When in Rome, don’t do as the mayor does

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A view of the Eternal city: Rome is as beautiful as it is corrupted

Over the last couple of days, Rome has been monopolizing the headlines of many news outlets across the globe. All for the wrong reasons.

As the Eternal city is exceptionally beautiful, it is also incredibly hard to understand Rome, its own perception of time and the stratification of mafia networks, clientelism and corruption that centuries of bad governance have inflicted to the Eternal city.

I remember the laughter of an old woman at the cafe’, while I was visiting a friend last year, when I confessed that “since tube workers are perennially on strike, I might as well take a bus to get around town”. After drying her tears of incredulity, she then put a hand on my shoulder: “I’ve been waiting for my bus for the past 45 years son, so good luck with that”.

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Rome’s mayor Ignazio Marino

The last of a long succession of unsuccessful mayors is Ignazio Marino, 60, a surgeon from Genoa who lived and operated in the States for many years. As people close to him told me during his electoral campaign, “he doesn’t know Rome at all, he’s all but prepared. We had to employ an aid that would accompany him around to explain him the issues of different neighbourhoods, to help him locating places and mentally remember streets and avenues. I’m impressed he won the election”.

Now Marino is in trouble following an expenses row that will potentially lead to his resignations. Turns out, as a matter of fact, that the mayor has been quite loose with the municipality’s credit card, offering expensive dinners and extravagant buffets to friends and family.

Funeral for alleged mafia boss

The flamboyant carriage for the don’s funeral

Then, while Rome was paralysed by pyramids of trash in the middle of the streets and public transport personnel on a strike (not to mention, of course, a Godfather-style funeral for a local don that featured a golden carriage pulled by white horses and a brass band that played, ca va sans dire, the Godfather soundtrack), he decided to leave Rome at its crumbling destiny and take the first flight to Philadelphia, the last stage of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. “He invited me” Marino said while boarding. But on his way back, the Pontiff made it clear: “Never invited the mayor of Rome, nor did the organisers of the ceremony”.

Quite a bummer when you get busted by the Pope.

In his last attempt to settle the case, Marino tried to pay back the €20,000 of restaurant bills but it was a little too late and it resembled a Marie Antoniette-esque attempt to throw croissants to the villagers to prevent the revolution.

Of course it is Italy, so there’s not going to be any revolution (we’re all cousins in the end, and our mothers wouldn’t allow us to fight one another) but the extraordinary Jubilee called by Pope Francis will start in a few months and the Eternal city must have a mayor that is more concerned about the decadent state of the city’s infrastructure beleaguered by the mafia and less about what’s new on the restaurant menu.

Thanks a million

The story of Chiara Vigo, the last sea silk weaver on earth, came out the other day on BBC Magazine.

Despite the initial scepticism – is she a phony witch? A real guru? The ultimate master of a forgotten tradition? – people from around the world read the story and liked it wholeheartedly for its simplicity and for the message it carries: the sea silk, the most precious fabric in the world, is not for sale because it would be like “commercialising the flight of an eagle”. More than a million people clicked on the story, making it the fourth most read news story of the day on bbc.co.uk

For three days straight I received hundreds of emails and dozens of tweets from complete strangers who wanted to personally thank Mrs. Vigo for sharing with us her story. Some of you also submitted original poems both in English and Italian (Google translator does wonders!), drawings and illustrations to show how inspiring Mrs. Vigo has been to all of us.

For this, and for all the warms words of affection, thank you.

 

EDIT: Even the Smithsonian Magazine talked about my story, Chiara Vigo and her incredible tradition. What an honour!

Italy is a miracle

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Piazza del Campo, Siena, as people gather in the square before the Palio

During my shenanigans in the old country I hopped on my car, held hostage a partner in crime – the good old Ferruccio – grabbed my old tent and we drove without destination throughout Tuscany.

We ended up in Siena for the Palio, a renowned horse race where ten jockeys ride bareback around the city’s piazza. Ten riders representing the different contrade (neighbourhoods) challenge each other on the tracks to determine which borough has more power and strength. But the Palio is not just a simple horse race as it defines the very essence of Siena, its history and culture: most people feel so attached to their neighbourhood that their babies are baptised not in churches under a cross but in stables with the flag of the city ward.

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horses race around the piazza during the Palio

I then walked among poor houses that time turned into noble palaces and I thought to myself that there are moments when Italy seems a miracle and Italians just invincible.

I stood in a silent piazza filled with 50.000 people where the only thing you could hear was your heartbeat and the galloping of the horses and I was welcomed in a neighbourhood where they treated me like family. Wine was abundant, laughter was sincere and old ladies didn’t deny a rich plate full of pasta to anyone.

