I have just returned from a couple of weeks in the blazing south of Italy, and yes, it was lovely, thank you for asking. But without wishing to sound ungrateful (and now that I've seen the miserable weather back here, I know I will), I have to confess that I'm not really a beach-holiday kind of a girl. Lying around aimlessly gives me far too much anxiety time. Behind my sunglasses, I can indulge all my darkest fears without my husband suspecting a thing. And there are all those beach-related worries to add into the mix: have the children got enough suncream on; should they be out that far in the sea; are there jellyfish, paedophiles, abandoned syringes, broken bottles, dog faeces?
But it seems I'm not alone. In between bouts of worrying, I spent a lot of time watching other people, and it struck me that you can spot the British on the beach instantly, no matter how tanned they are, by the fact that they all look as if they are about to be felled by some crushing blow. Italians on a beach look self-confident, relaxed, carefree. They wear the briefest of swimwear without caring whether it suits them, and they wear it with such swagger that somehow it does. They smoke endlessly, eat copious amounts of food, swig beer and caress each other publicly, guiltlessly, joyfully. It's rather wonderful to behold.
And then, into your field of vision lopes a hunched, haunted figure in either copious, down-to-the-knee surf shorts or a Boden tankini with a tummy-disguising floral pattern, and you know, just KNOW that they're British. In case you needed further evidence, there are... the hats. The Brits are the only people, apart from the Japanese, who wear hats in Italy. It sets them apart from the riff-raff like a regimental badge: "Ah, Caruthers, I see from your ill-fitting easy-roll white panama that you're from Barnes. You'll get used to the natives and mosquitoes, but it's the damned heat that'll kill you." We slather ourselves in the highest of high-factor protection to guard against a single ray sneaking under the brim, and lie stiffly on our sunbeds reading a brick-sized book with raised gold lettering, pretending we're having fun. Like hell we are.
After a week of observing this, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be Italian. Is that so unreasonable? I may not have a drop of Adriatic blood in my veins, but I am dark-haired and had, by this time, acquired a tan in spite of the factor 80, the huge hat, and the fact that my face had been permanently shielded by half a ton of John Grisham. So, one night, I decided that the early- evening stroll to the bar was going to be my passeggiata. I put on a slightly racy, strappy dress, a great deal of slap and some high heels, sprayed myself with scent with a wanton disregard for insect bites, and walked – not with my customary "watch-out-for-the-traffic" look of fear, but with a shoulders-back, hip-rolling, bella figura sway.
The first thing that happened was my kids asking why I was walking that way. When I explained that I wanted to make the best of myself like the locals did, they decided to join in. So now there were three of us: me, my nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter swaggering through a medieval Italian town pretending we belonged. We must have looked pretty convincing because, almost at once, an Italian woman stopped us and asked us the way. I couldn't tell her, of course, because the only Italian question I can answer is, "Would you like a salad with that?", and, come to think of it, she may have been asking us the way to the straw-hat emporium in Barnes. But no, I believe we were passing muster as fully fledged Italians, albeit with a very limited vocabulary.
Now, apart from the language, just one thing stood between me and my new identity: my husband. Even though he's the only member of the family who has lived in Italy, has innate self-confidence, good looks and a pretty convincing accent, there is something missing. It's in the details, I suppose: the purposeful stride rather than the relaxed amble; the inability to wait half an hour for the bill; the tell-tale reserving of tables and sunbeds, when any self-respecting Southern Italian would just breeze up and take his rightful place.
He never drinks brandy with his breakfast; refuses to have public rows with me; and doesn't kiss his male friends on the cheek. And then there's his driving. He will insist on checking his mirrors, maintaining a steady speed rather than veering erratically around blind bends and then braking sharply for no reason. And worst of all, I'm ashamed to admit, unlike every genuine Southern Italian male, he never smokes while filling the car with petrol.
Then I had a brainwave. If anybody asked, I'd learn how to say, in perfect Italian, that my husband's from Milan. So, for the rest of the holiday, we walked like Italians, and it felt great. I resolved to bring that self-confidence back with me. But within half an hour of landing under a leaden sky and queuing for luggage with fretful Brits jealously guarding their three inches of space at the carousel, I was once again a hunched, anxious-to-please, fully fledged Brit, apologising every time someone rammed me with a trolley. Don't think I'm not proud of being British; it's just that sometimes I'd like to look like I am.
Claudia Winkleman is awayReuse content