Four years in Rome: An anniversary ode to my favorite city in the whole world

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.

I went to my 101st country last year. Iceland blew my mind and wallet with equal explosiveness. Laos, No. 100 on my list, was a paradise I never knew. But No. 1 in my world remains the country where I live. And its capital is still my favorite city.

Today marks my fourth anniversary of moving to Rome. Much has changed since I arrived with a duffel bag, two backpacks and a roller bag. I’ve met the woman I hope to spend my life with, my Italian has improved to where I naturally speak it before English and I’m bitching about Rome’s lousy public services.

But no, the honeymoon hasn’t worn off. I still wake up and take my cappuccino to my terrace and get weepy thinking how lucky I am to live in this paradise.

Then I see a dead carp on the bank of the Tiber and come back to reality.

I never want to fall into the trap of being a whiny expat. That’s why every Jan. 11, my anniversary, I jot down all the little things I love about living in Rome. Read them. Get inspired by them. Dream about them. Because the reality of living in Rome is better than the dream:

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.

I love driving the narrow alleys of Centro Storico with the windows down and feeling the warm summer breeze then emerge in front of a 13th century church, all back lit like a monument.

I love the bite of the salami piccante pizza at Pizzeria Remo down the street and how the lusty fresh tomato sauce makes it one of the greatest food combos known to man.

I love how you can swap recipes with an Italian buddy and no one thinks it’s gay.

I love watching the old couples gossip in my Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, even though I don’t know the old Romanesco dialect and have no clue what they’re saying.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

I love having lived here four years and never having a bad bottle of wine.

I love knowing I could live here 1,000 years and never try all the wines in Italy.

I love how the fishmonger at my Mercato Testaccio sees me and automatically says with a knowing smile, “Tonno? Centottanta e quindici,” meaning “Tuna? 180 degrees and 15 minutes” which I always order and always double check how to bake.

I love that Radja Nainggolan, my favorite player on A.S. Roma, turned down more money to stay in the adopted city he loves like I do.

I love escaping a rainstorm in Piazza del Popolo’s Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing a Caravaggio masterpiece over my head, totally free as I dry off.

I love getting up early for a conchiglia, the triangle-shaped puffed pastry named for the seashell it looks like, when it’s warm and gooey at Caffe In on my piazza.

I love how the cash register at L’Oasi della Birra, my local beer bar and enoteca, is surrounded by designer Italian chocolates to tempt you as you leave with a healthy buzz.

I love how I can wear a designer suit to a casual aperitivo when the sun’s still out and I fit in just fine.

Piazza Navona at dusk.

Piazza Navona at dusk.

I love strolling through Piazza Navona just after dawn in winter, before the tourists pour in, when fog settles in just above Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

I love how Marina, and all Italian women, think sexy high heels are casual wear, too.

I love how every wine region in Italy comes to Rome to push their product in one room during wine tasting events in tony hotels.

I love Rome-Palermo 56 euros round trip on Alitalia.

I love the grilled calamari at Amelindo in Fiumicino, the town known more for Rome’s airport than boasting the largest collection of affordable, fresh seafood restaurants in Italy.

Blow Lounge

Blow Lounge

I love the Blow Lounge.

I love reading books about Roman history in the summer with my terrace door open and Andrea Bocelli filling the air.

I love how grated parmesan cheese gives fresh pasta the cheesy flavor it has and then topped off with a pile of parmesan on top.

I love how no cafes in Rome offer coffee in paper cups.

Marina Pascucci

Marina Pascucci

I love how Marina never complains about my Italian but always encourages me to get better.

I love how no Italian woman wears Birkenstocks.

I love going through Campo de’ Fiori in the morning just in time to stop at Forno Campo de’ Fiori for its ungherese, a big fat toasted dough ring covered in white icing.

I love standing in the Olympic Stadium’s press tribune and hearing “Grazie Roma” right before AS Roma and its opponent marches onto the field.

I love that my Testaccio is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome that still honors pausa, the afternoon break when everything closes from 1-3:30 or 4 p.m.

I love how Italian leather shoes feel as comfortable on Day 1 as they do on Day 100.

I love SportWeek’s photos of Italy’s beautiful women athletes.

I love looking down at my courtyard from my fourth-floor kitchen window and seeing cats sunning themselves in the morning sun before it disappears behind the building.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.

I love the view of Centro Storico at sunset from the top of Terrazza Borromini while clinking wine glasses with total strangers in overstuffed couches.

I love Marina serving me espresso in bed with her cat, Coco, asleep near my feet.

I love a cold Italian craft beer at 8 percent alcohol outside on a hot summer day with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love Sicilian takeout.

Tiburina Island

Tiburina Island

I love talking to people from around the world on Tiburina Island as whitewater rushes by us during an Expats Living in Rome Meetup.

I love how Italian has no word for “hangover.”

I love the Roman dialect profanity “La mortaci tua!” meaning “Your family is dead!”

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub

I love sitting upstairs in Abbey Theatre Irish Pub with our private room full of romanista dining on the best pub food outside London and watching AS Roma beat the mortal piss out of another opponent.

I love Marina’s father was a member of Italy’s Communist Party and loves Barack Obama.

I love that Italy’s Communist Party was pro labor and not pro Stalin.

I love eating my prized pasta amatriciana, covered in parmesan, on my terrace with cold clementines while looking out over the calm Tiber River on a warm spring day.

I love leisurely Sunday mornings outside at my Linari cafe, with my chocolate cornetto, cappuccino ben caldo (extra hot) and Corriere Dello Sport, and dig into Rome’s best pastry and 30 pages of soccer news.

I love AS Roma 2, Lazio 1, Nov. 18, 2017.

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I love getting thirsty in summer then taking a draw from the ice-cold cisterns that have graced Rome for nearly 150 years.

I love how only one-third of all Italians are overweight compared to two-thirds in the U.S.

I love the romantic walk along Via dei Vascellari, the narrow cobblestone alley in Trastevere on my way to Trattoria Da Enzo, home of the best carbonara in the city that invented it.

I love how Federico my macellaio (butcher) wears a white fedora, not like the thousands of tourists who parade around idiotically with them but as an ode to macellai who wore them in the early 20th century.

Marina with friends.

Marina with friends.

I love how Marina’s fantastic pictures of us in Rome make me more grateful for living here than I did when I first arrived.

Matera: World’s third oldest city rocks Basilicata in more ways than one

The Sassi (The Stones) was once abandoned less than 40 years ago but now is Matera’s nerve center and site of 25 movies, including “The Passion of the Christ.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

MATERA, Italy — Living in Rome makes it easier to grasp the history of civilization. After all, it’s nearly a 3,000-year-old city. Almost all of mankind came after it. Much of the world today modeled itself off what Rome created, for better or worse. This city came before the birth of Christ for, um, Christ’s sake.

Now imagine a city that’s 6,000 years older than Rome.

Imagine what is now Italy was nothing more than mountains and marshes and fields. Jesus wouldn’t be born for 7,000 years after this city became established.

I am in the middle of that town now.

Calling Matera’s old town old is like calling Jupiter distant. I’m standing on the lone road, two stone lanes so narrow two cars must squeeze by to pass without sideswiping. Looking up I see a hodgepodge of houses. No, call them dwellings. Or how about shelters? They are piled on top of each other as if some giant built a model city on a mountain with pebbles. Some are built right into the rock, perfect for storing food before electricity.

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera's Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera’s Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The yellowish-white stone give Matera a uniformity that takes me back to Sunday school and textbook images of the Holy Land, of chickens clucking and dodging oxen in the dirt-strewn road, of bearded carpenters hammering wood in dusty roadside workshops. I keep thinking I’ll see Jesus trudge through town with a cross on his back which is exactly what Matera’s 60,000 inhabitants saw here in 2003 when Mel Gibson filmed “The Passion of the Christ.”

On the watchability meter, I rank the film down there with “Caddy Shack II.” Yeah, OK, Mel. We all know you say the Jews killed Jesus but do we have to see a man get flogged for two hours? Nevertheless, Gibson knew no town on earth could better replicate a time from 2,000 years ago.

That’s because Matera really hasn’t changed much since then.

Matera is the world’s third oldest city, according to Traveller magazine. Only Aleppo, Syria, and Jericho, Palestine, are older. So unless you like your pizza in a war zone, Matera is the place to explore. Matera was first inhabited in the Paleolithic Era which ended about 10,000 B.C. Back then, Matera’s inhabitants were discovering stone tools and how to hunt and gather. It has been continuously inhabited for the last 9,000 years.

However, the neighborhood where I’m standing and where my Marina and I are staying, wasn’t around less than 40 years ago. It was abandoned, an empty shell of a novelty. It was a forced evacuation, long overdue from a time after World War II when this neighborhood was rife with malaria, where people lived with no running water or toilets, where the infant mortality rate was 40 percent. In 1948, justice minister Palmiro Togliatti called this area, known as the Sassi (Italian for “stones”), a “national shame.”

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As I view the chock-a-block stone structures, which come together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, I also see dozens of tourists climbing the narrow stairs snaking through the hill and walking the street. Call Matera old. But also call it one of the great comeback stories in Europe. The Roman Empire never rose again.

But Matera did.

“The greatness of this city is they survived all the way from Paleolithic time. So there was a vision of the world.”

Speaking is Vincenzo Altieri, 46, a born-and-raised Materana who owns the La Dolce Vita Bed & Breakfast where Marina and I stayed for three nights last weekend. He has seen Matera grow from an impoverished shell of its former self to a cleaned-up historical site to a Hollywood magnet to one of the growing tourist attractions in Italy.

Today, Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Forty years ago, you couldn’t get a plumber to come here.

“We take pictures of the city because every day is different,” Altieri says.

Marina, Roman born and raised, had never been to Matera. Like the rest of us, she’d heard stories. We saw photos. I saw “The Passion of the Christ.” I hated the movie but behind the whips, yelps and blood, the scenery was good.

Matera, at 1,315-foot elevation, is not difficult to reach but takes time. Not wanting to risk driving in snow — although the postcards of Matera dusted in white are mesmerizing — we took a bus. The big, modern pullman took seven hours, south through Campania and Puglia before slicing into Basilicata. It’s Italy’s forgotten region, a land of only 570,000 people squeezed between the beautiful beaches of Puglia, the islands of Campania and rural charm of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.

Basilicata is where savvy travelers go to avoid the beaten path. Its once fertile forests are now a mosaic of wheat fields, olive groves and grapevines. The Lucanian Apennine mountains cut through the spine of Basilicata, putting Matera to the east almost in their shadow. Basilicata has a history of toughness. When a discussion of unifying the country swirled in the mid-19th century, loyalists to Basilicata’s ruling Bourbons rose up in violent protest against any political change.

That fighting spirit continued in Matera where 30 years ago they took back the abandoned honeycomb landscape and turned it into their homes again. It is in that neighborhood where Marina and I woke on a crisp, clear 45-degree day, the perfect temperature to roam.

Matera has three sections: The two Sassi neighborhoods are the more impoverished Sasso Caveoso in the south and the more spruced-up Sasso Barisano to the north. To the west is the new town where the Sassi’s great unwashed were moved, most by force, in the 1950s and where Altieri grew up though he wasn’t part of the exodus.

To the east of the Sassi is the Parco della Murgia Materana, featuring a huge gorge with a river snaking through it and hiking paths crisscrossing up the side. It’s as rugged as the people and it’s the panorama we’re gazing at as we climb the first stairs behind Altieri’s B&B.

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We walk down a narrow path overlooking the gorge and come across St. Lucia, an 8th century Benedictine convent. It’s one of 170 churches in Matera. That’s one for every 350 people.

“We have more churches than Rome,” Altieri jokes.

It’s 6 euros to enter St. Lucia along with 12th century San Pietro Barisano and 13th century San Giovanni farther north. I always balk at paying to enter a house of worship but here I marvel at the 12th century frescoes, including a rare breast-feeding Madonna. The walls are blackened from age and the two giant white stone pillars are lit from below. It feels more like a haunted house which somehow fits with the theme of Matera.

We walk north along the one main road, Via Madonna delle Virtu, with its spectacular views of the Sassi to our left and the ravine to our right. We cut left up a tiny staircase leading to the Piazza Duomo. Its 12th century cathedral is Matera’s centerpiece, its Christmas ornament where a 52-meter tower can be seen from every vantage point in the Sassi.

From the spacious surrounding piazza, we can see a panorama of the gorge with its tufa walls and tufts of grass in between. Between groups of tourists, including a wedding party where the couple posed with the church in the background, we could hear the river rapids below.

