Italians open their eyes to spotless B&B

European Times ROME
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THE ITEM was thown away at the end of the regional television news, which follows the national bulletin. The Agency for Rome's Jubilee Year 2000 reported that 1,500 families in the capital had expressed interest in offering B&B accommodation to foreign guests. B&B is a totally new concept in Italy but with 30 million pilgrims and tourists expected to descend on Rome next year, its introduction is nothing if not timely. Hotels are expensive and there will not be enough to go round.

But the news set me thinking about how almost every aspect of domestic life is different in Italy compared withBritain, the United States, Australia - or, indeed, anywhere in the world. I remember when I first arrived here, the perplexity of my hostess when I politely declined her offer of ciabatte, a sort of shoe-cum-slipper. It was summer and the mock marble tiles were delightfully cool under my bare feet. She insisted, because I could have caught a chill, and even if her floors were cleaned daily my feet would inevitably get dirty.

Before I knew it, I was visualising all sorts of farcical scenes. Mrs Rossi's shocked face when Mr Smith presents her with a thank-you bouquet of chrysanthemums (they're strictly for graves and bringing them into a house courts bad luck). Mrs Smith asking Mr Rossi in her best Italian whether she could wash some smalls in the bidet. Wholesale panic when the Smith teenager innocently pulls a strap on the wall in the bathroom, not realising it's an alarm bell in case Grandma Rossi takes a bad turn in the bath. The apoplexy of Grandpa Smith as the Rossi's 16-year-old daughter nonchalantly lights up a Marlboro in the living room.

My curiosity sparked, I contacted the freephone lines about B&B set up by the chamber of commerce. It took me two days to get through, so presumably lots of Romans are similarly interested.

I was told that a regional law defined what B&B Italian-style should comprise. Those interested in B&B must live on the premises - which cuts out people wishing to putcountry houses to this use, and there is a limit of six guests. The tourism board inspects the premises before giving an OK, but there are no guidelines on price, which varies according to whether you are overlooking Piazza Navona or a car park.

One thing that is defined clearly is breakfast. Guests are forewarned there will be no point in complaining that there are no bacon and eggs or fresh croissants. Tea, coffee and milk are obligatory - food is left up to the proprietor on the condition that it be pre-packed, preferably in individual portions. You may be offered cheese and ham but it will not be freshly cut.

It's important to understand that this, from the point of view of Italian administrators, at least, is for your own good. One national trait that is frequently overlooked is that Italians are hygiene freaks; this does not just mean enormous attention to their own cleanliness and the tidiness of their houses but also to what they eat. My babysitter will frequently leave a packet of lentils or baking powder on the table with an accusing note saying "Scaduto!" (past its use-by date) and my mother-in-law scrubs my chopping board with bleach. By ordering packed breakfasts, the authorities are simply avoiding the dire, though remote prospect, that someone's memory of Rome will be a stomach ache.

But this is Italy and you may well find someone prepared to break the rules.

The law stipulates that the paying guests will have use of the bathroom. Many Italians are convinced that foreigners, and Brits in particular, are not great washers and therefore long, hot showers won't send their power bill through the roof. My partner's teenage daughter had been pestering him for months about going on an exchange trip to Ireland this summer to improve her English. But when he finally agreed, she was having second thoughts. A girl from the next class up had, it seemed, had a nightmare experience with "una famiglia di Zulu". Zulu is Italian yoof-speak for barbarians. The family in question were guilty of leaving a grubby ring in their bath. Their young Italian visitor had to apply some elbow grease and Jif before she could start her ablutions.

The Italian B&B will be a real novelty on the psychological front. Italians are not accustomed to opening their home to people other than extended family or close friends. The pervasive concept of bella figura - which is why Italians are always better groomed than most other Europeans - means their houses must be spotless, their meals impeccable, their linen whiter than white. And why would one go to that effort to impress someone you didn't know and might never see again?

It seems those interested in offering B&B are either Romans who have travelled or those who believe that new year 2000 is going to be such a nightmare in terms of traffic and crowd chaos, that they might as well try and make a few extra lire.