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.

Related posts:

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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November 16, 2014

Triton Update

HELPING THE CHILDREN ON BOAT

Dear Blog Readers –

Here is a quick update to my earlier post (Back to Lampedusa) on visiting the Portuguese ship Viana Do Castelo. When my AP Television colleague Paolo Santalucia and I visited the ship last Wednesday there were no migrant spottings, but on Friday night the ship kicked into action overnight with their first rescue operation.

Migrants' ship next to Portuguese Vessel Viana Do Castelo. Friday, November 14, 2014. Credit: Portuguese Navy

Migrants’ ship next to Portuguese Vessel Viana Do Castelo. Friday, November 14, 2014. Credit: Portuguese Navy

They were sent to rescue a migrant ship under distress 40 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. When they reached the migrants they found 201 people packed on board a small, rickety wooden boat. The Portuguese transferred the migrants to their ship where they provided blankets, water, food and medical assistance. On board were 20 women and 15 children.

Freeze frame of videio of migrants on deck of Portuguese vessel the Viana Do Castelo. November 14, 2014. Credit: Portuguese Navy

Freeze frame of videio of migrants on deck of Portuguese vessel the Viana Do Castelo. November 14, 2014. Credit: Portuguese Navy

Under the operating procedures, the identification of the migrants’ nationalities and any finger-printing is left to the Italian authorities once the migrants reach shore.

On Saturday morning the migrants were transferred to the Italian navy ship, the San Giorgio, which is transporting them to Sicily where they are expected to arrive today (Sunday, November 16th).

The crew sent me these photos of the operation.

A little migrant girl helping a Portuguese sailor fold a blanket on the deck of Viana Do Castelo. November  15, 2014 Credit: Portuguese Navy

A little migrant girl helping a Portuguese sailor fold a blanket on the deck of Viana Do Castelo. November 15, 2014 Credit: Portuguese Navy

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November 14, 2014

Back to Lampedusa

A panoramic photo of the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island)  on Lampedusa, Italy.  November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A panoramic photo of the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) on Lampedusa, Italy. November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers— I am back on Lampedusa – that little slip of an Island that is a closer to Africa than to Italy – the destination for tens of thousands of migrants every year. (See Blog Post: Lampedusa: Europe’s Port).

This time I am back for a story on the beginning of Operation Triton, a joint European effort to patrol the Mediterranean waters around Italy and save migrant ships in distress at sea.  This operation is taking over from Mare Nostrum, the Italian operation which was launched in October 2013, shortly after a migrant ship sunk off the coast of Lampedusa leaving over 300 people dead. (see Blog post: Into the Deep Blue Cemetery off Lampedusa).

Mare Nostrum was a massive effort by the Italian Navy to rescue all boats coming from North Africa.  It cost Italy 9.5 million euros a month and involved five navy ships and five planes.  Over the course of a year (from October 2013 to October 2014) they made 558 rescues and saved 100,250 people. During that period 499 migrants died at sea, 1,446 disappeared and they have been unable to identify 192 cadavers. They also arrested 728 traffickers.

Over the past year, Italy has pushed hard to get Europe to step up and take over the operation of patrolling the coast.  Europe moved slowly, as usual, and Italy quickly developed a policy of letting the migrants move through Italy without being finger-printed so they could claim refugee status in other countries.

A Delta Rescue Boat takes off from the Viana Do Castelo Open Sea Patrol Vessel. November12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A Delta Rescue Boat takes off from the Viana Do Castelo Open Sea Patrol Vessel. November12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

To see Operation Triton in action, the group of journalists from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and the US gathered in the port early and were taken in groups of four on a Dutch patrol boat out to the Portuguese open sea patrol vessel.

As we flew across the rough sea sometimes the nose of the boat seemed like it was going straight up in the air and just as I thought we would flip over backwards, we came crashing back down in the trough before riding up on the next wave. It was slightly unnerving but I figured the Dutch sailors knew what they were doing.  Emma, a British correspondent for The Guardian, told me she had taken some heavy-duty seasickness pill and I was wondering if I should have too as we charged along flying over the tops of the waves and then came plummeting back down.

When we pulled up alongside the Portuguese ship, the Viana Do Castelo, they lowered a rope ladder, which looked easy enough to climb, but with both boats bouncing up and down on the sea it was a challenge.  We all grasped and struggled our way up as the sailors on top reached down to pull us in. Over the course of the day, we had a fascinating look at how their operations work.

