leading a ferocious blood feud between local families.  The 82-year-old boss is now in a coma and spending his final days at home.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

The procession turned the statue towards the boss’ home and made a brief  bow (“inchino” in Italian) that reportedly lasted 30 seconds before returning to the designated route of the procession.  The three Carabinieri police officers pulled out of the procession in protest. Mayor Domenico Giannetta was at the head of the procession and before leaving the Carabinieri police informed him of their decision.

In an interview with the Italian daily “La Repubblica” he said their decision shocked him, he denied that there was any “inchino” saying that the “the statue was turned by the bearers towards a side street where dozens of families live.  I don’t think it was an homage to anyone in particular.” While that was the political reaction at the local level, at the national level, Italy’s Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano called the bow a “deplorable and revolting ritual.”

Anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told my AP wire colleague Fran D’Emilio that the detour appeared to be a “challenge to the diktat” of Pope Francis.

The following Sunday, the local priest Don Benedetto Rustico, who happens to be the first cousin of the boss Mazzagatti,  was presiding over Mass at Oppido Mamartine when he noticed a journalist at the back of the church.  Don Rustico reportedly invited the congregation to get rid of the journalist encouraging them to “prendere a schiaffi e allontanare” him (rough translation: slap him around and get him out of here).

The second reaction to the Pope’s words came from the prison in the town of Larino north of Calabria in the Molise region where a couple hundred prisoners boycotted mass saying that since they have been “excommunicated” what was the point of attending Mass.

All this has led to a lot of people trying to figure what the pope meant by excommunication.  There has been hemming and hawing by Vatican correspondents, Catholic bloggers, priests, and canon law experts and no clear answer has emerged. The press office at the Vatican has preferred to stay out of the debate letting the Pope’s words stand alone and refusing to comment on either the “inchino” at the procession or the boycott in the prison.

I turned to Father John Wauck a professor of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome for clarification.  I wanted to know whether we should consider the mob boss to whom the procession did the bow “excommunicated” and whether the lower level mafiosi in the Larino prison would be considered excommunicated.  The simple answer was it is not clear if anyone them would be excommunicated.

Father Wauck explained to me that indeed there are entire categories of people who can be excommunicated.  For example the Schismatic group, the Lefebvrians, or anyone involved in an abortion: the woman who gets it, the doctor who carries it out or the boyfriend who pays for it.  Other general causes for excommunication can be ordaining a woman, or desecrating the Eucharist. Father Wauck explained that excommunication is given for something considered above and beyond the seriousness of the sin, it must be a crime against the society of the church.   Father Wauck said there are all sorts of heinous crimes that do not result in excommunication, infanticide,  rape, and murder etc.  For example, murder is a mortal sin, but not cause for excommunication.  If a sinner repents and confesses, he can be cleared of his sins.  Excommunication can also be lifted.

So if it is not clear who is being excommunicated, why were the lower level Mobsters boycotting mass?  According to author Roberto Saviano, now living under police protection after publishing a book called “Gomorrah, Italy’s Other Mafia,” “When you are dealing with organized Mafia every action, every word, every gesture cannot be interpreted by its most obvious and elementary significance. It has to be inserted in the complex symbolic grammar of the communications of the clan.” So for Saviano the boycott was something else, it was “a declaration of obedience to the ‘Ndrangheta, a confirmation of the oath of fidelity…This boycott was a gesture to send a message to their very same organization. ”

The incidents have raised the question about the common use in parts of Italy of Mafia bosses participating as godfathers at baptisms and communions and participating in other church sacraments.   The Secretary General of the Italian Bishops conference Monsignor Nunzio Galantino speaking to an Italian newspaper explained it this way, “The excommunication is public and who has publicly committed evil acts as a part of their lives, often making it a point of honor, must publicly declare their repentance and carry out concrete acts of reparation.”

Pope Francis getting into popemobile in Cassano allo Jonio, in Calabria. Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis getting into popemobile in Cassano allo Jonio, in Calabria. Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

I tried to get a comment from the Vatican about all of this going through Father Thomas Rosica, who helps English language reporters covering the Vatican.  This was his response, “The Pope condemned evil perpetrated by the Mafia.  He has every right to say what he did…. evil is evil and the Pope is the Pope and he can say what he may wish.

