Sunday, February 1, 2015

An Elaborate Election in Italy

An Parliament Usher opens an basket-urn full of ballots in the Italian election for the President of the Republic.  Rome, January 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

An Parliament Usher opens an basket-urn full of ballots in the Italian election for the President of the Republic. Rome, January 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

This week my colleagues and I have focused our attention on several elegant brown and gold wicker baskets, with green satin cloth on the inside, and Italian tri-color ribbons and delicate locks and chains on the outside. Into these baskets, 1009 Italian electors – mostly members of parliament—have been placing their ballots for the Italian President.   We spent our time trying to understand what was going into those baskets – blank ballots, bizarre names or serious candidates—and what was all the scheming and intriguing going on around those baskets.

The elaborate process appeared to many of us in the foreign press to be more like a Conclave, a Papal Election, than the election of a modern-day president.   The difference being that a Conclave is held in secrecy behind closed doors and the election of an Italian President is done in the parliament with members of parliament crowding around the voting booths – chatting, tweeting, gossiping, taking selfies, then zipping out to the renowned Parliamentary coffee bar (the best cappuccino in Rome supposedly) and what is known as the Transatlantic corridor to strategize some more. In between all this scheming and strategizing, they frequently give interviews to TV broadcasters and reveal all sorts of plans to vote for this person or that person or to leave their ballots blank.

This leaves the journalists doing some convoluted reasoning trying to figure out what is going on and often using poker metaphors to explain it. Italian Premier Matteo Renzi was “playing his cards close to his chest” until the last minute when, shortly before the first round of  voting was to begin, he revealed his “ace” choice of Sergio Mattarella (more on Mattarella shortly), opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi was against Mattarella, but was Renzi just “bluffing” and had they actually agreed on another candidate?

In Italy the Prime Minister has most of the political power, but the President of the Republic is an influential figurehead who has the power to dissolve parliament and call for elections. He is a guarantor of the constitution and presides over the nation’s military.

Members of Parliament standing around waiting during the Italian Presidential Election. Freeze Frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello, Rome, January 29, 2015

Members of Parliament standing around waiting during the Italian Presidential Election. Freeze Frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello, Rome, January 29, 2015

As the voting went on in the parliament, electors were called by name and they stepped up to walk through a temporary voting booth made up of curved leather chambers with red velvet curtains. The Members of Parliament would pass through the booth then slip their ballot into the basket.

An unidentified senator casts his vote at the lower chamber during a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

An unidentified senator casts his vote at the lower chamber during a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

At the end of each round of voting a long line of officials looked at the ballots, the   president of the parliament read each name out loud and the votes were registered. Under the voting rules this process is carried out for three rounds and no one can win unless there is a two-thirds majority, in the fourth round it slips to an absolute majority.

Ballots are counted at the end of a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Ballots are counted at the end of a voting session for the election of the new Italian President in Rome, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

I was asked during this process by Italian TVs and radios how much the US cares about the election and why we were covering. I explained that the majority of Americans have no idea who the Italian president is and what he does. That said, the US government has a big interest in the election. It is well known that the Obama administration believed that the former President of the Republic 89-year-old Giorgio Napolitano, who resigned in January, was key to maintaining the stability of Italy over the last nine years as the country struggled with economic decline and political turmoil.   Over the years, US Presidents have frequently met with and consulted Italian Presidents – a quick glance at US government archives shows that President Dwight Eisenhower met with President Gronchi in Rome in 1959, Presidenet Kennedy met with President Segni in 1963 and so on up to President Obama’s visits with President Napolitano.

And finally, here is my buried lead:

Saturday, during the fourth round of voting the electors chose 73-year-old Constitutional Judge Sergio Mattarella to be the next President of the Italian Republic. Mattarella undoubtedly is a qualified, and capable choice.

Newly elected Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Rome, Saturday, January 31, 2015. Photo provided by Quirinale

Newly elected Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Rome, Saturday, January 31, 2015. Photo provided by Quirinale

He is Sicilian, from the island’s main city of Palermo. As Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pointed out when announcing Mattarella as his choice, Mattarella’s older brother Piersanti was assassinated by the Mafia in 1980 when he was president of the region of Sicily. A grim picture this week in one daily newspaper showed Sergio Mattarella pulling his brother out of his car after he had been shot.

A young Sergio Mattarella  trying to get his injured brother PIersanti out of his Fiat 132 with the help of his sister-in-law just after being shot by the Mafia. January 6, 1980.  Photo taken from La Repubblica Newspaper

A young Sergio Mattarella trying to get his injured brother PIersanti out of his Fiat 132 with the help of his sister-in-law just after being shot by the Mafia. January 6, 1980. Photo taken from La Repubblica Newspaper

Since then Sergio Mattarella has been one of Italy’s most hard-working yet discreet Italian politicians. He was elected to parliament in 1983, became Minister of Instruction in 1989, Vice-Premier in 1998, Minister of Defense in 1999 and nominated in 2011 to become a Judge on Italy’s Constitutional Court. Throughout this time he flew well below the public radar. Unlike most Italian politicians (and many politicians everywhere) he doesn’t seem to be attracted to TV cameras, he is laconic, not loquacious. He does not have a twitter account and clearly prefers not to “appear”.   When his name first emerged my colleagues and I rushed to find some file footage of him and what we came up with was a single shot of him with Queen Elizabeth II, back in 1999 when he was Minister of Defense, walking down the steps of “Il Vittoriano” the large white monument in the center of Rome with Italy’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”.

Then Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella with Queen Elizabeth II in Rome, 1999.  Freeze Frame of APTN video.

Then Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella with Queen Elizabeth II in Rome, 1999. Freeze Frame of APTN video.

Following his election yesterday, President Mattarella emerged to accept. He was impeccably dressed in a grey suit with a blue tie, a full head of white hair and pieicing blue eyes, and with his austere manner he said simply: “My thoughts go, above all, to the difficulties and hopes of our fellow citizens, and that’s enough.”

Panorama photo of the Quirinale Presidential Palace in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Panorama photo of the Quirinale Presidential Palace in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

On Tuesday, President Mattarella will move to the Quirinale Palace formerly home to Popes and Kings and now the residence of the Italian President.

The Quirinale Palace, is a vast dwelling with 1200 rooms packed with precious tapestries, paintings, antique furniture, clocks, rugs, collections of porcelain and sculptures. The Palace surrounds an extensive interior garden with palm trees, fountains, flowers, and pruned hedges forming labyrinths. There are hundreds of people on the presidential staff, the most symbolic being the honor guard known as the Corrazziere who must be very tall, wear elegant uniforms with helmets with long horse tails hanging off the back and ride horses in ceremonies inside the Quirinale courtyard.

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama walk past the Corrazziere honor guard at the Quirinale Palace in Rome during a visit to President Giorgio Napolitano. Rome, July 8, 2009. Photo provided by Quirinale

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama walk past the Corrazziere honor guard at the Quirinale Palace in Rome during a visit to President Giorgio Napolitano. Rome, July 8, 2009. Photo provided by Quirinale

In addition to the Palace, the President of the Italian Republic can use the former hunting grounds of the Kings, a huge park and nature reserve called Castelporziano, which is roughly 60 square kilometers including about 3 kilometers of beachfront near Rome.  And if all that is not enough, the Presidential property also includes the Villa Rosebery an elegant residence near Naples with its own beachfront.

It is hard for an American not to make a quick comparison to the residence of our President. The White House has 132 rooms.

(A little aside here. Some Italians bristle at the luxury of the Presidential accommodations and the enormous expense – widely quoted in the Italian press to cost the Italian taxpayer far more than Buckingham Palace. Other Italians have told me that they think it is important to maintain the elegance of the Quirinale for “Rappresentanza”. Directly translated that would be “representation” but it is a concept that goes hand in hand with the “bella figura”.   Romans often have a room in their home for “rappresentanza” which would be an elegant living room for receiving people. Usually it is far from the kitchen, which is often a tiny room at the other end of the apartment. Although food is given huge emphasis in Italian society, kitchens are often small and hidden away and only now are Italians showing interest in an American style open area with a kitchen and living room together. )

Aldo Cazzullo, a prominent Italian journalist, author and political analyst tweeted shortly after the election of Mattarella, “If Mattarella is so sober, and if the Quirinale costs more than Buckingham Palace, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, said with respect, that it could become an Italian Louvre, with a President who works in his wing or in another building.”

 

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January 19, 2015

Super Hooper and “The Italians”

The cover of "The Italians" by John Hooper

The cover of “The Italians” by John Hooper

A few weeks ago, someone at Viking Books asked me if I would be willing to review John Hooper’s book The Italians on my blog.

John Hooper is one of the most talented and experienced journalists living and working in Rome.  He writes for “The Guardian” and “The Economist”; he has worked in Madrid and Berlin, and has covered conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Biafra and Algeria.  His book “The Spaniards” published in 1986 won the Allen Lane award for a best first work of non-fiction in 1987.

So I immediately said “yes,” eager to read what Hooper had to say about Italy and Italians.

John Hooper on assignment in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

John Hooper on assignment in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Hooper was posted to Rome in the early 90s, around the time I arrived in Italy.  For many years we shared the same coffee bar, the “Bar Doria”  at Via Della Gatta 1.  When I would go down for my morning cappuccino or a quick panino and I would see him there, usually sitting and reading something as he ate (an un-Italian habit he explains in the book), I would tiptoe past and say respectfully “Oh Hello, John” not wanting to disturb a great journalist at work.

