Thursday, October 02, 2003

One benefit of having one leg – I now get to fly Business Class to give me more room to stretch out my artificial leg. You’d have thought that losing a foot would mean I’d need less legroom, but there you go. Unfortunately, the short hop from Heathrow to Rome hardly gave me enough time to share a glass of champers with colleague Jo Cayford to celebrate my return to life on the road.

The phone rang while I was riding in a ludicrously over-priced cab from Fiumicino Airport.

It was Europe Correspondent Chris Morris, with whom I’ll be working for the next four days.

“Mate, our hotel’s in Rome’s equivalent of Croydon,” he said. “And it looks like the sort of place they’d film the sequel to Boogie Nights.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d been booked into The Hotel That Time Forgot. While the word “Roma” conjures up images of cappucinos in medieval piazzas, we’d been put up in the southern EUR district, an ugly mish-mash of Mussolini-inspired modernist architecture half an hour from the city centre.

I threw my bags in my room and headed uptown, reaching St Peter’s Square just before sunset.

All seemed calm. The Pope was still alive, for the moment at least.

When I finally met up with my BBC colleagues a heated debate was in full flow. Chris, it transpired, had bought the last copy of Conclave, a book explaining the arcane process by which the new Pope will be elected. As the election process is foremost in all our minds, this tinder-dry tome is hot property right now. Everybody wants to be sure they can differentiate between black smoke and white smoke when the inevitable happens.

“What do we do if, like in 1978, the smoke comes out a confusing grey?” asked Chris.

It’s a question we’d rather not think about.


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