One shoe does not a shop make

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The Independent Online
I AM mildly haunted by a one- sided conversation I overheard in a hotel bar in Italy two months ago, between a young American couple and the barman. It went like this. Couple: We're going home tomorrow. (Barman raises eyebrow.) To America. (Other eyebrow goes up.) To Atlanta, Georgia, in fact. (Eyebrows go down again.) Home to the Olympic Games in 1996] (Eyebrows look for somewhere to hide.)

I tried to catch the barman's eye to indicate that he was not alone in finding this funny, but he was not risking any eye contact with anyone non-Italian. I don't blame him. In fact, twice recently I have put forward the theory that much of Italian life can be explained by an innate sense of playfulness.

I thought I might be deluged by a letter or two protesting that the Italians are first and foremost very serious people, or very stylish, or very passionate, or at least the only people in the world who inherit seats at Milan's La Scala and die without ever going there. (That probably qualifies as high-class playfulness.) But not a squeak of protest on things Italian. Nor even a proud claim from some Italian reader that Italian parking is the most creative in the world - where else but in Italy would you find cars double parked on a zebra crossing?

No, the only recent letters of protest I have had concern the use of the expression 'to beg the question'. The writers have implored me not to copy Jimmy Young and use it to mean 'to bring up the subject' or 'raise the topic'. He is quite wrong, they say. To beg the question means to evade the point, and thus means almost the opposite.

They are absolutely right. What puzzles me is that I do not recall having used the expression since Labour was last in power. But then I noticed that one correspondent had read the phrase in the heading to a piece of mine, and all was clear. The headings of these pieces are by another hand. Italian, probably. I do sometimes put witty headings on my pieces, such as 'Naked as Nietzsche Intended', or 'Land of Hope and Crosby', but they never get used, so a chap loses heart after a while.

But in the matter of Italian playfulness, the European newspaper has recently come to my aid, reporting a case from the town of Busto Arsizio, near Milan, in which two fraudsters put a fake machine outside a big bank. I thought it was going to be the same as a case from Chicago I read about in the Sixties, in which two men put a false night safe outside a bank and took it away in the morning, full of money.

The Busto Arsizio idea was more up to date. The two Italians were clearly skilled in the way of bank computers, because they had programmed their machine to take the customer's card, to tell the customer that, for a routine check, they should tap in the card's personal number, and then keep the card. Armed with cards and numbers, they had then gone on a spending rampage round Milan.

Much as one deprecates crime of any sort, one can't help raising a small cheer. I just hope the two gangsters restricted themselves to the kind of high- class shop which, to me, represents Italian playfulness at its most stylishly inane. I mean that kind of Italian shop which is so smart you don't know what it's selling.

You know the sort? You come in off the street, and find yourself in an elegant drawing- room, with big mirrors, tall curtains and a large table. On the table is a glove, and a handbag. Under a nearby chair is a shoe. Overhead is a rather classy chandelier. There are shops like this all over Florence, Milan, Rome. But how are you meant to work out what it sells? It could be a handbag shop, a classy glove shop or the sort of shoe shop where you have to put your name down at birth. Or it might be a very expensive light shop, or perhaps the poshest mirror shop in the world.

The last time I was in such a shop, I suddenly grew convinced that I was not in a shop at all, but a private house. The lady of the house had rushed in from shopping, thrown down a glove and handbag, kicked off one shoe under a chair and probably dashed to the loo.

It was at this point that a rather elegant lady approached me from the back and asked icily if she could help me. I apologised for having invaded her house and said there was absolutely no need to call the police.

It wasn't a shop, actually. But it wasn't a private house either. It was the hotel I was staying at.