The Castle in the Clouds

 

10 Ago. 2011

The Castle in the Clouds

 “Che peccato. Oggi non si vede nulla,” the Bolognese couple lamented. It all depends on your “point of view.” We were on the Montagne Pistoiese.

 The day proved sunny and clear, as we commenced our trek from the small mountain town Cutigliano. We started with an elevator to heaven– the funivia– a sort of ski lift that transported us from the village below to the trails.

At the base of the course, wild flowers of every shape and color– lavendar, pink, white and beaded– blew in the breeze, beckoning us with their swaying stems to climb upwards. Throughout the hike we found frutti di bosco (raspberries and blueberries) to snack on. The sun softly kissed our backs, reconciling for the chilling beating of the wind.

Midway to Lago Scaffiolo, we stopped in an open pasture among the tall Tuscan wheat grass for pranzo with prosciutto, bread, and fruits and vegetables. We folded the grass that tickled our thighs and closed our eyes to the lullabies of the whispering grass. Like a wolf stalking innocent lambs a rolling dark cloud chased the birds. I felt as if I were in a Voldemort or “death eater” scene from Harry Potter, as the ominous cloud crept upon us. A dark shadow quickly blanketed the once cheerful slopes of the mountain. All fell silent.

We could see nothing. We were completely engulfed in a cloud. The temperature dropped. The wind kicked the cascading stones. All that could be heard was an occasional faint voice in the distance. The cloud had carried us from spring to winter, from cheerful sunshine to a abyss of unknown. We were alone.

Bundled in blue rain jackets, two smurfs trekked on– following their feet, rather than the now hidden CAI mountain indications. Inside a cloud is cold and damp, adding to the eery effect. After 20 minutes of lonely trekking, we heard, “mmmmm eeee ya mmm,” a sound similar to that of a radio signal.

This was a signal of life– distant murmurs from other trekkers. We looked down the sloping back of the sleeping mountain. There was nothing but a bottomless mist of clouds. A roll down this hill would be a tumble into eternity– an exciting, yet intimidating dive into the unknown.

We finally came across a Bolognese couple. Happy to find others along the trail, we stopped to ask them for directions to Lago Scaffaiolo and the refuge, where we could cup our hands around a steaming ciocolatta calda. They answered, “It’s right here.” We had arrived at our destination without even recognizing it. We only recognized the lake from the sounds of the waves licking the shoreline. The Bolognese regretted the weather, saying it covered a gorgeous view.

Instead, their vision proved more clouded than the sky. The view was incredible, the weather perfect! It was mysterious and strange, like something I had only read in books. The adventure, the unknown, the struggles– like in life,– make everything more beautiful. Upon this revelation, the heavens opened. The clouded curtains parted to present a small wooden cabin that arose from the mist. The refuge seemed like a mystical castle floating in the sky with the sun leading like a spot light to its entrance. It appeared from nowhere- unexpected. We did not see nothing; we saw everything.

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In Honor of Uncle Tom- A True Adventurer and the Real James Bond

The Real James Bond

“I dare you to try this,” the slender, old man across the table taunted my brothers and me, while we waited for our main courses at the Laguna Beach Ritz Carlton. His blue eyes twinkled, dancing in step with the waving spoon. As the slimy steak tartar greeted my mouth, my lips curled in defiant repulse. My 11-year-old hands cupped beneath my chin, positioned like a horse’s feed bag, catching the trickle of sticky saliva and raw, un-chewed meat.  He chuckled.

Growing up, we knew him as goofy Uncle Tom, Grandpa’s brother who resembled our favorite TV character, Mr. Rogers. The cascading wrinkles on his face gathered around his eyes, forcing them to droop gently. His salt-and-pepper hair receded. Dad always shook his head with a sigh of admiration. “That’s the real James Bonds, kids.” The man we considered a comedian, the world considered a hero.

Thomas Allen Twetten, born and raised in the sleepy town of Spencer, Iowa, joined the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1961, a mere 14 years after its establishment. He served for 34 years, working 15 of those years overseas in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Beginning as a field case officer, he later advanced to Deputy Director of Operations, overseeing all covert operations, a worldwide spy network under his thumb.

In the early stages of his career, Twetten hid his profession from the public, acting as a foreign diplomat.  Twetten served with the U.S. Army in Germany and received his master’s in international affairs from Columbia University before beginning his Agency tenure. However, no degree or textbook could offer solutions to the ever-evolving challenges of a CIA agent; his career demanded imagination, ingenuity and an ability to act under tension.

“Getting someone to willingly give you secrets is an art form, not a science,” Twetten explained.

