October 16, 2014

Seventh Versus Eighth and the Purple Undies

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

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

Dear Blog Readers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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September 12, 2014

An Extraordinary Meeting

Pope Francis stops and shakes hands with a Swiss Guard as he enters into the Synod Hall for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  October 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis stops and shakes hands with a Swiss Guard as he enters into the Synod Hall for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. October 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

This week an extraordinary meeting began at the Vatican.  In Vatican words it is the “Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges on the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”  Huh?  What’s that? It is a meeting to discuss and seek answers to some of the hottest questions facing the church today.

Let me give a quick list of some of the issues that have emerged from all five continents: birth control, communion for divorced and remarried couples, pre-marital sex, in-vitro fertilization, pre-marital co-habitation, baptism for adopted children of gay couples, polygamy, child brides, teen mothers, migration and domestic violence and abuse.  Wow, that is enough to leave anyone’s head spinning.

Unlike Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who would arrive at meetings in a car from the Papal apartments, Pope Francis showed up early Monday morning, walking over from the Santa Marta residence where he lives.  In a gesture that I have seen before, Pope Francis stopped in front of the Swiss guard saluting at the door and shook his hand.  To me this simple gesture says a lot.  Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan said in an interview in “Corriere Della Sera” today that inside the Synod Hall Pope Francis leaves his seat walks around seeking out people he wants to speak to, he gets a coffee with the rest of them and chats with the waiters. Pope Francis wants to reach out to everyone, that is what he is doing on a personal level, and that is clearly the direction he is pushing the church, but not everyone agrees with him.

In his opening statement, Pope Francis urged the 235 attendees to speak their minds.  He said,  “speak clearly,” “without fear” and “listen with humility.”

So, who is attending this meeting and can we expect them to reach any decisions?  There are 235 people attending, 191 of whom are the Synod fathers — Bishops and Cardinals who will have a say in the final document.  The others are priests and nuns, experts and observers. Among the observers are 14 married couples — one of which is a mixed marriage between a Catholic and Muslim.  There is a total of 25 women attending.

To prepare for this meeting, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire one year ago to be given to Catholics around the world asking them in 39 questions about issues related to the family.  The results showed that on some key issues, birth-control for example, many Catholics ignore church teaching.  From that Synod organizers put together a working document called the Instrumentem Laboris, laying out what they intend to discuss.  (If anyone is interested in reading it, here is the link to the English version on the Vatican website. INSTRUMENTEM LABORIS )

Pope Francis at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

For many people in the US and Europe, the meeting is about birth-control, and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, but this week I spoke to Robert Mickens, Editor-in-Chief of the Global Pulse and a long time Vatican watcher.  He told me,

“We have got issues of single people, we’ve got issues of gays and lesbians – this is all spelled out in that document.  Birth control for example, that is one of the things that has always been a hot-button issue in the church ever since 1968 when Paul VI issued Humane Vitae….but  you have to remember that this is an international meeting.  We are not talking just about North America or Europe, where the issues like divorced and remarriage are very much in the forefront.  There are issues of polygamy in other countries and on other continents.  So the Synod is going to have to somehow deal with all these things.”

Cardinals at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Cardinals at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Before the Synod even began, controversy was brewing over the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The debate started in February when a prominent German Cardinal, Walter Kasper, delivered a speech during a closed meeting of cardinals in which he presented the possibility that divorced Catholics who are re-married might be able to receive communion.  The key word in Kasper’s thinking is the same as the title of a book he wrote called “Mercy”. Kasper thinks that mercy should be shown to those who are divorced and remarried.

Before the opening of the Synod, five Cardinals, including the Head of the Vatican’s office for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, published a book expressing their views in sharp contrast to Cardinal Kasper.  The book, titled “Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church,” appeared in bookstores near the Vatican just as the Synod was about to begin.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top economic adviser, did the same in a preface to another book, making his case on the indissolubility of marriage.  (A little side note, one Italian Vaticanista told me, making a play on words with the Cardinal’s last name, that Cardinal Pell “non ha peli su la lingua”  which literally translated is “he doesn’t have hairs on his tongue” and means he speaks his mind, a straight shooter who says exactly what he thinks. That is apparently what Francis wants — people who speak their minds, even if they disagree with him.

