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Schapiro: Flying high above the McDonnell aftershocks
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Schapiro: Flying high above the McDonnell aftershocks

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About 3 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 4, my wife, Clare, and I were queueing for a flight from Atlanta to Rome, the first leg of a journey to a turreted, 16th-century castle in a village in southeastern Italy, where she would be taking a cooking class.

Her mobile telephone buzzed. It was our son, Felix. Excitedly, he told Clare that the jury had reached a verdict in the Bob and Maureen McDonnell corruption trial.

Before it began, my summer vacation ended — sort of.

Within minutes, details from the federal courthouse in Richmond streamed over my iPhone: The former governor was guilty on 11 counts; Mrs. McDonnell on nine.

The death of comedienne Joan Rivers, the hour’s top story, was trumped by no laughing matter.

That I was on holiday rather than on the job seemed nothing short of abandoning my post under fire. With several of my colleagues, I had covered the pretrial maneuvering and the trial itself. I had sat through jury selection, five weeks of testimony and the jury’s initial deliberations.

So, at a crowded gate in a teeming airport about 530 miles from home, I did the only thing I could — short of returning to Virginia (and that wasn’t happening): I fired up Twitter.

I tweeted this. I retweeted that. A look back at my Twitter feed indicates I filed 10 items immediately after the verdict. It seemed like more, probably because typing on the tiny screen of a hand-held device is, for me, a Sisyphean task.

One post was about McDonnell, under a law he signed, possibly losing his Virginia pension because he had been convicted of an on-duty felony. McDonnell approved the measure shortly before his wife’s infamous, Jonnie Williams Sr.-financed New York shopping spree in 2011.

Another was by a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial writer, Bart Hinkle, about how McDonnell, assuming he does time in prison, can automatically get back the voting rights he loses as a felon — thanks to a McDonnell initiative.

I kept at it, even as power drained from my phone. Multiple, 140-character nuggets of news beamed via wobbly Wi-Fi just battered the battery. Juggling my boarding pass and my phone, I found my seat in steerage.

I felt bad — not just because I was missing a big story but because I was being unfair to Clare, who managed a meek smile. This was not the cheery note on which a long-planned connubial vacation should commence.

I was going to pay for this, starting then and there. Did I ever: A mother with a yowling newborn was sitting directly behind me. And Rome was 8½ hours away.

Over the aircraft’s public-address system came the usual announcement about turning off all personal electronic devices. Cabin attendants prowled the aisles to make sure passengers complied.

With a push of a lozenge-shaped button on the frame of my phone, I was cut off from history. Worse, I was denied the thrill of reporting it. Like a junkie without smack, I’d have to tremble, sweat and fidget until my next fix.

I didn’t find it in Rome early Friday morning.

In Virginia, people were bedding down for night. I could now catch up, scanning websites and transferring copy to Twitter. If I wasn’t actually on the story, I could create the impression I was. It’s the smoke and mirrors of social media.

Wi-Fi at the Rome airport was discouragingly weak. Far more powerful was the cup of espresso I belted back at a noisy snack bar.

Time was short; my patience, shorter. Clare and I had about an hour to make our connection to Bari, on the Adriatic coast.

Bari is among the urban hubs of Puglia (pronounced “Pool-ya”), the region where the cooking school is located. Puglia, one of the poorer corners of Italy, is known for its sprawling olive groves, potent wines nurtured from red soil, eggless pasta made with barley flour and architecture that recalls the region’s Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences.

It is where the last king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, fled in 1943 after the collapse of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator. More recently, Puglia installed as its governor one of Italy’s first openly gay politicians.

From Bari, we would drive — sleep-starved — to Lecce, passing towns with names familiar in Virginia literary,

professional and political circles: Triggiano, perhaps the origin of Trigiani, as in Adriana, the novelist, and her

lawyer-sister, Pia. Also, Nardo, as in Paul, the clerk of the House of Delegates.

Lecce, which fans out from Roman ruins over winding, narrow streets, was our penultimate stop — a way station for 2½ days before traveling even deeper into Puglia, which makes up most of the heel of the Italian boot.

At this point, things became hazy, a consequence of jet lag.

Our hotel in Lecce, opposite a soaring basilica adorned with comic and confounding gargoyles, was a cushy oasis with intermittent Internet service.

Forsaking Wi-Fi for pricier data-

roaming, I finally got into my email. The traffic provided a snapshot of a bustling newsroom.

I recall speaking with Andrew Cain, the politics editor, and offering to file a column for the Sunday edition on the McDonnell verdict and its implications.

The next day, Saturday — while Clare and two friends who’d flown in from London for the weekend roamed Lecce — I wrote a column on my iPhone. It was more pecking than hunting, rather like typing through a keyhole.

Somehow, by 2:55 p.m. Lecce time — 8:55 a.m. in Richmond — I produced a column that, in hard copy, measured 46½ inches. Readers should not have to suffer through anything that long. My apologies — and my thanks — to those who did.

That night at dinner, Clare and our British pals joked about the not-entirely unexpected note on which the trip to Italy began.

Over many glasses of negroamaro, the potent local plonk, they posited — while wearing amused expressions — that I may have succeeded in salvaging a career otherwise scuttled for putting hedonism ahead of journalism.

On Monday afternoon, we were off — finally — to cooking school.

Our destination, 4,620 miles from Richmond, was Spongano. There, in a baronial castle that has been occupied by the same family for five centuries, we would spend the next six days — Clare and seven others cooking; yours truly, eating.

And I came home 3 pounds lighter.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814.

His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on TimesDispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).

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