Sunday, April 24, 2005

Media city -- but for how much longer? Posted by Hello

After the pope rush, the hard questions

The votive candles are extinguished. The no-fly zone over Rome will be lifted shortly, ditto for the car ban in the center of town. Papa Benedetto Sedicesimo (it doesn't quite roll off the tongue like JP Due, does it?) is no doubt in his Adidas track suit by now, hard at work penning his next message to the masses. The pelligrini are finishing their linguine pomodoro before embarking on the return journey to their towns, villages, day jobs. The media packs will thin out from today too. In other words, normalcy (or "normality" to our friends the Brits) is returning to Rome. But one crucial matter about the future of this city/church/world remains unresolved despite the round-the-clock news coverage and all the forward-looking news analyses you will read in the Sunday papers.

I'm talking about real estate, prime flats in one of the priciest neighborhoods in the city. When John Paul II's health began failing in the mid-90s, deep-pocketed media outlets swooped into town and bought, rented, leased, cajoled their way into every building with a roof terrace overlooking the dome of St. Peter's. Reuters and NBC TV, I recall friends and ex-colleagues telling me, have fat pads just off via Conciliazione. For years these outposts remained vacant, or anonymously occupied. But once the pope's health waned, phoom! Canvas roofs, floodlights and bazooka-styled camera lenses were put in position, creating an exclusive tent city ten stories up.
Within days, well-coiffed tele-hacks would stand with their back to the dome and report on the death of the pope. Live from Rome, we bring you the most expensive live shot in the world.

For media outlets, what to do now? Continue to rent? At these extortionate prices? (Rome is going through a Manhattan-style real estate boom with rents and property prices rising at a blasphemous rate.) I can just picture Monday morning when the expense reports come trickling in to the bean counter's office. He'll take the back side of his red pen and scratch his scalp (lack of hair is why he is a bean counter after all, and not, say a schmoozy, charmster news management type who gets to stay in said flats when he travels to exotic locales like Rome) and conclude now is the time to address such a journalistic excess at the next budget meeting. Should we, respected news operation that we are, hold on to a flat in Rome? Should we sub-lease it out? Sure, the new pope is 78, but he's looking kinda, you know, spry,sportivo even. If we profess to be a lean news operation, trying to make our financial targets, can we honestly say a flash pad high above Rome a sound investment? Or, is this an expendable luxury?

From my humble, not to mention objective and rational, vantage point (IT'S BEST TO GET OUT NOW) I can't advise the media titans of this world on such real estate conundrums. It really (I CAN HELP YOU TAKE IT OFF YOUR BOOKS) is a matter only they can resolve. It will ultimately come down (IF YOU'RE FEELING A BIT PRESSURED, LET'S DISCUSS A SUB-LEASE) to that age-old question: can you afford to slum it, BBC-style, and do the reportage from the ground, among the people? Or do you need to continue to send the statement that you are a powerful media conglomerate that refuses to skimp on news coverage?

As always, I'm here to help.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Damn, these torpedoes! Posted by Hello

Palace coups, Italian style

No tanks patrolling the streets. No martial law imposed. No storming of the parliament. As government collapses go, the swift fall of the Berlusconi government has been a disappointment, an utter non-event. The real action is in Quito right now. These poor people have no water, no electricity, no telephones (or so my Italian teacher tells me. Her sister lives there). Ecuador's ousted leader has to be smuggled into the Brazilian embassy where he is no doubt being forced to samba at gunpoint with leggy latinas. Brutal savages!

Back here in this Western capital city, our fate is only marginally better. We have to endure round-the-clock televised debate. Politician lob meaningless polemics at one another, then fix their tie and pat down their hair before giving a big grin to the camera, the lovely voters back home. The truth is Berlusconi is going nowhere. It's a resignation with strings. The Italians knew this. The out-of-town media early on failed to mention that Il Cavaliere, as Berlusconi is called, wasn't going anywhere. Like me, they were expecting action. And although I had been expertly coached through every needlessly complicated twist and turn from now til the election in 2006, I feel a bit cheated. Mind you, I will be moaning like a lame pup if they (whoever they are) shut the electricity off.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The "before" picture Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gaudium Magnum?