While the Synod Fathers debated the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, out on the street in front of the Vatican, the public was with Kasper.  An Associated Press Television crew spoke to some married couples attending the Pope’s weekly audience.  Pamela Scarpitta, a newlywed from Salerno, Italy attending the audience in her wedding dress, said she thought it was not fair that divorced and remarried couples cannot take communion.  “If Christ came to heal the sinners, why shouldn’t they receive the communion? This is not to say divorced people are all sinners, but they are those who need it the most. So why deny it to them? ”

Inside the Synod Hall it has been a busy week.  The Vatican heard from a couple who has been married for 55 years, Ron and Mavis Pirola of Australia, who shook up the the austere group by talking about the joys of sex and how Catholic friends warmly welcomed their gay son’s partner in their home for a Christmas celebration.

Outside the Synod, Cardinal Burke immediately expressed his opposition to a family welcoming a gay couple into their home.  In an interview with Lifesite News he said, “If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living in a disordered relationship with another person?”

However, other Bishops speaking in the Synod have suggested that the Vatican needs to change its language  getting rid of expressions like “living in sin”, “contraceptive mentality” and “intrinsically disordered” (in reference to homosexual sex) because they are judgmental and distance people from the Church.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, suggested streamlining the annulment process (don’t expect any annulment drive-thrus at the Vatican any time soon).  Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama said on homosexuals, “We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who has been harassed, who has been imprisoned or punished.”

Progressives seem pleased with the process, conservatives less so.  AP wire’s Vaticanista Nicole Winfield pointed out a website to me that is highly critical.  It is called “The Catholic Thing.” There I found the following quote from Robert Royal reporting on the Synod:

“The mood in Rome is – let’s just speak the truth – tense. According to one quite reliable source on site, it’s not only the “Ratzingerians” like Cardinal Burke who have been feeling an icy wind. It’s also more “moderate” Cardinals and members of the Curia who simply don’t know what to make of what’s going on. And fear what might happen if they say the “wrong” thing – difficult to avoid when things are so unclear.

… the responses to the pope in private – again, beyond the usual conservative suspects and into more neutral, mainstream figures – has been equally tart: “a Latin dictator,” “a Peron,” someone who likes to be center stage in the limelight. And perhaps the most shocking comment of all from more than one person: “His health is bad, so at least this won’t last too long.”

YIKES!  I have never heard any of those descriptions of Pope Francis before.

But beyond the debate,what is actually going to happen?  The Synod ends on October 19th.  A team of bishops will be putting together a final document with the conclusions from the Synod.  This document will be sent to bishops around the world to be discussed in their archdioceses.  Catholics around the globe will have a chance to read it and give their opinion.  In one year the Synod will meet again to go over the results.  When next year’s synod ends the Pope will release a “Apostolic Exhortation”, which presumably will include some changes.  So if anyone is expected any tangible changes after these two weeks, they can forget it.  But the ball is rolling.

Blog readers — all this Synod stuff is very complicated– I didn’t even touch the question of pastoral vs. doctrinal changes– so if you are interested in more detail, I suggest you read the articles written by my colleagues and friends including, AP wire’s Vatican expert Nicole Winfield @nwinfield,  John Thavis’ Blog www.JohnThavis.com, Father Thomas Reese on National Catholic Reporter ncronline.com, Bob Mickens at the Global Pulse Mag www.globalpulsemagazine.com, all the reporting by Catholic News Service, and John Allen at www.cruxnow.com — I know all these people and they are all excellent Vatican reporters.  If you are interested in the views of the guy I quoted above, I do not know him and do no agree with the viewpoint, but the website is: www.thecatholicthing.org

A huge THANK YOU to my AP colleagues – photographers Alessandra Tarantino and Gregorio Borgia who are always so generous about giving me their extra photographs that don’t go out on the AP Wire.

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Vampire Mamma

MMiM

If you are male, STOP RIGHT HERE. DO NOT READ ANOTHER WORD.

PHEW. Got Rid of Them.

