Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bella Sicilia

I thought it best to tell the tale of our few days in Sicily primarily in pictures. The itinerary was as follows: a day in Catania and the sea towns just north; a second day in Taormina, day three touring around the base of Mt. Etna before heading on to my favorite spot, Siracusa. On the final day, we explored more of Siracusa and the inland towns, including Noto.

The food, wine, weather were all spectacular, but it was the Sicilian spirit I enjoyed most. It's an incredible country that really isn't entirely Italian nor European for that matter. Posted by Picasa

Teatro Greco, Siracusa

This theatre, built over 2500 years ago, is still in use today and is in incredible shape. Just beyond the top rim of seats is a natural spring where crisp cold water flows. The ancient community of Siracusa -- rich and poor alike -- came here to enjoy the Greek tragedies and comedies, the great catharsis of its day. Of course, Romans would change the idea of theatre forever by introducing gladiator games and chariot races. Posted by Picasa

Legend has it...

...that Dionysus overheard agitators whispering at the foot of this opening to do him in. The whispers echoed around, tipping Dionysus off to the troublemakers' plans.

Today, this grotto is called "The ear of Dionysus" though I argued that it looks "a bit like another famous ope-" (I never finished my observation that day either). Posted by Picasa

Inside the ear of Dionysus

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How many Ph.D's does it take to...

The answer: there is no such thing as "too many Ph. D's" for a gag like this. Posted by Picasa

Calcio in the main square

I love this photo of three boys playing soccer in the church square one hot morning in Noto. This shot went wide left and high. Just before this shot, the goal tender went bellyfirst onto the 17th century stones to trap a low liner by the striker in the blue shirt. It was a beautiful save! Posted by Picasa

Noto, the Baroque city

This balcony from the Palazzo Nicolaci is one of many Baroque wonders in Noto. Every facade and balcony in the city seemed to capture some face or figure. The architects of the day liked to use Baroque style to overwhelm the locals with scenes of beauty and terror, thus topless women sharing wall space with dragons and lions is a recurring theme in town. Posted by Picasa


The incredible city of Siracusa, an inhabited city since 734 BC. The Greeks (from Corinth) arrived a century later and made it a principal trading and political center. From that point on, it was conquered by everybody: Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, the Spanish, Normans, Germans, Garibaldi and crew, American Allied forces and now gelato-seeking tourists.

The city is going through an incredible revival these days with scores of fantastic restaurants and wine bars attracting outsiders from everywhere. In this photo, young Siracusani gather around a central square at sunset. Posted by Picasa
She's quiet now, but Etna has been known to blow her top, as she did in 1669, a bad spring for the Sicilians who lived in Catania and low-lying coastal communities to the immediate north. From this perch, in Taormina, you would have the perfect vantage point to watch an eruption -- while sipping a fine Planeta. Posted by Picasa

Love is in the air

Ah, nothing says love like a springtime wedding. In Sicily, it's the main Saturday attraction. I don't know these people, but I would say this couple may not be off to the best start. Look at the woman on the left, standing on the step and coaching the bride: "Remember to S-M-I-L-E." Meanwhile, the nonna to her right has something in her eye. And, I've never seen so many wedding guests arrive in black. This is not traditional wedding dress, I'm told. Posted by Picasa

Teatro Greco in Taormina

The Greek influence is still alive and well along Sicily's east Coast (from Messina down to Siracusa). Here, in Taormina, the Greeks built a magnificent mountaintop theatre with spectacular views of the sea and Etna. A few Punic Wars later, and the Romans arrived. Their improvements? Expanding the theatre for blood sports and other entertainment of the flesh, a tradition that is proudly reflected in Italian TV today. Posted by Picasa

Il duomo in Catania

In Catania's magnificent Cathedral, dedicated to St. Agatha and built 1,000 years ago, looms the creepiest lectern I've ever seen. It's a drippy metalic structure with the heads of the woeful and damned protruding out the side. Very inspiring. Posted by Picasa

Taormina with Mt. Etna looming

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sette Bello on the road

I'm off tomorrow for a four-day weekend in Magna Grecia, or what modernday cartographers call Sicily. (Actually, Magna Grecia made up a vast part of Southern and Adriatic Italy before the Romans got a taste for blood and marauding.) The itinerary is Catania, Taormina and Siracusa along the eastern edge. And, a side trip to Mt. Etna. Will be back next week with photos. (of my own).