 The Vatican has no comment about the public acts of defiance and insult on the part of Mafia leaders toward the Pope’s words.  Such acts and insult speak for themselves.”

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July 5, 2014

Anna’s Tears

Detail of Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene." Credit: www.doriapamphilj.it

Detail of Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene.” Credit: www.doriapamphilj.it

Yesterday I went on a mission to find a teardrop.  The teardrop of Anna Bianchini.  I didn’t have to go very far, I have been working in the same building — Rome’s Palazzo Doria Pamphilj — with that teardrop for the past 20 years and only recently learned of it.  So yesterday I was determined to find it.  I slipped out of the Associated Press Rome office at Piazza Grazioli 5 scurried down the sidewalk in the blistering heat and popped into the door of the Caffe’ Doria (See Elizabeth Minchilli’s Post – Caffe’ Doria).  My friends, the waiters there, allowed me to slip through the back passageway that took me around the courtyard with orange trees and into the famous Doria Pamphilj Gallery.

My ticket and photo pass for Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

My ticket and photo pass for Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

After buying my ticket and a convenient photo pass for taking pictures (I needed to take a picture of the teardrop), I briskly walked down the elaborate corridors with gilded frames holding paintings by such greats as Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Brueghel, Bernini, Domenichino and Guercino, past marble statues, elaborate chandeliers and large mirrors, until I found the room I was looking for, the Sala Aldrobrandini — with its line-up of three Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”, “Rest on the  Flight to Egypt” and “Saint John the Baptist.”

A corridor in the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

A corridor in the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

Now where was that tear drop and why was it interesting to me?  Since I have started this blog I have often written about the mix of art, history and women figures in Rome (see Blog Posts: Artemisia Gentileschi- An Italian HeroineSpooked and Inspired by BeatriceLove and Passion in Rome, Caravaggio’s Women)

Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene", "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" and "Saint John the Baptist" together in the Sala Aldobrandini at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. July 4, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” and “Saint John the Baptist” together in the Sala Aldobrandini at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. July 4, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Recently, while taking the “Courtesans of Rome” tour, (see blog post: Rome- Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries) I learned from our guide Massimo De Fillippis of the story of Anna Bianchini and wanted to know more.

Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene"

Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”

Reading through articles by art historians (In particular art historian Rossella Vodret, an Italian expert on Caravaggio) and art blogs, I learned that Anna Bianchini was the daughter of a prostitute from Tuscany who became a prostitute herself in Rome at age 12.  She had long, wavy red hair and porcelain skin. Her delicate exterior was apparently in contrast with her rough lifestyle and lively character.  She was not among the city’s high-class courtesans who lead lives of luxury through romantic attachments to noblemen and Cardinals. Instead Annuccia (little Anna) as she was called, and some of her prostitute friends mixed in a rough crowd of gamblers, gypsies, street urchins and artists.  Their hangout was the Osteria Turchetto, in the center of Rome, where Annuccia was apparently picked up by police a couple of times for bar-fights and scuffles with other prostitutes and male pretenders.  One police report quoted by Rossella Vodret  referred to her as the “one with the long, red hair.” Part of that group included the artist Caravaggio. Caravaggio apparently used Anna Bianchini in four of his paintings.  The one that interested me most was “The Penitent Magdalene.”  In this painting, done by Caravaggio in 1597, the Penitent Mary Magdalene is sitting on a low chair in a dark room.  She is dressed in Renaissance period clothing.  There is a glass with some sort of liquid ointment in it, a broken string of pearls, an earring and some coins on the floor.  The room is dark with just a shaft of light on her and in the upper right hand corner.  Yesterday, pacing in front of the the painting, moving around the busts below it,  and trying to see around the reflection, I finally saw what I had come for– the small pearl-like teardrop on the side of her nose.

