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Essential Differences – an excerpt from Sardinia

There is not in Italy what there is in Sardinia, nor in Sardinia what there is in Italy.

Francesco Cetti, 18th-century Jesuit scientist

Cetti was discussing flora, but that’s just the start. If you spend some time on Sardinia, you may find yourself forgetting that it's an island altogether. One of its nicknames is 'the other continent', a continent that has been there in the centre of Western civilization for millennia, and yet on the fringes, remote and detached and timeless, just far away enough to be alternative world that remembers things the rest of Europe has forgotten. Not even the conformist pressures of modern society have succeeded in changing its heart. The coasts perhaps- before the war they were malarial swamps. But not the heart.

Decades ago the cliché went that one visits Sardinia not for the sights but for the atmosphere. Which of course isn't entirely true; Sardinia may not have produced any Michaelangelos, but it does have its masterpieces; the whole island is a Sistine Chapel of beaches, a prehistoric Field of Miracles, a Vatican Museum of fragrance. However, what makes this big island so compelling is something more than these. The word is sardità, its 'Sardness', the uncompromised integrity of its essential way of life. People inevitably think of themselves as Sardinian first and Italian second (or sometimes even third, after European). A book written once about Sardinia was entitled The Unconquered Island, and it's true. Invaded and exploited it has been, yes, but not conquered. Until the 20th century the Sardinians looked inward, turning their backs on the beautiful sea that surrounds them. 'Furat chi beit dae su mare,' they used to say ('He who comes from the sea comes to rob.')

Another nickname is the Island of Silence, and, even if you come in August, if you head for the hills and mountains you can test the truth of that for yourself. There is something deep and ancient and poetic about these landscapes; you can feel the silence of the old sacred places, a numinous aura left by ancient devotion. But it's also true that the Sardinians themselves are not a talkative race (unless you get them going on politics or some other subject dear to their hearts). Nor are they theatrical or gregarious like other Italians, but they look you frankly in the eye and treat you as a human being first before they judge you as anything else. D. H. Lawrence wondered at the boldness of the women. You will probably never meet an obsequious Sardinian.

Centuries of unwelcome guests treating them like second-class citizens may have contributed to the traditional Sardinian reserve. They are also famous for being stubborn, hidebound traditionalists, serious-minded, good fighters, talented poets, lawyers, artists, but almost never sailors (most of the coastal towns were originally populated by colonies of foreigners); iron-stomached, generally modest in demeanour but touchy and very protective of their good name and dignity. Every last Sardinian is firmly convinced that their village is the best in the world, though this is actually a common Italian trait called campanilismo, or attachment to one's own bell tower; some say the reason why they built so many nuraghi was out of a spirit of keeping up with the Joneses. They are intelligent, extremely generous and hospitable, both on a personal level and communally; they are the most profuse blood donors in Italy. As a race they are also prone to a very non-Latin, almost Celtic, wistfulness and melancholy, and in the past have populated their island with all kinds of fairies and giants, dragons and spooks who come out after dark. They may have been relegated to folklore, but even today the Sardinians take more than the national share of antidepressants. They have always been known as maladroit businessmen (there was once, apparently, a funeral director in Cagliari who made a special offer: but two large coffins and get a small one free), but this reputation has been challenged of late by entrepreneurs such as Renato Soru, the billionaire founder of the Cagliari-based internet firm Tiscali. His company, which now operates in 17 European countries, survived the burst of the first dotcom stock bubble and is the most heavily capitalized business in Italy.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls