Part One: Where’s Your Boat?
I lived in Rome for a year not long ago. And one night I met an American society princess. She is blond, with crystalline blue eyes and cheekbones made of fine spun sugar. I will not write her name here, mostly because that would make her very happy. There was a constant flow of society princesses through Rome, as if there were a society princess conveyer belt that passed through the Spanish Steps. Somehow my wife and I ended up having drinks with her, among a group of self-styled Roman aristocrats and American Europhiles at a small wine bar in Trastevere. She was on her way to Sardinia, the princess. Had I ever been to Sardinia?I had not. But it sounded nice. You know, if it was good enough for Silvio Berlusconi—former Italian prime minister and a very rich man who is unafraid to enjoy his richness flamboyantly—there was probably something to the place.
“You must do Sardinia in a boat,” she said.
“That’s really the only way to experience it.”
Could you do Sardinia in, like, a raft?Or what if you just walked around in a double-breasted blue blazer with brass buttons?I asked these questions aloud. Because, I said, I didn’t actually have a boat to do Sardinia with. Can you believe it? I think she got my drift. Maybe I could stay on her boat sometime, let’s be sure to be in touch when we never speak again. This was a common experience in Rome, especially among the chillingly friendly class of decaying Roman aristocracy: I was constantly being invited to summer homes and Alpine redoubts by people who actually just wanted to end our conversation at a cocktail party. Not that I always hung out with decaying aristocrats. Who didn’t like me. This is coming out all wrong. But the place a lot of these people were (not really) inviting me to was Sardinia, which, they explained, was not like I thought it was, not all glossy telephoto pictures of Gisele Bündchen’s ass in the pages of Us magazine, but in fact the most beautiful place on earth. There were rustic villages. There was great wine. But mostly, of course, it is the ur–beach vacation spot for the Italians, the master race of seaside lounging.
If you don’t believe this about the Italians, go to Rome in August, when everyone disappears. Everyone. You can’t buy a newspaper because the vendor is at the beach. You can’t get an espresso because the barista who makes it is at the beach. You can’t even, and I’m not kidding, give the homeless guy on the Ponte Sisto the remainders of a pizza because he has taken his 12 dogs to the Adriatic and will reappear in the fall looking tan, rested, and ready to recommence his alcoholic decline. The beach vacation in Italy is not a question of class, it’s a question (like good tomatoes or the two-hour lunch, demanded by all social strata) of inalienable rights. And if I did not experience the Italian beach vacation, I was told by many people—especially Americans who like to chalk up Italian indulgence as cultural investigation—I would not experience Italy. Fair enough. I would conduct my study on Italian culture in Sardinia. And I would start in a boat.