OK, female Blog Readers, on with this post.  TOP SECRET – I think Mozzarella Mamma is in menopause (MMiM).  OH, WOE IS ME!  How can it be true???  Now — why would I think that?  Among other things, I have been noticing a rising sense of frustration and irritability with the whole entire world so I Googled menopause symptoms the other day and this is what I found. There are all sorts of lovely things like: irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, loss of sex drive, hair loss, night sweats, and fatigue, and that is just the beginning. (see Link HERE to get totally depressed)

It all started the other day when I was taking my dog, Settimo, for a walk and this lovely, friendly golden retriever started bounding, playfully towards him.  Settimo is a total wimp and he tucked his tail between his legs and charged away heading straight out of the park.  I had to sprint to catch him and keep him from heading out into the traffic.  I caught him, put him back on the leash and dragged him back into the park.  Then all of a sudden I felt my eyes filling up with tears.  Yes, I was about to cry about the fact that my dog is such a WIMP that he is scared of a friendly golden retriever.  (what would that be– anxiety, mood swing, or depression?)

Then a few days later I had to travel with the Pope to Albania (see Blog Post: A Trip to Albania with Pope Francis ) and the press had to be at the airport for the Papal Plane at 4:45 am.  At 4:30 am I was in a taxi going to the airport with AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara, when all of a sudden I was steaming hot and sweaty.  “Gosh, it is pretty hot for 4:30 in the morning,” I said, “can we open some windows?”  Gianfranco opened a window and then told me, “Trisha, that is what we call VAMPATA.”  Well, “vampata” means Hot Flash in Italian, but in that moment it sounded an awful lot like vampire to me.  “A Vampata must me some sort of middle-aged, nasty, wenchy female Vampire,” I thought and contemplated sticking my pronged fangs into his neck and doing him in right then and there.  (A slight over-reaction to his probably accurate assessment).

Again, this morning, out the door to walk the damn dog at dawn.  When I got back home, I realized I had leftover pancake batter so I could make the girls pancakes as a surprise for breakfast.  I started preparing them, and then wanted to make myself a caffe’ latte and realized there was no milk in the house.  The frustration, irritability started rising up again.  Damn it, why isn’t there any MILK???  So I grabbed my purse and headed out to get some milk telling my daughter Chiara to turn over the pancakes.  I returned 15 minutes later and as I came up the stairs of our building I could smell the burnt pancakes.  I charged into the smoky kitchen and looked at Chiara and said, “YOU BURNT THE PANCAKES!”  — the frustration, anger and irritability was rising up inside me again, and Chiara looked at me and said, “yeah Mom, chill, we’re still going to eat them, and you should be thanking me anyway for making them.”

At that point I had a choice — go VAMPATA on my daughters or repress that MMiM anger.  So I repressed it by sitting down at the table and eating four burnt pancakes with strawberry jam and maple syrup on them.

If I am going to be a VAMPATA, I might as well be a fat and happy one.

POSTSCRIPT:  I’ve actually been working on a serious post today on the Synod on the Family at the Vatican and once I get over being in a grouchy mood, I will finish it and post it.

 

 

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September 30, 2014

Who is the Real Amal Alamuddin?

Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney on their way to their civil wedding ceremony in Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara. September 30, 2014

Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney on their way to their civil wedding ceremony in Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara. September 30, 2014

After five days in Venice chasing after George Clooney and his bride Amal Alamuddin, I am finally back in Rome.  I had a blast covering this story because it was completely different from most of the work I do for AP Television.  Let’s just say that chasing after Clooney in a water taxi in Venice is a little different from covering the Pope, or Berlusconi, or destitute migrants arriving on Italian shores.  It was frivolous and fun. Coming home to Rome on the train from Venice with a colleague, we were trying to figure out who is the real Amal Alamuddin.  The woman we saw in Venice looked like a beautiful Barbie doll hanging on the arm of a famous Hollywood actor.  She had movie star glamour, and was popping in and out of high-fashion outfits every few hours as far as we could tell.  She never spoke, she just smiled behind her large sunglasses and flashed her rings.  Long legs and big diamonds were on display, not the brains and grit she must have.

Amal Alamuddin and George looking up after leaving Palazzo Cavalli in Venice where they had their civil wedding ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. September 30, 2014

Amal Alamuddin and George looking up after leaving Palazzo Cavalli in Venice where they had their civil wedding ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. September 29, 2014

Where did the top-notch human rights lawyer who defended Julian Assange from extradition to Sweden go?  Where was the woman who worked with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan investigating the use of drones in counter-terrorism operations?  Where was the woman who wrote this article for the Huffington Post on The Anatomy of an Unfair Trial. ?  This is the same woman who clerked for Sonia Sotomayor when she was a judge at the US Court of Appeals in New York.  Amal Alamuddin went to Oxford and then studied law at NYU. This is the Amal Alamuddin I am rooting for.

