Or: The Top Five Reasons to Live in Sardinia
1. It takes longer to grow old.
While haggling with a hairdresser about an abandoned piece of farmland we were interested in buying, I had an epiphany. She was in her mid-sixties and was talking about one of her neighbor’s wells. “I was there the other day with the girls when I saw it was uncovered,” she exclaimed. “It’s so deep, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if one of the children had fallen in.” I told her not to worry, that I had been there just the day before and the well had been covered. She was surprised to hear it, though relieved, and we continued our delicate bartering. Only after another half hour did I realize that she was not referring to a recent walk she had taken with her grandchildren, but rather one with her daughters thirty years ago. It wasn’t the first time that I had noticed the continuity of the past in the Sardinian present. But it was then that I realized that Sardinians truly do have a different way of viewing the passage of time.
This can have its disadvantages - unfinished buildings perpetually under construction, dragging bureaucracy, and the tragic sight of young men growing old at the bar - but it is also a refreshing contrast to the lightning-fast changes happening elsewhere in the world. We move through phases and trends ever more quickly, and feel ever more strongly the pressures of getting everything done as quickly as possible, only to start over the next day. And so Sardinia gives you permission to think twice, to stop a minute to greet a friend, to reflect. Because if you’re going to live until 100, then you’re still young at 80.
2. The masters always come home.
There is much faith in the magic of the circular on this island. It is, after all, the shape of the moon and the sun and the womb and the physical representation of every life cycle, not to mention, the shape of the ubiquitous prehistoric structure: the nuraghe. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is one particular unspoken cycle here: A young and enterprising Sardinian leaves home in pursuit of fame, fortune, opportunity or knowledge. And then he/she returns home, oftentimes in the hope of bringing that exciting world of innovation and style back with him/her.
Because of this, Sardinia is a veritable gem for adventurous and friendly travelers. Each town - tiny or large - has outsized treasures: you can find the stunningly perfect Stazione dell’Arte dedicated to the career of artist Maria Lai in Ulassai (pop. 1500), the exquisite, award-winning chocolates of German-born Stefano Peano at Artigiani del Dolce in Ozieri (pop. 11,000), and the opulent, extravagant beauties of fashion designer Antonio Marras in Alghero (pop. 44,000), to name just three. Traveling through the island, with the myriad museums and the exceptional surprises you find, it begins to feel like each small town has at least one resident celebrity - whether it be artist, scientist, designer, chef or revolutionary. So sidle on up to the bar, and strike up a conversation with the unassuming guy to your right. He may just be an expert in acoustic guitar and Sardinian music.
3. It reminds you of what it means to be good. (Or the magic of s'aggiuru turrau.)
If you want to discuss the minute differences between cultures along with all of their virtues and their flaws for every day of the rest of your life, marry someone from a different country. Eventually, after years of fierce debate, you’ll both agree that every people, every country, every culture has its terrible disgraces and its inspiring integrities.
And so, out comes the terrible, devastating truth of envy in the Sardinian culture. It is the saddest of senseless tales and the rawest of hates. “Envy kills more Sardinians than malaria,” said Emilio Lussu at a time when the island was still infested with the disease. And the oft-repeated joke is that a Sardinian, when offered to choose a reward from God, all the while knowing his neighbor will receive double his fortune, responds, “Gouge out one of my eyes.”
And yet in the past this debilitating envy did not live alone. It was countered by something stronger and more honorable - an innate goodness, a dependency on one another that goes unquestioned. When, more recently than you think, most people grew their own food, built their own tools and sewed their own clothes, each family in a small village would take turns baking bread once a week. They would never make just enough bread for themselves, but rather would bake bread for all of their neighbors as well, knowing that the next family would in turn make bread for them.
S’aggiuru turrau means “the help that comes back,” but more generally refers to the idea of offering a hand to those in need, with the knowledge that you will one day need too. This beautiful and simple notion of goodness was the basis of all of Sardinian culture. Today the strong rift of sudden modernity that arrived in the 70’s has removed much of what defined this island in the past. But Sardinians are still loyal to whoever is true to them; they are troubled if they see you in distress; they are warm and gracious to strangers. They may stare unwaveringly at the blond woman speaking English at the greengrocer's, but one big smile and you are theirs forever.
4. You’ll never be bored.
The island is relatively small (about the size of Vermont), but there are oak forests and sand dunes and rocky promontories and snowy mountain ranges and vast wheat plains and scraggy pastures, all of which is then wrapped up by an endless ribbon of sparkling coastline. Six separate languages are spoken on the island; with the various Sardinian dialects, it can be segmented even further. Each area has its own architecture and its own culinary history. It is one island - a mini-nation - that has nurtured and protected each micro-culture as a precious contribution to its diversity.
5. Old women hold your hand.
Whenever you meet an older woman on the street, she will grab your hands as you lean in for the traditional kisses on the cheek. It’s wonderfully steadying, since usually you’ll need to bend down quite a bit to reach her (the average Sardinian grandmother is not much more than five feet tall). And once you’ve separated and said your name and a wide smile has broken out on her face at meeting you, there is an awkward beat. Because she’s still holding your hand, usually in both of her own. The conversation lengthens, as she asks you questions in Sardinian, overlooking the fact that you don’t speak the language. And all the while she’s holding your hand - stroking it and squeezing it and patting it in approval as she smiles.
It feels conspicuous and strange. After all you don’t hold a stranger’s hand in public for the entire length of a conversation. And you think about maybe taking it back when she turns and smiles at you with her eyes and you realize that it has been so long since a complete stranger treated you with such kindness and warmth. You fight your discomfort and enjoy the feeling of being held on to. You squeeze her hand back and she gathers your whole arm to her, as if you were a kitten. And when the conversation ends, she pulls you to her and pats you on the cheek and wishes you tante belle cose (“so many good things”) and sends her love to your family and you walk away feeling just a bit more human.
*Many thanks to Lele Saveri, Giorgio Di Salvo and Federico Peltretti for always having their cameras at the ready.
**This letter is dedicated to the memory of Annetta Nonnis (1922-2015), the first Sardinian woman to welcome me into her home, pinch my cheek affectionately and yell at me whenever I spoke in English.