Rome Diary: Shopping and zapping reveals a vacuum at the heart of a nation of telly tubbies

Click to follow
ARE the darkest secrets of a country's soul expressed on its tele- shopping channels? If so, Italy turns out to be a country obsessed with ingenious vegetable-slicing devices, fat- drainage roasting dishes, antique hunting rifles, fur coats, mediocre 19th-century paintings, anti-cellulite electrode pads and vacuum packs.

That's what's on offer in the twilight zone one encounters as one zaps through the double-digit channels on the remote control, and it's not a bad representation of middle Italy, with its deluded dreams of domestic middle-class respectability, American-style keep-fit and handy labour- saving devices in the kitchen.

Except that the representation has gone a bit wild. Take the vacuum-pack phenomenon, something close to the heart of every Italian housewife. Vacuum packs represent neatness, cleanliness and freshness, all cardinal virtues in a country prey to summer heat and dust. You can get your sliced ham vacuum-packed at the delicatessen, or your Parmesan. That's absolutely normal.

But here, on Channel Twenty-something, comes an extraordinary device to vacuum-pack the clothes in your suitcase (no doubt to ward off all those nasty foreign germs), or your children's cuddly toys (supposedly to take up less room). The plastic vacuum-pack wrap is so versatile that even if you tear it you can iron an emergency patch on in seconds.

Curiously, the vacuum-packing device - which looks like a monster Hoover attached to a decompression chamber - goes under the name Extra Prodi, as though it were an enhanced version of Italy's current prime minister, Romano Prodi.

BACK on Channel 31, a pair of buttocks is wobbling vigorously under the pressure of an "effort-free" exercise machine. If this looks like a more American style of teleshopping, that's because it is.

Keep-fit has arrived in the Mediterranean straight from California, along with aerobics, yoga and, of course, all those stylish leotards and Lycra jogging suits.

Personal trainers are also catching on. I met a woman called Roberta who had worked as a personal trainer in Hollywood - or rather, her boyfriend had worked for Sylvester Stallone and she had tagged along - and now she was performing the same function for a roster of A-list Italian television variety show presenters. Roberta reeled off a list of names of local stars who are well known, but don't exactly abound in physical fitness. I asked her about this.

"It's true, she's not one of my best pupils," she said, referring to a hostess more famous for bulging curves than muscle tone. "The trouble is, she never shows up for her sessions."

My mind flashed back to the wobbling buttocks on the television.

"Effort-free" exercise - that's the kind of thing that can get Italy's beautiful people really interested. Make them sweat, and all of a sudden southern Californian calisthenics don't seem half as attractive.

FOR an example of the kind of exercise most Italians usually get, spare a thought for my friend and neighbour Sara. She was informed this week that she owes pounds 1,000 or so in unpaid taxes from 1991-92. It turns out to be a bureaucratic mistake. But in this country, when it comes to the state apparatus, you are guilty until proved innocent. A phone call won't do. Nor will a fax or letter. Sara has to take a day off work, travel to an obscure tax office on the outskirts of Rome and argue her case with a faceless official behind a counter. As the office is open only from 8am to noon, and only the first 100 people stand a chance of being served, she will have to arrive at around 6am. Since she doesn't have a car and public transport to those parts is virtually non-existent, she will have to ask a friend to drive and sit for all the hours it takes to reach the front of the queue.

This is the kind of hassle ordinary Italians face every week of their lives. Not as wholesome as Jane Fonda, but just as exhausting and certain to break you out in a cold sweat.