John Hooper with Pope Benedict XVI

John Hooper with Pope Benedict XVI. Note Hooper’s perfect white shirt cuffs emerging from his jacket sleeve.

I see him as “Super Hooper” a Fast Train who gets the story, gets it right and arrives first – I guess that would be high-speed Freccia Rossa since we are in Italy, and by comparison I feel as though I am the frenetic, juggling journalist mamma—The Little Engine That Could—who would eventually huff and puff her way over the mountain of news to arrive at the destination.  “I think I can. I think I can.”

The high-speed Italian Train, the "Freccia Rossa" or "Red Arrow"

The high-speed Italian Train, the “Freccia Rossa” or “Red Arrow”

On occasion Super Hooper and I have ended up on the same story, in the courtroom in Perugia covering the Amanda Knox trial, for example. I remember the first time he re-tweeted me, I felt honored and thanked him.

When I received a copy of the book, I feared it might be the usual Anglo romp through the Tuscan countryside, reinforcing the British-American love affair with all things Tuscan.  It also occurred to me that it could be a quick, journalistic sketch of Italy emphasizing the easy clichés.  Instead, as soon as I began to read The Italians I realized it was something much better.  John Hooper has done his homework researching Italy’s history, geography, languages, art and traditions in detail.  His analysis of politics, social and cultural history of the last 20 years is full of lively anecdotes but Hooper has also found studies and statistics to back up his points.  For anyone wanting a sweeping, honest view of modern Italy, “The Italians” is a must-read.

I asked Hooper if we could meet to discuss this book and he quickly accepted.  He managed to squeeze me between interviews for important papers like The Financial Times and The New York Times.

John Hooper is a tall man, with an aquiline nose, a goatee-style beard and mustache.  He has an air about him that reminds me of an elegant, Spanish nobleman.  His writing style, however, is very English, cogent and pithy with an occasional lovely turn of phrase.

I love the way he describes the Italian penchant for positive hyperbole as the “Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust” or his comment on the nebulous state of so many questions in Italy, “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

Hooper told me he thought long and hard about what sort of book he wanted to write about Italy because “it is a crowded field.”  He finally concluded, “there is no one book that you could read before you arrive here to work or study that would give you clues to understanding Italy and Italians,” so he set out to write it.

Many of the Italian habits, traits and characteristics that Hooper describes in The Italians I have written about on this blog, but interestingly we come at them from different perspectives. Hooper is married to a British journalist; I am married to an Italian university professor and have raised three children in Italy, which sometimes leaves me neck-deep just trying to survive Italian life, whereas John maintains a detached, critical eye allowing him to discern nuances in Italian life and style.

I had fun comparing my experiences to his as I read the book.   For example, Hooper points out something that I have noticed but never written about, the Italian use of verbal rather than physical violence.

“…there is plenty of violent behavior in Italian life—mafia killings, football hooliganism and a high level of domestic violence against women. But physical aggression is often replaced by verbal abuse, and verbal insults seldom lead to physical aggression.  Knowing this, Italians will often say to one another things that, in other societies, would cause punches to be thrown or knives to be drawn.”

Hooper is so right.  An example is one of the cameraman in the AP Television office, Paolo.  Paolo is an amiable guy and a talented cameraman, but he becomes verbally aggressive behind the wheel of his car.  Once out on a story, a car cut him off.  At the next traffic light Paolo pulled up beside the offending driver, rolled down his window and said, “se lo fai ancora ti strappo er core e me lo magno.” – translated from Roman dialect that would be, “if you do that again I am going to rip out your heart and eat it.”  Yikes! If someone said that in the US, probably the person in the other car would pull out a gun and shoot them.  But it is typical of what Hooper is referring to—verbal aggression is chosen over physical violence.

(My Italian-American son also learned at a young age the fine art of the verbal insult, especially when defending his Mamma.  See blog post: “Nico’s Traffic Rules”)

Hooper explores at length the Italian attitudes towards cheating which are, to say the least, very flexible.  He describes how leading industrialist, former Chairman of Ferrari, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, bragged to University students how he was the “world champion at copiatura” (copying).

Last year when my 13-year-old daughter took her 3-day “esame di terza media” a national exam taken at the end of junior high in Italy, I picked her up and in the car she bragged that it had been an easy day for her because there was the English language essay.  “And when I was finished I wrote Giovanni’s for him because he was freaking out and couldn’t write anything,” she added.

“What?”  I nearly shouted, “You wrote Giovanni’s English essay for him?  Oh my God, how could you do that, they will kick you out, and they will fail you.”  I blurted out. To make a long story short, for about five minutes I thought somehow I should punish her, report her, and do something to teach her that she had done something wrong.  Then I slipped back into Italian mode and I started feeling rather puffed up with pride.

Hooper also chronicles the enormous interest, obsession really, that Italians have in how people look.

“….Italians not only want their politicians to dress immaculately; they and their media are endlessly scrutinizing what they call – using the English word—their look, the way they dress, in a search for clues to their true personalities.  I remember a comparison that covered an entire page of one of the national dailies between il look favored by Silvio Berlusconi and that projected by his then rival for prime ministership, Romano Prodi. It began with their ties (Berlusconi stuck rigidly to a white bird’s-eye pattern on dark blue, while Prodi favored regimental-style diagonal stripes in various colors), and progressed by stages to their choice of underpants. Prodi apparently wore roomy boxer shorts, while Berlusconi favored clingy briefs. The source of this information about their underwear was not disclosed.”

The way one looks is part of the whole “bella figura”, “brutta figura” culture in Italy – the need to appear beautiful and never lose face.    In his book, Hooper explains the obsession with dressing and some of the “rules,” including the necessity for men to wear long sleeve shirts with cuffs under their suit jackets even in the steaming summer heat in Rome.

I asked him if after so many years in Italy, he also obeys the dress code,   “I am careful about the way I dress,” Hooper answered showing me his shirt cuffs and then pointing under the table to his pant legs explaining for a man in Italy to show skin between their socks and their pants cuff when they sit down is “somewhere between blasphemy and adultery.”

But, as Hooper pointed out, “bella figura” is much more than about the way one dresses, it is about not losing face.  I’ve also written about that in my blog post: “Espresso, Corruption, Murder….and the Bella Figura.

Hooper dedicates an entire chapter to women in Italy, something I have written about extensively in this blog (See blog posts “The Italian Super-Mamma” and “Not the Dolce Vita.”).  He notes, “whatever else may have changed, the cult of the mamma in Italy has shown itself to be extraordinarily durable.”  The problem that I am finding is that many young Italian women I know actually do not want to become Mammas because it is too hard to work and deal with children in Italy.

Perhaps the most insightful and discouraging chapter in the book is on the family where Hooper explores the Italian habit of children remaining at home well into their 30s.  The children are referred to in Italian as bamboccioni –great, big children.

According to Hooper,

“The equanimity (or enthusiasm) with which Italian parents contemplate the prospect of their children remaining at home raises the intriguing question of whether it is not another reason for Italy’s increasing tendency to gerontocracy.  By keeping children at home—and, in many cases, out of the labor market—parents are consciously or unconsciously reducing the natural pressure that would otherwise be exerted on their generation to move aside in favor of younger men and women.  The bamboccioni are young, but not hungry.  Since they do not have to find the rent for a flat or pay for their own meals, they also have fewer incentives for taking a job that is not commensurate with their qualifications – or aspirations.”

Hooper describes a concept “amoral familism” used by a sociologist in the 1950s to describe farmers in the Basilicata region of southern Italy.  The idea was that “loyalty to their immediate family transcended any considerations of right and wrong…”  Hooper explains that some thinkers have now applied that concept to all of Italy noting that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “has been the paladin of a new brand of amoral familism.  From the outset, his speeches—rich in allusions to the family—carried an implicit message: that his listeners had a right to advance their family’s interests while paying only limited heed to the needs of society.”

Hooper goes on to note, “As the Italian family declines, there is a risk that amoral familism will dissolve into simple egocentricity….”

Hooper frequently takes advantages of a wide variety of words in Italian to describe Italian habits. Here is an example the various ways that Italians get away with breaking laws,

“the most comprehensive is the amnistia, which extinguishes both the crime and the sentence.”  “Since 1990, there has been a preference for the indulto (pardon), which squashes the sentence but not the crime.”  Finally, “one of the reasons Italians are so willing to try their luck at flouting the planning regulations (and dodging taxes) has been the existence of yet another from of legal forgiveness. This is the condono.  Every so often the government of the day will approve a measure that allows Italians to pay a relatively small fine in return for having their debts to the state wiped our or getting official sanction for an illegal conversion or building.”

But despite all their difficulties, John Hooper says, “One of the Italians’ most engaging characteristics is their optimism, backed by determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances.  It is an important, and delightful, part of what Italy is about.”

After the interview, we left the coffee bar, and walked across Rome’s Piazza del Popolo together.  As we chatted, we passed Emiliano Fiacchi a street artist who imitates Michael Jackson who was setting up for his performance in the piazza.  (See my Blog Post on Fiacchi:  “Dancing through the Economic Crisis in Rome.”)  To me Fiacchi demonstrates exactly what Hooper is talking about it –“determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances.”

We reached Piazza Flaminio and I ran to catch the tram home to deal with kids, dog, homework, piano practice and dinner, and Super Hooper headed for his interview with The New York Times.

“I think I can, I think I can.”

Cover of the children's book "The Little Engine that Could"

Cover of the children’s book “The Little Engine that Could”

 

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January 4, 2015

Family Road Trip with 3 Teens – Recipe for Disaster

Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

This week my family of five – 2 parents plus 3 adolescents ages 19, 16, and 14, began a road trip to France.  My husband came up with this rather risky proposition – he decided that we should use the first week of January to drive to the Loire Valley from Rome and visit some castles and eat some French food.

When he announced this at dinner – none of us was enthusiastic – I suggested why not go to Marrakech instead and go camping in the desert.  The kids cheered, and my husband quashed that proposal in 2 seconds flat.  He had already decided and already booked.  Turns out his mother had a done a similar road trip with her family back in the 1950s so we were going to relive their experience.

We all know that husbands and wives cannot get along when one is driving and the other is navigating.  I am sure that some of the worst marital bickering takes place in the front seats of cars around the globe.  Now, in our case it was a ménage-a-trois.  Yes indeed, there was another woman there, the lady inside the car’s navigator.

(Little aside here – why do all car navigators have women’s voices?? Do the people who make these things think that a man might end up punching the navigator for giving the wrong directions if it were a man’s voice???  Do they think people will remain calm and listen more carefully if it is a women’s voice? Someone must have studied this question.)

Heading into France, my husband had the navigator on and had given me a map to study and provide additional guidance.  Somewhere around Grenoble – the other woman and I had a difference of opinion.  Looking at the map I suggested what appeared to be a much shorter route. My husband decided to risk it and listen to me and exited the highway we were on.  There were a few moments of silence from the other woman and Gustavo said anxiously, “Why isn’t she talking to me anymore?  She’s angry. What is she going to do now??”

And then she spoke loudly and clearly, “ATTENZIONE, PROBLEMMI DI TRAFFICO”, that would be  “ATTENTION, TRAFFIC PROBLEMS” in English.    Gustavo declared, “that’s her way of saying she is offended. Now she’s mad.”

Yes, readers, my husband actually was worried that he had offended the  “navigatrice” (feminine for Navigator in Italian).  Then little Mademoiselle Navigatrice took her revenge.  She re-calculated the distance and added an extra 20 minutes to the trip.  Then my husband went berserk on me.  “We’ve got 10 hours in the car and you make a mistake that adds an extra 20 minutes!!!”

I shot back: “she’s taking us far off our route, the map shows this way is going to be much shorter.  Just look at it!!”

Then something occurred to me – the map looked a little old, “Where did you get this map anyway?”  I asked.

“My mother gave it to me.” He answered, still slapping the steering wheel and shaking his head over my screw up.

“Don’t tell me it is the map that her family used back in the 1950s, for goodness sake,” I sputtered, “You have got to be kidding.”

And then I realized I had gone where I should not go.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that you never criticize the mother of an Italian man, and you don’t dare criticize a map provided by the mother of an Italian man,  even if it is from the 1950s and your are trying to get somewhere in 2015.

So I had to put up with his fury for the next hour after which I decided to raise a delicate issue.

“I could really use a rest-stop,” I said once we were past Grenoble and leaving ourselves totally in the hands of Mademoiselle Navigatrice.

“Yeah, me too!!” Chiara declared from the back seat.

“NO!!” said Gustavo, “you’ve already put us 20 minutes off schedule we are not going to lose precious minutes with you having to pee all the time!!!!!”

Of course by the time I did manage to get him to pull over in a rest area, I was desperate.  I charged into the restroom, only to find a Turkish toilet.  Aarrggh.

The next stop – always adding on minutes to Mademoiselle Navigatrice’s arrival time calculations—was to get gas.  We went in to pay and I saw a brand new map of France for 3 euros.  I suggested to Gustavo that it might be a worthy investment.  He said, “No, the map we have is perfectly good.”

Lesson Number One:  Do not mess with an Italian Man’s Mamma’s Map!!

While my husband and I were bickering in the front seats, it wasn’t all sunshine and happiness in the back seat.  My middle daughter Caterina decided to imitate some Disney show called “Good Luck Charlie” and make frequent videos on her phone to send back to friends in Rome.

Occasionally she would pipe up in the back seat saying something that roughly went like this “So, hi everyone, now we are in France and see, that’s my parents, they are getting lost and fighting, and that’s my brother sleeping with his mouth open, and these are my new sneakers with flowers on them, and that’s it for now, baci baci baci”  After giving the three final kisses, she would usually stick her tongue out in some teenage form of communication that I have not yet grasped.

These video performances would occasionally be interrupted by her brother punching her and yelling: “spegni quell benedetto cellular prima che lo spacco cretina!”  (Translated: turn that blessed cell phone off before I break it in two, idiot.”)

In the middle of all this action, my younger daughter, Chiara, has developed a case of backseat narcolepsy – every time we enter in the car, she falls into a deep sleep.  But at every castle she was wide awake managing to appear Rapunzel-like, flaunting her long, golden locks in the middle of every photo.

After hours of fun in the car, we finally arrived at Bourges, where my husband had already chosen a restaurant.  Gustavo has an idea, that I believe he got from his two grandfathers, that when visiting a place one must book the best restaurants at lunch and at dinner.  I have frequently found myself on trips making a futile effort to convince him to skip the expensive 3-course lunch or the expensive 3-course dinner.  On this particular occasion I got lucky, we had to skip our 3-course lunch because, due to navigational difficulties, we didn’t arrive until 3pm and all the restaurants in town were closed.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral in Bourges, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 2, 2014.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral in Bourges, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 2, 2014.

Our first tourist attraction to visit was the cathedral in Bourges with its extraordinary stained glass windows.  My son trailed along behind me as I wandered about the cathedral taking photos of the windows for an eventual blog post.  “Mom, you are getting so annoying with that phone, can you just stop taking pictures?” he mumbled in my ear.

We passed a sign quoting Pope John Paul II, “Do not be Afraid,” and all of a sudden my son Niccolo’ was quoting the bible.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

“Wow,” I said, “Nico, pretty impressive, I’ve never heard you quote the Bible before, not bad.”

“Yeah, that would be Ezekial 25:17,” he added.

“When have you ever learned passages from the Bible by memory,” I said clicking another photo of a very blue stainglass window.

Stained glass window in Bourges Cathedral in France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 2, 2014

Stained glass window in Bourges Cathedral in France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 2, 2014

“Pulp Fiction, Mom, the hit man played by Samuel Jackson says it before he shoots people.”

It was then that I began to wonder if I was every going to survive the trip to the Loire Valley.  We had not even seen a castle yet, and I wanted to escape.

At this point I will fast-forward.  With the help of Mademoiselle Navigatrice we eventually made it to our lovely hotel the Beaulieu near Tours.  It is a marvelous place—a small French Castle with large, elegant, beautifully decorated rooms.  It only has one little problem for people traveling with three teenagers, the Wifi doesn’t work properly.

“How can I watch my NBA games at 4am?” Nico asked.  “I need to get on Facebook?” Cate insisted, “What about Instragram and What’s App” Chiara asked querulously.

Day 2 – Gustavo had the whole schedule worked out – up at 7am, breakfast at 7:30, out the door by 8am – three castles with three hours for each – Chenonceau, Chambord and Cheverny.  He just had one little problem – four of us were dragging our feet.  We wanted to lounge around at breakfast enjoying our Café’ au Lait, Chocolat Chaud, Croissant, and Pain au Chocolat.

We finally reached the spectacular castle of Chenonceau and I was told that journalists get a free audio guide.  Gustavo was asked to do a radio interview about the Greek economy so returned to the car.  None of my teenagers wanted the audio guide so I ordered them to explore the castle on their own while I made my way around with the headphones.

Niccolo', Chiara and Caterina on the stairs at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015

Niccolo’, Chiara and Caterina on the stairs at Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015

The audio guide was excellent, providing detailed descriptions of the individuals who lives were influential in the creation and existence of the castle: Katherine Briconnet, Catherine De Medici, Diana Di Poitiers and Louise Dupin.  I especially enjoyed the Frenchman speaking with such a delectable accent in English in his deep, rather sexy voice.

A portrait of the beautiful Louise Dupin who transformed Chateau Chenonceau into a Salon for intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu and saved the castle from destruction during the French Revolution because of her excellent relationship with the local townspeople. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015.

A portrait of the beautiful Louise Dupin who transformed Chateau Chenonceau into a Salon for intellectuals such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu and saved the castle from destruction during the French Revolution because of her excellent relationship with the local townspeople. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 3, 2015.

There were 20 rooms with explanations on the audio guide and I made my way slowly through them finally forgetting about family bickering and irritating teenagers.  It must have been about 12:30 when my phone rang and it was my husband, “Where are you he shouted?  We have to go!!!  We have two more castles to see!!”

I told him that I intended to finish the last three rooms on the tour and they could all just wait.  Little did I know that two of my teenagers were having a big snack in the café, that Nico had nearly dropped his sister Chiara into the moat, and Caterina was buying up the entire gift shop for her teachers and friends in Rome.

