TII: This Is Italy, A Beautiful Den of Thieves

Spanish Steps in Rome. Photo/Keith Schneider

SOMERSET, KY — A traveler’s story. One I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

It was 6:30 p.m. about 12 hours before our scheduled flight home from Rome to Chicago. Gabrielle, Maggie, and I had just gotten off the train from Florence and I was exchanging dollars for euros at the central Rome station. The shoulder bag I’ve carried across six continents lay on the floor at my feet. Inside was $1,000 cash, my camera, glasses, IPad, keyboard, car keys, notebooks, tickets, and the passport I’d just zipped into its secure pocket.

I averted my sight from the bag to the teller to receive the cash. It was a single blink, a lone moment. When I looked down to pick up the bag the space where it lay was empty.

In the course of a lengthening life I never encountered any emotion that encompassed the dissolving, frustrating, infuriating, desperate feeling of that sight. Nothing there but smudged floor tiles. I’ve been emptied and weakened by deaths of loved ones. I’ve been embarrassed by failures and slights. I’ll never forget the electric shock that slid up my spine the morning that my college physical chem professor handed me an exam with the score of 18 scrawled in murderous red ink.

Losing my shoulder bag felt like desolation. In a decade of global travel I’ve lost stuff, twice had money stolen, and once had a wallet and credit cards lifted from my coat in Bratislava, Slovakia. But never something as urgent as a stolen shoulder bag, and especially a stolen passport. I felt stranded. I knew instantly that it meant big trouble for returning to the U.S., and smaller trouble for replacing all that the bag contained.

The next few moments, and the hours spent afterwards in anger and remorse, were studies in unerring helplessness. I screamed for help, ran for the main exit, and hoped somebody had seen something to prompt the thief to drop the bag. No such luck. I alerted Maggie and Gabrielle who were in line for a taxi, reported the incident to the Rome Police, and traveled to the Rome airport to confirm that boarding would be impossible without a passport. Before midnight we holed up in a lousy hotel room near the airport to plan next steps.

We decided Maggie and Gabrielle would fly as scheduled and I’d stay back to gain a new passport. All night I projected the negative consequences and what ifs. What if it took a week to get home. What if thieves could use the digital data and signatures in my Ipad to hack my accounts. What if Gabrielle and Maggie encountered trouble and I wasn’t around to help. What if I’d also had my wallet stolen.

Florence basilica. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

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Rome Has 2,750-Year History; It Had Lousy Leaders Too

Roman Forum ruins. Photo/Keith Schneider

ROME — Spending time in Rome, Italy during these last days of 2018 provides a useful reminder of human resiliency, and a note of reasoned assessment after this terrible week of political and financial churning at home.

Remember from your history books that during the nearly 1,200 years of their empire, from the 8th century B.C. to mid-fifth century A.D., Romans suffered their share of incompetent, evil, wicked, inane, and miscreant emperors. Nero (54-68 A.D.) killed his mother and executed two wives. Caligula (37-41 A.D.) was a murderer who legalized looting. Commodus (180-192 A.D.) was dumb as dirt. Still, Roman architects and engineers, operating without 24/7 digital attention, invented the durable materials and designed great buildings and public spaces that honored a 1,000-year-old civilization, a number of which stand and are still used today. Rome developed a legal system that is the basis of Europe’s contemporary judiciary practices.

St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo/Keith Schneider

The great nation state that arose after Rome collapsed built stupendous places of worship and developed artists and sculptors who produced magnificent works that still thrill the world.

This week, like too many over the last two years, was terrible in the United States. The secretary of defense resigned over the president’s decision, made on his own instinct, to withdraw American troops from Syria. The Russians celebrated that move. Republican lawmakers gulped. The stock market is down nearly 10 percent for the year, the worst showing in a decade. President Trump shut down the government to make a silly case for building a wall along the border with Mexico. The U.S. government has no White House chief of staff, no attorney general, no secretary of defense, no Interior secretary, and too many right wing allies cheering on the disruption. Amazing.

Trevi Fountain. Photo/Keith Schneider

Now Italy has its own issues, including high taxes, serious national debt, lingering corruption, and birth rates so low that the country’s population could slip to 50 million by 2050, or 10 million people less than today.