I woke up this morning with the words habemus Papem ping-ponging through my hollow head. For once though the voices were not my own. The source was Radio Due. Throughout the night, the Italian media have been discussing/debating/debunking/deligitimizing the new pope, Benedict XVI. The analysis has been at times harsh ("this is the church's very own September 11th") to the more benign comparisons to JP2. The one element that has been glaringly missing in this news, from where I stand, is the gaudium magnum ("great joy").

I witnessed an incredible thing yesterday evening. In this era of 1,000 channels and news-in-our-pockets, hundreds of thousands of cityfolk and pilgrims, the curious and the pious, streamed into St. Peter's Square from all over Roma to hear the news in person. I was in transit when the white smoke belched to life. As I traversed the Gianicolo on my little red motorino it became apparent that everybody was heading in the same direction. And, as I popped over the hill and made my descent towards the big dome, I saw something I will never forget. Nuns outsprinting priests. Little old ladies hustling as fast as their canes could steady them. Bewildered kids on the shoulders of an enormous sea of people. Before the announcement, I could feel the gaudium magnum radiating from a crowd of crooked smiles and anxious looks fixed on a loggia above the cathedral entranceway. In this motley sea, was the church, waving flags from various countries speaking a half-dozen languages. The emotions were genuine, raw but genuine.

My feelings on the matter don't count. But I suspect the people around me have strong expectations for their new pope. Because we, the church, have no say in the election, we are a bit more in awe of the process, and the outcome. To be honest though I'm abit disappointed that the church went back to the old formula: an ultra-conservative, european old-timer. I'm feeling a bit creeped out about our leaders these days. The titles -- pope, president, prime minister -- vary, but the man carrying the title looks, thinks and speaks with the same close-minded resolve, a conviction that is rooted more in faith than reality. Hopefully, Ratzinger will live up to his name and prove to us all the church has a benign heart .

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Meet the new capo Posted by Hello

"Si, Ratzinger. Il tedesco!" Posted by Hello


Am just back from St. Peter's Square. A crush of humanity descended on the ol' square to get news the old-fashioned way: by witnessing it in person, camera phones and digicorders in hand. From my corner of the square, i romani seemed a bit subdued by the news, giving a respectful ovation, but nothing venturing anywhere near exuberance. Maybe a German World War 2 vet will always be just that to the old guard Italian. Me, I'm willing to give the ol' boy some time, but I'm not too confident he will prove to be the inspiring leader his predecessor was. Xtina thinks the church has gone back into the dark ages with this pick (or, more precisely "pre-Council of Trento days"). It must have been the Taliban voting bloc that proved the clincher.

land of the myterious pecorino Posted by Hello

And they call this little wine, "sheep"

If you find yourself one day traversing the Marchigiani hills between Offida and Ripatransone, a majestic stretch of midieval hilltowns, vineyards and farms about 15 km in from the Adriatic coast of Central Italy, keep one name handy: Guido Cocci Grifoni. Guido is a master oenologist (or, enologist if you prefer), bringing into the world a gem of a white wine, a wine that has become one of my all-time favorites.

Why so special? This wine is based 100 percent on a very curious grape called the "pecorino". We've all had pecorino cheese, which is made from the milk of the pecora, or sheep. How the sheep got around to spawning a grape I will never know. I will spare you the meaningless wine descriptions. Suffice to say this lovely little vintage is smooth and dry with a much more flavorful bite than you get from the Le Marche region's other well-known white, the Verdicchio (which can be found in just about every liquor store in the world). The pecorino is versatile. It tastes great with anything, particularly fish (of course), but I've had it with Mario's (local butcher extraordinaire) spare ribs too, and again afterwards with dessert. It pleases every time. And, at 13.5 percent alcohol, it's a white that packs some power. Particularly good is a pecorino we had over Easter that was 14.5 % alcohol, but incredibly smooth. Rarer still, I will not tease you with details.

