The Italian Job

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No plans for Memorial Day? Then hurry: Seats are still available for one of the best, not-to-be-missed congressional delegations of the spring season -- featuring a night at the opera -- "Tosca," of course -- in Venice!

You'll take off Friday morning in ultimate style aboard a military jet from Andrews AFB to Ljubljana, Slovenia, a lovely, largely undiscovered treasure in the foothills at the base of the Kamnik Alps.

It's a daytime flight, perfect for minimizing jet lag, getting you in at midnight at the Grand Hotel Union in time to catch enough sleep for a morning "delegation excursion to Lake Bled," according to our draft itinerary. There's an afternoon of meetings at the 64th European Parliament/U.S. Congressional Interparliamentary Meeting and Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue (TLD) -- the ostensible reason you're making the trip.

You'll dialogue for about three hours with the Euro crowd before heading off for a reception and dinner.

Your hardy band of lawmakers, led by Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), co-chairman of the TLD, will ease up on Sunday, starting with a "short walking tour of old city" at 10 a.m., followed by a 45-minute boat trip on the Ljubljanica River and a cable ride up to Ljubljana Castle. But then it's back to a grueling three hours of chat about the Middle East and such.

Monday, the last day of the conference, is just nonstop blather until, nearing exhaustion, you head to the airport. But you're not coming home. No, your task, which up to this point was justifiable policy exchanges, turns to the more arduous fact-finding.

So you're "wheels up" to begin searching in -- where else? -- Venice and the spectacular Westin Europa and Regina Hotel, right on the Grand Canal, where the cheapo rooms run about $1,000 a night. They'll be very steeply discounted to fit into your "enhanced per diem," which the embassy says is now $400 for hotel and $223 for meals and incidentals.

Don't spend all night wandering the Piazza San Marco, or drinking bellinis in Harry's Bar, because on Tuesday morning you're meeting with city officials who are trying to keep the wondrous locale from sinking into the sea.

That afternoon and evening you'll drop all pretense of working and head off on an official "delegation outing," including "a walking tour, boat ride, and optional [we strongly recommend skipping this] visit" to a glass-blowing factory.

Tuesday evening's schedule says "free time," but we received an e-mail the other day from Berkley's office saying she'd asked our embassy to "explore entertainment options" and yes, there is an opera at the world-famous La Fenice. It's Puccini's "Tosca," with enchanting young soprano Tiziana Caruso, a rising star, in the lead role and veteran tenor Walter Fraccaro as Mario. Tickets, the e-mail advises, are $155 apiece and "there will be no refunding/backing out once the tickets are purchased."

Okay, so that's a bit pricey. But hey, the taxpayers have picked up a huge chunk of the cost for this wonderful trip. Did we mention La Fenice? Venice? Puccini? "Tosca"? You've simply got to spring for it.

The next day you're off to Aviano Air Base for a "tour, presentation, wreath laying" and where your plane awaits you. Sure, you want to go home, but there's just a brief stop for a couple days in . . . Naples! Yes, the city's beautiful and the garbage strike is long over. Your bags will await you in your room at the lovely Hotel Excelsior, right on the water, where you'll arrive just in time for an evening of "free time."

Obviously you can't get a bad meal in Italy, but since you've got free transport, you must do some fact-finding on culinary splendors. That means a trip to Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi (Saint Agatha on the two gulfs) a very small hill above Sorrento, with spectacular views along the Gulf of Naples on your right side and the Gulf of Salerno on your left.

You'll be dining at the Michelin three-star Don Alfonso restaurant, which Italians say is the best restaurant in the south of Italy. (Not to worry about reservations; the embassy will arrange this for you.)

Enough frivolity. It's back to work the next morning for the "tour, presentation, wreath laying" at Naples Naval Base before heading off to a lovely lunch and three-hour tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Then it's more fact-finding at the wonderful National Archaeological Museum in Naples for a couple hours before your usual evening devoted to "Free time (optional group dinner)."

Finally, exhausted from your weeklong trip, you'll have earned the right to a noon flight home Friday, arriving at the Rayburn Horseshoe at 6 p.m. so you can take the weekend off to recover and go over the photos.

Bellissimo! The price is right. And there should still be room. So far, in addition to Berkley, the tentative list includes Democratic Reps. Gary L. Ackerman (N.Y.), Russ Carnahan (Mo.), Jim Costa (Calif.) , Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) and Republican Reps. Joe L. Barton (Tex.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Cliff Stearns (Fla.) and Edward Whitfield (Ky.), plus, where relevant, spouses, some House staffers and security and military aides.

Don't delay.

And Don't Forget Your Cape

Consulting is usually a pretty safe gig. Employers often provide the offices and supplies you'll need. But not when the Pentagon's looking for someone to advise the Ministry of Defense in the Peaceable Kingdom of Iraq.

Here are the specs: "The contractor must provide IBA [individual body armor], helmet, Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear, gloves, and other safety equipment as required. This contract requires personnel to be physically able to wear, and wear when directed by Coalition authorities, individual body armor (IBA) complete with 30 pound protective armor plates, a Kevlar helmet, and other warfare gear (principally a protective mask).

"Personnel must be capable of unassisted donning of protective mask, clothing and equipment or equivalent clothing and protective equipment that guards against chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosive hazards. This task must be accomplished in the requisite amount of time to ensure the employee's safety and remain in this posture until conditions are declared safe for removal of protective clothing. Contractor personnel must be able to complete assigned duties to include a 200 yard walk in full MOPP equipment in 120 degree Fahrenheit temperatures."

Hmmm. Maybe there's a job opening in Grand Rapids or Boulder?

From Defendant to Delegate

James J. Yee, the Muslim former Army chaplain at Guantanamo Bay who was cleared of spying allegations, will be an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.

Yee, a former captain and West Point graduate, was elected Saturday by precinct representatives in Olympia, Wash., according to the Associated Press. He was accused in 2003 of being part of a spy ring at the military prison in Cuba and spent 76 days in solitary confinement before he was exonerated. He resigned from the Army and received an honorable discharge.

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