Feature

Divorce, Italian Style

How the plan to save Italy by cutting it into pieces was hatched at a small restaurant in Rome. Or so one could imagine…

It all started -- as many Italian political stories do -- at a quiet corner table at a small restaurant in a mossy alley in Rome, shadowed since 1599 by the imposing facade of the Church of San Nicola da Tolentino, a humble monk venerated for centuries in the east.

Tullio -- an old favorite of Romans and tourists alike -- still allows its regular patrons to light up cigarettes despite the draconian anti-smoking laws imposed in 2005. It thus attracts a regular clientele of politicians, fat cats, and the attendant crowds of hangers-on: Russian beauties, Versace-clad lobbyists, real estate developers with suitcases of euros, and one recent spring night, your humble columnist.

In Italy's latest crisis, the conversations taking place over mozzarella di bufala and pappardelle at Tullio may ultimately be a better indicator of where the country is heading than the endless debates in Parliament. When Italy is stuck in a nasty reality, that's when fantastic dreams take over. After all, Tullio is just a few blocks from where Anita Ekberg took her famous dip in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.

Italy has been waiting for a new cabinet since February's inconclusive elections, which left former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right and challenger Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left in a virtual tie, while Beppe Grillo, the rambunctious former comedian, raises hell thanks to his nearly 9 million populist votes. Wise old President Giorgio Napolitano is on his way out, with only a few days in his tenure, and there is no agreement on his successor. The presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, but with a single, crucial power: nominate the prime minister and decide when, and if, to dissolve his cabinet. The president rarely gets to touch the ball, but when he does, it's almost always a penalty kick that decides the game.

This was just one of the reasons for worry among the three VIPs sitting around the corner table that night. Filling his third glass of amarone, a former senator with a strong link to the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church bitterly remarked, "We have no friends left. This new pope only cares about his wretched favelas. He does not wear Prada shoes, but crummy stuff bought on sale in Buenos Aires, and cooks his own spaghetti. Ambassador Thorne -- Secretary Kerry's own onetime brother-in-law, you dig? -- told a bunch of students they act like Grillo's militants to reform Italy! It's like me joining Occupy Wall Street, right? Barbara Spinelli, the daughter of Altiero Spinelli, a founding father of the European Union whose sacred name is inscribed all over the official buildings in Brussels, now praises the moral strength of Grillo and his party, 5 Stelle. We are doomed!"

"And India?" interjected the second diner, a socialite from Milan, whose beautiful new face had been sculpted by a surgeon trying to duplicate Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's chic features. "What do you make of India? They are putting two Italian Navy officers on trial, almost arrested our ambassador, and we did not even flinch. We are Rodney Dangerfield at the G-20: 'We don't get no respect!'"

"No respect. Was Rodney Italian?" the senator asked gloomily.

The third guest, in his early 30s, was meticulously dressed, with a shining Jack Emerson tie knotted to perfection. No wine for him, only a glass of Pellegrino, and no cigarettes. "I am training for the marathon," he said, nibbling at a plate of steamed rice. He looked around, making sure the owner of Tullio would grant them privacy, and then quietly offered his plan: "We do have a solution. The pope will not care. The Americans pivoted to China. And the politicians, who cares about the politicians anymore? The country wants a new cabinet? Well, why not give them three new cabinets in three new capitals?"

The restaurant had gone very quiet, the room filled with a haze of cigarette smoke like in the good old days. "Italy's current problems go back farther than Berlusconi, the EU, or even World War II," said the health nut. "The seeds of this crisis were sown in the late 19th century, when Italy was united into one country. So why not reverse the process? We had enough of Risorgimento; let's have a Dissolvimento!"

The young man flipped open his MacBook and start scrolling through the beautifully illustrated charts that explained his audacious plan: "The north of Italy is already ruled by right-wing secessionists, the Lega Nord. So Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Turin, Milan, and Venice would go to form a newly cast Ducato del Nord. Its factories are still very competitive in the global market, and many areas are growing faster than Germany. It would thus join the fiscally conservative party in the European Union, under Chancellor Merkel and the Scandinavians. Tight borders along the Po River, protected by Ferrari-designed speedboats, would separate the productive, innovative, worldly northern duchy from the socialist center."

The young man deftly punched on his keyboard, popping up another map: "Here we have the 'red' areas of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, otherwise known as Repubblica Centrale. There the Democratic Party can play at will with its firebrand socialist experiments. They may even implement a 75 percent tax bracket, like Hollande in Paris. Should the economy eventually stall in the Repubblica Centrale, they can always deploy troops alongside the French in Mali. Wag il cane. Trade unions will negotiate their contracts without a fight. Welfare handouts will never be cut. Repubblica Centrale will go hand in hand with Obama, Hollande, and the rest of the tax-and-spend global crowd in the G-20."