Why beauty and intelligence, stratified here throughout centuries, didn’t make Italy immune to weaknesses and misfortunes?

How to catch a mafioso

So, I got on a plane thinking that I was going to enjoy some good and well-deserved vacations in Palermo, Sicily. It never really happened.

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the Vucciria neighbourhood in Palermo

As I landed and managed to reach the famous market of Ballaro’, I noticed that two or three helicopters started hovering over the city centre. Before I could realise it, I found myself in the middle of a gigantic Police operation where 11 men linked to the number one mafia fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro got arrested.

My vacation turned instantly into an assignment trip and, let me tell you, my girlfriend was not exactly happy about it.

After a few phone calls to local journalists –real heroes, I assure you, with a moral compass that allows them to report on mafia while receiving death threats on a daily basis – and police officers who fight organised crime in the streets of Sicily, I met I.M.D. an extraordinary cop that has arrested top mobsters such as Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.

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the olive tree in via D’Amelio, Palermo, where the mafia killed judge Paolo Borsellino in 1992

He belongs to the Catturandi squad, a special Police department that only deals with organised crime – you can spot them on TV reports because they’re the only one wearing a balaclava while arresting mafia affiliates. He’s been doing this for many years, since “the death of judges Falcone and Borsellino” because he wanted “to help my city, my region to get rid of this deadly tumour called mafia”.

They have to act incognito, they wiretap Mafiosi for decades, listening to their lives, their modus operandi, their strategies. They basically live with them, follow them, talk like them and, most importantly, think like them. And then, when the right time comes, they raid their houses, they pull them over and arrest them. “My family doesn’t know what I do for living” I.M.D. tells me “they think I work at the passport office, a boring desk job”. Except for his wife: “One day she was preparing dinner and watching the eight o’clock news. A prominent mafia boss was being arrested on live television and she looked closely into the TV screen: this boss was escorted by a man with a balaclava. She squinted on the Police officer and she recognised…well, she recognised my butt, so I had to tell her because your wife can always recognise you from a million miles away”.

Keep on reading these pages and I’ll soon tell you where you can find the full interview with I.M.D.

Have a great summer!

Speechless in Ethiopia

I make it clear on the very first sentence of my bio: I tend to talk a lot. I digress, I go off on tangents and I ramble on a regular basis. My friends, when bored, throw a random topic at me just to see how long I can talk for.

But as soon as I landed to Addis Ababa, something strange had happened: I didn’t have words anymore. It was not my first time in Africa – I had spent quite a few months in Ghana, back in the days, but Ethiopia was something else. We followed an incredibly dedicated doctor, Aldo Morrone, on a journey through Ethiopia: Addis, Aksum, Mekelle and Sheraro.

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Dr. Morrone, an Italian dermatologist, established a hospital in Sheraro, a remote Ethiopian village, seven years ago to intercept migrants on their long – and more often than ever, deadly – journey to Europe.

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With a team of highly skilled GPs, he takes care of these people who check-in in poor condition, often sick, dehydrated, affected by all sorts of diseases and he’s about to establish a ward with a group of psychologists to support migrants and their families.

What I saw – baby miners, underage steel workers and Madonna-like mothers who kissed my hands when walking down the bumpy road to Sheraro – completely changed my view on modern-days priorities and shed a light on these migrants’ daily lives.

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Before getting to our Mediterranean shores, before trying to sneak in the English Channel (and getting killed) these fathers and mothers, these sons and daughters, walk from Eritrea to Ethiopia, Sudan and Lybia, restlessly. They walk barefoot or with over-sized shoes, they cry in group, they eat what people feed them. And they always smile. That’s probably what struck me the most: no matter where they are and what they’ve been through, they always have a broad smile to give.

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As usual, follow the good old Andrea Pasquali for more pictures – he gave his heart and soul for this reportage.

Gold that can’t be bought or sold

There is an old woman on a remote island of the Mediterranean that still weaves an ancient thread of fine linen. It is called byssus and it is perhaps the oldest fabric in the world. Emperors and Kings wore it as a sign of wealth; rich Phoenician, Greek, Egyptian and Roman families had byssus embroidered on their tunics; Popes and rulers had their insignia adorned with this fabric.

The reason is that the byssus, a thin filament extracted from large clams (yes, clams, can you imagine that?) shines like gold when exposed to the sun.

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During the past week, I travelled with Andrea to Sant’Antioco, a small island on the south-west coast of Sardinia, to meet the last woman in the world who still extracts the linen and weaves it like her ancestors: Chiara Vigo.

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You can find plenty of references of the byssus in the Bible as well as on the Rosetta stone because the history of this fabric goes back to the very beginning of civilization.

