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.

*************************

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.

*********************************

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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May 31, 2015

La Scivolata

BANANA PEEL

It was with a certain pleasure that my husband, Professor of Economics at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, handed me the newspaper today and said, “I think you might want to do a blog post on this letter to the editor written by an economist colleague of mine.” He knows me so well. I never miss an opportunity to point out the rampant male chauvinism that sadly still exists in some parts of Italian society, unfortunately often among the political and intellectual elites. Many women thought perhaps things had changed with the political decline of Silvio Berlusconi and his famous Bunga Bunga parties (See Blog Post: The End of Italy’s Bunga Bunga Era), but no, this time the scivolata (slip—as on a banana peel) as they say in Italian, was made by Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome, Sapienza.

Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome Sapienza with the three top finalist in the Miss University competition. May 6, 2015

Eugenio Gaudio, President of the University of Rome Sapienza with the three top finalist in the Miss University competition. May 6, 2015

On May 6, 2015 Eugenio Gaudio, President of the largest University in Italy, headed the Jury of the “Miss University” contest in which female University students were judged, among other things, in a bikini.   The contest was to find “The most beautiful and wise student from the Italian University.” The participants were given a free coupon for a center for esthetic surgery.

Now the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato of the University of Sussex, together with a long list of top Italian female professors and researchers have written an open letter to him calling for him to step down. They have put a petition on the website Change.org gathering signatures in favor of his resignation.

Let me quote the letter, they say it much better than I could:

Dear President…

“…We consider that your participation as a jury member for the selection of Miss University, held in Rome on May 6, 2015 at Billions is not compatible with your institutional role, and represents a scandalous stain on the university that you were elected to lead.”

They went on to say:

“In a context in which the international reputation of Italy is more linked to Bunga Bunga instead of its enormous scientific and cultural heritage, your participation at this event does nothing but further diminish the fundamental role of the University (with a capital U) and of women.”

“…We expect that the President of the largest University in Europe would use his strategic position to push his students to believe in themselves and not in the way in which men value their bodies; to convince them that the future is in their hands and in their heads and not in their bikini; to encourage them to fight to reach their goals, to put into practice, in the working world and outside of it, everything that they learned at the University.”

“Your participation at this event demonstrates how backwards our society still is.”

The women academics conclude by demanding he publicly apologize, that he also declare that the University of Rome Sapienza will never again participate in a similar event, and finally that the University will support initiatives designed to promote the careers of its female students.

I just checked and the petition on Change.org now has nearly 1,300 signatures of individuals demanding the President’s resignation.  Looks like the “scivolata” may become a “caduta” (fall).

I will keep you updated.

UPDATE

The President of the University of Rome, Eugenio Gaudio, has responded, and here is what he had to say:

“I do not have to apologize for anything.”

“My participation was a way to be close to the students and was carried out with full respect towards the girls, and I want to emphasize, they were not in bathing suits but evening dress.”

“I decided to accept this invitation…after a careful analysis on the part of my secretary.”

 

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May 29, 2015

The World in a Sneaker

Migrants putting on new sneakers on dock in port of Catania. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Migrants putting on new sneakers on dock in port of Catania. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Dear Blog Readers – This is Part II of my Reporter’s Notebook on my recent time in Sicily.

When I was in Sicily recently we did a report for AP Television together with my AP wire  and photo colleagues on the sneakers given to the migrants in the Port of Catania, Sicily. For some reason, the AP bosses were rather non-plussed by this story thinking that it is really “nothing new” – but I find it a fascinating combination of Global Issues in a sneaker. There is migration, globalization, illegal workers, mafia, charities, and law enforcement all tied into these sneakers.

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Let me explain.

Months ago as we covered migrants arriving in the ports of Sicily, we noticed that they were immediately given spanking new brand name speakers. Just a half hour off the boat, and the barefoot migrants were clad in shiny white Adidas, Nikes, Hogans and Merrells. Someone asked a border policeman when we were standing around in port filming an arrival one day and he explained that all those shoes are counterfeits that have been confiscated by the police and given to Italian charities to distribute.   We all got a kick out of that Italian ingenuity. What better use for confiscated counterfeit shoes than to give them to people who need them.

Migrant putting on his new counterfeit Adidas in port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Migrant putting on his new counterfeit Adidas in port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Then we decided to do a little more on the story. All over Catania, Sicily, we found men selling the counterfeit shoes on top of cardboard boxes on street corners, or peddling their wares in their hands in the middle of the city’s sprawling market.

