A quarter to seven on a fresh, blustery morning in February. I went out on deck thinking it should have been warmer, warmer at least than Genoa, some five hundred kilometres behind to the north. The m/n Torres had come to calmer water since passing a long peninsula that jutted out from the Sardinian mainland, now finally in reach after twelve hours of overnight tossing. In the ship’s bar, I’d found a few unshaven figures sipping at strong black coffee, but in the world of sea and wind outside the door I was alone, except for those who’d been sick.
I leaned on the rail, staring at the sea and the distant coastline, featureless in this pale morning. I recalled how yesterday evening I’d stood watching the lights of Genoa disappear into the night behind; then, with the still gentle plunging up and down of the black Mediterranean beneath the ship, I’d set about exploring, immersing myself in its atmosphere. A small cabin shared with incomprehensible, rough-looking strangers. Sard handicraft in showcases in the corridors. In the bar, I’d studied a map of the island on one wall and then sat watching television, something novel against the incongruous background. For the first time I realized that another language was being spoken around me besides Italian: Sard, which I, a scholar of languages, hadn’t heard of until a month ago. In fact, I’d known nothing about Sardinia at all, except that it was an island below Corsica, shaped almost square, like a distorted shoebox stood on one end. And now I was being taken, impossibly, to a place that didn’t exist outside an atlas.
This morning Sardinia existed, stretching in a thin wedge of grey over the horizon. Somewhere ahead was a place that would have people, its own colour. No longer would it be just a black dot on the map labelled Porto Torres.
I’d worked in a travel business for two years, not counting my summers as a rep during my university vacations—which meant staying at one of the company’s resorts, meeting tourists on their arrival, seeing them into their hotels, and generally being available if they had problems. I immediately thrilled to the idea of Sardinia when my boss in London told me I was to go there, although, at twenty-four, I was too sophisticated to admit it.
He didn’t seem worried about my unfamiliarity with the place, or that I didn’t speak much Italian. “You’ve got a degree in languages, haven’t you? You can learn Italian when you get there. Sardinia’s going to be the fashionable place for tourism in a few years.” He was right. I learned Italian well, and Sardinia would later become fashionable.
At the time, of course, my youthful romanticism about exotic countries was inextricably bound up with the idea of involvement with a local woman—the best way of getting to know a place, I told myself. But with my inborn fear of appearing anything other than an English gentleman, this was difficult. Particularly in Sardinia.
The journey there was trying enough. In the 1960s flying was a luxury, and the company sent me by rail, second class, which meant a Channel crossing from Dover to Ostend, followed by a night of travelling south across Europe, trying to sleep sitting upright in a crowded compartment. A routine trip, until I was jerked awake the next morning at the first stop across the Italian border. Domodossola, I read on the dull brown station signs, a name I knew well from my days of working in the office.
I was about to close my eyes again when I saw a pile of luggage being unloaded onto the platform—and there was my suitcase, which I’d sent through to Genoa. A phlegmatic British Railways official at Victoria had assured me it would travel on the same train as myself, but had said nothing about it being taken off at the border. I jumped to my feet, pushed past the slumbering forms in the compartment, struggled into the corridor, and made for the door.
On the platform I was about to grab my case when a man in a plain grey suit appeared before me, holding up an arm with a red band tied around it. Italian customs, I understood him to say.
I had to open the case while he rummaged through it, taking his time.
I’d just got it closed again when I heard the clanking of wheels behind me. My train was leaving—with my briefcase and coat still on board, en route to Milan, where I had to change to the only train that would get me to Genoa in time to catch the evening ship to Sardinia.
Trying not to panic, I lugged my heavy suitcase into the station to find the departures board. A local train for Milan was due in half an hour, but it would leave me a mere twenty minutes to make my connection. It was late, of course, and by the time it finally pulled into the Milan station I was standing impatiently with my hand on the door, ready to make a run for it, with just six minutes to retrieve my briefcase and coat from some lost luggage office and then find the other train.
Still dragging my heavy suitcase, I plunged along the platform, and to my relief saw the office straightaway. After bursting in, I found the man in charge was talking on the phone. At least my coat and briefcase were on a luggage rack behind the counter.
I hadn’t enough Italian to explain. “Deux minutes!” I shouted in French, gesturing urgently.
Then I was running desperately across the station, struggling with all my luggage to the platform, where the Genoa train was pulling away. A young man lifted my cases from me as I heaved them aboard, and then seized me by the arms and pulled me inside.
* * *
That was all behind me, I thought, as I stood by the ship’s rail in the morning breeze. Now, the same young man joined me.
“Oh, the Englishman, good morning!” He was taller than I, with a rather triangular, intelligent face and an attractive shyness. We’d started to talk on the train—his English wasn’t bad except for the stilted intonation—and he’d turned out to be Sardinian, the first I’d ever met.
I asked his name.
“Gavino Palmas.” His face was all activity as he explained that his surname was Spanish, since many Sards were of Spanish descent; that Saint Gavino, a martyr in Roman times, was the patron saint of Porto Torres.
