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Italy vs. Britain - A love-hate relationship

Marzo 2016
È proprio un rapporto di amore-odio quello che lega gli italiani ai britannici.  Molti di loro vanno e vengono dai rispettivi paesi, o li sognano, tra speranze e delusioni, luoghi comuni e miti incrollabili. Una nuova serie a cura della nostra beneamata ‘espatriata in Italia’ Rachel Roberts.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

There is definitely something special about the relationship between British and Italian people. The UK is full of Italians. Not only do Italian tourists love to go shopping in London and other large cities, but Italian business people flock to Britain to take advantage of easier and more flexible conditions when they start up their companies. Thousands of Italian students go to study in UK universities and they very often settle down in Britain for life.


Similarly, thousands of British people have come to Italy in search of a warmer climate and a more relaxed, Mediterranean atmosphere, and have ended up making their home here. In fact there are so many Brits in Tuscany that the region has even gained the nickname “Chiantishire!”  It’s true that Italians love the United States too, but the proximity of the UK means that it’s easier for both nationalities to travel to and fro. They can also go home for an injection of their own culture when life in the host nation becomes too much. In fact the Italo-British love affair is not without friction.


Italians in the UK, especially young students, often find British drinking habits hard to cope with, especially when they discover that an unwillingness to get completely drunk a couple of times a week, can be interpreted as an inability to enjoy oneself and “have fun.”  Not only that, young Italians who have grown up with good home cooking prepared in a spotlessly clean kitchen, often find the British habit of sticking frozen food into a microwave at any time of the day difficult to comprehend. They are also horrified by the disgustingly unhygienic conditions of the average student kitchen!


On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with punctuality, fair play and meritocracy can make life in Italy extremely challenging. We struggle with the school system and we find the bureaucracy and  tax system utterly incomprehensible. We also have very different rules about physical proximity and, of course, queuing.

And yet we stay...

After 25 years in Italy I can say that the most frequently asked question I hear from Italians I meet for the first time (after “Do you like Italian coffee?”) is: “Why did you come to Italy?” People don’t ask me this in a casual way out of simple curiosity about my life choices. They ask it in a tone of utter amazement, as if to say: “Of all the countries on the face of the planet, where everything goes wrong and nothing works, when you were living in a decent country where there was a possibility of working hard and actually achieving something, why, oh why, did you decide to come to Italy?”


The answer is not a simple one and over the next few months I hope to find it. Yes, I will discuss the things that drive British people mad about Italy and Italians, as well as the things that Italians can’t understand or even hate about the Brits. But most of all I want to examine what fascinates the two cultures about each other and draws them together.


Just to give you a little taste, here’s a short anecdote. I was recently involved in organizing a bazaar at my daughter’s school. It was a very large two-day, fundraising event, with various activities and stalls selling handicrafts. Of course much of the organization was left to the last minute, but when it came to the actual event, I was stunned by the willingness of all the parents to perform miracles to make sure that everything went smoothly on the day. Nobody complained. Everyone worked hard, and the amount of good will and positive energy this generated meant that everyone involved had a really good time. In all honesty I don’t think I would ever have found that level of collaboration in the UK. Of course people collaborate there too, but it was something about the good-natured camaraderie that I think was especially Italian and it’s part of what I love about Italy.


Over the next few months I’ll tell you a few more anecdotes from Brits living in Italy and from Italians living in the UK – some of them positive and some of them negative. I’ll have a look at the cultural reasons for the various challenges and try to understand why Brits and Italians have such an incredible love-hate relationship.

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