His plan was tighter than his silk tie: Naples, the south, and Sicily would go back to the old Regno delle Due Sicilie and leave the euro altogether. "The long-standing debt will be covered with Russian money," the young man said. "The oligarchs are dying to leave hapless Cyprus and find a tax haven in the Mediterranean. The Italian Mafia will link up with the Russian mafia. Sicily will be like the Cayman Islands, but with better food and only a cheap Ryanair flight from London and Frankfurt."

The young man's dinner companions were intrigued. "Why the 'BBB' logo on the new coat of arms?" the lady asked.

"It will be the Regno's motto, darling: beaches, beauty, and banks. Let's face it: The old Republic failed to build a productive industrial network in the south. Now let those southerners print liras hotter than Vesuvio; they'll survive."

The senator puffed his Toscano cigar for a while and then closed his eyes and whispered, "The Plan. I love it! Back to the old ways. United we sink; divided we stand. All'italiana, no more globaloney! If the Economist and the Financial Times don't like it, let them complain at the next Bilderberg meeting."

The lady, however, was still doubtful: "What about Sardinia? You forgot the other island, my friend," she said with a wry smile.

"Not at all," the young man rebutted. "Here's Sardinia!" he said, pointing to his final chart. "Sardinia is to be gerrymandered and sold to the highest bidder. Germany wants it for vacations? Great, we have 1.9 billion euros of public debt. Let Frau Angela shave at least 150 million off, and the old island is hers. Those grumpy beer-drinking Germans complain they are paying for dissolute Southern Europeans? Let's sell them a bit of it. In fact, they'll have a whole island as collateral. Putin needs a Mediterranean harbor to replace Syria? Well, it's there's for a debt write-off of 50 billion euros. Hey, we'll throw in the Cagliari soccer team to play in Dagestan! Even China can buy a piece, or the Saudis, Brazil, India. And Ducato del Nord, Repubblica Centrale, Regno delle due Sicilie, and the good people of Sardinia will share the money in equal parts. Capisci?"

"Deal," the lady nodded, touching up her makeup.

"What about Rome?" came a voice from behind the bar. It was old Tullio himself, born and raised in the capital. "What are you going to do with the Eternal City? Sell it as a souvenir?"

The young man was unruffled: "We'll rent Roma to the pope. He'll rule the city without owning it. The new states will get a share from tourism income, and this time we won't need some troublesome Garibaldi to win back the old capital. It's a piece of cake," he said, apparently forgetting about his marathon and taking a spoonful of the senator's creamy tiramisu.

And so it went. While congressmen and senators were squabbling, the trio pulled strings, made phone calls, sent emails, Facebooked, DMed, talked to friends and partners in Berlin, Paris, London, and made the rounds in some venerable basilicas at Vespers.

But there was still one obstacle in place: President Napolitano. The president had once been a regular at the restaurant as well, and it wasn't long before he caught wind of the plan through his old friend, Tullio.

At dinner one night, the president was worried, and he spilled the beans to his wife, Donna Clio. "How can we stop this plan?" he said. "It's so crazy that in Italy, it might just work."

Mrs. Napolitano had only two words for her husband: "Call Mario."

There are very few Marios Italians recognize by their first name: Balotelli, the African-Italian enfant terrible and soccer star; the brothers of Nintendo fame; Prime Minister Monti; and Draghi, the European Central Bank president. Napolitano immediately put in a call to Frankfurt.

Draghi, another lifelong Romano, listened respectfully to the president and then called his old friend the senator for a chat. The two briefly discussed the job market in the United States, euro worries after the Cyprus debacle, views on growth in China and Brazil, and then came to the real reason for the call. "Think, my friend, what a mess it would be if Italy were to break apart," Draghi said, letting on that he had been fully informed of the plan. "The south paying up debts in steel-heavy euros while taxing people on wafer-light liras. The Mafia rampant. The center entrenched in an old socialist model, soon to be shunned by international money. Debt ratings would plummet. And what about the north? For a while, they would be relieved not to have to pay for the southerners they detest, but soon enough, they'll lack the population to man their schools, police stations, assembly lines, hospitals, even the army."

"So, then what?" asked the senator.