Continuing our journey, we stay on the narrow path above the mob and could smell garlic and hot olive oil emanating from the small houses, some surrounded by potted plants on tile courtyards. Italian food seems to taste better in the countryside, and our stomachs begin to churn despite the filling breakfast of focaccia with tomatoes.

In the tiny wine bar of Vicolo Cielo, we see how Matera reinvented itself into modern Italy. Despite being built inside a cave, Vicolo Cielo is a hip, casual enoteca/sandwich shop where we sit on a big, overstuffed couch. Across from us, under the white, naturally arched ceiling, sits a shoeshine chair, for no apparent reason.

As Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” plays on the loudspeaker, the young waitress brings me a panino (not “panini,” Americans) of crudo ham, gorgonzola cream, tomatoes and lettuce between thick slices of Basilicata’s famous soft bread.

Cheese plate at Caveoso

Cheese plate at Caveoso

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

A benefit to modernizing a hovel into a tourist center is Matera’s food options are tremendous. Besides bread, Basilicata is known for its terrific cheeses, including a scrumptious Caprino a Vinacce displayed beautifully at Caveoso, another restaurant built into a cave. At Morgan, one of the first restaurants established in the Sassi in 1997, I had two of the best sausages in my life, taken from Cirigliano, 15 kilometers from Matera. I also took a recommendation for Soul Kitchen, one of Matera’s most elegant restaurants where my unique potato ravioli was filled with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce. Washed down with the local Primitivo house wine served all over town, Matera hits all the gastro points.

You need fuel. The town is bigger than you think and there are so many strange things to see. It’s like a living funhouse with a religious bent. One of Matera’s most bizarre sites is San Pietro Barisano. The church was plundered in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving the altar empty and some of the surrounding statues without heads. But below the floor is a maze of narrow passageways with 4-foot-high niches in the walls. This is where they placed corpses during draining. The close quarters are too much for the slightly claustrophobic Marina but I inch my way along the walls imagining dead bodies lined up like bowling pins. As I touch a wall, some of the tufa crumbles in my hand.

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As we walk from church to church, I can’t help noting that it’s not a coincidence so many were built in a town that looks like old Bethlehem. You feel as if you’re walking through one giant presepe, the native scenes from the Holy Land you see all over Italy as Christmas nears.

This is why the most beaten path to Matera has been made by the movie industry. Twenty-five movies have been made here, starting with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” In 1979 came the hit “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Later, in 2006 they filmed the Jerusalem scenes in the remake of “The Omen,” my favorite movie of all time. Last year Morgan Freeman pounded the stones here in the filming of “Ben-Hur.”

A statue on a resident's courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A statue on a resident’s courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the film that launched the flood of tourists was “The Passion of the Christ.” For three months the crew took over the town. In fact, right next to our B&B, Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, fell during one of his many savage beatings.

“You’re living here so you’re living on the set even if you don’t want to,” Altieri says. “You see Romans. You see camels. You see horses everywhere. You get used to it.”

Ironically, a generation earlier, another movie had a bigger influence on the Altieri family. In the 1950s, most of Matera’s population lived in the Sassi. Today the city has a sample cave in which we saw a room about 50 square meters where 12 people lived. That didn’t include a horse and chickens in one of the rooms. A bed was shoved in the corner under a small loft. An iron pot sat under the bed. That was the toilet. The room had no drainage. No electricity.

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This was 1965. It was during this time the government, tired of the black stain Matera put on the Italian landscape, started moving people into the new town.

During this time, the older brother of Altieri’s grandfather went to his first movie. It was “King Kong.” Suddenly, the Meterana saw themselves as the government did: as backward as an oxcart.

“Just by the images he realized, ‘OK, there are skyscrapers, women without moustaches, fancy dresses, cars, boats, airplanes, animals I’ve never seen,’” Altieri says. “There’s a different reality out there.”

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Altieri grew up in a typical Italian family with 11 other members. If all roads lead to Rome, few led to Basilicata. They were nearly isolated. The government all but forgot them. Then in 1986, the government allowed families forced out of the Sassi to return and fix them up with their own money.

In 1999, Altieri took a two-story building just off the main road. A software engineer at the time, he started to rebuild. He shows me photos of our room at that time and it was a barren pit. It looked like a flood had hit it. But he went to work and later turned it into a thriving B&B with a patio overlooking the sassi.

“This place (Matera) was meant to share,” he says. “There was a wisdom of looking at the world and saying, ‘OK, we can do better even though we have no resources. We will succeed.’”

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s our last night, and we go to Sunday mass. I’m not religious but living in Italy, mass is a cultural event. Marina goes regularly, and I learn more about her life and my adopted country’s traditions by sitting in church for 45 minutes. It’s was held in San Giovanni, made of gray and white stone, beautiful in its simplicity.

The priest, a short, young man in a brilliant purple robe, talks about how the real sense of life is having time for brothers and sisters and family. He says modern man doesn’t have faith, that he must keep the faith.

Matera has kept the faith for 9,000 years. That’s a passion Christ could appreciate.

Apocalypse now: Why Italy flamed out of World Cup qualifying for first time since 1958

Italy's Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

Italy’s Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

The Abbey Theatre Irish Pub sits on a corner of one of the narrow, windy streets near Piazza Navona. Rome doesn’t have sports bars, and this is about as close as it comes. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s passionate. Monday night, a passionate crowd turned silent. A nation lowered its head in shame. Upstairs in Abbey I watched a German TV station interview Italians on the national history they just witnessed. As two bubbly, blonde babes in Sweden shirts bounced nearby, I heard an Italian in a sharp business suit mumble into the camera “Disastro storico” (Historic disaster). My comprehension of Italian isn’t great but some words stand out when you watch the national sport hit a low not reached in 60 years.

Abisso (Abyss). Apocalisse (Apocalypse). Che cazzo! (What the fuck?).

They are all being spoken and printed today from the ports of Sicily to the mountain chalets of the Italian Alps. I’m 61 years old. I was a sportswriter for 40 years and have followed sports since the early 1960s. I don’t recall one nation embarrassing itself on a field of play as Italy did this year in World Cup qualifying.

