Behind The Walls: What It's Like To Live Inside The Vatican, For A Woman

No place like home
No place like home
Alina Mrowińska

VATICAN CITY - There are exactly 13 families living in Vatican City. It’s a small group indeed, as just a few of the employees of the Holy See have a right to live “behind the walls.”

Among those who have access to the apartments in Vatican territory are select members of papal Swiss Guard, the chief gardener of Vatican City, who lives with his wife and children in a small house around the gardens, as well as the Holy See's head electrician and his family. One of the electrician's daughters, it turns out, just got married, and thus lost her right to live in Vatican City.

Only half of the less than 1000 residents of Vatican City (the world's smallest city-state) have citizenship: mainly members of the Church's diplomatic corps or papal nuncio. The others hold temporary residential rights to live on Vatican land.

Vatican City panorama (Marcus Winter)

We spoke with Magdalena Wolinska-Riedi, the Polish wife of a Swiss Guard. She is a Polish-Italian and Polish-Latin translator, working mainly for the Vatican legal entities, the Sacred Roman Rota and Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. She also works on some projects for Polish TV.

What follows is the portrait she paints of life in one of the world's most protected addresses, about to again face the glare of the global media as the Church begins the process of choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI:

Village life

Living in Vatican City, a small community is probably the same as living in a little village. One difference is the security, with everybody observed, every corner monitored, gendarmerie at the gates. They watch when you come and go.

Ten years ago, there were two women from South America, three from Switzerland, a few Italians and two from Poland (native country of Pope John Paul II). Now, there are mainly Italians.

The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci once said that Vatican City is a “male terrarium.” Some of the prelates probably wonder why there are these families of the guardsmen circulating about. Here, women barely exist -- and certainly play no significant role. Not so long ago, women couldn’t open their own bank account in Vatican City.

Still, the few women who do live here say they feel neither humiliated nor ignored, and they understand centuries-old traditions. Pope Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, always made a point of highlighting women’s value. Benedict had a female assistant (even before he became a Pope), named Ingrid Stampa, who edited all of his speeches, articles and books. She is still his confidential advisor.


There are about 30 women who have Vatican City citizenship, including a military officer, a science teacher at a Roman high school, a kindergarten teacher, and an academic. Once a month they go out together to a restaurant in Rome, some make candles and wreathes during the period of Advent and decorate Easter eggs.

They go to church for a mass not only on Sundays but also on other liturgic festivals. All of the masses in Swiss Guard chapel are celebrated in four languages: Latin, Italian, German and French.

Divorces are not common. There was one divorce couple of years ago, after the wife of one guardsmen had an affair with another. All had to leave Vatican City. There was also the well-known case in 1998 when a young Swiss Guard killed the unit commander Alois Estermann and his Venezuelan wife, Gladys Meza Romero, before committing suicide. The Vatican offered little information about the case, which has been the source of speculation about espionage and a love triangle.

Gynecologists and Armani

Health service is provided by 63 specialists, including a gynecologist and access to a top Roman maternity clinic. Within Vatican City limits, there aren't necessarily all the available services, but a Rome kindergarten nearby serves all Vatican children, while the Swiss Guards can send their kids to a school affiliated with Switzerland's Embassy.

Women obtain citizenship automatically after getting married, but for all it lasts only for the duration of their stay.

Residents of Vatican City have access to use furniture from a Vatican warehouse that includes some objects that deceased Popes and cardinals once used. There are no taxes, and residents have access to duty-free shopping, including luxury brands like Prada, Valentino or Armani. Most residents go shopping “abroad” to Rome as well since food is very expensive in Vatican City.

There are no beauty specialists or hairdressers, but there is a gym and a fitness coach. A gas station is much cheaper than those in Rome.

Gates and curfews

Still, life inside the walls has its drawbacks. Residents must get home before midnight because all the gates are closed. If someone arrives later, one must call the intercom and guardsmen take their names. Likewise, if someone invites guests, they generally have to leave before midnight as well.

There is a widely accepted code of dressing, where uncovered knees and arms and low necklines are frowned upon. Of course, women who live inside the Vatican are allowed to walk in a short dress in Rome, but would have to change before coming back home.

To be clear, wives of Vatican City’s staff who live in Rome wear what they want. For those inside the Vatican walls, only one’s parents and siblings can visit and spend the night -- cousins and friends cannot. Some women would love to have a possibility to sunbathe on their own balcony, but it is not allowed.

Swiss Guards (Annesov)

To marry a guardsmen, you must be a baptized Catholic -- and a regular church-goer. You also need to have confirmation from a bishop of corresponding diocese and a certificate of conduct from a parish priest. Also, a certificate of good behavior is needed. When all the papers are ready, they need to be handed into a Vatican’s office.

Generally speaking, a woman living in Vatican City can feel happy and secure, if at times a bit lonely in this “man's world.” But it's not eternal: when a guardsman turns 40, he must retire; and that means he has to move out from Vatican City with his family. Back to "real life," outside the walls.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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