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Cassandra: Italian job's a hoot.

Byline: Cassandra

WE are all taught that national stereotypes are rubbish. The smelly French, the boring Swedes, the strange - clinically insane, actually - Belgians. Nonsense, the lot of it.

Except, of course, for the most part, these handy thumbnail portraits of the different nationalities are perfectly accurate.

I feel oddly inferior about being British when I'm in Europe. For all their national peculiarities, other Europeans seem to be better off, better dressed, better fed and more confident than us.

My qualms about being British have nothing to do with our supposed bad behaviour, either. Europeans are just as boisterous and as loud as us.

Nor is my awkwardness for any political reason, such as the Iraq war. As the last person in Britain still proud of that, I like to imagine others admire us for our selfless sense of justice.

No, the thing I hate about being British is being thought of as bumbling and incompetent. A shambling nit with thin, pasty legs, a red face and grey socks with his sandals. Which, of course, being British, I am. Well, the shambling bit, at least.

So how would it be to spend a few days as something more glamorous? I've been finding out this past week. One thing and another found me driving round Europe. I flew to Germany and hired a car there.

The thought of driving a car with German number plates didn't do a lot for me. I didn't particularly want to look German.

This had nothing to do with being instantly identifiable as a sunbed stealing Bratwurst muncher. It's just that there are so many Germans driving around Europe, it simply seemed a bit dull to be yet another.

So it was an intriguing moment when the girl at the airport rental desk in Munich told me I'd be driving a car with Italian plates. How very interesting to spend a few days looking not like an incompetent Englishman with a GB plate, nor like one of a trillion efficient Germans but to be an Italian.

S ONO Italiano - I'm Italian - I shouted to myself, waving my arms around the car as I drove out on to the autobahn.

The more I considered the matter, the more I rather liked it. Italiano, si. Stylish, a little bit dark, a little bit sexy, a leetle bit - how you say in English? - dangerous. Within a few miles, being British, I naturally got lost. Not for the first time in my life, I ended up at the wrong end of an industrial estate trying to do a three-point turn.

There was soon a bit of an incident. A German lorry was trying to get by, I was in its way. The driver got out, snarling.

First, I look English and embarrassed. Keep yer 'air on, Adolf, I want to say. But instead I politely mime to him that there's probably room enough.

Then it hit me. Sono Italiano. I don't have to be apologetic. Instead, I wave-a the arms. I shrug-a the shrug. I make-a like the guy he crazy, he too stoopid to be on the road.

I even hooted. Sono Italiano. Get out-a my way you big-a bum German geet. My grandfather's grandfather 'ee was a Roman gladiator.

And you know what? The guy eyed my plates, rolled his eyes, turned round and backed his truck up.

For the rest of the week, disguised as an Italian, I played the part. I beeped. I drove badly at high speeds. I smiled seductively at people I'd cut up.

The cautious Dutch, the officious Swiss and the nutty Belgians sighed and gave way to someone inherently more stylish. Even the snotty, froufrou French drove as if they knew they were outclassed. I haven't had such fun in ages.

Good job I didn't get to Italy, though. I'd have been found out there. They alone would be able to tell I wasn't born to hoot.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 30, 2003
Words:654
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