Friday, August 05, 2011

I Misteri d'Italia

Mr Cameron, the occluded laird who heads This Great Coalition of Ours, let us all down with his gauche refusal to tip a Tuscan waitress.

The young lady told the prime minister she was too busy to carry his cups of coffee out onto the terrace. In primary-school pique he withheld the 150,000,000 lire she might have expected to find stacked under a saucer. Perhaps she should have been grateful that he didn't scoop up the loose change left on neighbouring tables and wheelbarrow it away to keep Mr Osborne quiet.

I see little point in allowing aristocrats back into power unless they show the world how to behave. We might as well have stuck with Mr Brown, who would not only have tipped correctly with the help of a slide-rule but might even have taken the used cups back to the kitchen.

But remember where we are. This isn't Greece, where you can wander around dressed like a refugee yet still get a slap-up fish grill. This isn't Spain, where the locals have set up zones of tolerance for the English and their deep-fried ways. This is Italy, and Mr Cameron not only broke some of its most fearsome laws, but fundamentally missed the point.

Italy, like the bumblebee, shouldn't get off the ground but it does. It seems anarchic:

  • no one pays taxes;
  • the South is run by the Corleones;
  • the rest is run by a priapic TV mogul;
  • buildings look as if they were recently strafed by a vengeful Ethopian air force; and
  • post a letter and three months later Il Postino may disentangle himself from your wife long enough to piss in the pillar box then set it alight.

And yet it's an excellent place to live. Why? Because Italy is Schelling's nightmare and Germany's antithesis - instead of elemental chaos boiling beneath a crust of civility, you have a rigidly conformist society that charms the world with its raffish air. The locals work hard to bring you the illusion of languor.

Italians travel relatively little, not only because they already live in Paradise but because we clearly see their Shinto uniformity when the Bel Paese spell is broken. Remember the plug of identically-kitted language students blocking the exit of the Tube carriage, or the Knightsbridge boutiques selling a sort of silken tweed and cavalry twill only worn in Milan.

The Italians do their best to shield the tourist from the secret mechanisms of their society. You can eat and drink whenever you like, padding about their cities with your trainers, singlets and water bottles, as if you were about to enter a bumpkin marathon. They say nothing, but have already silently allocated you a status just below lunatic and a little above leper.

Other European countries also understand that first impressions are always right, but play fair by letting you know about it. A lady friend popped out in her tracksuit to buy a pint of milk on Vienna's Graben, and still winces at the memory of trudging home with matrons pointing her out to their amused but wary grandchildren.

Dress like that in Paris and a foie gras seller may ask whether you've lost your house keys while nervously beckoning to the gendarme.

The Italians have no intention of sharing their social miracle with passing trade. Let us never know that the crumbling façade conceals a polished palazzo. But once in a while a kindly Etruscan may break ranks and tactfully try to tempt the wanderer into fare bella figura.

Mr Cameron's waitress was one such Samaritan. The prime minister thought he was simply ordering a couple of cappuccinos, a milky beverage that's conquered the world but which in Italy is spooned into infants. No one takes milk in their coffee after breakfast.

Most Italian cafés will gladly churn this out for the tee-shirted barbarians, but our waitress must have taken pity on Mr Cameron. By bearing the cappuccinos to his table in the late morning she would have exposed him and the willowy Mrs Cameron as little better than Dutchmen.

By feigning preoccupation she left Mr Cameron to carry the cups himself. A strolling local would then have taken the prime minister, with his crumpled shirt and bizarre shoes, to be an anæmic Albanian beggar earning a few florins by ferrying froth to some backpackers, and thought no ill of him.

An English gentleman would have learned enough Apennine ways on his Grand Tour to have instinctively understood the waitress's selfless gesture. But she overestimated Mr Cameron, who would have done better to take Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, in particular The Roads Round Pisa, as his holiday reading rather than the usual dim volume of American social philosophy. Truly was it said that no good turn goes unpunished.

I was once lucky enough to see a chip in the lacquer, and appreciated how tartly Italians treat their errant own. I was at Bologna airport, whiling away the minutes before my flight over an espresso. A 30-something man, clearly Italian, dressed, pressed and crimped with designer shades, man-bag and tender shoes, nodded to the waitress and asked for a macchiato - an espresso with a gust of hot milk.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon.

The waitress paused. He repeated his order with a pleasant smile, but might as well have asked her to top the cup up from her own tawny teats. The rest of us pretended to read our Calvino novels, but every plucked and vaselined eyebrow was arched in his direction.

The waitress nodded, approached the coffee dragon - Claudia Cardinale's jilted and unforgiving aunt - and gave the order. The dragon cast a glance at the cheery customer, grunted and made him an espresso. She set it aside and let the waitress bustle about until the fool's flight was called. Only then did he get his coffee, with no time to collect his change.

We saw nothing. Thus does Italy guard her secrets. Silendo libertatem servo.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Some Italians work for their tips. On taking a taxi back to my hotel in Rome, I decided immediately to tip the driver heavily because of the cheeky look on his face. What fun it was to listen to him make conversation in Pidgin English while I listened quietly with a faint grin on my face. It was worth it for the reaction I got when I handed him a 10 Euro note.

No Good Boyo said...

Italian taxi drivers are all that remains of the Medieval guild system, GB. All my encounter with them have been eventually entertaining. One gave me a pithy analysis of the Italian print media, another kindly returned my 500,000,000 lira note and took the correct 50,000 out of my wallet, and my favourite managed to lock his keys in the cab as we were about to depart for the airport and gave a good impression of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermor as I called his dispatcher.