Still, as a mindful American concerned about the stability of our country and the condition of our social compact I suggest that ancient and contemporary Rome offer solace, if not a measure of hope. When compared to the 2,750-year story of Rome, one miserable American ringleader of chaos and deterioration in 242 years is, I suppose, tolerable. We just can’t let it happen again for another 242 years.

— Keith Schneider

Sunset over the Tiber River. Photo/Keith Schneider
Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Coliseum. Photo/Keith Schneider

Rome at Christmas is Citadel of Security

Security agents near entrance to Piazza Navona stay alert for potential attackers. Photo/Keith Schneider

ROME — Public places all over the world are targets this century for mayhem and bloodshed. In the United States attackers armed with handguns and automatic weapons have put schools, churches, malls, music festivals, offices, and theaters in their gunsights. The country endures a mass killing every week. Hundreds have died.

In Europe the risk of domestic mass killings is not nearly as keen as the threat of terrorism, much of it linked to Islamic extremism. The century has been especially unkind to residents of the continent’s financial, cultural, and political capitals. In March 2004, terrorists attacked Madrid’s commuter rail network, detonating 10 bombs that killed 193 people and injured more than 2,000. In July 2005 terrorist bombings in London killed 52 people.

Many of the worst attacks occurred in a bloody spate of killings in Paris in 2015, among them a coordinated attack in November on six locations that killed 130 people, most of them in a nightclub. In July 2016, a truck in Nice ran over and killed 86 people. Last year 22 people died when attackers bombed a concert in Manchester, England.

A bright sun lit the streets of Rome in mid-December. Photo/Keith Schneider

One consequence of the carnage is the visible security presence here in Rome at Christmas time. Perhaps because Italian police gained such bloody experience battling Mafia families with superior intelligence capacity and investigative skill, security forces here have been exceptionally adept at intercepting and halting terrorist plots. All of Italy has largely avoided the bloodletting that has afflicted so many other nations in Europe.

Still, the armored vehicles and armed soldiers patrolling the squares and piazzas and crowded public spaces in this dense city are unmistakable emblems of the ever present threat. It’s the cost of cultural division, the dismal expense of this era of unrelenting mortal danger.

—- Keith Schneider

Beautiful piazza. Photo/Keith Schneider
Garden in the city. Phot/Keith Schneider
Tiber River. Photo/Keith Schneider

What Keeps Us Sane – Family and Friends

Friends since we were boys – from left Geoff Keenan, Keith Schneider, Bobby Fargo. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

SOMERSET, KY — This is the week that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is supposed to make public sentencing memorandums for three Trump allies who pled guilty to various illegal acts committed in and out of service to the president. From what’s been made public, and from what I know from fact-checking Seth Abramson’s book, Proof of Collusion, it’s not going to be pretty or something to celebrate.

The country has been in a state of dissolution and disruption for more than two years, the most dismal period of national unraveling in my lifetime. I never imagined that an individual, backed by power-mad legislative allies, could so easily push a huge nation so far off its moral mooring. I never understood that so many Americans would so eagerly embrace the reckless tilt. We’ve experienced 30 months of national vertigo. Mueller’s conclusions this week, I fear, will make it worse because the president, his allies, and the state-sanctioned right wing media are sure to describe facts as fiction, and investigative narrative of wrong-doing and collusion as political fantasy.

It is for those reasons and more that Thanksgiving this year was such a welcome respite. I put aside the daily grind of White House abuse and national dismay. We get in the car and drive through the mountains of West Virginia and forests of Maryland and Pennsylvania. We talk and exit the car now and again to shake the stiffness and ache out of our immobilized bones. It feels great.

The Schneider family, New York City, Thanksgiving 2018. Photo/Keith Schneider

As in other years, Gabrielle and I spent the holiday in New York. The Schneiders, and their spouses and children, gather at the Harvard Club once a year to spend a few hours catching up as a family. It’s one of the select “don’t miss” dates on my annual calendar. Jo-Anne Schneider, who is 88-years-old now, holds the event and issues the invitations. She was greeted this year by a 100 percent rate of acceptance. Pretty good since we come from several states. Our circle expanded a bit the last few years. In 2017 a new wife, Gabrielle. This year we welcomed Lauren and Jeffrey Lipton’s April-born baby, Samuel, and Taylor Powell’s girlfriend, Jackie Danisi.

