George Mikes: Italy for Beginners


“The Italian looks after himself and his family and believes that other people will look after themselves and their own families. This seems to be fair.

Selfishness is the recognition of the simple truth that everyone is the centre of his own universe and everything and everybody can gain importance only in relation  to himself. To start with, the notion ‘more important’ is strictly meaningless. The constitution of Bolivia is not more important than half a pound of macaroni…No prince can possibly be more important than a pauper: just ask the pauper….There is an air of sincerity and straightforwardness in selfishness. Unashamed selfishness is a kind of frankness, the opposite of hypocrisy.

The Italian male – nine times out of ten- will not beat about the bush: he will tell you quite openly that he wants one thing, and one thing only, from a lady – practically any lady.

He will not dream of telling you that he is in business ‘to serve the public’. He is in business to serve himself. He is in business – amazing as it may sound – to make money. In England we are made to believe that certain benevolent gentlemen say: ‘the public needs second-hand clothing (or radio valves, or justice) so I shall devote my activities to selling old trousers (or manufacturing radio valves or setting up as a solicitor). The Italian remembers that he, too, is a member of the public. He devotes his energy to that one single member, often enough that alone is more than he can cope with.”

“As you can see, whatever else an Italian may lack, he has an Ego.  Sometimes two. It’s nice to think that even the poorest Italian may possess two Egos while even the richest Englishman, as a rule, has none. England is a poor country in Egos. They are mostly imported. (Americans are prepared to pay almost any sum for a really good Ego.)”


“You had better leave your impeccable English manners at home if you want to be a social success in Italy. Half tones will not take you even halfway; understatements are taken at even less than their face value. if you are deeply worried about something, it is no good remarking softly, ‘I’m a little perturbed.’

The main characteristic of English conversation is that no one ever speaks; of Italian that everyone speaks at the same time.

If someone manages to make a remark in an Italian gathering, everyone present will burst out shouting. the one with the strongest voice will prevail and make the second remark. One iron law reigns supreme in Italian conversation: the survival of the loudest.

It is no good saying, ‘I am sorry.’ If somebody kicks you, kick him back; otherwise he will have a poor opinion of you. Nor is it any good waiting for ‘your turn’ anywhere. Your turn never comes…..Incidentally, if in language difficulties, you can always confidently count on help from the last person in any queue: at the end of every queue you are sure to find an Englishman. 

The Italians may not be very polite; but they are kind, which is better. Once I became involved in a noisy street-quarrel. When the rioting crowds had broken up, I learned to my surprise that a man had asked a passer-by for the shortest way to the church Santa Maria della Concezione. The passer-by started explaining but another man suddenly thought of a still shorter way and butted in. In no time eight or ten people were kindly proffering their own versions. the fighting that ensued was not severe. There were only two casualties, both were light. The enquirer, never learnt of the shortest – or for that matter, any other – way to Santa Maria della Concezione. But the sun was hot, the sky was blue and there are plenty of other beautiful churches in Rome…”

Click to see George Mikes, How to be a Brit.

Gerorge Mikes: Italy and Neo-Humanism

What is the reason for the present outbreak of Italo-mania? I believe it is due to a quality in the Italians which I would like to call neo-humanism.  It is not an altogether admirable trend – it has its darker sides – but it has enough qualities to make it specially appealing to the rest of the people of Western Europe. What are then the ingredients of this neo-humanism?

1. the basic essential is warm, human contact. Bargaining, quarreling, hating some of your neighbours and loving the others, telling them off, treading on their toes – these are all human contacts of a rather informal kind. In England and in Northern Europe – human contacts have become frigid and cold and the temperature is still dropping fast. the man whose home is his castle sincerely wishes it wasn’t. His instinctive desire is to open his castle to the public but he cannot do so for a number of reasons:

a. he is rather shy of showing his interior decorations to strangers; b. he is afraid that he is no good inviting the public because no one would turn up – so he takes up a defensive and superior attitude and keeps the gates closed; c. he was brought up to believe that his home is his castle so he clings to this notion…So,there he is, pent up in his fortress, private and lonely – but he longs to be pushed about, elbowed in the stomach, bawled at, and, the next moment, warmly embraced.

2. Neo-humansim also means individualism. The English are of course individualists but somehow in our age of mass-production even our individualists have a mass-produced appearance. Many people seem to cling desperately to their individualism; they sternly refuse to ‘be like the rest’. Thus refusal may be well justified but it is also well planned. As Goethe used to say: ‘I discern the purpose and it makes me sad.’ In Italy things are different. An Italian political party manages to represent more views than there are members; every Italian has his own idiosyncrasies, his own ways of doing things and, somehow, remaining his own master. The great industrialists of Milan, the civil servants of Rome and the beggars of Naples, they all do, within limits, as they please. People are not the slaves of their employers, nor of the people next door, nor even of their own conscious. Or at least , this is the impression they give to the wistful and  slightly envious foreign observer.

3. There is a lack of hypocrisy in this neo-humanism which is very refreshing. Hypocrisy is the plague of our age. It is not the sanctimonious cant of a former age; ours is a curious kind of hypocrisy coupled with a large dose of indifference. there are no values about which we really care but we still insist on keeping up fairly good and reasonably  virtuous appearances. We are not religious but we are not vociferously anti-religious either. We are not even ‘scientific humanists’ – we simply leave the subject alone. While not too immoral, we try not to look immoral. We disregard many rules but we don not disclaim them. We do not rebel – we are too lazy, too indifferent and too conformist to rebel – we simply do not comply with the rules and hope that no one will take the trouble to notice it. that is why we find the almost childish (and that also means crude and cruel) sincerity of the Italians so pleasing. They are not in business ‘to serve the public‘ but to make money and get rich quickly. When they play a game, they want to win, they start a riot on the slightest provocation and sometimes they beat up the referee. Some of them are deeply religious but the rest make no secret of their conviction that religion is bunk. Women are there to be conquered – completely and expeditiously. All this, in spite of its crudeness, has a breath of fresh air, a rush of sincerity. We are not better than they; but we are surprised to find that they do not want to look better than they are.

Italian neo-humanism also possesses a fundamental optimism and this is an essential part of its wide appeal. The modern attitude by and large is true or feigned pessimism or – in the best case – a shrug of the spiritual shoulders, an acceptance of the gloomy future which (some of us fear) may not turn out quite as gloomy after all. Today even the humorist finds it almost obligatory to try to imitate the attitudes struck by a number of able American comic writers: I mean the attitude of lofty disdain, of despondent disgust, of melancholy aloofness. The Italians reject this attitude and we love them for it. Nor does their neo-humanism rush to the opposite extreme of hedonism – which is just the revers of despair. They simply say or imply: the hydrogen bomb may be a distant threat but it is none of my business. My business may be to be blown up with the rest but that does not need my immediate attention. Nina and Giovanna command my immediate attention; that job and that dinner. Wouldn’t I look a damn fool if I missed that kiss, lost that business deal, or that dinner and wasn’t even blown up? I should look pretty ridiculous and that is the one thing I abhor. Anyway, life is Nina’s smile, Luigi’s job, Giovanna’s dinner; and not that bomb. Life is life; life is not death.

This is the simplest message of Italian neo-humanism. It is a vague , odd but sincere and cheerful mixture of things spiritual and material, vulgar and superb. I was thinking of all this walking in the streets of Rome, when I was suddenly confronted with neon-sign on a large bank. It read: BANCO DI SANTO SPIRITO     ‘Bank of the Holy spirit’.

‘That’s it,’ I nodded. A pointer to a curious but happy future.

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