Ghost Villages (5/5): Social and Medical Services, focus on the elderly

If Sardinian authorities centralise everything in three of four cities for the entire island, it would make life even harder for those who would like to remain in the rural communities dotted around,specifically inland.

Previously I mentioned technology as an instrument to bring services into people’s houses and make them accessible using a PC or even a smartphone, which is really important when considering bureaucratic affairs but also the health service. A non emergency helpline, chat service and extensive websites with information in Italian, Sardinian and English on different medical symptoms and first stance remedies could be of great help for the local population as a first step to take before going to the GP or a medical centre in a bigger municipality. The British NHS is a good example that offers this high standard digital/remote service. Obviously many of the elderly would not be able to navigate the system, so to complement the digital portal there should be a hotline where nurses provide initial screening and arrange for the local GP to call them and possibly book an appointment or arrange further care plans.

Another very good thing that Sardinia could learn from the NHS is the way in which Scotland distributes resources on providing localised healthcare. For some aspects parallels can be drawn between Scotland and Sardinia, both in terms of economy, historically agricultural and farming of sheep especially; victims of a failed industrial plan; trying to invest resources in tourism and services; remote communities which are difficult to access; an ageing population. Also historically they are ironically connected as the king of Scotland became king of a united Britain in the same way as the king of Sardinia became king of a united Italy nearly 300 years later.

The strong families and the admirable culture of caring for the elderly within the ‘clan’ (the network extended family plus close friends) allowed the health system to sort of take advantage of the spirit of solidarity found in these rural communities and never really developed a system designed for them.

An improved series of social services and a medical system need to be obviously accompanied by an improved public transport network, as elderly people should not be forced to drive when they do not feel comfortable in doing so and it is also dangerous for some as the golden years have slow reflexes which is not ideal for driving down country lanes.The alternative to driving would be relying on a relative to take you to the bigger centre but why should one have to do that?

With the amount of tax the average Italian citizen pays, it is outstanding to see how public services are lacking. Perhaps government believe there should be a relation tax- in order for Italy to provide a similar standard to Scandinavia or at least Britain, but this is clearly not the case.

More information about ghost villages in Sardinia and Campus Omodeo.

Food & Drink you must try in Sardinia

The other day I met a chatty Swedish guy in a pub called Hannes, who told me he was flying to Sardinia for a family holiday and landing in Cagliari. What an odd coincidence! I’m not referring to the fact I met a Swedish guy in Sweden or to the unexpected coincidence that random chat with strangers occured in an alcohol serving premises but to the fact that his family chose to go on one of the few flights a year between Stockholm and Sardinia. As soon as he told me this I got him to give me his email address and promised I would give him a list of things to eat and drink which he must try when on the island.

Start at the beginning with the ‘Aperitivo culture’ also known as Aperitif. It is comparable to the better known tapas culture in Spain, as it is the principle of going to a Bar/Cafe and having something to drink which is served with many little nibbles. The most popular of all is Aperol Spritz but also Campari Soda, Negroni, Negroni sbagliato, Garibaldi, Americano are all worth a try. Alternatively you can also have straight Prosecco or beer.

Surprisingly enough Sardinia has many local breweries which have popped up like mushrooms in recent years. I cannot say I’m an expert in handcrafted beers but Barley’s Friska is really good. For more info on the different craft produced beers in Sardinia there is Micro Birrifici – Sardinia which is a good link to check out. There is the most common Sardinian beer produced in the industrial area just outside Cagliari called ‘Ichnusa’. It is readily available all over Italy and in many countries across the world including Germany, UK and Sweden. In the last few months System Bolaget, the only chain of alcohol selling shops in Sweden, started selling it across the country in the ‘new beers’ section.



Red wine all the way, although there are also some really good white wines to try. House wine is cheap but most of the times really good, often better than more expensive bottled wine that can be bought in UK or Sweden. Cannonau is a typical variety of Sardinian red wine which is produced throughout the island and is quite strong in flavour. I’m no wine expert so will not go into further detail, but if you are looking for wine that you can also buy outside of the island the biggest producers are Argiolas (in the south) and Sella e Mosca (near Alghero, in the north).

