Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Radar traps on Italian ski slopes?

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone on what currently happens on Canadian and/or American ski slopes. Here’s what happens instead in Italy.

This recent Christmas holiday period has seen more than one death on the Italian ski slopes due to ultra-fast skiers and kids without protective helmets (skiers under 14 in Italy must wear helmets). One Israeli 12 year-old on holiday with his parents died as he hit a pylon while another 9 year-old who lost control of her skis hit a tree and is now in coma, even though she was wearing a helmet. Speed was the cause of that accident. A 50 year-old in the meantime went off course and died as he was probably trying to imitate James Bond on the slopes (more for that below).

Each year about 40 people die on the ski slopes in Italy with a “mere” 30,000 injured. Many accidents apparently are also caused by new and more sophisticated artificial snow-making machines, not to mention high-tech skis and snowboards (much adored by the younger generation).

If driving on Italian highways is any indication, unless something drastic is done, I quite personally (who only learned to cross-country ski on the Prairies back in Canada) foresee weekend “disasters” similar to the death and destruction which we regularly see on Italian highways (and where the speed limit of 130 km/hour is still NOT observed). Generally speaking, Italians not only DON’T know how to drive if their lives depended on it, they don’t know how to keep the distance from one car to another and they also drive at the same speed in pouring rain—with the excuse that their cars have ABS brakes—and in fog. The result is quite often cars that are so mangled around trees that you can’t even make out the carmaker!

Another example of poor driving habits? When it rains in Rome (but not necessarily a Monsoon) you’ll read the following day in the papers of “70 accidents with 3 deaths”! I say to myself, “For a few drops of rain there are actually deaths”? I don’t recall the same in Winnipeg (and there I also went through Siberian-style snow blizzards). Add to all this also cellular phone use which is not only illegal while driving but which is still used by many, many “law-abiding” Italians. No doubt there’s probably more than one idiot skier out there who is travelling down the slopes while talking on his cellular phone (Italians adore the darn things. There are close to 40 million devices out there out of a population of approx. 58 million people!). One odd scene I saw just awhile ago was in Udine: a woman was calmly talking on her cellular phone while riding her bike…and with her kid seated right behind her! She was only using one hand to ride the bike while she was using the other one to talk on the phone. One can only imagine the tragic scenario in an accident.

Velocity is in the DNA of Italians, and their quite often atrocious driving habits are now carried over to the ski tracks (quite comical actually to see Carabinieri officers on skis telling skiers to slow down). Television ads don’t help either. Years ago for the promotion of Fiat’s “Stilo” car it showed Michael Schumacher in a Stilo having it out against Rubens Barrichello on a race track. Just imagine what goes through the mind of an 18 year-old punk who dreams of getting his hands on his first-ever car! Speed is the equivalent in Italy of being “cool”, a macho thing. Add to all this booze—and there is a LOT of mighty fine wine out there in Italy—and one can only imagine the industrial strength number of road accidents (some 8,000 deaths in Italy each year, way below what the Brits have managed to do by bringing down road deaths). As tragic as it may sound, I found it rather comical awhile back when in the Udine area a poor fellow died in his car: it literally flew in the air and landed on the balcony of a 1st-floor apartment! The poor sod was certainly NOT going at 60 km/hour in order to fly in the air. Now, I always grew up knowing that cars usually fly in James Bond movies (one in particular with Roger Moore), but not in real life.

So, my question is: what will we soon see on Italian ski slopes, radar traps, breathalysers and perhaps even points taken off one’s ski pass (as what already happens with one’s driver license)?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

‘Tis the season to be gay and merry?

Indeed never a dull moment in Italian politics: the halls of Italy’s parliament, Montecitorio, has had for years the Nativity scene. Nothing terribly wrong with that expect that this year two politicians, in order to be “politically correct”, stuck four extra dolls in the scene when no one was looking. Joseph’s brother? Mary’s cousin? No, two Barbie dolls hugging each other and with a sign around their necks stating: “Gay marriages also in Italy, just like in Zapatero’s Spain”! Next to them were two Ken dolls, also hugging each other and with a similar sign around their necks.

