Howard Jacobson: We can quaff cappuccino, but we'll never match Italians in the trouser department

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The Independent Online

I am sitting on the terrace of a café in a square in Orvieto, drinking cappuccino.

I am sitting on the terrace of a café in a square in Orvieto, drinking cappuccino. I have never liked cappuccino but I drink it because I don't know what else to order when I am in Italy, or in any other part of the world come to that, not excluding London, that has an Italian coffee machine. I am not of the generation that can confidently ask for macchiato. Macchiato means stained, I know that, but does it mean coffee stained with milk or milk stained with coffee? This ignorance – this diffidence – will, of course, disappear when we get the euro.

The other reason I order cappuccino is that it takes me back to my boyhood in Manchester, when the first cappuccino machine appeared in Oxford Road, and, working it, the first Italians. 1955. Don't hold me to the year. 1955ish. At a stroke, whenever it was, our whole outlook changed. What we drank before then is now a mystery to me. As is what we wore. Camp Coffee? Sackcloth and ashes? Come 1955ish, anyway, we were suddenly dancing to mambo Italiano and learning that to be a man was to wear creamy white socks with black suits, to regard the world from under lazy eyelids, to hold our chests as though they were made of crystal; in short fare la bella figura. To treat our bodies like works of art, meant for show.

We didn't do very well. We were the wrong shape. An abdomen thing, primarily. Bella figura requires the shirt to go into the trousers without any billowing or concertina'ing, and to stay there. We could never do that. We tried tightening our belts and hoisting up our trousers, but that just made us resemble our headmaster. Some of us got our tailors, that's to say our mothers, to sew an extra button or two on to our shirts, or even to extend the shirt-tails, but that didn't do the trick either. We weren't Italian and would never look Italian. We were too disorderly. For most of us, the hippy revolution, whereeverything was obliged to spill out, couldn't come too soon.

Sitting in the Piazza della Repubblica in Orvieto, I again fall prey to envy of the Italian form and the Italian sense of occasion. In fact there is no occasion. It is an ordinary working day. A light rain falling, which I suppose you could call an occasion, given how hot and dry it has been for the last fortnight. It is 10 in the morning, so the tourists are not here yet. It goes without saying that I am not a tourist. A tourist is always someone else. All around me espressos are going down. That's the other version of coffee that I have trouble with. You order an espresso and you can't find it in the cup. But it is clearly an essential preparation for the bella figura. It stiffens you for performance.

No tourists to impress, no occasion to commemorate, yet everyone looks good. The postman wears cognac-coloured ankle boots made of kid leather. His trousers don't bag anywhere, their drop precise to a thousandth of a centimetre, caressing the tongues of his boots. A policewoman who could easily be Miss World directs the traffic with her teeth. When she moves, her blue shirt stretches across her back and chest – I choose to avoid the word breasts – but never escapes the confinement of her belt. Her sleeves are rolled to just below her golden elbows, three folds on her left sleeve, three folds on her right.

As a man who has never been able to roll his sleeves with any symmetry, I marvel at this. Most sleeves on the Piazza della Repubblica are not rolled. A pearl button at the wrist is favoured. Not too tight. The sleeve not too long. You want to be able to see the jewellery. But where they are rolled, the same exactness prevails. I would say pernicketiness, but that's a value judgement. Sufficient to note that it must take an hour of your time, unless you have a servant for each arm, to get your sleeves to match as well as this.

Is it something to do with the topography or the architecture, I wonder? Wherever you are in Orvieto, you are conscious of being on a volcanic plateau, long favoured as a place of sanctuary and art, a visible example to all Umbria. You can smell lava and Etruscans. Medieval buildings house Versace frocks. In the great Gothic Cathedral, Signorelli's frescos remind you of the plumpness of the human posterior and the fall of man. The flesh and all its fallabilities, side by side. That must get to you, mustn't it? That must remind you to make a ceremonial of your most modest daily rituals, such as rolling up your sleeves, because at any hour the volcano might stir again, or the angels put their trumpets to their mouths.

And is that the reason we English cannot fare la bella figura to save our lives – because we inhabit an island flat and have no dangers to ready ourselves for? On a chair next to mine I find an English newspaper from the day before. It shows a photograph of Kenneth Clarke. Although he must have known photographers were gathering, he has not prepared himself. Or maybe he knows no preparation will make a blind bit of difference. His shirts will never stay inside his pants.

A profound affection for my home country overwhelms me. Spillage – it is spillage that has made us great. Then I remember the New Nattiness of New Labour, and decide I'm better off in Orvieto.

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