Flying in to Britain from Italy, you know you are entering barbarous zones long before the white cliffs of Dover come into view when the couple behind you on the flight from Milan take advantage of Easyjet's "Bar & Bistro Offers" to get noisily drunk during the brief flight. On the Tube from Victoria the awful, harrassed lives of fellow passengers are engrained starkly on their faces in a way Italians with their compulsion to put on a brave face would never permit.
But the real "welcome to London" present was waiting for me at Baker Street, where I went to a Lloyds Bank to use the Cashpoint. There were two machines and I put my card into the right-hand one. While I was tapping out my PIN, a shortish fellow in a shiny bomber jacket came up to the machine next to mine, did something at the screen then stepped back. Something about him raised my suspicions and I looked round. "Not working," he said, and stayed where he was. I waited for the money to be disgorged; the message on the screen said "take your card" and the slot where you stick the card was flashing – but the card didn't come out, and neither did the money.
After I had been staring stupidly at the thing for a few minutes, the same chap came over to me and said, "You'll have to cancel the operation, press plus and minus and that key," pointing to a key at the top of the keyboard – and, like a dummy, I did as he said.
At that point the Cashpoint shut down completely, and the guy took off rather quickly, saying over his shoulder, "There's an HSBC round the corner." "But I haven't got my card!" I pointed out plaintively.
Ten minutes later a I received a computerised call from Lloyds on my mobile saying they suspected fraud had been committed on my card. I listened to the message and finally got through to a human being and it turned out that something like £400 had been paid out of my account, including £150 to a William Hill betting shop, using the account and PIN details that this guy had obtained without even touching my card! The bank was able to stop most of the transactions from going through, but £200 is still missing. The bank is investigating, and says it will refund me. How did the fraud work? I asked the bank's manager. "If we knew that we'd stop them," he said.
Il Cavaliere develops a taste for tea
In other ways it's a relief to be out of Italy. The day after the Chilean miners were rescued, the Repubblica cartoonist Altan had one of his characters say to another, "Any idea where we can rent a drill like that?"
The opposition has been encased in solid rock ever since Berlusconi's landslide victory two- and-a-half years ago. The weird twist now is that Berlusconi has joined them down there. With the ruling coaltion splintering and his own support slumping, his days would appear to be numbered – but there is nobody with an ounce of his charisma or following to replace him.
That was the context in which the media mogulwho turned 74 last month, floated the idea that what Italy needs now is its own version of the Tea Party movement. As Berlusconi has revolutionised the Italian political scene in the past 16 years, inventing a party without roots and winning three elections with two different incarnations of it, there is nothing to stop him throwing his own Tea Party, too.
It will be objected that America's version is a grassroots, anti-government insurrection – how can a sitting prime minister organise such a thing? But that's the key to Berlusconi's appeal: he has somehow managed to hang on to his image as the battered but plucky outsider despite a decade and a half at the pinnacle of the political establishment; the little guy's friend and ally against the tax police and the magistrates. But the economic crisis is putting that trick to its toughest test yet.
Another young, female 'killer' faces the public
You haven't heard of Sabrina Misseri and you probably will never hear of her again, but for close observers of Italian justice there is something hauntingly familiar about the fate of this black-haired, strong-featured, bosomy 22-year-old from Puglia in the far south.
For weeks Italian media have talked about little else than the murder of 15-year-old Sarah Scazzi who disappeared from the town of Avetrana in August. What prompted them was the confession by Sarah's uncle Michele Misseri that he had murdered then violated the teenager before burying her body.
Then a week ago, a sensational development: Misseri named his daughter Sabrina as his accomplice: she had held her cousin rigid while he strangled her, he told police, then helped him dispose of the corpse. Sabrina was duly hauled in, first merely as someone with information to disclose, but then held in jail as a suspect.
Who knows if Sabrina had anything to do with this ugly crime? All I know is that she has been loudly proclaiming her innocence since she was first brought in; if there is any forensic evidence against her it has yet to be revealed; and as usual in Italy, she has not been charged with anything, and may not be for many months. The only thing against her, it seems, is the word of her dastardly father.
But for Sabrina the damage has already been done: she has been tried in the court of Italian public opinion and been condemned, and her life will never be the same again. I am reminded of the fate of a pretty young woman on the other side of the country, whose appeal comes up next month: Amanda Knox, serving 26 years for a murder, with no more real evidence against her than Sabrina.