Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Young life: Why are Brits incapable of living well?

I discovered La Dolce Vita in Italy and I've fallen out of love with my homeland
November 1, 2023

Jess Glynne blared as I boarded my flight to London Stansted. Suitcase in tow, I looked despondently for my assigned seat. This was the inevitable trip back to the UK that I’d been dreading since my first mouthful of cacio e pepe.

I must now face the consequences of my summer fling, my dizzying week-long love affair with antiquity, fresh pasta and (of course) hot waiters. I went away expecting nothing and have returned in love with Italy. Like all successful seductions, my affair has made me reconsider my relationship with Britain. 

Having experienced the leisurely approach to life in Italy, I’ve found it hard to reconcile myself to my native country’s (both cultural and climatic) coldness. Thanks to Britain’s deeply entrenched Protestant work ethic—an ideology cemented during the Industrial Revolution that seems to underpin our obsession with hustling and the grind—we, as a nation, seem unable to relax. Our stiff upper lip is unwavering; to relax our muscles and embrace a leisurely life would be considered lazy and uncouth. 

This inexplicable sense of urgency is, of course, at its peak in the capital. In London there is no such thing as relaxation. I went to a spa for my recent birthday and had one of the most invigorating sensory experiences of my life, but immediately emerged into Soho, where soot and sex shops abound. 

Eve Babitz, 1970s author and party girl, wrote of New York: “There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind.” She could have easily been describing London. In a city of infinite variety and energy, it is impossible to stop—the currents are far too strong for my feeble frame. 

In Italy, however, they seem to indulge in the day: pleasure and leisure feel like core cultural principles, particularly in Umbria, where my friends and I spent much of our time. Lunch breaks can last for hours, museum workers usher you out so that they can leave not one minute after closing (and rightly so). 

This is not at all to suggest that Italy is a “lazy” country; the time, energy and craft they devote to their food outshines anything the UK could possibly accomplish. We are in far too much of a rush to focus on the details. At one restaurant, in one of the many piazze we lunched in, the chef/owner came over to us bearing a truffle. He mimed a grating motion and said a few familiar words like “bufala” and “formaggio”—we nodded politely (unsure of what was going on) and he emerged five minutes later with a spectacular platter of creamy mozzarella. 

I cannot stress enough how delicious this was. The chef, an older gentleman who flitted between the kitchen and the patio for cigarette breaks, came out to see how we were finding his masterful concoction of truffle, garlic and fresh Italian cheese. We nodded enthusiastically and he explained that his restaurant was in fact the only place we could eat this dish—it was his brainchild. How could anyone go back to the UK after that? 

My relationship with my home country has soured. I have returned from Italy to confront a stale marriage with a homeland towards which I feel a growing resentment. A reasonable proportion of this resentment is rooted in Brexit; a reckless political play and a referendum that I—as a 16-year-old—had no say in. People talk dreamily of their years spent in mainland Europe, working in Germany or nannying in Spain. While living abroad is still a possibility, to do so in the majority of Europe now requires mountains of paperwork and hoops to jump through that exist directly as a result of Brexit. 

I don’t usually get political in my writing (I’m lazy and a bit of a coward), but the fact that my generation had no say in an enormous political decision—one the British population knew so little about when the referendum took place—boils my piss. 

And I know this sounds dramatic—exactly like something a “snowflake” would say—but sometimes it feels as though I’m on a sinking ship, where resources are dwindling, hope is fading and the captain has fallen alseep at the wheel. Escaping to the rest of Europe (even just for a few years) isn’t as easy as it once was. 

Between the Tory government and the pandemic, I feel I have lost so much in the way of time and opportunities usually afforded to people in their twenties. How am I supposed to make the most of this period of my life when so many doors have been seemingly glued shut by my predecessors?