Monday, October 31, 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Amandola: a love affair turns 10

This month marks something of a milestone for me. It was exactly 10 years ago – October, 2001 – when I first visited a town in the heart of the Sibillini Mountains in the Central Italian region of Le Marche. I was so enamored with the place, I immediately thought: I gotta ring my bank manager.  The place, as you know from this blog, is Amandola. I had a little money left in my bank account, just enough to make a down-payment on a stone house sitting on the top of a hill, one that overlooked a valley and the front ridge of the Sibillini Mountains. The sun was shining bright. I stood on a stony lane under an old oak. I was desperate curious to see the inside of the house, but Michael, who had the keys, insisted we first go take a walk, to look around the 'hood, to come to this spot and take in a view I'll never tire of: the midieval spa town, Sarnano, in the valley below, the mountains soaring above, the hilltop towns of Gualdo, San Ginesio sparkling in the sun just beyond.

It took a few months for the sale to close. I had the keys the following March. I was cutting the grass in April, and again in May and June. I was swimming in the sea in July and in the mountain lakes in August. I was discovering a new culture, improving my pigeon Italian and re-acquainting myself with the art of home repairs. I lived in London at the time and got out as often as I could, which, thanks to Ryanair, was fairly often. We threw big pizza bashes and barbeques and, later, we had some amazing Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's feasts. As the name suggests (in Italian, Amandola can be broken into "amando la," or loving her) I fell in love with the place. And I still am we still are. Amandola is now a wondrous playground for the Garba twins. Our summer get-away is now the highlight of the year.

Now, this is not a 10-year anniversary thing, but I do have a new site that explains a bit more about the house, and the region and the things about the place that we've discovered over the years. It's called Sibillini Slow. And, I've set up a Facebook page for it as well. Please check it out and follow us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How to be UnGoogleable

One from my personal archives...

By Bernhard Warner (May 28, 2008)

Recently, I received an odd plea for help. A former colleague emailed me to request that all references to her be expunged from the online news blog I coordinate for a university here in Rome. It was a legitimate request, I concluded. I went into the old posts and deleted the one in which her name appeared. (I should note here that the post was about an upcoming event on campus from over a year ago and had absolutely zero news value to readers today. So, I pulled it.)

She was grateful for my quick response. A few minutes later though she was back in my in-box. This time, the tone was less gracious. She Googled her name and still the reference appeared. Clicking on the link brought you to a dead URL, but still there was enough of an article snippet visible on the Google search results page to clearly identify her with the university. She told me she’d prefer to remain at all costs “un-Google-able”.

At first I was startled by the statement. There is a whole industry dedicated to making you or your business appear top of the heap on Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. Search engine optimisation experts, those whose job it is to find every soft spot in search algorithms, abound in every language. Visibility is big business. Why would you want to hide from the search engines?

Of course, there are plenty of reasons. Some ordinary people, politicians, celebrities, companies or brands simply want pieces of their past concealed, or, ideally, wiped off the public record. It’s possible to achieve the former. But eliminating all signs of a person’s existence, once published online – i.e. achieving a state of “un-Google-able” – that’s another story entirely.

“Un-Google-able? I don’t think it’s possible,” says Nilhan Jayasinghe the European Vice President and Head of Natural Search for iCrossing, an online marketing firm that specializes in SEO and online reputation management for major brands like Toyota, Coca-Cola and LEGO. “The problem is you simply have no control over all the outlets that publish something about you”.

If the published item is a one-time reference and it’s pulled offline relatively quickly, then there’s a chance you can escape the search engines’ reach. In the case of the post I mention above, the Google spiders swept the news blog about two weeks later and all traces of the original story (as far as I can tell) were eliminated. She was lucky.

Had the story been picked up by just one blogger who then made mention of her on his blog, or had her name been posted on a social network site or in some community forum or newsgroup somewhere, forget about it. There’s virtually no way to get all the references taken down unless you track down each person responsible for publishing the details and plead your case to them. Or, had she been photographed with a group of ex-colleagues and had she been tagged in the caption there’s a good chance these days that that photo would end up on Flickr or another online photo-sharing site for the wired world to see. To be sure, monitoring your personal reputation in this Web 2.0 age is a real chore.