The above shouldn’t be all that surprising: the Neapolitans are (in)famous for their Nativity scene characters. In true soccer spirit, three have been included this year—Zidane head-butting Materazzi and Cannavaro, a home-grown Neapolitan boy himself, who is raising the World Cup!
Buon Natale a tutti!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

St. Peter vs. Ronaldinho?

Well, just when you thought you saw just about everything in the wild and crazy world of Italian soccer (years ago at Milan’s San Siro stadium fans actually threw a scooter from one stadium ring down to another!), along comes the Secretary of State of Vatican City, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (no. 2 after Pope Ratzinger in the Vatican’s hierarchy), who has proposed organising a men’s professional soccer team which will one day be able to compete against the likes of Inter, Juventus, Milan and Roma!

Yes, as religiously zany as it may sound, Bertone, an avid (Juventus) soccer fan himself, has seriously contemplated fielding a men’s team with the traditional white and yellow colours of Vatican City, the world’s smallest state (with some 300 employees or so).

Bertone is certainly no novice to the game. When he was archbishop of Genoa he was at the stadium doing television play-by-play commentary for the Genoa and Sampdoria games (the city’s two teams). But the Vatican isn’t completely new to the world of sports. Behind Vatican walls priests not only play volleyball and 5-a-side soccer but former Pope John Paul II had been a fairly good soccer goalkeeper in his youth, not to mention also an avid skier, mountain climber, canoeist and also swimmer (and according to my own personal source—the former spokesman of His Holiness, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls—a Roma fan too!). Portuguese cardinal José Saraiva Martins not only had been an aspiring winger in his youth for club Benfica (Eusebio’s former club) but he’s also been a die-hard Lazio fan for the last 40 years. Before entering the priesthood he apparently had also kicked a ball around with the late, great Brazilian forward Garrincha (who just happened in the 50s and 60s to have played with Pele’ for Brazil). Another avid soccer fan is cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini who quite often does the play-by-play commentary of the Serie A for Radio Vatican.

But where to find these future “holy” players in order to battle it out with the likes of Totti and Buffon? “No problem”, says Bertone,” Just think of all the Brazilian players who are also currently studying in our Pontifical universities. We’d be able to field a magnificent team with these players”! Bertone also recalls that 42 players that had taken part in the 1990 World Cup in Italy had played at one point in their lives in oratories and seminaries.

The idea sounds like a good one and may actually help bring some tranquillity to Italian stadia which are on a weekly basis “infected” by the scourge of hooliganism, but I quite personally would have some serious questions related to the Vatican fielding a soccer team. To begin with, would one start off the match (just prior to the ref’s whistle) with a prayer or a blessing? And what about fouls? If Father Sarducci were to say tackle Totti from behind, instead of being yellow-carded, would he be sent to purgatory? And if Padre Ramirez where to be the last man on defence and he were to viscously foul Paolo Maldini in his own penalty area, would he be sent to hell or would he be excommunicated? And better yet, if the Vatican boys were to win the Champions’ League, would the team captain raise the Holy Grail and would the entire team be sent directly to paradise as a reward? Water bottles along the pitch: would they contain holy water? At the end of the match, would Vatican players give everyone the host and a chalice of wine (after all, games in Italy are usually played on Sundays)? The head coach: a tricky question indeed for sports theologians: would he be a Jesuit, a Capuchin monk, a Franciscan friar or a Benedictine (like Ratzinger’s order)? And what to do about crucifixes which usually hang from the necks of both priests and nuns?
Would they be considered dangerous and therefore banned? And if a coach must be named from outside the Vatican walls, can he be an atheistic? An agnostic? What about a Marxist-Leninist? The dressing rooms: will there also be confessionals so that the Vatican Boys can pray for their sins in case they lose (the coach: “Padre Francesco, now why on EARTH did miss that all-important penalty-kick? You made us lose the final! Ten Hail Marys for you”!)? And if a Vatican player would REALLY get upset at being fouled, would he be able to swear say in Latin? Indeed pressing issues for Serie A organisers. One final point, seeing that the world is going more and more towards being politically correct “à-la-americana”, would we for equality purposes also see one day a Vatican women’s soccer team comprised of nuns (they are usually the pope’s personal attendants) competing in say FIFA’s Women’s World Cup?