“Arthur Fraser,” I introduced myself.
He didn’t catch it the first time, but laughed loudly to be sociable. “Mister Arthur, then. And you call me just Gavino.”
I grasped the hand he’d offered but then, uncertain, partially withdrawn.
He shook mine warmly and smiled, eager that I should be happy at our arrival. His words came falling over themselves. “You have seen Sardinia? The island we have passed, Asinara. It is—how do you say it?—a prison place. You know, bad men, robbers, bandits, murderers. We get them here in Sardinia. Alas. At Alghero it is more beautiful.”
“How do you know I’m going to Alghero?”
“All the foreigners go to Alghero. I myself, I go to Sássari.”
The second largest town on the island, where I had to change trains yet again. Stressed on the first syllable, not the second: knowledge I’d acquired in my local library.
“And the capital’s Cágliari?” I said, careful to stress it on the first syllable too.
“Cagliari. The Sards say it is the most beautiful city in Italy. Those who’ve never been there. To Italy, I mean.” As though it were a foreign country.
As the ship groaned on toward the land, my companion told me he worked in a lawyer’s office. He laughed, making a joke of it. “It’s very dull. Life’s like that for us Sards. I ought to have left for the continent before it was too late. There’s no future in Sardinia.”
He explained that he’d been away on a study tour of the continent—Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan, but not outside Italy—and his sombre face brightened. He spoke hastily, with the long, drawn-out explanations of a child. “This was my visit first to the continent, imagine. I have often wished that I was born Roman instead of Sard, but only now I know what is wrong. We’re really very backward. You’ll see for yourself once you’ve become tired of the easiness and—how do you say it?—superficial pleasantness of life here.”
As the coastline became more distinct, Gavino’s enthusiasm returned. “But look there, you can see the port! Come to the other side, you’ll see more.” We pushed through the ship’s vestibule, crowded with people and luggage. “That is where the beautiful beaches are, along that coast.”
The superficial pleasantness of life. Wide sands against a background of low hills. Sun. Blue sea. Ahead of us was a long harbour wall with a tower and a light on top, and the masts of fishing boats clustering behind it.
The crowd on deck was growing. The tower approached ever closer until the sea carried it past. In the harbour mouth a tiny boat came out to meet us, almost disappearing behind a wave, then reappeared, dangerously close. The Torreslowered a thick noose of rope to be seized from under its bow. Engines stopped, the tug made off in the other direction, engines started again, and we were swinging round, toward a quay surmounted by a huge gantry looming up from the side. Down below on the dockside another crowd was shouting and waving, with women in shawls and porters in blue uniforms in front of piles of crates and enormous bottles in wickerwork casings. A surge from the water below, and the gantry was already lifting one of the gangways to place it against the ship. I struggled down it, pushing through the people thronging on the quayside, busy with their own, Sard, lives. Porto Torres.
I followed Gavino to another train. Climbing high steps, finding room for cases, sinking back into soft yet unbearably cramped seats. The ship, the last surviving link with the continent, was now only part of the background, giving pride of place to the stone walls, cacti, and sea through the window.
The doors rattled shut, and the train started to move lazily, stopping again at the town station. When it left again, Gavino started jumping back and forth to point out the Roman ruins on either side of the line. “Look, if you turn back now you will see the Roman bridge, with the sea beyond it.”
The barren green countryside, the stony land beside the railway, and the huge cacti made everything seem exotic. I loved it all.
A couple of men passed down the central aisle, and Gavino shouted out to them with the peculiarly Italian “O-ui” sound. A brief exchange of enthusiastic, meaningless words as the men continued down the train.
“Ciao,” Gavino shouted after them.
He let his shoulders slump and his mouth drop. He was disappointed not to be able to introduce his English friend. Suddenly his mood had changed, and I was embarrassed for him, recognizing perhaps but not yet accepting that Italians had little of the Anglo-Saxon reserve about expressing their feelings.
For a while he was silent, and I, too, said nothing, content to watch out the window and listen to the strange sounds of Sard from the other passengers.
Around the shaking train stretched miles of olive trees. Gavino took a card and a pen from his pocket. “I will give you my address. When you are in Sassari you will come to visit me. And I will show you something of Sardinia. I will take you to Porto Torres properly, to Castelsardo, Tempio, and La Costa Smeralda perhaps. And this is my office address and phone number.”
I took his card and he gave me another so I could write down my address in Alghero as well. Gavino put it away with a glow of pleasure. “Oh, but we come to Sassari. Here you change, and I must leave you.”
I’d been aware of the town we were approaching and of a skyscraper that stuck out incongruously from its centre, with other buildings clinging onto it. The train drew into a station surprisingly large for an island I hadn’t imagined to have railways at all. Gavino led me through a surge of Italians on the platform to another train, chocolate-brown and more bus-like than the first, bearing a large yellow placard “Sassari—Alghero.”
Gavino was serious, bowing over my hand. “Mister Arthur, I thank you infinitely for your company. It has been a great pleasure, and please, when you come to Sassari, I shall be delighted to have the honour if you come and call on me.”
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