European Diary

Classifying Italy

The neighbor’s house sported a prato inglese that required ostentatious watering at the crack of dawn, and by the reassuring suppleness of the English lawn beneath our feet we all knew that our host was a gentleman, not some television mogul from Cinecittà out of Rome whom, of a morning, one would be embarrassed to see on the beach in an argument with a Ukrainian girl in tears over a broken promise.  No, this was Sabaudia, where Count Volpi di Misurata let me have his summer house for a couple of weeks, and there I was, a foreign body, a foreign nobody really, at the house of the neighbor I had not met, at a party where the lawn was pure William Wordsworth and the drinks plentiful, though not so plentiful, of course, as to cast a vulgar shadow of American-style bonhomie on the host’s reputation as a gentleman.

A girl I chatted up seemed susceptible enough, and nearly ten years on I remember my peroration.  I had asked her if she’d ever tasted cucumbers with honey.  Then it started.  “What is it with you Italians,” I said.  “Why are you always so proper when it comes to social expression?  Why is your friendly banter a Russian’s idea of what goes on in a mortuary?  Why is it that if I come up to an English girl and say, ‘Do you come here often?’ she will think I’m a moron, but when I come up to you and say, ‘Do you...

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