It's official (we hope)

There will be Mortadella per tutti! The Supreme Court upheld last week's razor thin victory for Romano Prodi (nicknamed "Mortadella", the luncheon meat), apparently knocking Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition out of power. Berlusoni of course is not throwing in the towel just yet. No way would he allow those communist magistrates in the courts to have the last word. Expect this to drag on for a few more weeks as he angles for the presidency --usually a low-pressure, high-travel position of shaking hands with foreign heads of state and acting as the national ambassador for all things Italy. In other words, a position you don't want foot-in-his-mouth Berlusconi anywhere near. Complicating matters further for the left, the president has a golden vote in areas of legislative dispute. And, in a deadlocked Senate as the Prodi government will oversee, the president would wield considerable power. So, in effect, if Berlusconi were to land the presidency he would in many ways be better off than as prime minister of a squabbling Legislature. Ah, Italian politics where the ultimate winner is the one who manipulates the behind-the-scenes machinations of government.

Meanwhile, even staunch lefties are holding their breath about the longevity of a new Prodi government. His ragtag coalition are a notoriously fractious bunch who have survived in politics for decades by preserving their special interests. In other words, the idea of badly needed labor reform would likely topple this government. Xtina gives it six months.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sette Bello scribe gets real (paying) gig

I made my debut this week as a columnist and regular contributor for The Times...No, Yanks, not the NY Times. The Times of London. My first column is here, positing the question: can the power of sharing cripple extortionate hotel pricing for Wi-fi access? Martin Varsavsky, the genius behind FON, believes so. My second piece is a brief on the gullability of the average Brit -- they're only slightly ahead of the rest of us.

It's a real honor to write for The Times, one of the oldest newspapers on the planet, founded in 1785 -- or 220 years before "Il Sette Bello". If my blogging slacks off a bit on Sette Bello, just look for me here and here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mortadella per tutti?

It appears as if Italians have chosen the political equivalent of lunch meat over a lounge act. Romano Prodi, (nicknamed Mortadella, that balogna-like meat roll) of the center-left coalition, appears to have narrowly, narrowly, narrowly defeated incumbent Silvio Berlusconi, the crooning, billionaire head of state. But the margin of victory is worrying. Prodi certainly doesn't have a resounding mandate from the people, something his squabbling, tenuous coalition partners will remind him the moment he tries to tackle serious reform. There aren't too many people in Italy claiming victory today.

Man, 73, arrested, suspected mob kingpin

After a four-decade investigation, anti-Mafia police announced today they finally got their man: Bernardo Provenzano. Provenzano is called the "Phantom of Corleone", the capo dei capi, mafia crime boss Numero Uno, the most wanted man in Italy. Some naysayers insisted this master of disguises and paranoid recluse would never be caught. He's always one step ahead. His lawyer last month said he's been long dead and that an investigation is just silly, a waste of time and money. Turns out he's very much alive, hermitting away in the hills above Corleone.

After a morning raid on his country house outside Corleone, police hauled in the 73-year-old jeans-wearing fugitive today. Numerous media reports are quick to point out that he's been on the run for decades. But something here just doesn't add up. How hard is it to find a little old man in the hills outside of town? Investigators have been on his trail for years. And yet he kept giving them the slip. Consider exhibit A: this in-depth piece by Time's Jeff Israely. What then happened today that lead to the big break? Did they bother to expand their investigation, maybe to include questioning the eccentric oldtimer on the top of the hill only to find out, wait a second, you're the guy we want?!? It sounds as if he was located pretty much in the same spot they figured he'd been all along.

Let's consider a few more details. The Provenzanos aren't exactly globe trotters. The son has a business in town. His wife and daughter live nearby. I'm sure he's got a regular scopa game going every Thursday afternoon. And, I'd bet if you check the voting records, he's cast a ballot in 13 of the last 8 elections. What else do we know? He ran the crime syndicate by handing out typed notes to his liutenants. No scrambled phone messages, no encrypted emails, no smoke signals. This doesn't sound like an elusive fugitive holed up in a Dr. Evil hideout. I'd bet the village priest knew where to find him all along.

This one smells a bit fishy to me. As in Sicilian fishy.