Its 0-0 draw with Sweden in Milan Monday, after losing 1-0 Friday on the road, sealed a fate unthinkable just last year. Italy, a four-time World Cup champion, has gone from taking Germany to a shootout in the quarterfinals of the European Championships to not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. The last time Italy didn’t make the world’s biggest sporting event, Americans still drove the Edsel, The Beatles were called the Quarrymen and Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union.

Italian fans react to Monday's 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

Italian fans react to Monday’s 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

The U.S. didn’t qualify, either. It couldn’t finish in the top four of a group of six. But half the U.S. sports fans refer to soccer as kickball. In Italy they refer to it as religion.

Monday’s view of Italy’s players crying on the field in front of a yellow-and-blue background of celebrating Swedes, who hadn’t qualified since 2006, represents a flatlining of a sporting culture. Take out the 2016 Europeans and Italy has done less on the world stage than the U.S. After winning the 2006 World Cup, it couldn’t get out of the group stages in 2010 and 2014. It has one win in six games.

“Italy has been teetering on the brink of disaster for some while in various ways,” Paddy Agnew, an Irish soccer journalist who has lived in Italy since 1986, told me Tuesday morning. “Now they’re not teetering on the brink. They’ve fallen in head first.”

The hysterical Italian media is at fever pitch. My La Gazzetta dello Sport, behind the end-of-the-world headline “FINE” (THE END), wrote, “It is one of the darkest pages of our sporting history; a brutal blow beyond the incalculable damage for a country which lives and breathes football. It’s a sporting equivalent of Titanic.”

The Rome-based Corriere dello Sport, teed it up with the headline “EVERYBODY FIRED!” It added, “It’s an intolerable footballing disgrace; an indelible stain. It’s the end. Apocalypse, tragedy, catastrophe. Call it what you want, but our football is in a serious crisis. We’ve been relegated to Serie B of world football.”

Keep in mind it’s harder for European teams to qualify than in CONCACAF where the U.S. usually just needs to show up reasonably sober. In Europe’s UEFA, teams only automatically qualify if they win their six-team group. The eight best second-place teams meet in home-and-home playoffs. Italy had the same group as Spain. It’s no disgrace to finish second to Spain.

But the way Italy stumbled and bumbled its way into a playoff then went impotent against a Swedish team made up with twice as much heart as talent struck deep into the Italian soul. Italy scored only three goals in its last six games, dating back to June.

In Friday’s first game outside Stockholm, Italy had all the energy of 10 guys waiting for a gondola. The announcers had more enthusiasm. Sweden didn’t get off many shots, either, but out-raced Italy for nearly every ball, roughed up the Italians when they didn’t, scored off a deflection early in the second half and held on for a shocking 1-0 win.

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

As Monday’s second game approached, I read the papers and was stunned by Italy’s arrogance, its sense of entitlement. Manager Gian Piero Ventura, a 69-year-old journeyman I’ll barbecue below, wailed about the official letting Sweden get too physical. He joined the players’ chorus saying, “We’ll make the World Cup. We’re Italy.”

Yes, you’re Italy. And now, Italy, you suck.

In Monday’s second game, Italy had a sense of desperation that bordered on panic. It dominated possession 76-24 and Sweden’s lone offense was the occasional counter attack. But Sweden’s defense was disciplined and ruthless and it has a great goalkeeper in Robin Olsen who plays for FC Copenhagen. Italy outshot Sweden, 14-1, but Olsen made seven saves and other shots just missed.

Sweden was heavy  underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Sweden was heavy underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Being a lifelong fan of the underdog on the road, I found myself pulling for little Sweden. But I remain baffled by how a nation where soccer is more important to its people than the Vatican, where 12 million tuned in Monday night, could let it slip into depths not known in this generation.

“There are a number of factors,” Agnew said. “One factor is Ventura.”

Ventura today is the most unpopular Italian since Nero. Rome’s Senate won’t declare Ventura a public enemy but I’m surprised he didn’t get fired after the game before he crossed the touch line. Ventura’s appointment last year baffled the nation. Italy went from 48-year-old Antonio Conte, who led Juventus to three straight Serie A titles and Italy to the Euro quarters, to this frumpy fossil whose list of jobs is longer than Hunter Thompson’s police blotter. He has coached 18 Italian clubs in 26 years. He had been fired six times. His claims to fame are earning team promotions five times and staying on at Torino from 2011-16. The most prestigious club he managed was one season at Napoli. The number of games he’d worked outside Italy was seven.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

However, he only cost 1.2 million euros. Conte cost 4 million and after Euros left for Chelsea which he led to last season’s Premiership title. Of his 4 million, Puma paid about half as part of its sponsorship deal and wasn’t going to re-up for just anyone. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) approached Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, but his son is a football agent and the conflict of interest prevented it. So out went Conte with his designer suits, wild enthusiasm and wide-open football; in came Ventura with his long parka, haggard look and rigid ways.

This was like replacing Caravaggio with a house painter.

If Ventura was any stiffer in his coaching style, he wouldn’t need a trainer. He’d need a mortician. He stuck to a 3-5-2 formation, which utilizes only two strikers and puts a greater emphasis on defense. That left on the bench one Lorenzo Insigne, the rising 26-year-old star for Napoli which is leading Serie A. He didn’t play Insigne until the second half Friday and he never got off the bench Monday.

Daniele De Rossi, one of three players left from that 2006 World Cup team, could be seen screaming at an assistant coach on the bench to put in the kid. “Metti Insigne. Dobbiamo vincere!” (Put in Insigne. We must win!” La Gazzetta reported him saying.

“In technical terms, Ventura is responsible for what happened,” Agnew said. “In overall terms it’s (Carlo) Tavecchio. The buck has to stop with him.”

Yes, Carlo Tavecchio, FIGC’s 74-year-old president and former Lombardy politician who was elected in 2014 after being convicted five times on charges ranging from forgery to abuse of office. They are Italy’s Dumb and Dumber but on aesthetic terms, Tavecchio’s appointment was more offensive. While campaigning for the position, he complained about the influx of too many foreign players in Serie A, particularly from Africa.

He said — and I am not making this up — “In England they select players based on professionalism, whereas we say that old ‘Opti Poba’ (a hypothetical player) is here now, so let’s take him. He was eating bananas before but now he’s starting for Lazio and that’s OK.”

Yet he still got elected. Some say he became a favorite of the power clubs’ presidents who felt they could manipulate him. The racist remark? It’s normale in today’s Italian soccer.