“No!” My husband shouted, “There’s no time. We are going to leave you here!!”

“Great, go ahead,” I said and hung up.

I turned on my audio guide again and that deep, French voice spoke soothingly in my ear.  I momentarily contemplated the idea of climbing into Diana Di Poitiers four poster bed, closing the red velvet curtains and snuggling down with Monsieur Audio-Guide whispering sweet- historical nothings in my ear.

Diana di Poitiers bed at the Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, France.  Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Diana di Poitiers bed at the Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

After all if my husband was enamored of Miss Navigatrice, what could be wrong if I dedicated some time to Monsieur audio-guide.

I eventually made it back to the car to discover to my dismay that my family had not left me behind.  We were decidedly off-schedule so had to proceed to our restaurant for our 3-course meal. The French food is a refreshing change from daily Italian diet of pasta, pizza, pasta, pizza and some more pasta.  Everything here is covered with rich, creamy, buttery sauces and is delicious.  (My son forbid me from taking a food photos).

Interior of "Les Annees 30" restaurant in Chinon, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 4, 2015

Interior of “Les Annees 30″ restaurant in Chinon, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January 4, 2015

And then off to see the Chambord Castle.

As we pulled into the parking lot at Chambord, Nico offered his opinion on the extraordinary castles of the Loire,  “seen one castle, you’ve seem them all – potato, potahtoe, tomato, tomahtoe—let’s call the whole thing off.”

I turned around to look at him in the back seat, “What the heck are you saying Nico,”

“Louis Armstrong, Mom, Louis Armstrong,” he answered.

And I got out of the car and went in search of an audio-guide hoping for some sonorous satisfaction.

Gustavo, Chiara and Nico heading towards Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

Gustavo, Chiara and Nico heading towards Chambord Castle in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Trisha Thomas. January 3, 2015

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December 27, 2014

A Woman Locked up at the Vatican

Freeze frame of video of Femen protester Jana Zdhanova struggling with Vatican gendarme over baby Jesus. December 25, 2014.

Freeze frame of video of Femen protester Jana Zdhanova struggling with Vatican gendarme over baby Jesus. December 25, 2014.

(SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE WITH INTERVIEW WITH FEMEN PROTESTER JANA ZDHANOVA)

After my last post “The Roman Holiday Hamster”, I vowed I would take a break from writing about the Vatican and concentrate on Christmas.  It took a lot of effort, but I resisted the temptation to write about Pope Francis’ Christmas speech to the Roman Curia—a verbal flagellation listing the 15 “sicknesses” of the Vatican curia.  It was powerful and interesting, but I am not going to go into it here.  I also resisted the temptation to write about the Pope’s letter to Christians in the Middle East on December 23.  I did not write about the Pope’s Christmas Mass on the night of the 24th,  or the Urbi and Orbi Christmas Day message to the world.  It would have ruined my Christmas.

Panoramic photo of St. Peter's Square. Photo by Trisha Thomas. December 26, 2014

Panoramic photo of St. Peter’s Square. Photo by Trisha Thomas. December 26, 2014

However, I cannot resist the temptation to write about the topless protester who barged her way into the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on Christmas Day.

Not long after Pope Francis delivered his Christmas message from the window on the balcony at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica, Jana Zhdanova, a Ukrainian feminist activist with the group FEMEN, shoved through the crowds around the Vatican’s nativity scene and with the words written “God is Woman” written on across her bare chest, grabbed the baby Jesus out of his crib. A Vatican gendarme swooped down, grabbed Jana, covered her with his cape and struggled to get the baby Jesus out of her hands.  She continued to yell, “God is Woman.”

APTN got a pretty funny, if fuzzy, video off a tourist showing the gendarme struggling to call on his radio for help while the naked blond is squirming around in his arms.  I think that gendarme will remember this Christmas.

Tough day at work for Vatican Gendarme as he tries to cover topless protester and escort her away from Vatican nativity scene.  Hard to figure out whose hands are whose in this photo anonymously give to Mozzarella Mamma. December 25, 2014

Tough day at work for Vatican Gendarme as he tries to cover topless protester and escort her away from Vatican nativity scene. Hard to figure out whose hands are whose in this photo anonymously give to Mozzarella Mamma. December 25, 2014

The crowd raised iphones and ipads to get a show and cheered and jeered during the brief incident.  After a few minutes Zhdanova was put in a car and taken away.  A gendarme then carefully put back the Baby Jesus.

Then the Vatican did something unusual, they put Jana Zhdanova in a cell for the night accusing her of obscene acts in a public place.  The Pope’s spokesman said that she her act was intended to “intentionally offend the religious feelings” of others.

Not many people get held inside the small Vatican cells.  The last one I wrote about was Pope Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was arrested for copying documents in the Papal apartment and leaking them to the press.  See blog post “The Pope’s Butler Did It

Perhaps it sounds a little disrespectful on my part, but I can’t help wondering about what Christmas night was like in that cell.  Who were her guards?  The gendarmes  or Swiss Guards?  Did they loan her some clothes to cover up a bit?  What did they give her to eat – some Christmas leftovers?

After meeting with a Vatican prosecutor Saturday morning, Zdhanova was freed.  She was ordered never to set foot on Vatican property again.  (I have been trying to get in touch with Zdhanova to hear about her experience being held in a Vatican cell, but no luck so far.  I will update this post if I manage to contact her).

And just in case some of you have not been to St. Peter’s Square at Christmas time, here are a few photos from my visit yesterday with my family.

St. Peter's Square with Christmas Tree and Nativity scene. December 26, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

St. Peter’s Square with Christmas Tree and Nativity scene. December 26, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

I almost forgot — I have written before on this blog about a woman arrested by the Vatican and sentenced to death by a Pope.  It was a long, long time ago and that was Beatrice Cenci.  See blog post: Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice.

I think I would rather by Jana Zhdanova than Beatrice Cenci.

Femen activist Jana Zdhanova escorted by Vatican Gendarmes. She is now considered persona non grata at the Vatican. Credit: Femen.org

UPDATE

I got in touch with Femen protester, or as she calls herself Sextremist, Jana Zhdanova, by email and she answered a few of my questions about her experience being the first woman in recent history held as a prisoner locked up inside the Vatican.

Jana, who is Ukranian, told me that she is 26 and living as “a refugee in France”. She said the Vatican cell “wasn’t a five star hotel” but it was big and clean.  She said there were Vatican gendarmes guarding her and not Swiss Guards.  She said they were much more polite than police usually are and they tried to speak to her in English.

The gendarmes gave her back her clothes, and when she asked for some books gave her a book on the history of the Vatican in English and novels translated into Russian, “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami and “The White Castle” Orhan Pamuk.

Jana said before she met with the Vatican prosecutor she had no idea what she was going to be charged with or how long she would be held.  When she was told she would meet with the Vatican prosecutor she said she prepared a long speech in Russian, but in the end the gendarmes said they would take the copy of the speech and keep it, there was no need for the prosecutor to see it.

She told me that she was charged under article 3 of the Vatican Penal code and articles 142, 402 and 490 and the prosecutor warned her that she cannot step foot on Vatican territory again.

I asked her what she had written in her speech and she said, “I tried to explain my position on why I think that God is a woman.  God can only be a woman.”  She then gave an explanation of why she thinks this is the case concluding, “I call  on all churchmen to correct their historical error, and leave a place for woman in the host of Gods and respect her holy rights to control over her body.”

Jana said she “would be glad to repeat the same act” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on January 7th.

Given the experience of the “Pussy Riot” group, I am guessing that a repeat protest in Moscow could lead to imprisonment and probably the Russian police are not going to be as hospitable as the Vatican Gendarmes.

 

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December 18, 2014

The Roman Holiday Hamster

HAMSTER WHEEL

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma frantically heading towards the Christmas holidays

Dear Blog Readers— Yes, that photo above is me—a crazed Roman Holiday Hamster running frenetically, non-stop in my wheel and never getting anywhere. This week, a young man asked me if I would contribute a blog post to his travel blog.  I asked him what specifically he would like and he suggested a post describing the holiday traditions in Italy.  It would have been lovely to write about the delicious panettone Christmas cake, the elaborate nativity scenes (villages really) that Italians set up in their homes, and the famous cenone (big holiday dinners).  But unfortunately, I haven’t had the time.  I have not even bought a single Christmas present. There is one man responsible for my delinquency from my Mamma holiday duties: Pope Francis.  Yes, he is the one.   This Pope just never stops making news.  Every time I think I might have a slow day, and maybe can slip out of work to buy a few presents, I find myself scurrying over to the Vatican for another story.

The linked hands of a couple dancing the tango outside the Vatican for Pope Francis' 78th birthday.  December 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The linked hands of a couple dancing the tango outside the Vatican for Pope Francis’ 78th birthday. December 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

I became a television journalist because I love “being there.”  and I often feel as I have covered Pope Francis that I am witnessing something important. Ever since I was little, I loved seeing things happen and then telling them to other people.  When I was younger I had a tendency to embellish a bit.   When I would launch into one of my stories at dinner, my family members would shrug their shoulders, sigh and say, “there she goes again, it is another one of Trisha’s Tall Tales”. Of course as a professional journalist, I had to tame that flare to embellish.  With time I learned that once you’ve delivered the facts, it is the delicious details that make a Tale special.  Those details can be delivered in the form of words, or in the case of video and photography with a special, detailed image.  More on that later.