While undercover in terrorist hotbeds, he experienced relative comfort and safety. Though healthcare in the Middle East lagged behind U.S. standards, the American government provided American education and air–conditioned apartments for Twetten and his family. Locals treated U.S. diplomats with respect. At that time, the world viewed the U.S. with high esteem rather than as an irresponsible aggressor, according to Twetten, making it easier to gather information.

“As a U.S. diplomat, it was quite easy to get people to talk,” remarked Twetten.

He mentioned two instances of danger but remained unhindered by threats. He worked in Libya during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Arab mobs attacked 34 American embassies, including that in Libya where the CIA stationed him. With ease, Twetten described how he and others employed tear gas grenades to ward off the mob. Likewise, he nonchalantly recollected a coup in Nigeria.

Undaunted by impending danger, he stated calmly, “We kept a very low profile until things stabilized,” referring to the coup. His soft voice altered neither in pitch nor tone. No fear could be detected.

Aside from the aforementioned conditions, Twetten reflected on enjoyable experiences overseas. In 1979, he and his family visited King Hussein of Jordan, whom the U.S. courted as part of the initiative to find anti-Soviet or anti-Nasser allies. The Twetten family relaxed at King Hussein’s beach house palace for an extended weekend.

“We ate meals with him. He had pillow fights with my children. It had to do with my role as an international representative,” Twetten remembered with a hint of excitement still lingering in his voice.

Pressures and responsibilities mounted when Twetten became Deputy Director of Operations. To ensure our nation’s safety, Twetten, a true patriot, never “clocked out.” After working long hours at the Langley headquarters, he stayed on call, sometimes receiving phone calls at 3AM, at which time he executed emergency decisions regarding foreign operations. Nonetheless, Twetten labeled congressional testimonies his most difficult role.

“I had to be able to answer questions about any country in the world,” he paused adding, “I had to be careful about what I said. I had to worry about it being leaked into the press.”

He encountered political impediments from both the FBI and Congress. Although all government braches strive for similar goals, they struggle to reach common ground in their approach to achieving those goals. In particular he scoffed at the mention of Senator Charlie Wilson, mirroring his tainted attitude toward Congress.

“Congress is the most difficult, partly because members and some staff tend toward arrogance and opposition, despite both branches working for the same nation and its people,” Twetten lamented in his methodical speech.

With competing branches of government and some individuals seeking to fulfill personal agendas, controversy seems inevitable, and Twetten witnessed his share while in the CIA.  In the 1980s Iran-Contra Scandal, Twetten conducted operations in Iran only, despite Oliver North’s request for him to interfere in other areas.

“I was never a suspect or target in investigations that attempted to find illegalities in what we knew at the time was a foolish foreign adventure,” he said.

In addition to political obstacles, Twetten endured personal challenges during his career. Under his watch, Libyan terrorists, in response to a CIA-directed airstrike on Tripoli, bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 189 Americans on board including Twetten’s son-in-law, Matthew Gannon, a CIA spy returning early for Christmas from an undercover mission in Beirut.

“It was happen-stance. He wasn’t scheduled to get on that plane,” Twetten clarified. A professional, he remained collected, though his voice echoed a twang of pain and regret.

Twetten, though bombarded by trials, achieved much. Among a long list of accomplishments, he supported new democracies in Eastern Europe and was a top-strategist in the U.S.-backed guerilla war in Afghanistan, which resulted in Soviet withdrawal. He served as an emissary to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He also instigated a program of low-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), still the chief weapon against Al Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Finally, he emphasized his role in the war on international narcotics trafficking, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For such examples of leadership and strategic development, Twetten twice received the Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s highest honor.

Today Uncle Tom is 74 years old. His hair has faded to white. He resides in Vermont, where he owns a small antiquarian book shop, specializing in rare books on topics such as the Middle East, Islam, North Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. In his spare time he reads history books. Wednesdays he travels to Montreal for bookbinding lessons. And, every morning he embarks on a mission in his red bug — a mission for a cup of Starbucks coffee and a copy of the New York Times from the post office a mere mile from his house.

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Two Plus Two Equals?

 

Two Plus Two Equals?

White and gray– the chess pieces spun in a whirlwind of blur. “Sarah, make a move!” my cousin moaned.

A cold white hand reached up my shirt. The touch and smell of the distant, unknown hospital glove, sent me into panic. “Where am I?”

A group of white coated doctors rocketed me off in a metal tube of neon blue lights.

Tangled in a spider web of cords, I screamed, “Mommy die me, mommy die me!”

“Sarah, can we get you anything?”

