Greece’s Unemployed Young: A Great Depression Steals the Nation’s Future

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my cover story on the Greek youth unemployment crisis.

Outside an unmarked green metal door in the hallway of a suburban Athens high school, Tina Stratigaki waits for a job interview. It’s a Tuesday in mid-July. Stratigaki, 29, applied for the job as a social worker weeks ago and had taken an hour-long test the Friday before. Based on the list of applicants posted on the wall outside the exam, she estimates there were some 2,000 candidates for 21 open positions. This is the last interview she’s likely to get before Greece shuts down for the summer holidays. Her unemployment benefits—about €360 ($475) a month from her previous job working with disadvantaged women and children—have just run out. “I’m a little bit stressed,” she says.

Jobs of any kind are scarce in today’s Greece. Nearly six years of deep recession have swept away a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, the kind of devastation usually seen only in times of war. In a country of 11 million people, the economy lost more than a million jobs as businesses shut their doors or shed staff. Unemployment has reached 27 percent—higher than the U.S. jobless rate during the Great Depression—and is expected to rise to 28 percent next year. Among the young, the figure is twice as high. Meanwhile, cuts to Greece’s bloated public sector are dumping ever more people onto the job market. In July, 25,000 public workers, including teachers, janitors, ministry employees, and municipal police, found out they would face large-scale reshuffling and possible dismissal. An additional 15,000 public workers are slated to lose their jobs by the end of 2014.

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Rome’s Graffiti Boom: Eternal City Finally Welcomes Street Art

My piece on Rome’s street art renaissance has just been published by Time.

Say the words “Roman art,” and your average listener will likely think of classical statues, ornate churches and the masterworks of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. But to a select, but growing, few, that phrase summons something more contemporary: a growing body of street and graffiti art that has recently blossomed across the Eternal City.

The explosion has been sudden and noticeable, especially in the Ostiense neighborhood just outside the Aurelian Walls, where local support has transformed the former industrial area into a haven for muralists and poster artists. “When we were putting up the first works, they were looking at us like we were crazy,” says Francesco Dobrovich, project manger at NUfactory, a creative agency that has served as a broker between artists, local authorities and building owners. The boom has been fueled, at least in part, by the yearly Outdoor Festival, organized by NUfactory. Dedicated to street art, it attracts artists from across the continent. On the neighborhood’s major arterial the young Spanish artist Borondo has covered a gay cultural center with figures that seem to rise out of the neighborhood’s characteristic grime. On a side street, the windows of an apartment building have been painted into eerily empty eyes by the Bolognese artist Blu. On a wall outside a disco, the two-man RO.BO.COOP has pasted a remix of Sandro Bottocelli’s “Allegory of Spring,” in which all the figures in the Renaissance masterpiece are wearing surgical masks.

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Per Favore, Put the Euro to a Vote

My piece on why a referendum on the euro could be good for Italy has just been published by Time.

Of all the proposals put forward by the wild-haired comedian turned populist politician Beppe Grillo during the run-up to Italy’s elections in February, one stood out as the most controversial: his insistence that Italy hold a referendum on whether the country should give up the euro as its currency. After all, Rome had just spent the previous 15 months doing everything possible to hold on to the euro — tasking a technocratic government with implementing unpopular tax hikes and reforms, amid fears that an unruly exit by the euro zone’s third largest economy would bring down the entire currency union.

Grillo’s proposition was easily dismissed by the country’s political and media establishment, providing ammunition for opponents eager to paint him as dangerously misinformed. But Grillo was, in fact, tapping into something real. More than half of Italy’s voters chose candidates who explicitly rejected austerity measures widely seen to be imposed by German and other European bureaucrats and bankers.

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For First Time, the Vatican Enters Prestigious Venice Biennale

My piece on the Vatican’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale has just been published by Time.

The first thing visitors will see when they enter the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—an art show dedicated to the modern and cutting edge—will be a nod to the past: a three-paneled triptych on which the 20th-century Italian artist Tano Festa reproduced details from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The paintings, in tones of tan and ocher, serve two functions. They remind viewers of the Vatican’s past importance as a sponsor of art, and they serve as a frame for the rest of the show inside.

The theme for the pavilion, the Holy See’s first at the Biennale, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 24, is the same subject Michelangelo depicted in his famous ceiling: the opening chapters of Genesis. Spanning the history of biblical creation, from “Darkness on upon the face of the deep” through the collapse of the Tower of Babel, the events include the forming of the earth and the animals, the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Noah’s flood.

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All the Old, Familiar Faces

My essay on Italy’s failed politics has just been published by Time.

For anyone who’s spent even a modest amount of time observing Italian politics, it was difficult to watch the aftermath of the country’s elections in February and not think of the classic Italian novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Set in 19th century Sicily, at a time of crisis, the book’s most famous sentence is an explanation delivered by a member of the island’s threatened nobility as to why he is joining the rebels: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

After more than a year of technocratic rule and an election in which voters expressed an impassioned desire for renewal, Italy is back in the hands of the politicians who have repeatedly failed to solve its problems. At 46, the country’s new Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, may be young by the standards of Italy’s ruling class, but he’s also a representative of Italy’s political elite, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party who accepted his first ministerial post in 1998. Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-plagued former Prime Minister, is back at the heart of power with his party’s secretary, Angelino Alfano, confirmed as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Letta will be dependent on the center-right Berlusconi’s support as he begins the task of trying to change a country dangerously stuck in its ways.

