Where to buy cheese at 5,000ft

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The Independent Online
THE OTHER day I put forward the idea that it is almost impossible to find the flushing mechanism in Italian lavatories. I also put forward the theory that this is due to the playfulness of the Italian nature. The more I think about it, the more I am inclined to believe that almost everything in Italy can be explained by a spirit of innate playfulness. The government and the tax system are two obvious examples, but I was really thinking of smaller, more significant things.

Example: in Malpensa, one of Milan's two airports, there is a sign reading: 'In an effort to combat sound pollution, we have decided to make no public announcements. Please consult TV screens for your information.' It would have been impossible to hear any public announcements, anyway, for the din of power drills. (That's why Milan has two airports, I think; at any given moment, they are totally rebuilding one of them.) Television screens, by the way, were almost non-existent.

Another example. While we were in Bellagio, my wife conceived a passionate desire to climb the huge mountain opposite - Mount Tremezzo, a mere 6,000ft. I fell in with her wishes, for fear of her falling in love with something higher, and the next day we found ourselves at about 5,000ft, still climbing, with no sign of civilisation around us among the wild azaleas except some derelict First World War fortifications.

(Who were the Italians defending themselves against at 5,000ft? Who did they think would come and attack the tops of their mountains? Was it more Italian playfulness?)

Then we came across a sign with an arrow pointing the way we were going and a message reading: 'Fresh cheese for sale - five minutes' walk'. Half an hour later we came to a farm where a middle-aged woman was standing in a sunlit midden, bashing a pair of long johns on a stone. She was surrounded by inquisitive cows with cow-bells going off like car alarms, and a mad dog chained up.

There was also a sign on the side of the farm in big letters: 'Formaggio - Vendita Diretta'. Cheese - direct sale to the public. If advertising to passing trade on a deserted hillside at 5,000ft is not playfulness, then I'm an Italian driver . . .

Ah, Italian driving, playfulness personified. People sometimes lump French and Italian drivers together, but they are wrong. For the French, driving is a battle, grim and competitive. For the Italians it is a game. The first time I drove in Italy I was stuck on an autostrada. The jam moved slightly, leaving a 10-yard gap in front of me. Before I could ease forward into it, the man behind me revved up his engine and overtook me, then turned round and smiled. He had, totally uselessly, gained 10 yards in a traffic jam. But he had also gained 10 points in the Italian driving game. Once you get the idea, driving in Italy is fun.

Another thing that makes slow driving more interesting in Italy than anywhere else is that they try to keep death off the road. And on the pavement. Italians do not make the same hard and fast distinction between road (for cars) and pavement (for walkers) that we do, and the occupants of one zone happily wander to the other without feeling out of place. You may be strolling down what seems to be a small shopping alley and suddenly find a car coming at you through the shoppers. You are, by the way, expected a) to avoid being injured by it, and b) not to scratch it while doing so.

Sometimes racing can literally be a game. One Sunday morning, in the lakeside village of San Giovanni, we encountered a football pitch entirely occupied by model cars doing ferocious speeds around a track marked out by ropes, tyres, etc. They were radio-controlled by keen young men standing on a lorry (the higher you stand, the more 3-D a view you get). The cars smelt fiercely of mega-octane fuel and, I have to admit, made the most satisfyingly ferocious whining noises.

Now and then one of the cars would spin over and over, totally out of control, bringing the owner out on a mercy mission, at which point the other drivers were free to aim their models at his ankles. All that was missing were little effigies of spectators and innocent bystanders which could be sent flying every time there was an accident. When I think of Italy, I should think of art and scenery, but the strongest images are of those young men playing at Italian driving, and a female farmer playing at selling cheese at 5,000ft direct to a non-existent public.