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Shortfall that can’t be shrugged off

By Tyler Brûlé

Published: April 25 2009 03:43 | Last updated: April 25 2009 03:43

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It’s no secret that this column has been having a rather long-running on/off, on/off affair with Italy. When things are going well we get on beautifully because it’s hard not to be attracted to all of those small family businesses that have been honing their services and products for generations; it’s difficult not be intoxicated by an afternoon spent on a sleek Italian boat cutting its away along the Amalfi coast. And then there are all those simple little things like the humble corner bar that pours the perfect cup of coffee and serves up the best fresh pressed orange juice.

When things derail, it’s because the simplest procedures can become ridiculously complicated. A recent attempt to purchase a pre-paid wireless card took on the same level of difficulty as applying for a visa to North Korea as it involved passports, photocopies and multiple signatures. Why the cumbersome procedure? “It’s part of the fight against terrorism,” the hotel clerk explained. “I know it doesn’t make much sense but this is Italy.”

For better or worse, “This Is Italy” has become something of a universal slogan for all that’s both wonderful and shocking about the country. While I haven’t yet seen it plastered on any national tourism campaigns, it’s a perfect tagline that bundles all the nation’s pride and frustrations into three neat words. When the sun is high, the wine is perfectly chilled, the lunch perfectly prepared and the handsome skipper has already charted a course for a secluded little cove, it’s quite likely that your Italian hostess will at some point blurt out, “This Is Italy”.

Some hours later when the traffic on the highway to Rome isn’t moving because roadworks that have been going on for years have reduced six lanes of two-way traffic down to half a lane on a Sunday evening, your hostess will slam the palm of one hand against the dashboard and make some gesture with the other and shout, “This Is Italy!” In that simple outburst is a weary resignation that there’s little she can do as an Italian to change the system – an apology for the pathetic state of the roads and an effective catch-all curse.

Earlier in the week, “This Is Italy” took on a slightly new twist when I boarded a Lufthansa Italia flight from Barcelona to Milan Malpensa. Not to be confused with the German aviation group’s Air Dolomiti brand, which feeds traffic into Germany’s long-haul network in Munich, Lufthansa Italia is a completely new airline that looks and generally sounds like the German national carrier but does so with a few charming Italian touches mixed with a bit of sound Teutonic discipline. On board the crew sports a slightly different uniform, the menu feels more Bologna than Berlin and there seemed to be some excitement about the espresso machine in the galley as the flight attendants were more than keen to show off their barista skills.

From the cockpit the captain was reassuringly German, and there was a sense from his weather observations that he was going to weave his little Airbus around the choppy weather swirling around the Med and get everyone to the furniture fair in Milan swiftly and safely.

On more than a few occasions in my turbulent love affair with Italy I’ve commented on how the country has single-handedly managed to destroy not only its national carrier but also its reputation as a leader on the high seas and in the air. What became of the country that once had ocean liners with interiors by Gio Ponti and airline ticket offices designed by him as well? Why did Alitalia never seize the high ground in Europe and fashion itself as the most chic airline in the skies? Why didn’t Italy Incorporated see the opportunities to pool its skills in aerospace, industrial design and hospitality to become a serious global force in the travel business?

As we dropped through the clouds over Genoa, it was clear that many at Lufthansa must have been having similar thoughts – and while the ambitions of the airline’s board are unlikely to extend to creating an integrated Italian travel brand, there is no doubt in my mind that they see a lot of unhappy passengers in Piemonte, Lombardy and Veneto aching for a new carrier to connect them to the rest of the world.

Touching down at Malpensa, there was hardly an Alitalia aircraft in sight. Which is why it wasn’t hard to imagine that Lufthansa, with a bit of hard work, could virtually own the entire airport and create a hub that just might upset Alitalia’s plans to turn Rome’s Fiumicino into Italy’s sole long-haul international airport. For the moment Lufthansa Italia is basing only short-haul aircraft at Malpensa but I wouldn’t be surprised, once market conditions improve, if there is soon a clutch of long-haul aircraft lining the tarmac to whisk residents of Milan, Bergamo and Torino to New York or Hong Kong.

Lufthansa is perhaps the first of many companies that see “This Is Italy” not so much an excuse for the shortcomings of a nation but an opportunity to fill some of the inevitable gaps left open by businesses that are not up for the task and a government that’s not interested in showing the way.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle
More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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