A delta rescue boat aboard the Portuguese open sea patrol vessel Viana do Castelo as sailors prepare to lower it into sea. November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A delta rescue boat aboard the Portuguese open sea patrol vessel Viana do Castelo as sailors prepare to lower it into sea. November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Unlike the Italian “Mare Nostrum”, Operation Triton is patrolling a much smaller area – only the 30 nautical miles off the south of Italy’s coast.  Nineteen EU countries are now contributing to the operation and the total cost is 2.9 million euro per month, only a one-third of the cost of the Italian operation.

Portuguese sailor aboard the Viana Do Castelo looks out towards the sea for migrants as his ship sails south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. November 12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Portuguese sailor aboard the Viana Do Castelo looks out towards the sea for migrants as his ship sails south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. November 12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

We interviewed Veronica Sousa, a nurse aboard the ship who told us they were prepared for many eventualities including delivering babies (many migrant women arrive pregnant and some have delivered babies aboard rescue vessels), helping children, dealing with severely dehydrated passengers.  She also explained that they have “sanitary kits” for dealing with migrants that might have infectious diseases such as Ebola. The Triton operation has three large ships and two patrol boats, 2 planes and one helicopter involved in surveillance operations.   As we stood on the deck of the Viana Do Castelo, a Finnish surveillance plane roared past overhead heading out to sea to try to spot migrant ships.

Finnish Surveillance plane taking part in Operation Triton flies past Portuguese patrol vessel south of Lampedusa. November 12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Finnish Surveillance plane taking part in Operation Triton flies past Portuguese patrol vessel south of Lampedusa. November 12, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Back at the airport in Lampedusa, I had a chance to speak to the Finnish pilot Captain Lauri Pakkala of the Finnish Border Guard who explained, they must fly high above the water, never letting the migrants ships see them.  If the migrants on board a ship realize they have been spotted by rescuers, they “might resort to activities that might be dangerous to themselves such as throwing away life jackets or things like that.  They might assume that as soon as they are spotted that they will be rescued quite quickly which might not always be the case.”

During my time on the ship and on shore, I had a chance to talk at length with Izabella Cooper, the spokeswoman for Frontex, the European Agency which oversees joint border control operations.  She has been following the migrant crossings of the Mediterranean for years.  Frontex has teams of de-briefers who speak to the migrants and ask them to volunteer information about the traffickers.  According to Frontex, which has been collecting data for the past seven years, 2014 has had the most migrants with 140,000 arriving on the coasts of Italy from Libya.

Izabella told me ““Libya is a de facto failed state without functioning law enforcement authorities, which creates a bonanza for the smuggling networks to operate.  The smugglers run what we can easily define as a zero-risk, high-profit activity.  They can make up to one million Euros on a boat with up to 450 people on board.”

Freeze frame of Coast Guard video of a migrant ship heading towards Sicily on November 3, 2014.  There were 329 migrants on board.

Freeze frame of Coast Guard video of a migrant ship heading towards Sicily on November 3, 2014. There were 329 migrants on board.

She explained that they have noted a significant increase in brutality and violence on the part of the traffickers.  Apparently some of the migrants arrive at the shore in Libya, see the boat they are supposed to travel on and realize the risk.  If they try to turn back, the traffickers violently force them on board.

Freeze Frame of Italian Navy video of a rubber raft they rescued on August 25, 2014 where they saved 73 migrants and found 18 dead.

According to Izabella,  “if the smugglers see any indication or lack of subordination they react with violence….We are finding there are incidences of stabbings on board and migrants being thrown overboard. They are now even using electric tasers to shock people to keep them calm if they think they are getting agitated.”

Izabella also explained they have discovered a heavy dose of racism in the trafficker’s behavior, “We have indications that black Africans are put below deck and locked in the hold so they can’t get out.  For several days they are forced to breathe the engine fumes.  If there is an accident, there is no way for them to escape.”

Associated Press video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming the boat graveyard on the Italian island of Lampedusa. November 11, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Associated Press video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming the boat graveyard on the Italian island of Lampedusa. November 11, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Back on Lampedusa, my AP Television VJ colleague Paolo Santalucia and I rented an ATV (a four-wheel all terrain vehicle), to buzz around the island talking to the people about how they saw the situation.  We filmed the boat graveyard at the edge of the port where over the years the rotting migrant boats have piled up. We went to the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) –see panoramic photo above_- to see the place where the 366 migrants died last year.  We visited the Holding center on the island, which is now being refurbished, but a year ago was packed with hundreds of migrants.  I was fascinated by the writing on the walls in the women’s dormitory – their names, a dove, a cross, and several women had written “I love you” and the name of a man.