“Not only is that incredibly insensitive and incredibly racist, but if somebody says that, I ask how can you trust that guy to run the edicola (newsstand) on the corner or the public toilet?” Agnew said. “What are you giving him the most important sports federation in the country for?”

I called Agnew for a couple of reasons. I read him for years when I picked up World Soccer magazine while living in Denver before Rome. He also writes a weekly blog for it and contributes to But he has also been The Irish Times’ Rome general correspondent for the last 30 years. The way football is entwined in Italian society, no one is better at comparing Italian football with Italian life.

“The greed, the cynicism, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian football is nothing different from the greed, the dishonesty, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian politics,” he said. “You have an (74)-year-old man running the Italian Football Federation and running it into the ground. You have an 82-year-old tycoon (former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) who’s deciding to fight the country even though he’s been in nothing but scandals and court cases for the last 20 years. Italian football, like football anywhere else, is only ever a mirror reflection of what goes on in the country.”

Every finger in Italy is pointing at the FIGC and not the players. Italy is still a reservoir of talent. Italy’s Under-21 team has reached the semifinals in two of its last three World Cups. Ciro Immobile, Lazio’s 27-year-old wunderkind, leads Serie A with 14 goals in 11 games. Yet he was a mere rumor on the field against Sweden.

When Germany bombed out of the 2000 Euros, it tore down its organization and rebuilt it from the youth program up. The Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 teams all play in the same system as the national team. When they reach the senior level, there is less adjustment. Today, Germany is the defending World Cup champion and is the 5-1 favorite in Russia along with France.

In Italy there is a major disconnect.

“This is a society does not reward meritocracy,” Agnew said. “People who’ve been running Italian football have run it along feudalistic, cronyistic, self interested lines. They’ve never had an overall plan for the good of Italian football. They don’t care about the good of Italian football. They just like to make money.”

The future begins now. As I’ve typed this, I’ve frequently clicked on to see if Ventura has received, as my college football colleague Dennis Dodd astutely refers to, “the big haircut.” Not yet but it’s as inevitable as bells pealing in St. Peter’s.

Waiting unemployed is Carlos Ancelotti, 58, who won league titles with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Arsenal. Roberto Mancini, 52, has won 12 cups and is coaching in obscurity in Russia. Would Max Allegri, 50, look for a new challenge if he wins a fourth straight title for Juventus? Maybe Conte’s clash with Chelsea’s front office will boil over and he could be lured back.

However, they are all on the five-star price list and the FIGC must change its philosophy or find another sponsor if it wants a name that will draw headlines and not head scratches.

In the meantime, next summer will be strange around here. No huge crowds in Piazza Venezia to watch Italy on the big screen. Pubs crowded with only foreigners. Newspapers filled with stories about the French and Germans and Spanish and English. The only Italian in the papers may be the shoe ads.

Meanwhile, at Abbey Pub, I look forward to seeing Swedish meatballs on the menu.

Your Italian island guide for 2018 — but book by Dec. 31 or your travel budget will regret it

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring this Cala Coticcio, is just one of Italy's underrated islands.

Arcipelago di La Maddalena, featuring Cala Coticcio, boast some of Italy’s underrated islands.

Here’s a little travel tip for everyone. If you’re planning on traveling in 2018, don’t wait until 2018 to plan your travel. I’ve read numerous places that travel costs will jump next year. Many struggling airlines (that’s become a redundancy in recent years) will increase their airfares to an average of 3.5 percent, according to the 2018 Global Travel Forecast. Hotels will rise 3.7 percent. It’s primarily due to projected higher fuel costs and an increase in travel demand. It all means you start planning your travel sooner.

Like now.

I am here to help. If you’re already tired of fall weather and daydreaming at your desk of sky blue seas and boats docked in secluded coves, you need an island vacation. Instead of the Caribbean, where there’s not much left, or Greece, where there’s not much left unspoiled. Try my recommendation.


Its islands are vastly underrated. Quick. Name two. No, Sicily and Sardinia don’t count. Those are more regions than islands. Sicily and Sardinia have their own islands. OK, you just chose Capri. No, Corsica belongs to France. Can’t think of others? Read on.

Italy’s islands may not have the sugar-white sand of the Caribbean or the variety of Greece, but they have their own charm. Because you totally bombed my little quiz, you know they are naturally less crowded. Many are as unspoiled as they were before Allied and Axis forces bombed mainland Italy into rubble during World War II.

Plus, the food is pretty good.

I have been to seven. I have many more to go. Here’s a little guide, in alphabetical order and unvarnished with some bad mixed with the very good. I have written blogs about some of them and inserted the links if you want more detail and obnoxious commentary. So print it and put it on your wall to ponder as you watch the clock in your office while rain or snow pound the pavement outside.

I wrote that Capri "is the prettiest island in Europe."

I wrote that Capri “is the prettiest island in Europe.”


In my blog from three years ago, I called Capri “the prettiest island in Europe.” It better be. The crowds it gets it should put it on the same level with Bora Bora. It’s not for a number of reasons.

Namely, Capri has no beaches. It is surrounded by rock. Giant boulders and uncomfortable pebbles separate you from some of the bluest water in Europe. It is 27 miles off the coast of Naples and tourism is the lone industry. The only things Capri (pronounced CAH-pree) dumps in the sea are tourists.

You can place your towel on the flattest rock you can find and pretend you’re a Hindu fakir. One beach had lounge chairs selling for 21 euros but they were sold out — in October. I didn’t even see an unoccupied rock to place my beach towel. In Piazza Umberto I, the main square people go to see and be seen, I saw people bumping into people’s forks as they dined. I sometimes waited 30-45 minutes for a minibus that climbs the mountain which composes this island.

In summer, Capri becomes a parody of itself. This is an island 4 miles x 1.8 miles and in summer it gets 10,000 tourists a day. Nowhere on Manhattan island is it this crowded.

But if you don’t come for the beaches or the food, come for the views. That minibus ride is worth the wait, even if your bed & breakfast, as mine was, isn’t on top of the hill. Each switchback the bus made I got a new and improved view of the sea below.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

The Capri countryside (yes, there is one) is worth exploring.

For a reverse view, pay the 18 euros for a beach tour of the island. You get a good history lesson from the learned ship captain, and some stop for dips in the sea.