Pane Carasau, Guttiau and Pistoccu are three different variaties of hard, crunchy bread one can only find in Sardinia. Similar breads can be found across the world such as Sweden’s rye crispbread ‘Knäckebröd’ but nothing beats Carasau served with local extra virgin olive oil and salt. There are also different varieties of normal bread in Sardinia that are worth looking out for, some of which are made in really artistic shapes and are characterised by a crunchy brown crust and a really soft doughy part.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil:

Plenty of brands, plenty of varieties as Sardinia is abundant with olive trees, some even several hundred years old. ‘Spremitura a freddo’ is the highest quality one can find as they only press the olives without any heat (a freddo) so as not to ruin the flavour and also to preserve the natural qualities and ‘goodness’ of the olives.

Pasta: A variety of sauces
Arselle e Bottarga or Bottariga. Normally long pasta such as linguini or spaghetti are served with clams and ‘Bottarga’ which some call ‘parmesan of the sea’ for the fact it is grated and adds salt and flavour to the pasta. Others call it ‘the caviar of the south’ as it is made by salting and drying fish eggs. Bottarga can also be eaten in slices as an appetizer, served with fennel or artichokes and a drizzle of olive oil .
Carlofortina pasta: from the island of San Pietro (south west of Sardinia) the village of Carloforte is a Genovese colony whose population brought over a series of traditions from their region and above all pesto. So Carlofortina pasta or pizza is made with green pesto, tuna (as they fish high quality tuna off the costs of that island) and fresh tomatoes.
Culurgiones: Sardinian ravioli filled with potatoes and cream cheese. These are served with a freshly-made tomato sauce (not ketchup) and a sprinkle of pecorino or parmesan cheese.
Fregola alla Pescatora: fregola is a typical Sardinian pasta which in many ways recalls couscous. Pescatora is a sauce made with a mixture of seafood and is very flavoursome. Different restaurants make it in different ways, some make it more dense,others a bit runny. Out of the two I personally prefer the dense one but it is a matter of taste.
Al Nero di Seppia: pasta cooked with squid ink. To some people this may look disgusting as you find yourself with a plate of spaghetti covered in a black sauce,but it is the most flavoursome spaghetti you will ever try! Obviously it tastes of fish to a certain extent, so if you hate seafood you might want to avoid this one.
Fish and Meat:
Polpo – octopus. Might sound disgusting but it is really nice, It is normally boiled and served in different ways either ‘alla diavola’ with a spicy tomato sauce or served cold with potatoes and balsamic vinegar as a sort of salad.
Bistecca di Cavallo – horse meat steak: now I can imagine the horrified faces of those who would believe that only barbarians would be cruel enough to eat a poor little horsy, but that is a very hypocritical thing to believe if the person thinking this eats veal or lamb which are the cutest of ‘baby animals’ that have not even had the chance of discovering the joys of life before being slaughtered or those who eat battery farmed chicken; how morally correct is that? Either way it is a very tasty steak which is comparable to beef in many aspects ,but more flavoursome. In some places they make fast food sandwiches for €5 with cavallo e patate (shredded horse meat and potatoes). Normally a classic ‘Fiorentina’ horse steak is served with fresh ruccola and shredded parmesan cheese.
Cheese: lots of cheese production takes place in Sardinia. Many of which are made from goat or sheep milk. Pecorino(sheep cheese) is a classic which you have in all different shapes and sizes, more or less matured, smoked, cream pecorino spread with chilli and so on. There are also other types of cheeses that are really nice made from sheep milk of which my absolute favourite is ‘casaxedu’ (read casascggedu as the x in the Sardinian language is read something like scgg) but it is not readily available in bigger supermarkets, being easier to find in inland villages. Out of the cow milk cheeses ‘Dolce Sardo’ made by Arborea (the Sardinian equivalent to Arla) is really nice as it is of a soft consistency similar to Brie and also quite sweet in flavour.