Ian Plenderleith said...

If it's true that Italians never, ever forgive an insult like this, then we can only hope that Cameron will be nervously looking over his shoulder for the rest of his days. In fact, given the state of the economies to our south, that could be the Tory Party slogan for the next election. "Britain: Nervously Looking Over Our Shoulder!"

tony said...

It Is To Hoped That Cameroon Will Soon Be Swimming With The Fishes.....

No Good Boyo said...

I suspect Italy has simply dumped him in the "gormless" category the reserve for all Englishmen apart from Michael Dibdin, Harold Acton and Lt-Gen Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart. They don't waste their world-class organised crime on such weeds.

jams o donnell said...

It is just as well he didn't take severe umbrage and decide to declare war on Italy.

It would be awful to have to stick a few guns o the Woolwich Ferry

No Good Boyo said...

He might have taken "Umbriage", eh what what?

jams o donnell said...


Francis Sedgemore said...

What a boorish oaf is our prime minister. Mr Cameron brings the country into disrepute, and for this crime against the culture he should be impeached by a specially convened House of Commons Select Committee. That'll humble him.

No Good Boyo said...

Quite, Ffransis. Our last prime minister with decent manners was Jim Callaghan. Thatch was a shrill, Major a klutz, Blair some sort of Cronenberg reject, and Brown was Byron in a Burton suit.

Sunny Jim would have asked for tea, and they'd have found him some milk too.

If you scientists weren't so busy mucking about with polar bears you'd get on with resurrecting Callaghan so he could guide our callow ministers.

Sauti Ndogo said...

Boyo, that last comment really hit the nail on the head. Sunny Jim had a head start by having been of genuinely proletarian stock.

The Queen should only appoint men as PM if they are toffs, homosexuals, Jews or proletarians. I think HM agrees with this, as she sensibly gives such men pride of place at court, but her hands are tied by democracy. One would be generous with defining those categories. Toff-dom can be acquired, as well as born to.

Cameron's lapse of manners casts doubt on his toff status. Among Emglishmen, only toffs and proles are really happy to tip. Go out to a meal with the middle classes and you can see all of them thinking at bill-time, "Don't they already get paid wages?, "Why should we pay even more?", "I don't get tipped when I do MY job".

Gareth Williams said...

I once witnessed a waiter in Venice refuse some American tourists grated parmesan because their pasta dish contained fish. After some initial bemusement, dispelled with the aid of hand gestures and much head shaking, they seemed quite satisfied. Civilisation innit?

No Good Boyo said...

Quite right about the middle-classes, Sauti. Engels was wrong, as usual, when he said they would be their own gravediggers. Like newspapers, they are always with us, but that doesn't mean we can't try to stop them.

HM The Queen does her best, but can no longer count on the squire/artisan alliance of the Disraeli Tory Party. When a semi-toff like Mr Cameron starts to ape the ways of estate-agents, we know the enemies of civilisation are not resting.

Gareth, Americans are often mocked but these fellow clearly knew their Henry James and had come to Europe for an education.

Fact: a training school for waiters near Verona issues the F graders with outsize pepper mills and packs them off to Ravenna.

Ron Combo said...

You are devastatingly accurate on the rules of dressing; less so on the milk in the coffee thang. However, Italians hardly ever tip in a restaurant - unless the waitress is a serious belter. As for tipping in a bar - unheard of. Dave was, for once, on the money.

No Good Boyo said...

Primo heads up there, Ron. I had a feeling tipping wasn't common, but are you sure about the milk? What the actual rule - if it can be revealed to non-carbonari?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Despite having had several excellent Itailain friends, I can't help nurturing a deep-seated though benign antipathy towards the Italian nation, for the reasons you so eloquently eloborate, plus a few others. Was it not Jamie Oliver who said: 'Ere, Donna Mobile, why don' yoo put the pesto wiv the prosciutto, yeah, and stop exporting crime around the world while accusing the immigrants in your country of all being criminals. Pukka. Gotta love that Joe Dolce, though.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Substitute 'vague' for 'deep-seated': I really can't quite put my finger on it, and I'm sure they don't deserve it, but I think it might have something to do with football, or opera.

No Good Boyo said...

Massed groups of Italians are usually annoying. Dayglo language students, football teams, opera casts.

Small assortments of them - fishermen, army deserters, large-breasted women in ill-buttoned floral dresses - are fine.

That's why Metternich thought it best to have lots of small Italies, rather than one big one.

Sauti Ndogo said...

Same with Germany. As someone said in 1990, if it's so good, let's have two of 'em!

And who was it who said that Englishmen only truly feel comfortable with two sorts of foreigners: Italians and Indians?

Possible party game here: which two lots of foreigners do Englishmen/Welshmen/Albanian/Bolivians/etc feel happy with?

No Good Boyo said...

I believe Mitterrand said he loved Germany so much that he wanted there to be two of them, Sauti. You are in, er, good company.

As a Welsh, there are two types of foreigners I like in particular - Welshmen from other, unfamiliar parts of Wales (the inside, for example), and Ukrainians. Where Ukrainians go, booze, crazy chicks and fire-related hi-jinx follow.

M C Ward said...

Italian culture is indeed deeply crazed. An American student I met once went to a southern beach in shorts and wondered why the whole town stopped to stare - apparently, there was a date in the year after which it was socially acceptable to bathe, and she was a couple of days early. Another brash New Yorker fell for a square-chinned Calabrian and was taken home to meet Nonna - when she asked what star sign she was and the reply came Gemini, Nonna squealed, "O Dio! Doppia faccia!"

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