When in Rome
What do the Romans actually do?
Italy and Great Britain: two households, both alike in dignity, one officially better at football. Yet what else separates these two most ancient of star-crossed lovers? If the great cultural apex This Morning has taught us one thing, it is that Italian and British culture are misaligned – the land of Shakespeare, in which Italy is effectively a British cultural outpost, was either fictitious or has ceased to exist. And, having spent the last six weeks ‘on the ground’ in Northern Italy, (unfinanced by The Saint, I might add — bloody free circulation), I can tell you that differences run far deeper than the oft-quoted Gino d’Acampo carbonara debate. So, eat your heart out Rick Stein, I enclose a definitive – and completely unverified – guide to navigating Italian life. Disclaimer: claims of generalisation and/or inaccuracy will land about as successfully as England’s infamous penalty kicks.
Allora, we begin our cultural survey in la mattina, by which time the discerning observer will already have noted some key differences. Fife-side, the sleepy students of St Andrews, bless them, are sipping solemnly on their morning latte/Americano/London fog, the sweet aftertaste of almond milk and vanilla syrup still fresh on their wind-battered lips. Bleary-eyed, MacBook in hand, they make their way to morning tutorials: a muted but strangely comforting ritual. The Italians, meanwhile, understand there’s only one way to enact la dolce vita: forget Scotland’s ban on buying alcohol pre-10am, they fuel their mattina as they mean to go on, with copious volumes of Aperol Spritz and cigarettes. In fact, come mid-morning, a swiftly downed shot of caffè is but a blurred memory – as is, I suspect, the contents of their 8.30 lecture, given the Veneto region churns out Aperols at just €2.50 a pop for students. No swaying bodies here, though; proceedings remain as debonair as the films suggest.
Speaking of which, the Italians may seem lax when it comes to aperitifs but the same cannot be said for appearances. Forget the sloppy grey trackies and North Face puffer, Italians don leather jackets and fitted jeans. In fact, so committed are they to la moda, that factors as banal as the weather forecast don’t get a look in. It may be 26 degrees, but it is also October; several, (ideally monochrome, tailored, and expensive), layers are therefore imperative. Then again, perhaps our cultures are not so different in this regard: the Great-British insistence on donning shorts and swimsuits at any feasible opportunity is, after all, something of a national sport. Whether our approach is quite as conducive to George Clooney-esque sophistication, I will allow the reader to decide.
Back to the shores of Bonny Scotland: it’s lunchtime, and a battle of which Caesar himself would be proud is getting underway. That’s right, it’s Meal Deal o’clock, and you better get those elbows moving if you fancy anything other than a prawn mayo. A scene of similar ardour is being enacted in chains up and down the street; from Greggs to Pret a Manger, students go mad for pre-packaged, ready-to-eat fare. In fairness, say what you will about British gastronomy, we know what we’re doing when it comes to sarnies. A sad moment indeed, then, when my inaugural tramezzino was delivered – wait for it – without crusts. Whether this was devised as a snarky comeback to our butchering of Italian classics, (sorry, Gino), or whether Italian elders neglected to pass on the message that crusts make you big and strong, I’m afraid I couldn’t say. Either way, I will admit to feeling rather blue as I nibbled away at my inexplicably unvariegated snack.
What I was yet to discover, however, was that I’d been doing lunch the wrong way all along. Why pick up a slightly soggy sandwich of dubious ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ status, when you could join the Italians in picking up freshly made, often ‘0km’ pasta, cicchetti or insalatone? Sure, the supermarket offerings don’t add up to much, but affordable and delicious food is as abundant here as Aperol Spritz.
In fact, forget your student-budget blues: the most rudimentary sweep of the daily markets confirms that this is a home cook’s paradise. It is one of life’s great ironies that, while students of St Andrews scour supermarket shelves for yellow-stickered pasta bakes, Italians peruse open-air stalls for fairly priced meats, greens, grains and cheeses. Forgive the tourist in me, but the most affordable of ingredients are made exciting in the surrounding bustle. Not for the Italians a life fuelled by penne, spaghetti and own-brand tortellini; a veritable cornucopia of formati lie at your disposal, from the modest farfalle to the outlandish cavatappi or orecchiette. Even rice is delivered with flair, being sold in mixes of countless herbs and spices. I guess their gastronomic snobbery is warranted after all.
With lunch done and dusted, I shall turn my attention to the daily bustle of the piazzas, where – spoiler – one witnesses a rather different scene to that of the three streets. This is the nation that invented romance, after all; us prudish Brits stick out like a sore thumb. Remember that opening scene in Love, Actually, where we’re meant to get all weepy because relatives are showing each other a degree of physical affection? Well, apply that to the populace of Northern Italy and you get an idea. Not only are so-called ‘Public Displays of Affection’ exchanged with as much frequency as handshakes, (or, in the case of Britain, steely glances); chocolate bars and crisp packets jostle for space against condoms and vibrators in vending machines. So affectionate are the Italians, that even supermarkets bear the marks of l’amore: shopping baskets are specially constructed with canine seating areas, lest the little darlings feel left out. It’s a culture that I’d like to get on board with – whether any length of stay here could rid me of my stiff upper lip remains to be seen.
As the day comes to a close, one must enjoy la sera, in which the Italians unquestionably take the biscotto. Given that most caffès here are licensed, the setting sun transforms town piazzas into veritable thoroughfares. While British children are hurried to bed at the earliest opportunity, it’s not uncommon to see bambini into the late hours; people of all ages gather outside over an aperitivo or a bottle of wine, (the children, hopefully, on something rather lighter). Admittedly, they have got the weather on their side; pub culture during the (depressingly short-lived) Great British summertime is not too shabby, after all. Either way, we certainly have one thing in common: while the students of St Andrews make their late-night pilgrimages to Janetta’s, be sure to know that Italians are doing the same. In fact, several gelato establishments remain open past midnight.
The conclusion of my investigation? Italians live as the Brits wish we could: their uninhibited affections, culinary skill, and ability to day drink without losing a shred of dignity in the process, are all characteristics that we have tried – and, I’m afraid – failed to emulate. I suggest we stop trying to do as the Romans do, choosing instead to embrace the idiosyncrasies of Great British culture. Our language skills may be feeble and our tastes off key, but I stand by the value of a cappuccino in the afternoon and — yes — a dash of ham in my macaroni cheese. The main difference between Italian and British culture? Italians are unashamedly authentic; we should shamelessly strive towards the same.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew