All the news this past few weeks about the recent uprising in Tibet and the Chinese handling of the protests has made me remember my own encounter as a reporter and foreign correspondent with his Holiness the Dalai Lama. But he wasn't in exile in India at the time- he was on an official visit to Rome, Italy, or to be specific, the the Vatican, to meet the late Pope John Paul II.
I was a foreign correspondent living and working in Italy for CBC, Canadian Press, Deutsche Welle and other radio stations..and I had a press pass as a member of the Vatican Foreign Press Association. It was called the Sala Stampa Vaticana.
In order to get accredited in the late 1980's and early '90s, you had to be approved by a very stern nun named Suora Giovanna, who worked for Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Spaniard in charge of the Pope's public affairs office. if they didn't like the news articles you had written, you wouldn't get approved, and access to any official Vatican events was difficult.
Luckily, I passed muster and was invited, along with the rest of the foreign press corps and the Italian domestic reporters, to a news conference by the Dalai Lama in a palazzo one Friday afternoon, after he had met with the Pope. It was August. It was hot. A friend of mine from CBC Radio, Peter Leo, was visiting Rome and we decided to go for a nice long Italian lunch in the Ghetto area, before heading over to cover the news conference at 4 p.m.. Needless to say, after a lunch of pasta and fish and wine, having to cram into a non-air conditioned room in the Renaissance era palazzo to wait for the spiritual leader of all the world's Tibetans was a daunting task.
The room was crowded with people: journalists, hangers-on, monks, followers, and me. And I had a deadline. The Dalai Lama arrived, and began a few remarks in his language that would preface the news conference. Well, the remarks stretched on for 30 minutes, and I was beginning to feel faint. It was stifling in that room, plus I had a deadline to file my story for CBC Radio and I thought "If he keeps on going, we'll never make a deadline". I thought it was supposed to be a news conference: that's what the press release said on it that invited us all.
So I started to get an idea.
It took me about 15 more minutes to get up enough courage to carry out my plan. I was going to interrupt him, and ask him if it would be alright to soon ask our questions, in English.
I think if it hadn't been so late on a Friday, and so hot, and the glass of wine I'd had several hours earlier at lunch was probably partly at work too....I probably would not have done this. But at 45 minutes into his remarks in Tibetan, I raised my hand, and said in a clear loud voice" Excuse me, Your Holiness. Would it be alright to ask you some questions? We thought this was a news conference and we have deadlines."
Well, from the shocked looks on his followers faces, to the hissing from the monks standing along the side and back walls, i thought the floor might need to open and swallow me up right then and there. In fact, I still recall to this day how hot my face felt, and how flushed my cheeks must have looked to everyone. I was embarrassed.
But what did the Dalai Lama do? He was as gracious and gentle as could be. He looked at me, and replied " Certainly", and finished his remarks within record time, and then opened the floor to questions all in a span of a minute or two later.
The other reporters standing with me had mixed reactions: those on deadline were relieved and whispered their thanks later, as we filed down the steps and out onto the street.
I got my clips and a story too, and the Dalai Lama's quotes on his morning meeting with the Pope. And I too, raced back to the Foreign Press building to file my stories.
Later, I would dub this day a life-changing experience: it would be remembered as The Day I Interrupted the Dalai Lama.
And to this day, in 2008, whenever I run into my old friend Peter Leo, that's what he remembers, too.
Labels: CBC, Dalai Lama, Peter Leo, Pope John Paul, Rome, Vatican