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Has Berlusconi gone too far this time?
Jun 21, 2014 at 11:07 PM

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Berlusconi at the Naples courthouse last week.
Has he finally opened his big fat trap once too often? We will see on Monday when Naples prosecutors will decide whether to take action against Silvio Berlusconi for insulting the judiciary during a session of a corruption trial there last week. Berlusconi said the magistrates, who are sitting on a vote-buying trial in which Berluscni is one of the major defendants as "uncontrolled, uncontrollable and irresponsible" and claiming they have "full immunity" and can do whatever they please.

The political leader and media magnate has been insulting the Italian judiciary for years now; his claims that he is a victim of what he terms a communist-leaning judiciary have been repeated so often that everyone stopped counting long ago.

However, this time he may (I hope) have put his foot in it. Berlusconi is currently doing four hours of community service once a week (in a home for Alzheimer's patients) in lieu of house detention for the one-year sentence he received when he was convicted of tax fraud last August 1. This ridiculously mild sentence (set by communist-leaning magistrates?) is totally absurd as it allowed the three-time prime minister to conduct a full election campaign for the May European for his Forza Italia party which by the way only polled 16% of the vote compared to 25% in the February 2013 national elections. But the lenient sentence was contingent on his curbing his tongue when he speaks of the judiciary. And yet, there he went again.

Although he could also be charged with defamation, I'm betting, however, that the magistrates in Naples will give him another pass. It is absolutely astounding how tolerant even Berlusconi's opponents are of him. Last week, two (not one, but two) morning political talk shows featured an extra window in their broadcasts televising a press conference that Berlusconi was, astoundingly, allowed to hold inside the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Wouldn't you think that a convicted felon who has already been kicked out of the Italian Senate and barred from running from office would be denied the right to give a press conference inside one Italy's major institutions? But this, dear readers, is Italy where - let's be frank - anything, and everything, goes.

Eventually,however, he should (should!) get his comeuppance. In the Naples hearing, he is charged with paying several senators a great amount of money to change their vote on a key issue. While in Milan, the tribunal there is gearing up for the appeals trial on charges that he facilitated the prostitution of a minor and abused the power of his office by strngarming a court official into releasing the same prostitute from custody.

Arrivals by sea continue
Jun 16, 2014 at 11:05 PM
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Rescued immigrants arriving in Sicily
An Italian naval ship steamed into the Sicilian port of Palermo yesterday with 767 of the more than 1800 refugees and immigrants rescued at sea on Saturday alone. The operation was part of this country's ongoing controversial Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) rescue program. The human cargo aboard the Etna included the lifeless bodies of ten people, including seven women, who were among the victims of a shipwreck Saturday when a vessel carrying some 90 passengers almost went down. Another 41 are missing.

The government has said it is proud of its role in the sea search-and-rescue operation for migrants which began in October of last year after almost 400 people drowned in shipwrecks off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and has no immediate plans to stop these. But irritation is mounting about the lack of participation by the rest of Europe and on Saturday interior minister Angelino Alfano said something would have to be done. Alfano said so far this year almost 40,000 immigrants have landed on Italian shores and the flow shows no sign of abating. That has almost exceeded the total number for all of 2013.

Italy has been dealing with immigrant invasions from Albania and North Africa and other parts of Africa for almost 20 years now, but the government says that the composition of the travelers has changed drastically in recent months with, at present, almost 80 percent having the requisites to seek asylum rather than illegal job-seekers . Many are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan and most are sailing towards Italy from Libyan shores, something that is difficult to control given the internal chaos of that country. Nevertheless, the government has also come under fire from several opposition parties who believe the rescue operation is encouraging human traffickers to increase illegal crossings.

The biggest problem, of course, is the care and support of the visitors once they have been rescued and Italy simply does not have the resources to do this on its own. Even the United Nations has said that more outside help is needed. And there are also health issues. Many of the newcomers are suffering from malnutrition, scabies, vitamin deficiency and, often, tuberculosis. A recent news report said eight Italian sailors involved in the operation recently tested positive for TB even if they are not sick or likely to become ill.
Unceasing immigrant emergency darkening Italy's shores
May 04, 2014 at 02:52 PM

Image Close to 5,000 immigrants have landed on southern Italian shores this past week alone in an unceasing and growing exodus that is likely to soon prove unmanageable. Since January of this year, something like 25,000 asylum-seekers have been rescued and brought into Italian refugee camps. And recent reports say that some 800.000 people are currently amassed in the failed state of Libya hoping to sail towards Europe, which generally means Italy or, in fewer cases, Spain.

