August 30, 2015

The Titanic Vacation

Titanic prow scene with Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet.

Titanic prow scene with Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet.

I could make a  series of movies titled “Titanic Vacations with my Family” staring my husband, of course, the frustrated, middle-aged man secretly in love with that rather mechanical woman inside his car navigator who occasionally re-routes but never talks back and he can always turn off during moments of tension.

That navigatrice is in sharp contrast with the best unsupporting actress played by me, the irritating, middle-aged wife who is always convinced she is right, and won’t re-route or be turned off.

(In case you missed my last vacation post, here it is: Family Road Trip with 3 Teens – Recipe for Disaster) Perhaps this summer’s film could be called “Seeing Red.”

This year we did a beach vacation in Sardinia followed by a mountain vacation in the Italian Alps. Fabulous locations and we did have some delightful moments, so I shouldn’t complain. But for the sake of the blog, I will share a few dramatic details.

The day before we left for the beach, I stopped by the coffee bar near my office. I told the barista (the coffee-bar tender) that I would be catching the overnight ferry to Sardinia for a week’s vacation at the beach with my family.

“Oh, that is soooo romantic,” he declared.

“Romantic???” I replied, “I don’t see anything romantic about a middle-aged couple and their teenagers and dog in a packed station wagon catching the overnight ferry to Sardinia.

“Oh, come on,” he insisted, displaying an Italian flair for drama and romance, “I can just see you and your husband standing on the prow of the ship, him holding on to you just like that guy does with the woman in Titanic.”

“Yeah, right,” I laughed, “if my husband ever managed to get me in that position, he would be tempted to give me a quick shove and dump me into the deep.”

The barista gasped in horror, but I could see he was secretly enjoying my tragic tale.

“As a matter of fact, if my husband were likely to be holding any creature on the prow in the middle of the night it would probably be our cocker spaniel Set hoping that he will do his business off-deck.”

 

Our dog Set doing his best to fit in with the jet-set on the beach on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. August 2015

Our dog Set doing his best to fit in with the jet-set on the beach on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. August 2015

This summer is the first time we have brought our dog on all our vacations and he certainly makes matters more complicated.

Set trying to be a cool mountain dog in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps. August 2015

Set trying to be a cool mountain dog in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps. August 2015

What my barista buddy didn’t realize is that our marital bickering usually begins before we even leave. As with most men, my husband has this hang-up about being the only one who can pack the car properly.

“If you just switched around those two suitcases and slid that box to the back then I am sure it would all fit,” said the un-supporting actress (me) as the film’s hero (my husband) was shoving the last few items in the back of the station wagon.

Instead of listening to the un-supporting actress’ suggestion the hero took out the box and told his wife she could hold it on her lap. So with dog at her feet, and box in her lap, the un-supporting actress began her journey to Sardinia already ticked off and uncomfortable.

Then there was the question of how 2 teenage girls pack for the beach. Here is more or less what they bring: 5 bathing suits, 20 colors of nail polish, nail polish remover, cell phones, chargers, and an Ipad. They forget their toothbrushes and flip-flops. The 20-something son avoids the vacation with his family at all costs, but eventually when he shows up for a few days, this is what he has in his knapsack: his cellphone (forgets the charger), the pair of jeans, t-shirt, and the sneakers he is wearing and, of course, an empty wallet. No need for anything else (mooches cellphone charger and money off sisters and parents).

The “romantic” ferry trip over to Sardinia consisted of huddling on armchairs shivering and freezing in the air-conditioning all night while taking turns with the dog on deck. As the unsupporting actress shivered, she listened to the chorus of snorers all around her. Around 3am the snoring of one man crashed out on a couch nearby became so vociferous that the unsupporting actress and her daughter burst into an hysterical, uncontrollable bout of the giggles as they contemplated the best way to silence him.

In the first moment of high tension in the film, the family discovered there was no wifi at the beach residence they rented. This leads to much anguish. When our hero insists that the teenagers read the books that he has conveniently brought along – Stendhal’s “The RED and the Black”, Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” and a few others – there is near mutiny. (Note: I did not make those titles up to go with my post — he really did bring them — just ask my daughter Chiara)

laferrari

DRIVING. Our Italian hero drives the full station wagon with teenagers, dog and best-unsupporting actress as though he were at the wheel of a red Ferrari on a racecar circuit. This is particularly aggravating for the unsupporting actress who nags and scolds and nearly pulls out her hair, particularly when the hero passes campers on hair-pin turns in the Italian alps while talking on his cell phone.   After some nasty spats and close calls, the unsupporting actress insists that she will drive which causes some existential difficulties for our hero who clearly feels emasculated, but who overcomes this turn of events by making 100 urgent work phone calls from the car, mostly bossing his poor secretary around.

The unsupporting actress feels a little sorry for the secretary but then realizes the secretary is not on vacation with the hero so she can hang up and ignore.

If the station wagon only had a James Bond eject seat, it would have been the perfect vacation. Our hero – complete with cell phone and secretary on the other end – would have been ejected from the car and burst out over the Italian Alps. With his cell phone in hand, his red parachute would open as he calmly finished his chat and floated down the valley into the alpine village.

Hello Jennifer

Once back in Rome, the best unsupporting actress decides to add one last challenge to her August by helping out her son prepare for his driver’s test which he has conveniently scheduled for the end of the summer. She figures her old, wrecked Fiat Punto can handle the ravages of a driver who really doesn’t know how to use the clutch yet. (For American readers, all Italian cars have clutches and gears which require a little more training to learn how to drive). In one of the most dramatic, hair-raising scenes of this film mother and son set out in the empty city of Rome on a hot end-of-August day.

