8 NOVEMBER 2008, Page 21

I don’t miss Italy. The dolce vita is a myth

Lisa Hilton looks back on three years exile in Milan and rejoices in the bounty of Waitrose and a postal service that is at least halfway efficient. Italy at its best is a hologram Mention to most people that you have recently quit Italy for London and you become an instant object of sympathy. ‘Oh, poor you,’ they coo, ‘don’t you mind?’ Cue effusions about that darling trattoria in Lucca, those hidden della Francescas in Arezzo and enthusiastic reiterations of the word ‘bella’ as last seen in Gregory’s Girl. Anyone I speak to is anxious to impress with the authenticity of their Italy, their cognoscento’s rejection of Chiantishire for that enchanting, mythical country where the logge are eternally dappled in sunshine and dusky peasant girls roll out exquisite ravioli on mediaeval doorsteps. I can hardly bear to disabuse them, but after three years in Milan I feel obliged to inform that the dolce vita is looking about as convincing these days as Signor Berlusconi’s comb-over. Whenever I see another droolingly aspirational magazine spread about the latest perfect little corner of the bel paese I have an overpowering urge to shove it where the Tuscan sun doesn’t shine.

I’m not mourning my exile from the land of blossoming mercati and natty little espadrilles. I rejoice in the bounty of Waitrose, the fact that I can go to the bank at lunchtime and the thrill of buying a stamp in a post office. Italy at its best is a hologram, best saved for the annual fortnight in the Umbrian villa, because actually living there is rubbish. Even if you’re not in Naples.

For example, we received our Christmas cards in March. Apparently I was the only person who minded living without a postal service, as my attempts to complain to the concierge, my in-laws, anyone who would listen, were met with a resigned shrug and ‘E così’ (That’s how it is). Ditto politics, corrupt to the point where absolutely no one understands them, public services, or the casually appalling racism which frequently had me choking on my cappuccino. Italian television is unwatchable; either gameshows crammed with vacant showgirls in g-strings who subsequently turn up in the government or someone shouting at Alessandra Mussolini, while Italian journalism is so blind, pompous and witless as to render it unreadable. Apart from political commentaries on how there’s nothing to be done about corruption, the newspapers contain only badly translated and outdated articles lifted from the Anglo press.

And the food? I like a nice risotto as much as the next Italophile, but the only spice available at my local grocery was a violent yellow powder labelled ‘Il curry’. Elizabeth David may have brought Mediterranean cooking to the British, but as far as ethnic food goes, in Italy it’s still 1953. The Milanese, who consider themselves the arbiters of elegance to the rest of the world, still get painfully worked up about sushi. Anyway, most Italians only dine al fresco twice a year because they’re afraid of the weather. In this healthiest of nations, the national malaise is hypochondria. Joining a gym required two doctor’s certificates (i.e. a week of queuing) and my daughter’s nursery almost reported me to social services when I confessed to not Spectator_8-11-08RN122x125Uk-WS owning an electric thermometer. What makes it all the more painful is that the Italians themselves seem so determined to ignore all that is wonderful about their country. This is the nation that invented nearly everything civilised, from the sonnet to Nutella, yet Giacomo the Stripper rampages through the countryside tearing off baroque stucco to reveal banal brick, as the tourists expect it, and no one can go to La Scala because some of the finest musicians in the world are still being paid in panini. Why acknowledge the most glorious cultural heritage on the planet when you can be a slavering drone lapping up the dregs of an Americana that even the benighted Brits despise? Sitting in Cova, the exquisite 18th-century coffeehouse once patronised by Verdi, my friend stirred her macchiato wistfully and confessed that she was dying to try Starbucks.

If you want to get a look at l’Italia autentica, read Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, which captures a brutal, primitive southern culture that still pertains today, as documented by Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah. Or Aldo Cazzullo’s Outlet Italia, which reveals how the piazza, the once-proud meeting place of nascent democracy, has been emptied because the obese, telefonino-obsessed inhabitants of the graceful provinces are spending their Sundays in industrial sheds buying knock-off Abercrombie & Fitch. The car-choked north wheezes through the

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worst smog in Europe, while the south is literally toxic. And no one cares. E così.