A close up of the teardrop on the nose of Anna Bianchini -- in Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene"

A close up of the teardrop on the nose of Anna Bianchini — in Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”

Why is Anna Bianchini crying?  Apparently in that period Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) had violent methods for imposing morality on Rome.  Courtesans were acceptable, but prostitutes were not, and in order to teach a lesson to the people of Rome, he would have prostitutes stripped to the waist, whipped, thrown with their back exposed over the back of a donkey and paraded around the city.  This is apparently what happened to Anna Bianchini before she sat down to be painted by Caravaggio as his model for “The Penitent Magdalene”, hence the sadness, the weary expression and the tear. This is typical of the rebellious Caravaggio, a trouble-maker and rabble-rouser, who poured his passion for life into his depictions of biblical stories, using realistic scenes and characters straight off the streets of  Rome.  Anna’s hands are swollen, she is crying, and she is bent over.  Could the liquid beside her be a balm for her bleeding back, art historians have asked?  How did the string of pearls break?  What is the significance? How was Caravaggio comparing the life of Anna Bianchini to Mary Magdalene? Pope Clement VIII was the same Pope who had the Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in Campo Dei Fiori (now site of Rome’s famous flower market–a grim statue of Bruno’s hooded figure is in the middle of it) because his theories about the universe were deemed heresy.  Pope Clement VIII is also the man behind the beheading of Beatrice Cenci (see blog post on Beatrice Cenci: Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice).

Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" at the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome.

Caravaggio’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” at the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome.

At the Doria Pamphilj gallery, “The Penitent Magdalene” is placed next to another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces “Rest on the Flight to Egypt.”  In this painting we see Anna Bianchini portrayed as the Virgin, her beautiful face resting gently on the head of the baby Jesus.  Her face is smooth and she appears serene, unlike in the “Penitent Magdalene” whose forehead has worry lines.

A detail of "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" by Caravaggio showing the Madonna and Child with the Madonna appearing to be a Roman prostitute named Anna Bianchini.

A detail of “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” by Caravaggio showing the Madonna and Child with the Madonna appearing to be a Roman prostitute named Anna Bianchini.

In “Rest of the Flight to Egypt” Anna’s red hair is pulled back from her face, knotted on top and braided.  A light falls on her and on an angel who is playing a song on a violin.  On the left side of the painting a tired, old-looking Joseph is in the dark.  He is holding up a sheet of music for a young boy angel (oddly exposing himself to Joseph–another Caravaggio provocation of the Church?)  A donkey with kind, dark eyes peers over Joseph’s shoulder. The donkey understands. The musical notes that Joseph is holding up, apparently is a Renaissance form of music called a Motet and is by a Flemish composer called Noel Bauldwijn. The music is from the “Song of Songs” which referring to the Madonna declares, “how beautiful art thou, and how comely, my dearest, in delights.”  Was Caravaggio making a reference to his friend Anna Bianchini?

Caravaggio's "Martha and Mary Magdalene" painted in 1598 and now at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene” painted in 1598 and now at the Detroit Institute of Arts

There is another Caravaggio painting where Anna Bianchini appears which I will mention quickly before I get to the tragic conclusion.  In 1598 Caravaggio painted “Martha and Mary Magdalene”, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  In this painting we see Anna and her friend and fellow prostitute Fillide Melandroni who is also in Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” — (See my blog post “Caravaggio’s Women“).  Anna is Martha on the left side of the painting and Fillide is Mary Magdalene on the right. I have not seen this painting in person, but I love its sensual representation of these two women discussing the sacred and profane.

Caravaggio's "Death of the Virgin" - a prostitute named Anna Bianchini is assumed to be the model for the virgin.

Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin” – a prostitute named Anna Bianchini is assumed to be the model for the virgin.

But on to my conclusion.  In 1605, Caravaggio painted the “Death of the Virgin”  (now in the Louvre) for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.  The painting was removed shortly after it was put up?  Why?  Because the image was too shocking. The Virgin is splayed out on a table, her bare feet hanging off the end. She has a swollen belly, her dress is open, her face does not look saintly and her arm flops over in an indelicate manner. The only indication of her holiness is the lightly drawn halo over her head.  The woman was clearly recognizable as the 24-year-old Anna Bianchini, whose dead body had been dragged out of the Tiber River.  Officials said it was suicide, her friends thought she had been murdered.

Detail of Caravaggio's "Death of the Virgin."

Detail of Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin.”