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In New Job, Italy’s First Black Minister Confronts Culture of Casual Racism

My piece on Italy’s first black minister has just been published by Time.

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil. Under the current legislation, Italian nationality is passed on most commonly by blood, meaning the grandchildren of an Italian who has never set foot in the country has more rights to citizenship than someone who was born in Rome to foreign parents.

But even if Kyenge, 48, is unable to push a single piece of legislation through Parliament, she will already have secured an important legacy. Her April 27 appointment as Minister for Integration in Italy’s newly formed government has kicked off a much-needed discussion on race and immigration in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its rapid transformation.

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Italy’s Compromise Government Faces Uncertain Future, Plays Into Berlusconi’s Hands

My piece on Italy’s new government has just been published by Time.

It’s a solution that came after all other avenues were exhausted. On April 29, more than two months after the Italian elections, the country’s Parliament is expected to give life to a coalition government. Led by Enrico Letta, a high-ranking member of the center-left Democratic Party, Italy’s new administration will be dependent on support from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a man many in Letta’s party regard as the enemy.

Indeed, the deal comes only after efforts to find another solution exposed deep rifts in the Democratic Party. After an election in which no party was able to secure a clear victory, Pier Luigi Bersani, the party’s leader during the elections, fervently opposed any compromise with the sex-scandal-plagued media mogul, only to resign his position last week after repeatedly trying and failing to get his parliamentarians to vote for his candidates for the Italian presidency. “On any issue of relevance, the party is split,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “Letta might get more support from Berlusconi than his own party. That’s the paradox.”

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Screwed in Cyprus

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the crisis in Cyprus.

Ionna Constantinou, a 24-year-old lawyer in Nicosia, Cyprus, was up early on March 16, packing her bags for a weekend holiday in London. She turned on her laptop and logged on to Facebook (FB). “You see people screaming, posting links, and you say, ‘What’s happening?’ ” she recalls. The news—that the leaders of the tiny island nation in the eastern Mediterranean had agreed to raid deposits in the country’s banks as part of a bailout deal—instantly upended Constantinou’s plans. She and her boyfriend, a lawyer named Simos Angelides, immediately canceled their flights. They waited for the banks to reopen, to see whether their savings would still be there. And like all Cypriots, they wondered whether the financial system was about to collapse and take their country down with it. “It was like an atomic bomb that fell,” says Angelides, 35. “Now we’re just living in the radiation.”

In the early hours of March 25, after more than a week of wrangling between officials in Nicosia and Brussels, Cyprus reached a deal that may have prevented it from tumbling out of the euro. In exchange for a €10 billion ($12.8 billion) bailout from the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the nation’s newly elected president, Nicos Anastasiades, agreed to shutter the second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, largely wiping out deposits above the insured limit of €100,000. Depositors in the country’s biggest bank, Bank of Cyprus (BOC:GA), could lose as much as 40 percent of their uninsured savings.

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As Cardinals Choose a New Pope, Romans Hope for a Spike in Business

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the papal conclave’s hoped for business boom.

In 2005, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the cobblestone streets near St. Peter’s Basilica flowed with the faithful. They had come to pay their respects to a charismatic pontiff who had defined the papacy for a generation. But they also needed to eat. “We were working 24 hours a day, making pizzas as fast as we could,” says Andrea Marotta, 23, who along with his father sells pizzas for €5 ($6.55) each at Pizza Panini San Pietro, a small storefront near the Vatican.

Today, the papacy is vacant once again. At the end of February, Pope Benedict XVI, who as a cardinal picked up parmesan and Coca-Cola (KO) at Marotta’s store, resigned, citing health reasons. The 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope have arrived. But not the masses. The last big event at the Vatican, the beatification of John Paul II in 2011, brought in an estimated €190 million in revenue for the city’s hotels and restaurants, another €30 million for public services such as the bus and the subway, and €15 million for its retail outlets, according to a study by the Monza and Brianza Chamber of Commerce.

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Francis’ New Papal Style: A Comparison with Benedict

My comparison of the new pope with the old has just been published by Time.

Pope Francis began his address during the March 19 ceremony marking his installation to the papacy as he has nearly every other public speech since his election just under a week ago: with a passing reference to his predecessor Benedict XVI. “We are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” said Francis. But even if hadn’t, the comparisons would be inevitable. At 76, Francis walks with a limp and needs help navigating the stairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica. But his presence at the pulpit projects far more strength than what the 85-year-old theologian who came before him was able to muster.

In February, Benedict became the first Pontiff in 600 years to resign from the papacy, ending a pontificate under which the Vatican was rocked by scandal and internal divisions. Francis, by contrast, in his every public word and repeated gestures of humility seems to offer the promise of renewal of the Church’s badly damaged image. “One of the great hopes that everyone has is that this will be the Pope who will get people to like the church again,” says Alexander Lucie-Smith, a parish priest in the U.K. and a writer for the Catholic Herald. “If he can change the mood music, that will be an incredibly important achievement.”

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