For a few years before coming to Italy, I lived in Paris and I cannot tell you the life-enhancing difference I felt as I crossed the frontier from France into Italy in my metallic burgundy Honda Prelude.
On arrival at the Italian motorway toll that stifling summer of 1998, I discovered I had no money and that the sun had melted my bank card which I had left on the dashboard. The charming young woman on the toll-gate simply gave me a form to fill in and waved me through with a smile. Isn’t this how we should run the world?
I remember once being stopped by two Italian police patrol cars in the dead of night when well over the limit. Instead of them breathalysing me, we started to have a discussion about the Mussolini biography I had written. ‘Mussolini was a very misunderstood man,’ I assured the Italian police. ‘Hitler gave him such a bad press.’ ‘Molto bravo, Farrell. Just write the truth about Il Duce, OK?’ the maresciallo said as he sent me on my way.
The French, on the other hand, take a sadistic pleasure in denying people a conversation, let alone a solution. I remember Paris only for the cold indifference of Parisians to others, and their inability to smile.
In preferring the Italians to the French I am not alone. The great French novelist Stendhal detested his fellow countrymen but adored Italians, and spent much of his adult life in Italy trying to explain why. With the exception of Napoleon, in whose army he had served and whom he idolised, Stendhal felt that his fellow countrymen were bigoted, frigid, artificial, insincere, arrogant, money-grubbing, cynical and vulgar.
The French ‘never sin out of love or hate’, he wrote, but only for personal gain. The Italians are frank, natural and uninhibited, and thus sincerely passionate — as are their sins. Whereas the French had bridled passion long ago, the Italians remained ruled by it, even to the point of madness.
I have been in Italy now for 20 years and have six small children whose mother is Italian. If I had not been barred from voting in the UK’s Brexit referendum by the 15 years abroad rule, I would unquestionably have voted Leave because I love Europe but detest the EU. I have no wish to become an Italian. I do not feel Italian, never will. But nor do I feel European.
I am an exile, not in France, thank God — but in Italy. Obviously, I prefer the Italians to the tunnel-vision Germans and increasingly, too, even to the smug British. But above all, I prefer them to the French.
The Italians are just far less uptight, arrogant, condescending and negative. And they are far more fun. Yes, Italy is a byword for dishonesty and deceit, and after two decades here I know all about how that pans out.
But incredible as it may seem, I would trust an Italian more than I would a Frenchman. I would go further. I would rather be in a first world war trench with an Italian than a Frenchman as we go over the top.
The French may be technically and rationally right on everything under the sun. But the Italians are emotionally right, which is priceless. That is why they smile at strangers; and it is that smile that gave us the Renaissance.