Papal chatter in Vatican City

Been there, done that: Katie Engelhart reports on the scene outside St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica—believed to the largest church in Christendom—is perched at far end of Vatican City. From the steps outside the entranceway, a tourist can spot the Apostolic Palace: the official residence of the Pope. The window on the top floor, far right, opens into Benedict’s bedroom.

On Tuesday, hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to abdicate the papacy, effective Feb. 28th, tourists were craning their camera-laden necks.

The small, cobblestone streets leading up the Basilica are lined with tacky tourist traps that hawk glass bottles of Coke and mummified panini. Small bodegas sell fake marble figurines, bobble-head Pope dolls, and €5.99 copies of Die Hard and Miami Vice.

A stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square, right outside the San Pietro metro station, is Savelli Arte e Tradizione: a massive “antiques” emporium, offering stamps and statuettes and ornate rosaries. Asked whether more tourists have been stopping by, since Benedict XVI’s announcement, sales manager Betty D’Eletto only winces: “No, not really.”

But soon she loosens up. With a furtive glance around the room, Betty—who has a warm face and honey-coloured hair—whispers: “To be honest, nobody likes this Pope.”

Within minutes, a flock of female sales associates has gathered around to dish the latest papal chatter. “The thing is that everyone loved John Paul [II]” says Juna: a young woman with silvery eyeshadow. “They loved him too much. And so they expected too much from Benedict.” Juna says Benedict XVI paraphernalia tends to linger on shelves. Often, tourists come into the shop looking for medals that commemorate John Paul II. “I say, I don’t have that one—but I have one with Benedict. And they say: Oh no, I don’t want it!”

Roberta, another sales associate, has a simpler explanation. “Benedict doesn’t smile.” She giggles: “He is too much German!” That’s a common refrain of Italians here: that Benedict XVI was too much the stern-faced German theologian, and not enough the Roman man-of-the-people.

Betty adds that she hopes the next pope is an American. If he’s an American, she muses, more rich American tourists will travel to Rome.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds of tourists were snaked around the edges of St. Peter’s square—woven in between the marble pillars—awaiting their entry into the church

Inside the square, tourists read newspapers around the 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk. Girls in “I Love Roma” sweatshirts took photographs of each other taking photographs. Police officers, their guns conspicuously hanging in white leather holsters, shouted into walkie-talkies.

By a granite fountain, a French woman in bright pink flared plants stops a young police officer. “Is there a new pope now?,” she bellows. “You have to wait until March,” he says with a shrug.

Near the end of the tourist line, Carolyn and Bryan James (from Cardiff, Wales) and Phyl and Graham Hollister (from Birmingham, England) wait patiently in the sun. Asked what she thinks of the Pope’s decision to abdicate, Carolyn snickers. “We have a Queen who is almost as old as Benedict! She’s curbed down her duties. But she’ll never resign.”

“She’ll never resign,” echoes Phyl. “The Queen of the Holland [Queen Beatrix] just announced that she is resigning. Our Queen just says: ‘Well then!’”

By late morning, white news vans were gathering outside the Square. Reporters, chattering in various European tongues, were setting up cameras, or preparing for standups.

A small group of Swiss guards looked on. Yes, the Pope is still watched over by an elite corps of unmarried, Catholic, Swiss soldiers—as he has been since the 15th century.

By a tent shielding TV cameras, Jean-Baptiste Cocagne, a bonny 27-year-old journalist with Vatican Radio, had turned his microphone inwards to interview foreign journalists on their Benedict coverage.

Looking suave in modish brown running shoes, Cocagne revealed that he felt somewhat overwhelmed. “I only started this job 10 days ago … Yesterday, I interviewed a Cardinal!”

Nearby, a tall Spanish journalist smoking a cigarette was coaxing reluctant tourists to speak into her microphone. “Where do you want the next Pope to come from?” she asked a blond from Britain, who shook her head.

“And you?”

“I don’t have an opinion,” I tell her. “Anyway, I’m not Catholic.”

“Can you say that to the camera?” she cries.

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