Chrisitina Patterson: Lessons on drink and la dolce vita

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The Independent Online

In my first week at university I discovered that I came from something called a "gin and jag belt". "Oehuuw!" said the pixie-booted 18-year-olds, in the protracted vowels of a Penelope-Keith-come-Abigail-pissed-at-her-party. "Guildford!" There weren't too many jags on our estate (we had a Morris Marina) and there wasn't much gin either. Once in a blue moon, my father would dig out a bottle of Blue Nun for guests, which he would serve by the half glass. The bottle would last all evening.

I thought of this last week, in a tiny bar in a tiny hamlet in Tuscany. The owners had invited me for dinner. As usual in Italy, we started with a nice aperitivo and a nice plate of nibbles. It was a balmy evening, and we were sitting outside, and the prosecco was delicious, and the nibbles were delicious, and the conversation was animated, and it was heaven. Quicker, much quicker, than the other guests (all Italian) I finished my drink, and waited. And waited. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. An hour passed. An hour and a half passed, and my glass remained empty. My tongue itched with the memory of that long-finished prosecco and tingled with yearning for the Vernaccia I'd brought and that had been chilling – for hours – in the fridge. I glanced at my fellow guests. They did not look as though they were stuck in the seventh circle of Dante's inferno. They looked, in fact, quite happy.

There is no word for "hangover" in Italian. There's no word for it, because they don't need it. They love their prosecco, and their aperitivi, and, of course, their vini, which they sip slowly, and always with food. They love their food, too. They love their primi and their secondi and their dolci. They love their gelati. In the little piazza near where I was staying, I watched the old ladies scuttle out at night and towards the gelateria where they'd pause over the most important decision of the day, and then spend hours licking and swallowing and flicking their tongues over this little globe of chilled sugar and cream and thinking, yes, while I still have this, I am happy to live another day.

And yet Italians don't get fat. They don't get fat, but not in the way that French women, according to a smug, little book that came out a few years ago, don't get fat. French women (I may be paraphrasing) don't get fat because they prefer to give a superior smile, and puff on a Gauloise while thinking about the lover they're going to entertain – with Gallic sang-froid – that après-midi, than have a second bite of their gateau. Italians don't get fat because they love their delicious meals, and eat them slowly, and don't eat between them.

Putting aside the disaster that is Italian politics, and bureaucracy, and nepotism, not to mention a surgically enhanced prime minister who (according to his wife) is practically a paedophile, we could learn a thing or two from Italy. We could learn that adult human beings are capable of imbibing alcoholic drinks without vomiting them over the pavement, or the glass they've just smashed, or the sprawled figure they've just beaten up. We could learn that people can eat quite a lot of food, and enjoy it, without turning into giant amoebas in tracky bottoms who can barely waddle to the fridge (but somehow, miraculously, spew out babies, by different absent fathers, with the regularity with which they cash their dole cheques).

We could learn that it's possible to have a café culture in which you sip a tiny cup of perfect coffee, and not a bucket of lukewarm baby milk whipped and frothed and flavoured with caramel, and chocolate, and marsh-mallow, and served with giant slabs of lard masquerading as muffins. We could learn all this, because 20 years ago we didn't have a café culture at all, and unfortunately adopted the American one, the one that tells us that more is always good, and big is better, and giant is awesome. And we could learn this, because while we've always enjoyed a good Friday-night piss-up, we didn't always binge drink, at home, all the time, and because the truth is that, after the third glass of chardonnay, or pint of Stella, the pleasure is a little less piquant, and after the second chocolate muffin you begin to feel a bit sick.

We could learn all this, because these things are cultural, and cultures can change, but they don't change (as the BMA is suggesting) by banning advertising, or treating people like children, because the point is, the dream is, the reality is – in some countries, not this one – that human beings can actually learn to eat and drink like grown-ups.

Forget the lipstick and give her another medal

It had to happen. Caster Semenya, the South African athlete whose triumph at the world championships in Berlin was marred by questions about gender, has had a makeover. "Wow, look at Caster now!" gushes the cover-line of the South African magazine, You, next to a picture of a coiffed, gilded, red-lipped dolly-bird with a slightly bewildered smile.

The impulse behind all this is, I'm sure, good. Show those sneering party-poopers who wreck everything with their suspicion and their cynicism and their science, that our girl's all girl. Boy, is she girl!

Certainly Semenya grew up believing she was a girl, and so did her family, and so did her friends, and, whatever those tests say, she grew up, trained and competed as a girl. What she didn't do was dress like a girl, because she wasn't interested in looking like girl – and now, it seems, she has to.

If a man achieves anything (a presidency, a sporting victory, a Nobel prize) he can look like a sack of potatoes, or Freddy Krueger, or David Mellor, and no one bats an eyelid. If a woman does, she has to be whisked off to a secret celebrity cellar, and plucked, and coiffed, and plastered with make-up and plasticised, so that men don't faint at the sight of her.

The real awards should surely go to those brave women – like Caster, like Susan Boyle – who think there are more important things in life than how you look. Or at least, who used to.

A tale of heroism and heels

The pen may be mightier than the sword (but not, alas, in the country for which our young men are currently dying, and where people are imprisoned for reading stuff, let alone writing it) but the shoe, it seems, is sometimes mightier than both.

Certainly, the shoes thrown at George Bush last year have created more of a stir in the Arab world than most pens, and many swords. A Saudi has offered $10m for them. Another has offered a gold-saddled horse. And the shoes' owner, Muntazer al-Zaidi, who's about to be released after a nine-month prison sentence, has been showered with offers of homes, cars, jobs, harems – and wives.

A lesser man might have his head turned by the attention. A lesser man might milk it for all it was worth. But al-Zaidi (who will, no doubt, be turning down offers to appear on 'How Clean is Your Abu Ghraib') has turned it all down and announced his intention to open an orphanage. What a man! And did you say you were unmarried?