"Oh my God are you utterly insane?!"
My partner is sitting in the passenger seat of our rented Fiat as we zip through the hills of Valpolicella in northern Italy, and she's yelling through the windscreen at the car that just swerved across the road in front of us at 100km/h, forcing me to hit the brakes so that whoever it was could carve one or two seconds off their commute and make a turn before us.
It's not the first time she's yelled something like that today, and it won't be the last. Because not all Italians, not even most Italians, but enough Italians to be noticeable are really, really bad drivers. Utterly insane. Completely care-free.
It makes me chuckle every now and then as we make our way around the outskirts of Verona dodging local traffic. Is this the country we're all so obsessed with? Are these the people we want to be? These lunatics?
Yes, yes, and yes. Insane driving aside – and so many other things aside, like the loud arguments and the garbage everywhere and the parlous state of its financial and political affairs – we as people of the world love Italy. We love everything it stands for. We idolise it. We romanticise it. We crave it.
A good friend of mine, Rome-based author Maria Pasquale, has just released a new book, called How to be Italian. It's great, a guide to the Italian psyche from someone who has spent the past decade coming to understand it. Reading it has also made me reflect on how that title – "How to be Italian" – could only work with such immediacy and such effectiveness with probably only two countries in the world.
"How to be Italian" – yes, definitely, tell me. You understand the appeal innately. "How to be French" would also work – ooh la la, take my money.
Any other country, however, would be a bit weird. "How to be English" – um, OK? "How to be Spanish" – not really sure what you're getting at. "How to be Australian" – is this a joke?
But please, tell me how to be Italian. Tell me how to be French. These countries are two of the most-visited destinations on the planet for tourists, phenomenally popular with travellers of all ages and all nationalities. We all want a slice of the good life that they represent: family, food, fun. We all want to experience it and learn from it and take "la dolce vita" home with us.
And yet… do we? Because the funny thing is that we in Australia could have the sweet life if we really wanted it, we could have the long family lunches and the beautiful clothes and the indifferent attitude to work and the love of life in the slow lane. But we don't.
We're repressed, in some ways. We clearly crave what Italy and France stand for, given how many of us travel to and enjoy these countries; we desperately want to be Italian or French, but we haven't figured out how to let ourselves do it. Instead, what we really value here, if we look long and hard, is prosperity, safety, efficiency. We go to work. We do the hard graft. (It's the only way to afford to live here.)
No one buys books called "How to be German" because there's no romance in that but it's much closer to who we really are in Australia. La dolce vita for us is a holiday. It's not a life.
And so we have to content ourselves with those holidays, which is why I'm sure Italy and France loom large in many people's minds as they consider travel in the post-vaccination world. I want to go to Italy or France – I would love to go there. After so much time with no international travel, the idea of a coffee and a "cornetto" in an Italian bar, or a glass of wine and steak frites in a French bistro, is just perfection.
There are other countries, too, that offer this sort of lifestyle, this sort of fantasy, even if they don't have the global recognition of Italy and France. Try Spain or Portugal for life in the Iberian slow lane, for long lunches in beautiful locations. Try Argentina for a rich mix of the culture of all of the countries previously mentioned, plus some unique Latin American flair. Visit Brazil to experience warmth and joy and passion.
And then, of course, return home.
These trips make us jealous, but maybe they also help to recognise the flaws in la dolce vita: the political instability, the dodgy finances, the mental drivers, the rubbish-strewn streets. These countries are not perfect, despite the romantic ideals, despite the absolute perfection of tourist experience they can offer. In reality there's a little bitter with the sweet.
Travel is wonderful for this, to reveal the good and the bad, to allow us to cherry-pick from other cultures and lifestyles and take those values home.
I try to be Italian, still. I try to celebrate good food and wine and time with my family, I try to approach life with passion, I try to slow things down and just appreciate and celebrate what's really important. I also argue about "proper" carbonara, go to a lot of trouble for a good coffee, and I even ride a Vespa.
But I also follow all the road rules.
Do you love Italy and France? What is it about those two countries that is so exciting? Do you try to live those lifestyles back home? Or is this the stuff of fantasy?