"Well, they could open up to Arab immigrants, but do you think that would make those Lega Nord racists happy? Ha! And so, facing bankruptcy, the south will slap tariffs on northern goods. And did you know that two-thirds of Italian companies, most of them in the north, are still selling only in the national market? They'll go belly up. Meanwhile, the new Italian states will be kicked out from G-8 and G-20, and we'll be relegated to a minor partner in the EU and the U.N. Overnight, Italy will morph from a senior player in the world system into a bunch of Andorras!"

So the plan to split up Italy again folded, mushier than overcooked pasta scotta. Yet the stalemate was as dangerous as ever, the parties paralyzed in an endless argument. With less than a week left in Napolitano's mandate, there seemed no solution -- even wise old Tullio seemed to despair.

Then one day, an energetic young man entered the restaurant. He was wearing a bomber jacket, honoring, he said, Fonzie of Happy Days. He ordered a bistecca alla Fiorentina and smiled, chatting a bit with Tullio, who filled him in about the triumvirate's stillborn plan. As he carved at his steak, they talked politics, and the young man offered a few of his own ideas: that the moribund Democratic Party should enter the digital age, that he wanted Berlusconi to lose the elections but did not consider his voters enemies, and that he understood why people voted for Grillo but that he detested populism. His solution? "New elections, soon."

"What is your name, son?" Tullio asked. "Matteo," he answered.

"Renzi? The mayor of Florence?" Tullio inquired.

"."

Matteo smiled again, wiped his hands, and flipped up the collar of his Fonzie jacket.

"Grazie, Tullio. Who knows?" he said, as he made his way to the door. "Maybe I'll be up here in Rome a bit more often.… Ciao!"

"And why not?" said Tullio to himself, as he collected the plates and silverware. If the idea was to go back to the Renaissance after all, why not with a prince from Florence at the helm?

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Feature

36 Hours in Pyongyang

A helpful tourist guide, in case you happen to be in the mood for a lovely spring weekend in the Hermit Kingdom.

To be deterred from visiting Pyongyang this weekend by Kim Jong Un's latest fit of pique is to let the bluster of a 29-year-old -- nuclear-backed though it may be -- deprive you of seeing one of the world's strangest cities at its most surreal. The traditional tourism season in Pyongyang is from August to October, when visitors can attend the famed Arirang games -- and it's true that the spectacle of thousands of brainwashed children doing gymnastics in perfect synchronicity does have its own unique charm. But this weekend marks the lead up to the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birthday, a chance to get an up-close look at one of the world's last great personality cults in action. And North Korea is not a country to let a temporary fit of nuclear brinksmanship stand in the way of celebrating the birth of its Eternal President.

Alongside the traditional military parade on April 15 -- the actual birthday of the nation's founder -- this weekend will feature both the Kimilsungia flower festival and, for the sports-inclined, the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon. As an added bonus, the North has a tradition of sorts of staging its most provocative actions to coincide with Kim Il Sung's birthday. And the founder's grandson, Kim Jong Un, has just the ticket primed and ready, reportedly having moved his Musudan test missile into launch-ready position. So book now, and don't miss out on the fireworks.

Friday

5 p.m.

1. Thrill Rides

Late-night activities start a little earlier than expected in North Korea, which plunges into darkness every evening due to chronic power shortages. But don't let the state-wide dearth of electricity ruin your first night in the Hermit Kingdom. Head for the Kaeson Youth Park -- Pyongyang's answer to both Times Square and Disneyland -- where the government has laid two special cables to ensure a steady supply of power. Originally opened in 1984, the park underwent renovations in 2010, and despite an abundance of sanctions against the country, has reportedly managed to get hold of several Italian-made roller coasters. If Kaeson isn't enough to scratch your itch for excitement, it's just a short walk across Moranbong Park to Pyongyang's newest amusement park: the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, where you might be lucky enough to sit in a seat that once graced the backside of Marshal Kim Jong Un himself.

7:30 p.m.

2. The Alcatraz of North Korea

For dinner, check out the Yanggakdo Hotel, the second-tallest building in Pyongyang, and its revolving restaurant on the 47th floor. Its décor may have been described as having "all the glamour of a 1980s airport lounge," and the view, once the rest of the city goes dark for the night, may not be much to write home about. But from here you can rub shoulders with Pyongyang's jet set -- often less-than-sober Russian and Chinese businessmen -- and give your government minder a break (the hotel is on its own isolated island and is one of the few places where he doesn't have to watch your every step).

When you're finished with dinner, head to the lower floors, where you'll find a casino and a nightclub. Buy a few glasses of soju for your guide, who's waiting for you -- it never hurts to be in his good graces -- and try your luck at a few rounds of slots.

