I am just back from a week at the Italian seaside with my grandchildren. This is the fourth year we have stayed in self-catering apartments at a small resort on the coast of the Maremma, Tuscany’s malaria-ridden marsh, for centuries known to be ruinously inhospitable: Dante’s Pia Tolomei laments the area’s destructive power (‘Siena mi fa; disfece mi Maremma’). The whole large expanse was finally drained by Mussolini, and it is now given over to nature reserves, and to small farms growing vines, olives, sunflowers, wheat and rice. The coastal towns here are few and all modern. Principina was built during the 1960s, I guess, when Italy was prosperous. It is a peculiar place in one respect: the flats and villas and hotels (not many of these) are in the midst of the pineta, the thick forest of pines about two miles wide that runs along the coast of the Maremma. In summer, as soon as you turn off the main road into the forest, above the noise of engine and air-conditioning you can hear the deafening, crazy samba of the cicadas in the treetops.
Principina is populated during July and August by families of young children, their parents and grandparents. The rhythm of the day is the same for everyone. After a late breakfast the family groups make their way to the public beach, the spiaggia libera,on paths through the pines and over the dunes. Most of us ride bicycles, of every kind and size: tiny children lurch down the paths on midget two-wheelers with stabilisers; mothers with toddlers in child-seats follow at a more leisurely pace; grandparents bring up the rear, wobbling precariously on stately machines laden with deck chairs and beach umbrellas; occasionally ten-year-olds race by on mountain bikes. At noon people make the journey back for lunch; at four or five out they go again to the beach for another two or three hours, if heat and wind permit.
At around eight o’clock everyone eats supper outside on verandas and patios. At about half past eight, abruptly and completely, the cicadas stop shaking their demented maracas, alerted by some micro-change in the temperature. For a moment there seems to be silence, but then suddenly you hear the sounds all about you of human interaction, the noises of preparing and eating food and clearing up, clamorous phone calls or gentle adult conversation, children playing, babies crying—there is always a baby crying somewhere in the middle distance. The soundscape stretches to the very limits of audibility, a lovely panorama for the ear. Here is what Italy can sometimes provide better than anywhere else I know, a sense of pleasure in community, of the value and coherence of ordinary goings-on shared with others, strangers or friends, the momentary certainty that being human isn’t such a bad thing after all.