I mention the pecorino here because of its relative obscurity. I haven't found much written on the cultivation, nor the etymology for that matter, of this grape. But I do know it's confined to select valleys, in select wine-growing regions of Italy. The only region I'm familiar with (and I confess my research into the topic consists of peppering the enoteca managers with inane questions) is in Offida, which is to say a quiet stretch of the Le Marche region of Central Italy (just north of Abruzzo) in the Ascoli Piceno provincia. Still curious? It's just inland from the Adriatic coastal town of San Benedetto del Tronto. You'll need to know these details because Guido and his neighbors produce a relatively small number of barrels -- primarily for local distribution, which encompasses a scattered chunk of the Ascoli Piceno region. (I've had no luck finding an overseas exporter). But if you ever run across this curious grape in your local wine shop, or rarer still, spot a bottle of Guido's finest, I recommend splurging.

By now, you're no doubt muttering that this is the least useful wine tip ever published. But my intentions, I promise, are good. I hope it will spur further suggestions on wine favorites, both obscure and plentiful. Cin Cin, amici.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Introducing: the 264th successor to St. Peter, Claudio Hummes! Posted by Hello

Conclave, will travel

It's day 1 of the Conclave! For Catholics, this is the moment we've all been anxiously awaiting since we first picked up Dan Brown (btw...I loathe this bubblegum hack. He will no doubt be the subject of a vitriolic Sette Bello post some day). For Catholics, the Conclave is the Super Bowl-Olympics-World Cup-Monster Truck Finals, Steel Cage match style. And, I'm going!

Time to check my supplies before heading down to St. Peter's to mingle with the chosen, the media (cue echoing authoritative Godlike voice). Press pass? check. (thank you, Wired). Latin-to-English pocket phrase book? erm, no, but Italian is kinda like Latin, so, yes, check. Abridged Guide to Vatican II? Hell, yeah. And lastly, winning flutter on the next papa? Si. My man is Claudio Hummes of Brazil. Conservative, multi-lingual, 70 ( a fine age to be the next pope), Not Italian. He's a shoo-in. And, at 8 to 1 odds, he could be a nice earner. Cristina went with Count Christoph von Schoenborn of Austria, a bit of a longshot at 16 to 1. I'm not sure I understand the appeal. Besides, the man already has the title of "Count". The church hasn't appointed a nobleman to be pope in years. In a followup bet, on the name, I went with "Luke"...sturdy, traditional, respectable, and 20 to 1. Xtina went with JP3. "Only because there is no MP3", she informed me. This is either a clever geek joke or something I should know as a 12-year-product of Catholic schooling, but of course forgot. I chose not to smile, but made mental note to ask around at St. Peter's about Pope MP3.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

If playing footy is outlawed in Italy only outlaws will play footy in Italy Posted by Hello

The beautiful game

For those who followed the NHL - believe it or not, there once was a North American professional ice hockey league -- there was an old saying that rather unfairly summed up the blood-and-guts style of the game. It went something like: "I went to a boxing match last night and a hockey game broke out." I didn't say this was a particularly clever saying.

As far as I know, the Europeans don't have an equivalent saying for their anointed national sport, football or soccer, or calcio here in Italy. But if the Europeans did it would go: "I went to the football/soccer/calcio match last night and stabbed a rival fan." Or, in Italy it would probably be a bit more theatric like: "I went to the calcio ieri sera and evoked the dead, fascist ghost of Mussolini by starting an anti-Semitic chant before lobbing a Molotov cocktail on the pitch injuring 14, one critically."

People tend to lose their heads when it comes to the beautiful game. On Sunday here in Rome, less than 48 hours after 4 million pilgrims came and went without incident, a hockey game broke out in the stands of Stadio Olimpio. The crosstown Lazio fans started a riot, injuring 85 police and, my favorite, unfurling a banner that read "Rome is fascist". (Earlier in the week the ultra-rightwing regional president lost the election to some little-known weeny lefty, a fact lost on the clever character who smuggled the banner into the pitch.)

Not to be outdone, hated crosstown rivals Inter and AC Milan went at it last night in a Champions League match that had to be stopped early due to the pitch being littered with incendiary bombs. The Milan (the visiting club) goalie was plugged in the shoulder with one rather large and well-aimed flair. And, just today Liverpool fans arriving in Turin for tonight's match against Juventus were greeted by local thugs who threatened to beat each and every one of them with, and I'm not sure of the symbolism here, a white stick.

Ah, the beautiful game!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Circo Massimo papal funeral massPosted by Hello

Packs Romana!

