When I first clambered onto the Italian carousel, at Piazza della Fontana di Trevi, my impressions were a kind of paean to the seriousness of Roman life. Now, some four years later and roughly 400 kilometers to the south, I find myself in Palermo, marveling at the essential childishness of the people. I dare say that those who would seize upon this apparent contradiction, suggesting that the dreamer has finally come down to earth, have never been to a fairground and never bothered to observe children at play.
There are, after all, some children who are good—that is to say, serious—although they are usually a beleaguered minority. They are the ones whose games are a pleasure to watch. Obviously, this does not mean one can ask them to balance the checkbook or move the car, and at times they may seem somewhat boisterous, but on the whole they are an altogether different breed from the autistic, rowdy, collectivist animals that the term “jungle gym”—fusing, as the Protestant world often does, the untrammeled nature of J.J. Rousseau with the careful nurture of Hitler Youth—brings to mind. In fact, nice children are as unlike these gum-chewing automatons as St. Francis of Assisi is unlike Martin Luther, or as the Mediterranean is unlike the North Sea. So if the Italians are at all like children, then my argument is that they are like nice children.
The island of Panarea, where I spent a couple of weeks honing that point to satisfaction, is one of the half-dozen small volcanic islands that lie off the northern coast of Sicily. Unlike its equally beautiful Eolian neighbors (Stromboli, Salina, Lipari, Alicudi, Filicudi, and Vulcano), which are mostly visited by families from Naples and Palermo during the summer holidays—cue the 1950’s, old issues of Life stacked up in the whitewashed boathouse, and the canoe scene from The Seven-Year Itch—Panarea of late has been making the society pages of glossy magazines in Milan, Paris, and London. The reason is Raya, and Raya is un night pieno di vip.
Before this charming and, in Anglo-American social terms, hopelessly misleading formulation can be interpreted, I ask the reader to follow me to a very different playground, whose nightlife I had had the opportunity to observe earlier in the summer. Ibiza, where some English friends of mine just bought a house in the hills, is only nominally part of Catholic Spain, its summer population almost entirely made up of nightclub revelers from Britain, Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries, with a sprinkling of Americans to lend authenticity to the enterprise. This is because all the music played in the island’s clubs by celebrity disc jockeys, the most established among them earning $100,000 an hour, is American, in the sense that all the amplified noise, a prerecorded combination of words and sounds, is produced and packaged in the United States.
I thought I had some inkling of what that meant, recalling successfully a popular song from the late 1970’s entitled Ring My Bell. In retrospect, I’m proud to remember the name of the diva, Anita Ward, whose offering astonished me at the time by its almost Sapphic simplicity. But in Ibiza, I realized that, as a composer, compared to the American music now going, Miss Ward was Mahler, if not Schoenberg. As a poet, she was difficult, almost obscure. I’m no musician, but the lyric content of what I heard in Ibiza was along these lines: “Piece . . . of . . . meat. / Piece . . . of . . . meat. / Piece . . . of . . . meat.”
Even after a quarter of an hour, or roughly five minutes to make out each word, I could still have been wrong, of course. It might have been fuzzy feet, or ear of wheat, or peace to Crete, or something about the heat.
Eight of us ended up in the “VIP section” of a nightclub named Pacha, leaving behind $2,000. Commercially speaking, these establishments are extremely conventional catharsis machines that operate exactly like the strip joints of old Soho, where a Japanese tourist in London might go, attracted by the false advertising of all manner of debauchery over the front door, only to be robbed of his cash and credit cards and thrown out the back into an even smellier alley. Culturally speaking, however, they are a thing to see, because, while the elevated “VIP section” was still empty at 5:00 A.M., obviously as symbolic as the cake to which young debutantes used to curtsy in the absence of royalty, the dance floor below was the dialectical synthesis of the “individual conscience” of Luther and the “proletarian masses” of Marx. Of course, I always knew they were one and the same, these two Kraut bugaboos, but it isn’t often that one actually gets to stare into the dilated pupils of one’s political intuition.
The spectacle I was witnessing had little to do with drugs, despite Ibiza’s reputation as the drug capital of Europe. It had little to do with morality and immorality, with sex and rock ’n’ roll. What lay before me on the dance floor below, stretching as far as the eye could see, had come straight from archival footage of a Nuremberg rally. “Piece of meat,” roared the state-of-the-art speaker, and 5,000 bodies jerked as one in reply. As at Nuremberg, it did not really matter what the lyric content was, and whether the larger-than-life speaker was denouncing the Jews who would take away our meat or lauding the Gentiles who would bring peace to Crete. It was not the heat; it was the anonymity.
“Brutta gente,” is what an Italian would sadly murmur in the circumstances, addressing nobody in particular. “Horrible people.” The antonym of this, in his frame of reference, would be vip, which no more means VIP than night means a place like Pacha. The Italian may think it means Milanese industrialists and Roman television personalities, but what it really, honestly means is people just like himself, gente per bene, ordinary, well-dressed people with good jobs, big mortgages, and aged parents. Like the bar of the Hotel de la Poste in Cortina in winter, Raya on Panarea is full of them. Being nice children, they are a pleasure to watch as they drink, dine, and dance on the endless terrace overhanging a moonlit sea.
Unlike their autistic, rowdy, collectivist counterparts, they don’t want to forget their failed lives and dissolve in the mass anonymity of the global march to progress. Indeed, what is there to forget if you are a 20-year-old boy from Treviso? You have a loving family, a mother who phones you on the mobile to check if you’ve made it to the discotheque, and a beautiful younger sister who is already there, dancing with your best friend. All your friends are just like yourself, sowing their wild oats, and your wise father approves but reminds you that moderation is everything. If you want to become a painter or a playwright, instead of going into the family’s lumber business, that’s fine too, and even in faraway Notting Hill, you know that you’ll be supported and coddled as long as necessary. And let us not forget your grandmother, who is always there for you with her pasta al forno.
Indeed, what march to progress can there be when, 20 years later, you are a vip, dining at Raya on Panarea of a summer’s night, and your sister is married to your best friend, and your mother still phones you four times a day, and you’ve long since diversified your family business and now own the company that manufactures newsprint for Corriere della Sera? Of course, their society reporters know you, and their photographers take pictures of you for the gossip column, and everyone in Milan says, “You know, I saw him at Raya. Un night bellissimo. Yes, it was pieno di vip.” And then the ignorant foreigners, from Paris Match and Harper’s & Queen hear all this, and repeat like parrots: “VIP! VIP! Just like Ibiza! But the food is Italian! Bellissimo!”
Ask me if I’m dreaming. Ask me if this is an old episode of Father Knows Best, or a chapter of Doctor Zhivago, or some other, still more fanciful, idealization of the good life in the eye of the proletarian hurricane. No, I tell you. This really is the truth. This really is how nice children play. This is the last cigar in Moscow. This is Italy.