Senagalese men selling counterfeit sneakers in the main market in Catania. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Senagalese men selling counterfeit sneakers in the main market in Catania. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

When we tried to film the men selling the shoes, they quickly disappeared, popping up again shortly about 100 meters away. Some of them told us aggressively not to film them.

Counterfeit sneakers being sold by men in the main market in Catania, Sicily. May 7, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

Counterfeit sneakers being sold by men in the main market in Catania, Sicily. May 7, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

A few days later we went back to the market with General Pietro Belfiore of the Catania local police. He had a team with him that confiscate counterfeit items in the market. He explained the whole business to us. He said the counterfeit shoe sellers that we saw all over Catania are part of a Senegalese gang that sell counterfeit items. The counterfeit sneakers are very popular, especially among Italian teenagers who spend 25-30 euro for a pair.   Belfiore estimated that the men selling them on the street make up to 150 euros a day.

General Pietro Belfiore, chief of the local police in Catania speaking to AP at the main market in Catania, Sicily May 8, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

General Pietro Belfiore, chief of the local police in Catania speaking to AP at the main market in Catania, Sicily May 8, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Andrea Rosa

We asked if the Senegalese men selling them on the street were some of the same men who got off the boats in the port a few days earlier. The answer was NO.

Belfiore then gave us his description of the whole chain of production. The counterfeit shoes, he said, are made in the Campania (Naples area) of Italy, by Chinese workers in small illegal factories. They are then sold to a Senegalese criminal group who bring the boxes down to Sicily to be sold on the streets and in the marketplace. All this is done with the approval and perhaps involvement of the Camorra Mafia. Once the counterfeit shoes are in Sicily, they are sold by the Senegalese with the complicit approval of the local Sicilian crime families. Then law enforcement steps in. Belfiore and his men confiscate the shoes and donate them to the Catholic group Caritas. He said in 2014 they confiscated about 4,000 pairs.

When I visited the small Caritas office near the train station in Catania, hardly anyone was there, it was lunchtime. Outside the train station dozens of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants rested on the grass under shady trees. Many of them were wearing their new shoes.

My colleague Gino Macelli went back to speak to the Caritas woman responsible for the shoes and she said so far they have only handed out 400 pairs so far this year, but they are expected to hand out many more.

Coming soon in the Sicily Series: Migrant Workers in Sicily, Traffickers and Terrorists

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May 23, 2015

Baboucar’s Journey

Baboucar Lowe, a 17-year-old migrant from Banjul, Gambia speaking to me and other AP colleagues in Nicolosi, Italy, May 6, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Baboucar Lowe, a 17-year-old migrant from Banjul, Gambia speaking to me and other AP colleagues in Nicolosi, Italy, May 6, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Note for Blog-Readers – I have spent a lot of time in Sicily this spring covering the migrant story and I have not had enough time for posts. I’ve now decided to do several posts as a diary for myself, a sort of Reporter’s Notebook– a write-up of my notes with photos and freeze frames of video shots so it will stimulate my memory in the future. Feel free to either read it if it interests you or skip this Sicily series.

Baboucar Lowe is a tall, thin, dark-skinned Gambian boy.   He came loping across the parking lot of the La Madonnina center for minors in Nicolosi, Sicily and told me in English that he was willing to be interviewed, that he would tell us about his journey.   He was sincere and seemed to want to share his story without asking anything from me. No help, no money. Nothing.

He walked out of the gate and stood near a fence and matter-of-factly began his harrowing tale. He was wearing a new blue t-shirt, matching blue sneakers and Bermuda shorts. If I were seeing him in a different context, I might have confused him for any high school kid. The clothes were given to him in the Italian port of Catania a day earlier. The only giveaway was the 39 written in indelible magic marker on his hand. He was numbered migrant 39 when he came of the Merchant ship Zeran a day earlier. His short hair seemed curled into some funky little corkscrews and when I ask him about it, he pointed to his new friend, also from Gambia, also from the center for minors, with the same hairdo. Baboucar has dark brown eyes, long lashes and when he spoke he demonstrated a sensitivity and maturity that I have seen in few boys his age.