Associated Press video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming fisherman Pasquale Palmisano and another fisherman repairing their nets on a pier in Lampedusa. November 13, 2014

Associated Press video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming fisherman Pasquale Palmisano and another fisherman repairing their nets on a pier in Lampedusa. November 13, 2014

In the port, we found a couple of fisherman repairing their nets because the sea was too rough to go out.  We chatted with them for a while to get  their thoughts on the migrant situation – and I couldn’t help thinking how much they reminded me of fishermen I have seen repairing nets in Gloucester, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine.

Pasquale Palmisano looked up from his work, put a hand on his heart and said in gruff tone, “Mare Nostrum or whatever other name you want to call it, does not change anything at all for us. They must go look for them (migrants) over there, on the other side, on the other shore, it is useless that they leave them in the middle of the sea, the accidents will always happen.”

Lampedusan fisherman Pasquale Palmisano explains how he feels about efforts to rescue migrants. November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Lampedusan fisherman Pasquale Palmisano explains how he feels about efforts to rescue migrants. November 13, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

 

The fisherman of Lampedusa know a thing or two about rescuing migrants, over the years they have rescued many themselves, pulling drowning migrants onto their boats and carrying them to shore.  It was a fisherman who first found the migrants off Rabbit Island.

After that sinking, I interviewed Tadese Fisaha, a 29-year-old survivor from Eritrea.  With tears in his eyes, he told me that when the ship sank, although he did not know how to swim, he managed to tread water for three hours as his family members and friends died around him.  Finally a fisherman arrived and pulled him out of the water.

For the moment, there are many less migrants arriving.  The weather has been bad and the sea is rough, but on Lampedusa the residents wonder what will happen come spring when the weather is warm and the sea is calm.

There is something about Lampedusa that seems like a frontier town, an outpost.  The main street – Via Roma – is a wide deserted avenue with a line of shops and bars that reminds me of a far west ghost town.

A stray dog snoozes in the port of Lampedusa. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 12, 2014

A stray dog snoozes in the port of Lampedusa. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 12, 2014

Stray dogs wander about like they own the place.  Lampedusa residents buzz around on mopeds without bothering with helmets.  For the moment everything is tranquil but I have a feeling I will be back to cover the migrant story again.

Trisha Thomas heading for the plane on the runway in Lampedusa, macbook in one hand, computer bag in the other. Photo by Paolo Santalucia. November 13, 2014

Trisha Thomas heading for the plane on the runway in Lampedusa, Photo by Paolo Santalucia. November 13, 2014

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October 25, 2014

Rome’s Dueling Dancing Duo

Father David Rider and Father John Gibson dancing at the North American College Rome, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Domenico Stinellis (oh, and that is me Trisha Thomas (aka Mozzarella Mamma) in the background.

Father David Rider and Father John Gibson dancing at the North American College Rome, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Domenico Stinellis (oh, and that is me Trisha Thomas (aka Mozzarella Mamma) in the background.

Father David Rider and Father John Gibson pull up creaky chairs on the wooden stage at the North American College and slide off their black work shoes revealing serious black priests’ socks.  Father David slips his feet into metal tipped dancing shoes while Father John laces up his Irish dancing shoes with fiber glass tips and heels.  Father David looks at AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello and says, “tell us when?”  And just like that they are off — tipping, tapping, stomping, twirling and swirling.  They are having a terrific time.

The dueling dancing feet of Father David Rider and Father John Gibson. Freeze frame of video shot by ApTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello. October 2014

The dueling dancing feet of Father David Rider and Father John Gibson. Freeze frame of video shot by ApTN cameraman Paolo Lucariello. October 2014

They repeat their various routines over and over again as Paolo and AP photographer Domenico Stinellis work their way around the stage getting close ups of their feet, their faces and long shots of them together gleefully jumping in the air.  I slip around the stage trying not to get in the way and enjoying every second of it.

