14 AUGUST 2004, Page 46

Vox pop

Petronella Wyatt

Porto Ercole T was sitting having lunch the other day in

my hotel in Italy. We were on the terrace looking out at the sea. The sirocco was blowing, creating a hazy veil of clouds. Idly, I watched the sky, taking a sip of my Pinot Grigio. Then suddenly I was aware of one of my Italian friends talking.

'They say we all have to leave before the 15th August or they'll start dropping bombs,' she said. 'What?' I asked stupidly. 'You mean we have to leave the hotel by the 15th. But the bill's already paid up to the 17th.' She snorted with laughter. 'No, no. I was talking about the foreign troops in Iraq. They are supposed to leave by the 15th of August or Italy will be under threat.'

I had hoped to escape the War on Terror in Italy, yet the newspapers here have even abandoned sex scandals. Mention of Sven is greeted with 'who?' (A piece of gratuitous gossip: Sven used to come to my hotel with a Roman blonde, According to the barman, the Swede drank virtually the whole year's whisky supply.) Anyhow, every day there is a new scare story about how this or that Italian landmark is going to be destroyed. Given Italy's history, I was surprised that everyone was taking the mad Muslims so seriously. 'But you lot are used to murder and violence,' I protested to another Italian friend. 'What about the Mafia and the Red Brigade?'

'But that's different,' he replied. 'That's internal terrorism. We don't like it but it's something we've always lived with.'

This aforesaid friend had done something that I would never have done in a million years. I would rather walk into a crowded mosque and shout 'Up yours, Allah!' It all began when he decided to buy a boat. A very reputable person found one in the south of Italy. My friend met the owners but then discovered that they didn't own the boat at all. It was stolen. The company that did own it then turned up and started a hullabaloo. The whole thing escalated into a Mafia-type operation. My friend thought of his wife and children, but he stood up to the bad guys. He has the boat. Even more miraculously, he has all his limbs.

How can Italians do that sort of thing and yet fall apart over Arab terrorism? Because the terrorism is Arab, not Italian. Berlusconi, according to most people here, is at a complete loss. He has issued no instructions as to what to do in the event of an attack. He has no plans at all — apart from those for the Blairs' family holiday. Or perhaps he intends to protect the Vatican from missiles by asking Pavarotti to stand in front of it. He says he has 'everything figured out', but no one believes him. The war has made the Italian premier even more unpopular than it has our prime minister. Almost 70 per cent are against it. As I write this piece in the hotel lobby, Italian after Italian passes by and, on hearing that I am writing a column, says, 'Please attack Berlusconi.' So far I have had six interruptions. Hurrah! Never before have I been approached by so many men in such a brief period.

Six men would be a very good figure for a supermodel as Italian resorts are virtually deserted this year. Someone has just interrupted again and asked me to say 'something nasty about the euro'. The euro has not been the glorious thing of which Italians dreamed. Prices are higher every summer, A quarter of the shops in the local marina have had to close down. 'It's unbelievable,' says my seventh man.

Rome, in an unprecedented move, has kept its shops open during August. The city, usually empty save for tourists at this time of year, is full of Italians who cannot afford to leave for a holiday. My hotel is full of the sound of plummy English voices (apart from my seven Italians).

I like writing an article in this fashion. I hardly have to think of anything to say. Here comes someone else. Blast. He wants to use the Internet. 'Flow long are you going to be?' he asks. He is English. I can tell by his ludicrous shorts. 'I don't know,' I reply. He flounces over to the sofa. For a moment I feel it is a pity that the pound is so strong.

One learns more from talking to people in a hotel than from interviewing a head of state and all his ministers. Usually, Germans make up 10 per cent of the guests, but there have been very few around this summer. Naturally, this is irrefutable proof that the German economy is in crisis — whatever some politicians would have us believe.

The first man is back again. 'Didn't you say that you are doing this for The Spectator?'


'But I've heard it's a Conservative paper. How can you be against the war?'

An explanation is attempted. It's not compulsory for a) a Conservative supporter or b) a conservative with a small 'c' to support wars that are plainly wrong. He seems satisfied.

'I wish people were like that in Italy,' he sighs. 'But Berlusconi controls too much.'

The boy on the sofa is still here. I tell him I am just about to print out what I have typed. Halfway through, the computer gives up. The Italians at the desk shriek with concern, but they can't make it work. Fortunately, some things in Italy never change.