Sunday, July 12, 2009

La Maddalena Almost Hosted a President

On Friday, I checked my statistical counter and noticed that someone had come across a blogpost I wrote about La Maddalena, Sardinia last year. The person had Google-searched "Obama in La Maddalena." I was shocked but deliriously happy to hear that. I had no idea. It made my afternoon. The president was walking my old stomping grounds, where I lived from 1991-1994 as a young sailor in the U.S. Navy. And I thought, man...he should've hired me as a personal aide so I could tell him some of the best places to get a pizza or calzone, and to pay a visit to the old barracks I used to live in (my bet is that it is now a four-star hotel).


But, I did a Google search of my own to find articles or photos of President Obama in La Maddalena. To my sad disappointment, I learned that the G-8 Conference was moved to L'Aquila, the town that was hit by an earthquake in April this year. I also read that the Italian government had earmarked 300 million Euros to build an architecturally distinct conference center in La Maddalena, as well as other projects on the island for the conference.

While I understand the need the Italian government might have to showcase L'Aquila and to help boost its economy with the conference, I'm naturally disappointed for the people of La Maddalena. Out of all the places I've lived, La Maddalena ranks second (only to Fulda, Germany, where I lived as a teenager). Its a town that deserves the international spotlight, though those happen to be rare occasions (let's face it...its not big enough to host the Summer Olympics). After spending that many Euros to build a nice conference center (what the heck does La Maddalena need a conference center for, anyway?), Italy should have still held the G-8 Conference there. The leaders of the eight largest economies in the world (the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia) would have enjoyed the emerald-coloured waters of the Mediterranean, the breezy Italian villas, and the beautiful views (on a clear day, you can see Corsica...just 12 miles away, if I'm not mistaken).

But, it's just not to be. President Obama has no idea what he missed out on. Italy won't host another G-8 Conference during his administration (it rotates each year to one of the eight member countries). Perhaps the United Nations could hold a conference there on something. Spending 300 million Euros on a Conference Center the town doesn't really need is the ultimate boondoggle. I've often wondered how that town's economy is doing after the Americans moved out in January 2008. The U.S. had a population of about 2,000 American Naval personnel. This presence included a Submarine Tender and military facility on the island of Santo Stefano; a Navy Exchange, Naval Support Office, Naval Clinic, enlisted barracks / chapel / gym / swimming pool / library at the Paradiso complex (where I lived), and Trinita housing for officers and chief petty officers and their families as well as a K-8 grade school at various locations on the island of La Maddalena; and the notorious Palau Community Center (where I worked my last 10 months in Italy and was the job I hated the most until my current job surpassed it), which was located on the mainland of Sardinia.

Remove 2,000 Americans from a small community of 13,000 Italian residents and you bet that there's an impact on the local economy. La Maddalena is known in Italy as a resort town that swells to over 70,000 people in the summer months. From October to April, though, the town depended on the income Americans had (those who rented apartments or houses on the economy, people eating at restaurants, shopping in the stores, hanging out at the bars, staying in the hotels).

I definitely want to return there in the next few years to see how much of the town has changed, what has remained the same, and most of all...to see what became of the Palau Community Center, Paradiso complex, and Naval Support Office (where the movie theater and administrative offices were). And yes, even after all these years, I still crave the calzone I used to eat from a particular restaurant in Cala Cavetta (in the top photo, it is the part of La Maddalena that has the upside down V shaped bay), or the Mozzarella alla Caprese from my favourite restaurant L'Aragosta (translates as "The Lobster"). Ah...I miss that town!

The photo of President Obama and French President Sarkozy is an exercise in not passing judgment without knowing the full facts. Conservatives see it as proof of Obama's wandering eye (hoping, probably, that he turns out to be another Clinton so that they can impeach him too, I'll bet). I admit, that was my first impression upon seeing the photo. Hey, why not? Italian women are some of the sexiest women in the world (I regret not making a point to find one to marry, though my life would have been much different today, as I wouldn't have had the freedom to make some of the choices I have made). Turns out, according to video footage, Obama was looking at the ground to help a lady step down without falling. Hilariously, though, Sarkozy was seen definitely checking that Italian lady out as Obama played the gentleman in holding a young lady's hand as she steps down. I would love to see what might happen if Sarkozy met Sarah Palin. But, she'd probably think she was being pranked and insult him as an imposter.

The photo above is one that I took when I lived in La Maddalena. It is the view from my barracks window. In the foreground is the chapel/gym. The building in the middle of the picture that is being constructed was a project that lasted my entire three years. The groundbreaking had begun before I arrived, but not much was done on it until 1994 when they finally rushed to complete it. I can't remember if it was a hotel or an apartment complex. The water you see is the Mediterranean, with the island of Santo Stefano. The land you see farther out is the mainland of Sardinia. Because the richest resident of La Maddalena happened to own the Saremar Ferry System, its probably the reason why no bridge was ever built to connect the island of La Maddalena with Sardinia (could easily be done).

When I worked at the Palau Community Center, I had to use the ferry everyday. It was a 30 minute trip. I actually enjoyed it. I'd drink a cappucino sometimes and read a book, or sometimes bump into shipmates and had interesting conversations. I remember on one ferry ride, a female sailor asked me what religion I was. When I told her, she said, "I thought so!" (she obviously didn't hear the "Reorganized" part of my church's name and assumed I was Mormon). When I asked her why she thought so, she said one of the best compliments I've ever gotten. "It's how you carry yourself. You're not like most other sailors. You're very well behaved and live your values."

Another time on the ferry, a Boatswain's Mate chief I happened to know my first two years in La Madd was back for a visit with his Italian wife. He was drunk and kept telling me that I needed to become an officer and if I wasn't going to do that for myself, then he was going to make me become one, damnit! I was actually amused, flattered and disturbed all at the same time (imagine feeling that mix of emotions!). His wife was sweet. She kept telling him to leave me alone because I already knew what I wanted to do with my life (I believe it was near the time I was set to transfer back to the U.S. and knew that I would be getting out of the Navy when my enlistment was up).


The above photo I found online, but I don't recognize any of it. It's supposed to be downtown La Maddalena, but to me, it doesn't look like it at all. The waterfront area just doesn't match the town I used to live in, but perhaps a lot of changes were made. More reason for me to go back, I suppose.

I used to think that I wanted to Honeymoon in Tahiti someday, but a part of me would like to go back to La Maddalena and the Costa Smeralda with a lady and experience the town anew with someone else. But, that's a long way off. One of my best friends, Nathan, is living in Sicily for the next three years and he wants me to visit. I'd love to do that in the next few years, but I won't visit Sicily without visiting Sardinia. In terms of island preferences, Corsica is my favourite of the three, followed by Sardinia, with Sicily last (it is still dominated by the mafia, unfortunately). The reason why I love Corsica more than Sardinia is because it has more trees, is greener, it belongs to France, its the birthplace of Napoleon, and the air has the sweetest fragrance of all the places I've ever been. I love Sardinia, as well, and I'm glad that it remained mostly rural and thus not big on mafia activity. Their prime industries are agriculture and tourism (they even combined the two in what is called "agriturismo") and it is perhaps the best kept vacation secret ever. Those who've been there understand...but we don't want the whole world to find out.

Too bad President Obama and the traveling American delegation couldn't have seen the island. I'm sure everyone would wonder how some Americans got so lucky in having been stationed there during the years the military operated a Naval base. I am one of the lucky ones, and for that, I'm grateful. As I told Nathan..."Sicily's better than Naples, but too bad you missed out on La Maddalena!"

When I was in YN "A" School, we got our first duty station by selection process that was determined by our test averages on the first two exams. Since I had the second highest average, I had second choice. There were three billets for Italy: the NATO base in Naples; the USS Orion in La Maddalena, Sardinia; and a Flight Squadron in Signonella, Sicily. I was leaning heavily for Naples, but another guy in class really wanted it and my parents urged me to take Sardinia. I also figured that being on a ship meant that I would get to travel the Mediterranean more than the other two assignments, so I picked Sardinia. It turned out to be the wisest decision of my life. I was even lucky enough to visit the guys who picked the other two Italy duty stations and both were disappointed in theirs and seemed to envy my assignment. Neither of them made it to my duty station for a visit. I think that's significant...I picked Sardinia, but was able to get a glimpse of the two others I could have chosen and learn that I definitely made the best choice. Wish that I still had that ability when I stupidly accepted the job offer at the place I've worked for almost three years now. Maybe I'm not getting wiser with age.

I love it, though, when I hear places I've lived before make the news in a good way. Probably my favourite moment of life in La Maddalena was when I became "the talk of the town." A woman who worked in my barracks at the front desk (they always had beautiful and intelligent Italian ladies) asked if it was me who had bought a trip to South Africa from an Italian travel agency. I was shocked when she asked me. She said that she had overheard some ladies downtown talking about a young American who walked into a travel agency and plucked down nearly 2 million Italian lire for a one week vacation in South Africa. When she heard that, she said that she knew it was me. I was stunned that she could deduce that, but she was pretty smart and most people who knew me in La Madd knew that I wasn't what you would call a "typical sailor."

Ah...I need to stop this reminiscing about life in La Madd. Those might have been the best days of my life. I'm glad I enjoyed my life to the fullest while I lived there. Its funny to hear from former shipmates who tell me that they wished that they traveled more while they lived there. Duh! I told many shipmates during my three years there not to waste their 30 days vacation each year going back to the States for vacation. They made fun of me for spending my leave days traveling Europe and South Africa. What, you don't love your family? Well...my family understood. My dad would've loved another three years in Europe if he could've had that chance. I guess that's what La Maddalena taught me the most...living life to the fullest and to enjoy the present moment, always. Per sempre.

1 comment:

Betty said...

We always try to see as much as we can of anyplace we visit. Even if we "have" to be there, it always turns out to be a good experience.