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France - Italy: head-butting sweethearts

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Sarah Gray


Food, fashion, politics, football … a snapshot of the two countries in Alberto Toscano's words

Saturday 8 September 2007: an historic date for Italy (and not just because it’s Armistice Day). It’s the date on which the San Siro Stadium will host the much-anticipated Italy vs. France match. Its result could be crucial for Euro 2008 qualification, but there is much more than football rivalry making this match so gripping. The two countries’ deep-rooted love-hate relationship shows itself in many different ways, which Italian writer Alberto Toscano has gathered together astutely in the new book France Italie: Coups de tête, coups de cœur ('France-Italy: Head butts and Sweethearts'), published by Tallandier. Toscano knows his subject well – he has been Paris correspondent for Italian weekly magazine Panorama since 1986.

The missing bidet

The same Franco-Italian controversies have been around for centuries, unyielding and unchanged. How could the age-old question of the missing bidet be forgotten? ‘Italians have adopted the French word bidet, which in turn comes from the Italian bidetto (a small Breton horse). So, using a bidet should be like sitting on a horse. But in Paris certain equestrian traditions are not very popular. As is the case in the great majority of other countries, you may add. It’s just that these other countries did not invent the word in question.

Some of the most amusing aspects of the book are the numerous misunderstandings and confusions over words. In Italy, for instance, there is a dish mistakenly thought to be from a French recipe: vitel tonné, slices of veal served with tuna mayonnaise. But Italian tourists who order it in a restaurant on the banks of the Seine may see something else brought to their table, with no taste of tuna whatsoever: a bottle of Vittel mineral water.

Staying in the realms of cuisine, even a simple salad can cause issues. ‘French people traditionally use vinaigrette to dress their salad – a mixture of oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, lemon juice and mustard. In Italy the complete opposite is true – first the salad leaves, then salt, vinegar and oil, in that order.’


Leaving the salad to one side, when it comes to politics, France beats the Italian boot on many fronts. So what’s their secret? The French have realised that, rather than chauvinism, thinking European is what’s needed in order to maintain their traditional grandeur. Of course, certain inhabitants of the Italian peninsula also do their bit for European development, but with less dazzling results. ‘When Italians feel they are being pushed aside by other EU countries they throw a tantrum. France is consulting Italy? Rome calls on Germany. France and Germany make a decision behind Italy’s back? Italy summons the UK.’ Like two quarrelling old ladies.

So what if Martians were to land on Earth? Which country would they choose to enjoy their terrestrial life? ‘Definitely either France or Italy,’ according to Toscano. Despite their differences, the two populations are actually very fond of each other. ‘So let’s get married,’ the author suggests. ‘Let’s turn our union into the beginning of a new Europe. It’s simple; we could have an open marriage, a ménage à trois with German or Spanish friends. We will be nice to mothers and sisters, and head butts will be kept to the football field.’ Rather than the stomach. Right, Zidane?

(Photo: Tallandier)

Translated from Francia Italia: colpi di testa, colpi di fulmine