Formal events, like this morning's press conference at City Hall, are all about coloring inside the lines. There's an unspoken set of boundaries and everyone in attendance must stick to them, rather like a conga line.
Mayor Joe Riley and a delegation of Italian dignitaries including Mayor Daniele Benedetti, the Mayor of Charleston's sister city, Spoleto, Italy, met in City Council chambers to welcome and be welcomed, to announce strengthening ties between the two cities and generally move as quickly as possible (we can only speculate) to a splendid luncheon.
The Mayor introduced the rest of the delegation (most of them members of ATI3 Umbria, an association of Umbrian cities that focuses on touristic and infrastructure issues): Mayor of Norcia, Italy Gian Paolo Stefanelli, Mssrs. Fausto Galilei, Gilberto Giasprini, Filippo Tomassoni, and Fabrizio Gentili.
Mayor Riley spoke. Sergio Fedelini, The Italian Honorary Consular Agent in Charleston spoke. Mayor Benedetti spoke through his translator.
Charleston's Sister City relationship with Spoleto, Italy will be celebrated during the Spoleto Festival with exhibitions and other events. In addition, the ongoing artist exchange between the cities currently has College of Charleston faculty member and bestselling author, Bret Lott, in Italy.
As press conferences go, it was brief, staged principally for the TV cameras and the six o'clock news. When the Mayor asked for questions, there were none, largely because the press corps are a tight-fisted bunch who prefer to ask their questions one on one after the formalities have concluded, thereby elbowing out competitors in the trade. This, too, is expected, is also coloring within the lines.
But there was one exchange in those chambers today which made it utterly memorable. It occurred during "photo-opp time" when both the Italians' translator and another, American, member of the party, found themselves at loose ends.
Gracing, one might more accurately say, dominating City Council chambers is a large, full-figure portrait of George Washington (John Trumbull, 1791). The Italian translator had remained on the dais near his compatriots, his back to the enormous canvas, when he was approached by the American with a question. The translator leaned in to hear it.
Did he notice the painting behind him? he was asked. The Italian glanced back quickly, in case there might be some other gargantuan canvas back there that he'd missed. Nope. Just the one. The translator said he had noticed the painting.
At this point his interlocutor leaned in conspiratorially, and then, as if basic American history had never before been leaked to a foreign national, proceeded to rat out the Founding Father. "That's George Washington."
Here, time froze. But the Italian translator's face didn't. A thousand things colored, crossed and fled away from his features. Somewhere between choking on this insult to his education and laughing right in the American's face, he leaned in a little further, like a batter at the plate eyeballing a screwball pitch. Then he smacked a line drive right up the middle.
"Yes," he said, "Of course the whole world knows George Washington." He paused to catch his breath before continuing. "He was a great man."
Absolutely undeterred by this show of polite restraint, the American let loose another fastball.
"Here's one thing you probably don't know. Washington was six-one."
The Italian's face once again went into overdrive as he tried to appreciate the significance of this. Or calculate the conversion into centimeters. Hard to say.
"Six-one inches?" he asked.
"No, no!" came the reply. "Six feet! One inch!"
The Italian nodded. "So — he was a tall man."
"Yes!" said the American.
"Ah!" the Italian replied, gratefully. But the light in his eyes dimmed. Game over.
There's nothing like a good press conference.