They jolt along as son speeds up to get into third gear, only to jolt and jump back down to second gear to get to the next stop sign. At the first red light they sit calmly waiting for it to turn green. By the time it turns green, there are three or four cars waiting behind the Fiat, which creates a bit of anxiety in the young driver. He is ready – car in gear, left foot on the clutch, right foot on the accelerator. Green!! KABAMMM—We jolt forward and stall out. Our young driver desperately turns the key over too far to re-start the car, tries the clutch and accelerator maneuver again and KABAMM—we stall again.

The cars behind start to honk. The un-supporting actress sticks her arm out the window to wave them around. Nico yells “MOM—YOU ARE MAKING ME NERVOUS!! IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT. THIS NEVER HAPPENS WITH ANYONE ELSE, THIS WOULDN’T HAPPEN IF YOU WEREN’T HERE!!!”

Three cars swerve around the tense sweaty pair, one yelling something rude out the window before zipping through the yellow light. The light has turned red again. We sit. Nico fumes.

He prepares again for the light to turn green anxiously making sure the car is in first gear, getting his foot on the clutch and the other hovering over the accelerator. The light turns green, KABAMM, we stall out again. He turns the key over, screeching the engine and tries again. KABAMM.

The unsupporting actress tries to breath deeply and stay calm.

A car pulls around the Fiat and then stops. A man gets out of his car and kindly asks if the Fiat needs a push. The frustrated driver and the unsupporting actress put on their sweetest fake smiles and say “No, Thank you, we are ok”.

Several green lights later, the Fiat Punto finally goes hiccupping through and charges forward racing up to third gear as son lets loose again –“YOU CAN’T SAY ANYTHING. DON’T TELL ME ANYTHING!!! YOU ARE NOT HELPING!!!”

The unsupporting actress holds her tongue, and her stomach, as they bounce around blocks and stop signs in a nearly empty neighborhood. The driver seems to hate first gear and will do anything to avoid it, whipping around corners in third to avoid switching down. The unsupporting actress makes a few suggestions on corners and gear changes, earning the wrath of the frustrated driver. He screeches to a stop and asks her to stand on a street corner while he goes around a few blocks to try to calm down.

In the shade of a tree on a street corner in the empty city of Rome, the unsupporting actress sends a text message to a friend, “I think I am going to kill my son. Teaching him how to drive is torture!”

The car comes rumbling back, driver seems calmer and the best unsupporting actress gets back in. The peace does not last for long – hiccupping, jolting with the driver yelling and the unsupporting actress trying to make suggestions and remain calm, they continue for another half an hour. The poor old Fiat has no air-conditioning and it is about 95 degrees in the car. The driver and the unsupporting actress are drenched in sweat.

red light in rome

Suddenly the unsupporting actress sees two traffic cops giving a ticket near a merge sign.

“STOP at the merge!!” she orders. “THERE ARE TRAFFIC COPS!!”

“I CAN’T STOP!!!” yells the driver, always terrified of slowing down and having to use first gear.

“STOP, I SAID STOPPPP!!!” yells the un-supporting actress. “CAN’T YOU SEE THERE ARE CARS COMING ON LUNGOTEVERE!!”

The car screeches to a halt. Miraculously the traffic cops are busy harassing someone else and don’t notice the drama going on nearby. A few cars pull up behind the Fiat adding to the tension. Thankfully the driver manages to move forward in first gear, hiccupping slightly, and merge onto Lungotevere without hitting another car. They pass the traffic cops before the driver launches into another tirade against the unsupporting actress.

“WHY? WHY? WHY? DO YOU DO THAT?? I WAS JUST FINE. I COULD HAVE HANDLED THAT AND YOU SCREWED ME UP!!”

He went on for a few minutes as the unsupporting actress stewed.   Sweat was running down her back. Three traffic lights later, she lost it. In the final scene of our vacation film “Seeing Red”, the best unsupporting actress told the driver (her son) in no uncertain terms that he would have to teach himself how to drive. She got out of the car and slammed the door.

“NO, YOU CAN’T LEAVE ME HERE!” shouted the driver acting momentarily like a classic Italian son with his Mamma.

“YES I CAN!!” she yelled over her shoulder, acting finally acting like a typical American Mom, and started walking home.

The light turned green, the car lurched and lunged forward and then raced up to third gear.

And the film ends with the unsupporting actress, all alone, sweaty, but relieved and happy, walking through the empty streets of Rome.

POSTSCRIPT:

As the film credits roll past we can see the best unsupporting actress getting in her car the next morning to find – no gas, a nearly flat tire, and a parking ticket for 30 euros. But that is another story.

Ah, the office never looked so good.

woman hugging computerPOST-POST SCRIPT:

For my mother and any others who are watching my English for me, I do know that the correct adjective is “unsupportive”.  I am just playing off the Oscar Award “Best Supporting Actress”

 

 

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August 22, 2015

Rose Petals Raining on Rome

raining rose petals

Rose petals launched from a low-flying helicopter fluttered down from the sky over hundreds of teary-eyed friends of an alleged criminal clan boss on Thursday at a funeral in Rome.

A carriage pulls up in front of the Don Bosco church in Rome with the casket of clan boss Vittorio Casamonica. August 20, 2015. Credit: ANSA

A carriage pulls up in front of the Don Bosco church in Rome with the casket of clan boss Vittorio Casamonica. August 20, 2015. Credit: ANSA

The casket arrived in an elaborate black carriage with gold trimmings fit for Cinderella. Six black horses with black plumed headdresses pulled the carriage, as a coachman with a black top hat reined them in front of the large, modern Don Bosco church in the Tuscolano neighborhood of Rome.