For big brands it’s becoming a full-time occupation. “For a company with a reputation issue that’s being discussed online, all you can do is strengthen your own position,” Mr. Jayasinghe says. “The idea is to get your positive news out there more prominently online, and increase the prominence of others talking about you so as to bury the bad results”.

For major corporations, there’s a simple formula to keeping reputations intact these days, one that they may be surprising to hear. Like the old song goes -- you’ve got to accentuate the positive. The problem is corporate PRs and political spinmeisters have a long history of attacking the unsavoury version of a story. It’s the eliminate the negative school. But this approach doesn’t work any more. The more you attack the negative, the more visibility you give it, and the more prominence it gets when someone types in a search query.

Mr. Jayasinghe gives an example of how best to approach bad news that just won’t go away online. A pharmaceutical client was taking a beating from activists, bloggers and consumer watchdogs for some business decisions it had made in the past, he recalls, adding “and they thought the treatment was neither fair nor ethically right.”

The prescription? iCrossing advised the client to begin publishing all the positive news it had about the situation, even enlisting the help of charitable organisations it worked with to bring to light a new side of the debate that had not been discussed. In publishing the positive news the company was able to defend its reputation and steal attention away from its critics.

“With many clients, we have been able to help them suppress it (the critical chatter) provided they have enough positive material they can use to build up their reputation,” Mr. Jayasinghe.

That works fine for big brands. But what about private citizens, ones with no PR budget or brand-reputation specialists to call upon? You may succeed in getting your university friends to pull offline those embarrassing late-night-drinks-filled photo shoots before a prospective employer sees it, but otherwise, your reputation is in the hands of many. You have less control than you think. Sounding a bit like an overprotective parent, Mr. Jayasinghe advises, don’t do anything stupid that can later be republished online.

As for being “un-Google-able”, forget about it. The majority of us all will be easily indexed on Google (or worse, a wanton namesake will be) at some point in our lives. But even private citizens can bury the embarrassing bits. If you care to.
I wrote this article back in 2008 when I had a column for The Times (of London). It's now hidden behind the Times paywall. The original article can be found here.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Vinofiles, the harvest season approaches. Fancy a trip to Italy?

I'm back in Rome after a few blessed weeks in the hills of Amandola. It was the greenest August I can recall in the foothills of Sibillini National Park. Not surprising after a wet July (as the photo album below can attest).

That might not have been great news to travelers, but it had wine producers smiling. The uncharacteristic summer rains have winemakers optimistic that the 2011 vintage will be one of the finest in years. Of course, we'll all know in the coming days when the grape harvest starts, usually in mid-September. And that's kind of the point of this post.... it's a call to vinofiles curious about experiencing this magical time of year: the annual grape harvest when the locals' grins grow to even greater proportions. Marche is a rich wine-producing region for red, white, and rose'. It is the home to dozens of indigenous grapes, most famously the Verdicchio, but there are also very impressive lesser-known whites like the Pecorino and Passerina, and the fragrant red Lacrima di Moro d'Alba.

From Amandola, it's easy to get to all these wine-producing regions. Let us know if you want to book Casa Chiocciola, our lovely stone house in the foothills of the soaring Monti Sibillini. We're offering a special discount on remaining dates in September and August. Drop me a line at for futher details.

Buon gusto!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A weekend in piazza: the Beatification of JP2

This is a bit late in posting, but it's still worth it. A few weeks ago me and a young documentary filmmaker from Rome, Luca Paradiso, spent the better part of a weekend camped out in Piazza San Pietro to film the Beatification of John Paul II, a story told through the eyes of the weary pilgrims and faithful who made the journey from all over the world. We had a lot of fun doing it for one of my clients, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.

