Tuesday, March 7, 2017

From A Journalist in Florence: A Mentor Tribute on International Women's Day

In just over an hour, it will be International Women's Day in Italy.
In honor of my mentor in a three-month stint in a news reporting class,
among the facts that I will report in this post is how blossoming mimosa
(pictured above) came to be the symbol of the Festa della Donna in Italy.
Today, everybody -- loves ones, even proprietors of caf├ęs and stationary shops -- gift women with a sprig of soft-scented mimosa on March 8.

The custom can be traced to WWII Italy when Fascist police executed two sisters at the forefront of the Resistance movement.  At their funeral, dozens of female supporters came and placed mimosa on their graves.  It was probably late February or early March when the shrub is in bloom.

Well, I mentioned that this post was about me learning to report hard news.
A strange topic as everyone knows I am a wimp -- I love culture, non-profits and poetic causes, although I can really write about anything except sports.  And violence, except for rare cases.

Although I attended college in Boston, I grew up on the banks of  the
Hudson Valley north of New York.  The city, that is.
Idyllic. Very peaceful, although I was raised in Highland Falls, next to that bastion of militarism: West Point.  My late father was an Italian tailor at the military academy.

One year, while home I decided to cross-register and take the aforementioned news journalism course at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  My family was living in New Windsor at the time.

A tiny women, a professional journalist on maternity leave, taught the class.
I remember her bangs and eye makeup that made her vaguely resemble Cleopatra.
She wielded a red pen, which she used copiously on our assignments.

A chain smoker, she gave the impression of being in perpetual motion, of restlessness, even when she was still.  The trademark of a hard-bitten news writer.

Thirty-five years later I found her photo on Facebook.
Mimi Mcandrew has not changed all that much.

As one of her Facebook friends wrote, "a great picture of a great journalist."
I have already thanked her in a preface to one of my books for teaching me to write a lead,
that crucial first sentence or two which sums up the article, which, then,
also included incisiveness.  Now, the requirement -- a tall order -- is punch.
Bisogna spaccare, as the Italians would say.  Leave an indelible impression.
Like Mimi herself.

As a final assignment, Mimi had Marist College stage a mock disaster: students taken hostage, frightened parents (with weirdly-spelled names, Laurence instead of Lawrence,
I got it right), police, negotiations, the works.  The class was divided into teams, for coverage and live reporting and surprisingly I was asked to head one of them.  After all, I was from another school.  Even more surprisingly,
my team came in second out of five, with Marist's star reporter's group first.
As I had no ambition to continue in the field of hard news, I perceived it a great honor.

Fast forward to early 2016, when the Florence newsroom of La Repubblica asks me to write a story about the gruesome Ashley Olsen murder in Florence.  I thought the article would be posted in my (normally speaking) arts and leisure column in English called Day on the news site.

"I don't do this type of piece," was my mildly irritated response, "it was bad enough when I anchored the broadcast for BBC World Service after the bomb blast at the Uffizi."

But if you are a true journalist you know that obedience to the editor
(or in this case, as she was away for the week, the editor's standby) a given.
The only question you can ask is:  "when do you need it by?"
And we all know, if we miss a deadline, it is because we are dead.

I finished that article in just under an hour and half, reading the facts in Italian
and expressing in English.
I briefly thought of Mimi when composing the lead.  "Don't ever, ever start with a question,
unless the event is exceptional," she taught us.
I took a deep breath and wrote:  "Who killed Ashley Olsen?" and begged forgiveness.
The rest came on automatic pilot also thanks to the lessons I had learned.
The article here.

With the beginnings of tremendous back pain, which lasted all week, I left the office
after sending the story.
I received a text message from the editor in chief on the bus thanking me.  When I arrived at my Florence home, the web editor's assistant in charge sent me a concise email:
"Rosanna, you are in national coverage."
Oh my God, directly in English, was the email I shot back.

The story was on the national web site of Repubblica along with the Italian articles on the murder.
A first.
And the way it was posted, it seemed I had written all the pieces, English and Italian.

This delirio (I can think of no other word in either language) continued for five days,
including coverage of the arrest
of the alleged murderer and the funeral.

Throughout, I felt I was walking a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers,
balancing two languages.
I had to remain perfectly calm although I could hear noise -- a roar -- below me.
On the third day of the case,
Repubblica's arch rival Corriere Fiorentino -- the local newsroom of the Corriere della Sera -- started running English translations.  The heat was on.  I began to sweat, not perspire
as ladies are alleged to do.

Plus, what slowed down me down was the legal terminology -- in both Italian and in English.
A procuratore?  Who the hell is that?  A district attorney?  What is a district attorney? And so on.

I had never ever studied or done the courthouse beat.   And I couldn't make a mistake.
I would fall off the tightrope, although I knew that Repubblica journalists
would launch a safety net.

I didn't need it.

Thank you, Mimi.

Happy Women's Day.

                                               reporting live from Beautiful Florence
                                   --Rosanna