Amal Alamuddin while working as lawyer for Julian Assange

Amal Alamuddin while working as lawyer for Julian Assange

We thought George Clooney wanted to marry Amal, instead of his long train of former waitresses and show-girls, because he wanted someone smart who could share his political passions.  Is Clooney shaping her into something else?

Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney head down the Grand Canal the morning after their private wedding in Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 28, 2014

Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney head down the Grand Canal the morning after their private wedding in Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 28, 2014

Which leads me to the next question.  Why did George Clooney decide to have such an open, spectacle, show of a wedding?  At moments – as 30 boats raced down the Grand Canal following his water taxi— it felt more like a scene from a film than real life.  He easily could have done a more private wedding at his Villa on Lake Como. While we were there in Venice, enough information came out about the timing and events, that we knew where to go to get the shots of the couple.  So why did Clooney want to have a very public event? There have been rumors about Clooney wanting to get into politics.  I mentioned this is an earlier post, but what does he want to do, run for governor of California, or perhaps Senator?  Maybe he wants to get involved with the UN in some way.  Honestly, I have no clue. I am hoping that that Amal Alamuddin does not give up her work and get sucked into being a pretty arm decoration for George.  As far as I know she has never given any interviews since her engagement and I am dying to hear what she says about herself and her future.  There were reports in the British press that George was looking for an apartment in London so that she could continue to work.  That would be wonderful as far as I am concerned.

George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin head off in the water taxi called "Amore" and pass under the Rialto Bridge as they leave Venice.  Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara. September 29, 2014

George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin head off in the water taxi called “Amore” and pass under the Rialto Bridge as they leave Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara. September 29, 2014

 

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September 28, 2014

George Clooney – The Last Wave

George Clooney and his future bride Amal Alamuddin arrive in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.

George Clooney and his future bride Amal Alamuddin arrive in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.

I am writing this post while I rock gently in a water taxi on the Grand Canal in Venice in front of the Aman Hotel.  I am slowing getting asphyxiated on the engine fumes as we hover here.  On board are eight people, three photographers, two camerapersons, an assistant and me.  We are all waiting for the newlyweds – George Clooney and his wife Amal to wake up, get in George’s water taxi—named “Amore”– and cruise on over the Cipriani Hotel to join all their guests for brunch.   Then we will chase behind them all the way hoping for the best shots of the couple. This week I’ve been trying my hand at being a paparazzo and I must admit I’ve never had so much fun on a story.

George Clooney heading to his wedding ceremony in a water taxi in Venice.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

George Clooney heading to his wedding ceremony in a water taxi in Venice. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

Yesterday we spent most of the day in the water taxi chasing various elements of the Clooney story.  At dawn the APTN team boarded our first water taxi and cruised down the Grand Canal getting beauty shots of the city in the morning mist.  We left one crew in front of the bride’s hotel and then headed over to Clooney’s Hotel the Cipriani.   There was hardly anyone around the Cipriani Hotel and the concierge called out to us and offered to give us some breakfast.

Roberto Senigaglia, Concierge at the Cipriani Hotel offering us espresso and cornetti for breakfast. September 287, 2014, photo by Gianfranco Stara

Roberto Senigaglia, Concierge at the Cipriani Hotel offering us espresso and cornetti for breakfast. September 287, 2014, photo by Gianfranco Stara

The concierge at the Cipriani, Roberto Senigaglia, is absolutely charming.  Our water taxi driver pulled us into the docking area and Roberto – in his white jacket with an ear-to-ear smile brought us a plate of melt-in-your-mouth buttery cornetti followed by espressos in little porcelain cups.  Then he told us that we could relax because the action would not start until 6pm when all the guests would be leaving the hotel to go to the Aman Hotel for the big event.  So we took off, back to the Aman Hotel, off to the airport to do star arrivals, then back again to the Cipriani, where we caught George having breakfast with Cindy Crawford and her husband Rande Gerber.

