Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bring out your dead (but watch out for the jewellery)!

Heinrich Himmler would be most proud: another undercover reportage in Italy, after the one on the appalling health conditions of many hospitals, has unmasked what goes on in funeral parlours and morgues, especially in southern Italy.

So what pray tell does the former head of the dreaded SS have to do with funeral parlours? The bodies of the dearly beloved in Italy have been known to be completely stripped, including gold chains and even gold teeth, by less-than honest funeral parlour and morgue employees. Morbid as the whole thing sounds but it’s reminiscent of what I once saw in the morgue in Mauthausen, one of the most dreaded concentration camps under the Nazis, located in Linz, Austria (Simon Weisenthal came out alive from that camp, the last of the 11 he had been to. Adolf Eichmann had also visited Mauthausen during his “illustrious” career as head of the Gestapo). Before being thrown into the ovens the bodies would also have their tattoos removed (!!).

The Italian reporter pretended to be a funeral parlour employee. Kick-backs are the norm, even amongst ambulance drivers who tip off, for a nice “coffee” (the code word for the kick-back one receives) the news of a freshly deceased person, as a result say of a car accident. If the poor bloke has on gold chains or rings, voom, they immediately disappear!

Everyone seems to be in on the game, including very-well paid doctors (who already earn between 4 and 5,000 euros a month for their professions) as well as nurses. And it’s not terribly surprising that some funeral parlours are also controlled by the local mafia. The relatives of the dearly departed have little choice but to pay big bucks in order to bury their beloved, otherwise they may fall prey to the “pressure” from local mobsters.

And to think that Italy is a predominantly Catholic country home also to the Vatican!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

And now for something completely different, the Vatican Museums!

Just a few days ago I decided with the missus to again check out the Vatican Museums in Rome. We got there and there was a line-up which moved rather rapidly. I had been to the museum many years ago, perhaps 10, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the ticket booths had been modernised. In this age of terrorism, there are also airport-like x-ray machines that one has to pass through. The ticket is a whopping 13 euros but you do get your money’s worth in perhaps THE world’s finest museum.

I was flabbergasted by the “human wave” of people that were in the halls of the museum, and it wasn’t yet Easter or the summer period! The works of art? Simply astounding. I said to myself that if they could sell all of the artwork in the Vatican Museums one would probably be able to feed half of Africa (I hope to not sound too blasphemous but there is a slight bit of hypocrisy when the Vatican tells me that we should combat world hunger!).

Towards the end of the visit I admit that my head was spinning a wee bit, what with the heat, the large crowds, the art and the fact that I didn’t bring a bottle of water with me. By the time we got to the Sistine Chapel, what else was there to see that could possibly top off a museum visit such as this one? Absolutely nothing (all pics by M. Rimati)!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hulk Hogan, where are ya?

No siree, never a dull moment in Italian politics, that’s for sure! Because of a variety of reasons tied to the war in Afghanistan (and Italy’s participation in that conflict), the expansion of the U.S. airbase in Vicenza and gay marriages (a definite no-no for the Vatican), Romano Prodi’s government fell on February 21st. Prodi, the prime minister, had to immediately hand in his resignation to the Italian president, Napolitano.

Nothing new in that one might say as Italy has had so far over 50 governments since the end of WW II. But what happened in the Italian senate is not only ludicrous, it’s also offensive and typically Italian. But before describing what exactly happened, let us back-track a wee bit to what the Romans gave us, mainly the senate and the famous four letters which are also the symbol of the city of Rome: S.P.Q.R. (in Latin, “Senatus PopulusQue Romanus”, in Italian, "Il
Senato e il Popolo Romano", in plain English it means, “The Senate and the Roman People”). One would think that senators in general are not only paid rather well but also command respect, are well-educated, well-versed and also polite (not to mention civilised too). Well, not in Italy: the scenes on tv and in the papers the other day of the “glorious” Italian senate were simply appalling: senators who threw newspapers in the air in a sign of jubilation, senators who yelled, who pushed other senators (some even prevented others from voting) and who even insulted fellow senators with words such as “ass…”! and “You’re a piece of sh..”!