Press conference on Apostolic Visitation of US Nuns at the Vatican.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. December 16, 2014

Press conference on Apostolic Visitation of US Nuns at the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. December 16, 2014

On Tuesday, I found myself at the Vatican for the much-anticipated, and feared report on the “Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States.”  This whole Apostolic Visitation business began back in 2008 when under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican ordered an investigation into U.S. women’s religious orders. At the time the women were considered too liberal and, God Forbid, might even include some feminists. So the conference room at the Vatican was packed on Tuesday with journalists eager for a juicy story that was supposed to go like this “the nasty all-male Vatican hierarchy is taking to pieces the honest, hard-working, devoted American sisters”. However, as the press conference got underway it quickly became clear it was going another direction.  It was all sunshine and rose petals.  The Vatican report praised the nuns, noting that American sisters have “courageously been on the forefront of her evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and the marginalized.” I was frantically taking notes, but all of us in the room began glancing up and looking at each other questioningly.  What was going on?  Instead of talking about the problem of “feminists” the report was praising “the feminine genius.” Sister Clare Millea, Director of the Apostolic Visitation, who was responsible for interviewing nuns across the United States for the report broke down in tears as she said, “Your message to us today shows that you do understand our on-going struggle to faithfully serve the church in challenging times despite our shortcomings and limitations.” Sister Sharon Holland, President of the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” said that at the beginning the visitation was met with some “apprehension” and that “Some congregations said older sisters felt that there whole lives had been judged and found wanting” but in the end she said they have an “affirmative and realistic report.” Finally sister Millea pointed out “If you ask ‘where is the controversy?” Sorry, there isn’t any.” And that was that.  I am sure all you wise blog readers have read more on this elsewhere, so I will move on.

Pope Francis at his weekly  audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.  Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Wednesday was the Pope’s 78th birthday, which happened to coincide with his Wednesday weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.  There can be no doubt that Pope Francis is in a hurry.  It is as though he thinks he doesn’t have much time – in fact he is the first Pope I have seen consult his watch with regularly.  I think he is conscious of his age and has a lot of things he wants to change at the Vatican and in the world before his time is up. But he always has plenty of time for the people who come to his weekly audience.  He rides around St. Peter’s Square in his pope-mobile stopping to kiss babies, caress the handicapped, and greet the faithful. This Wednesday was no exception.  The crowd was eager to celebrate.  They presented him with a cake (he blew out the candles), they gave him cards (he asked “did you draw this?”) they presented him with birthday balloons and traditional Argentinian Mate drink (he drank it) and  a group of homeless people gave him sunflowers.

Pope Francis blows out candles on a birthday cake for his 78th birthday during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

Pope Francis blows out candles on a birthday cake for his 78th birthday during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

Following the audience thousands of people gathered around the square and danced the tango in his honor.

Dancers swirling around in St. Peter's Square doing the tango for the Pope in honor of his 78th birthday.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. December 17, 2014

Dancers swirling around in St. Peter’s Square doing the tango for the Pope in honor of his 78th birthday. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. December 17, 2014

Speaking of details, AP cameraman Gigi Navarra got fabulous shots from the ground of dozens of feet twirling around on the cobblestones.  And AP photographer Gregorio Borgia captured a happy couple tango-ing cheek to cheek.

A couple dancing the tango cheek-to-cheek at the Vatican to celebrate Pope Francis' 78th birthday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

A couple dancing the tango cheek-to-cheek at the Vatican to celebrate Pope Francis’ 78th birthday. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. December 17, 2014

That was enough of a birthday celebration for me.  But the news from the Vatican didn’t stop. Late Wednesday came the stunning announcement that the US was normalizing relations with Cuba (cut off in January 1961) and that President Obama in a speech from the White House said “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me”…and later added, “I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” Yesterday the Vatican released a statement saying that the Vatican had hosted a meeting between American and Cuban officials in October and “provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.“ Since the Pope is in a hurry, so am I.  At 7am this morning I was frantically buzzing about the kitchen—simultaneously making fresh squeezed orange juice for the family, unloading the dishwasher, making Caffe Latte, preparing tea, and setting the table for breakfast. (Normal Mom stuff). My daughter Chiara grumpily came in the kitchen, plopped down in her chair at the table and sat there hunched over watching me zip around.  Then finally she said, “MOM!!!!!” so I stopped and looked and her and she said, “can you CHILL???!!” I think the short answer to that question  is “no”, and the correct answer might be “not until after Christmas,” or maybe “not as long as Pope Francis is around.” Once the girls were off to school, I found myself at 8am calling the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, asking for a comment and explanation.  Later at the Vatican, Lombardi explained to me that the Vatican has been working on this issue for a long time and that many Popes were concerned about Cuba-US relations. He pointed out that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited Cuba.  But he also said he thought that it was Pope Francis’ personal interactions that made the difference.  Lombardi said the Pope is hoping to make strides on questions of peace and dialogue in other parts of the world.  The Pope has spoken extensively about conflicts in the Middle East but has also expressed keen interest in questions regarding Russia and China. Who knows what will be next on the Pope’s geo-political to-do list, but we do know he is not wasting any time. I guess I will wrap this blog post here because I need to be back at the Vatican early tomorrow morning for a Christmas Mass for the homeless at the Sant’Anna Church just inside the Vatican wall. Maybe this weekend I will have time to make some Christmas cookies and buy some presents. …and my little Roman Holiday Hamster wheel keeps on going around and around and around.

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December 9, 2014

Rome’s Middle World

A Hobbit, heading out his door into the Middle World.

A Hobbit, heading out his door into the Middle World.

“There are the living above and the dead below, and we are in the middle.  And that means that there is a world, the middle world in which everyone meets.” – Massimo Carminati

As posters for the latest “Hobbit” film were being splashed on billboards across Rome last week, police launched operation “Mafia Capital” in which they uncovered Rome’s “Middle World”,  where hobbits, elves and orcs are replaced by criminals and politicians who have been cutting deals to rake off millions.

The words above were spoken by Massimo Carminati, an alleged criminal gang leader, and former far-right wing terrorist in the 1970s, who was arrested last week in Rome along with 37 others accused of running a massive crime ring involving corrupt city officials.

Those arrested were accused of  mafia assocation, extortion, corruption, manipulating a public auction, false invoicing, and money-laundering.  Police sequestered 204 million euros in assets from those under investigation.

Massimo Carminati arrest. Rome, December 2014

Massimo Carminati arrest. Rome, December 2014

Carminati wears a patch over one eye—he was blinded when police opened fire on him in the 1970s when he was trying to escape to Switzerland. Last week he was arrested while driving his Smart Car on the outskirts of Rome.

Investigators have named dozens of others suspected in the case, including Rome’s former right-wing Mayor Gianni Alemanno whose home they searched this past week.  But the politicians involved were from both the right and the left, including some from Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party.

ROME ROOFTOPS

Rome, looking peaceful from a above, but what is going on below in the city’s “Middle World”?

The gang made its money off lucrative public contracts, including the building of housing for immigrants, housing for the Rom nomad population, the city’s recycling, and public parks maintenance. The police released a series of videos showing the key figures on the phone accompanied by their recorded voices.  In one such video Carminati describes their activities taking place in a so-called “Middle World.”

Freeze frame of police video showing Massimo Carminati on the left talking on the phone with Salvatore Buzzi on the right.

Freeze frame of police video showing Massimo Carminati on the left talking on the phone with Salvatore Buzzi on the right.

Other conversations show how the group operated.  In one conversation between Carminati and businessman Salvatore Buzzi, also arrested,  Buzzi tells Carminati that he has been making the rounds of government offices, Carminati tells him, “you must sell the product my friend, we must sell ourselves like prostitutes…so put on a mini-skirt and walk the streets for these guys.”

Freeze frame of video released by police showing businessman Salvatore Buzzi on phone with woman.

Freeze frame of video released by police showing businessman Salvatore Buzzi on phone with woman.

Buzzi, in another phone conversation with a woman brags that they are making money off a contract to provide migrants with housing.  He tells her, “Do you have any idea how much I earn off migrants?…Drug trafficking earns less.”

Freeze frame of police video of Matteo Calvio on phone threatening someone.

Freeze frame of police video of Matteo Calvio on phone threatening someone.

But in addition to snuggling up to city officials and filling their pockets, the group had some heavier handed methods.

Another video shows Matteo Calvi, one of the group arrested this week, on the phone to someone he is threatening.  He says: “…you have to pay me and don’t try getting out of it cause I will come to your home and kill you….. I will slit your throat. On the morning of the 10th bring me the money otherwise I will kill you and all your children, you piece of shit!”

Nice guy.  The perfect Middle World Orc.

So this is what is happening in the city of Rome.  This group, run by the businessman Buzzi has reportedly won 174 city contracts in 10 years.  He has received from Rome’s city hall a total of 34 million euros.   He has then reportedly greased the palms of his city hall helpers by donating some 241 million euros in foundations and for electoral committees.

So the Middle World is getting rich at the expense of migrants, Rom nomads, the city’s recycling and parks.