Capri has three parts: Capri town where most tourists congregate, Anacapri where most locals live and the countryside. My B&B, the Alle Ginestre, was in Anacapri and had terrific views of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. I highly recommend finding your lodging in Anacapri. It’s where you’ll find schools and kids kicking soccer balls in the street and locals sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes.

Also, don’t pass up the Torta Caprese, Capri’s local chocolate cake.

he Weather Channel ranked Favignana's waters as the 13th bluest in the world.

The Weather Channel ranked Favignana’s waters as the 13th bluest in the world.


Marina and I went here twice this year, we liked it so much. We went for my birthday in March and again in October, carefully avoiding the summer high season. Favignana’s waters make Capri’s look like the North Sea. The Weather Channel ranked it 13th in its list of Bluest Waters in the World. Favignana earned it. Its water is as turquoise as around French Polynesia.

The largest of the three Egadi Islands, Favignana is an easy get from Rome: a 70-minute flight to Trapani on Sicily’s west coast, then a 30-minute hydroplane ride. What greets you are 14 square miles of island tranquility. It is spider webbed by narrow two-lane roads where the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The island is as flat as an Italian model’s stomach and touring the island isn’t a strain for even the fattest of tourist. Few places in Italy can you spend hours cruising the countryside with the only sounds being the birds above and the sea below.

Cala Azzurra, on the southeast coast, took credit for the No. 13 ranking and it is indeed beautiful. It’s a soft bend of the island seen from a cliff, with a precarious walk down to the rocks. However, Cala Rossa on the northeast coast should push Azzurra for the honor. While most beaches were all rock, like on Capri, last month we did find a sandy beach at Punta San Nicola, even closer to the main town.

Don’t come in March. The water temperature was 52 degrees. In October, the water was swimmable and as clear as any I’ve seen in Europe although not quite as turquoise as in spring.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Marina and I. Bike is the main form of transport on Favignana.

Whenever you go, be sure to hang in Piazza Madrice. It’s Favignana’s nerve center. Go to quaint, friendly Caffe Aegus where you can sip their house Nero d’Avalo and chat with old-timers who left the mainland for Favignana long ago.

We have twice eaten at Trattoria da Papu’, maybe Favignana’s most popular seafood restaurant where the specialty is busiate di profumo di mare. Busiate is western Sicily’s signature pasta, a thick, twisty noodle they cover in a big mess of shellfish. We needed reservations in October, when the large outdoor seating was filled by 9 p.m.

A great place to stay is Isola Mia. It’s a 15-minute walk to the piazza and run by Jose Tammaro, a touring musician, and his wife. Both are affable and friendly and put out a breakfast spread of meats, cheeses and cornettos, Italy’s signature croissants.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.

Unlike Capri, just to the south, Ischia has beautiful beaches.


While tourists flock to Capri, Italians flock to Ischia, Capri’s bigger cousin to the north. It doesn’t have Capri’s view or international cache but it has the sandy beaches and authentic Italian vibe.

I came here in the mid-2000s and stayed in a nice hotel (of which its name escapes me) with a glorious pool not far from an equally tranquil beach. The beach and pool were so mesmerizing, I didn’t bother with what attracts many Italians.

Thermal baths.

Ischia is lousy with them. Take a water taxi to the south side of the island to Maronti beach and the Il Sorgeto cove where a thermal spring awaits. If you want to really pamper yourself at a cheap rate, you can go to Negombo, which sports 12 pools and thermal pools ranging from 75-97 degrees, a private beach and 500 exotic plant species. Price is a very reasonable 33 euros a day.

Ischia’s waterfront is quite lovely despite not offering Capri’s jaw-dropping views from above. Small whitewashed buildings separate the sky-blue bay from cliffs hovering over the town. Dominating the view is Castello Aragones, the 15th century castle built by King Alfonso of Aragon who also added the causeway and accessory ramp that exist to this day. This is a well-worn fortification. Gerone I of the Syracuse republic in Sicily first built a fortress here in 474 BC.

The restaurants are more reasonably priced than in Capri and most offer rabbit (coniglio), a specialty in Ischia. Afterward, wash your palate with Rucolino, a local green liqueur, especially if you have a hankering for licorice.

Like Capri, Ischia is easily reached by a steady stream of hydrofoils from Naples.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.

Lampedusa is more than just for refugees.


It’s closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy and has made international news as the first stop in refugees’ desperate, and often, ill-fated boat journeys. Waters around this island are littered with drowning victims.

When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, it was before the big wave of refugees poured in. I came to seek an Italian island experience with sugar-white sand beaches like the Caribbean and the kind of heat that requires an act of the military to get you up from said sand.

Lampedusa is 180 miles south of Sicily and easily reached with flights from Rome via Palermo. I was told by a Rome friend that Lampedusa was the perfect “simple Island” getaway. I wrote in my journal that “The only thing simple about Lampedusa was it simply sucks.”

It is 160 miles off the coast of Tunisia and is dry as a lunar landscape and just as barren. I went in August 2002 and I could not see a speck of sand under the cheek-to-cheek, towel-to-towel flesh mob on the beaches. The village of Lampedusa was chock-a-block with souvenir shops, T-shirt emporiums and hack singers butchering “Time in a Bottle.” It looked like a satire on Italian tourism.

What no one writes about is the island’s main mode of transport, the motorino, seemingly has no regulations. Each one is as noise as a Harley 1800 cruising a California freeway. With people buzzing around the island until 3 a.m., Lampedusa is the only island I’ve visited that’s noisier than Manhattan. It was like being on the infield of the Indy 500 or living inside a bumble bee’s nest. I couldn’t get away from it.

The north side of the island is as desolate as the south side is overcrowded. At the time, a putrid public dump extinguished any delicious aromas drifting up from the Mediterranean below. I don’t recall seeing a single village.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it's not crowded.

Lampedusa has nice beaches when it’s not crowded.

Still, after five days I warmed to Lampedusa. Its beaches are worth it. Spiaggia di Coniglio has been ranked among the top 10 in the world. It’s a gorgeous slice of white sand in a cove you’ve seen in tourist posters. I saw an equally good beach at Cala Madonna 15 miles out of town. Just go in September after the mobs have left.

The island is governed by Sicily meaning it’s Sicilian meaning you get the great Sicilian desserts. Stroll along Via Roma, the main drag, with a granita or a cassata. Or sit outside in one of the plethora of cafes and eat one of the famed cannolis.