On a final note, if the Vatican Boys were to face either Roma or Lazio in the “derby of derbies”, would Pope Ratzinger also be present with a scarf around his neck and a horn in his hand, cheering on his team? Would the pope also take part in the “ola”? Could his cardinals quite possibly become fervent religious “hooligans” to the point of actually chanting “Hail Marys” non-stop during the entire match (as Argentine fans usually do by beating their drums non-stop for 90 minutes which drives others crazy)? And at the beginning of each soccer season, would Pope Ratzinger actually give the official kick-off (like the president of the US does with the start of the baseball season)? What would the pope have on underneath his robe, shorts and Nike cleats? Stay tuned for more… (in the picture by ANSA: Cardinal Taricisio Bertone during a match).

PS The latest is that UEFA has actually approved Bertone’s idea!

Friday, December 15, 2006

“To pee or not to pee (part II)”

Soccer aficionados out there who have lived in Italy know that each season fans in some Italian cities get geared up for the “Mother Of All Games”—the city derby. Now, for those non-soccer fans out there who know nothing about the “beautiful game”, the derby takes place between two teams from the same city. The three most important derbies in Italy are: Torino-Juventus, Milan-Inter and the so-called “Derby of Italy”, Roma-Lazio.

The Eternal City derby in particular attracts the “crème-de-la-crème” of the Italian cinema (Rome is also the capital of Italian cinema with the Cinecitta’ film studios, the same where Ben Hur and other films have been shot), music and television world. The derby also attracts the nation’s most important politicians and businesspeople who are either “romanisti” or “laziali” (Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, is an exception as he’s a Juventus fan). It is said that Mussolini was a Roma fan even though deep down he was actually a Lazio fan (while others say that he didn’t even like soccer but preferred tennis).

The Roma-Lazio derby is rather old, going back now close to 90 years (the Lazio sports club was founded in 1900 with the Roma club coming along a few decades after). Unlike what goes on amongst fans in North American stadia, or better, what DOESN’T go on, the Rome derby is usually plagued with violence “à-la-Gaza Strip”: cars gutted (the Sicilian mafia wanted to also trigger off years ago a car bomb to nail Italian police but the remote-control trigger failed), fans of both teams seriously knifed (almost to death), police officers who are maimed, vulgar banners (the Lazio fans traditionally belong to the far right. One banner years ago read the following: “Auschwitz is your nation, the ovens your home”! Rome’s Jewish community instead has traditionally backed Roma whose fans have always belonged to the left) and even live missiles! Yes, missiles (one had crossed the entire length of the stadium decades ago during a Rome derby. It landed straight in the eye of a Lazio fan, killing him instantly). Security is so tight that if the game takes place on Sunday night the Olympic stadium (site also of the 1960 Rome Olympics) will be lit up the ENTIRE evening on Saturday night as a way to prevent rowdy fans from sneaking in and hiding bats, knives, chains, etc. (just think of the electricity bills). You’d actually think that a political debate between Hamas and the Israelis is going to take place at the stadium, and not a mere soccer match!

Last Sunday’s Lazio-Roma derby instead brought an odd truce between opposing fans: no violence, no vulgar banners nor any taunting chants. For once, outside the stadium after the match you could even hear a ball drop, that’s how tranquil the situation really was. Indeed an oddity for such a high-level derby. Lazio won the derby hands down 3-0. Its head coach, Delio Rossi, had promised “Suor Paola”, a die-hard Lazio fan (who is also a nun. Yes, religion is also a intricate part of Italian soccer), that if Lazio won the derby, he’d take a dive after the match into the “Fontanone” (Big Fountain) located on the Gianicolo hill which overlooks all of Rome (the large fountain is located also directly in front of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. The temperature these days in Rome hovers around 8 degrees Celsius during the night). Nevertheless, the gentleman that he is, Rossi kept his promise and with only his underwear on, dove straight into the fountain, much to the joy of Sister Paola who watched the event live. The dive was supposed to have been kept a tight secret but apparently Roma fans were tipped off shortly before Rossi’s “aquatic escapade”. About 40 of them showed up prior to Rossi’s arrival, went to the edge of the fountain, unzipped their pants and proceeded to pee directly into the fountain!

