COLUMN

The anthill and the mortuary

Allan Fotheringham July 23 1990
COLUMN

The anthill and the mortuary

Allan Fotheringham July 23 1990

The anthill and the mortuary

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

The Europeans have their own definition of heaven and hell. Heaven, they say, is populated by French chefs, German mechanics, English policemen and Italian lovers—all organized by the Swiss. Hell, on the other hand, is filled with English chefs, French mechanics, German policemen and Swiss lovers—all organized by the Italians.

This fits in, of course, with the standard view of Italians as scrambly, disorganized, with a short attention span. The general noise and confusion attendant upon any Italian gathering, from family on up, encourages the same view. A scribbler moving on from Italy to Britain feels he has stumbled upon a tightly packed mortuary. Businessmen sit in comers of discreet hotel lounges muttering to each other in low whispers, fearful that their deadly secrets might be overheard by a stranger or a bartender.

The scribbler, after several days, tends to check his ear wax, suspicious that something has gone wrong with his hearing. There simply isn’t the volume of noise he has become accustomed to. The lack of rigatoni sauce on the tie is one thing; going deaf is something more serious.

It is all so deceptive, the change in cultures. Italy seems one constant madhouse but a foreign diplomat, a chap of some shrewdness in that he has survived both the Clark and the Mulroney regimes, makes it all understandable. He likens it all to an anthill.

We have all been perplexed, on running upon an anthill sometime in our existence. A halfgillion squirming little bodies, all seemingly scurrying hither and there, but on examination there are never any collisions and they all know, in fact, where they are going. This, explains the shrewd observer, is the key to Italian society.

A frustrated observer, arriving in an Italian bank, may grow irritated at finding no discernible system of order around a teller’s cage. It seems a brawling mob of supplicants. The frustrated observer, raised on a sense of firstcome first-served rationality in the neat Anglo-

Saxon mind, finds this all rather bananas.

Diplomat explains. Visitor may be confused. Italians are not. They know their vibrations, who should be served next, who shouldn’t. But never, he warns, delay two seconds in asserting your position. Or you are dead meat. Toast. Dust. Shy and diffident contenders—the description of your agent exactly—are trampled in the well-orchestrated stampede.

It is hard for a northern stranger to garlic and olive oil to ingest immediately the nuances of the non-lineup. Just as it is, casually standing near the counter of a Mum-and-Pop shop in London, to realize too late that the three (sometimes two) English have automatically formed a queue—a uniquely English invention.

The Italians have a gift for creating confusion all around them while secretly getting on with the job. There were all the dire predictions that this seemingly disorganized nation would never be able to bring off the World Cup

month-long extravaganza. When all the smoke had cleared, 52 matches were carried out— without death, destruction or chaos—in 12 cities all with superb, clean and beautiful stadiums with seats for each customer: a situation that put to shame the Dickensian slum conditions that have turned British soccer louts into such animals because they reflect the atmosphere in which they are forced to watch their sport.

Italians, beneath the noise, are orderly in that you can stroll the country for a month and never find a drunk, let alone a tipsy. It is why they are so genuinely puzzled by the Brits, those lovers of the orderly queue, who can send abroad louts whose idea of fun is to drink beer all day under the sun where only mad dogs and Noel Coward’s targets go and then smash up bars and overturn taxis and lob bricks at police. One country has a definition of orderly; another has another.

The Italians, beneath the noise, have a sense of proportion. They change governments, as we know, more often than they change the bank rate. But it is essentially, in shifting coalition alliances, the same people. The other day, this week’s prime minister, Mr. Andreotti, flew into Washington for talks and was asked by an eager young reporter how he thought he might make out with the new Bush administration. The world-weary Mr. Andreotti, patiently, explained to the neophyte that this happened to be his 92nd visit to Washington over the years. And, undoubtedly, he will be back.

It is why, while Italian governments change, Italian politics never changes. The most powerful parties are two small fringe parties—the one on the semicommunist left, the other on the strongly conservative right—that orchestrate the makeup of next month’s patchwork coalition governments by the way in which they nudge their crucial swing votes. Mr. Andreotti will hit his century on his visits to the Potomac, bet on it.

Italy—chaotic, cacophonous, disorganized Italy—is now the fifth industrial power in the world. There must be a method to their madness. The common sense behind the sham madness is that the populace takes no never mind of government, or authority, or regulations, but gets on with life and exists on a grey market and no one pays any income tax, all the way up to Sophia Loren.

It seems to work. The government changes every 10 days but nobody gets drunk. In Britain, the government seldom ever changes and the underlings are so unhappy they travel thousands of miles abroad to smash up other people. There would seem to be a moral to all this.