“Here, we’ll take you to the bathroom for some tests. Let me help you,” an unfamiliar voice said.

I hurled over toward the tan bucket that wreaked of antiseptic lemon soap, a smell that only provoked my stomach’s convulsions. I closed my eyes to try to refocus. Useless- my temples pulsated to the tempo set by the dripping IV and the beeping monitor.

Small clips of consciousness played like advertisement spots of the mind. I was lost, confused and scared. I waited in a room to be questioned by a nurse; she had already politely asked my parents to leave the room. Then began the inquisition.

“Are you on drugs?” “Do you drink?”

“I’m thirteen and completely innocent! Why is she asking me these questions?” I thought as I responded timidly.

The doctor entered the room followed by my parents. He checked my heartbeat and continued with standard tests. But, then, he too had questions to ask.

Count to 10 please.” I frowned in response. Maybe frowning would help me focus. “A B C D…,” I slowly began counting. I saw my parents’ tears. “Wait, something is not right,” I thought.

I prepared for the next question. This time I was ready. “What’s 2 + 2?” the doctor asked calmly. “Pshh this is easy. I’m in junior high. Of course, I know 2 +2,” I encouraged myself. I responded with a slight doubt, “106.” I knew by the doctor’s reaction that I was wrong. I felt discouraged and confused.

The doctor began giving possible prognoses – meningitis, brain tumor, with each disease my parents’ tears progressed. I spent a night in the hospital waiting for the test results. The next day we received a visit from the neurologist and a diagnosis– severe migraines.

What? Headaches? That’s it? Who knew migraine’s could have the power to knock you out, to have you crawling on the floor drooling and screaming in an unearthly language. They changed me from human to beast in a matter of minutes. If you’ve ever had an experience like this, you know the strange sensation of entering and leaving consciousness– like living in two worlds at once.

Thanks to modern medicine and the bitter tasting nasal medications of imitrex, I eventually stopped having migraines. My only memories of the experience are the horrible pains, the frustration of wrongly responding to simple math problems and my friends and family who were so concerned and caring. But, to anyone who has migraines– I feel your pain.

 

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“Jersey Shore”– Florentine Parades & Plagues of a Different Era

“Jersey Shore” — Florentine Parades & Plagues of a Different Era

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Like, oh my God!” Carrot orange tans, muscle tees, cross necklaces and East coast accents — any American could easily identify these as the “guidos” and “guidettes” of MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore.” For Italians and Florence, these characters, if even recognized at all, signify more than mere comic entertainment.

Threatening Florence with unleashed chaos, fights and drunken behavior, the “Jersey Shore” cast landed in Florence, Italy May 13, 2011 to film season four. It is this low entertainment level that draws viewership.

“It’s like watching a train wreck or car accident; I can’t look away,” says American Florence resident.

While MTV viewers may swarm to see the “when in Rome” philosophy personified, Florence instated strict rules to avoid a cultural collapse.

According to the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi specified guidelines regarding the filming, the portrayal of Florence and the cast’s public behavior, prior to their arrival. Despite regulations that limit the “Jersey Shore’s” underlying party theme, Renzi could not close the show’s curtain. They have arrived!

A twenty-two year old American sighted the “Jersey Shore” cast while exploring Florence with a group of Italians and Austrians. She describes the public’s reaction to the recent celebrity sighting near the Duomo.

“It looked like a parade was coming down the street. My Aussie friends grabbed their cameras. The Italian guys could care less and did not know what was going on.”

Amidst a storm of American’s and tourists’ pulsating camera flashes and gossip about the show’s stupidity, most Italians appear uninformed and disinterested in the “Jersey Shore,” or know only what they have read in online Florentine news sites.

“None of my friends or colleagues in Italy have ever heard of the show. Most do not even watch much MTV,” says a twenty-one year old Florentine male university student.

The few Italians that do follow the “Jersey Shore” relish the show’s care free style. Italian youth anticipate the portrayal of Italian Americans and some even plan to visit O’Vesuvio Pizzeria where the cast will work.

“VIPs in Florence don’t happen every day,” a 16 year old Italian girl excitedly remarks.

So, what does the arrival of the “Jersey Shore” bring to Florence and Florentines? It is not the debate over the offensive term “guido.”

“There are tamarri (guidos) in Italy too,” laughs a 16-year-old Italian “Jersey Shore” fan.

“Jersey Shore” ushers in a new decade of tourism for Florence, characterized by Ben & Jerry ice cream shops, the echoes of flips flops kissing the cobblestone streets, and the murmurs of tourists asking the barman for the nearest Starbucks, while highlight the Florence night scene.

