As the holidays draw to a close, Italian newspapers have been reporting with perplexity and distaste on the outlandish behaviour of foreign tourists in Italy, by which they mean young people from northern European countries. One report told of a couple making love in broad daylight on a bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice, the Ponte degli Scalzi (which, as a commentator pointed out, means ‘Bridge of the Barefooted’, not ‘Bridge of the Bare-bottomed’). Other reports talked of people sunbathing naked in public places or picnicking in large groups under the colonnades in St Mark’s Square. Venice suffered most from these excesses, but nowhere was immune. Florence and Rome were also invaded by drunk and rowdy foreigners, who camped in the squares and used the fountains as bathing pools. Why were they doing it, asked one newspaper? This kind of thing wouldn’t happen in Paris or London.
Well, actually, it would, if the weather was hot enough. But Italians have a curious faith in the orderliness and civility of life in northern Europe, especially in Britain, and an unshakably low opinion of the way their own society is ordered. It is not that they are not patriotic. They believe with equal fervour that theirs is the most beautiful and desirable country in the world. But most of them have nothing but contempt for the way in which it is governed.
This gives them an inferiority complex that manages to survive even the annual summer invasion of barbarians from the north. The Corriere della Sera complained of their ‘lack of respect’, but still managed to lay part of the blame for this on the Italians themselves. The tourists would see the huge illegal rubbish tips defacing much of the south of the country and so wouldn’t see why they shouldn’t throw rubbish, too. They would experience the squalid conditions on so many local trains and so wouldn’t see why they shouldn’t wipe their feet on the seats. Even the mayhem at the taxi rank outside Rome’s main railway station, with drivers shouting orders and imposing mysterious rules without any form of control, would be an invitation to bad behaviour.
But the Corriere, Italy’s most influential newspaper, also found other less self-deprecatory reasons for it all. Italy, it said, was a ‘fascinating, colourful, exciting’ country. It was for many foreigners a place in which to live differently, to experience new sensations and succumb to temptations. ‘Foreign tourists come here because, for two or three weeks a year, they feel freer,’ it said. ‘We are what they would like to be, at least sometimes, but usually don’t dare.’
It found this explanation more appealing than the idea that Italians were looked down upon and deemed unworthy of respect, but it still couldn’t quite convince itself that they weren’t. It said that most of the reporting of Italy in the foreign media portrayed it as a country plagued by crime, corruption, disorder and squalor. No wonder that foreigners didn’t see any reason to behave civilly.
However, neither explanation seems to me convincing. There is a great deal wrong with Italy, and you still encounter much aggression on the roads (as you do, for that matter, in Britain); but in general Italians are no more offensive and disorderly than people anywhere else in Europe. In some ways they seem less so. Drunkenness, at least in public, is very rare; and foreign visitors to Italy are usually struck by the warmth and civility they encounter. Certainly things are more orderly than they used to be, and in some ways this is a pity. Parking and speeding restrictions are enforced with the same vigour as in northern Europe; you can’t smoke anywhere; and the old free-for-all, happy-go-lucky atmosphere is a thing of the past. Italians are as cowed and downtrodden by officialdom as the rest of us. Yet they continue to regard themselves as lacking the discipline and self-control of their neighbours to the north.
This delusion is gratifying to northern visitors and bolsters their feelings of superiority. But Italians ought to recognise that it is not they but we who should be embarrassed. Those who make love in public on Venetian bridges are not people seduced by the romance of Italy or intoxicated by its sense of freedom but just revolting northern yobs.