Thursday, June 22, 2006

When in Rome...

Last weekend we had a visitor. I mentioned my friend Jeff in a previous post here. He's one of a handful of journalists picked to participate in the prestigious Templeton Foundation. His mission: a summerlong sojourn in Europe looking for God. Naturally, one might choose Roma as a good starting point for such a spiritual jouney. Xtina and I picked him up at the airport Friday night and showed him a different side of the Eternal City: a decadent, fleshy, layabout 3 days of sun, heaping dishes of seafood, vino italiano and deep conversation about the merits of gelato, pizza and generous annual vacation packages. Back in Cambridge now, here's Jeff's recap. Warning some of the pics may be NSFW -- not suitable for workaholics.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Calcio in your hand

My most recent piece for the Times Online was a rare (for me) product review. Yesterday, I met with 3 Italia to check out their new mobile TV service, which incredibly carries live broadcasts of all 64 World Cup matches. I was plenty dubious going in. A TV in your hand? Right. But the picture quality was great and all the warnings of patchy coverage proved to be not an issue. There are still coverage limitations, but it was a very impressive debut for an interesting technology that is sure to be a big tech story in Europe in the coming year.

Amandola exposed

My last few posts have been about Ghana, Togo and Cote d'Ivoire. This short post is about Amandola, a place I mention from time to time here on Il Sette Bello.

For those of you not familiar with the backstory, in the summer of 2001 I had, incredibly, amassed a nice nest egg and wanted to put it to use. So, I bought my second house first. A little cottage in the hills of Le Marche, a region that borders Umbria and Tuscany to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. The house, specifically, is the frazione di Sant'Ippolito, a hilltop farming community. I am the lone Americano in these parts, which leads to the occasional awkward situation, but nothing that cannot be diffused with a smile. Here's a further description of the place, a site I just whipped up in the past few days.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Developing World justice, for at least 90 mins

Last night, around 11, Xtina shook her head at the TV and in measured disgust let fly: "The poor Polish. Losing to Germany again." Yep, the hated Germans were once again making the Pols' lives miserable, this time beating them one-nil in extra time. It wasn't the heartbreaking fashion in which the Germans won that had me buzzing afterwards, it was Xtina's reaction. Why is it that World Cup matches -- even to Ph.Ds who believe football represents the irreversible decline of civilisation -- are always regarded in military terms. This is not 11 Polish guys verses 11 German guys. This is Germany verses Poland. Cue World War 2 references. The invastion of Poland, 2006.

In reality, the World Cup is bigger than war, religion and politics, because on the pitch anything can happen, and that gives us all faith. As the Economist put it so eloquently:

The World Cup has its own hierarchy, which is pleasingly divorced from the global pecking order. There is a sole superpower—Brazil. The Italians and French, apparently doomed to gentle decline in the real world, remain formidable competitors on the football field. And then there are the rising powers—which are more likely to hail from Africa than Asia. America will field a serious team at the World Cup, but nobody expects it to win. The Chinese, who have discovered a passion for football, failed to qualify for the tournament.

Because this is nation against nation in pitched combat, even the least patriotic among us can get swept up in the national mood. I am lucky. I hold two passports: US and Ireland. Sadly, the Irish didn't qualify this year. And the Americans once promising hopes seemed to crash and burn on Monday. As all World Cup fans know, if your team doesn't make it, you can adopt a squad. And so, with my Irish passport I'm adopting an African underdog. But which one?

There are two incredible stories at this year's World Cup: Togo and Cote d'Ivoire (or, Ivory Coast). After seeing the mighty mites of Togo, I am sold. But I am also intrigued by Cote d'Ivoire. Both countries are squarely in the bottom rung of the Developing World. Both teams' players come from countries destroyed by bloody coups and violent military regimes, high infant mortality rates, low average life spans and little economic prospects. Last year, Cote d'Ivoire was labelled the most dangerous country on the planet, racked as it is by a bloody civil war. The players don't want a trophy. They want peace, a return to normality. Their former colonial parents, the UN and the church won't be able to unify this country. But maybe a victory could, at least for a few hours.

Go Cote d'Ivoire!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Togo! Togo! Togo!

Yesterday I woke at 4:45 am and hailed a taxi to the airport. Two planes, a train, and four hours later I was in Franfurt, in the suffocating heat. (What is going on this summer in Europe? It's cool and breezy in Rome and sweltering up north. How do you explain that? Global warning, as Michael says.) Why Frankfurt? To meet a contact who had a ticket for me. A World Cup ticket. We were off to see that great football rivalry, South Korea v. Togo.

If you haven't been following the story of Togo in this year's World Cup, here's a brief summary. Ranked 96th in the world, Togo is a tiny African nation making its first trip to the World Cup. In fact, since becoming a nation in 1960, they've been too poor (today, the per capita GDP is $1700 and life expectancy for males is 55) or beset by wars and military junta style oppression to field a team most years. When, they did get 11 guys on a field, they usually came in last or second to last. But, low and behold, miracle of miracles. They qualified this year, earning the 32nd of 32 spots in a table that features the mighty French, Swiss and Koreans. Qualifying was where all the trouble started. The team has not been paid by the national soccer federation, and, in protest their coach Otto Pfister quit on the eve of their first match. Questions loomed: would Togo even play a match?

Heroically, Yes!