Not too surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t often take Italy terribly seriously. The only thing missing in the senate was Hulk Hogan to body-slam a few senators, including 7-time Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti (who is pushing close to 90 soon)!

All this shouldn’t be all too surprising. Many years ago, when Ronaldo was playing for Inter, there was an all-important match between Inter and Juventus in Milan’s San Siro stadium. Ronaldo was clearly taken down in the Juve penalty area but the ref didn’t award Inter the pk. The game was played on Sunday. The debate surrounding that missed pk went on until the following Thursday. Massimo Mauro, a former Naples, Udinese and Juve player (he had played respectively with the likes of Maradona, Zico and Platini!), at the time was an honourable member of parliament. A fellow by the name of Grammazio, of the neo-fascist "National Alliance" party, was SO incensed (an Inter fan perhaps?) that he had it out with Mauro, even launching his microphone at the former soccer player-turned-politician! Indeed NEVER a dull moment in Italian politics…

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Some things just never change...

After the death two weeks ago of the cop during the Catania-Palermo derby, the men’s Serie A championship (and all other games, including women’s soccer), kicked-off again last Sunday, but not without the usual idiots (some games, such as Fiorentina-Udinese, were played behind closed doors amid the protests of local fans). At Rome’s Olympic stadium a minute of silence was observed for the death of the police officer and of a manager who was kicked to death during an amateur match a few weeks ago. The minute of silence was observed at all games.

So what did some Roma fans do? They turned their backs on the pitch in a sign of protest (why I ask?). The gesture was seen by the thousands of other more “serious” fans in the stadium and were eventually booed and clapped in a sign of their own protest at the rather stupid gesture. This wasn’t the only stupid gesture: in an amateur match a manager flung a steel barrier at another team manager and hit him with a cane. Nothing terribly unusual together with the odd fireworks thrown on soccer pitches. Oddly and luckily enough, these kinds of zany things DON’T happen at women’s matches (thus confirming the fact that women are quite often MORE intelligent and not as violent as men!).

Udinese in the meantime risks in two weeks’ time to also play behind close doors as the automatic turnstiles which have been demanded by the soccer authorities are still not in place (AC Milan and Inter over at San Siro had them in place on the weekend). There’s now a push-and-pull with the club and the city of Udine (which owns the stadium) as no one wants to dish out the money. Giuliano Amato, the Home Minister, said a few days ago that “NASA went on the moon, so installing these turnstiles isn’t the most expensive or difficult thing to do”.

Go say that though to Pozzo, Udinese’s president (or the mayor of Udine)!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The usual “verbal diarrhoea”?

There’s naturally been an incredible amount of “verbal diarrhoea” surrounding the Catania-Palermo derby and the death of the police officer there. I say verbal diarrhoea simply because we’ve already gone through this a zillion times. Italian sociologists, anthropologists, shrinks, priests, homemakers, kids, journalists, you name it, have jumped on the “anti-stadium” violence with their theories on what to do about the appalling violence in Italy’s stadia.

Many think that by having secure stadia there won’t be violence outside the stadia (many aren’t yet up to par in Italy so this Sunday when the championship will kick off again, many games, such as Fiorentina-Udinese, will be played behind closed doors with no spectators). That’s like saying that if a curfew is imposed in Baghdad that the massive violence there will cease overnight! The main problem are the lax laws in Italy and the poor reinforcement of them, not so much what goes on in a soccer stadium.

A case comes to mind just yesterday: three elderly Chilean men (one even 80 years old!) were caught on a Genoa bus. Pinching the women’s bums? No, they were pick-pocketing the passengers. Nothing new with that as in Italy, especially in Rome and its (in)famous bus No. 64 (the one that goes from the main train station, Termini, to St. Peter’s), there are usually hordes of pick-pockets (on the No. 64 once undercover cops found—all at the same time—10 pick-pockets all working together! They must have probably been going to a pick-pocket convention in town. The Rome subway is also often full of gypsy pick-pockets).

