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For one journalist, nearly four decades of covering popes

Pope Francis sang "Happy Birthday" to Valentina Alazraki,

Pope Francis sang "Happy Birthday" to Valentina Alazraki, who works for Noticieros Televisa in Mexico, in January 2015 while on the media plane. Credit: Valentina Alazraki

SANTIAGO, CUBA -- It's not many journalists who have a pope bring them a birthday cake and sing them "Happy Birthday" -- on the papal plane no less.

But it happened to Valentina Alazraki, the "dean of the Vatican press corps."

Alazraki has been covering the Vatican since 1978, and went on 100 papal flights with Pope John Paul II alone. She made all 23 of Pope Benedict XVI's trips and has been aboard all 10 of Pope Francis' journeys.

The only time she missed any flights with John Paul II was when she gave birth to her two daughters.

Alazraki, the Vatican correspondent for the Mexican television station Televisa, has gotten to know the popes so well she was called as a witness by the Vatican during the beatification process for John Paul II, whom she covered for 26 years. She underwent four hours of questions for two straight mornings, responding to 120 questions.

Last January, on the way back from the Philippines, Pope Francis stunned her when he came to the back of the plane where journalists sit and presented her with a birthday cake. He even led the press corps in singing "Happy Birthday" for her 60th.

Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, wasn't particularly friendly with the press corps -- he hardly ever granted interviews, Vatican journalists say. But Alazraki, as dean of the corps, gave Francis a welcome speech aboard the papal plane on his first trip that helped win him over.

Now he gives news conferences on board that go on for more than an hour.

Alazraki says she can't possibly pick her most memorable papal trip, but some stand out -- John Paul II's first trip to Mexico in 1979 and to Cuba in 1998 (Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez sat in the front row for that one). She also accompanied John Paul II on his first papal trip to Poland, in June 1979, a decade before the fall of communism.

This week's trip by Francis is also high up, she said. "There were a lot of trips you had the feeling you were living history," she said in Spanish.

On pope's plane, there's a dress code

Dress sharp or you might have a problem on the pope's plane -- that was the friendly but serious message Vatican officials gave to reporters and other media members who are traveling on the aircraft.

Men should be in suit and tie, preferably dark colors. Likewise for women's dresses. And of course, one's conduct must be professional and polite.

While there is some flexibility to the dress code -- men might be able to remove their jackets in the sweltering Cuban heat during outdoor Masses, for instance -- the Vatican certainly does not want any sloppy press members, out of respect for the pope.

Failure to meet the dress or behavior code could result in exclusion from papal events, according to the Vatican media guide.

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