ROME — These are crazy days in Rome, where limbo reigns in parliament and papacy.
Italy is usually a pretty anarchic place, with people bucking rules on everything from crossing the street to paying taxes. But the anarchy's going a bit far: Who's running the country? Who's running the church?
For now, at least, nobody really knows.
We Romans are living truly surreal times when a bearded comedian is now one of the nation's most powerful leaders, and aging cardinals from around the world are mobbed by paparazzi as if they were Hollywood starlets.
Then there are the eerie silences in a normally raucous city.
With no ruling pope, St. Peter's Square was strangely quiet as the Vatican saw its first Sunday without a papal window blessing — a weekly appointment that will normally draw thousands of pilgrims and tourists — since 2005. With no government after inconclusive elections, downtown streets are blessedly free of the crush of lawmakers in dark blue official cars that speed through congested Rome with legislative impunity — and are one of the notorious perks of being a parliamentarian.
Since Italians recently voted in national elections, it's no surprise to see the walls of Rome still plastered with campaign posters.
But — Mamma Mia — a poster urging votes for a cardinal in the upcoming papal conclave?
That's precisely the sight that Romans are seeing near several Rome basilicas — with the campaign-style image of Africa's strongest papal contender looking up to the heavens against a slogan reading: "AT THE CONCLAVE VOTE PETER KODWO APPIAH TURKSON."
Nobody knows who's behind it, but it's widely regarded as a spoof campaign ahead of the solemn meetings in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope
Other papal posters point to Italians' cantankerous mood.
The day Benedict XVI went into retirement, the city of Rome plastered walls with posters of the pontiff thanking him for his service. "YOU WILL ALWAYS BE WITH US. THANK YOU!," the posters read.
Romans woke up the next morning to the sight of many of them torn, defaced or simply gone.
And in a time when Rome is busy filling important vacancies, it's perhaps only natural that there are gatecrashers.
Despite all the security at the Vatican as cardinals meet to organize the conclave, a prankster in bishop's garb, an impressive cross across his chest and decidedly un-clerical black sneakers, managed to sneak into the congregation of cardinals this week and mingle. Photographers snapped him shaking hands with Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the Italian prelate named to clean up the disgraced Legion of Christ order.
Yet perhaps the biggest gatecrasher of all is Beppe Grillo, who has upset the established order by riding a self-styled "tsunami" of disgust with the powers-that-be and grabbing a quarter of the parliamentary vote. Grillo has no qualms about seeming a little bit off-the-wall: He was recently photographed jogging on a beach wearing what looked like a space alien outfit.
And while Grillo gleefully insults mainstream politicians, a German governor this week referred to the comedian and scandal-plagued former Premier Silvio Berlusconi as "two clowns" — forcing visiting Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to skip lunch with him to preserve Italian pride.
For now, the cardinals are commanding the spotlight.
Each morning and afternoon, as they set out for their meetings, they are mobbed by a frightening wave of journalists staked out for hours waiting for them to appear in the narrow streets surrounding the Vatican. Even as affable a type as German Cardinal Walter Kasper took refuge behind policemen as he walked the gantlet on Monday.
One relief from the chaos appears to be lunch.
The cardinals are lining up in the Borgo, a picturesque knot of alleyways near the Vatican. Corriere delle Sera reported that Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, a Vatican heavyweight, showed up for lunch at "Il Passetto di Borgo" where his favorites include spaghetti with raw tomatoes, filet of sole and fried calamari.
Even a cardinal tied to vows of poverty, it seems, has to eat.
"In a few days, when the conclave begins, it will be goodbye to turbot and rigatoni alla Norcia," Corriere lamented — referring to a dish of short pasta with sausages and creamy tomato sauce.
It noted that the poor cardinals will soon have to settle for institutional cooking while they are sequestered during the conclave at the Santa Marta residence, the Vatican's hotel.