I went to Europe to get away from British politics – then someone clocked my accent

At least I’ve mastered Italian. Well, enough to sing “Jealous Guy” and discuss the works of Caravaggio.

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So I go to Rome to get over my dangerous obsession with Boris Johnson and what happens? You know what happens. Look, I don’t want to talk about it, I say, when Roman waiters, on hearing my accent, ask me what Theresa May was thinking of. And once they see my look of honest pain, they leave off the subject, and I can get on with enjoying the Eternal City.

I’ve been there three times before; each time I found it oppressive, utterly unlike the quainter Italian towns I knew (the usual middle-class trail in Tuscany, basically, but once, a long time ago, I went on the back of my friend Dave’s motorbike from Rome to Venice and got to take in pretty much everything in between). Rome was too big, too hot, too old. The ancient ruins seemed out of context with the rest of the city, as if they were the afterthought, not the buildings around them.

I think I get it now. On each of my visits here Dave has marched me round his city, showing off everything of interest that can be fitted in before I collapse and start begging for an absolutely enormous glass of something cold and refreshing, eg, a gin and tonic the size of the Coliseum. This, despite my constant stopping off at the nasoni – the “big noses”, the drinking fountains of Rome. The water is cool and delicious, things I don’t often say about water, and I drank so much of it on the first day that my kidneys went into shock.

And then I remembered the drinking fountains of my early youth. I particularly recall the one by the children’s boating pond in Regent’s Park, which my grandmother would always take me to. You pushed a large metal knob with some difficulty (if you were a not very strong six-year-old) and were rewarded with a jet of cold water arcing into your mouth. There was something magical about it, and one was grateful for the fountains – there were quite a few of them around – because they seemed to be an explicit promise from the powers that be that, come what may, even if you had no money at all, you would, at least, never go thirsty.

The contract between the government and its people was torn up on 4 May 1979, and since then anything that impedes the flow of money from the public into private hands has been under attack, at differing rates of speed.

It’s too depressing. I will instead share with you the most extraordinary discovery about the Italian language that has ever been made. As a backdrop, I should point out that while my comprehension of written Italian is pretty good – sub-O-level standard, perhaps, but serviceable – I lose all confidence when speaking it, and pick up about one word in five when it’s spoken to me. This is a source of some shame, not to mention occasional confusion. However, because I’ve hung around Italians so often and for so long, my accent, once I use it, is pretty good.

And here is the discovery, co-authored with Dave years ago, now put to the test. It is this: if you speak English in exactly the same way as you’d pronounce it if it was Italian, you will be understood by Italians. Example: were you to sing the John Lennon song “Jealous Guy” using this method, the words would sound like this: “Ee didn’t may-ann too oort yow, eem yoost a yellouse gwee.” (With maybe a hint of an “a” between “oort” and “yow”, and the “ou” of “yellouse” as the “ow” in “frown”.)

At first Dave’s wife, Donatella, who is not confident in English, thought we were taking the piss. I bet you’re thinking that, too, and maybe also “I didn’t realise Lezard was such a Little Englander”, but I swear, it’s true. You have to be good at it, though, and consistent; but it actually forces you into a kind of discipline that steers you towards universal comprehensibility. Also, you start using your hands a lot; you look people directly in the eye. In short, you become a bit Italian, without any effort whatsoever.

But I do love a bit of linguistic confusion. My friend Malgosia, Polish but resident in Rome for about twenty years, now speaks English with a Polish-Italian inflection that is really quite charming. Her English may not be perfect but if it had been she would not have mentioned, in a theological discussion kicked off by seeing the Caravaggios in San Luigi dei Francesi, “the Holy Threesome”. It’s just as well we’d left the church by the time she made the inadvertent joke, otherwise we would have been thrown out, so loud and long did I laugh. l

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue