Americans are very future-oriented and Europeans are very present-oriented.
It could be because we lack real history. Or it could be because most Americans have bought the disposable lifestyle that marketers are selling. Either way, conspicuous consumption and an ever-spiralling rat race have led to "starter" houses and "starter" weddding rings. Many Americans live what I term "the Costsco lifestyle" — more/cheaper is better (nevermind that the quality is actually shite). We eat fast food that's literally killing us. And many of us spend years of our lives fighting traffic in our daily commute to work, all so that we can buy that McMansion and afford the McMaid.
I was "most Americans" until I started travelling abroad. But what really cemented my distaste for the American way (of living large) was living in France for a month two summers ago.
Okay, so Europeans are ridiculously proud of their history and even fifty years ago were completely past-oriented. But a few things (most notably an end to colonialism and two world wars that wiped out entire generations of young men and ravaged historical places) have changed that. Today, the Italians, French, and Spanish understand that it's worth it to sit for three hours over a fresh, high-quality meal; to dance until 4 in the morning; and to spend the entire month of August at the beach. In short, they understand that life is about saveur.
I returned from Paris smitten with a lifestyle that's very much about quality. I vowed to move abroad once I had a few prerequisites (graduate school completed, some seed money) in place. My rough timeline is to move in 2010. That's 1,280 days away. Meanwhile, I'm living la dolce vita, even if it does mean that I feel like I'm swimming upstream much of the time.
Let's embrace la dolce vita
They're a far superior breed, more civilised, sociable, sensible and healthy than we are. Isn't it high time, asks Cristina Odone, that we British lived like the Italians?
Italians are diehard Anglophiles. "Il Barbour" is a fashion essential, London their favourite European destination, an English nanny proof of social status. Every summer, when I visit my Italian relations, they ask longingly about life in "l'Inghilterra".
But while Italians admire so much that is English, when it comes to food and drink, they always laugh at what they consider a terrible joke: Marmite, shepherd's pie, warm beer - Mamma mia! The English (indeed, all the inhabitants of the British isles) forego the holy ritual of sitting at table, and instead, eat standing up, on the hoof, or while watching television. Barbarians!
Add to this, the fact that the British drink alcohol as if Prohibition were round the corner, spend too many hours at work, think walking is something you do with weights in your hands, and you can see why Italians think their dolce vita is infinitely more civilised.
Not only more civilised, but more conducive to perfection. Take Italian footballers: they've proved themselves rather a superior breed to the English lot, this World Cup. Totti, Toni, et al have showed that the Italian way produces muscles, nerve and hair as well-conditioned as Ginola's.
Sophia Loren, so gloriously sexy at 71, is posing for the Pirelli calendar, a gig that wouldn't give most 20-year-old British starlets the time of day.
Italians are healthier. An Italian man can expect to stay healthy 10 years longer than his British counterpart, according to a Leicester University study just published. The difference between an Italian woman and a British one is 14 years of health.
So how can the British become more like the Italians?
Let's start at the very beginning - with the bambini. British middle-class mothers will spend far more time, energy, not to mention money, on ballet, judo, Kumon and piano lessons than on ensuring that their children eat nutritious meals.
Shop for children's food in a British supermarket and you'll find precocious labels ("chicken tikka and rice") masking gloppy, brown goo or lurid green purées. Many of these contain enough artificial flavourings and starch to compare with fast food. No wonder that almost two million British schoolchildren are overweight.
Italian bambini, instead, are taught that food is sacred: this is the country that spends £2 per child per day on schoolmeals (while Britain spends 40p), and where CIR, the co-operative that holds a virtual monopoly on school-food catering, will only serve meals made with ingredients found within a 30km radius.
Which is not to say that ready-made sauces are banned from Italian children's diet - or indeed their parents'. Today's Italians don't want to spends hours at the stove, as their mamma used to do. But, as London-based cookery writer Susanna Gelmetti points out: "Even while taking a short cut, you can avoid the sugar, starch, gunk and artificial flavourings found in mainstream brands."
When Gelmetti launched her label of pasta sauces, "Dress Italian" and "Dress Italian: Bambino", to cater for those who wanted to cut time spent in the kitchen without giving up the fresh ingredients, she was gratified by the response: "We stayed true to the Mediterranean diet - tomatoes, basil, onions, olive oil - and people were ready to pay that 20p more." She is now convinced that Britons are willing to "go Italian".
This is not just a question of taste. Meal times in Italy remain the traditional gathering of the clan - while Britons are more likely to sit with a tray in front of the telly. Italians find this blasphemous: strip meals of their ritual and you lose an appreciation of food, family and friends. If you'd rather share your sausages with the cast from EastEnders than your spouse, it's really time to book yourself a session at Relate.
In an Italian household, food is the top item of expenditure - in Britain it comes well after transport and leisure. James Lakeland, the fashion designer favoured by Sophie Anderton and Carole Caplin, grew up in Italy, where he found that people from every background made sure their provisions were of the best: "You could skimp on the square footage of your home,'' he says, ''but you made sure your parmigiano was parmigiano Reggiano, and your olive oil was extra-virgin olive oil."
Binge drinking leaves Italians positively perplexed: the point of alcohol, surely, is to enhance food and conversation, not to become paralytic and sick. Should someone invite you to have a "drink", they mean just that: one glass of prosecco, Campari or white wine before dinner. This is accompanied by appetising salatini or hors d'oeuvres. At meals, red wine and plenty of mineral water lubricate every piatto and children are given wine (diluted with water) so that they never regard it as a tempting forbidden fruit.
While the British are burdened with the longest working hours in Europe (43.6 on average), the Italians stay healthy by limiting theirs (38.5). Luca del Bono, who runs Beat Capital public relations, is adamant that his London office should respect the Italian model: "I expect my staff to work hard when they are here, but I don't believe that bums on seats are any indication of productivity,'' he says. ''In any case, we Italians work to live better, we don't live to work."
Del Bono hails the Italian lunch hour as "not a 10-minute break spent munching a sandwich at the computer, but a proper, two-to-three-hour interval in the middle of the day."
Most Italians still drive home for lunch and a nap. The British view sleep as suspect, and anything over eight hours, the sign of a wimpish disposition. But the penichella is the Italians' antidote to stress, a chance to call time-out and recharge their batteries.
Finally, there is the question of exercise. In Italy, more than a quarter of journeys are made on foot, while in Britain only 12 per cent are. These sedentary lives are jolted into action only every now and then by a "power walk" or a gym session that leave you sweaty and breathless. Italians would never tolerate such a departure from the bella figura. Far better simply to walk from errand to errand, from meeting to meeting, without straining yourself, without fuss.
The healthy dolce vita is a triumph of moderation and a tribute to a Mediterranean tradition that predates the Barbour and the nanny - and produces la Loren and il Toni.