On Friday alone, an Italian navy vessel rescued some 1200 people (including more than two dozen children) brought from North Africa by unscrupulous people-traffickers who abandon them in international waters before escaping to load up with more badly-informed people who think they will find a happy life here.

Since last October, when 400 would-be immigrants drowned off the Italian coast, the Italian government has adopted a controversial (and expensive) policy of rescue operations. The Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue teams are navy ships which transfer the travelers from their unsafe craft and bring them into shore where they are processed and, unless they escape, are moved into overcrowded and not always sanitary "welcome" camps.


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Italian premier Renzi riding high....or so he thinks
Apr 20, 2014 at 09:12 PM

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Premier Matteo Renzi
Italy's brash, young premier, Matteo Renzi, is chanting victory after his left-of-center cabinet on Friday agreed to ratify his promised massive tax cut that would provide a $110 a month bonus for Italian middle class families. The move is designed to show Italians that he can get things done while calling for sacrifices from those "who have always had more" and helping those who have always had less and - perhaps - to guarantee his Democratic Party a good showing in the May 25th elections for the European Parliament.

After 58 days in office, the energy and zeal of the former mayor of Florence are undeniable and impressive. But it is hard to say now whether he will be successful, or even how successful one really wants him to be. I myself have still not forgiven him for the heartless and conniving way in which, at the beginning of the year, he elbowed predecessor Enrico Letta, his party colleague, out of the way although he had promised not to do so. Renzi is the third Italian premier in a row to come to power without having won a national election.


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Rome invaded by illegal peddlers and city does.....NOTHING
Apr 01, 2014 at 08:42 AM

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The merchants association of Rome (Confcommercio) is once again up in arms against a growing army of illegal peddlers who are taking business away from legitimate stores, evading taxes and dirtying an already chaotic city and distracting attention from Rome's marvelous monuments and medieval buildings. I couldn't agree more and think it is shameful that Rome's new mayor (like his predecessors) is doing next to nothing about it.

I don't know if Confcommercio is correct when it numbers the peddlers - some Italians but these days mostly Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans - as between 15,000 and 18,000. That would seem rather exaggerated to me. But there sure are a lot of them. The Asians, mostly scores of Bangladeshi, appear on the streets (sometimes you encounter one every ten steps or so) to sell cheap umbrellas that must be stores in warehouses throughout the city by the people who exploit them) or else set up tables, often only a few feet away from one another, selling imported silk scarves that they roll up like small turbans.

The Africans, primarily Senegalese, sell counterfeit bags - Vuitton, Fendi, Chanel etc. Nigerians wander around selling socks and counterfeit CDs. Others sell sunglasses, cheap jewelry, gadgets of various sorts and still others pretend to be "street artists" since one city law was/is (it's not clear) more tolerant of those who are truly artisans.

But whoever these people are, the fact is that they are selling goods without paying any taxes on their earnings - income or VAT -or giving receipts to customers. They are setting up tables, chairs and lights for nighttime selling on public soil without paying the fees to the city that any restaurant or café does to put chairs and tables out on the sidewalk. And they are making money without incurring any of the costs borne by legitimate shopkeepers - taxes, rent, utilities, personnel. It is, by any standard, unfair competition. But in addition, the widespread illegality clogs up sidewalks and, eben more importantly, mars the view.

Rome, glorified in the recent Italian Oscar-winning film. The Great Beauty, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But with sidewalks covered with sheets bearing counterfeit goods, unlicensed pushcarts and snack trucks parked in the places favored by tourists, it is sometimes hard to tell.

According to Confcommercio, the turnover of this kind of illegal commerce in Rome alone amounts to around 1.5 billion (sic!) Euros a year. If the illegal peddlers, in Italian referred to as abusivi, were to pay taxes and other charges, the city coffers would definitely be fuller than they are. But would it be worth it? I don't think so. I came to Rome to bask in the remains of its glorious past. And if I want to shop, there are wonderful Italian products to buy rather than the CRAP these peddlers are plying.