Coachman of horse-drawn carriage carrying casket with Vittorio Casamonica to his funeral in Rome. August 20, 2015

Coachman of horse-drawn carriage carrying casket with Vittorio Casamonica to his funeral in Rome. August 20, 2015

A marching band complete with horns and trumpets struck up the theme song to the “The Godfather” as dozens of men pulled the wooden coffin from the carriage and carried it above their heads into the church.

Poster of Vittorio Casamonica, head of the Casamonica criminal clan, outside Don Bosco Church in Rome. August 20, 2015. Credit: ANSA

Poster of Vittorio Casamonica, head of the Casamonica criminal clan, outside Don Bosco Church in Rome. August 20, 2015. Credit: ANSA

On the doorway to the church huge posters showed Vittorio Casamonica, the 65-year-old head of the Casamonica clan, dressed in white, looking rather Pope-like, with a cross at his neck. His image hovered over a photo of the Colosseum and another of St. Peter’s Basilica with the simple words at the bottom “King of Rome.”

Casket of Vittorio Casamonica being carried out of church after funeral in Rome. Poster reads in Italian "You conquered Rome, now you will conquer paradise." Thursday, August 20, 2015. Photo from newspaper

Casket of Vittorio Casamonica being carried out of church after funeral in Rome. Thursday, August 20, 2015. Poster reads in Italian “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer paradise.” Photo from newspaper clipping

Another poster showing the Pope-like image of Vittorio Casamonica declared, “You conquered Rome, and now you will conquer paradise.”

As the 600 mourners emerged from the church to slide the casket into a large Rolls-Royce, the helicopter flew above them releasing clouds of red rose petals.

Helicopter flies low over Rome releasing rose petals over the funeral over clan boss Vittorio Casamonica. August 20, 2015. Freeze frame of video.

Helicopter flies low over Rome releasing rose petals over the funeral over clan boss Vittorio Casamonica. August 20, 2015. Freeze frame of video.

Some 200 cars took part in the funeral cortege, including reportedly 12 pick-up trucks filled with funeral flower wreaths, and dozens of mourners on motor-cycles without helmets (riding with out a helmet is illegal in Rome, but that is a minor detail). The Casamonica clan has been accused of drug dealing, prostitution, usury and extortion.

Romans are still reeling in shock over the funeral with the details filling the newspapers and dominating the TV newscasts. Politicians and government bureaucrats are doing a lot of finger-pointing trying to blame each other for this ostentatious show.

The extravagant funeral comes at a bad time for the city which has been struggling with what has become known as “Mafia Capitale” a criminal gang which has for years filled the pockets of city bureaucrats to get public contracts and then skimmed off funds intended for everything from park maintenance to housing for migrants.

In recent years as the illegal group gained power, the city of Rome has shown clear signs of decay with garbage gathering on street corners, rotting fallen trees in overgrown parks and dysfunctional public transportation services.

A maxi-trial for 59 defendants in the “Mafia Capitale” case is scheduled to start on November 5th at a prison in Rome. Police indicated that while the Casamonica clan is considered to run illegal activities in the southwest part of Rome, Vittorio Casamonica has not been involved in the “Mafia Capitale” case.

I personally have been to the Don Bosco church twice. Once inside for a far humbler funeral for the father of a friend who lives in that neighborhood, and another time outside for a protest when the Catholic church refused to allow a funeral inside for Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian activist and writer in the advanced stages of muscular dystrophy who had a doctor sedate him and pull his breathing tube, allowing him to die. The Catholic Church refused to allow him a funeral saying his choice of euthanasia was against church doctrine.

On Friday, the priest at the Don Bosco church vigorously defended his decision to allow the funeral of Vittorio Casamonica claiming he was only alerted the night before to the event and was unaware of the extravagant fanfare around the funeral. He said he would do it again.

Italy’s civil aviation authority has suspended the license of the helicopter pilot saying he broke regulations by flying too low and dropping objects from his aircraft.

I am on vacation in the Italian Alps now, but I can’t wait to go back to Rome and check out Vittorio Casamonica’s tomb at Rome’s Verano cemetery.

Interestingly, the horse-drawn carriage is not a novelty for funeral among organized crime figures.  In 1962 American Mafia boss Lucky Luciano died while visiting Naples.  He was given an elaborate funeral with similar carriage.  Check out these freeze frames of the video clip of the funeral I found in the AP archive.  Anyone interested in seeing the full clip should go to aparchive.com and search “Lucky Luciano’s Funeral”

Freeze frame of video from AP archive footage of the funeral of Mafia boss Lucky Luciano.  January 1962, Naples, Italy

Freeze frame of video from AP archive footage of the funeral of Mafia boss Lucky Luciano. January 1962, Naples, Italy

Freeze frame of video from AP archive footage of the funeral of Mafia boss Lucky Luciano.  January 1962, Naples, Italy

Freeze frame of video from AP archive footage of the funeral of Mafia boss Lucky Luciano. January 1962, Naples, Italy

Any blog readers interested on some of my earlier posts on the Mafia, Italian Funerals,  the Catholic Church and the Mafia, and Italian politicians and the mafia should check out the below posts:

Mafia Claws Sinking into Weak Flesh

Dressed in Black

A Mobster’s Secrets – Taken to the Grave

The Catholic Church and the Mafia

Divine Julius

Excommunicating Mobsters is not that Simple

POSTSCRIPT -AUGUST 24, 2015

I just love the Roman sense of humor.  Today the paper shows a middle-aged woman from the Tuscolano neighborhood holding a sign outside the Don Bosco church that made me laugh out loud.  It says the following:

“Tuscolana is in Chaos…Buses are blocked, the funeral cortege is escorted by the traffic cops from the City of Rome.  The Mayor: “I didn’t know…I will ask…I wasn’t around, and if I had been, I would have been sleeping.”  The Priest: “I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t see the posters, I didn’t hear anything.” YAH, RIGHT, AND I AM NAOMI CAMPBELL!!!