In an Italy struggling with economic recession and high unemployment, it feels like the famed Mafia octopus has gotten its tentacles firmly around the city suffocating it.

Italian Prime Matteo Renzi said yesterday, “we will not leave Rome in the hands of thieves” and urged for justice to be carried out quickly.  But in Italy, justice is never carried out quickly.

I wish we had some courageous, furry-footed little hobbits who could save Rome from these Middle World orcs.

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December 1, 2014

Pope Francis in Turkey – Part II

Pope Francis releases doves outside the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis releases doves outside the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers –

I am learning through my tweeting experiences that animal photos are popular.  My “Cataturk” waiting for the Pope at the Haghia Sophia was a big success, so I will start my Turkey Post 2 with another animal moment.  The photo above is of the Pope releasing two doves outside the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul Saturday.  The Pope held a Mass there with the Catholic community in Istanbul.   There was a small but wildly enthusiastic group waiting for him outside yelling “Long Live the Pope”.  It was the first moment on the trip where the Pope seemed truly happy.  He was almost gleeful as he released the doves.

I was a little worried about the doves because there were a lot of fierce looking seagulls flying high above, and over the course of the day the Turks had been using drones with TV cameras on them to fly over the Pope.  But the doves disappeared without being attacked by a seagull or flying into a drone. Phew.  Still, I would rather be a plump, wise cat at the Haghia Sophia.

According to statistics provided by the Vatican, there are only 53,000 Catholics in Turkey of a total population of over 76 million people.  Ninety-nine percent of Turks are Muslim.   Over the course of the trip, the Pope repeatedly expressed his concerns for the Christians living in the Middle East and speaking to the press on the plane on the way back he said, “I do not want to soften my words.  Christians are being chased out of the Middle East as we have seen in Iraq, in the area around Mosul, they have to go, leave everything, or pay a protection tax that is useless.  Other times they are just chased away…”

Following the mass, the Pope went to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul to see his friend Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world.  The two men are close.  Bartholomew attended Pope Francis’ installation mass in March 2013, and they met in May in Jerusalem.

During the meeting the Pope called the Patriarch his “Brother Bartholomew” and said “what a grace, what a responsibility to walk together in this hope.”

Pope bends his head and asks for a blessing from Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul. November 29, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia.

Pope bends his head and asks for a blessing from Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia.

Then the Pope did something that surprised us all.  He walked over to the Patriarch and bent his head and asked for Bartholomew’s blessing for both himself and for the Church of Rome.  The Patriarch seemed to pull the Pope up and then gave him a kiss on both cheeks but the Pope insisted bending his head again and then the Patriarch put one hand on Francis’ head and kissed it.

My colleague Nicole Winfield who covers the Vatican for AP wire told me later back at the press center as I was editing the video that this gesture was particularly unusual and an indication that times have changed because 500 years ago a Patriarch was forced to wash the feet of a Pope. There was some talk among the press corps of an eventual backlash from conservative Catholics against this gesture by the Pope.

Then on Sunday morning the Pope attended a long religious service in the Orthodox Church of Saint George together with the Patriarch Bartholomew.  The ceremony went on for two and a half hours and involved a lot of lovely chants. The Patriarch was dressed in an elaborate gold outfit with a golden, bejeweled crown, looking far more magnificent and opulent than Pope Francis in his white robes.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew give a joint blessing at the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul. November 30, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew give a joint blessing at the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul. November 30, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia.

Pope Paul VI got rid of the Papal crowns back in the 1960s and Pope Francis has toned down the dress code since he began his papacy.  Pope Benedict had notched the wardrobe up a bit when he brought back the use of red shoes and wore the Papal Mozzetta- a cape made of red velvet with a white ermine fur trim. Pope Francis wears simple black shoes and white robes.

A little aside here on covering the colorful aspects of papal trips.  I have become one of the frenetic tweeters of Papal trips along with two colleagues Spanish Correspondent Paloma Ovejero @pgovejero and Argentinian correspondent Elisabetta Pique’ @bettapique’ — the three of us are often in the pools with photographers and tweet blow-by-blow comments and photos to show what is going on.  Paloma and I were sitting next to each other on the plane and we have become such tweet-aholics that we were still tweeting while the plane was in mid-take-off.

Unfortunately, being a part of the Papal Entourage, we often have to miss the last event on a trip because we have to go check-in at the airport and get on the Papal plane before the Pope arrives. So we missed a meeting that the Pope has with 100 young refugees living in Turkey.  There were refugees from Iraq, Syria and the Horn of Africa.  One young woman apparently stood up and told the Pope in English how she was forced out of Iraq.  In a statement to the group the Pope said, “Refugees, such as yourselves, often find themselves deprived, sometimes for long periods, of basic needs such as a dignified home, healthcare, education and work.  They have had to abandon not only their material possessions, but above all their freedom, closeness to family, their homeland and cultural traditions.  The degrading conditions in which so many refugees are forced to live are intolerable!”

Pope Francis meets with refugee children in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis meets with refugee children in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Later on the plane he told us that he wanted to visit a refugee camp near the border but that it was too complicated and would have required him to stay an extra day.  I think many of us thought that he should have stayed that extra day and made the trip.  There are currently some 1.6 million refugees living in Turkey.  The Pope has spoken out frequently about refugees and it would have been good for him to go.  There will be other opportunities though I am sure.

As usual with Pope Francis on the return home after a visit abroad he gives a press conference on the plane on the way back.  Francis seems to have an innate political instincts combined with a natural charisma.  He clearly loves the give and take with the press.  The way it works is that the journalists from the country that has been visited get to ask a question first then each nationality group aboard the plane gets to choose a person to ask a question for the group.  Depending on how long it takes there maybe be a second round of questions from each nationality group.  So, on this flight it was two questions for the Turkish journalists, one from a Russian journalist, one from an Italian, one from a Spaniard, one from a Frenchman, one from a German, one from a Japanese journalist, and one from the English language press.

Pope Francis responding to reporters questions on the Papal Plane returning from Istanbul to Rome.  The priest standing next to him is his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio  Borgia. November 30, 2014.

Pope Francis responding to reporters questions on the Papal Plane returning from Istanbul to Rome. The priest standing next to him is his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia. November 30, 2014.

I was eager to ask the question for the English-language press because this was my third trip with Pope Francis and I still had not had my turn.  The problem is that the question has to be agreed upon by the entire group.  The Pope’s spokesman said the questions should be about the trip to Turkey.

Starting in the airport lounge the group of English-speaking reporters began our negotiations on the question we would pose.  There were Deborah Ball, The Wall Street Journal’s Italy Bureau Chief, Nicole Winfield, AP’s Italy Bureau Chief, Frank Rocca, Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau Chief, Phil Pullella, Reuters Vatican Correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, Vatican Correspondent for America Magazine, and Alan Pizzey, CBS Correspondent.  The negotiations were long and complicated.  The print journalists argued that by the time the Pope got around to the English language press he would have answered many questions about the Turkey trip and we needed to focus on other issues.   They wanted to ask about the recent Synod and the fierce debate over how the Catholic Church should treat homosexuals.  They also wanted to ask the Pope why he recently removed US Cardinal Raymond Burke from his position as the Prefect of the Apostolic Segnatura – the Vatican’s Tribunal.

Alan Pizzey, Gerard O’Connell and I wanted to ask him to follow up on comments the Pope made in the morning when he speaking about Christians in the Middle East.  The Pope said that, “A second plea comes from the victims of the conflicts in so many parts of our world. We hear this resoundingly here, because some neighbouring countries are scarred by an inhumane and brutal war. Taking away the peace of a people, committing every act of violence – or consenting to such acts – especially when directed against the weakest and defenceless, is a profoundly grave sin against God…”

Pizzey wanted to ask him if ISIS is “sinning against God.”

In the end the majority print reporters won.  It was decided I would ask the first question about homosexuals and Pizzey would ask the second one about violence against defenceless people.

I was a bit agitated about asking a question, and particularly one that was going against the stated rules laid down by the Pope’s spokesman that we were to ask only about Turkey.  Phil Pullella of Reuters told me that if we are serious journalist we shouldn’t let press spokesmen tell us what questions we can ask and guaranteed me the Pope would answer.  He was right.

I have been covering Popes since 1993, but I have never had an opportunity to ask a direct question to a Pope.  As the plane took off,  I contemplated the wording of the question that had been worked out by the group.  It was long.  I thought about my mother who keeps telling me “slow down, you are talking too fast”.

A little aside here.  I think I have begun speaking so fast in the past few years because I am in a hurry to get everything done.  Between work, family and blog there never seems time to come up for air – so I talk fast and breathe little.  My colleagues also tell me they have trouble understanding me sometimes because I speak too fast.   So I thought to myself, “be calm, breathe deep and speak slowly.”

Shortly after takeoff the Pope came back.  First he shook our hands one by one and then the press conference began.  The Pope seemed to be enjoying every minute of it giving lengthy answers to every question that was asked.

When it was my turn, the Pope’s Spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, introduced me, telling the Pope that I have been on many Papal trips with several Popes.  (He was right, I think this was my 19th Papal trip – I started back in the 90s with John Paul II).  After that kind introduction, I ended up irritating Father Lombardi by asking a question about the Synod and homosexuals instead of about the Turkey trip.  The Pope said he would take the question anyway and gave a long answer describing how the Synod is a process.  He said it is not a parliament and the process is still underway so he was not going to comment on the discussion or documents that have emerged so far.  Basically he did not answer my question, but he was warm, kindly and lengthy in his response. (He is a Jesuit and a natural politician).

