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Sylvia Poggioli, NPR's Rome correspondent, bids goodbye after a decades-long career

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The past 41 years, a lot of NPR listeners have thought of Italy as the home of Da Vinci, the Vespa, the Colosseum, fettuccine, al Pomodoro and Poggioli - Sylvia Poggioli. While her name has become synonymous with Rome, she's also taken us around the world to Prague's Velvet Revolution, the Balkans, Myanmar and Iraq. Sylvia has become a storied foreign correspondent in that time. But now she says it's time to step back from NPR's microphone. She joins us now, of course, from Rome. Sylvia, always a delight to talk to you. Thanks for making time for us now.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, thank you, Scott, for having me. It's really an honor.

SIMON: You were actually born in Providence, R.I. What brought you to Italy? And why'd you stay?

POGGIOLI: Actually, I was born there, but I didn't - when I was very young, my parents moved to Massachusetts, and I grew up there. And then, after college, I came to Rome on a Fulbright, started doing some odd jobs and stuff. And I stayed, and I became a journalist. And that's about it.

SIMON: You know, there are so many memorable stories of the thousands you've done over the years, and we wanted to look back at a couple. We both covered the war in Bosnia. 1994, you visited Mostar. You were on the Muslim side shortly after a 10-monthlong siege there by ethnic Croatians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POGGIOLI: Late in the afternoon of November 9, the Bosnian Croats fired a final mortar shell against the bridge. And the last piece of ancient stone masonry crashed into the river rapids below. Their purpose achieved, the attackers led off a round of celebratory gunshots. The final insult came when Bosnian Croat officials said they would build another bridge more beautiful and more ancient.

SIMON: Sylvia, what were you suggesting there for us that touched you in that conflict?

POGGIOLI: Well, the total senselessness. Mostar had been probably the center of some of the most beautiful Ottoman Balkan architecture. The bridge I talked about was the famous Stari Most, this one arched, beautiful bridge over the Neretva River. And it was, you know, the symbol of the many, many centuries of Ottoman rule, of Muslim culture and art and architecture in the city. And destroying it was one of the many very senseless acts of destruction in the Balkan Wars that led to the whole breakup of Yugoslavia. And there was this absurd statement saying that we will build it more beautiful and older. It gave you a sense of the complete madness of that war.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's ask you about another different kind of clip. This is from Parma, Italy, in 2000,

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POGGIOLI: The male-only Club 27 is the most exclusive of Verdi's fan clubs. Each lifetime member is given the name of one of his 27 operas, and that's how they introduce themselves.

RIGOLETTO SENZA GOBBA: Rigoletto Senza Gobba.

DON CARLOS: Don Carlos.

I VESPRI SICILIANI: I Vespri Siciliani.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

FALSTAFF: Falstaff.

MACBETH: Macbeth.

GIOVANNA D'ARCO: Giovanna d'Arco.

OTELLO: Otello.

ERNANI: Ernani.

POGGIOLI: None of them are professional musicians. There are a few retired bank tellers. One is a sewing machine repairman. Another is a journalist.

SIMON: My gosh. Sylvia, how'd you ever hear about this club?

POGGIOLI: Oh, well, it's a very exclusive club. It's famous, the Club 27. And what's very interesting is that these gentlemen would not tell me their names. In fact, one of them - I was with a friend who recognized one of them, and he said he was a very famous soccer referee. But anyways, their love of opera is something contagious. It's - the people of Parma are just fanatic opera lovers. They grow up with it. Obviously, in the time of Verdi, who was the favorite son of Parma, people cheered composers and singers the way today they're fans of soccer. The music is really in the veins of this people.

SIMON: What do you think you've enjoyed most about this incredible life in which you've given so much to so many people and learned so much and shared it?