Caravaggio’s contemporary; doctor, writer, art-lover and author Giulio Mancini wrote that Caravaggio had used as his model for the Virgin “qualche meretrice sozza degli Ortacci, qualche sua bagascia, una cortigiana a lui amata.” I will do my best to translate, “Some filthy harlot from the Ortacci, one of his whores, a courtesan that he loved.” (Note: the Ortacci was a neighborhood Rome along the Tiber, near the Mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus, where the prostitutes lived.) That is why I wanted to see Anna’s teardrop.  This beautiful woman who suffered, was abused from an early age and yet was also lively and vigorous, this woman who met her death in the most tragic manner, has been summed up for me in the genius of Caravaggio with that  simple pearl-drop tear. As I left the Gallery and headed out into the July heat, I walked through the streets of the historic center of Rome, the same streets walked by Anna Bianchini and Caravaggio, and I shed a tear myself for the cruelty of life and the misfortunes of  Anna Bianchini.

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June 15, 2014

Sparkling Italians

Chiara Rizzo on the cover of a magazine called "Il Foglio Italiano"

Chiara Rizzo on the cover of a magazine called “Il Foglio Italiano”

It is has been a torrid week in Italy with temperatures in Rome hitting 34 degrees Celsius (mid-nineties Fahrenheit).  Many Italians — my husband Gustavo and my colleague Paolo included– hate air conditioning, so I sweat and suffer at home and at work.  My computer was not happy with all the hot air either, getting so steadily overheated that it wasn’t functioning properly.  As a result my WordPress went wacko on me and many of you blog readers have received old posts and a post in Italian that should not have been there.  Sorry about that. As I write, I have a packet of frozen hamburger meat under my Macbook to make sure it does not overheat again.  (Once it defrosts, I will prepare meatloaf for tonight’s dinner).

Far better than Mom’s meatloaf at home on these steamy days, is to go out to a late dinner at an outdoor restaurant in a Roman piazza when it is a bit cooler and no AC is needed.  A waiter will arrive and ask you whether you would like water that is “liscia, gassata, o leggermente frizzante” — that would be “flat, with bubbles or slightly sparkling”.  Italians usually prefer “leggermente frizzante” — slightly sparkling, and for me that has become a metaphor of how Italians like to be– Slightly Sparkling.   They want to be beautiful, and fascinating enough to excite you, but not so bubbly as to make you burp.  It is all part of the “Bella Figura”. (See my Blog Post : “Espresso, Corruption, Murder…and The Bella Figura.”

Yesterday in Manaus, Brazil, the Italian National Football (Soccer) Team, was “slightly sparkling”, beating England 2-1 in the opening match with stunning goals from left wing Claudio Marchisio who gave a powerful kick that cut through a phalanx of players to reach the goal, and a fabulous header from my favourite attacker Mario Balotelli, (see Blog Posts:  “Balotelli’s Mamma” and “Mario Balotelli Forever“)

Italy definitely needed the morale boost because for the past few months the country has been sinking in scandals.  Glug. Glug. Glug. Everyday there is a new one — Ministers arrested, gazillions of euros pocketed by politicians, public works projects derailed by massive corruption, it never ends.

My favourite bubbly scandal is the story of Chiara Rizzo, a gorgeous 44-year-old woman now sitting in a prison in Reggio Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy.

Chiara Rizzo — also known as “Madame Champagne” — was half of the “frizzante” (sparkling) couple of Montecarlo, together with husband Amedeo Matacena, a ship owner from Southern Italy and a former member of the Italian parliament.  They were part of Montecarlo’s high-society jet-setters.  Rizzo was even chosen as one of the 11 most beautiful women of Monaco and her glamorous photos were put into a glossy coffee-table book titled, “Women of Monaco.”

The "sparkling" couple Chiara Rizzo and Amedeo Matacena

The “sparkling” couple Chiara Rizzo and Amedeo Matacena

The couple has lost some of its sparkle following the conviction of Amedeo Matacena for Mafia association for his relations with the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia that has its base in the Calabria region of Italy.   Matacena has been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and is now a fugitive from justice living in Dubai.  Police in Dubai have apparently taken his passport.

At the beginning of May, anti-Mafia police arrested Claudio Scajola, the former Italian Minister of Interior from 2001-2002 and threw him in the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.  He was accused of aiding a fugitive from justice (Matacena), and trying to help him get from Dubai to Lebanon.

Former Italian Interior Minister Claudio Scajola after he was arrested by anti-mafia police. May 2014

Former Italian Interior Minister Claudio Scajola after he was arrested by anti-mafia police. Scajola is the grey-haired man at the back. May 2014

To make this deliciously long, sordid story short, Scajola’s defense has been that he acted to save the woman he was madly in love with, Matacena’s wife Chiara Rizzo.