By 5:30pm there were about 20 boats with journalists, camerapersons, photographers, tourists, curious on-lookers and a police boat and Finance Guard boat trying to keep us all back from the entrance. George Clooney and his guests appeared in the garden area, the men in tuxedos and the women in gorgeous floor-length dresses.  Waiters in white coats moved around them pouring glasses of champagne.  Cindy Crawford was in a sleek violet dress with a halter top. Anna Wintour had a long black and white dress with a fluffy white thing around her neck.

By 6pm there were about 10 water taxis with little purple flags on the front with the initials AG for Amal and George, one after another they pulled up at the entrance and the guests stepped down into the boats.  The loyal concierge Roberto was there helping all the women who seemed to have difficulty with their high heels and long dresses.  One woman took off her shoes and a long slit in her dress momentarily revealed a little too much leaving all the photographers on my boat debating whether or not she was wearing underwear.  (That’s what happens after 8 hours on a water taxi—the level of discourse goes down a notch or two). Bono gave a big hug to Roberto the concierge as he left, Matt Damon in sunglasses smiled and waved to all of us, as did Bill Murray.

Matt Damon waves as he steps into water taxi going to George Clooney wedding. September 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Matt Damon waves as he steps into water taxi going to George Clooney wedding. September 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

When George finally got into his water taxi, the fun began.  His taxi took off followed by 30 frantic water taxis with photographers (and me) climbing on the roofs, photographers in smaller boats were shouting “George! George!  Look here George!!” as their boats scooted around George’s water taxi, his taxi charged forward into the lagoon and then the unexpected happened.

Cruise ship blocks George Clooney's way to his wedding as paparazzi in boats rush around in in Venice lagoon.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

Cruise ship blocks George Clooney’s way to his wedding as paparazzi in boats rush around in in Venice lagoon. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

A gigantic cruise ship, towering higher than the city of Venice blocked the way.  George’s taxis screeched to a halt, or whatever boats do when they half to stop suddenly and it was a field day for the paparazzi.  We all caught up to George’s taxi, making the area choppy withal the waves.  By that time we were all shouting “George, George, George!!”  I must say, he is a natural—he remained cool, calm, collected, waved, smiled, and chatted with his guests.  From high above the passengers on the cruise ship waved and took pictures of all of us. Finally the cruise ship passed we all charged forward and then there was a loud horn – a Venetian ferry boat blocked our way again.  By this time it seemed like a floating circus.

Paparazzi and police in Grand Canal following George Clooney's water taxi as he heads to his wedding ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

Paparazzi and police in Grand Canal following George Clooney’s water taxi as he heads to his wedding ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara. September 27, 2014

Then the ferry passed and we were all off and running – Water taxis moved around so the photographers could get the shot of George with St. Mark’s Square in the background, then suddenly jostling and splashing – we in the Grand Canal.  The place was packed, a crowd on a vaporetto (Venetian water bus) passed, and I thought the passengers would flip the boat over the all crowded so far to one side to catch a glimpse of Clooney.  As we passed under the Accademia bridge there were hundreds of people yelling “George, George” – he waved and smiled.  Venetians emerged from their elegant palaces and took photos with their phones, tourists in gondoliers looked shocked as the parade came by.   At one point we got very close and I yelled loudly “Hey George!” and he smiled and waved at me.  Yes, at me.  That was my last wave.

AP Photographer Andrew Medichini on the roof of a water taxi taking pictures of the George Clooney parade down the Grand Canal. September 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Andrew Medichini on the roof of a water taxi taking pictures of the George Clooney parade down the Grand Canal. September 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The parade rolled on, AP’s Andrew Medichini snapped away from the roof of our water taxi, I frenetically texted messages to my AP wire colleague Colleen Barry with details and color for the story.

AP's Andrew Medichini, AFP's Andreas Solaro and APTelevision's Trisha Thomas chasing George Clooney down the Grand Canal. September 27, 2014. Photo by Luca Bruno

AP’s Andrew Medichini, AFP’s Andreas Solaro and APTelevision’s Trisha Thomas chasing George Clooney down the Grand Canal. September 27, 2014. Photo by Luca Bruno

Finally we arrived at the Aman Hotel – journalists and camera crews were so crowded on the dock across the way, I thought they might sink it.  APTN cameraman Luigi Navarra was rolling Live on the action. George then climbed out of his taxi, waved to all of us, rubbed his hands together in anticipation and went in to get married.