So why have a succession of city governments allowed this to happen? Some people may imagine that it's all the fault of a corrupt city police but I don't buy that. Another possibility - and it is certainly a contributing factor - is that the Rome city police force is seriously understaffed. But it is much worse. This is Rome where law enforcement officers and local politicians are just too lackadaisical, laid back and lazy to really care.

Will he now be silenced? High court confirms Berlusconi’s two-year interdiction from public office
Mar 19, 2014 at 10:24 PM

ImageLast August 1, almost NINE whole months ago, Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax evasion and fraud and sentenced to four years (reduced to one by a general amnesty regarding certain kinds of crimes) AND to, with what the Italians call a secondary punishment, an interdiction from politics for five years (although this latter was later reduced to two).

Since then, he has been prancing around as if nothing had happened- and most Italians, including journalists, commentators and pundits - have been happily following suit. Now, however, things will have to change. Last night the Corte di Cassazione, the highest Italian court (except for matters concerning the Constitution), confirmed the two-year ban. Furthermore, sometime next month a final decision will be made on whether the former Italian prime minister will serve his sentence in home detention or by performing some sort of socially-useful function. If it is home detention (which I personally, am rooting for), he will not be able to make any public statements or attend any political events unless he receives permission, each time he asks for it, from the Judicial Surveillance Office.

Over the last nine months, therefore, Berlusconi has been able to continue his public role almost as earlier, except for the fact that on the basis of a law barring convicted felons from sitting in Parliament (a law that his lawyers are now challenging in a European court), in November he was expelled from the Italian Senate. Otherwise, a visitor from Mars would have been unable to guess that he had been convicted of a crime. As the leader of Forza Italia, the party he formed in 1994 but which for over a decade had merged with several others, he has been giving speeches and appearing in public, with his doings regularly reported on TV or in the Italian press. Matteo Renzi, Italy's brash new prime minister, helped push this process along in December when, shortly after being elected leader of the Partito Democratico, he angered tens of thousands of supporters by meeting with Berlusconi, the party's long-time enemy, to negotiate an agreement regarding a new electoral law.

A master of propaganda, Berlusconi has succeeded in keeping much of the attention in this country focused on him; last week, even though he surely knew it was a bluff, he announced he would be running for a seat in the European parliament this coming May when those elections are held. Maybe, now, the man will finally be silenced, at least for a while 

 

  

 

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The Great Beauty” may show Rome’s beauty but it is hardly great.
Mar 14, 2014 at 11:49 AM

ImageWhen the film “La Grande Bellezza” opened here in Rome in spring, 2013, it hardly made a splash. The reviews were mixed and some people, me included, hadn’t even heard of it. I was asked about it by a friend from New York and had to confess my ignorance. I don’t go to the cinema all that often but aside from that, there hadn’t been any real talk about the film or at least not enough for it to have come to my attention.

Then early this year it started winning prizes in the US and the UK where, to my mind, stereotypical ideas of Italy continue to prevail, along with understandable nostalgia for a real cinematic genius, Federico Fellini, whose like will probably never again be seen. So the film gathered motion and it quickly became clear that because of a mistaken mindset about Italy by many US and UK critics the film would get the Oscar for best foreign film of 2013. By this time, I had seen it and to be honest it was hate at first sight. Why? Because aside from the starring role given to some of the gorgeous monuments, buildings, landscapes and statues of the incomparably beautiful city where I have spent the last several decades of my life, it is a film about nothing. Or rather about a silly man who made his name with a book he wrote when he was 30-40 years younger and since then has done nothing but spend money on parties to which he invites would-be intellectuals and misfits, spend money and wander around Rome at night, everywhere bumping into people he knows – countesses, drunkards with daughters who think being a striptease artist is the maximum, his best friend who is a failing actor, an odd little man who claims to have the keys to most of the great palaces of Rome (and by the way, the ones shown are almost all museums not private dwellings), a secretive neighbor who turns out to be a criminal in hiding and so on and so forth. At 65, the protagonist is starting to become aware of his own mortality and feels sad about friends who die and what he himself will soon lose. Big deal! This is the kind of thing most people who reach 65 start thinking. But it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he has wasted his life with a stupid frivolous lifestyle. So the film has no dénouement and in effect is about nothing, rien, nada, except, perhaps, him finding some comfort in the timeless beauty of the Eternal City.