Here's a helpful tip. If you must absolutely, without a doubt, speak urgently with an Italian then what you need is his or her telefonino number. Gli italiani -- from teenaged ragazzi to la nonna in her pomodori-stained house dress -- get oxygen, nourishment and important bulletins about planet earth from these devices all day every day. For me, this is a curious, albeit infuriating truism. It bugs me to no end that a ringing telefonino will without fail disrupt dinner or the climactic scene of a movie. And because Italians need two hands to talk on these magic talking boxes, one would be wise to steer clear of a Roman motorist recklessly chatting away on his telefonino.

But the Italian government believes mobile phones can save lives. And thus, twice this week I received a text message from Berlusconi's boys -- the Protezione Civile to be precise. It was an urgent alert for me and the other 50 million mobile-phone-toting residents of Italy warning us that should we plan to venture into the center of Rome we may run into an enorme affluso ("enormous influx", presumably of people). Regardless of whether you were fishing off the coast of Sicily or skiing in Cortina, the good people at Protezione Civile wanted you to know what was happening in or around St. Peter's Square. The Protezione Civile have had the system for 8 months, but until this week have not (thankfully) had cause to use it to inundate all of Italy. But seeing so many pilgrims in town they rightly considered this to be a worthwhile moment to use the emergency spam hotline. I was told from the Prot Civile that the system was designed for massive events, which includes volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, terrorist strikes, and now, pilgrims.

For emergency crews, pilgrims pose a particular problem. You never know exactly when they will arrive, how many are coming, how they are coming and where they will stay when they arrive. If the New Testament had plagues, you can bet pilgrims would be on the list (most likely replacing frogs). So when millions of visitors (in fairness, roughly half were reporters) came unannounced this week to Rome, Romans were bracing for the worst. You see, on at least one occasion the unannounced visitors sacked the city, toppled the government, destroyed most of the buildings downtown. It was the end of an era, if not an empire, they say. True, those were invaders, not pilgrims. But you can never be too sure, particularly if the unannounced visitors are carrying guitars and singing disarming songs about Jesus. The perfect cover if you ask me. It turns out though these are mainly well-meaning pilgrims. And we are willing to overlook the fact that they are showing no apparent signs of planning to return home. They also haven't shown any signs of trashing the city. So, I think we will give them another 24 hours. The only ones who can stay are the foreign TV journalists who continue to over-pay us freelance hacks for the privilege of setting up nonsense interviews and harassing said pilgrims.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Friday night at St. Peter's Posted by Hello

i pelligrini Posted by Hello

Il papa

The piazza at St. Peter's has become an eerie place, the world's largest waiting room for shaken pilgrims. We've all been expecting JP Due's passing for years now, it seems. But still it seems hard to believe that this remarkably resiliant old man won't be greeting the faithful, the lost, the casual and curious from his top-floor window any more. Staring up at his window Friday night during an impromptu prayer vigil that attracted some 75,000, I really felt as if this was the end of an era, moving even for this Catholic who struggles with his faith from time to time, and time again. For me, it just seems particularly dispiriting to lose a true leader (mind you, I still disagree with much of his orthodoxy) when leaders are in such pathetically short supply these days.

The Romans won't admit it, but I think they will miss him most. To Romans, the pope is a neighbor, a Roman. And like all neighbors, there are fewer good than bad, I suppose. Maybe that's why Romans usually speak of popes in the darkest of humour. When a pope is on his deathbed, they say in classic Roman understatement:
Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro. Dead pope, just make another.

But, from the somber pall that's descended over this city, I'm thinking even the Romans must feel there never will be another Giovanni Paolo Secondo. In my short time here, he's become my favorite Roman (even if technically he's not actually Roman living inside those massive walls with an odd-looking flag flapping overhead). I've marveled at how much he has to say about matters big and small, concerns distant and right below his window. In December, I recall, he challenged the city fathers to do something about the traffic. The traffic! It's killing the spirit of the young (I assume he meant commuters), he told a gathering of politicians. He also told them to play nice and start serving the Romans. I thought: this is what London and New York need! Not a deputy mayor! A pope! Well, maybe not a pope. Just a good neighbor, one who doesn't mind us showing up under his window from time to time.