All this was for a story that AP ran this week on this fabulous couple of dancing priests in Rome.  Some of you may have already seen the short AP story but here is my longer version:

They tip, they tap, they stomp and jump and twist and twirl.  They are the dueling dancing priests who have gone viral on the web.  It all started with a show last spring at the Rector’s dinner at the North American College – the elite university for American seminarians in Rome.  Twenty-nine year-old Father David Rider from Hyde Park, New York let loose a fabulous routine of tap-dancing.  But after a few minutes another priest made his way up to the stage, Father John Gibson, a 28-year-old from Milwaukee.  Gibson gave Rider a friendly push aside and launched into a round of energetic Irish dancing, bouncing high in the air.  And then they were off and running, taking turns trying to outdo each other while the crowd went wild.

Joan Lewis, the Rome Bureau Chief for Eternal World Television Network was in the back of the room.  She pulled out her ipad and began to film.  That night she posted it on her youtube site “JoansRome” with the title “A MUST SEE TAP DANCE DUEL BY US SEMINARIANS” As she explained to me the other day at the Vatican—in between briefings on the Synod– the clicks started to fly. “It just kept growing and growing…and it has just grown and grown and I know yesterday it was 240,000, so who knows what it is today, it seems to grow by about 5,000 a day.”  (Note: as of today, October 25th, the hits are over one million.)

But with the clicks came the comments, dozens of them.  Several individuals said that the priests should not be dancing under a crucifix sparking a debate.  The comments have now been removed, but there are still 151 thumbs down compared to over 4,000 thumbs up.  Clearly some people have a problem seeing priests dance under a painting of Pope Francis and a large Crucifix.

Father David Rider spinning around in a dance routine at the North American College performance. April 29, 2014. Freeze frame of Video. Credit: Pontifical North American College and Mr. J William Sumner

Father David Rider spinning around in a dance routine at the North American College performance. April 29, 2014. Freeze frame of Video. Credit: Pontifical North American College and Mr. J William Sumner

Joan Lewis was unfazed, “The overwhelming majority approve it.  There was a small group, and then they started writing each other, a small group saying “oh my goodness they are dancing under the crucifix…So those comments, I mean, I read them, they are in a minority, and its just like “oh gosh, I kinda feel sorry for ya.”

Father John Gibson jumping high in an Irish dance routine at the North American College performance. April 29, 2014. Freeze frame of Video. Credit: Pontifical North American College and Mr. J William Sumner

Father John Gibson jumping high in an Irish dance routine at the North American College performance. April 29, 2014. Freeze frame of Video. Credit: Pontifical North American College and Mr. J William Sumner

On a recent morning in Rome, Father David and Father John donned their dancing shoes for a rehearsal at the North American College with Associated Press. Father David had his metal-tipped tap-dancing shoes, and Father John had his fiberglass reinforced tips and heels.   The two of them clipped across the wooden stage in the North American College auditorium as they flew through their routines with energy and passion.  It wasn’t long before they had worked up a sweat in their long black pants and long sleeved black shirts and white collars. Father David told me they would never dance in anything else, “I never dance without my collar on, I always wear these clothes as witness.”

The two men are not quite sure what to make of their newfound fame. “Everyone I talk to nowadays brings up that video, most people are very energetic and enthusiastic about it so it is good to receive that feedback,” said Father John sheepishly, insisting that his real priority in life is becoming a parish priest back in Wisconsin. Father John said he comes from a big Irish family in Milwaukee and it was his sister who first introduced him to the joys of Irish dancing.

Father David Rider's well-worn tap dancing shoes waiting for him to put them on.  Freeze frame of video shot by Paolo Lucariello. October, 2014

Father David Rider’s well-worn tap dancing shoes waiting for him to put them on. Freeze frame of video shot by Paolo Lucariello. October, 2014

Father David Rider started taking tap dancing lessons when he was three, then when he was a young teen he saw Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain” and fell in love with it and decided he wanted to become a tap dancer.   Each young man felt the calling to become a priest in his late teens and decided to make that his top priority, but neither has given up on dancing.

They were both surprised when their dancing duel went viral and were not expecting the negative comments.   “Oh, well some people thought that it is not appropriate for priests to dance,” said Rider, “we would just refer them to the Bible where David dances before the Ark of the Covenant and the Lord tells us to live with joy. This is a great way to express joy.”

Both priests have completed their seminarian course and are busy getting graduate degrees now at other Pontifical Universities in Rome, but they have not given up the dancing.  According to Father David,  “ Because there is not too much precedent for tap dancing priests, I have no one to look to see how this all works out. So really it is all to be discovered.”

Note to Blog Readers: Unfortunately, I cannot attach the AP Television report we did because it is for AP TV clients only, but here is a shortened version  for AP’s on-line video service.