We began our interview and as I heard him earnestly recount what he had been through my mother instincts kicked in and I wanted to grab him and hug him and tell him, “it is going to be alright.” I did not of course. I kept my professional distance, just my arm reaching toward him holding the microphone. I repressed my emotions and tried to forget that this boy was younger than my own son, the same age as my daughter, and had just survived a horrific crossing of the Mediterranean. I also pushed aside my own concerns that maybe it would not be alright for Baboucar. Where will he go? What will he do? Who will help him?

The day before I met Baboucar, I took a flight from Rome to Catania, Sicily with my colleague, video-journalist Andrea Rosa. The number of migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean and brought to Italy was soaring again and AP Television needed more staffers in Sicily. (Note: figures provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees say from January to mid-May 39,000 migrants have arrived on the shores of Italy, and an estimated 1820 have died or are missing).

As Andrea and I waited at the baggage claim for our suitcases, tripod and camera equipment, we got a call that a merchant ship had arrived in the port of Catania carrying hundreds of migrants and apparently some dead bodies. We grabbed our bags, rented a car and I drove as fast as I could towards the port swerving between giant trucks trying to find the right dock.

When we found the pier, we could see the large merchant ship Zeran, hundreds of migrants standing around on the dock, while Red Cross workers and police buzzed around. Andrea jumped out of the car and immediately set up our LIVEU (a small machine that fits into a backpack size carrier that is attached by cable to the camera and allows one to broadcast images live). I began talking to everyone trying to get information. I saw Giovanna De Benedetto from Save the Children who explained that there had been some sort of incident and lots of people had died, but apparently they had only recovered 5 bodies.

Astou Dia Fall, a 24-year-old migrant from Senegal gets her fingerprint taken when she arrives in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Andrea Rosa. May 5, 2015

Astou Dia Fall, a 24-year-old migrant from Senegal gets her fingerprint taken when she arrives in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Andrea Rosa. May 5, 2015

I tried to get close enough to some of the migrants to hear their stories. I managed to speak to a young woman from Senegal named Astou Fall Dia, a 24 year-old migrant from Senegal who was the first one to explain to me what happened. She was in a rubber dinghy with over 100 people, the dinghy “exploded” she said and began to deflate as they were nearing the merchant ship. Sailors on the merchant ship threw down ropes and lifesavers but the people in the dinghy panicked and started jumping on top of each other to try to get the ropes. Many people fell in the water. She didn’t know how many had drowned.

Astou calmly said she was among those who fell in the water but she knows how to swim and she stayed near the dinghy and was eventually saved. Astou said she is hoping to go to Germany and find a job.

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

Barefoot migrants just after they have arrived in the port of Catania, Sicily. May 5, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Andrea Rosa

There were men, women and children standing around waiting. Aid workers gave them brand new sneakers (more on that in another post) and they stood around in spanking new counterfeit Adidas, Merrills and Hogans.   Eventually the sailors from the merchant ship began carrying off the bodies. Four sailors in sanitary suits struggled, heaving the bodies in green bags down the long gangplank to the waiting coffins in the port. They clearly were having a difficult time with the weight. I think the bodies had become waterlogged and were especially heavy.

The body of a migrant who died crossing the Mediterranean being carried off the merchant ship Zeran. May 5, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The body of a migrant who died crossing the Mediterranean being carried off the merchant ship Zeran. May 5, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Once the bodies were off the ship, the migrants boarded buses to go to various centers around Sicily. The minors go to separate centers, the rest to first acceptance centers. We did some on camera interviews and then Andrea walked a short distance away, put the camera on the tripod and got a wide shot – the huge mercantile ship Zeran, the migrants standing around, the police, the aid workers. I continued to wander around the edges, trying to chat with migrants. A little girl who survived proudly reached through a barrier and showed me the number she had written on her hand, 13.

This little migrant girl proudly sticks her hand through a metal barrier in the port to show me the number 13 written in magic marker.  Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 5, 2015

This little migrant girl proudly sticks her hand through a metal barrier in the port to show me the number 13 written in magic marker. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 5, 2015

Many spoke some French or English. (Note: this boat had all West Africans, the following night a boat was brought into port with migrants from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea and I had much more difficulty communicating with them. All the women had brightly colored scarves on their heads and none of them seemed to understand me or want to talk. One boy from Sudan spoke English, but he was the only one I was able to chat with).