These three coy Chilean pensioners weren’t at it for the first time. No siree, they had already done the same thing in Parma, Trieste and in other Italian cities (the cops have a long file on them). And yet, there they were again, out on the streets doing what they do best, pick-pocketing. Ditto many years ago in Rome on a tram which goes by “Porta Portese”, the Sunday flea market. At one point, the driver warned passengers that pick-pockets had just gotten on board. Some foreign tourists (Americans), in a usually-logical way of thinking, said to themselves, “Well, if you KNOW that there are pick-pockets on board, why doesn’t anyone do something to arrest them”? No, in true Italian “humane” style, the driver was just being nice by “advising” passengers to be careful. It didn’t even cross his mind to call the cops.

If Italian authorities can’t throw away in the slammer for awhile a bunch of harmless old pick-pockets, are they possibly going to stop kids from hurling bricks at cops or launching Katyusha-style missiles at opposing fans? Then there’s the ever-reigning presence of the mafia in Italy (some suspect that the Mob is also behind hooligans receiving drugs and weapons in southern Italy). That’s something that’s going to be incredibly difficult to change in Italy. As the late, great Giovanni Falcone once said (the anti-mafia judge blown up by Cosa Nostra in 1993 near Palermo), a Sicilian himself: “ALL Sicilians are Mafiosi, just a small percentage are criminals”! It’s a way of life, a way of thinking for many Italians.

I really doubt things will change much, especially when in certain parts of Italy efficiency and honesty are NOT on the tips of everyone’s tongues (it is said that the custodian of the Catania stadium had hidden bats and what not inside the stadium. He was also overheard yelling at the cops, “Bastards”!). And I really doubt that the British model of combating hooliganism will help much when many Italians don’t respect the simplest of laws (such as driving and talking on the cell phone or observing the speed limit on highways!).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

“La solita minestra”!

A good friend of mine lived 20 years in Italy. He moved back to the States some 10 years. In Rome he left an (ex) wife and two kids. He comes back about twice-a-year to see his family. He usually arrives at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. If I can, I gladly go to pick him up. If he arrives ahead of schedule I’ll find him sitting on a bench reading an Italian paper. After the hugs and hellos he’ll look at me and he’ll say, “Hey Mario, is this today’s paper”? And I shall naturally look at him and I shall say, “Yeah Walt, why, do you usually read yesterday’s paper”? He’ll then add, “But Mario, it’s the same news as last year”?

That in a nutshell is Italy: “la solita minestra” (the same old soup), the same old song, the usual blah-blah-blah. I’m naturally talking about the umpteenth death on February 2nd of a police officer at the Catania-Palermo soccer derby (won 2-1 by Palermo). The absolutely INCREDIBLE irony of this match is that prior to the kick-off a minute of silence was observed in Catania’s stadium because on January 27th, a day put aside by the Italian government to remember the Holocaust, the manager of a boys’ amateur soccer team was (literally) kicked in the head in the dressing room. To death.

The Catania-Palermo match saw over 150 people injured, including 26 police officers and 4 Carabinieri officers. Another police officer is in serious condition. Catania’s hospitals apparently went into overdrive due to the incredible number of injured people that were arriving. In a sign of protest and disgust, the Italian FA has decided to suspend all matches of the Serie A scheduled for February 4th. Again, the same old soup: twelve years ago when Don Antonio Matarrese was the president of the Italian FA (he’s currently the president of the Italian League and was also a former FIFA Vice-President, one by the way despised by Trinidad’s Jack Warner!), a young fellow by the name of Vincenzo Spagnolo was knifed to death at the Marassi stadium in Genoa by AC Milan fans. Matarrese then chose the iron fist and suspended, for the first time in the history of Italian soccer, the championship on the following weekend. Twelve years later and with innumerable acts of violence in Italy’s stadia (Molotov cocktails too!), the scene has once again been repeated. The usual blah-blah-blah on what should be done will certainly now follow.

