Flat Earth

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The Independent Online
Travel sickness

America is the last nation on earth that needs to worry about its popularity abroad, but an awful lot of Americans do. I can't say whether the fact that so few of them have passports is a cause or an effect, but I do wonder sometimes about the people who are paid to deal with the Great Unknown out there - the State Department.

"Travel advisories" issued by the US diplomatic service are taken with great seriousness by those of its citizens who pluck up the nerve to go overseas. Most are pretty obvious - it would not be a good idea to go to Iraq or Egypt at the moment, for example. But last week the State Department notched up a first for American isolationism - a global advisory. In view of killings in Pakistan, Egypt, and potential war over Iraq, it said, Americans would do better not going anywhere.

What? Was some bearded fanatic going to spring at them in Zurich? Were anti-American pogroms suddenly about to engulf Canberra or Toronto? Would holidaying dentists from Tuscaloosa be risking their necks on the mean streets of Copenhagen? For all I know this has something to do with the country's celebrated litigiousness, and any American who has a wallet lifted on the Tube is entitled to sue Washington for not warning him of the existence of pickpockets in London.

Whatever the answer, the advisory expires on 18 December, in time for Christmas. If you are reading this in the US, let me urge you to come over. You'll be welcome, honestly, and we promise not to burn any of you at the stake.

Balkan beano

While Americans just want to be loved, the Italians, I always thought, were dying to be taken seriously. They yearned to shake off the comedy- team image of their ever-changing governments; worked hard to qualify for Maastricht, EMU, that sort of thing. Well, now it turns out the common wisdom is all wrong. The countries whose approval Italy really craves are not France and Germany, but rather the likes of Romania, Bosnia and Albania.

What makes me say this? A couple of weeks ago, Greece hosted the very first Balkan summit in Crete, attended by a whole fruit salad of fragmented, fractious regional leaders. By all accounts they had a good time. So good, in fact, that the Italians are now indignant that they weren't invited.

My sources say the Italian foreign ministry is actually jealous that it couldn't be there to see Serbs talking to Albanians and Turks talking to Greeks (and, presumably, to take some of the credit). "After all, we are the nearest big power and the one historically most interested in the region," the diplomats in Rome are saying. So does Italy wish it too was part of the Balkans? Maybe someone could tell us.

Bad for Bambi

O Tempora! O Mores! department: Bettie Phillips told a court in Virginia she saw nothing wrong with piercing a deer's ears, saying: "I thought it would be pretty. You can get a little kid's ears pierced. What's the difference?"

The hapless two-month-old deer had to be treated with antibiotics for infected ears before being released into the wild. Mrs Phillips and her daughter were fined for trying to improve upon nature.