Around a Sardinian table
April was lovely, as always, in Sardinia. The summer tourists had not yet arrived; the island was covered with wildflowers and the wild asparagus was pushing up among the cork trees.
This spring felt especially healing after the death and destruction wrought by cyclone Cleopatra last November. The storm had damaged my 84-year-old father’s house, and I had come to deal with the repairs.
Sardinia is a special autonomous region of Italy, with greater local control of legislation, administration and finance than in other Italian regions. It is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, with which it shares representation in the European Parliament. A hardscrabble life, shaped by the island’s unique language, environment and history, has given Sardinians a strong sense of identity, which they struggle to defend against the forces of cultural and economic integration with Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world.
My Sardinian friends organized a special dinner for me featuring a traditional suckling pig roasted on myrtle branches, as well as Sardinian wines, including Cannonau. Eventually, the conversation veered into the contentious realm of Italian politics and the upcoming European parliamentary elections.
The men on either side of me locked into a debate in rapid-fire Italian that I, the lone American, strained to follow. One guest was a convert to the populist Five Star Movement of comedian-turned-political-activist Beppe Grillo. Both of Italy’s main political parties, he argued, were beholden to the same powerful business and Mafia interests. Only the Five Star party had the courage to chart a path out of Italy’s political quagmire and its enslavement to a European Union co-opted by international business interests.
The other guest argued just as passionately that Grillo was a dangerous populist and that Italy’s best hope lay with the center-left Democratic Party, Italy’s new prime minister, the 39-year-old go-getter, Matteo Renzi, and Renato Soru, Sardinia’s own Internet billionaire and the Democratic Party’s candidate to represent Sardinia and Sicily in the European Parliament. One of the other guests chimed in to say the real danger was Silvio Berlusconi and his conservative Forza Italia party, along with the extreme-right Northern League.
Sardinia has a rich history of invasion and exploitation by outsiders. Now the lack of jobs forces many of the island’s sons and daughters to leave to seek employment on the Italian mainland and beyond. Per capita income in Sardinia is nearly 25 percent lower than the Italian average, and unemployment tops 18 percent.
The traditional handicrafts industry has been eviscerated. Middle-class tourism has nose-dived.
At the same time, the superrich continue to flock to Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda where Berlusconi owns a multimillion-dollar estate and Qatar Holding has announced plans to build new ultraluxury hotels and an aquatic amusement park.
But a tourism-dependent economy has compounded the estrangement many Sardinians feel toward their homeland and culture. Some still dream of seceding from Italy entirely, and the recent vote, largely symbolic, by Venetians to do just that has inspired them.
Beyond Italy, many see global economic integration as the greatest threat Sardinian culture has ever faced. While the European Union’s money is welcomed — Sardinia benefits from union designation as a region targeted for economic improvement — the additional layer of European rules imposed on the island’s small business owners and agriculturalists is resented.
The United States is now lobbying hard in the proposed trans-Atlantic trade deal to crack European resistance to U.S. agribusiness products, generally characterized by European news media as hormone-laden beef, bleach-rinsed chicken and genetically modified foods. This does not go over well in Italy, and many Sardinians fear the agreement, if approved, would create a supragovernmental set of rules dictated by powerful multinational corporations that would threaten a central part of Sardinian culture: local food. Similar fears are driving the rise of euro-skepticism and secession talk elsewhere in Europe in advance of the European parliamentary elections next week.
At the end of the evening, I asked one of my Sardinian friends about the movement to have the island adopted by Switzerland. “Too much Cannonau can make everything seem possible,” he said with a laugh.
Mira Kamdar is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.