I apologize but my imagination is not touched when I know I am being manipulated; something you never felt with the best of Fellini. This is a largely non-existent Rome of white-garbed nuns and novices (haven’t seen any of those lately), an ancient Mother Teresa knock-off supposedly vowed to poverty who allows herself to be feted by the protagonist’s rich friends and who is awakened the next morning by a flock of flamingos (flamingos, on a Roman rooftop?) whom she blows away with what might be her last breath. And I wish the director had cut out the cheap anti-clericalism, including a scene which has a church prelate (I can’t remember if it was a cardinal or a bishop) dining, and plying with champagne,  a giggling nun in a (real) elegant Roman restaurant. Oh, give me a break. I am not Catholic and think I have a pretty unjaded view – light and shadows of the Vatican. But I can assure you that you would NEVER see anything of this sort in Rome. NEVER.

The movie was shown on Italian state tv a couple of weeks ago so many normal Italians who had never seen it finally got a chance to view it and from what I hear from friends, either fell asleep or are not worrying that they weren’t intelligent enough to understand the film. I feel like reassuring them all. Don’t worry about it. There was nothing to understand and the best title for the film would have been La Grande Nulla. The big nothing.

New municipal chief police to use technology to fight double-parking
Jan 24, 2014 at 11:14 PM
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Raffaele Clemente
Rome's new traffic police chief Raffaele Clemente is (or appears) determined to do something about this city's clogged streets, with much of the problem clearly due to double (and triple-) parked cars which the city's understaffed (and underwilling?) traffic police have made little effort to resolve. Heretofore.

A few weeks ago, Clemente went on Twitter to tell Romans he wanted them to let him and his office know when cars were illegally double-parked or parked, and so far the response has been encouraging. A few weeks ago, 34 cars that were double-parked in one street in the Tuscolana neighborhood received fines in a single go. And just the other day, a journalist with a disabled son sent a photo of a car illegally parked in a spot reserved for the handicapped and later wrote that there was an almost immediate response. If I can figure out how to get my Twitter account onto my recalcitrant Blackberry, I'll be doing a lot of tweeting in my growing role as urban crank.

There are two Twitter accounts that can be used for this purpose, that of the Twitter desk of the municipal police - polizia municipale - which is (@plromacapitale); and that of the comandante himself(@raffaeleclement), to which he himself is said at times to directly respond.

But his plans don't stop there. He is planning to outfit the traffic police's cars with cameras that can, as they drive along, take photos of double (and triple-) parked cars and their tags. The information will be sent to Headquarters and the fines will go out directly from there. "Since we don't have the means to increase Manpower on the streets, we are going to have to rely on technlogy", he says. "Other cities have done it. So can we." It's a good start but I am not holding my breath.

Petty theivery by petty politicians
Jan 20, 2014 at 11:35 PM

ImageA few years ago, people in the U.K. (and not only) were shocked to learn that many British parliamentarians were cheating the taxpayers, primarily by putting in for – and receiving – reimbursements for inappropriate expenditures. I recall being quite startled, having imagined that the average British MP thought of him- or herself as a public servant and was unlikely to behave in an unethical manner. If the Italians did it, I would be much less surprised, I remember thinking.

 Well, now the Italians have done it, or rather, are doing it. Over the last year a series of scandals have erupted, not on a national level, but in many of Italy’s 20 regions, each of which is governed by a parliament and an executive, and to which falls the administration of certain key government sectors, for example health, culture, tourism, economic development and so forth. In regional parliament, the known as the consiglio regionale, elected officials are divided into political groups, each of which receives subsidies from the region to fund its activities and ostensibly to help its consiglieri better perform their duties. Regional councilors are currently under investigation in more than a half the regions, north, south and center included, and the other day, the Italian daily paper, La Stampa, obligingly presented a list of some of the most blatent, embarrassing, and even absurd instances of this kind of misappropriation.