Sebadas is a classic ,but its very filling as it is a deep-fried, sweet, large, ravioli filled with soft cheese, served with honey. If your meal was relatively small have this to fill you up at the end.
Dolcetti Sardi: small typically Sardinian cakes that one would have to accompany a coffee at the end of a meal.
Espresso Coffee

Sardinia has three major coffee brands: La Tazza d’Oro, Karalis (both produced near Cagliari) and Moka Domus (produced in Ogliastra,in the centre of the island). It is just as nice, if not nicer, than the big Italian brands with the added bonus that it’s locally produced.
Digestivi also known as Ammazza Caffe’ (coffee killers) or Amari

These are commonly drunk to finish a meal, after the espresso coffee (that locals have even after dinner) , a strong liquor that will make you tipsy enough to start dancing as one would do at a wedding, first communion or traditional village festivities. Locally produced Limoncello is nice but the must try which is unique to Sardinia is Mirto. This can be bought in bottles but is often home-made and is fairly strong (30 – 40 – 50 per cent), has an intense flavour and dense texture. Some people compare it to Jagermeister ,but I disagree as the taste is quite different. It is made from the myrtle berry that grows wild and abundantly in the countryside all over the island. If you want something really strong Fil’e Ferru might be for you: it is also known as Sardinian aquavit as it is really strong and most of the times homemade. The name translated from Sardinian means metal wire as when it was illegal to produce your own alcohol people in the countryside used to bottle it and bury the bottles in the ground and only a metal wire stuck out to indicate where the drink was hidden.
The good and the bad thing about Sardinian food and drinks is that they are quite unique and hard to find outside of the island. The bad part is you cannot find these products in other countries, the good part is that, like with every drug, you will have to come back to have some more. And as it is a good drug, Sardinian people will be glad to see you back on their island!

Ghost Villages in Sardinia (1/5): Education

As a guy from the village of Ales, in central Sardinia, once said: ‘Studiate, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la vostra intelligenza’ / ‘Everyone should study, as we will soon be in need of all of your intelligence’ (Antonio Gramsci). Learning English properly is the key, not only in order to offer good tourist services, but also for personal enrichment to be able to make the most of opportunities that extend beyond the village and can reach the far corners of the world.

Starting from nursery schools, the English language must, in my view, be taught at all levels of schooling, ideally reaching a good enough level in high school to be able to study all` sciences 100% in English as opposed to Italian. This may seem to some as extreme globalisation, but on the contrary, having a solid basis in English would allow future university students to be able to choose to study in whichever university worldwide and also enable them to take part in global debates from their laptops and smartphones thanks to blogs, forums and social media platforms. Also, from a ‘Sardinian identity’ prospective, if English is the language spoken at school, the family could speak Sardinian at home without running the risk that their children would mix Sardinian and Italian which can be quite similar and which leads Sardinian pupils to make many grammar mistakes when writing in Italian.

If many more Sardinian youngsters were fluent in English, even university courses organised by the University of Cagliari or Sassari, the two universitie on the island, could be held in English, potentially by professors from other countries, thereby making the educational offer more interesting. Also, having courses taught in English would enable non-Italian speakers to be able to study in Sardinia, both as part of exchange programmes, but also for entire degree courses which in turn would be a great source of income for the universities and the entire island economy. Imagine if there were good courses in architecture taught in English, an English or American student who is used to paying over €10.000 / €20.000 for one year of tuition fees would pay a maximum of €3000 and would also have cheaper living costs. Not to mention the fact that the foreign students would love to have the chance of going to the beach when not in lectures and eating authentic pizzas and drinking Italian wine yet at the same time they would share with the locals part of their own traditions and culture which would benefit the island.

Distance learning courses could also be offered by the universities in Sardinia so that young people in the villages would not have to make a choice as to whether to study or continue their family business; they could do both. The knowledge given them through studying at university would empower them to improve and modernise their business in order for it ,not only to survive,but flourish in the modern world. This should not be too difficult to implement nowadays, as most articles and literature are available in PDF; the lectures could be streamed via video link and assignments uploaded to a student portal. The student would only need to go to the university to take exams and for certain seminars or events, but could still live and work in the inland village.


The Problem of the ‘Ghost Villages’ in Sardinia

In September there will be a one week course held in a rural community in the centre of Sardinia in which there will be lectures and discussions on the ever increasing problematic of ‘desertification’ of inland remote villages. As part of the application process the organisers asked me to write about what pushed me to sign up for the course and my answer was: will to learn and contribute to the discussion to find good ideas which could be, one day, put into practice.