No doubt the crack investigation team will answer all these questions, unmasking the fugitive years of Bernardo Provenzano. And, I'm sure in due time we'll learn the whereabouts of that other hobbled recluse. Yep, Provenzano must have a line on Bin Laden.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Your homework: simplify Italian politics

Yesterday morning I popped into a public school off Viale Trastevere, one of the local polling places in my neighborhood. Upon entering, I was greeted by a giant montage featuring the schoolkids' artwork. All the usual symbols were stapled into position. Construction paper hand imprints, a rainbow, a dove and the word "Pace" followed by the young artists' names: Francesca, Chiara and Orson. Poor kid. (Later, I could hear passersby murmuring "Ort-ZONE? Ort-ZONE?")

The art montage though was dwarfed by enormous sheets of wall-sized paper carrying voting instructions and the names and parties of every candidate running for the Italian Senate and House. At this particular polling point, there were 22 parties to choose from for the Senate and 17 for the House. (Across Italy, there are dozens more parties to choose from. For the full list, click here). In a nation of 60 million, and one as politically fractious as Italy, I could see maybe 10. But 22? Sitting in the hallway inches from Orson's handprint, I tried to work out how we might be able to simplify this ballot a little bit.

Help me out here... In most every country, you have your centrists and then parties to the right and left. Siete d'accordo? Let's call that a very charitable 3 (It's usually 2. Just center-right and center-left not center, right, left, but I'm being charitable this morning). Then verging further afield to the left, you have your socialists, communists, radicals and greens, bringing the total to 7. A similar jaunt to the right gives you any party with the words "National", "Christian" and "Lega Nord". Ok, carry the one, and you get 10. Anybody else? In Italy, of course. You forgot the party for pensioners and women and one oddball (you always need an oddball) called Forza Roma, which, as far as I can guess, runs on a platform to bring all Roma football matches back to free TV. That's 13. Who are the other 9?

Well, we have one running under the brand Fiamma Tricolore, another under Liberal Reformers, yet another under Rosa nel Pugno or "Rose in the Fist", a second rival party for pensioners (I am picturing angry wagging canes at the historic meeting that brought about an acrimonious split in the pensioners party, followed by an excruciatingly slow walk-out) and three brands of communists. You have multiple Christian Democrats (on the right and the left), a party for Mussolini's granddaughter and a party for Le Donne (the "chicks" party...They have my vote!). This brings our tally to 22.... (One day, little Orson with his oversized hand will get his own party. Take that, Chiara and Francesca! Those two, with their precise outlining and cutting skills, are definitely young Christian Democrats).

OK, now if this were a class of say second-graders, the teacher would surely say: "Now children, we cannot have 22 individual groups for our classroom excercise. We'd never accomplish anything. Here are the ground rules: every student who finds himself without a partner should team up with somebody. Find a partner who shares your interest in X (substitute here the words "favorite color", "desire to punch a boy/girl", "love of pasta pomodori", "suspicion of Orson") and work together."

That brings us down to 11, a nice workable number for a country of 60 million. I am willing to allow concessions here. I can't imagine anybody wanting to team up with Alessandra Mussolini (despite your shared desire to punch someone) and sadly it's unlikely the pensioners will ever see eye to eye again.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Italy's "il giorno delle Elezioni"

It's election day here in Italia, a rare day of promise and possibility. Xtina has been hitting the phones trying to convince her right-leaning friends that a day at the beach would be much better for their country (and complexion) than queuing up to vote for Berlusconi. She rationalises this as "democracy in action." In the category of dirty Election Day tricks, it's fairly benign. In a country that has been living under red state-blue state style political divisions since Mussolini's day, it's seen as everyone's duty to sway the vote one way or the other.

The lefties have been eagerly awaiting this day for 5 years: the chance to oust Berlusconi's Casa della Liberta' (or "Freedom House" which, to me, has a creepy, Fr. Bruce Ritter ring to it) and start over. In Roma, a lefty stronghold, we run into very few supporters of the right. But they're there. A surprisingly strong enclave of Berlusconi supporters, from this vantage point, are the little old nonnas who go to church daily. We spoke to a priest the other night. He insists there will be no politically-inspired surmons this Sunday -- just palms. It's a relief to most Italians that the Catholic Church is keeping quiet. They had objections to Prodi's plan to help young families a few weeks back, but it was a brief conflagration. It looks like this one will be in the hands of the people -- no wonder democracy is such an unsettling concept for some.

As for me, I have no vote. I am an impartial observer, a commentator. What does this mean? I am quick with a list of grievances and broken promises for our friends on the right. And I point out that the left in Prodi and his motley coalition seem ill-prepared to tackle meaningful change. The best thing about democracy is we only have ourselves to blame if the man in charge screws things up. I can live with that.

Votate, Italiani.