Chiara Rizzo — who at that point was in Dubai with her fugitive husband– decided to head back to Europe to face the charges against her.  She flew to France in May, was held briefly before being handed over to Italian police who popped her into a prison in Calabria. She is charged with assisting a fugitive, for trying to organize her husband’s escape to Lebanon, but even worse, she is also accused of false registration of property and of having hidden the ownership of various companies linked to her husband.

Chiara Rizzo in handcuffs as she is handed from French police to Italian police. May, 2014

Chiara Rizzo in handcuffs as she is handed from French police to Italian police. May, 2014

The Italian press has had a field day with the details of this story and the photos of Rizzo and I have gobbled it all up. So as I sweated it out in my air-condition-less, second-hand Fiat Punto this week feeling my perspiring back stick to the seat as I carted my kids around the city– I got a certain sick pleasure in gnawing over the details of the downfall of the “sparkling” Chiara Rizzo who once had her photo taking sprawled on the engine of a red Ferrari.  I may not be able to afford a Ferrari, or even have an air-conditioned car, but at least I am not sweating it out in a prison in Reggio Calabria.

Chiara Rizzo poses on a Red Ferrari

Chiara Rizzo poses on a Red Ferrari

Of course Minister Scajola is not the only politician feeling the heat these days.  Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell’Utri was extradited from Beirut, Lebanon this week and taken from Rome’s Fiumicino airport directly to prison.  He is convicted of association with the Sicilian Mafia and has been sentenced to seven years in prison.  He was one of the founder of Silvio Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” party.

Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, convicted of Mafia association and sentence to seven years in prison.

Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, convicted of Mafia association and sentence to seven years in prison.

But in case anyone thinks it is just the Berlusconi boys who are corrupt, think again.

Corrado Clini, Minister of Environment under the Mario Monti government is now under house arrest, accused of pocketing one million euro that was intended for an environmental project in Iraq.   Turns out the money was going into a bank account in Switzerland with the name “Pesce” (Fish in English).  I feel a distinct water theme emerging in this post — and there is lot more water to come, so much it could sink the city of Venice.

At the beginning of June a new scandal exploded — the massive multi-billion euro Moses project to save the Lagoon city of Venice from sinking under water is drowning the city in corruption. Police arrested 30 people including the Mayor of the city, Giorgio Orsoni.  Police said in a three year investigation they discovered a 25 million euro (34 million dollars) slush fund  that was being used to bribe politicians.  Mayor Orsoni resigned on Friday after declaring he was guilty and reaching a plea bargain.  Orsoni is from Prime Minister’s Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party.

Former Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, who resigned in May amidst a corruption scandal involving the Moses Project.

Former Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, who resigned in May amidst a corruption scandal involving the Moses Project.

The five billion euro (6.8 million dollar)  Moses project was launched by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and is expected to be finished in 2016. It foresees placing 78 massive underwater mobile gates in the sea around Venice, as the tide rises the gates rise up blocking the water from flooding the city.

Then there is the corruption surrounding preparations for the EXPO 2015 in Milan.  Italy has been eagerly pouring cash into that city preparing for this international event which is expected to give a boost to the Italian economy.  But again, in May police arrested seven people involved kickbacks on building contracts.  In this case it was a mere 180 million euros (250 million dollars) that investigators said were skimmed off.

Last April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi plucked famed anti-mafia prosecutor Raffaele Cantone to become is anti-corruption Czar.  Cantone was the prosecutor in Naples who is credited with destroying the Casalesi clan of the Camorra Mafia in the famous Spartacus trials.

Raffaele Cantone, the President of Italy's Anti-Corruption Agency

Raffaele Cantone, the President of Italy’s Anti-Corruption Agency

Cantone spoke earlier this week at a conference on corruption at Rome’s Foreign Ministry.  He glumly noted that he only had a staff of 26 people to monitor corruption in all of Italy’s public offices from the city halls and public health offices, to the public works projects.  Then, he noted, when they find corruption he has no power to sanction.  He explained that these problems makes his work “monco” — translated I guess that would be truncated, amputated, or mutilated. In other words, ineffective.

