It was a Monday afternoon at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport. The queue outside the security checkpoint in the departure hall was getting longer. Losing their patience, two Germans began to shout loudly: “Chaos like this you only find in Italy!”

An Italian in the queue turned to the annoyed Germans, anger on his face. “Germans never change,” he said in English, stressing each word. “You always know everything better and you always look down on us.” The Germans fell silent, and from then on the Italian ignored them. Because they both were flying to different destinations, a little later neither heard the captain of the Lufthansa flight to Düsseldorf come on over the public address. “We should be taking off in half an hour,” he said. “With the Italians, though, you never know.”

The episode happened around the time the Berlusconi government was on its last legs. Half of Europe was laughing at Italy then, and perhaps Germany was laughing a little louder. The third-largest economy in Europe was seen mostly as a scenic backdrop for bunga-bunga parties – seriously in debt, and for that very reason not taken seriously.

The Chancellor had never openly criticised Berlusconi, merely largely ignored him – and Italy. Relations between the countries were at the freezing point, as was the personal relationship between the East German pastor's daughter and the party animal from Lombardy who loved a dirty joke.

That helped explain Merkel’s enormous popularity in Italy. For many of those Italians who suffered under Berlusconi, she embodied those German virtues that the political class in Rome had long parted company with: an appreciation for the common good, restraint, and integrity.

Berlusconi era already seems years in the past

But for two months now Italy has been ruled by a man who, apart from these qualities, possesses a few that Merkel lacks. A certain cosmopolitanism for example, as well as profound economic expertise and the determination that comes with it.

There was some amusement in Italy when the German media tagged Mario Monti and the new ECB chief Mario Draghi as “Prussian Italians”. Monti had hardly moved into the Palazzo Chigi before the pristine image of Angela Merkel began to tarnish. The luminary reduced to the role of maestrina, a somewhat narrow-minded teacher who raps the knuckles of the rebellious students in the class, never grasping that sometimes they’re precisely the ones who actually have the better ideas.

When Berlusconi stepped down, to relief all round, Germany was swiftly singled out in Rome as the biggest problem for Europe. In Germany, “policies are made by the barometer of public opinion,” remarked Giovanni Moro, a son of the assassinated Christain Democrat Aldo Moro. “With its rigid dogmatism Merkel's Germany is risking not only the euro but the entire Union,” wrote one journalist close to Monti.

Inexorably, the feeling is getting around Rome: “We can do it differently – the Germans can’t.” In his first appearance before the foreign press Mario Monti rhapsodised at length about Scandinavia. The merits of the northern European countries have been overlooked by Europe for far too long. Europe need not convalesce, the message goes, strictly German-style. There are other models too.

With Monti, Italy has won back its self-confidence. Within a strikingly short time, drastic austerity measures and reforms have been implemented, privileges stripped away, and tax evaders convicted. The Berlusconi era already seems years in the past.

Italian way of life assiduously copied

Before his first official visit to Berlin, Monti did something that Berlusconi would have never dared: he presented some demands to his German colleague. Germany and France, he declared, should no longer take an “overly authoritarian” stance. He reminded both big partners of their EU policy mistakes, and warned Angela Merkel of anti-German protests in Italy if Berlin fails to acknowledge his government’s efforts.

Angela Merkel's praise for Monti's reform policy was accepted with some relief in Rome – but with annoyance, as well, that this praise is always a little condescending. “The culture of stability imposed by Germany is extremely valuable,” Monti told the Financial Times, “but the more clearly the indebted countries show they have understood the need for the discipline, the more the Germans ought to relax.”

The Germans will have to get used to the Italians reading the riot act to them, as among friends. For a long time it was the other way around. German nationalism has always defined itself in contrast to Italy.

The Italian way of life, however, has been assiduously copied by the Germans. Pasta, balsamic vinegar and olive oil are as widespread north of the Alps as south of them, and more espresso machines are now sold in Germany than in Italy. Sometimes it seems as if the Germans are better at being Italian than the Italians are.

But what will happen now if all at once the Italians want to be the better Germans? Both efforts can only be good for Europe.