Roman Holiday

Obama’s Visit to the Pope Created Chaos—but Romans Are Used to That

The American president visited Rome and the Vatican—and just about shut them down. But the Italians still love him.

Pool photo by Gabriel Bouys

ROME, Italy—“Blindatissimi” is not a word Romans particularly like. Especially when it is raining. It means “armored to the maximum” which is exactly what’s required of the 26-plus cars in a motorcade carrying the president of the United States through Rome’s narrow, cobbled streets. But it does inspire some of the Romans’ favorite words, like “Mamma Mia!” and “Che palle,” which, loosely translated, means “that sucks.”

But if there’s a city left in the world where people still get really excited about an Obama visit, this is it. Enthusiastic crowds greeted him wherever and whenever they had the chance. It’s just that traffic snarled so badly, many got stuck far from the scene.

Obama’s 36-hour Roman adventure began Wednesday night when the arrival of Air Force One halted air traffic to Rome’s Fiumicino airport and blocked vehicle traffic into the city for more than an hour just at the moment when many people were traveling home from work. A chilly spring rainstorm complete with hail and strong winds did little to ease the mood.

American presidents usually fly into the Pratica di Mare military base outside the city, but because preparations were underway for the 91st anniversary celebration of Italian military aeronautics, starting Friday, it wasn’t feasible to host the president’s fleet. Instead his planes—all three of them—parked in a hangar in the cargo section of Rome’s primary airport, which means regular cargo planes that use that space had to be relocated, and so on in a domino effect of confusion and congestion.

Other members of the American delegation, including Secretary of State John Kerry, used Rome’s secondary airport, Ciampino, as their travel hub, which disrupted service for discount carriers who normally use those facilities.

Rome has been preparing for the “Robama” visit for weeks. The greenery around the US Ambassador’s lush Villa Taverna near Villa Borghese, where the president and his delegation are staying, has been clipped into curious shapes as part of some security enhancement. The potholes and loose cobbles on the city streets used by the presidential motorcade were all filled as well, much to the ire of everyday Romans who’d like some of the same service on their roads.

At least two posh restaurants in the city center were swept and secured and their reservations cleared in the event the president gets a hankering for some pasta. Rumors that he might dash off to Montepulciano for a wine tasting at a former ambassador’s villa remained just that, but a baker named Angelo Bisconti from Salento in southern Italy brought a van with the president’s picture painted on the side and 5,000 “Obama biscuits” to the Via Veneto to celebrate the occasion. The chocolate cookies have been a big seller for the baker. “I’ve got a tray for the president set aside in case I can get to him,” Bisconti said as he gave away biscuits near the American Embassy. “I love Obama.”

The Italian press fixated on the details of how the American president travels. Headlines like “200 Agents and a Taste Tester!” and “The Coliseum Closed For Obama” dominated Thursday’s papers. The president made a special request to visit the ancient Roman amphitheater, which is largely covered in scaffolding because Diego Daella Valle, the founder of the company that makes Tod’s shoes, is paying to restore it. Whether Obama will walk away in trendy moccasins remains to be seen.

Tourists who were planning to visit the Coliseum and the Roman Forum on Thursday afternoon were disappointed to find the entire archeological park closed, snipers positioned on the Palatine Hill and secret service agents shooing visitors away. Canadian students on a school trip as stood behind the red and white barriers blocking them from getting near the monument and rendered a familiar verdict, this time in English. “This sucks,” they said.

But at the end of the day the Romans themselves are used to a little chaos in their daily lives, and grumble as they might, the fact remains that most still love him. As Obama’s motorcade wound its way from the Vatican to the Quirnale Palace to visit Italy’s president of the republic Giorgio Napolitano, people lined the streets and cheered. “I still like him,” said Gabriele Salari, a Greenpeace press attaché who came out to see the president’s motorcade. “He is courageous and I’m really glad he is here.”

Obama’s main objective in Rome was to visit Pope Francis, who spent 50 minutes with the president in a closed-door meeting from which little news has escaped.

“In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country [the U.S.], such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated,” was all the Vatican press office revealed. The president’s press attaché had a different take, insisting the men focused on areas of convergence like poverty and inequality.

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The two men seemed serious and somewhat stiff at first, but eventually shared laughs, especially during the gift exchange when the lid of a box of coins the president presented to the pope came ajar, spilling the coins on the floor not once, but twice, causing both men to giggle. The pope presented the president with a copy of his Evangelii Gaudium, an exhortation to the faithful that created a furor among American conservatives when Pope Francis wrote, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” Obama, for his part, gave the pope seeds from the White House garden, telling him he should stop by and see it some time. “Why not?” answered the pope with a smile.

If the pontiff does come to Washington, perhaps as part of a planned trip to the United States some time in 2015, locals there might get at least a taste of the same logistical nightmare such a visit entails. “His holiness is probably the only person who has to endure more protocol than I do,” Obama was heard saying during the papal visit. But it seems unlikely that anyone could command as much pomp and circumstance as an American president on a state visit—not even the pope.