The filming of this reality show in Florence mirrors the internationalization and evolving culture of Florence. The opening doors benefit Florence financially but at the risk of losing its cultural and artistic history to that of drinking and clubbing.

According to one source, “The show could promote Florence, but also to the ‘wrong’ types of people.”

From Renaissance and Medieval parades to celebrity outings, from the Bubonic plague to drinking and unruly students, Florence continuously develops into a modern age of trials and celebrations. It is yet to be determined what the “Jersey Shore’s” presence will be for Florence.


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In Honor of Uncle Tom- A True Adventurer and the Real James Bond

The Real James Bond

“I dare you to try this,” the slender, old man across the table taunted my brothers and me, while we waited for our main courses at the Laguna Beach Ritz Carlton. His blue eyes twinkled, dancing in step with the waving spoon. As the slimy steak tartar greeted my mouth, my lips curled in defiant repulse. My 11-year-old hands cupped beneath my chin, positioned like a horse’s feed bag, catching the trickle of sticky saliva and raw, un-chewed meat.  He chuckled.

Growing up, we knew him as goofy Uncle Tom, Grandpa’s brother who resembled our favorite TV character, Mr. Rogers. The cascading wrinkles on his face gathered around his eyes, forcing them to droop gently. His salt-and-pepper hair receded. Dad always shook his head with a sigh of admiration. “That’s the real James Bonds, kids.” The man we considered a comedian, the world considered a hero.

Thomas Allen Twetten, born and raised in the sleepy town of Spencer, Iowa, joined the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1961, a mere 14 years after its establishment. He served for 34 years, working 15 of those years overseas in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Beginning as a field case officer, he later advanced to Deputy Director of Operations, overseeing all covert operations, a worldwide spy network under his thumb.

In the early stages of his career, Twetten hid his profession from the public, acting as a foreign diplomat.  Twetten served with the U.S. Army in Germany and received his master’s in international affairs from Columbia University before beginning his Agency tenure. However, no degree or textbook could offer solutions to the ever-evolving challenges of a CIA agent; his career demanded imagination, ingenuity and an ability to act under tension.

“Getting someone to willingly give you secrets is an art form, not a science,” Twetten explained.

While undercover in terrorist hotbeds, he experienced relative comfort and safety. Though healthcare in the Middle East lagged behind U.S. standards, the American government provided American education and air–conditioned apartments for Twetten and his family. Locals treated U.S. diplomats with respect. At that time, the world viewed the U.S. with high esteem rather than as an irresponsible aggressor, according to Twetten, making it easier to gather information.

“As a U.S. diplomat, it was quite easy to get people to talk,” remarked Twetten.

He mentioned two instances of danger but remained unhindered by threats. He worked in Libya during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Arab mobs attacked 34 American embassies, including that in Libya where the CIA stationed him. With ease, Twetten described how he and others employed tear gas grenades to ward off the mob. Likewise, he nonchalantly recollected a coup in Nigeria.

Undaunted by impending danger, he stated calmly, “We kept a very low profile until things stabilized,” referring to the coup. His soft voice altered neither in pitch nor tone. No fear could be detected.

Aside from the aforementioned conditions, Twetten reflected on enjoyable experiences overseas. In 1979, he and his family visited King Hussein of Jordan, whom the U.S. courted as part of the initiative to find anti-Soviet or anti-Nasser allies. The Twetten family relaxed at King Hussein’s beach house palace for an extended weekend.

“We ate meals with him. He had pillow fights with my children. It had to do with my role as an international representative,” Twetten remembered with a hint of excitement still lingering in his voice.

Pressures and responsibilities mounted when Twetten became Deputy Director of Operations. To ensure our nation’s safety, Twetten, a true patriot, never “clocked out.” After working long hours at the Langley headquarters, he stayed on call, sometimes receiving phone calls at 3AM, at which time he executed emergency decisions regarding foreign operations. Nonetheless, Twetten labeled congressional testimonies his most difficult role.

“I had to be able to answer questions about any country in the world,” he paused adding, “I had to be careful about what I said. I had to worry about it being leaked into the press.”

He encountered political impediments from both the FBI and Congress. Although all government braches strive for similar goals, they struggle to reach common ground in their approach to achieving those goals. In particular he scoffed at the mention of Senator Charlie Wilson, mirroring his tainted attitude toward Congress.

“Congress is the most difficult, partly because members and some staff tend toward arrogance and opposition, despite both branches working for the same nation and its people,” Twetten lamented in his methodical speech.