POGGIOLI: All the people, not the famous ones, but just the average people that we meet. One of the high points of the stories that I covered was certainly the Velvet Revolution in Prague. The way they brought down that government was done with such incredible people power. It was just such a happy time. And it was all directed by Vaclav Havel inside this famous theater called Laterna Magica in Prague. And he was like - on the stage, he would give the press conferences for the international media as if he was directing a magnificent theatrical production.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about the slow food movement after the first - I guess, the first McDonald's opened in Rome. 2004, slow food fair that took place in Turin - let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POGGIOLI: One of the thousands of products saved from oblivion is the Cornish salt pilchard, a large sardinelike fish that has been shipped to Italy at least since the year 1555. Cheap and with a long shelf life, for centuries, it was a staple for Catholics during Lent. Nick Howell, who runs the only remaining pilchard salt plant in Cornwall, says it's still customary for his last four Protestant fishermen to drink a toast to the pope every year.

NICK HOWELL: Here's a health to the pope, and may he repent and lengthen by six months the term of his Lent. It's always declared, betwixt the two poles, there's nothing like pilchards for saving of souls (laughter).

POGGIOLI: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Did you taste the fish?

POGGIOLI: I did indeed. And they're like big saltier sardines. I like them.

SIMON: You have covered three pontiffs, from John Paul II to Pope Francis. And, of course, in 2013, Pope Benedict resigned - a decision which no pope had made for centuries. What do you remember about covering the Vatican, the papacy, the crowds, the masses?

POGGIOLI: Oh, it's - I mean, there's so much. Certainly under John Paul II - you know, this was the pope - this is the traveling pope, the first non-Italian pope certainly in centuries. And he was, you know, John Paul superstar. Of course, under his papacy, you know, there was a sort of, you know, dogmatic crackdown. And Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, was, in a way, you know, the theological watchdog. There was, really, a huge crackdown on dissident theologians, and it was very strict. And the papacy of Benedict was unexciting in some ways after, certainly, John Paul, and it was tormented by many scandals in the end, of certainly the leak scandal that shed light on a lot of sort of shady dealings inside the Vatican. But it was Benedict himself proved to have made so many mistakes.

And now we have the first pope from the Global South, and he is certainly charting a very new path. And we'll see - you know, there's always this tale that - they say here in Rome when there's the death of a pope, that there's a pendulum, and it goes from a progressive pope to a conservative pope. It hasn't always happened that way, but often, it does. So we don't know whether the reforms introduced by Francis will last - depends on how long this papacy lasts.

SIMON: Yeah. Refugees have become an enormous part of the story of Italy over the past couple of decades. And I wonder what stays with you about covering that story or people with whom you spoke.

POGGIOLI: Well, they're probably - the interviews I've done, the encounters I've had with refugees of all types, both in the Balkans, on the island of Lampedusa, where they arrive on rickety boats from North Africa, or also on the Greek island of Lesbos - they're all survivors, those that we get to talk to because so many of them die. The Mediterranean has been described now as the biggest cemetery in the world. Greece, Italy and Spain are the front line because geography determines that. And the governments of these countries have been beseeching their European Union partners to try to find a Europewide policy of how to deal with it, how to partition them out into different countries. But there's a lot of resistance of the Northern European countries. And it's the major problem facing this part of the world right now, and nobody seems to know how to deal with it.

SIMON: Yeah. Sylvia, I don't mean to put you on the spot, but do you remember a song I once wrote and sung for you when you got an award in Boston?

POGGIOLI: (Laughter) I remember that well.

SIMON: Let me just - (singing) when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's Poggioli.

Real low point in your career?

POGGIOLI: (Laughter) No. No, no, Scott. That's very moving. I really love that.

SIMON: Do you think you'll miss seeing something flash in the news and running off to get close to it?

POGGIOLI: Yeah. I think so. I think it's an ingrained habit now. There will be several stories that I will still be very curious to follow. But I hope after a while, I start branching out and do some other things, too.

SIMON: Thank you for everything (laughter).

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: For every story, for the support you've given every colleague. Thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Sylvia Poggioli, I really - could I get you to sock out (ph) for us?

POGGIOLI: (Laughter) This is Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SIMON: NPR's longest-serving foreign correspondent. Arrivederci, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Arrivederci. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.