Looking at the scenes on tv you’d think that there was a mini “Intifada” which took place in Catania the other night: tear gas canisters launched by the hooligans and by the police, mini paper bombs exploding left and right (one apparently killed the officer as it was thrown into his police van), rocks being thrown, you name it, it was there. About the only thing that was missing was yet again another missile, like the one which had killed the Lazio fan Vincenzo Paparelli in 1979 during the Lazio-Roma derby in Rome. The missile was fired from the Roma supporters’ area, it crossed the entire LENGTH of the Olympic stadium and landed in poor Paparelli’s eye socket, killing him instantly (no doubt Al-Qaeda would have been proud of the Roma fan who fired it off!). This was how many years ago now, only 28? Have things changed much in 2007? Not really.

A few years ago in San Siro, one of the 10 “temples” of international soccer, thugs rolled up the stadium ramps a scooter. Once it was gutted they threw the thing from one tier down to the other one! Miraculously, no one was killed. The whole thing was caught on film and no doubt the scene was sent around the world (how on earth security staff DIDN’T notice a scooter being brought into the stadium during a soccer match is beyond me!). On another occasion I took in a Roma-Juventus fan in Rome. I went with the bro-in-law, a die-hard Juve fan. Our seats were next to the Juve hooligans (taken collectively they were pretty dangerous. Taken individually they were harmless). At half-time the rubbish started raining down on us. We were separated by the “praetorians”, the cops. As my bro-in-law stood up to see where the crap was coming from, bang!, he got nailed right in the sunglasses by a coin. I ended up having to drive him to 5 emergency wards (ever had an emergency in the summer on a Sunday in Rome?) in order to get the glass shrapnel pulled out of his eye (he didn’t lose the eye luckily). And naturally we missed the 2nd half of the match.

Now every politician, Tom, Dick and Luigi is going to jump on the “morality” band-wagon and is going to say—as they’ve said countless times in the past—that “we have to do something to stop this ludicrous violence”! Hard to do I’d say when it has to do with a nation, as Vladimir Putin said awhile ago, which has the mafia. Why? Because the extreme fringes of hooligans have been known to black-mail club presidents into giving them (for free) tickets, otherwise they’ll either abandon the matches or will destroy the stadia (in the Catania match, bathroom parts were ripped away from the walls and used as weaponry!).

A solution? Yes, give Maggie Thatcher some uppers and/or vitamins, get her out of retirement and make her learn Italian so that she can become Italy’s prime minister! Italy needs someone with balls, not the soccer kind mind you and not the usual clowns who govern Italians (and to think that Silvio Berlusconi’s other great hobby after politics just happens to be soccer as he’s the president of AC Milan! You’d think that violence at matches would hit him on a personal note). Under her (and later Tony Blair) the Conservative government said “basta”!, and basically cleaned up the problem of hooliganism in England (but not when the British fans travel abroad though, especially in countries like Italy where they no damn well that the laws are lax) so much so that protective barriers surrounding soccer pitches have been taken down. The same thing at the moment would be totally unthinkable in Italy.

Politics in Italy vis-à-vis soccer-related problems mirrors very much what goes on in Italy on a daily basis: Italy is quite often a “Banana Republic” when it comes to dealing with even more serious problems, such as the appalling conditions of many of its hospitals, especially in southern Italy (see below for my posting on that problem) or the incredibly rigid labour laws, especially when it comes to hiring people over the age of 35. Back in the 1980s the Craxi government had basically stopped dead in his tracks the terrorist Abu Abbas. He had been the master-mind behind the Achille Lauro ship high jacking. Some may recall that episode in which a Jewish-American invalid by the name of Leon Klinghoffer was shot by terrorists and thrown overboard in his wheelchair. Abbas was on a flight to Belgrade. His plane was intercepted and escorted to the military base of Sigonella in southern Italy. The Reagan government at the time wanted the Craxi government to stop him and hand him over to the American authorities. Craxi instead allowed the plane to fly on to Belgrade. Italian and American military personnel nearly came to fists over that incident, right on the airport’s tarmac. This naturally sent Reagan ballistic. I was in Canada following the situation at the time. I will never forget when two U.S. congressmen, watching appalled as the Italians let Abbas go freely, referred to Italy as a “Banana Republic”! Can one really blame them?