With competing branches of government and some individuals seeking to fulfill personal agendas, controversy seems inevitable, and Twetten witnessed his share while in the CIA.  In the 1980s Iran-Contra Scandal, Twetten conducted operations in Iran only, despite Oliver North’s request for him to interfere in other areas.

“I was never a suspect or target in investigations that attempted to find illegalities in what we knew at the time was a foolish foreign adventure,” he said.

In addition to political obstacles, Twetten endured personal challenges during his career. Under his watch, Libyan terrorists, in response to a CIA-directed airstrike on Tripoli, bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 189 Americans on board including Twetten’s son-in-law, Matthew Gannon, a CIA spy returning early for Christmas from an undercover mission in Beirut.

“It was happen-stance. He wasn’t scheduled to get on that plane,” Twetten clarified. A professional, he remained collected, though his voice echoed a twang of pain and regret.

Twetten, though bombarded by trials, achieved much. Among a long list of accomplishments, he supported new democracies in Eastern Europe and was a top-strategist in the U.S.-backed guerilla war in Afghanistan, which resulted in Soviet withdrawal. He served as an emissary to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He also instigated a program of low-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), still the chief weapon against Al Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Finally, he emphasized his role in the war on international narcotics trafficking, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For such examples of leadership and strategic development, Twetten twice received the Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s highest honor.

Today Uncle Tom is 74 years old. His hair has faded to white. He resides in Vermont, where he owns a small antiquarian book shop, specializing in rare books on topics such as the Middle East, Islam, North Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. In his spare time he reads history books. Wednesdays he travels to Montreal for bookbinding lessons. And, every morning he embarks on a mission in his red bug — a mission for a cup of Starbucks coffee and a copy of the New York Times from the post office a mere mile from his house.

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Attenti Al Cane

“You can always come back. You may decide you don’t like it after a week or two, and you can come right back. We can’t help you there. You don’t have rights there. Are you sure you want to go?”

These words met a deaf ear; I boarded the 747 United Airlines jet on August 27, 2007 to begin a life changing adventure. I was scared…

….no, not of Italy, of the flight. What if I miss my connecting flight? What if I lose all my bags and have nothing in Italy? What if my debit card doesn’t work? What I should have feared was who, or better to say, what would I sit next to for the nine hour flight.

My neighbor’s air conditioning whisteled, the cool breath on my neck warning me to bundle up. I reached for the thin felt blanket and began burrowing like a squirrel preparing for hibernation. I lifted my knees to my chest and cradled my head between the crevice of the head rest and the window.

 I then noticed the intruder— crusty, bandaged and blistered– bare and exposed— feet. Disgusting! They buried their way between my seat and the window, the toes and decaying finger nails wiggling at me as if they wanted to talk. I immediately jumped to the other side of my seat, but moving closer to my neighbor, my nose wrinkled and my stomach churned to the stench of curry and body odor. Trapped, I caved my back, rolling my shoulders foward and crossing my arms and legs. I hoped to shield myself from the inevitable doom but to no avail.

Never have I been more excited to step off a plane! I arrived…and I survived! A bus drove me directly to my apartment. The bus driver provided me with the keys and explained how to use them, in Italian. “Si, Si, grazie. Si, Si,” I responded with a smile; I understood nothing.

Taking the cold brass key in hand, I swung my blue bag over my shoulder and nudged my green suitcase into the doorway with my hip. I looked up, daunted. My apartment was at the top of five flights of slippery marble stairs. And, I could not go alone.

“Kerplunk. Chadunk. Kaboom,” my suitcase’s defiant screams echoed into the darkness, one stair at a time. I finally reached the top, but an iron gate barricaded what seemed to be the entry to the top floor apartment. “Attenti al cane,” I read in the bright red letters. I translated quickly “Yikes! Run Away! Turn around.”

Using my cell phone as a make-shift flashlight, I read the name labels at each door on my way back down the stairs. Which one was mine? Who lives in these apartments? I started to feel nervous. I climbed the full staircase with my luggage three or four times in the August heat, before Anna rescued me.

She greeted me with a big Southern hug and a welcoming smile. There was no killer dog and no scary man, just a happy and bubbly Anna. I had talked to her frequently that summer before arriving, and we decided to be roommates. 

From our previous conversations, I guessed that we would be great roommates, but meeting her in person and seeing her genuine, kind smile, I knew she would be so much more. She would become a dear and close friend, a fellow adventurer, my “little mother”…or as she might tell you a “teacher” to a naive “paragon of virtue.”

Most importantly she was the perfect friend, a fortress of strength and comfort, to help me through what would be some of the toughest but also the most beautiful times of my life. So, our first day and our adventures in Italy began with smiles and enthusiasm.

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