George Clooney waves goodbye to photographers before heading into his wedding at the Aman Hotel in Venice. September 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara per AP Television

George Clooney waves goodbye to photographers before heading into his wedding at the Aman Hotel in Venice. September 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara per AP Television

And I am still sitting here in the water taxi, and the newlyweds still have not appeared.  I guess this is the life of a paparazzo.

Trisha Thomas in water taxi outside Cipriani Hotel in Venice. September 27, 2014

Trisha Thomas in water taxi outside Cipriani Hotel in Venice. September 27, 2014

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September 25, 2014

Waiting for George

Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge. Freeze frame of video shot by APTN cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

Dear Blog Readers,

I am on a train headed from Rome to Venice where I will be spending the next five days with the AP television team covering the George Clooney wedding extravaganza.   As we all know, the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  Members of the Islamic State are decapitating journalists, the US is responding with tomahawk missiles, the world is getting warmer by the day (our beloved Maine loons may even go extinct soon), President Putin of Russia keeps staking out more claim to Ukraine, the Europeans economies are stuck in the mud, President Obama has gone completely grey, and Kate Middleton has terrible morning sickness—it is enough to make one want to stay in bed all day.

So, when handsome Hollywood star George Clooney announced a few weeks ago in Florence that he is planning to wed his gorgeous girlfriend, Amal Alamuddin, in Venice at the end of the month, our Entertainment and News departments decided we had better cover. The world needs something beside doom and death to think about.

So for the past few days I’ve been reading all the gossip columns and magazines that you find at the hair-dressers, I’ve been hounding my one friend in Venice and I have come together with an idea of what is going to happen.  It could all be wrong of course.  This isn’t AP reporting, it is just my blog preview.

First, who is George marrying?  Her name is Amal Alamuddin and she is a 36-year-old, Oxford educated human rights lawyer of Lebanese Druse descent.  She first made headlines for working as a lawyer for Wikileaks leader Julian Assange.  She is tall, slim; elegant with long dark hair and eyes—a far cry from the curvaceous, beautiful, more frivolous lightweights Clooney has hooked up with in the past.   She is intelligent, speaks Arabic, French and English, is glamorous and apparently rich. (Word has it her family is insisting on paying for the wedding).

When I immediately offered to handle our TV coverage of George Clooney’s wedding this weekend in Venice, AP Television’s Europe Editor Susie Blann said, “oh, there you go again, stalking George, when will you give up on him!”  Susie and I were working together covering the 2009 G8 summit in Aquila when we got word that George Clooney was arriving in a helicopter in a village destroyed by the earthquake.  I rushed off with a cameraman and photographer and managed to get an interview.  I was so happy about my photo with George that I sent it to half the world.  If you want to see the photo of me interviewing George in Aquila, check out this blog post “Door-stepping the High and Mighty.”  So it’s back to stalking George Porgy.

Word has it that Clooney has taken over two hotels in Venice.  The bride, Amal, and her entourage will be saying at the 7-star (I didn’t know any hotel had seven stars) Hotel Aman, otherwise known as the Palazzo Papadopoli owned by Count Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga (can you imagine going to elementary school with that name?) on the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge.  George has apparently taken over the rather shabbier (only 5 stars) Hotel Cipriani on the Giudecca Island. He has allegedly booked his regular apartment there and the rest of the hotel for the guests.

Now the rumors are flying about who the guests to the exclusive event are going to be.  Various reports say the number is around 120 and among them Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock, Cindy Crawford, Randy Gerber, Emily Blunt, Tilda Swinton, and Grant Heslow.  Amal’s sister Tala will be maid-of-honor.  Both Andrea Bocelli and Lana Del Rey are rumored to be performing at some point during the weekend’s events.

The guests should arrive tomorrow (we will be staking out the airport for all the private planes expected to be flying in), and George and Amal should be coming up from his Villa Oleandra on Lake Como.   They will be holding a casual dinner tomorrow night at the Hotel Cipriani.

Then on Saturday, there is the first of the two wedding ceremonies, to be held around 11am at the Aman Hotel.  We are anticipating that there will be a long line of water taxis escorting the guests down the Grand Canal from the Cipriani Hotel to the Aman Hotel for this event, and I plan to have several cameramen trying to get that shot.   The water taxi driver who we are hiring has already warned me that we can forget about getting around in the Grand Canal on Saturday—it will be a zoo.  I interviewed a waiter today named Antonio Solperto who works at the Saraceno restaurant near the Rialto Bridge.  He told me, “I am very happy that George Clooney is coming to celebrate his wedding here in Venice. He is a person of prestige.”

