Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…

Out Damn Sugar! Out I Say!

Sugar is the new evil. What a revelation! Every day there is a press article revealing some new disease, some new side-effect or some new and sinister ill that sugar has wrought. Yet who in the world could not, by now, know that sugar is not good for you, makes you fat, rots your teeth, gives you diabetes etc?

Just as everyone is aware that burgers, chips and pizza should be consumed in moderation, so we know it is the same for sugary products. Strangely, though, knowing these things is not enough. You have to care that sugar and fat are unhealthy to do anything about them, too.

Eradicating sugary and fatty foods from your life is tedious beyond belief. You have to watch others consuming slabs of cake, portions of chips, ice creams or creamy desserts whilst sipping black coffees or nibbling on a lettuce leaf. You have to sustain this regime for what seems years. You may not ever slip from a religious observance of ‘no sugar, no fat’.

It is never enough to undertake vast amounts of exercise; to run miles each day, leap around aerobically, swim, dance and lift weights. Sugar will still be bad. It will, at best, rot your teeth.

As a child I was not denied sugar, neither was I obese, although during my teens I did have so many teeth filled [with lethal amalgam consisting of, amongst other substances, mercury] I was like a walking barometer and you could almost tell when a storm was coming by staring into my open mouth. The fillings were not a result of decay. No, they were the outcome of a rush of enthusiasm by my national health dentist who was, at that time, paid handsomely for each filling he could complete, regardless of need. That this is now needing to be expensively addressed has been described in a previous post.

My mother’s problem with her very young children was not how to keep them on the straight and narrow of dietary goodness. It was how to feed us enough of anything. We were like a small clutch of baby birds reaching our beaks to the sky and squawking, ‘feed us!’

My father grew a lot of vegetables in our sprawling garden. There were hens at the end of it, obligingly providing eggs; [unlucky ones, on occasions would also provide the Sunday roast]. The odds and ends of discarded fruit from my uncle’s market greengrocer stall provided us with treats, although we were never allowed to consume a banana without an accompanying slice of bread and butter. We were always given a ‘pudding’-usually something carb-laden such as rice pudding [we fought over the toffee-like skin that clung to the sides of the dish], suet apple pudding or jam roly-poly. These starch fests were to fill us up. We were not chubby children.

So what went wrong? I can only guess at the answer, but I’d say affluence is the culprit, along with too many options, but you can’t turn the clock back, nor would you want to; so it’s back to coffee and lettuce leaves…