 

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July 29, 2015

Being Berlusconi – Italy’s Donald Trump

The cover of "Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga" By Michael Day

The cover of “Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga” By Michael Day

As American businessman Donald Trump steals the US election campaign show, dominating the press coverage and moving to the top of the polls among Republicans in the primary, many American intellectuals are asking how this buffoon can be so successful.

Frank Bruni, New York Times op-ed writer and former correspondent in Rome, recently wrote a piece titled “The Dolce Donald Trump” pointing out the similarities between Trump and long time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Bruni is so good, I am going to quote a chunk:

“Aren’t they essentially the same man? The same myth? They have the same obsession with their wealth. Same need to crow about it. Same belief that it’s the irrefutable measure of their genius. Same come-on to countrymen: If I enriched myself, I can enrich you. They’re priapic twins, identical in their insistence on being seen as paragons of irresistible lust. If hideously sexist utterances ensue, so be it. Loins before decency. Pheromones over good sense. And the vanity. Oh, the vanity….”

“Those Italians whose art we bow down before and whose food we fetishize… repeatedly elected him, so that he could actually do what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground….

“Trumpusconi is a study in the peril and pitfalls of unchecked testosterone and tumescent avarice. It’s a commentary on wealth in the Western world: how ardently certain blowhards pursue it, how much the rest of us forgive in those who attain it, how thoroughly we equate money and accomplishment.

It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy.”

Well if anyone might be wondering what kind of tragedy Bruni might be talking about, all you have to do is read Michael Day’s excellent new book “Being Berlusconi: The Rise & Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga.”

Michael Day has been Italy correspondent for “The Independent” for the last six years. During this time he has seen Berlusconi up close and witnessed the damage he wreaked on the country. For those who don’t remember, Silvio Berlusconi served as Italian Prime Minister three times between 1994 and 2011, while owning three private TV channels and dominating the three public ones.  He has also long been one of Italy’s richest men.

In “Being Berlusconi” Day goes beyond his years in Italy and reaches back to the beginning of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s career taking the reader through all the illegal and legal, brilliant and idiotic twists and turns made by one man to become the richest, most powerful man in Italy for two decades.

Michael Day, journalist and author of "Being Berlusconi" on the roof of Milan's Cathedral while covering Silvio Berlusconi receiving the "Grande Milano" award.  Milan,  July 19, 2010.

Michael Day, journalist and author of “Being Berlusconi” on the roof of Milan’s Cathedral while covering Silvio Berlusconi receiving the “Grande Milano” award. Milan, July 19, 2010.

Day’s prologue describes covering Berlusconi at an award ceremony on the top of Milan’s Duomo (see photo above) and introduces the reader to Day’s trenchant style, “Pretty young stewards armed with clipboards and insect repellent welcomed politicians, journalists and hoary TV celebrities, some accompanied by young female companions tottering in six-inch heels, as they stepped onto the roof of the Cathedral. The sun sank and the eastern sky turned mauve, but the mercury didn’t budge from the 86-degree mark. Swarms of mosquitos danced around sweating guests, whose eyes darted around anxiously—and in vain—for evidence of a bar.”

Day goes on to describe how Berlusconi – who loves the sound of his own voice– launched into a lengthy speech singing his own praises and attacking Italy’s judges.

“Sitting at the far end of the ceremony with other journalists, I felt my shirt stick to my back in a big wet patch as I turned to a reporter from “La Repubblica” and asked how long she thought the speech would last.”

“Forever,” she scowled.

Both reading the book and living through it, it seemed like Berlusconi’s grip on Italy was going to last forever.

I met with Michael Day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Rome today to talk to him about writing the book. I asked him what impression Berlusconi made on him when he saw him in person. “He was just like I expected,” Day replied, “Short and orange.” Berlusconi is 5 feet tall and constantly covered in a orangey color face make-up presumably to make him look young and tan.

In “Being Berlusconi” Day takes the reader carefully and meticulously through Berlusconi’s professional life detailing how he moved from cruise-ship crooner, vacuum cleaner salesman, and real-estate mogul to TV tycoon and finally to Prime Minister with the help of a few corrupt cronies who paid off judges and cozied up to the Mafia, and sleazy politicians who filled their pockets and bent the laws to help their friend Silvio.

Day uses his poisoned pen with glee, displaying a verbal virtuosity in his approach to anyone in Italian politics over the past 30 years and just about anyone else who brushed up with Berlusconi. Day starts with Berlusconi who gets summed up more or less as the “devil” in the first pages of the book, he moves on to “medieval moralists at the Vatican”, “officials in Brussels” choking on their “long, Michelin-starred lunches,” “pompous bureaucrats at RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a“corrupt politician” and a “power hungry pragmatist and bully”, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi “a mumbling economics professor”, “Britain’s freeloading first couple Tony and Cherie Blair” and Mother Teresa “not the saint she would have us believe.” Day also runs down a list of “The mogul’s “important friends” – Bush (dunce), Clinton (liar), Putin (tyrant) and Chirac (crook)…”. Ouch.

But Day’s sometimes snarky comments are often bulls-eyes.

Here is Day’s take on Berlusconi’s appointment of Mara Carfagna to Minister for Equal Opportunity “…the quintessential female appointment in Berlusconi’s third government. This strikingly attractive brunette from Naples had been a topless model and a dancer on one of Berlusconi’s tacky TV shows; she was a shoo-in for Equal Opportunities Minister.”

