Saturday, June 10, 2006

Questo É Il Volo Papale -- Quando Viaggiando, Parla Italiano

As a complement to the Geno's-gate, it turns out the Vento family aren't the only high-maintenance linguistic enforcers out there. Must be an Italian thing.

This has beeen going around in recent days: the pool-report chronicle of David Wright, an ABC News correspondent, on the papal trip to Poland and what it's like to be aboard the Volo Papale, the papal plane which carries a select group of journalists in addition to the Vatican entourage.

Take, for example, this gem:

The morning as we leave, a respected colleague from a rival news organization receives a tongue-lashing at the Rome airport. He has allowed his credential to flip backside up, as it inevitably does many times during the day.

He's a veteran of dozens of these trips, so he merely shrugs, pretending he doesn't understand what the problem is, and walks away.

My own press badge has a piece of adhesive tape stuck to it with a cryptic message written in block letters, perfect penmanship. "SAVE THIS SLEEVE!" The last word underlined. With an exclamation point.

It has been explained to me that I have what amounts to a criminal record at the Vatican.

Apparently last year I failed to return Vatican property -- the clear plastic sleeve that came with my credentials for Pope John Paul's funeral. Unbeknownst to me, the Vatican press office was very upset by this.

ABC News' Rome producer tried gallantly to smooth things over by handing in another clear plastic credential sleeve. But the sharp-eyed nuns at the press office quickly spotted the forgery. The Rome bureau was told to "denounce" the lost sleeve. In other words, the nuns wanted ABC News to file a police report.

This time the adhesive tape was attached to my new credential to make sure I didn't make the same mistake twice.

And the issue of the language barrier:

The writing [on the cards] is in Polish while the roll call is in Italian.

The only thing obvious and unmistakable is the expression of sublime irritation on the face of the credential man.

Make that a grimace of utter disgust. We see this face a lot on the trip, every time he has to explain yet again that it's essential to remove the old badge -- "No not that one. The middle one!" -- and replace it with the new one -- "No, no, no. Now it must go on top!" It's all right there in The Book!"

All of these instructions are issued in rapid-fire Italian. If you don't speak Italian, that's your problem.

The organizers of our little field trip have little patience with questions.

Simple questions such as, "What time do we have to be in the lobby to catch the bus?" Or, "Is this the right credential for the cathedral event?"

All are met with one exasperated response:

"It's in The Book," snaps the harried man from the Vatican press office.

And what, you may ask, is "The Book"? Sorry to disappoint some of you, but the Catechism it ain't:

In the tiniest of fine print, The Book details every minute of the day, who has to go where and when, and what to expect once you get there. The text is color-coded: blue for the pope; red for the journalists; black for procedures, instructions and editorial details.

It is, quite simply, the liturgy of our pilgrimage with the pope. Trouble is The Book is in Italian. No English translation at all.

Some procedures seem to be thought through better than others. For instance, specific line items in The Book include not just the details of an event, but also the names of individual reporters expected to cover them.

Reporters on the Volo Papale are issued three luggage tags for the trip -- one for a computer case, one for a carry-on, one for a checked bag. Each of these tags is of souvenir quality, embossed with the papal coat of arms, printed not just with our names and the names of our news organizations but also with our room numbers in Krakow and Warsaw. Somebody thought this thing through.

Another item: the telegrams.

Tradition has it that the pope sends a message to the leader of every country his plane passes over. Sure enough, as we taxi down the runway, we are handed a thick envelope full of telegrams. Several of us wonder whether they plan to drop them out the window as we pass over each country.

But while much attention has clearly been paid to these and other details, no one at the Vatican press office seems to have paid any attention whatsoever to the most important thing: actually getting the story on television or in the newspapers.

Apparently it has always been this way.

Lots of goodies in the piece -- like the situation for reporters on the visit to Auschwitz. However, bets are being taken as to whether the scribe will ever get to see the inside of the Volo again. Smart money on that says no -- a word which needs no translation from Italian.

AP/Riccardo De Luca