Now, Mrs. Vigo – or zia (auntie) as locals call her – endlessly weaves the so-called sea silk, this precious and priceless thread. Priceless because it cannot be bought or sold and it can only be gifted to young pregnant women and newlywed couples.

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You’ll read more about this fascinating story on BBC Magazine in the weeks to come.

As usual, the pictures you see around here are Andrea’s who turned out to be a competitive Fil’e Feru drinker, one of the strongest grappa I’ve ever tasted.

Divine Business / 2

After the Devoted Followers of Fashion came out on BBC Magazine, the renowned Moncrieff show on Newstalk radio in Dublin contacted me for an interview.

They wanted to have a glimpse of the Vicenza fair and I was happy to have a chat with them – here’s what happened.

 

Divine Business

My Catholic upbringing evolved around a couple of concepts: money is bad, girls are evil, and masturbation makes you blind. At that time I was already wearing glasses and half-blind so, as you can imagine, I didn’t really pay attention to that part.

When I stepped into the Fiere di Vicenza last week, a laborious town in the north east side of Italy, I realised that Don Aldo, the grouchy foul-mouthed chain-smoking priest that chased us with a stick around the church when we were children, gave us the wrong impression of religion.

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Vicenza, every couple of years, hosts the largest religious fair in the world where producers and manufacturers from around the globe gather in this small town to trade holy merchandise, from Pope Francis fridge magnets to life-size statues of the Virgin Mary – quite impressive I would say.

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Smiling young girls with stilettos and miniskirts show priests and high clergy around the newest trends in tunics and robes, a wide array of holy water sprinklers and high-tech devotional candles that operate with a contact-less credit card.

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I mingled with priests and nuns for a couple of days to see what they’d buy and what they’d look for at this enormous fair and I came to the conclusion that Catholicism is not only about sacrifice, atonement and punishment. And that nuns are not immune to religious fashion.

More to come on BBC Magazine.

These marvellous pictures are Andrea Pasquali’s, an old friend, a tireless cyclist and a great photographer.

British politics is just not sexy

I remember quite vividly Ashley’s Story, the 60 second video that brought George W. Bush in the White House for his second term in 2004. He doesn’t say anything but the video is memorable, motivating and feel-good. And I remember Barack Obama’s epic narrative, the identity, the timing, the metaphors and his new model of campaigning that made him the first ever African-American President of the United States.

Two different models of campaigning – the first one kept the old-age drama of threat, vengeance and salvation; the second one was the story of reconciliation that could unite a divided America – but one single way to deliver: create a story, don’t simply tick off a dry list.

Britons will be asked to cast their ballots in a month or so from now. I know, American and British politics are a million miles apart and it would be inappropriate to compare how the two countries deal with the res publica.

Although, a thing that strikes me the most when watching electoral debates from my privileged position as both a journalist and a foreigner, is the lack of narrative, of storytelling that permeates British politics.

In this electoral contest especially.

It is evident that these elections will be of paramount importance for the United Kingdom as we know them today and a lot will change after May 7th depending on who will result victorious. First and foremost because this won’t be just one election but a series (150 to be precise) of by-elections with very local issues. And because there are plenty of ‘existential questions’ for the UK that no politicians has yet addressed to make the electorate fully comprehend the massive importance of this electoral turnout.

The European membership and the role the UK will play with Brussels, Scotland, inequality and rising costs of living standards. These are just four of the issues at stake but both of the strongest candidates, Ed Miliband and David Cameron, are addressing these topics narrow-minded and with no narrative.

And with no story to tell and a clear crisis of authority, it will be impossible for the two candidates to convince the marginal voters and play tactics.

Of course, I don’t want British politics to turn into the schizophrenic American way of campaigning, nor into the dysfunctional Southern-European model of promising-and-never-delivering. But candidates – and their spin-doctors – should start adapting to the era we live in and stop managing their parties and dealing with the elections as if still was the 20th century.

In other words, sex it up – because we’re falling asleep around here.

Can I brag? On blue ribbons and One World Media awards

OWM+logo+-+strap+rightThe only time I got awarded for something, it was back in elementary school for ‘Best drawing of your desk mate’. But I do think everybody got a prize for that because, hey, it’s elementary school and, since you don’t know how to read or write yet and your drawings just suck, everybody gets a blue ribbon somehow.

This time, I got shortlisted for the One World Media award for my radio documentary ‘Generation Iran’ (you can listen to it on their website – 27 minutes of pure gold).

By the end of April we’ll see if I have to prepare a moving speech where I thank my mother, my friends and all the people that contributed in a way or the other to the realization of this documentary or if I still have to stick with my blue ribbon.

Fingers crossed.