To quote the writer Ignazio Silone, "Non c'è popolo più triste di questi italiani allegri": there's no sadder people than these happy Italians.
Silone's words came vividly to life for me after I recently went to Marina di Grosseto for a few days' holiday at the beach. You must understand that the seaside--il mare--has both a mythical hold on the Italian imagination, and an iron grip on the collective consciousness. Everyone, I mean everyone must go to the beach for a summer holiday. Like sheeps to the slaughter, Italians go dumbly in droves to lay on their square-meter patch of hedonistic heaven.
Why do they go? It is no secret that Italians love ritual. The Catholic Mass, the morning coffee and brioche at the bar, lunch at 1:00 and dinner at 8:00, the evening passeggiata--all illustrate the ways in which Italians prefer to order their universe. (It could even be argued that these rituals are the anchors in what is otherwise an almost completely disorderly and chaotic existence). The yearly exodus from the cities to the beaches is but another example of the herd mentality that governs much of Italian life.
Now don't get me wrong, I like the beach too. It's just that the kind of beach holiday I have in mind is one of relatively tranquil stretches of clean sand, scattered with a few happily noisy children and their families, quiet couples reading and sunning peacefully, and shore and sea stretching gracefully before the eye like a cat on a sun-washed windowsill--a placid tableau of nature punctuated by some unobtrusive human elements. Il dolce far niente, after all, has its allure.
The reality of many Italian beaches, however, is jarringly different: a honky-tonk atmosphere of carnival madness--great swaths of riotously-colored beach umbrellas as dense as an Amazonian jungle; the bagni blaring announcements over loudspeakers ("Sono arrivati i bomboloni caldi!" "Buon onomastico all'Alessia!" "Oggi è venerdi 17!"); gyrating, noisy crowds; a shoreline that looks like the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela; third-world hawkers of cheap tinselly goods; coconut-sellers with their bawdy calls; sand flying in all directions from over-zealous children; and a sight-line that is wall-to-wall seething flesh. Flesh as far as the eye can see. Flesh of all shapes and sizes and ages: popping out of too-tight bikinis, oozing over tiny Speedos, lithe and muscled in the young and genetically-blessed, buttery and taut in children, withered and leathery in anziani, and watermelon-like pregnant bellies bobbing in the sun. Flesh lounging on chaises, flesh flung in adolescent torpor on towels in the sand, kid flesh industriously building sand-castles of medieval proportions, flesh jiggling, flesh browning, flesh glistening and oiled like some kind of offering to the gods--and always, always, flesh on the move: strolling the water line, going to and from the bar for espresso, gathered in raucous groups smoking and laughing and gesticulating like mad. Flesh flesh flesh! Other than the sea and perhaps a hazy outline of hills in the distance, nature is not visible through this writhing human canvas stretched to the horizons. It seems Italians are happy to swap the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the city for the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the beach--only with a lot less clothing required.
While hiding under my enormous sun hat and watching the spectacle before me, I had an epiphany: why, Italians don't go to the beach for relaxation, or to commune with nature, or for fitness, or even to play--they go for validation. It's the age-old obsession with fare figura (to cut a figure) taken to the extreme. They need to be seen at the beach, they need to show they have been there. They have always gone and they always will go--in short, they need to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. Il mare--that watery redeemer--is an important social ritual to them, however empty it really is, just like going to Mass once a year for many is a knee-jerk reaction to Christmas. Of course, herein lies the monumental importance of l'abbronzatura: the suntan (and the deeper the better, cancer cells be damned) is proof positive of the pilgrimage completed, the gods appeased--it's the ultimate membership card, the prize, the grail brought home.
I'm sure more time and money is spent on the whole cult of the beach than on any other pursuit: there's the season's latest bathing suits that you must have, and only one won't do, you must have 3 or 4. There are the coordinating gauzy, see-thru cover-ups to acquire, and the sequinned infraditi or even high-heel wedgies to totter along the boardwalk in. There are the expensive sun-protection, tanning and post-sun products, the cute tote bags, the colorful towels and straw mats, the vast array of inflatable mastodons and sailing vessels, the shovels and pails and toy bulldozers, the pedicures, the glitter bandanas to protect one's hair, the temporary tattoos--all in service to unabashed hedonism and corpulent consumption. Surely a heavenly being, looking down on this scene, would bet his last shekel that the apocalypse is at hand--for all is vanity, truly.
Watching the undulating and shrill crowds around me, and basking like a cold-blooded lizard under the Tuscan sun, I couldn't help but feel that there is something desperate and rather tragic--yet perhaps even noble--about this beach mania all'italiana. Something akin to instigating a conga line on the Titanic.
My best regards,