Rome Diary

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The headlines are unanimous: Italy is in the grip of a national emergency. No, the government is not about to fall, at least not this week, and the economy does not seem in imminent danger of collapse. But the great splashings of black ink across the newspapers leave no doubt about the gravity of the situation. "State of emergency breaks out," one paper announced. Over what? (Casting all journalistic pride aside, I must confess this was a crisis I had entirely overlooked until I saw it staring out at me over my morning cappuccino). The paper explained: "Over the cold weather."

I had visions of frostbitten families being pulled out of avalanches, of whole regions being deprived of water and electricity, of horrendous pile-ups on snowbound motorways. I read on. "The gentle breezes of October have given way to sharp north winds. Temperatures in the mountains have suddenly fallen below zero," one article began. Powerful stuff, huh? "In Rome, people were forced to rush to their cupboards and pull out coats and scarves before braving biting winds and lows of six degrees." The news wasn't all bad, thank God. "There are no problems inside buildings because heating has been authorised by the city since 1 November." Well, that's a relief.

In any other country this is known as the onset of winter. In Italy it causes a national sensation. Actually, I think it is a scam organised by fur coat manufacturers, who have wasted no time in launching a major advertising campaign on television to coincide with the cold snap. Never mind political correctness or the fact that the average Italian has to fork out two months' salary for them, fur coats - mink for the super-rich, any other available species for the rest - have somehow become the country's number one status symbol.

There is, of course, a snag. Rome is not exactly Alaska, and the number of days when it is cold enough for people to wear their elegantly tailored pieces of rat fur can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Hence the need to keep the country in a permanent state of emergency ...

Another snag with fur coats is that the rose-sellers who do the rounds of Rome restaurants every evening inevitably swoop on their wearers for a little charity. The roses, incidentally, are mostly stolen from cemeteries so they have less than romantic connotations. The sellers are annoyingly persistent, and I mean British door-to-door double-glazing salesman persistent. But a friend of mine has hit upon the ideal technique for getting rid of them. As soon as he sees the flowers approaching, he starts sneezing violently and shouting "No, please, I'm allergic!" The rose-sellers, realising they risk being showered in spittle if they come any closer, scuttle away faster than you can say atishoo.

The cold makes a real difference, of course, to Rome's population of down-and-outs. But help is at hand for them thanks to the religious community of Sant'Egidio, which runs what must be the best appointed soup kitchen in the western world. Instead of standing in line for their food, the street folk are seated in groups of five or six at tables with elegant checked tablecloths. Volunteers wait on them as if they were in a restaurant, offering them a choice of starters, main courses, vegetable or salad, and dessert. Eating is a sacred business in Italy, and Sant'Egidio's guests are invited to stay and chat over their meal for as long as they want. Some of the tramps are already learning the finer points of restaurant etiquette: one of them sent back his pasta soup the other night, saying he wanted less broth in it. The volunteer waitress brought him a fresh bowl without a murmur.

Pasta is always an easy way to please in Italy, which perhaps explains why it took centre stage in one of Italy's more lurid variety shows the other night. Pippo Baudo, Italy's answer to Bob Monkhouse, proudly presented six chefs on his programme Numero Uno and gave them 10 minutes to prepare six different pasta dishes - one with prawns, one with bacon and chilli, one alla carbonara, and so on. Obviously, the producers realised that watching pasta boil makes for less than scintillating television, so while the audience waited for the results, scantily clad dancing girls twirled around the cooking pots to a jaunty dance tune punctuated by the refrain "Pasta! Pasta!".

When the clock had ticked its way down to zero, on came the jury consisting of three fat balding men and a nun. The tasting session was not particularly interesting either, so the dancing girls came back on for another half- hearted hip wiggle. The whole thing was so absurd I can't now remember which chef won the competition (although I do remember Pippo spilling half the dishes on to the work surface as he tipped the pans for the TV cameras). This week we are promised a pork butchers' sausage-chopping contest. I can hardly wait.

Bad Italian television is strangely addictive. The other day, Italy's most famous small-screen clairvoyant-cum-hypnotist told his audience he could tell them how many viewers were tuning into him at that precise moment. He stood in deep concentration before solemnly announcing: "Six million, eight hundred thousand!" Extraordinarily, that was the viewing figure station controllers had been registering for the show every week, this week being no exception. How ever did he guess?

On the other channel, meanwhile, the First Couple of the far-right National Alliance party, Gianfranco and Daniela Fini, were telling a racy story. During a formal dinner recently, Daniela watched in horror as an attractive woman slunk up to her ex-post-neo-fascist husband, unbuttoned her blouse and asked him to autograph her breast. "What was I supposed to do?" giggled Gianfranco. "I went ahead and signed." His only regret, he added, was that his short surname brought the experience to a halt just as he was beginning to enjoy himself.

Any resemblance between this tacky viewing and the antics of Italian politicians is most definitely not coincidental. The second channel of the state broadcaster, RAI, is so addicted to the showbiz side of public life that it has just revamped its evening news programme to make it more ... well, cinematic. The first edition featured a special montage of images of Yitzhak Rabin, put together by the film director Giuseppe Tornatore, whose credits include the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso. Music was by Ennio Morricone, soundtrack master of countless Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. At the end of the newscast, credits rolled just as they would at the end of a movie. The only thing that was missing was Woody Allen's one-liner from Husbands and Wives, which would have made a fine epigraph: life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television.