Here is their story:

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Mamertine Prison, the Leavenworth of Ancient Rome

This year, I'd like to get back to blogging. Here. I've been a bit time-stretched with the launch last year of SMI and, more recently, Jospers. But I hope this year to get some time to blog about life in Italy more. A few of you have long given up on me. I'm hoping to win you back… with stories like this one.

First some background: On Thursday I co-organized a private tour of the Carcere Mamertino (or, Mamertine Prison) just beside (and under) the Roman Forum for select bloggers and Rome-based journalists. It was on behalf of a fascinating new client, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, part of the Vatican. ORP has one-of-a-kind access to many of the most important historic and cultural sites in and around Rome including guided tours of the Sistine Chapel at night, the Vatican Gardens, a Vatican Library exhibition, and the Carcere. (They also organize pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela, etc.) ORP works closely with some of Rome's most important historians and archaeologists on the preservation and upkeep of these sites. On Thursday, they arranged to have Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist who was part of the excavation team for works on the jail a year ago and in 2000, give us a guided tour. A bit on the excavation that wound up last year: it was crucial work as it lent more evidence to a story that's been circulating around this city since Emperor Constantine's day - that saints Peter and Paul were both imprisoned here prior to their execution. It's a legend that gives this sacred place extra importance to Christians looking for insight into those turbulent early days of the Church. The conclusion: there is still no 100% proof Peter and Paul were incarcerated here, but it's very, very likely they were.

Fortini explained to us that the Carcere had a dark and bloody past, also a sacred and spiritual one. First, the bloody part. As Rome grew into an conquering force it needed a proper maximum security prison to house its vanquished foes. The city fathers turned to what had been a pagan shrine, establishing it as the maximum security prison of the ancient world in the centuries before the birth of Christ. Here they imprisoned reviled enemies of the Kingdom/Republic. Why here? Location. Victorious armies could parade enemy combatants through the Foro Romano (cue cheering, baying throngs) and straight into the Carcere where they were executed (usually by public strangulation or stoning or something equally brutal) fairly soon after.

To the early Romans, the Carcere was well known as a place not to be messed with, even before it became the Leavenworth of ancient Rome. It was known that a spring ran under the jail. To the deeply superstitious pagan people the subterranean waters were believed to be a conduit to the netherworld (Fortini says they looked for this underground river, but there's nothing). Killing someone here, the ancient belief went, would send them straight to Hell. The Romans trotted out this story as if it were fact that this jail was literally the gateway to Hell. Anyone who entered here never returned, but instead met an end of eternal damnation. Imagine then the state of mind of Peter and Paul upon entering this place, chained, beaten and condemned to eventual death. They had stronger convictions, as did their determined, early Christian followers. This of course made Peter and Paul even more dangerous to the State. Executing them here, the thinking may have gone, would silence these early Christians. This is an important point. Peter and Paul were indeed enemies of the State. Following the tradition of the day, they would have most certainly been imprisoned here in the baddest of all jails of the ancient world.

Among the other things Fortini told us was the discovery of remains of three cadavers - a man (at about 180 cm tall, a very large one for this era), a woman and a 10-year-old child - during the most recent excavation. The fascinating detail came from radio carbon dating determined they were from the 8th Century BC, which gives us a bit further detail on just how old this place is. The official history is that the jail construction started at in the 6th Century BC, but this discovery would show that the foundations go back much further and that it served some major function for the city well before it became known as a prison.

A tour of the jail (it's open to the public) is really one of those uniquely Roman experiences. It's rich in history and spirituality. Archaeologists have succeeded in piecing together vital bits that spell out just what kind of deadly consequences the founders of the Church would have been facing as they sought to build their flock. It's something to put on your itinerary if you are interested in early Church history and the life (and death) of the Church's founding patriarchs.

If you are coming to Rome and want to book a tour, you can reserve tickets here. In the off-season, it's possible to do a tour without booking ahead. Still, it's advisable to reserve a place.

Where is the Mamertine Prison: located near the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. It is literally under San Giuseppe dei Falegnami Church, just off the via dei Fori Imperiali.

For another review, check out Arlene Gibbs' reportage on Nile Guide: Rome.