Pfister showed up yesterday, wearing baggy jeans and a half-buttoned black shirt, resembling more of a blackjack player on an all-night run than a football coach. He sat on the bench much of the game. When he did get up, he seemed peeved, as if kids playing in the street had disturbed him from an afternoon snooze.

His team, whomever they play, will be a big underdog. They are tall and athletic, but undisciplined, a poor match for the speedy, systematic Koreans. Even the Korean fans, all dressed the same, screeching in synch, seemed better prepared. (After having my ear drums shattered by the Korean fans' bat screeches all game, I have now placed the team top of the table for world's most annoying fans. How the human voice can hit that octave -- a cross between screeching bats and the yelp produced by pulling a puppy's tale with salad tongs-- I'll never understand.)

But there was Togo. The players seemed genuinely confident about their chances. They attacked from the first minute, and even caught the Koreans off guard. By the end of the first half, Togo's strategy of sending long bombs to run under and fire on net seemed to be working. It was like watching one team play soccer, the other basketball. Striker Mohamed Kader was nothing short of a one-man show. He streaked up and down the pitch, firing everything he had at the Korean goaltender. In the 31st minute, an improbable one got through. Togo: 1, Korea: nil.

The second half started poorly for Togo. The Koreans, regrouping at the half, decided to confuse the Togo players with more passes in the offensive zone, and, surely enough, Korea started peppering promising shots at the net. A few minutes later, a red card and free kick tied the score at 1. Now, down one player, Togo seemed doomed. And sure enough they let in another goal. Korea 2, Togo 1. But incredibly, the man disadvantage pumped some life into Togo. Kader was a one-man wrecking crew, barreling into a thicket of defenders, working for every scrap of pitch, and getting some solid chances on net. Exhausted and frustrated, they kept at it. Firing chance after chance at the Korean keeper. It was truly refreshing to see international footballers actually playing, not diving, flopping and play-acting about some phantom injury, hoping to induce a yellow card and favorable free kick. The Italian team drives me crazy for their melodramatics. Not Togo. Nobody taught them how to dive. Maybe this was Pfister's instructions. No cry babies. Togo went on to lose, 2-1.
But they won me over. They play the Swiss next, then the French. If they don't run out of spending money, if the coach decides to show up, and if they can manage to play at even-strength, Togo may surprise us all.

Go Togo!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Forza Ghana!

Am back in Roma after a few days in the sweltering London heat. I have arrived back to a different city, a patriotic place. In the past hour or so, Italian flags have begun to appear on apartment terraces, hanging between the geraniums and drying laundry. And, earlier today, the street corner squeegee window cleaners were selling flags for a fiver. Forget bug-splattered windshields. Time to cash in on that rare bout of Italian nationalistic fervor. Business, well, at least interest, was brisk. I overheard one woman inquire: quanto costa? Five euros, the squeegee-man-entrepreneur replied. Five euros? Ciao! She crossed the street and could be seen haggling with the next windshield watcher/flag vendor. He too was holding firm at five euros, a pleasing site to me as I often suggest to Xtina that these boys could benefit from some basic labor organisation skills. My theory is they need to work in teams to maximise revenues. One person carrying the squeegee sponge, the other a clipboard. A perplexed driver would no doubt stop to question the clipboard holder about his purpose, creating the necessary diversion for the partner to swoop in and clean the windshield. Xtina is unconvinced. In Xtina's eyes, any attempt to manipulate the market -- whether it be the stock market or squeegee market -- is frowned upon. As for me, I like ingenuity. Even if it's just to clean up dead bugs.

As I was just saying a moment ago, we are just a few hours from Italy's opening World Cup match against the mighty Ghanaians. I have been living here 18 months (this is my first World Cup in Italy) and this is the first time I've seen a single il tricolore flapping in the breeze. Apparently, they only come out every four years in these parts. And only for the national squad. Tomorrow everyone will go back to muttering unpleasantries about the government and returning to their local identity: Romani, Marchigiani, Piemontesi, never Italiani. But tonight, it's time to support the Azzuri.

Italian football spirit is a strange thing. The general public seems to save up their support for match day. Whereas in England, we learned this weekend, they've been flying the flag of St. George on every imaginable object. In Exmouth Market, a garbage truck cloaked in the giant English red cross rammed into a curb and popped a tire on Friday, causing a spectator to remark this doesn't bode well for Sven's boys. (The whole scene was doubly perplexing for Xtina. She wanted to know why the English flags were out long before England played its first match, before the opening ceremony even. Me: because they won't be able to fly them in a week's time.)

As for me, I'm pulling for whomever is playing the Italians. Rooting for Team Italia is like pulling for Enron. Italian football is corrupt to the core. I was hoping Team America (F*** Yeah!) might prove a decent opponent after the promise of 2002, but their whimpering 3-nil defeat to the impressive Czechs is a bad start. So tonight, I'm rooting for Ghana! GOOOOOOOOO GHANA!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

On a mission from, erm, for, erm, about God

My friend Jeff landed in Europe this weekend, embarking on a summerlong journey in search of God. Others have made this journey before, but Jeff's spiritual mission is a bit different. For starters, it's a scholarly pursuit. And, he's funded. As he puts it:

A very rich foundation gave me $15,000 and two months to find the almighty. If that means turning over every coffee cup, wine glass, and beer mug in Europe, I'll do it.

Check out his blog "Summer of God" here.