Ditto six years ago during the Genoa G8 Summit (I worked during that disastrous event). A Black Bloc protester by the name of Carlo Giuliani, a young punk, had a fire extinguisher held over his head. He was ready to smash it into a police van with inside another young Carabiniere officer. Obviously his intent was that of smashing the poor officer’s skull and not to put out his cigarette! The officer, simply terrified as his van was surrounded by these political hooligans, fired off a shot. Giuliani not only lay there dead but by Italy’s political left he was turned into a modern-day martyr and saint. The Carabiniere who fired the shot? Oh, he basically had his career ruined and was forced to leave his job. Protesters had not been too far away either from the “red zone” that day, the same zone which hosted the G8 leaders. Had they managed to enter that area all hell would have broken loose and the Berlusconi would have had on its hands a one MAJOR diplomatic problem. Again, Italy gave to the entire world one of the worst images of itself, not to mention a classical example of how “we-don’t-know-how-to-organize-a-major-event-without-making-a-complete-mess-out-of-things-even-if-our-very-own-lives-depended-on-it”!

Too harsh of an analysis? Just witness what goes on practically every weekend during soccer matches (and you’d think that the Italian government and soccer authorities were somewhat new to violence in stadia!!!). That’s just one of the reasons why I’ve stopped going for years now to see soccer matches live. The violence, the swearing and what not has simply become nauseating. I much prefer rugby matches were both the players and fans are more civilized! And I’m not the only one because with the advent of digital tv many soccer aficionados now watch soccer matches in the comfort and safety of their own homes, thus causing stadium attendance to dwindle dangerously low.

Do I personally have a solution as one who also studied the phenomenon of hooliganism for my master’s degree in the sociology of sports (the folks at the University of Leicester in England where I studied have quite often acted as consultants to the British government on resolving the problem of hooliganism in that country. They are experts on the subject)? Well, we can adopt the American law of “three strikes and you’re out” and throw the culprits in jail for 10 years or so, or we can hope and wait for the wisdom of someone who has known Italian soccer first-hand: UEFA’s new president, Michel Platini (who played for Juventus). Why Platini? Because Italy will be a candidate in 2012 for the European championship. What Platini should do with the other candidate countries (Croatia-Hungary and the Ukraine-Poland are also candidate cities) is the following: the countries which have so far done something against the problem of violence in stadia and have a lower rate of violence will be assigned the 2012 games. That’ll hit the Italian government, the FA and fans alike (the 2012 championship will also mean more funding in order to upgrade many of Italy’s stadia which are in terribly appalling conditions, even after having been upgraded 17 years ago for the 1990 World Cup!) right where it hurts them the most: in their pocketbooks as well as in their soccer pride!

With the police officer’s death at the Catania stadium, history once (sadly) repeats itself as litres and litres of (crocodile?) tears will again be shed over this umpteenth tragedy. And if all this doesn’t work seeing that everything has be tried so far (the president of the Italian players’ association has also suggested closing down the championship for an entire year), then we dig up both Stalin and Himmler and get them to head the Italian FA. I’m sure that you wouldn’t even hear a pin drop during the matches!

Friday, February 02, 2007

But Silvio, do you really love me?

Apparently, some 180 news web sites around the world the other day ran the news that Veronica Lario, who also goes by the last name of Berlusconi, wrote an open letter to the “La Repubblica” national newspaper (front page too!) demanding an apology from her husband and former (twice) Italian prime minister Silvio. The reason? Well, because the old and spryly 70 year-old businessman (Italy’s richest by the way) turn-politician was a wee bit too chummy with some luscious and beautiful Italian showgirls at an awards ceremony. It seems that our former “Fearless Leader” (the North Koreans have their “Dear Leader”, we’ve got instead Berlusconi!) turned to one of the voluptuous ladies and said, “If I weren’t already married, I would marry you right now”! while to another one he said, “With you I’d go anywhere”!