This year also included a new landing spot. Instead of our usual Manhattan hotel room, Gabrielle and I spent two nights in Scarsdale with Grant Schneider and Larry Diamond, and their children, Margot and Graydon Diamond. We were treated to such hospitality and graciousness in their beautifully decorated and welcoming home. It had been years since I spent that much time with Grant, not since he was unmarried and lived in New York City and Boston. He did not disappoint. My younger brother is a tempest of style, smarts, energy, and opinions. He can be an irrepressible wave of ardent expression one moment. A gentle and generous welcoming breeze the next. He is the sails and rudder on his family’s ship. His composed and handsome husband, just as smart and ambitious, is the hull and keel keeping the whole thing in balance. Gabrielle and I loved it and look forward to our next visit.

At the Harvard Club – from left, Jeffrey Lipton, Mariel Schneider, Gabrielle Gray with Samuel Lipton, Lauren Lipton, Reed Schneider. Photo/Keith Schneider
From Scarsdale from left – Graydon Diamond, Grant Schneider, Larry and Margot Diamond. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Half Staff America

Flags flew at half staff over Veterans Day weekend in Kentucky and nationwide. A pocket park in Somerset, Kentucky was the scene of these flags. Photo/Keith Schneider

SOMERSET, KY. — A chilly wind again whipped the flags flying at half staff here in central Kentucky. This time it was for George Bush, who died on Friday. Three weeks ago Jews were massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Collegians were massacred in a bar and dance hall near Los Angeles. The two tragedies are linked by America’s miserable devotion to assault weapons and spilled blood. Flags flew at half staff then, too.

There is plenty to mourn in America, even for the regions of the country that thought they were making a difference by electing Donald Trump. Like suburban Detroit. As a candidate, Trump held a rally in Warren, Michigan and promised that if elected “not one job” would be lost in the auto industry. This week General Motors announced it was closing the plant it operated just down the road from where Trump made his promise as part of a plan to shed the company of 15,000 jobs. What’s sadder is that as Trump sputtered his indignation in Washington, his supporters on the ground and in right wing state media insisted the president was guiding the economy on the right course.

Even the election didn’t lift the November in my soul. Progressives took the House. A big help. But the Senate added two more Republicans. And Trump, who campaigned hard in Florida and Ohio, held those two states that are essential to his reelection.

I’m not a depressed personality. But I’m so saddened by circumstances in the United States because of this single fact. Change will occur but only after conditions get worse, perhaps much worse. A nation that has so quickly lost its bearings depends on great leadership to recover. The president of the United States is a miserable, limited scourge of a man, and a disastrous leader. But it seems clear to me that the antidote for President Trump, and the steps for diminishing the devotion that the president enjoys in white and rural America, is for the economy to sour. That unfortunately looks like what’s unfolding. Job growth has slowed. The stock market has slipped. Trade imbalances tilt more steeply to our imports.

In my specialty, the environment and economy, Trump’s ignorance also is adding to the damage that makes living in America more dangerous. As the condition of air, water, and land decline so will Trump’s support in rural America, which is being ravaged by ecological menaces that the president’s anti-science, anti-regulatory doctrine is making worse. Hurricanes and floods in the Southeast. Flash flooding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Tornados in the Great Plains.

Fires in rural northern California since July have burned down more than 28,000 homes so thoroughly they look like they’ve been bombed. Over 100 people have died. The president blames mismanaged forests for the problem. It’s an idiotic, uninformed view. The fast moving walls of flame — and blame — raced through heavily settled, climate-dessciated, bone dry brush and wild land areas close to towns, not in stands of timber suitable for commercial logging.

A home destroyed by the Carr Fire in Redding, California in July. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lament is not one of my typical emotions. To date, my mourning has been reserved for the people I love and lost. I don’t feel helpless. I’m saddened by the incapable place that is America. I feel plundered by the calamity that our country has become.

— Keith Schneider