I asked Day about his take-no-prisoners style as he tossed back a caffe’ macchiato. He said that he developed that style working for “The Independent”  which “allows me to write as I like, to be fairly opinionated. Its readership is quite well-informed and I think it expects me to tell things as they are. I don’t have an agenda. But I think you have to take a position, and being completely even-handed in extreme situations isn’t really appropriate, not when things are completely skewed.”

Despite his sometimes scathing criticism of what happens in the bel paese, Day does not hide his passion for Italy, “This country is mad, but it is beautiful. I love Italy and it has loads and loads of things going for it, but I don’t think I would be doing Italy or anyone a favor by downplaying any of the things I criticize.”

There are a few people who escape Day’s withering prose – Ilda Boccassini, the Milan Prosecutor who has tackled the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia in Northern Italy, and who went after Berlusconi for the illegal behavior surrounding his bunga bunga parties which eventually led to his trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and using his power to cover it up. Day describes Boccassini as “the famously dogged Neapolitan magistrate…whose unrelenting efforts had ensured that Cosa Nostra killers…were brought to justice.” He describes her physically as “small and olive skinned, with fiery red hair and a temper to match…” (See my blog post on her “The Italian Tiger Mamma”)

Berlusconi’s second wife Veronica Lario also gets a good rap from Day. Throughout the book she seems like one of the only honest, level-headed people around, and the only one who managed to see through the manipulative charms of her husband and get the best of him. (See my blog post on her “Veronica’s Revenge.”)

It would be impossible to do a book about Berlusconi without diving into the sludge that was his sordid sexual habits. Day gives due attention to the salacious details of Berlusconi’s sex life as the billioniare politician descended into an abyss of squalid behavior with the so-called “bunga bunga” parties with dozens of young girls performing sexual acts for Berlusconi and his cronies. (I have reported on this myself in numerous stories for AP and on blog posts: Berlusconi’s Babes – Part II , Walk on Cadavers and Sell Your Mother, The End of Italy’s Bunga Bunga EraBerlusconi gets a 7 year Sentence”)

Day takes a stab at journalists too who gleefully covered what became known as the “Bunga Bunga” trial: “for reporters, it was like eating a whole box of chocolates at once, with sleaze, prostitution and national security concerns.” He’s right. It was a chocolate high.

Despite his withering descriptions, Day has been effective in frequently pointing out Berlusconi’s brilliance, noting in the first pages, “It’s a testament to Berlusconi genius as a businessman and politician—and key to his popular and vicarious appeal—that he started with very little and rose to become Italy’s richest man and dominate its politics for two decades”

Throughout the book Day describes Berlusconi’s sense of loyalty to everyone from his first wife to his corrupt cronies. Day also explores in some detail Berlusconi’s talent for understanding the average Italian. As a young businessman Berlusconi understood that TV viewers didn’t want education and culture on TV, they wanted lowbrow fare. This seemingly obvious conclusion made Silvio Berlusconi a rich man. Berlusconi also understood that his womanizing could appeal to many Italian men. According to Day, ““Berlusconi’s womanizing and ostentatious wealth gave many middle-aged Italians a vicarious thrill.”

Reading “Being Berlusconi,” someone who has not spent time in Italy might pause and think “no, it is not possible,” “how could it be so,” “Day is exaggerating.” And yet as a fellow journalist who has covered Berlusconi for decades I can say, “it is true, I was there too.” And at AP television we have a lot of video in our archive of Silvio Berlusconi doing many of the things described so comprehensively in “Being Berlusconi.” There are the absurd gaffes – calling President Barack Obama “sun-tanned”, telling German MP Martin Sculz he would make a good Nazi prison camp guard, and hanging out with Muammar Gaddafi, not to mention his physical appearance and transformations – the face-lifts, the hair transplants and hair piece, and the odd orangey face make-up.

These days life is a bit rough for Berlusconi.  His Forza Italia party is crumbling to pieces, he is banned from public office, he has been convicted of tax fraud, and even had to serve time doing community service with alzheimer’s patients.  His spends his free time with his new companion, the 30-year-old Francesca Pascale and her fluffy, white poodle Dudu.  But the man continues to make news.  Word got out last week that speaking at a dinner with some Forza Italia party members Berlusconi said that his friend Vladimir Putin had offered him Russian citizenship and a job as Minister of the Economy.  I ignored the comment when it came up in the papers.  Next thing I knew my London editors wanted a story on it.

Like Donald Trump, Berlusconi comments continue to draw media attention even when they do not merit it.

I asked Day if he thought the comparison to Donald Trump is apt. Day argued that “Berlusconi has a hell of a lot more ability.  Trump its just crass and crude.  Trump also really believes in right wing politics, he is an ideologue.  But although Berlusconi has a kind of innate political ability — to connect with people –he was never an ideologue.  He would have joined the communist party if it could have helped save his business and keep him out of jail.”

And then Day couldn’t resist one of his zingers- “and at least the dead animal on Berlusconi’s head is glued down; with Trump you are not sure if it is going to jump off and bite you.”

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July 7, 2015

Why NO is Good for Greece

A supporter of the No vote waves a Greek flag in front of the parliament after the results of the referendum at Syntagma square in Athens, Sunday, July 5, 2015. Greeks overwhelmingly rejected creditors’ demands for more austerity in return for rescue loans in a critical referendum Sunday, backing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who insisted the vote would give him a stronger hand to reach a better deal. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Dear Blog Readers — my blog buddy Adri Barr Crocetti of www.adribarrcrocetti.com asked me to ask my husband, Gustavo Piga, an economist who teaches at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, to give his opinion on my blog about the Greek referendum.  Gustavo’s response is below.

Some American readers asked me to shed some light on the unlikely turn of events in Europe these days. I thank them for this opportunity. I will ask them to be patient with me if it seems I am taking the long road to reach my point.