“Basta”!, said Veronica (she’s been with Silvio for 27 years now and has given him three kids, his second marriage too), and so she proceeded to send the newspaper a letter demanding his apology. The letter was printed on the first page. Silvio though isn’t new to these amorous advances. At one political debate he commented on the beautiful legs of the women seated in the front row. To a fellow female “Forza Italia” candidate (the name of his political party) he yelled, “Let’em have it”!, in clear reference to her reproductive organ (luckily for Silvio the candidate didn’t hear his umpteenth gaffe!). During an international meeting, he said to the Finnish prime minister instead, a woman, that he was going to pull from his sleeve all his tricks from his days as a playboy (he was trying to woo her into letting Italy, instead of Finland, have an important international institute on food located in Parma). First of all, this went down VERY badly with the Finns who are probably as politically correct as the average North American and second, have you ever seen the Finnish prime minister? Let us just say that Hulk Hogan is cuter!

On another occasion during a trip to the U.S., he faced American businessmen/women and in order to increase American investments in Italy (they’re rather low because of all the red-tape bureaucracy in Italy), he justified things by also saying that “we have not only beautiful businesswomen in Italy but also secretaries”! No doubt for a country who has so far given the world Madeleine Albright (she was once defined as a “serpent” by the Iranian ambassador to the UN. The following day she came to the UN wearing a brooch in the form of a snake. Not only, but when Castro’s air force shot down a plane carrying dissident leaflets, she accused the Cubans of not having “cojones”, balls!), Jean Kirkpatrick (the former U.S. ambassador to the UN), Meg Whitman, the CEO of Ebay (and considered to be currently the most powerful woman in the world of international business. That title was once held by the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina), Condi Rice and perhaps one day even Hillary Clinton over at the White House, well, this didn’t go down too well with many people present that day, especially NOT in the land of politically correctness “par excellence”.

Berlusconi, as “gallant” as ever, decided to apologise to Veronica through the same means. That news “only” covered a whopping six pages in the Italian dailies yesterday! Italian analysts stated that the whole world had gone “crazy” with the news of Veronica’s letter to her husband (apparently, he wasn’t informed about what she was going to do and was somewhat p.offed too!). Few though have been able to read properly between the lines: it’s another example of just how “seriously” the rest of the world, in particular the U.S., takes Italy. Another example? In 2003 I was in the south of Portugal for an important women’s soccer event. On the nearby Azores islands Portugal’s then prime minister Barroso was about to meet with Bush, Blair and Spain’s Aznar to discuss the imminent attack against Iraq. I was watching the entire event live on BBC. Not once, and I mean not once, did the Brits ever mention the word “Italy” or “Berlusconi”. In fact, he wasn’t even invited to the meeting even though Italy was part of the coalition force that went into Iraq.

To paraphrase the great Rodney Dangerfield and Italy’s great “admiration” by the rest of the world, “I don’t get any respect”!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ain’t love REALLY blind?

How many times have we heard the saying that love at times can be blind? It looks like it’s true for a poor 53 year-old labourer in the centre of Italy, not too far away from Rome. Without knowing it, his somewhat “horny” wife, feeling rather neglected by her hard-working hubbie, slipped two Viagra pills in his glass of fine red wine. Thinking that the “Rodolfo Valentino” of workers would no doubt rip apart her bra and underwear on the dinner table (or under it, take your choice) once he downed the secret potion, the poor fellow instead began feeling severe pain in his chest rather than a surprising “rise” between his legs. The pain then basically transformed into a heart attack! The man was immediately rushed to hospital and saved just in a nick of time by the emergency staff.

The woman in the meantime justified her desperate action by saying that she had felt rather neglected lately by her husband (hmm, seems like a common lament among women!). He instead admitted that he had been for quite some time under undue stress and that he felt guilty for having ignored the sexual needs of his loving companion. Doctors treating the worker said that the hear attack was caused by the man’s poor physical shape TOGETHER with the fact that his favourite drink had been spiked by not one but by two of the world’s most famous tiny blue pills. After having practically seen death laugh in his face, the man vowed that he’d get in better shape and would pay more attention to his better half.

The wife, perhaps naively, was hoping that through the hidden use of the Viagra pills good’ol memories of wild sex during the first few years of their marriage would once again enflame their somewhat boring lives. It looks instead like about the only thing that was enflamed was the poor fellow’s chest!