By Marianne O'Donnell, Dateline Producer
"Hello" I said, forgetting that English was not the lingua franca here.
"Buongiorno!" he smiled hesitatingly. "Ms. O'Donnell?"
"Oh, right, buongiorno," I corrected myself.
The driver said his name was Mauritzio, and for a moment I wondered whether the dispatcher of a car service or the editors of Vogue had sent him here. He had a perfect right angle for a nose -- what they call a classic Roman nose, I guess -- a defined jaw and dark hair gelled back. A lock of it had managed to escape the rest of the black slick; it curled seductively above his brow like an upside-down question mark. He wore a tailored blue pinstripe with a black leather coat and caramel colored loafers. He wasn't a driver. He was Adonis. As I seated myself in the back of his spacious Mercedes, he climbed behind the wheel, slipped on his black sunglasses and grinned into his rearview mirror.
"We go?" he asked.
"Uh, sure." I stammered. "I mean, good ... uh," since the breadth of my Italian started with 'bongiorno' and ended with 'arrivederci', with nothing in between, it was obvious I was going to need more than his driving skills.
"Bene?" he helped me.
"Right. Right. BEHH-nay," I parrotted. Saying it was a little like taking a rollercoaster ride. Up on the 'beh', down suddenly on the 'nay'. Italian was fun. "The Brufani Hotel in Perugia, please."
Ten hours earlier I had been sitting inside my senior producer's office in New York when I realized I was going to have to hotfoot it to the nearest airport and get myself to Italy. My assignment was to work the ground in a small city in the central part of the country. Perugia. I knew famous chocolates came from there, succulent Perugina Bacci's, but Dateline doesn't cover candy festivals. It does cover murders, though, and a particularly ghoulish one days earlier had left the town still shaken.
A young British woman, studying at the University of Perugia, had been stabbed in the neck and left to bleed -- slowly -- to death in the bedroom of a little cottage she had shared with three others. One of those was an American student named Amanda Knox. And if Italian police were right, she had something to do with her friend's murder. My job, among others, was to try to get an interview with Knox's mom, who had just arrived from Seattle to comfort her daughter, now in an Italian jail cell.
Days later, I waited in the bone-chilling wind that swept through the medieval piazza of stone and statues, along with my colleagues from Italian, British and American media. Word was the mother was due to walk through the piazza at any moment on her way to the office of her daughter's Italian lawyer. In one moment we were a rag-tag bunch milling around, in another we were a condensed cloud of bees, swarming toward a small, coated woman rushing along with her head down: the suspect's mother. The cameramen flicked on their lights. I took an elbow from one reporter in the ribs; a soundman behind me used my shoulder to steady his boom. Cameras, microphones, wires: we became one unholy body pressing in, cornering a terrified woman who looked back aghast at our communal brazenness.
"My daughter is innocent," she quickly said, in a trembling voice. "She's sure that as the investigation continues the truth will come out and she'll be proven innocent, ummm it's gone with one tragedy with the death of Meredith to know the tragedy that my daughter's living in. It's a terrible situation."
With that her lawyer led her forward by the elbow, into and through our shield. Of course we followed, wanting more, always more. She stilled looked terrified, but she offered nothing else.
In the weeks that followed we would all keep following the investigation for every new morsel of evidence: a bloody footprint found; a knife recovered; surveillance footage of suspects. As I stood with my press brethren in front of the courthouse off the piazza one afternoon, a stooped, white-haired woman caught my eye and shuffled over.
She wore a dazzling red coat and matching hat; her lipstick and makeup applied to perfection. She must have been in her 80s, but she was the epitome of Italian sophistication. She leaned on her polished wooden cane and began questioning me in her native tongue. I used my broken Spanish to try to understand. I got that she was distressed and a little embarrassed by the murder and worried what the rest of the world would think of her sleepy, medieval city on a hilltop, where such a crime, it seems, never happens.
But I clearly couldn't sustain a conversation with her.
In frustration she looked over at the cameras and reporters conversing around the door, waiting for the latest word from the prosescutor in the case. She sighed. I felt bad. "Non bene? Scusi."
I wasn't sure that my apology was properly worded or needed. At least she seemed to forgive my lousy Italian. "Grazie" she said softly, smiling. And she was off.
That night, after hours in the cold yielded nothing new in the case, I joined my cameramen, soundmen and fellow producer in a restaurant on the piazza.
Along with its chocolates, Perugia is known for its homemade pasta and wines. I was having a simple red from a local vintner. I took a sip, immediately relaxing as the wine swirled inside my mouth. In a long day, in what had been an exhausting week, it was a moment of bliss -- a little bit of 'bene' -- in a job that sometimes seemed to be anything but.