The problem lies in the fact that communities are getting torn apart from the high levels of unemployment, lack of opportunities and future for the fact that many young people are leaving the villages to move to bigger cities in the island or go to the mainland or in other parts of Europe or the world. If one looks at the number of people who identify themselves as Sardinian I would guess almost half of them are not living in Sardinia. There has been a massive diaspora not due to war or persecution but due to another deadly factor: hunger. This does not merely mean hunger as in food deprivation as our land is fertile and we can be self-sufficient in terms of food production it is mainly hunger for opportunities, not living on the bread line and also getting in contact with the world which is portrayed via the internet and television. This phenomena is not necessarily a bad thing but there is the need, for the sake of preserving part of our identity, to strengthen these rural communities. Question is, how?

I think what is needed is a 5 step plan:

  1. Education
  2. Transport network improvements
  3. Technological improvements
  4. Incentives for start ups and businesses to open or relocate to one of the communities
  5. Better localised social and medical services for the population, especially the elderly.

Details of this plan will be further explained in the linked numbers or articles. Click on one of the five titles to read more about the specific idea to fight desertification of rural communities. If you like share the idea or drop a comment, having a debate and exchanging ideas in the hope that some concrete action takes place in order to reduce or maybe even reverse this phenomena.

The Sardinian Diaspora

Sardinia has a total population of around 1.6 million inhabitants (roughly the same amount of people that Sicily has in the county of Palermo alone) and the majority of its inhabitants are concentrated around the main city Cagliari (approximately 300.000).
For a series of historical, social and financial reasons many left the island to find fortune on the Italian mainland or further afield.
My family is a perfect example of this. My father moved to London aged 19, my great uncle moved to Rome with his family in the 60s and lived there until he died, my grandfather and his brothers all studied in mainland Italy and a generation before them my great grandfather went to work in mines in Belgium and after that moved to mainland Italy, my other great grandfather instead worked in Argentina for a few years  and then they both returned to Sardinia.
There have been different waves of migration but some things have not changed through time such as the strong sense of belonging the islanders feel towards their homeland.
Even moving to Rome or the north of Italy is a big deal as ‘continente’ (= the continent, name given to mainland Italy by Sardinians) is not Sardinia. The reasons are many; partly geographical due to differences in scenery mainly the lack of stunning beaches and big green areas but also climatically as the 300+ days of sun per year, hot summers and mild winters are hard to live without once you have been used to them all your life. Lack of sun can deeply impact ones mood. The main differences however are cultural and linguistic as Sardinia has its own language which is quite different from Italian and the colourful expressions and unique words that characterise it cannot really be translated into any other language.
Today, many of my friends have left Sardinia either to continue their studies at a postgraduate level or to find work. The vast majority of them lives in Milan, followed by London, Bologna (the biggest university city in Italy), some in Rome and others abroad (many of whom live in Germany which historically has always had a strong Sardinian community).
Cagliari-Elmas Airport, departure point for many who live outside of Sardinia.
Before leaving there are a series of rituals most Sardinian youths will observe. First of all, you must drop by to say goodbye to Nonna. After that, in the evening, you say goodbye to your close friends who live on the island, one more aperitif or espresso coffee and you don’t leave before they reassure you that they will come and visit you at some point.
You get back home, pack the last things including the all important Sardinian food which has been kept in the fridge until the last minute including Bottarga (dried fish roe, typically Sardinian), pecorino cheese, cured ham or sausages that all get added to the previously packed Mirto and Limoncello.
A few hours later you are at the airport checking-in your suitcase and praying that all the heavenly goods packed do not surpass the baggage weight allowance.
Time for goodbyes: one last hug to mamma and babbo who usually tell you to look after yourself and keep in touch.
You go through security checks and look around, many others are in your same position with heavy bags and heavy hearts preparing to leave the island. Job opportunities in Sardinia are scarce, the local universities are very limited in what they offer and the ‘Sardinian mentality’ tends to drag you down making it very hard for an ambitious, international-minded youth to stay in his or her homeland.
After all Life is Calling, no time to linger or feel nostalgic, one must take to the skies in order to fulfil ones aspirations and potentials leaving Sardinia to spread across Europe and beyond.
The dream however remains to one day maybe return for good to Sardinia perhaps to start a family, set up a business to benefit the local economy or retire in the sunny slow-paced corner of paradise in your golden days.
The hope is that maybe, at that point, things will have changed for the better: the local political elite will have more sense and be in touch with the reality that surrounds them and actually care about the people they supposedly serve. Maybe the Sardinians will have lost their ‘characteristic mentality’ that tends to prevent anyone from being successful by filling anyone who dares to try something new with envy and pessimistic vibes as fear of change rules their provincial way of thinking.
That said, looking back at my family, after nearly 10 years in London my father managed to return to Sardinia and his grandfather before him after years in Argentina so there is still hope.
As long as there is hope and the will to return and change things there will be the possibility that the Sardinian diaspora may reverse its course and that many of the talented people who fled the island may return to change it for the better. Perhaps when this will happen, Sardinia will truly reach its full potential which for now is a goal which seems light years away.