AP Cameraman Gianfranco Stara with Trisha Thomas editing a story on board Papal Plane.

AP Cameraman Gianfranco Stara with Trisha Thomas editing a story on board Papal Plane.

There were so many more interesting responses that emerged from the press conference.  He spoke at length in response to a question about Islamophobia.  He urged Islamic leaders to get together and denounce terrorism.  He spoke about his desire to visit Moscow and Iraq.  He described his moment of prayer in the Blue Mosque with the Gran Mufti of Istanbul.  He spoke about the Armenian genocide and he spoke about how conservative critics might oppose his asking for the blessing of Patriarch Batholomew.  I will not go into all of that here, but I will say that there was so much material that I had to frantically edit on the plane, and continued working on the story in the taxi on the way back to the office.

The Turkey trip is over but stay tuned….more coming soon from Mozzarella Mamma as soon as I catch my breath.

 

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November 30, 2014

Pope Francis in Turkey – Post 1

Turkey Pope

Dear Blog Readers-

I am sitting in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul waiting for Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I to arrive.  A couple of blog readers have written to me asking “Where are you?”.  They say they don’t see me in any of the shots on TV of the Pope in Turkey and I am not posting.  If any of you use twitter you can see my tweets at @mozzarellamamma which will give you a pretty good idea of where I am and what I am doing when I travel with the Pope.

Trisha Thomas heading for plane in Ankara. November 29, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia

Trisha Thomas heading for plane in Ankara. November 29, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia

The reason you don’t see me in the shots with the Pope is that many times I am not that close to him and when I am, I am definitely staying out of the shot, and the reason that I am not blogging is that there is no time.

On papal trips we usually start about 5am picking up all the Pope’s speeches for the day and then spend the rest of the day running around (and being bused around) from one event to another always trying to stay ahead of the Pope.  I drag my computer bag with me everywhere so if there is a slow moment, I can pull it out, ingest some video, edit and feed (or in this case whip off a quick blog post while I wait).  Here in Turkey I am able to feed from more or less anywhere because I have a Turkish wifi key that a technician in AP’s Istanbul bureau sent me in Rome ahead of time.

AP's Nicole Winfield and Gregorio Borgia ready to board Papal Plane in Ankara, Turkey. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP’s Nicole Winfield and Gregorio Borgia ready to board Papal Plane in Ankara, Turkey. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

On this trip AP has a complete team on board.  There is Nicole Winfield for AP wire, Gregorio Borgia for AP Photo and Gianfranco Stara and me for AP telelvision. I am particularly indebted to Gregorio who supplies me with plenty of his fantastic leftover photos once he has filed for AP.

Enroute Ankara, the Pope came to the back of the plane to say hello to us and thank us for our work.  He also mentioned that he is grateful for what Turkey is doing, taking in so many refugees from war zones in surrounding countries – Syria and Iraq.  Turkey is now hosting 1.6 million refugees.

When we got off the plane in Ankara, there was no public crowd to greet the Pope, but plenty of armed men.  The Pope was whisked off immediately to pay his respects at Ataturk’s Mausoleum and then on to the Palace of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his first meetings and speech.

Just a quick work on President Erdogan’s palace—it is a gigantic, luxurious, sumptuous, massive building recently completed on the outskirts of Ankara, for a mere 620 million dollars.  The Turks have been up in arms about it—with both environmentalists and architects registering complaints– so it was a bit awkward for the Pope – a man who preaches humility—to be the first foreign dignitary to visit that anything-but-humble abode.  Later the Pope’s spokesman told the press that Francis felt a bit out if his element.

Pope Francis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential palace in Ankara,Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by  AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential palace in Ankara,Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Outside the huge – 1000 room—presidential palace, the Pope was escorted by an elegant horse regiment, and as he alighted from his car there was a 21 cannon salute.  The Pope and the President walked down a long baby blue carpet, past a line of soldiers in baby blue jackets.  I was told later that Turquoise is considered the Turkish color, coming from the gem, used widely in tiles and exported during the period of the Ottoman Empire and that is why the carpet was not red. (Although it did look more like a baby blue that turquoise to me).

Once the leaders were inside, we were escorted into the palace.  Politicians, government officials and foreign dignitaries were gathered for the speech from the President and the Pope and while they waited for the event to begin, they were having a little party.  Waiters in white jackets passed out Turkish sweets with honey and pistachios, juices and water with thin slices of lemon and Turkish tea, all served on silver trays.  I must admit that I snagged some delicious small pastries off a tray as I tromped through with my computer bag. (The waiter did not seem to mind, but I was scolded by a Vatican official who told me to put it back. Too late, it was already in my mouth.)

When it came time for the speeches, I was a bit surprised.  The Pope looked put-out by the whole thing as he sat and listened first to the President’s speech.   Erdogan launched in saying that the two of them were seeing eye-to-eye on everything. (He was speaking in Turkish, and I had the headphones with simultaneous translation)

He said “there was no issue on which we had a difference of opinion”, “ in terms of terrorism we have the same perspective” and “we have the same perspective regarding the dominance of money.”  That comment caught us all up a bit short.   Pope Francis is the man who decided not to use the elegant Apostolic Apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square, choosing instead a small room in the Santa Marta residence inside the Vatican walls.  Not exactly a guy who is into luxury.

Erdogan went onto talk about Islamophobia.  He said it is a “serious trend” and that “prejudice and intolerance are gradually increasing”.

Pope Francis greets head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Mehmet Gormez, in Ankara, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by   AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis greets head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Mehmet Gormez, in Ankara, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Following his meeting with the President, the Pope went to the Diyanet, the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  There in a speech he condemned the “barbaric violence” against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, adding “any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation.”

This morning we were up at dawn and on a plane for Istanbul.  I am a huge fan of the city of Istanbul.  (see blog post: Istanbul Diary)  As soon as we stepped off the plane we were hustled off to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque otherwise known as the Blue Mosque.

Outside the doorway we had to pull off our shoes and the women in the group had to wrap scarves around our heads.  We then stepped into the 17th century mosque, our stocking feet sinking into the plush rugs.  I had a hard time un-gluing my eyes from the fabulously tiled ceiling.

The ceiling of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The ceiling of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Shortly thereafter the Pope arrived and the Grand Mufti of Istanbul escorted him around.  The two men briefly stopped in silent prayer, the Mufti held his hands open and the Pope held his together.

Pope Francis, left, flanked by Grand Mufti  visits the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Photo by  AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis, left, flanked by Grand Mufti visits the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

While they were praying we were hustled out the back to move on to the next stop the Haghia Sofia originally built under Emperor Constantine in 360 AD, and rebuilt by Emperior Justinian in 532 and then turned into a Mosque in 1453 under Sultan Mohammed II following the Muslim conquest of the city.  Finally the first Turkish President Ataturk transformed it into a museum.

Pope Francis in black socks and Grand Mufti in brown socks as they make their way across the Blue Mosque.  Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. November 29, 2014

Pope Francis in black socks and Grand Mufti in brown socks as they make their way across the Blue Mosque. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma. November 29, 2014

As I stepped outside the Blue Mosque I saw a big Turkish security guard standing over two pairs of big black shoes.  I asked him “Are these the Pope’s and the Imam’s shoes?”  I wanted to take a picture.  But he shooed me off before I could.

AP cameraman Gianfranco Stara runs for the press bus outside the Blue Mosque carrying his shoes in his hands. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP cameraman Gianfranco Stara runs for the press bus outside the Blue Mosque carrying his shoes in his hands. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

My poor cameraman Gianfranco was one of the last in the group to leave the mosque and had to run back to the bus in his socks carrying his shoes.

At Haghia Sophia I was not in a great position to see the Pope, but I did get a nice photo of a pretty cat who came out to check what all the fuss was about and pay his respects to the Pope.  I tweeted his photos and I got a stunning 20 re-tweets, someone even named him Cataturk.

A cat passes past the table and chair where Pope Francis  left his message during the Pontiff's visit at the St. Sofia Museum in Istanbul, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

A cat passes past the table and chair where Pope Francis left his message during the Pontiff’s visit at the St. Sofia Museum in Istanbul, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

And one more of my favorite cat.

A cat waiting for Pope Francis at Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A cat waiting for Pope Francis at Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. November 29, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I CAN’T WRITE ANYMORE BECAUSE THE POPE AND THE PATRIARCH WILL BE HERE SOON, BUT THERE IS MUCH MORE TO SAY AND PHOTOS TO POST, SO THERE WILL BE A PART II TURKEY POST SOON.

 

 

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November 26, 2014

Vandals and Selfies at the Colosseum

Restorer Sonia Lanzelotti repairing wall at the Colosseum where a vandal carved out the letter "K".  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

Restorer Sonia Lanzelotti repairing wall at the Colosseum where a vandal carved out the letter “K”. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

Dear Blog Readers—

My blogger buddy Adri Barr Crocetti, the famous foodie who reveals her secrets on her blog adribarrcrocetti.com, asked me this week if I was going to write about the vandal at the Colosseum, so here goes…

A 25 centimter (10 Inch) letter "K" scratched into the wall of the Colosseum by a vandal on November 22.  Photo credit: Italian Ministry of Culture.