Saturday

7 a.m.

3. Reveille, Pyongyang style

Looking forward to sleeping in? Sorry. The air-raid sirens, which sound off daily at 7 a.m., aren't quite so accommodating of your soju hangover. Time to rise up with the workers of Pyongyang! Take advantage of the early start with a stroll along the Taedong River to the Mansudae Grand Monument -- a must-see, larger-than-life bronze statue of the country's founder, which now stands alongside a recently unveiled statue of his son, Kim Jong Il. Don't forget to pick up some flowers to place at the Great Leader's feet.

8 a.m.

4. A Taste of Vienna

Grab a cup of coffee at Pyongyang's exclusive Helmut Sachers Kaffee, an Austrian-Korean joint venture that pours a mean espresso. Just inside the Museum of Korean History, an imposing Stalinist building, you'll find the small and somewhat lifeless café. The linzer torte and cherry-cheese cake are just the thing to fill your belly in this land of recurring famine.

Flickr/comradeanatolii

10 a.m.

5. Plaza Mayor

If Paris is the City of Lights, Pyongyang is the City of Monuments to Kim Il Sung, and your tour is just getting started. The massive scale of Kim Il Sung Square, which extends from the Great Peoples' Study House down to the Taedong River, is designed to gloriously celebrate Juche, the North Korean political philosophy of "self-reliance," attested to by the 560-foot Juche Tower, across the river. Built to commemorate Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday, the tower is made from 25,550 blocks of granite: one for each day of his life. The square also serves a more practical purpose: it is capable of accommodating a rally of more than 100,000 people. (If North Korea successfully test-fires a long-range missile while you're in country, you'll want to make your way back here for the subsequent celebrations.)

If you can handle more of the Great Leader, head north to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Il Sung's body lies in state, along with his son Kim Jong Il's. Pay your respects to the two men, then make your way to the last monument of the day, the Arch of Triumph -- a dead-ringer for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only a little bit taller and less elegant.

2 p.m.

6. Flower Power

North Koreans have been preparing for weeks for the 15th annual Kimilsungia festival, which opens in mid-April and celebrates the bright pink orchid hybrid named after the founding father of the DPRK. Kimjongilias -- the lipstick-red Begonias named after his son -- will also be on display. The theme of this year's festival, according to one official of the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Committee: "Kimilsungia in Full Bloom in Praise of the Might of the Great Paektusan Nation." Wondering why there isn't a Kimjongunia yet? That's probably not a question you want to ask too loudly.

6 p.m.

7. Walking the Boulevards

Take a stroll through the city at dusk, when the evening light reflects just so off the gray concrete blocks of buildings. Make sure to look up at the Ryugyong Hotel, which dominates the skyline at 105 stories, and its new glass-clad exterior. Once a lifeless concrete monstrosity dubbed the Hotel of Doom (construction began in 1987, stopped in 1992, then briefly resumed in 2008), it seemed that it would finally open its doors to the public. But once again, it appears to be stillborn, and it's not clear when progress on the Worst Building in the History of Mankind will pick back up again.

Sunday

8 a.m.

8. Runner's High

The recent spate of warmongering from the North may have convinced other tourists to keep their distance from the capital -- which boosts your odds of catching a glimpse of the 26th annual Pyongyang Marathon. Get up early and try to claim a spot in Kim Il Sung Stadium, among the more than 100,000 spectators expected to watch the start and glorious finish. Athletes come from all over the world to contest this race, including runners from the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. Last year, two-time winner Pak Song Chol was just barely edged out by Ukrainian challenger Oleksandr Matviichuk in a photo finish, and he'll surely be looking for redemption. If he's still alive.

11:30 a.m.

9. River Tour

Make your final stop in Pyongyang lunch on the floating Pyongyang Number One Boat Restaurant, located just off Kim Il Sung Square on the Taedong River. The ship serves up decent meals while cruising up and down the river, providing you with water views of the Juche Tower, and past that famous monument to imperialist arrogance, the U.S.S. Pueblo. Captured by North Korea in 1968, the American ship is now a popular tourist attraction that has brought in more than a quarter of a million visitors.

Stay:

Yanggakdo Hotel - A massive tower with spacious, comfortable rooms, numerous restaurants, and a whole private island -- just don’t try to wander off.

Koryo Hotel - Just a short walk from the Pyongyang train station, the twin-towered Koryo has become a social hub for the 100 or so expats in North Korea. Its revolving restaurant claims to serve the best steak in town -- though the competition's not too steep.

Flickr/comradeanatolii  

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