A few insights from the Gandalf Italian tour - 2 weeks in Umbria followed by two days in Rome when Gandalfette jetted in to shop the Via Del Corso with Mrs. G.
It's as pleasant to speak as it is to hear. From a standing start, I built a vocabulary of over 150 words, and can do all the basics - be polite, count, greet and introduce, order in bar and restaurant, check in to a hotel, hire a car, pay bills. Lots still to do on verbs and tenses, but the Italians are tolerant of error and speak very clearly. Extrapolating, another 200 hours will bring basic fluency.
Is screwed. They've lost faith in their political class & decided that rule from Brussels is less bad than rule from Rome. Makes sense - the average corruption level of the EU is 3.2 (a bit worse than Spain), and Italy's is 5.2, same as Hungary. So, they fly the EU flag most places where they fly the Italian flag. Completely unlike the Brits, who rarely fly the EU flag.
They drive expertly, but take appalling risks - running red lights and overtaking on blind corners is quite normal. However, drivers take this into account, keeping as far right as possible on bends (into the breakdown lane!) since they're likely to meet oncoming traffic in the middle of the road. From an Italian viewpoint, the driver of the Sgrena car behaved quite normally, but unfortunately for his passengers, Italian driving is indistinguishable from Iraqi suicide bomber driving.
Incidentally, according to the BBC, per-capita death rates on Italian roads are over double those in the UK. But, being the BBC, they claim the US is even worse than Italy, which from my experience is unlikely.
1. They think the Brits are honest & brave but insular and with lousy dress sense.
2. They like the Spanish.
3. They think the French haughty and rude, and hate the fact that they have to drive through France to get to Spain. Room for a land-grab here.
4. They don't like anything about the Germans. On our language course they showed us Benigni's Life is Beautiful, the haunting comedy of the Holocaust - I highly recommend it. Every German Dresden-whiner should watch it.
I took a couple of Italy-based detective novels with me, both by Michael Dibden. He's an Italiaphile who is clear-eyed about its blemishes. Cosi Fan Tutti and Blood Rain. Better than any travel guide.
Are variable, depending on the mood of the people providing them. Talking halting Italian helped a lot.
Umbrian folk were friendly, open and practical - rather like Minnesotans. Romans were all over the map but always entertaining - rather like Londoners.
Large parts of Umbria look exactly like the Blue Ridge Mountains. Apparently it's like that over much of Italy. Which explains why in WW2 it took almost 2 years for the Brits and Americans to fight their way up the country and why there are allied cemeteries everywhere.
And of course the food was great.