As I edited the video of these comments I noted that Cantone seems anything but “sparkling”.  A bit of a gloomy Gus, but given the way things are going in Italy, I don’t blame him.  Actually he reminded me of Eliot Ness, the “prohibition  agent” played by Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables” and the man behind the capture of Mafia boss Al Capone.

Friday night in a desperate attempt to stanch the flow of money to the corrupt, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced he was giving new powers to Cantone, more staff, the possibility to put fines on corrupt companies, and takeover public works projects that have been sullied with corruption.

Let’s see how it goes for Cantone the non-sparkler.  I definitely think it is time for some Italian “acqua liscia,” (water without bubbles).

By the way, my own Gus (my husband Gustavo, a Professor of Economics and expert on corruption) says I’ve got it all wrong.  He says this is all good news because what is rotten in the country is now being exposed.

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June 7, 2014

Singing Nun Crushes the Competition

The Singing Nun, Sister Cristina Scuccia shows her cross following her victory in "The Voice of Italy" singing competition. June 5, 2014

The Singing Nun, Sister Cristina Scuccia shows her cross following her victory in “The Voice of Italy” singing competition. June 5, 2014

Dear Blog Readers –

Mozzarella Mamma is not moving fast enough and I missed the 24 hour news cycle on this one….so you have already probably heard about Italy’s now famous singing nun on the BBC, NPR or in The New York Times– the nun has even gone viral.  Nevertheless, this little piece of cheerful news deserves a blog post.

On Thursday night,  Sister Cristina Scuccia (pronounced Scoo-Chah) of Sicily blew out all the competition on Italy’s national TV singing competition show and won “The Voice of Italy” earning over 62 -percent of the phone vote.

The spunky 25-year-old nun, dressed in a black habit with black shoes, danced about the stage singing “What a Feeling” from the movie “Flashdance.”  I have to admit I was busy poo-poohing the whole story until I pulled up the video of her on YouTube and pretty soon I was dancing around the office myself.  That nun’s enthusiasm is contagious!  She gives real meaning to the singing nun played by Julia Andrews in “The Sound of Music” and Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act.”  Just click on the video below and listen to her!

It all started on March 9th when the TV show judges, their chairs turned so they could hear but not see the competitors, were treated to Sister Cristina belting out Alicia Key’s “No One”.   At first she moved a bit stodgily, and it was hard not to notice the plain black shoes, thick grey tights, wire-rim glasses and grey cross bouncing on her chest.  But as she became steadily more impassioned,  her voice booming out the words, the crowd jumped to their feet cheering wildly and the tv camera panned to a group of nuns clapping and moving to the music, huge smiles of pride on their faces.  When the judges swirled their chairs around, their mouths fell open in astonishment.

Sister Cristina grew up in Sicily and now lives in a convent in Milan with a group of Orsoline nuns.  At a press conference in Milan before the final, Sister Cristina said even if she won she would “never renounce the biggest love of my life, the calling that I have had.”

She gave a sense of her faith to the television audience by leading the crowd in “The Lord’s Prayer” following her victory and pointing upwards to the heavens to indicate who had helped her, and when the photographers asked her to hold up her trophy, she lifted her grey cross instead.

So what will be in Sister Cristina’s future — that will be decided by her superior, Sister Agata. Sister Agata was quoted in today’s Italian daily “La Repubblica” saying, “We are still shaken, we are scared of what is happening.  Sister Cristina has a talent that she wished to give to others.  But the rest, all the extras, that is something that does not belong to her or to us.”

We shall see.

Sister Cristina grew up in Sicily and now lives in a convent in Milan with a group of Orsoline nuns.  At a press conference in Milan before the final, Sister Cristina said even if she won she would "never renounce the biggest love of my life, the calling that I have had." She gave a sense of her faith to the television audience by leading the crowd in "The Lord's Prayer" following her victory and pointing upwards to the heavens to indicate who had helped her, and when the photographers asked her to hold up her trophy, she lifted her grey cross instead.  So what will be in Sister Cristina's future -- that will beside by her superior, Sister Agata. Sister Agata was quoted in todays Italian daily La Repubblica as saying, "We are still shaken, we are scared of what is happening.  Sister Cristina has a talent that she wished to give to others.  But the rest, all the extras, that is something that does not belong to to her or to us." We shall see.

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