Weather it has now become an urban legend or not, the “Romanista” magazine (Roma’s official fanzine) has promised—in order to dispel the hideous crime—that an “anti-doping” test will be performed on the fountain’s water. Head coach Rossi took it in great diplomatic stride and said that the guilty pee is after all “holy water and that it’s natural”. Police authorities were content with the dive as it has been one of the lesser crimes ever committed in Rome during a derby. And weather or not Interpol will also be called into the picture (now also investigating the case of the dead former KGB agent in London) remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure: the return Roma-Lazio derby will be in 2007. God only knows what the Lazio fans will have in store for Luciano Spalletti, (Roma’s head coach) if Roma were to win that derby!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Greece/Italy tag-team against J. Paul Getty?

After “Il Duce” (Mussolini) and his (in)famous words of how during World War II Italy was going to “break Greece’s back”!, 60 years later the Greeks and Italians join forces in trying to get back what rightfully belongs to them: stolen works of art.

Even though Italy is wracked by the four different mafias and tax evasion is quite often THE national sport (and not soccer!), it is refreshing to know that Italy’s para-military police, the Carabinieri (the closest you can get to Canada’s RCMP) are considered by many, including the Greeks, perhaps THE world’s best when it comes to recovering stolen art. In fact, the Carabinieri for years have had in place s special unit dedicated just for recovering stolen and priceless artefacts. With the so-called 40% (some say even 50%) of the world’s historical art located in Italy, many ancient artefacts are extremely appealing to art thieves. Not too far away from Rome where the Etruscans once lived (in the Cerveteri and Tarquinia areas for example) ancient tombs for decades have been ransacked by real, live tomb raiders. Much of this stolen art has ended up abroad, even in famous museums such as the Getty in Los Angeles and Malibu.

But enough is enough. The Greek culture minister, in New York on an official visit (shortly after the visit of Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s culture minister), has planned to forge a formal alliance with Italy in order to pursue the return of ancient artefacts from museums in the US and also Europe, according to a December 11, 2006 International Herald Tribune article. No doubt Minister George Voulgarakis’s words were sweet music to his Italian counterpart Rutelli: “The Italians are very well organised—very, very well-organised”.

Greek investigations into stolen artefacts are also aiding Italian authorities in their case against Marion True, the former antiquities curator at the Getty, who is standing trial in Rome on Italian charges of having conspired to import looted artefacts. The Greeks would also like to get their hands on True because of two stolen works from Greece, a 4th century B.C. gold funerary wreath and a 6th century B.C. marble kore, or statue of a woman. The US Embassy in Rome in the past has also undertaken “M.O.U.s” (Memoranda Of Understanding”) with the Italian Foreign and Culture Ministries on stolen art as well as Italian art which is lent to US museums, a lucrative business for American museum owners for visitors who flock to see ancient Italian artefacts (one statue of the Venus by the sculptor Giambologna sits in the main hall of the US Embassy. It can even be seen from the street. It’s apparently the only Venus of its kind which was sculpted by Giambologna. Years ago the wife was involved in the temporary transfer of the Venus to the US for an exhibit).

With some positive news vis-à-vis the work that the Italians are doing in getting stolen art work back to Italy, the Greeks now want to do a “full-court press” on the British: the famous Elgin Marbles which were removed from Athens’s Parthenon in the 19th century by the diplomatic emissary Elgin. They have been sitting in the British Museum ever since. The Greeks would like the marbles back as next year Athens will see the inauguration of the new Acropolis Museum which has been specially designed to house the marbles with other Parthenon sculptures.

On international art theft, the Greek culture minister sums it up in the following manner: “The Mona Lisa is cut up into pieces. Imagine if you have the face in Sweden, one hand in the United States, the breasts in Japan, and the other hand in Italy. What kind of Gioconda is that”? The IHT concluded its article by adding the following regarding the Minister’s observation: “He did not mention that the Mona Lisa, fully intact, is in France, not in Italy, where it was originally created”.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pacentro and the “Madonna”