Here are some examples (one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry):

Sardinia. Salvatore Ladu (Democratic Party) received 10,500 euros for the purchase of 30 sheep and one calf.

Piedmont. Robeto Boniperti (FreedomPeoples’ Party), 153€ for gorgonzola cheese.

Lombardy. Carlo Spreafico, one jar of Nutella, 2.50€

Piedmont. Gianfranco Novero (Northern League). Catering expenses of 465€ for grandson’s baptism.

Molise. Gennaro Chiercia (Socialist Party). Supemarket snack, 80€.

Emilia Romagna. Thomas Casadei (Democratic Party), .50€ for admission to a portable toilet.

 

Other items have included luxury pens, underwear, SUVs, televisions, furniture, cat food, books, sweatshirts, Barbie dolls, teddy bears, household appliances, golf clubs, an ivory tusk, ticket to a pole dance show,  dog grooming, paper airplanes shampoo, hair dye and unpaid traffic tickets.

 

At the moment, it is impossible to say what kind of a dent all this nationwide thievery has made in  public coffers but it is likely to be a whole lot. In Liguria alone, the parliamentary leader of the Italy of Values party alone, is currently under investgation for having allowed his handful of colleagues to dissipate something like 70,000€.

I do not want to believe that all the 1,100 regional MPs in Italy are guilty of such misconduct. But there is no doubt that at this point in time only a minority of people in public office think of themselves as public servants, Thirty or forty years ago, Italy’s major problem was that of ideology; most politicians were trapped in this or that mind frame. Today it appears that for many the only point of getting into the public realm is to try and milk it for every euro it is worth.

Rome restaurants changing, not necessarily for the better
Jan 06, 2014 at 03:19 PM

Image Over the last several years, the restaurants of downtown Rome have undergone a sort of restyling in order to better exploit the fact that tourism appears to be one of the few sectors of the city’s economy that is suffering less than others from the ongoing economic crisis. Many restaurants in the centro storico have thus adopted fixed-price tourist menus, sometimes at very enticing levels. To better serve the visitors from other countries, many of whom are used to eating much earlier than the Romans are, the restaurants in Trastevere and around the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Camp dei Fiori have decided to break with tradition and stay open, uninterruptedly from 12 noon on, hiring young, non professional (and often non-Italian) servers. This way the tourist who is tired and hungry after a long visit to the Vatican Museums or to the Roman Forum, can sit down and have a meal without waiting until an official dinnertime.

 

In addition, the owners of many restaurants have also set up huge (often very ugly) signs outside on the street in front of their eateries or on the walls next to the door of their places of business; and as these are sometimes decorated with Japanese-style pictures of this or that plate of pasta, it would be an understatement to say that they add little to the already-challenged décor of the city.

 

But to a certain degree, these are changes that one can easily understand. In a difficult economy, it is normal to try to survive. But there is a risk, and it is that of the disappearance of the dear, old irreplaceable Roman trattoria, with its professional waiters in their white jackets, with their heavy Roman accents and their tired, “I have seen it all” expressions. Following the lead of their owners, who often took your orders personally, they made you feel at home, taking care to satisfy your every wish.

 

In these trattorias, whether they be the more famous ones such as La Campana, Al Moro, Da Fortunato, La Fiorentina, Il Pollarolo, Il Girarrosto, Il Comparone, La Tana di Noiantri and so on, or the smaller corner trattorie of your local neighborhood, if you were a regular they probably didn’t even bother giving you a menu. The discussion with your waiter was almost a sort of negotiation in which he (in those days they were almost exclusively men) would tell you what was good (and what wasn’t) that day and you could talk about your liver problems or your mal di pancia and ask for something simple, in bianco, and easy to digest.

 

Are we going to lose all this with the imperatives of modern catering – low cost tourism, fast food and so forth? Some of you will remember the fantastic diner scene (still available on YouTube) from the American film, Five East Pieces (1970) when a very young Jack Nicholson is totally frustrated when he proves unable to convince a recalcitrant waitress to bring him something that is not on the menu. Let’s hope we here in Rome don’t make such a sorry end, a sort  of Back to the Future, Italian.style.

 

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