Tartar shortage sours the Dolce Vita for expats

ROME DAYS

There is nothing like the approach of Christmas to remind the hapless foreign correspondent that he is, like it or not, part of that amorphous, visceral-minded, thoroughly unpleasant little group of culturally-transplanted residents known as the Expat Set.

The evidence piles up in my mailbox every day: the invitations to mince- pie afternoons, seasonal diplomatic cocktail parties and end-of-year dinners; the inevitable true-blue British carol services and Christmas charity bashes; and, last but by no means lightest, the catalogues of goodies from the mother country that wing their way mysteriously to my door from some mail-order service in deepest darkest Oxfordshire. Someone has valiantly flown out the entire choir of St Olave's, Orpington, to blast the popish Roman night with a roll-call of what I am assured by the invitation to be my "favourite carols".

Singing along is not merely encouraged, it is "expected". Oh dear.

The carol singer might respond favourably to the fine-art theme-gift catalogue that arrived in the mail the other day, an outstanding example of that very British vice, transforming what we call "heritage" into utter kitsch. How about a Van Gogh sunflower needlepoint set for Auntie Mildred? Or a Klimt stencil kit for the kids?

Most gruesome of all, though, is the expat social circuit, which is almost impossible to duck at this time of year. This being Italy, you might expect people to revel in the pleasures of their adoptive home, or at least feel relieved not to have been posted to Dubai or Kinshasa. But you would be wrong. The conversation almost inevitably comes back to the theme of how intolerable it is to live here, and how much better everything - well, everything except the wine, maybe - is back home. "I can't bear the Italians, although some of the upper-class ones are quite amusing," says an investment banker.

"You might be surprised to learn this, but the climate in Rome is awful," a visiting newspaper editor is told at a party (he looks more incredulous than surprised). "Every time I go to England I take a large empty suitcase to bring back all the things you can't find here," expands a well-travelled representative of Her Majesty's Government. "You'd be amazed at the things the Italians have never heard of, like cream of tartar."

Oh, the privations of living in Italy. Personally, I feel nervous unless there are at least three tins of cream of tartar stocked up in my kitchen (baking powder just won't do), and whenever I look out on the limpid Roman winter skies I always think back with fondness on drizzly December afternoons in Stoke-on-Trent.

Perhaps I'm being uncharitable. There is a long tradition of foreigners, not just Brits, coming to Italy for the pleasures of the Grand Tour while at the same time openly venting their contempt for the locals.

Ruskin likened the Italians to "Yorick's skull with the worms in it, nothing of humanity left but the smell".What the worst of the modern expats seem to lack is not so much taste, as initiative and imagination. On the subject of initiative, I've just made an interesting discovery.You can get cream of tartar in Rome. They sell it at the international delicatessen on Via Cola di Rienzo. One funny thing, though. The assistant I spoke to said they didn't have much call for it.

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