It turns out that another country, the USA, involved in creating a credible and long-lasting monetary union, handled a similar situation better, much better. By understanding how it worked it out, we might in the process figure out more clearly the reasons of the current standstill.

Some United States financial history is therefore needed, so please bear with me. One has to travel back more than a century ago, in the first century of the United States’ monetary union, we might call them the “early years” of a United States Monetary Union, just like in Europe today: many different states, with very different cultures and beliefs, much more so than today.

So let us go back in time, to … Tennessee, 19th century, a state certainly neither too rich nor productive, yesterday like today, within the borders of the United States. We will go to a specific point in time, 1872, when the State of Tennessee was facing tough repayment problems with its public debt. It would actually take 12 years to sort them out and this is the short tale of what happened and why and how it ended.

To understand why the problems of Tennessee’s government budgets arose, let us go back even further, to 1850, quite a bit of time before the crisis erupted. Just like many other States in the US, Tennessee launched itself in a heavy program of public investment to sustain productivity in its local economy, mainly through the development of railroads. Differently from other States, however, it went at it by borrowing money on the market and lending it back to private railroad companies in exchange for collateral such as stock, bonds and contracts of those same companies.

Until 1865 everything was running smoothly: loans were largely well-allocated and the cost of debt was compensated by interest revenues from companies.

Minor parenthesis and a first parallel between Greece and Tennessee: for those who say that Greece has always been an underperforming economy, a shameful black sheep in the honest family of European countries, think again. Indeed, the management consulting firm McKinsey reports that between 1999 and 2009 annual productivity growth was: USA +2%, EU +1,1%, Continental EU +1,6%, Southern EU +0,7%, Northern EU +1,6%, Greece +2,4% !

Woman getting money from bank machine in Greece with NO written on wall. Credit: The Telegraph

Let us go back to growing–Tennessee. In 1865, suddenly, everything unraveled: following the first crisis due to the end of the Civil War and a series of loans to the wrong companies, fraud and corruption, the State of Tennessee found itself to be the owner of valueless paper credit and collateral.

Notice: we are talking about a crisis that was born both from internal mistakes and external circumstances, a parallel that again allows us to compare Greece today and Tennessee back then. (Greece was hit by the consequences of the 2007 financial crisis and also by the discovery of its window-dressing of public accounts during the entry in the Euro in the early 2000s)

Cumulated debt in Tennessee rose to very high levels. All of a sudden, however, between 1872 and 1883, it halved from 40 to 20 million dollars. What had happened?

Tennessee defaulted. The State declared it could not repay its debts. Yes, a default, contrary to what has happened so far in Greece. Ah ha! A first difference here emerges, you might say. Indeed. How did this Tennessee default come about? It came about after a lengthy but democratic process.

The Democratic Party of the time – dominant across Tennessee – was divided across two party-lines: the State Credit Wing – favorable to debt repayment to creditors (internal and external to the State) and the Low Tax Wing – favorable to save a heavy burden to local taxpayers. Well, it turns out that taxpayers won and default occurred, with a loss for the creditors, including New York bankers and all those United States citizens that had taken the risk to lend to Tennessee.

The then President of the United States, Ulysses Grant, did not care that much for the internal drama of Tennesseans nor of the markets. He actually did the right thing: he left it up to the citizens of Tennessee to decide what to do with the debt, even if a potential default would have somewhat endangered the already full pockets of a few rich bankers in the state of New York.

This did not happen in Greece. Europe got involved in the relationship between foreign investors and Greece and decided to contradict its initial constitutional rule of “no-bail out”. It bailed out (reckless?) banks that had lent to Greece at the beginning of the 21st century, and took charge of the Greek debt. All of a sudden Greek creditors from private actors had become European taxpayers.

Graffiti on wall in Greece of funeral procession with a 100 Euro bill Credit: www.ekathimerini.com/resources/2015-07/

And European governments started asking Greece to do all the wrong policies: extreme austerity was ordered from above (something Tennessee citizens would have never allowed then), Gross Domestic Product and employment in Greece collapsed and, guess what, public debt over GDP skyrocketed, making public finances unsustainable.

While you will hear that Greece has done nothing to fix its own problems, one might argue, to the contrary, that it has done too much, following the wrong advice of European creditors. In just 5 years pension cuts amounted to 48%, public employees declined by 25% while the deficit shrank from 15,6% of GDP to 2,5%, and as a result unemployment rose to 27% and the debt over GDP ratio to 180%. Reforms were implemented (Greece rose in the World Bank indicator “Doing Business” from the rank of 109th in the world to the 61st position), but as we know these take time to change growth performance, while austerity hits immediately and painfully. This is probably why Greeks voted two days ago to stop austerity imposed from outside: they knew better than to repeat for a sixth consecutive year the same mistake that had been forced on them without advantage.

Two additional lessons here are to be drawn to make the case, today’s Greek case in the euro area, that looks similar to the case of Tennessee in the 19th century: letting democracy work, however imperfectly, is the only solution that keeps societies united. Intervening from above, with little electoral mandate, is bound to make disaster more likely, as it did in the European case. Much of the desire of Greeks to vote was indeed due to a sense of political imposition, and how can you imagine proceeding without debate when you are dealing with the country where democracy was created?

Man biking past graffiti showing YES in Greek Credit: http://cdnmo.coveritlive.com/

 

Oh, and by the way, let us not forget lesson number two.

You might have not noticed but it is also true that the thought never crossed the mind of President Grant to “ask” for small and unproductive Tennessee to leave the dollar union, as instead a growing number of Europeans are today!