A 25 centimter (10 Inch) letter “K” scratched into the wall of the Colosseum by a vandal on November 22. Photo credit: Italian Ministry of Culture.

It was mid-morning last Friday when a security guard working in the Colosseum spotted a 42-year-old Russian tourist using a stone to scratch out a large letter  “K” 25 centimeters high (10 inches) and then beside it, in smaller letters an entire name, “Ketreia”.  She called the police who promptly arrested him.

The tourist was later fined 20,000 euros ($25,000) and got a suspended sentence to four years in prison. The Russian was not the first person to leave his mark on the Colosseum.

This morning I went with AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra to the Colosseum to film the damage done by the vandal.  There we found restorer Sonia Lanzelotti in a white helmet and blue gloves, with what looked like a painter’s palette in her hand.  She was gently putting a reddish-yellow stucco over the scratched out letter “K” on the wall of Colosseum.

The walls around the edge of the Colosseum are covered with carved out names that were made by visitors when the Colosseum was left open to the public.  Now there is a metal barrier around the outside and only people with tickets can get in. According to Cinzia Conti , the Director of Restoration for the Colosseum who I spoke to today, “it happened more in the past especially because the Colosseum was open to the public, but today the monument is controlled by cameras and custodians who can keep these gestures from being repeated. “

A name etched into one of the outer walls of the Colosseum by vandals years ago.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

A name etched into one of the outer walls of the Colosseum by vandals years ago. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

But despite the closed circuit cameras and vigilant custodians, there are still people from every corner of the globe who attempt to leave a mark.  In 2014 alone an Australian father and son got caught vandalizing the monument in January, a Canadian teenager was caught in March and a Brazilian teenager in May and now the Russian.  Perhaps that is not too many if one considers that over 5.5 million tourists visit the Colosseum every year.

As Sonia worked, a cute pair of Japanese tourists came buy holding an umbrella and quietly watched her work.  Several Americans and Russians traipsed by on the other side.

Tools used by restorer Sonia Lanzelotti to repair wall at Colosseum damaged by a vandal. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

Tools used by restorer Sonia Lanzelotti to repair wall at Colosseum damaged by a vandal. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Luigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

Sonia painted with a small brush and then used a tiny sponge to gently pat down the wall.  She explained to us that she was repairing the damage using stucco on the wall with various inserts of yellow and red terracotta trying to get as close as possible to the color of the original bricks.  She then used a brush and some paints to cover over the top.

Gigi and I stopped to asked some people outside the Colosseum what they thought about the vandal and his hefty fine. Vitaliy Lobodan from Russia said he thought the fine was well-deserved noting, “To write something on it, it is a crime.  It is not like they make you pay something to feel guilty, no.  You did a crime and you have pay the consequences.”

Lobodan’s view was shared by Lynette Mitchell from Washington, D.C. who told us, “I think it is awful, he should be fined.”

When you stand in the Colosseum it is hard to imagine that this amphitheater was built nearly 2000 years ago.  To be precise, construction of the Colosseum began in 70 A.D. under the Roman Emperor Vespasian and was opened in 80 AD under his son Titus.  They inaugurated the Colosseum with 80 days of games.  In front of some 50,000 spectators, gladiators would combat each other and wild animals such as lions, tigers and crocodiles and sometimes the floor of the arena was filled with water for re-enactments of naval battles.

Luckily today there weren’t any crocodiles or vandals, but I did get a big kick out of the couple doing a “kissing selfie” at the Colosseum.

Couple doing a "kissing selfie" at Colosseum in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

Couple doing a “kissing selfie” at Colosseum in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 26, 2014

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November 20, 2014

Food, God and Glamour at Nutrition Conference in Rome

Two women delegates at the Second International Conference on Nutrition at FAO in Rome. November 19, 2014. Freeze Frame of FAO Pool Video

Two women delegates at the Second International Conference on Nutrition at FAO in Rome. November 19, 2014. Freeze Frame of FAO Pool Video

Dear Blog Readers, For the past few days I have been covering the Second International Conference on Nutrition at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. I  was not planning to write about it on my blog but a blog reader asked me to, so here I go.

Delegate standing at entrance to FAO for the Second International Conference on Nutrition. November 19, 2104. Freeze Frame of FAO pool video

Delegate standing at entrance to FAO for the Second International Conference on Nutrition. November 19, 2104. Freeze Frame of FAO pool video

Since 1996, I’ve covered several World Food Summits at the FAO headquarters in Rome and I admit that I love immersing myself in the international environment there.  There is always an interesting cast of characters — in the past I’ve listened to Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez speaking at the FAO. And after spending so much time covering the Vatican (mostly men in clerical collars and a few nuns and Swiss Guards here and there) and Italian politicians (men in elegant suits and women in pantsuits and spike heels) who live in their own byzantine Italian political world,  it is so refreshing to have the wide variety of nationalities and cultures represented at an organization like the FAO. (My cameraman friend Cristiano from Reuters TV told me he loves covering stories at FAO because he has never seen so many beautiful and exotic women in one place)

A delegate to the Second International Conference on Nutrition in Plenary Hall at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. November 19, 2014. Freeze Frame of FAO Pool Video

A delegate to the Second International Conference on Nutrition in Plenary Hall at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. November 19, 2014. Freeze Frame of FAO Pool Video

On top of that, how can anyone disagree with their goals – the importance of feeding the hungry is something we can all agree on.  We have sometimes wondered how the FAO seems capable of spending a lot of money on bureaucrats with cushy tax-free jobs, who take forever to come up with elaborate reports on obvious problems, however, overall I think the FAO is a good institution.  I am an even bigger fan of the World Food Programme, but more on that another time.

But back to the coverage of the conference. The first nutrition conference was in 1992 and since then, according to FAO statistics, hunger has dropped by 21 percent. That is great news. However 800 million people still go hungry.  According to FAO statistics, 2.8 million children under age five die of undernutrition every year. That should not happen in 2014. The conference also addressed the question of obesity.  FAO data shows that 42 million children under the age of five are already overweight in 2013,  and in 2010 five hundred  million adults around the globe were affected by obesity.

Clearly there is a lot to work on.

Delegate listening to speeches in FAO Plenary at Second International Conference on Nutritition. November 20, 2014. Freeze frame of FAO pool video.

Delegate listening to speeches in FAO Plenary at Second International Conference on Nutritition. November 20, 2014. Freeze frame of FAO pool video.

The conference came out with the “Rome Declaration on Nutrition”, a wide-ranging report declaring some facts about health and nutrition around the globe.

Here are a few quotes from that: Rome Declaration on Nutrition:

–“epidemics such as the Ebola virus disease, pose tremendous challenges to food security and nutrition.”

–“…need to address the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on food security and nutrition”

–“undernutrition was the main underlying cause of death in children under five, causing 45% of all child deaths in 2013”

–“Family farmers and smallholders, notably women farmers, play an important role in reducing malnutrition…”

–“food losses and waste throughout the food chain should be reduced in order to contribute to food security, nutrition and sustainable development;”

The conference also came up with a Framework for Action which included 60 points on how to tackle nutrition issues.  These included things from “periodic deworming for all school-age children in endemic areas” and “provide iron, and Vitamin A supplementation for pre-school children” to “Conduct appropriate marketing campaigns and lifestyle change communication programs…”

The days were chock-a-block with speeches from representatives around the world – over 170 countries were taking part, so we had to pick and choose.

Pope Francis delivers his speech during the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) second International Conference on Nutrition, in Rome, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.  Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis delivers his speech during the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) second International Conference on Nutrition, in Rome, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

The Pope was perhaps the highlight of the event arriving in the plenary hall today in his white robes and delivering a strong speech in which he decried the “primacy of profit” and “market priorities” that have made food a “commodity” and not a basic human right.  The Pope insisted that the poor should not be “left at the street corner” and declared, “We ask for dignity, not for charity.”

Pope Francis also spoke about the risk to the health of man when the earth is destroyed and earned a loud applause when he noted that, “God always forgives insults and ill-treatment, yes, God always forgives.  Men forgive sometimes, but the earth never forgives. We must take care of Mother Earth so she doesn’t answer with destruction.”

Spain's Queen Letizia claps her hands during  the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) second International Conference on Nutrition, in Rome, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Spain’s Queen Letizia claps her hands during the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) second International Conference on Nutrition, in Rome, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Adding a note of glamour to the event today was Queen Letizia of Spain who wore an elegant tomato-red dress and delivered a passionate speech about the need to combat malnutrition.  She concluded recommending a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and lots of exercise.  She also announced Spain’s commitment to the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action agreed to at the conference on Wednesday.

(As gorgeous as she is, she did seem a bit to me like a cookie-cutter copy of the beautiful and talented Queen Rania of Jordan)

FAO officials said they were pleased by the way in which a group with representatives from 170 countries were so unified in their commitment to combat malnutrition. After the meetings today I spoke to FAO’s Chief Nutritionist, Brian Thompson, who said  it is not about just food, it is about economic and social factors. “The reasons for the persistently high and unacceptable levels of malnutrition in the world today is because of social exclusion, and economic marginalization.”

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