DANCING PRIESTS – AP ONLINE VIDEO VERSION

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October 16, 2014

Seventh Versus Eighth and the Purple Undies

Settimo resting near the bench in our park in Rome. Photo by Chiara Piga

Settimo resting near the bench in our park in Rome. Photo by Chiara Piga

Dear Blog Readers –

I am drowning in the Vatican’s Synod on the Family — ever since the Relatio (preliminary document) came out on Monday, the conservatives are blaming the progressives for going to far and the progressives are blaming the press for spinning the story.  Members of the press are interviewing other members of the press and asking them who is to blame and who is spinning what.  The Sala Stampa della Santa Sede (the Vatican Press office) is bombarding the press with documents in Italian, English, French and Spanish, everything seems translated in different ways and it is becoming a bit of a free for all.  This weekend is the end of round one, so I will attempt something more thoughtful after that.

In the meantime, I am going to tell you about some real spinning I was doing this week.

Yesterday was one of those mornings that most of us have sooner or later when you can’t find a decent pair of underwear in your underwear drawer.  So, half asleep,  I went digging around in the back of the drawer and pulled out a pair of gigantic, nun-size and style, purple underwear.  Whatever.   Put them on and went to work and didn’t think any more about it.

(I actually remember why I have that dreadful underwear.  I bought them at Remy’s in Bridgton, Maine when I arrived there from Italy on vacation and realized I hadn’t packed any underwear.  Anyone who has been to Remy’s in Bridgton, Maine knows it is not exactly Victoria’s Secret.  You could tackle a moose in that underwear and you wouldn’t even get a wedgie.  Actually a moose could probably wear that underwear.)

I got home late from work and obviously no one had walked the dog so I grabbed him, shuffled down to the park and plopped my tired tail on a park bench.  Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that my dog’s name is Settimo (which means seventh in Italian), and we call him “Set” for short.   And if you read this blog regularly, you are well aware that Settimo is a total wimp.  (see blog posts: Doggy Blues or Settimo Cielo and Vampire Mamma).

As I was seated on the park bench I got a phone call and I began chatting.  Settimo snuffled around — he should be a truffle hunting dog, all he likes to do is sniff around– never straying far from my bench.  As I spoke, I noticed a great big, chocolate-brown bull-dog heading across the park.  The dog looked mean and he wasn’t on a leash.   There was a young woman trailing along behind him.  I couldn’t help noticing that the big bulldog was lifting his leg and peeing on about everything in sight as he headed our way.  Talk about a virile male letting us know it is his territory.  Settimo noticed him too and came and sat close to me.  I continued to chat but held his little harness-collar.

And then it happened — the bull-dog charged, I tried to hold Settimo and suddenly I  found myself spinning like a top on the ground between these two dogs, desperately trying to hold Settimo to keep him from escaping straight out of the park, and madly trying to push away the bull-dog and keep him from eating Set for dinner.  I was spinning amid a cacophony of yelps and barks and growls.  And, in the middle of all this spinning, it occurred to me that my dress had flown up and my purple underwear was exposed to the whole world.  Oh horrors!

Then the young woman arrived and dragged off her dog and a crowd gathered around and stared down at me on the ground clutching onto my hopelessly frightened cocker and trying to get my dress back in place.  My sunglasses had flown in one direction, my cell phone in another, my purse in another, and I was missing an earring.  I was bleeding on my elbow and my ankle.

The bull-dog lady took her dog a short distance away. I got up, got Settimo back on his leash (he was fine) and everyone began looking for my earring.   Suddenly the bull-dog lady was back declaring, “I have to bring him back, he can’t get away with this, he needs to learn, let’s try again to see if they can get along.”  Fortunately, I didn’t have to open my mouth, several people shooed her away.

This morning I bumped into my dog-walker friend Lucia as I was heading to work.  She immediately asked if Settimo was ok.  Although she had not witnessed the event, word apparently travels fast among the dog-owners in our park.  I told her Settimo was fine and she said, “funny about that, Otto is usually such a sweet dog.”

“Otto — so that was the name of the bull-dog,”  I thought. (Otto means eight in Italian) How strange Eighth versus Seventh and the Spinning Mamma in the middle.

Moral of the story:  Don’t wear your purple nun underwear when you walk your dog

(post-script: If there are any nuns reading this, I hope I am not offending you. If you feel your undergarments have been incorrectly described or unjustly maligned, you can feel free to correct me in a comment)

 

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