A weekend drive in the Abruzzo region of Italy and to the town of Sulmona (home of the Latin poet Ovidio). Only 10 kilometres away from Sulmona lies a very small town called Pacentro. As one can see from the pictures, it lies at the foot of the mountains. For me at least, the name didn’t ring a bell (and probably even less for many readers). I did some research and the town is famous for one particular reason: probably at the turn of the 20th century, an Italian couple, tired of a life that was going “nowhere fast”, decided to make the big jump across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. together with millions of fellow compatriots. The couple would have a son (a bar owner told us that the son was actually born in Pacentro and went to the U.S. with together his folks) who would end up living and working in Bay City, Michigan. He himself would have a family one day (six children) with a daughter who would become adventurous, just like her grandparents (was it bound to also be in her DNA?). The man? Silvio P. “Tony” Ciccone. The daughter? Madonna Louise Ciccone, better known to the entire world simply as Madonna!

Things haven’t changed terribly since the day that the Ciccone family decided to leave Pacentro. While we were taking a look around the town (practically everyone who goes by you says “hello”!) one fellow, when we asked for directions, complained by saying that “nothing seems to get done in this town”! Evidently, Madonna’s family thought the same thing when they left Pacentro.

It is said that young Madonna one fine day decided to leave her home in the Detroit suburb where she grew up and to try to make it in the Big Apple. The first time on a plane, the first time away from her native Michigan and with only 35 dollars in her pocket, for quite awhile Madonna lived in total squalor and didn’t ask anyone for financial help. She has now sold more than 200 million records and, like her or not, is unquestionably THE world’s most famous female performer (and around the world, who HASN’T heard of her?). An honour for us as we saw her on August 6th, 2006 in Rome’s Olympic stadium (see month of August for write-up). Quite the show indeed and quite the performer.

As we walked around Pacentro (which dates back to around the 8th century, although archaeological ruins have dated further back then that. The three castles are still standing and have been recently renovated. The Santa Maria Maggiore Church was built around the sixteenth century and St. Marcello's church, founded in 1047, was restored in 1166. Also, the famous Dutch graphic artist M.C. Echer lived in Italy from 1922 to 1937. He travelled to the Abruzzo region where he was attracted by the scenery which also became part of his many particular drawings), I was wondering if at one point Madonna’s father, when faced with the fact that his daughter wanted to finally “fly the coop”, didn’t oppose his young daughter’s wish as perhaps many parents do when confronted with the same dilemma, knowing very well that his own folks, probably at the same age as his daughter, gambled their future on moving to America to try to “make it”.

It’s also probably impossible to say it now but had Madonna’s family not made the move, perhaps she wouldn’t have become the international star that she has. With the exception of Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, many Italian singers aren’t that famous abroad as their American and British counterparts. And has Madonna ever visited Pacentro? “No”, was the somewhat sad response by the bar owner. Looking at the winding road that leads up to the town, it’s perhaps better that she doesn’t show up: thanks to her presence there would probably be major chaos in a radius of at least 30 kilometres (all pics by M. Rimati)!

Monday, December 04, 2006

No doubt a fun wedding for Mr. Cruise and Ms. Holmes!

We decided to go for a nice Sunday drive to Bracciano, located just 37 kms north of Rome, to visit the town’s castle. This comes just a few weeks after the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage there. We had lunch first of all on the lake front and then went inside the castle for the tour, 6 euros per person. No doubt the wedding has had some positive spin-off effects vis-à-vis tourism as most want to see “up close” where the Hollywood couple got married. There were about 30 of us for the tour.

The castle was built around 1470 and was owned by the Orsini family. They went bankrupt one day and the castle was eventually bought in 1696 by a powerful banking family, the Odescalchi. Unlike the Orsinis though, the Odescalchi weren’t part of nobility, until one of the members became a pope (or something to that effect). The princess Odescalchi still lives there and no doubt commanded a hefty sum for the Cruise-Holmes marriage (some say up to $1.5 million!). The view of Lake Bracciano is also very nice. And no, the tour guide didn’t say anything about the wedding until I asked, “Where are Tom and Katie”?, at which point she naturally laughed as I wasn’t probably the only one to bring up the topic.

The two love-birds unquestionably had a great time in such a nice castle and no doubt Ms. Holmes/Cruise will remember her wedding for quite some time to come as castles like the ones in Bracciano (or for that matter, in the rest of Europe) you don’t readily find in places like Los Angeles or New York (all pics by M. Rimati)!