Other Venetians were equally enthusiastic, I found Roberto Gatto enjoying a drink with a friend at an outdoor cafe near the Hotel Cipriani, he explained to me why he thought Clooney wanted to get married in Venice, “Because it is the most beautiful city in the world, and the most romantic, it is the perfect place for a wedding.  Venice is a myth for anyone who wants to fulfill their desires.”

APTN video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro and William Lewis filming the 7-Star Hotel Aman in Venice where Amal Alamuddin, Clooney's bride-to-be is expected to be staying. September 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

APTN video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro and William Lewis filming the 7-Star Hotel Aman in Venice where Amal Alamuddin, Clooney’s bride-to-be is expected to be staying. September 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Now here is where it all gets a bit confusing.  There will still be another ceremony – a civil ceremony apparently at the Venice City Hall, presided over by Rome’s former Mayor, cinema buff and big friend of Clooney’s, Walter Veltroni.  This is the one element we can confirm.  Veltroni had to submit papers to be able to preside over this ceremony in Venice.

Today the Venice city hall ordered an area around the Palazzo Cavalli (part of the Venice City Hall where marriages are celebrated) to be closed on Monday from 12 noon until 2pm due to the Clooney wedding.

Palazzo Cavalli, Venice. A city hall building where wedding are held and George Clooney is expected to marry Amal Alamuddin in a civil ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

Palazzo Cavalli, Venice. A city hall building where wedding are held and George Clooney is expected to marry Amal Alamuddin in a civil ceremony. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

Apparently the city was worried about fans, journalists and paparazzi overwhelming the place.  The local newspaper also reported that at 7am yesterday a fill-in bride was participating in dress-rehearsals crossing the canal from the Aman Hotel and stepping off of a boat on the city hall side.

In between all these ceremonies, parties are expected on Saturday and Sunday nights – but we are not sure exactly where, probably the Cipriani.   Let’s just say we will be standing around on Venetian bridges, wading into canals and perching on rooftops trying to do the paparazzi thing and get a glimpse of the glamour.

A sign on the Hotel Cipriani where George Clooney and his guests are expected to stay. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

A sign on the Hotel Cipriani where George Clooney and his guests are expected to stay. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25, 2014

While I am tossing around rumors, let me mention a few more – the bride is expected to wear either an Oscar De La Renta dress, or an Alexander Mcqueen dress, or maybe a dress by designer Sarah Burton – perhaps with all that is going on, all three.  George is reportedly going to be wearing an Armani suit.

Now many people have been asking me about why George—at age 53, who swore he would remain single forever, is now tying the know.  After all, he is the man who bet actress Michelle Pfieffer $100,000 that he would never marry again. (He was briefly married to actress Talia Balsam)

Again, I have nothing solid here, but rumors have it that George is planning on entering politics and has found himself an ideal political spouse. (I am not thinking in the “House of Cards” sense).  It is interesting to think that George would want to get his hands dirty in the world of politics.  With all his success as an actor and director, he is free to lead a life of luxury while dipping into the social projects that interest him, such a South Sudan.  But power is seductive and maybe he wants to try his hand.  But what position would he be interested in?  I think his family is from Kentucky, but does he have a residence there, or is he based in California?  Does he want to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and become governor of California?  Or how about Senator from California, or Kentucky, using that seat as a launching pad, just as Hillary used her Senate seat in New York.  Speaking of Hillary, how about running as Hillary’s Vice Presidential candidate.  Now that would make a hot ticket!!

Well, blog readers, that is enough gossiping and rumormongering for now.  My train will arrive shortly in Venice and hopefully there I will be able to gather some more concrete information.

More updates coming soon…

Gondolas on the Grand Canale in Venice. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25. 2014

Gondolas on the Grand Canale in Venice. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Pietro De Cristofaro. September 25. 2014

 

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September 22, 2014

A Trip to Albania with Pope Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More blog posts coming your way soon from Venice….

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A Voyage in Search of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bear Necessities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 16, 2014

Simone’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

Freeze frame of video shot by Simone Camilli in Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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