He probably knew better than that: as my colleague Prof. Whelan has aptly reminded us for Greece (“pushing the Greek government further than their current position will generate infinitesimally small financial gains for European citizens while risking a Greek exit threatens unquantifiably large potential costs”) the cost of a political disruption would have largely outweighed any small gain for a few rich lenders. He kept Tennessee in the (ultimately) successful project of the US since he was aware of a basic truth: that a union becomes a Union with capital U only when you keep the weakest part of the chain linked to the rest.

But it is never too late to listen to the desires of Greek citizens, who insist that they want to remain in the euro but at a pace that is compatible with less disruptive, less abrupt and painful change. Paying heed to their clear desire might prove to be the key to saving Europe and Greece alike, pushing us ahead in the construction of the United States of Europe.

A graffiti on the wall of an old house shows an EU flag on one side and a desperate expression on the face of an elderly person on the other in Athens, Greece, 24 June 2015. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is set to conduct yet another round of crisis talks with representatives of the country’s creditors, ahead of a crucial meeting of eurozone finance ministers where all sides hope a solution can be found to save the country from bankruptcy. EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZI

But how can an agreement among countries that seem so stubbornly to resist it come about?

Contrary to what is generally thought, it will be very hard to convince the Germans to reduce the Greek debt. Not because Germans are “selfish”: just two decades ago they implemented one of the largest transfer of resources ever made in a country. Yes, to their East German brothers who had just emerged from decades of communism. But, indeed, these were brothers, unlike Greeks who are today at most distant cousins.

Now, however, here is the potential miracle of the European Union family: it works opposite to a regular family, where each generation becomes ever more distant: first brothers, then first-degree cousins, then second-degree etc. We have built this European project to make sure that over time each generation gets closer: from cousins of sixth degree to… brothers.

But to arrive there you need time. The United States became a federalized system in the 1930s, following more than a century of slow social convergence where each State was very jealous of its own prerogatives to begin with, not allowing Washington DC to decide how much to spend, how much and what to tax. It took a Civil War, the invention of the train that increased mobility, a First World War that increased the awareness of the USA of being a global power and, finally, a President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who managed to unite a country in the face of hardship in the 1930s.

Europe is facing the same problems of slow convergence of very different cultures that the USA faced in the 19th century.

So to go back to debt cuts, hard to believe that German will allow a transfer to Greek citizens. But less austerity everywhere, in Germany like in Greece, might have a higher chance of being accepted by all parties. It is not an explicit transfer and it benefits everyone. Lower taxes in Germany (that can be spent in nice vacations in Greece) and higher public investment in Greece that can sustain recovery of competitiveness, will go a long way in restoring growth and hope across all of Europe, and stabilizing at the same time the public finances of the weakest countries.

This is what Greeks voted upon with their NO.

Now only a minor matter remains: agreeing on such measures. The alternative? Letting Tennessee, I mean, sorry, Greece go out of the euro area and the European Union. Of course, formally what I say is incorrect: Greece, even if were out of the Euro, would remain in the European Union, like the United Kingdom (for how long?) or many other Eastern European and Scandinavian countries. But it would remain in a very different position from the others: as a country expelled from the euro union, not as a country that initially exercised its democratic will not to join it. This difference that would make Greek citizens feel humiliated and unwanted, and thus cause them to look around, not only in terms of new and different economic policies but also of foreign policy and strategic alliances.

This is not science fiction: the democratic and secular Turkey, which only 10 years ago was refused entry into the European Union, was humiliated and decided to look elsewhere becoming rapidly a less secular society, much closer to Islam and distant from the West.

Losing Greece in the euro, then, means to risk losing Greece in Europe, bringing it closer to other geopolitical spheres of power such as Russia one with which Greece shares, among other things, a greater closeness of religious belief.

After Greece will have gone, somebody else’s turn will come about. Nobody realizes that once the weakest link is let go, another weak link will take its place and will be attacked by markets and ignored by richer neighbors. What is needed is a Constitution that specifies clearly that when a State is in trouble, in some way the others are going to give a helping hand. Otherwise, why unite? It is this Constitution, different from the current one, that many people, not just the Greeks, are seeking to obtain.

One last thing. When we will look, I hope not, to this disastrous outcome, to a European failure of voting for another Europe of the euro, please do not blame the euro. The single currency will have been just that: a symbol, a mere symbol, of a willingness to stay together for a long-term project. Just like a ring in a wedding. If the marriage does not stand up, do not blame the ring, but the lack of a project based on mutual solidarity and sustainable development. And if the ring slips off, please do not expect the two divorcees to go back living together.

Information on Tennessee taken from “A Financial History of Tennessee Since 1870” by James E. Thorogood

Post by: Gustavo Piga, Professor of Economics, University of Rome, Tor Vergata

(and the husband of Mozzarella Mamma)

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July 5, 2015

Wranglers and Rosaries

My niece in her new cowboy boots for "Wranglers in Training Camp" - June 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

My niece in her new cowboy boots for “Wranglers in Training Camp” – June 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

It is summer time!! Time to send our teenagers to camp!! Why would we want to do that? To get rid of them, of course. Preferably a camp without any electronic devices permitted to limit all possible contact. If any of my blog readers are thinking I am a “mamma snaturata” – a bad mom—you may be right, but I am guessing you don’t have teenagers. Sometimes we parents need a break.

(I always seem to have a hard time with these teenagers in summer – I was just re-reading my summer teens post from last year, and things have not changed much. See Blog Post: Mozz Mamma Meets Italian Teenage Summer)

So, my sister, who lives in Texas, sent her teenage daughter to “Wrangler in Training Camp”. Yep, that’s right, wrangling camp where kids learn how to wrangle. Wait. I just looked up “wrangle” in the dictionary and it means, “to quarrel noisily or angrily.” Stop! All teenagers know how to do that already. That is NOT what “Wrangler in Training Camp” is for. “Wrangler in Training Camp” is for learning how to wrangle animals like cowboys do, but in this case it is horses and not cows.

