After leaving University clutching a handwritten, gravy-stained bachelor's degree in Special Italian (the most unfortunate of titles, you must agree), I lost no time in pondering my hugely narrowed career options. I had by then resolved that I could never live in Italy again (though I did later for three months in Verona, until I could stand it no more), and even working in close proximity to them would have me gnawing things at regular intervals. I have nothing against the nation as a race, but they are just so entirely different from us that I could never fit into their way of doing things, despite years of trying in a vain attempt to find happiness in any place other. Nine months spent on the picturesque but cramped hill called Urbino, the Renaissance equivalent of Corfe Castle whose delights could comfortably be taken in before elevenses, had driven me to a deep despair.
Naïve attempts to befriend the locals had been hampered by our collective cultural baggage. Gianni, a short Neapolitan who always engaged me in conversation about Eugenio Montale's hermetic poetry, as I'd mistakenly mentioned I had to read it for one of my courses and was finding it, well, a little obscure, amused himself by playing with me like a cat with an injured bird. “Next time I go to Napoli,” he'd announce with a flourish, “You're coming with me as a guest of my family.” Bags packed and shoes polished, every bank holiday I'd end up sitting lonely in my room gazing at yet another interminable sunset until I saw him once again in the cafeteria some days later. “NEXT time I go to Napoli,” he'd state dramatically, oblivious to my glaring cynicism and putting his arm around my shoulder in a heterosexual way only Latins can pull off, “You're coming with me, as a guest of my family.” This pantomime went on for the best part of a year. To be fair, if I were him, I don't think I'd have wanted to present me to my family, but there was no reason I could see for his pretending he did.
So, on to my experience with the European Commission. Eager to live it up in Brussels on the hefty salary of a European civil servant, I sent off an application to do an entry test for the bureaucratic underworld that runs the EEC. My best friend was also trying his hand, as he had a degree in Politics and had been on a trip to the Commission as part of his course, but information was hard to come by due to the fact that he'd completed missed the guided tour of their facilities. He recalled, scratching himself, that he'd woken up a couple of hours after answering his telephoned alarm call with the receiver still in his hand, with hazy recollections of having spent the previous evening drinking lager from a glass cowboy boot.
Wembley Arena was the location we were summoned to to take the entry tests. We sat in rows, as is traditional in tests, the British candidates silently working away at their responses in customary, unspoken endeavour. To our left there was what can only be described as a fish market going on, all squawking young women and gesticulating young bucks in a state of electric animation that contrasted starkly with myself and my nose-to-the-paper countrymen. This was the “Foreign Nationals” section of the candidates, and they were clearly intent on exercising a lot of supra-national co-operation to get their tanned hides past Commission security.
The “invigilators” did absolutely nothing. The ones tasked with controlling the rabble on our left flank all appeared to be foreigners themselves, and were quite happy to passively watch their faustian antics - their country's representation within the Commission would be strengthened by having as many fellow nationals working there as possible, after all. The British invigilator, a crushed, awkwardly thin middle ager with a moustache of pure nicotine, wandered aimlessly around the room pretending it was all nothing to do with him.
This was in the days before mobile phones, but I've since heard stories of candidates openly phoning people outside the examination hall to get answers, with no adverse consequences for their application.
I failed the test by the margin of 0.2 of a point, or something ridiculous, a result I have always silently questioned.