Also, even if it is crowded, it’s crowded with Italians. You still feel you’re getting away from wherever you’re from. You have no worries about getting in a bar fight about politics.

Parco Nazionale dell'Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia contain just some of Italy's underrated islands.

Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago di La Maddalena off the north coast of Sardinia.


Again, if you come to Sardinia, do NOT come in the summer, particularly August. Italians pour over from the mainland during one of their two extended vacations a year. It’s as crowded as a pope’s coronation.

After visiting Lampedusa in 2002, later that September I took the boat from Civitavecchia, 50 miles northwest of Rome, to Sardinia. Prices were less than August. So were the crowds. The water was just as warm. The sun just as bright.

The highlight of a trip that had me circumvent the north half of the island and cross back through the spectacular Sardi hinterland, was a side trip to Arcipelago di La Maddalena. It’s a series of seven islands, the lone lands still existing from a valley that once connected Sardinia with Corsica, seven miles to the north, and is now under water.

Located off Sardinia’s northeast coast, a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Palau, Maddalena is subject to winds. While in September they were low, the winds carved natural formations in the granite that make the beaches unique in Europe.

They also formed numerous individual bays bordered by cozy, romantic beaches. I just looked in my journal from that week 15 years ago and I called the beaches on the island, “the best I’ve seen in Southern Europe outside Santorini.” I wrote further:

“Each turn of the road had a car park where you could pull over and take pictures of tiny bays individually carved by wind-washed rock.The water was (so) clear you could see the bottom 50 feet down and four shades of blue: cobalt, royal, turquoise, blue-green.”

If you haven’t heard much about Maddalena, it may because its romantic image is smudged by the presence of a huge U.S. naval base. An anchor the size of some tuna boats sits on shore as your ferry approaches. The Navy doesn’t have an overriding presence. Locals I talked to said the sailors are respectful, mature and reasonably sober.

A big consideration with Maddalena: a car is a must. Sardinia’s public transportation is extremely limited and I saw nothing on Maddalena. A rental car is highly recommended.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.

Ponza is the closest island to Rome.


Tired of the crowds and heat of Rome? Come to Ponza. It’s the closest island to the capital. Just take a regional train 50 minutes from Rome’s Termini station to the town of Anzio, Emperor Nero’s birthplace, and then a 90-minute to 2 ½-hour ferry ride, depending on the boat.

Ponza is a volcanic island which has its pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is its jagged outline provides tons of tiny, secluded coves; the biggest negative is hardened volcanic ash is lousy for sunbathing. Still, find a spare rock and lay down a towel. The Tyrrhenian Sea is a gorgeous blue and warm from June through September.

I went one September and loved the laid-back nature of Ponza town, void of package tourists and side-by-side souvenir stands. Its quaint harbor is backed by small buildings of red and blue and yellow and white. Ponza is popular for Romans seeking a weekend away but during the week it is your own paradise to explore.

A good public transportation system took me to the north side of the island where I had lunch with local villagers before descending down a narrow, switchback path to a beautiful secluded cove below. No entry fee. No lounge chairs. Just a royal blue sea and plenty of space to lay down a towel, however precarious it may be to lay on it.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

The pool at the four-star Albergo Chiara Beach.

I splurged and stayed at the luxurious four-star Hotel Chiaia di Luna, featuring a head-turning swimming pool overlooking the bay, port and Palmarola, the other inhabited island nearby. It also had 2,000 meters of terrace and free shuttle service to the port.
Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film "Il Postino." Photo by Marina Pascucci

Procida was the site of the hit 1995 film “Il Postino.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


This is what island life was like in Italy in the 1950s. Fishermen mending fishing nets on old boats. Eating a pizza on a quiet, semi-secluded harbor. Old men in hats sipping wine and chatting on street corners. This step back in time is the polar opposite of the jet-set theme park that is Capri 10 miles to the south.

“Il Postino,” the movie about the love-sick postman in 1950 that was Oscar nominated for Best Picture in 1995, was filmed here. It hasn’t changed much since. The same pink dockside building where the postman hung out still exists on the harbor where I had a couple of great Sicilian pizzas for 4-8 euros.

Marina and I came here in May to celebrate our two-year anniversary. It lived up to its hype as a romantic paradise. We dined on a limestone cliff above the harbor at La Lampara where the ravioli al sapore di mare (ravioli stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese) was simply the best ravioli of my life. Nearly every menu features mussels and calamari as thick as lobster tails.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

You get Neapolitan pizza everywhere on Procida.

We took a bus up to the north end of the island where we spent a day combing the sandy beach and sipping cocktails at a dockside bar in the sun. Procida (PRO-chee-duh) is big with the boating crowd but doesn’t have the stuffiness of towns where you’re measured by the size of your yacht.

Topping the romantic weekend was a stay at the four-star Albergo La Vigna, high above a hill where a courtyard looks down at the sea below. Highlighting La Vigna is a spa you can block off for a, um, private hour to yourselves.

Las Vegas shooting reminds us all in Italy how stricter gun laws equal fewer deaths

Concert goers run for cover Sunday in Las Vegas where a gunman killed 59 people and injured more than 500.

Concert goers run for cover Sunday in Las Vegas where a gunman killed 59 people and injured more than 500.

The bullets from Las Vegas Sunday could be heard 6,000 miles away here in Rome. They sounded a little louder above the bank of the Tiber River where I stared at my computer and saw the crude videos shot by terrified concert goers. Mass shootings in the United States don’t normally make me sit upright anymore. I’m an American. Mass shootings happen in America as often as fireworks. According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, the updated number of mass shootings, defined by at least four people shot, is 1,516 in 1,735 days. Total dead: 1,714.

But the Las Vegas massacre caught my attention more than others for two reasons: One, the 59 dead, plus more than 500 injured, marked it as the worst in modern U.S. history.

Two, I lived in Las Vegas for 10 years.

I remember nights sitting in the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s sports department from 1980-90 listening to the police radio on a nearby desk. Seemingly every evening someone who bought a gun to protect themselves from everyone else who had a gun was shooting an ex-loved one. Gang members killed other gang members for crossing the wrong street. Most of the murders never even made our front page.

Meanwhile, here in Italy I looked up how many gun massacres the country has had since, oh, say, 1966.


That’s right. Niente. Nein. Nyet. Not even one.

I’ve written before about Rome’s relatively safe streets. Last year I took a police ride and compared some frightening but revealing statistics. Three years ago, according to, the U.S. had 33,169 people die from guns; Italy had 475. Over the last 10 years, Detroit, a city of 200,000, averaged 345 gun deaths. Baltimore a city of 622,000, averaged 234.

ANSA, Italy’s wire service, reported Rome, population 2.6 million, averaged 30.

Between the two cops I rode with last year and three I tagged along with in 2002 for a book chapter, I have interviewed five Rome cops with a combined 70 years of experience. Not one had ever fired a gun. They had only seen one cop shoot one. Why would they?

Hardly anyone else carries a gun, either.

It doesn’t take the brain of a Nobel Peace Prize winner to figure it out — although it may take a brain bigger than the average NRA member. It’s gun laws. Italy’s gun laws are strict; the United States’ are … well, they barely have them.

Thirteen U.S. states don’t even have background checks. The states that require them often take only minutes on a computer to approve. You can buy a gun for as little as $100, making them the cheapest in the world. The U.S. has 54,000 gun stores with 98 percent of the population living within 10 miles of one. Besides, who in America doesn’t live within 10 miles of a Walmart? Yes, you can buy guns there, too. The number of gun shows range from 2,000-5,200 per year. This is a big reason why there is 1.13 guns per every American.

In Italy, these are the requirements:

* Be 18 or over.

* Obtain a shooting safety certificate from a gun safety course.

* Pass a medical exam showing you are mentally sufficient.

* Prove you have a clean record at the police station.

* Register all guns at local police department within 72 hours of purchase.

While you can buy guns in Italy, the types of guns are even more prohibitive. Any military weapons such as assault rifles and machine guns are strictly outlawed. Any rifle made in Italy after 1976 must be identified with a progressive catalog number assigned by a commission composed of police and government officials. All guns must be stored in a locked cabinet. A quick search for “Negozi di pistola Roma” (Gun stores Rome) revealed only 13 in the city. I have that many pizza joints in my neighborhood.

Still, looking at the low number of homicides and limited shopping options, I was surprised to see the number of registered guns in Italy: 7 million. However, if you think about it, in a country of 60 million people, that’s only one for every nine persons. That’s only the ninth highest in Europe and more than 10 times lower than the U.S. That number includes hunting rifles and people with more than one gun.

“You have more possibility to have a terrorist attack here than a mass shooting,” said Sabrina Magris, president of Rome’s Ecole Universitaire Internationale and an expert on anti-terrorism and violence in Italy.

I met Magris, 29, for coffee on Piazza Mattei, ironically in the Jewish Ghetto where, on Oct. 16, 1943, occupying Nazis hauled off 1,000 Jews to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. So Rome knows a little about gun violence and mass death.

The difference is Italy, except for isolated pockets, has no gun culture. Its constitution does not say every person has the right to bear arms. Thus, they don’t. In the U.S., gun owners wrap themselves in the Second Amendment and say it’s not only their right but their obligation to own a gun.

“I do not have a weapon,” said Magris, who grew up in Pordenone near Venice and has lived in Rome three years. “Nor my mother, my father. You don’t need a weapon to be safe in your house.”

Italians, unlike Americans, have learned from their history. After World War II came the mafia wars and the clashes between the Red Brigades and fascists. Italians have had enough. While their level of distrust in their government is among the highest in Europe — look how few Italians pay their taxes — they somehow trust the government to protect them.

Rome is the No. 2 pickpocket capital of the world (behind Barcelona) and sexual assault is a concern, as it is every corner of the world. But gun violence is the least of an Italian’s worry. It helps that the gun laws in Italy are national laws. In the U.S., many guns used in the 762 gun deaths in Chicago last year were bought in from Indiana which has less gun control.

The lack of gun control is thanks to the National Rifle Association, a bigger threat to the U.S. than Isis. It’s an organization so arrogant that it held a rally in Denver the week after two teenagers gunned down 13 people at suburban Columbine High. The NRA has been in bed with as many Republican politicians as $500-a-night call girls but are more morally corrupt. In Italy, the gun lobby consists of a guy named Guido shooting wild boar in Tuscany.

Mattei also says cultural differences extend to the trigger finger.

“A lot of Italians are scared to use a weapon,” she said. “If you buy a weapon or if you have a weapon, it’s not the same as to be able to use it. People buy them to think they are safe. If you are not able to manage a weapon it isn’t easy to shoot.”

Which is somewhat of an argument the NRA has trotted out for years. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. The problem is with the people, not the guns.


If people who murder with guns are deranged and mental illness is the problem in the U.S. and not gun laws, who really thinks Americans are 10 times more crazy than Italians? If mental illness is a bigger problem in the U.S., then why make buying a gun no more difficult than buying George Foreman Grill on your way home from work?

Magris’ point about home safety hits home. The Northern League, Italy’s most far right party, is pushing to give gun owners more rights. Under Italian law, any home owner must prove he’s under serious attack before he can use a weapon but the movement isn’t getting much traction.

In the U.S., the NRA’s need for guns to protect their homes has all the validity of a teenage girl needing a car. I’m 61 years old. I have never in my life heard of one American protecting their home with a gun. Why? Because criminals who invade homes don’t do it when you’re home. They also aren’t armed. They don’t knock on your door and point a gun. They sneak in, rob you and leave.

And if your gun is in a locked cabinet as it should be and not unlocked in your lap, what the hell are you going to do if the thief surprises you? If you keep it in your nightstand drawer, statistics show you have about a 1,000 times more chances of a family member getting shot than any thief. Somehow, some way, the average American gun owner can’t comprehend a simple math equation: the loosest gun laws in the industrialized world equals the most gun deaths in the industrialized world.

It’s all a cop out for a culture that equates gun ownership with patriotism while the rest of the world equates the streets of America with a war zone. The Las Vegas gunman had enough guns to outfit a third world militia and he bought everything legally. I’m sure they were still counting the dead when the NRA started waving the Second Amendment, a rag that was written when Americans used single-gauge rifles and needed them to defend themselves against a government, not each other.

The U.S. Constitution is about the only thing that’s bulletproof in America. But, as so many other countries have done, it needs to be rewritten. As Australian comic Jim Jefferies said, while pointing out Australia hasn’t had a gun massacre since the government outlawed guns following a mass shooting in 1996, “It’s called an amendment!”