Apparently my niece spent five hours a day with the horses riding, brushing, saddling and rubbing them down. She got to teach a class to other camp units on feeding horses and one day had to take responsibility for taking three miniature ponies to a camp party and supervise them while younger campers patted them.

My sister said when she picked her daughter up her new boots were filthy dirty as were her arms and legs and she was has high as a kite.

I left my daughter Chiara yesterday at her Church to depart for her weeklong church Youth-Group camp. They had a meeting for the parents last week and I arrived 45 minutes late (I had a good excuse, I was picking up my son at the airport, he was returning from University). I went flying into the little room at the back of the church where the meeting was, hoping to quickly pick up the list of the “things to pack” and get the details on departure times, payment etc. I found a nice group of parents sitting around in a circle with a priest, a nun and a couple of assistants.

I slid up against the wall and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but the priest urged me to take my place in the circle. They were taking turns going around the circle introducing themselves. As I waited my turn, I whispered to the mother next to me, “sorry, I am so late, had to pick up my son, what have they said up to now?” She whispered back, “we’ve just been praying.” Yikes, 45 minutes of prayers!!?!!

We got around the circle, I introduced myself in turn and eventually I got the little piece of paper I needed of the “things to pack”. Top of the list: Bible. By then it was 8:15 and I needed to get home to get dinner going. But the priest was going on and on in a calm, gentle voice. Finally I decided to make my usual “brutta figura” so I stood up and said I was really sorry but I had to slip out. The priest said, “I am sorry but the gate to the parking lot is now locked and I have the only key, so I will have to come with you, so the meeting will have to end here.” Ah, the GUILT. I had come 45 minutes late and was breaking up the meeting. Whatever. So all the parents stood up in the circle and I started towards the door.

But wait!! The priest, and all the parents crossed themselves and started reciting a prayer. Now, I cover the Vatican, I have been to God knows how many Masses and liturgical events. I have pretty much got the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary down in Italian, but those were not the prayers they were reciting and all of them seemed to know this one by heart. Oh PANIC. I didn’t want to seem like the heretic in the midst, so I started the fake mouthing of words tossing in some “Dios” and “benedettos” and “Marias” and “Pane quotidiano” and “cielos” and a loud “Amen” when we finally reached the end.

My daughter's Bible ready to go to Youth Group Camp. June, 2015

My daughter’s Bible ready to go to Youth Group Camp. June, 2015

This morning, when I dropped off my daughter, I discovered what I believe may be one of the reasons for her enthusiastic participation in this Youth Group. There were 12 kids leaving for the camp – ten very handsome young boys, and two girls, my daughter one of them. Chiara mingled with the other kids for about five minutes before wandering over to me and saying “Ok, you can go Mom, Ciaoooo,” and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “But the other parents are not leaving,” I pointed out. “Yeah, but you can go,” she smiled, “it’s ok.”

I tend to be friendly and my teenage kids live in fear that I am going to do something “awkward”.   The kids began busily carrying supplies of food out to the bus and I saw bottles of tomato sauce and the biggest bag of pasta I have ever seen. They don’t have Costco in Italy, so I wondered where they got that.

I got in my old Fiat Punto and turned around in the tight church parking lot. I nearly backed over the huge bag of pasta, which would have been seriously awkward and a real “brutta figura” but I hit the brake just in time. I could just imagine poor Chiara cringing.

I spoke to Chiara today and she said they get up, they pray, they eat breakfast, they have Bible study. In the evening they have a Mass and more prayers before bed. Fortunately they do some long hikes in between, but it is not exactly wrangling.

I was a bit worried that Chiara was going to come back clutching a rosary and declaring her future as a nun, but she came backed tanned and happy.

Then there is my brother’s daughter, who plays the cello and has been shipped off to music camp for a month. There, they allow no electronic devices whatsoever, and my mother sent around an email urging all of us to pick up an “old-fashioned piece of paper and pen” and write her letters. I think my teenagers have no idea how to write a letter. And once it is written they don’t have much familiarity with stamps or mailboxes. I think if they don’t see a “send” button somewhere they will be lost.

Of course this all brings back memories of some of my teenage camp summers. Groan. I was once sent to Camp Wabasso Girl Scout Camp in New Hampshire with my older sister. I think I am still trying to overcome the trauma of it all. We slept in tents and had to use latrines. My sister Gwen was the star of the camp. She became famous for her “one-match fires”. She could build up a little pile of wood doing what they called an A-frame fire with the right amount of tinder and kindling and poof with one match it lit right up. If I wanted to light a one-match fire, I would need to dump a can of gas on it first.  She was also a pro at making S’mores (those delicious treats with graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate, and a marshmallow toasted on the open fire at the end of a stick).  I was always impatient with my marshmallows and ended up sticking them in the flames and burning them to a crispy black.

On top of that Gwen was the best hiker and was put in the “fast” hiking group while I was left with the slowpokes. She also had all those good Girl Scout qualities—loyalty, integrity, and determination (she still does)– which I seemed to be lacking in. My favorite time was quiet time after lunch when we sat on our cots and wrote letters home. I did my best to write colorful accounts of our scouting exploits or perhaps they were tall tales of the terrible treatment by cruel counselors and little ol’ me struggling under the shadow of my super sister. I think back then I already had a future as a blogger.

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June 25, 2015

The Toilet Paper War

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

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

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

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

Pause for a sleepy second and then explosion”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty rolls should last us for a while.

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

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

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June 22, 2015

Michelle Obama at Vicenza Army Base, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what she said,

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 19, 2015

Michelle Obama in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 14, 2015

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

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

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

Dear Blog Readers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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