Out of Italy: Romans ring changes on their mobiles

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The Independent Online
IT IS a typical night in the local trattoria - the place is humming with the sound of happy Romans downing large quantities of excellent fish and light white Vino dei Castelli Romani.

In walk an elegantly bored-looking couple - he is sporting that theme-park English aristocratic look, all hounds- tooth check and sleek flannels, favoured by seriously wealthy Italian men. She is impeccably groomed. They occupy a table in the centre of the room, and without exchanging a word, each reach for their own mobile phones.

And so the next hour or so passes. Both chat away almost continuously through antipasto, main dish and dessert; but not to each other. At the end of the meal they exchange a few words - yes, it's time to go. In a sense it's the perfect solution, particularly for Italians, for whom meal times are sacred opportunities for discussion and argument: if you have nothing left to say to your partner, you can still chat through dinner - but not to each other. The other diners were unfazed; many of them were on the phone too.

It is almost impossible to get away from the wretched telefonino wherever you are in Italy. Of all the countries in Europe, only Britain has more mobile telephones - around 20 per 1,000 people compared to Italy's 12 per 1,000. It feels as if the figures should be the other way round. Most Anglo-Saxon addicts are positively reticent compared with Italians.

A guide to telefonino etiquette has just been published here in an attempt to ease the problem (readers are told, for example that it is in extremely poor taste to place one's telefonino visibly on the table in restaurants).

But judging from daily life in the capital, no one appears to have read it.

In Britain, at least, the problem becomes less acute away from the workplace. Not here.

With the arrival of autumn, the toothless old boy who sells roast chestnuts on the corner of the lovely medieval piazza of Campo de' Fiori is back - and he whiles away the slack hours in the still warm afternoons by using his telefonino to ring around his friends. The tourists, trying to frame a shot against the fountain and ochre palazzi of the square, are most put out.

In Naples, too, the scugnizzi (ragamuffins who used to sell black-market cigarettes on corners) have moved with the times. They were the first to realise the leasing potential of the telefonino, and their bags of cigarettes have been joined by hold-alls of mobile phones. You can rent them by the hour, the day or the week. Just the thing to cut a fine figure (the all-important bella figura) at the next business meeting.

More seriously, for anyone going into hospital the telefonino is a godsend.

Few of the overstretched state hospitals offer decent nursing. Most Italians get relatives to bring in at least one meal a day. Often family members are needed to change the bed linen as well. The telefonino is a reassuring lifeline to one's carers.

The phones are not that expensive, compared to the hefty costs of installing and using a fixed telephone, not to mention the nightmarish bureaucracy involved. The cheapest mobile phone costs around pounds 350 and different tariffs mean that you can end up paying only a small premium per call. The real problem is that, actually, many of them don't work very well. Take another incident in the above- mentioned trattoria. Dining with a political contact, your correspondent was hot on the trail of the latest government gossip. The MP was pouring scorn on the draconian measure recently imposed on parliamentarians by the austere young Lower House speaker, Irene Pivetti.

Ms Pivetti, 31, takes her role as guardian of the house's dignity tremendously seriously. Last week she banned mobile phones from the chamber.

The constant ringing and chatting disturbed debates, she said. 'That wretched woman,' said the MP. 'I bet it's just because no one ever rings her on hers.'

Then his telefonino rang, or rather squeaked piercingly. 'Hello? Hello?

Who's that? What? I can't hear you . . . Oh, they've gone.' We resumed our conversation. Two minutes later, the same drama. Except that this time, the MP (who shall remain nameless to spare his blushes and our friendship) sprinted for the door and hung outside trying to point the phone at an open bit of night sky. He came back looking disconsolate. 'I think it might have been Bossi (Umberto Bossi, the Northern League leader and his party boss).

Um, you haven't got any change for the payphone, have you?'