The Eternal City’s Residents Fight Graffiti

My piece on the Americans fighting Rome’s Graffiti problem has just been published in Time.

On a blustery October day in the northern part of Rome, a group of nearly 100 volunteers spreads out along a leafy street and sets to cleaning. Pedestrian barriers are scraped free of rust and repainted in their original yellow. Old leaflets are peeled off walls. And graffiti, the group’s main target, is either scrubbed away or painted over. “This street is the Wild West,” says Paola Carra, who’s overseeing the operation. “We need to maintain it ourselves. We can’t wait for somebody else to do it.”

Many modern cities have trouble with vandalism, but Rome seems to be a case apart. Outside of the touristic center, it’s a rare public surface that hasn’t been plastered with leaflets or covered with graffiti: tags, slogans, declarations of love, outbursts against authority. And there are few signs that much is being done about it. In some areas, it’s possible to come across scribbled celebrations of soccer championships from before the turn of the century. “Inside [people’s homes], everything is perfectly clean,” says pharmacist Maria Vitale, 47, as she heads out to the cleanup. “Outside, everything is dirty. There’s trash on the ground. People don’t clean up after their dogs.” The problem, says Carra, 46, is the absence of personal responsibility. “We’ve lost our sense of community,” she says.

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In Naples, A Clash Over Trash

Here’s my piece in Time on the Naple’s garbage crisis.

In most cities, garbage collection is a discreet — almost invisible — service, making household waste disappear with only the rumble of a truck on trash day. But in the Italian city of Naples, it’s right there on the streets for all to see.

Garbage, in Naples, has become a political issue, a topic of contention, and a recurring plague. And for much of the past week, it has spilled back into the public discourse, piling up on the city’s sidewalks during a strike by garbage collectors, and exploding onto the streets during angry protests over a planned landfill on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

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Berlusconi Keeps Government Afloat — for Now

My piece on the Berlusconi’s parliamentary confidence vote has just been published by Time.

As far as birthday presents go, it wasn’t a bad one. On Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a parliamentary vote of confidence, giving new life to his governing coalition after a summer of acrimonious infighting.

But as his closest allies raised their glasses to the Prime Minister’s 74 years later that night, the prosecco might have tasted a little flat. Berlusconi had hoped the vote would demonstrate that he no longer needed the group of rebel parliamentarians who broke with his party in July, but have since pledge conditional support. Instead, the result revealed just how dependent his government is on their cooperation. “It’s not just about stability,” says Allesandro Campi, director of Fare Futoro, a think tank closely linked to the rebels. “Formally, Berlusconi has the majority. The problem is: Will he politically be able to govern?”

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Money-Laundering Probe Sparks Another Vatican Scandal

My piece on the banking scandal at the Vatican has been published by Time.

When news first broke on Tuesday that Italian prosecutors were investigating the Vatican Bank for violations of anti-money-laundering regulations, the story seemed to be that the bank had returned to its old ways. Reports in the press referenced the Vatican’s connection to a 1980s financial scandal in which Italy’s second largest bank, Banco Ambrosiano, went spectacularly bankrupt, collapsing under $1.3 billion of debt amid allegations of involvement by the Mafia and Masonic lodges. “The Vatican Bank has a very negative image,” says Philip Willan, author of The Last Supper, a book about the death of the Banco Ambrosiano’s chairman, who was found hanging under a London bridge, his pockets stuffed with rocks and thousands of dollars in cash. “Every time there’s a whiff of scandal, all the papers dig out their files.”

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The Roma’s Struggle to Find a Home

Time has just ran my piece on the evictions of the Roma in Italy.

Another day, and another ram-shackle encampment where Roma once lived is gone. The scrap-wood shelters have been pushed to the ground. The tents, collapsed. The inhabitants, scattered. In Rome, the eviction of the Roma — a European minority sometimes referred to as Gypsies — is taking place with the full force of the law: military police, bulldozers, German shepherds. But, in contrast to the international firestorm over such evictions in France, Italy’s have attracted little attention.

Even as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tussled with the European Union over the repatriation of dozens of Roma to Romania (despite the name, Roma don’t historically come from the country, although many live there), the mayor of Rome announced the demolition of his city’s 200 illegal squatter camps, at a rate of three or four a week. This means another wave of expulsions for the Roma, who have faced similar efforts all over the country. Meanwhile, Italy’s Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, took to the airwaves and declared the country’s Roma problem — and many here see it as a problem — “practically resolved.” He added, “The controversy around Sarkozy’s decision made me smile a little. For us, it’s a movie we’ve already seen.”

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Denial and Anger in Italy

time cover

The cover story in this week’s European edition of Time Magazine is on immigration to Southern Europe. It opens with a piece I wrote about the gap between Italy’s new ethnic reality and the perception most Italians have about their country and its citizens.

When hundreds of African immigrants rioted in the southern Italian city of Rosarno last month, the world got a glimpse of a very different Italy from the one pictured in the tourist brochures. Overturned cars, shattered shop windows and street battles are a far cry from tranquil villages on a Tuscan hillside.

