The four-story palazzo in central Rome would become infamous in 2007 when it emerged as one of the prime locations for Silvio Berlusconi’s over-the-top parties with young women, hangers-on and at least one professed high-priced prostitute who took photographs and secretly recorded conversations with the 70-something Prime Minister.

But four years earlier, I found myself at that same private residence, Palazzo Grazioli, to interview Berlusconi — over lunch. I was working on a story for TIME on how he’d dropped badly in the polls ahead of European elections, but my host was rather buoyant after having just wrapped up playing host to his ally and self-declared “friend” President George W. Bush, who had been on a three-day visit to Rome. Berlusconi began the hour-long lunch of pasta al pomodoro and Super Tuscan wine by showing me the gift Bush had given to him: sheet music for classic American standards. Berlusconi even hummed a few bars of “Ol’ Man River.” That detail would make it into the magazine story. Dessert would not. (See photos of Silvio Berlusconi and the politics of sex.)

We closed our simple but intimate meal with some delicious homemade pistachio ice cream before the waiter served a large porcelain bowl filled with fresh cherries. The Prime Minister politely offered some to his guest and three staffers, one by one. All politely refused. So Berlusconi started on the cherries himself, peeking into the bowl like an emperor to pluck out the choicest of the crop. With the search for each new cherry, he pulled the bowl closer and closer until his left arm was all but wrapped around it. Even back then, the scene struck me as the perfect vision of some not-quite-holy Roman indulgence.

That day at Palazzo Grazioli is just one of the memories I find flooding back now that his reign is over. Is it really over? For those of us whose stake in Italy extends beyond a week’s holiday in Capri or someone’s favorite hunk of Parmigiano, we’re all still rubbing our eyes and asking if Berlusconi is truly, finally out of our lives.

To help you make some sense of my personal Italian drama, it’s best that I jump back to where it all began. I married into modern Italy in January 1998, just six months after meeting Monica, a Rome native, when we were both living in Northern California. There was clearly much still to be discovered about our respective backgrounds, our different countries. When we decided to begin our life together back in her native city, I knew I’d be doing some fast learning indeed. My famiglia Italiana, in the strict sense, was bound to be a beautiful thing. But there was that would-be member of the extended Italian family settling in down at Palazzo Grazioli. And Berlusconi was destined, for the next decade, to be around every corner, to come up in every conversation, appear on every channel. He was going to enter our lives, get into our heads, shape the future that awaits our children. (See whether Mario Monti can save Italy.)

For the much smaller family of foreign correspondents in Rome, he was also going to provide some great copy. Even before it descended into leadership-by-orgy, the Berlusconi reign featured a steady diet of scandal and surprises and pure star power. There were his fights against corruption charges, his control of Italy’s private television network, his near monthly foot-in-la-bocca episodes as well as a constant, more subtle eroding of civility and faith in the nation’s elected leaders.

He didn’t invent Italy’s penchant for explaining away conflicts of interest; he was hardly alone in Rome in seeing public service as private enterprise by other means; but it was Berlusconi who defined and dominated an era when bad national habits got worse, a fat national debt got fatter, and the most beautiful parts of Italy were also looking disturbingly backward, while other parts of the world were full steam ahead.

Still, even as Monica was expecting our second child in the summer of 2003, Berlusconi was providing a net plus for my own professional project. He had just let loose the first in a series of the “Mamma of All Gaffes,” comparing a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi prison guard; and I would score my first interview. I had wound up in the Rome bureau just as Italy had found its first internationally newsworthy politician since Mussolini — and who wasn’t a Pope.

For that first interview, there would be no lunch, no cherries, as we spoke at the official Prime Minister’s office at Palazzo Chigi. Beyond what he said that afternoon to defend his record and promises he made to “try to become [a] boring” politician, what I remember most was the sofa. As we were about to sit down, he realized that the long antique sofa where he was meant to sit was resting flush up against the wall. Not wanting to chip the white paint or scratch the sofa, he walked straight over to one end and then the other to lift the massive piece of furniture away from the wall. It was a glimpse of the uomo del fare (man of action) that had seduced even some people on the political left back when he entered politics in 1994. (See the top 10 Berlusconi gaffes.)

All Italians, Berlusconi supporters and opponents alike, should pause for a moment now to ask what they did or didn’t do to contribute to this poisonous political longevity. His sticking around, his omnipresence, was the worst of all sins. And we should all share the blame. Life in Italy can be uniquely beautiful and Italians still have a vibrant instinct for creativity and, what may surprise many foreigners, a prodigious work ethic. The problem, particularly in public life, is that those powers of imagination and 12-hour workdays are often devoted to keeping things miraculously stuck in place. That is in part how Italy ended up with him for 18 years. My own mea culpa is easy: I secretly enjoyed covering him a bit too much, for a bit too long. I suspect a lot of journalists did.

But Monica and I moved on to Paris for work. And from a distance, I had a sinking feeling that Italy isn’t a great place these days for our two Italian kids to grow up. By the end, these past three or four years, I just wanted him to go away as fast as possible — and he could take the opposition along for the ride. It’s how I felt as a father, and as a reporter too. He wasn’t fun to cover anymore either.

And so the news of the end came to me, at 9:56 p.m. Europe time, sent from Rome by a member of my extended Italian family, Zio Jacopo. His matter-of-fact text message put it simply: “It’s done. He resigned.” And this American father of two Roman kids didn’t hesitate with a two-word reply: “Viva l’Italia!”

Fonte: Revista Time, edição online de 15 de novembro de 2011.,8599,2099453,00.html