While I was talking to migrants and aid workers, Andrea was approached by three Polish crewmembers from the Zeran. They had taken video and photos of the rescue and wanted to know if we were interested in seeing it. Andrea called me over. One sailor pulled out his phone and showed us the images. Andrea and I were struck by the drama and horror seeing the migrants in the dinghy panicking, climbing over each other, sheer desperation in their faces. One end of the dinghy was deflating and the whole thing was filling up slowly with water.

Chaos aboard deflating rubber dinghy as migrants try to get to safety on merchant ship. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015 (Video belong to AP archive -www.aparchive.com )

Chaos aboard deflating rubber dinghy as migrants try to get to safety on merchant ship. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015 (Video belong to AP archive -www.aparchive.com )

The sailors were throwing down ropes and lifesavers and yelling “easy” – but no one seemed to understand or care. Migrants were falling out of the dinghy and trying to climb back in, others were trying to swim towards the sheer side of the merchant ship, others were emptying plastic gas canisters to use to float. We immediately began negotiating with the sailors to have access to their material.

Migrant climbing up ladder to safety aboard the merchant ship Zeran. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015. (video copyright AP archive - www.aparchive.com )

Migrant climbing up ladder to safety aboard the merchant ship Zeran. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May 2015. (video copyright AP archive – www.aparchive.com )

AP Television eventually broadcast that video around the world and it was picked up by lots of networks – BBC, SKY, RAI, the New York Times website.   We are often provided with Italian Coast Guard or Navy video of rescues at sea. However, by now the Coast Guard and Navy have the rescue technique down. They keep the larger ships at a distance from the migrant boats and approach the dinghies or fishing boats with small craft. They yell and gesture at everyone to sit down and then throw large garbage bags full of orange life vests to them. When every migrant is wearing a life vest they pull up beside the dinghy and ask for just the women and children and transfer the migrants in small groups to the larger ship.

The crews of the merchant ships do not have the same experience and training and there is more chance for disaster. A merchant ship named the King Jacob was trying to rescue the migrants aboard the fishing boat that sunk on April 18th with an estimated 800 migrants below deck.

Mothers with children yell at sailors on board merchant ship Zeran asking for help as their deflating dinghy is filling up with water.  Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May, 2015 (video copy right of AP see www.aparchive.com )

Mothers with children yell at sailors on board merchant ship Zeran asking for help as their deflating dinghy is filling up with water. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. May, 2015 (video copy right of AP see www.aparchive.com )

A day after covering the arrival of the Zeran in the port of Catania, cameraman Andrea Rosa and I went out to “La Madonnina” center for minors with Frank Jordans from AP wire and Antonio Calanni for AP photo. We found Baboucar and he told us about his journey.

 

Baboucar is from Gambia and is an only child. His father is not alive. He was working painting cars in Banjul, Gambia but then travelled to Libya in January of 2014 to try to make a better living. He said, “Libya was very hard. Sometimes you will work and go out, they take your money.” He decided to take the risk of leaving Libya and attempt the crossing to Italy. He said he paid 700 dinars (roughly 500 dollars) for his spot on the packed rubber dinghy. Baboucar said there were 137 people on board. Only 91 arrived in port.

Baboucar calmly described the appalling scenes of panic that we saw on the video and said he remained seated because he doesn’t know how to swim. This is what he said,

“The boat was spoiled. ..It was going up and down. It was crazy…They tried to get up to the big boat but they could not do it, some people they could not swim….Many people jumped but they could not swim…It was very hard…Some people climbed up on them, that’s why some people died…It was very hard. I saw people were dying…Some people rose but not me. I wait my turn…I don’t know how to swim… I thought I was going to die.”

We knew what he was talking about because we had seen the sailor’s video of the dead bodies floating in the empty dinghy.

Sailors taking bodies of dead migrants from dinghy and putting them in body bags. May 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. (Video copyright AP Archive. www.aparchive.com )

Sailors taking bodies of dead migrants from dinghy and putting them in body bags. May 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Polish seaman. (Video copyright AP Archive. www.aparchive.com )

Baboucar said that earlier he had been given the opportunity to phone his mother in Gambia and she had cried when she heard that he was safe in Italy. When I asked about his future he shrugged and said simply, “I want to paint. I want to work, Inshallah.”

Note: I used freeze frames in the post of AP video and the video we acquired from the sailors – the video is property of the AP Archive aparchive.com

Coming soon in this Sicily series: Migrant Workers in Sicily, Counterfeit shoes, Traffickers and Terrorists

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