Another contradiction uncovered by the violence is much more fundamental, and it has less to do with how Italy is perceived by outsiders than with how Italians themselves view their nation. As a country, Italy is becoming increasingly multiethnic, as immigrants from Africa, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East arrive to work jobs locals refuse to take. But as a society, Italians have been slow to acknowledge the change.

Demographically, Italy is transforming faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. Last year, according to the Catholic charity Caritas, the percentage of noncitizen residents in the country — 7.2% — was greater than Britain’s. And that’s not counting the country’s illegal population, estimated at well over half a million. In a country where the native-born population is aging rapidly, 1 in 6 babies delivered in 2008 was born to a foreign-passport holder. La dolce vita is also becoming more dependent on immigrants and their labor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that foreign workers account for 9% of Italy’s annual GDP. They pick the fruit in the country’s orchards, staff its restaurants and workshops, and look after its young and elderly. “If all the migrants just stopped working now, the Italian economic system would collapse,” says IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.

Yet the country retains an intensely prescriptive streak. Rigid codes of behavior govern everything from how to dress to the proper time of day to drink a cappuccino. Far from being a melting pot, Italy remains a three-course meal, with the pasta carefully segregated from the appetizer and main course and no place for a bowl of hummus or plate of egg rolls. “People now accept that immigrants are here,” says Giuseppe Sciortino, a sociology professor at the University of Trento. “But they’re still in denial that they are a presence that will change Italy forever.”

Read the rest here.

Breeding Ancient Cattle Back from Extinction

This piece on bringing the Aurochs back from extinction was just published by Time.

The only place to see an aurochs in nature these days? A cave painting. The enormous wild cattle that once roamed the European plains have been extinct since 1627, when the last survivor died in a Polish nature reserve. But this could soon change thanks to the work of European preservationists who are hoping they can make the great beast walk again. If they succeed — through a combination of modern genetic expertise and old-fashioned breeding — it would be the first time an animal has been brought back from extinction and released into the wild.

Why Berlusconi Will Probably Avoid Jail Time

Time has just published my story on Berlusconi’s long battle with the courts.

The war between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his country’s judiciary was raised a notch on Wednesday when prosecutors asked for the immediate start of a trial that would see the Premier accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover it up.

“These trials are a farce,” said Berlusconi at a press conference in Rome. “The accusations are unfounded.” He added that he would attempt to sue the state, and declared that the taxpayer would be the ultimate victim because “the prosecutors can’t be held accountable, and that’s something that needs to be changed and that [our government] will change.”

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Can Video Games Save the World?

Time has just published my piece on activism in video games:

There’s a scene in the video game 24, based on the popular television show, in which the player takes on the role of government agent Jack Bauer and tortures a terrorist. To extract a set of codes, Bauer shoots the man in the gut, slams his head on the table, refuses to call a doctor, and places his pistol against his victim’s head.

The violence is exhibit A in a recent report by two Swiss human-rights organizations that examined video games for situations that violated international human-rights laws. “With games, you’re playing for hours performing actions which could in real life be criminal,” says Frida Castillo, the author of the report “Playing by the Rules.” “It’s different from sitting on a couch, eating popcorn and watching a movie.” In addition to torture, the report documented extra-judicial executions, the shooting of injured soldiers and attacks against civilian targets, including mosques and churches. (See the top video games of 2009.)

But rather than just complain about violent games, the report’s authors recommend that game creators weave in elements of international law to draw players into more realistic, immersive situations. “Games could actually be more creative if some of these rules were incorporated,” says Castillo. It’s an idea that’s already catching on. We’ve long known that video games have a unique ability to promote a message; now designers are creating games built not around destroying worlds but saving our own. “Games are growing up,” says Suzanne Seggerman, president of Games for Change, a group promoting games with a positive impact. “People are realizing that they can do a lot more than entertain.”

What if the Water Wins?

The latest issue of Time has a piece I did on how the Netherlands are adapting to climate change.

Just downstream from the Dutch Port of Rotterdam, a storm-surge barrier waits for the seas to rise. Twin latticework arms, each as long as the Eiffel Tower and twice as heavy, stand ready to swing together to shield the city from the wind-whipped waves. Together, they form one of the longest moving structures in the world.

The Maeslant Barrier, or Maeslantkering, is the culmination of an effort initiated in the wake of a 1953 flood, when a storm surge overwhelmed the country’s dikes and killed 1,800 people. Completed in 1997, the $7.5 billion Delta Works — a series of dams, dikes, locks and gates — was designed to put a permanent end to flooding in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below sea level. “The general idea was that water would never be a threat to the Netherlands again,” says Tineke Huizinga, Vice Minister for Transport, Public Works and Water Management.

But even as the great barrier was being tested, it was becoming clear that climate change would one day make the effort obsolete. In 1995 and ’98, several rivers burst their banks, forcing mass evacuations. Then, in 2005, the country watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina shattered New Orleans. “We saw what could happen,” says Eric Boessenkool, an adviser for international affairs at Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “And it really changed our mind-set.”

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