Take Me to Church 

After many years not going to my local Church in Sardinia (Italy) where I had my first communion and was confirmed I tagged along with Mum and Grandmother that wanted me to go with them for the 11 o’clock Christmas service.

In classic Italian style the mass started a few minutes late but many arrived 15-20 minutes after the service began. Even the altar boy and girl were late and ran up the alter to join the priest. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt 15 years ago as I was often late when serving (some things just don’t change).

The parish priest, an acquaintance I met years ago when he was still training, was now portraying himself as very traditional as he wore old fashioned gowns (both on and off the altar) that recalled medieval priest attire and also decided to sing big parts of the mass.
During the mass, 3 ladies read extracts from the Bible at the microphone. It was their moment of glory, they could shine in front of the parish and show what a good reading intonation they have. After all, it’s good that they have something to look forward to during the week which must be a welcome change from their daily housewife duties.
The parish is located in an area called ‘Margine Rosso’, the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Quartu S. Elena, the city in which I was brought up and where my family still lives. In this area many drive BMWs or Mercedes and even at church you could notice their social-economic status by the fact that many were wearing Burberry scarfs or other ostentatiously posh clothing and most likely have successful careers to match.
It is funny that you can visibly distinguish who truly believes from those who are forced to attend by their bossy wives and this can be noticed especially when people are required to kneel down or at the start and end of the mass when everyone is supposed to do the sign of the cross.
For some reason the young children tend to make most noise (scream, cry or kick a fuss) in the most sacred moments. That could be a sign of their inner struggle with demons that possess them who could not stand the high levels of holiness.
During the mass croce-san-lucathere was a moment of ‘free prayers’ in which a member of the community read out ‘supplications’ thought by parishioners. One of them was for ‘the people who lost their faith’ to help them find the goodness within them (I almost burst out laughing) and to help the ‘Christian communities’ in Norcia (central Italy) who were effected by an earthquake earlier in the year.
After mass I wished a Happy Christmas to The Nun who used to be in charge of the alter boys (and probably still is). She hasn’t aged in 15 years which makes me vaguely suspicious, does she have Swedish blood?

I respect the Catholic Church as an organisation as they do a lot of good in building communities, uniting people, giving hope and purpose and being a multinational point of reference for millions of people across the world. However, I will never be able to go back to being part of an organisation that inflicts disease on many by preventing them using protection against HIV, that condemns homosexuals and bisexuals to being damned for eternity for the fact their love does not follow the Mary-Joseph-Jesus model. Also the condition of women inside the Church who are inferior to men in the functions they have as nuns cannot give mass and are forced to cover their hair (same way as women in Saudi Arabia widely criticised by catholic people).
When leaving the church someone asked me why I did not go for communion, to which I replied: ‘sorry, I’m a vegetarian’.

The tile of the post was inspired by Hozier’s song you can watch the video here.



Autumn in Sardinia

Autumn is in full swing and even on the island you can tell that the seasons are changing. Beyond the fact that some people here tend to wear their winter attire from the beginning of September even if the thermometer shows 30C, there are some characteristics that make this season special.

The touristy season slowly dies away as the number of flights from the airports decrease, the hotels and beaches get less and less crowded except for the few adventurous that keep on going (many of whom tend to be German or Scandinavian).

Above all I guess the most important aspect of Autumn on the island is the many festivals organised in the inland villages that host thousands of guests from all over the island. They are typically organised in accordance to a religious occasion such as a patron saint or catholic festivities such as the day of the dead (called in Sardinian ‘Su Prugadoriu’ translated literally the purgatory) or some in honour of the local produce of the season such as the chestnut festival (in Aritzo).
The second aspect which is characteristic is mushrooms. In the woods all over the island mushrooms grow wildly and they are fairly easy to find even just a 20min drive away from the city centre. Many people sell them on the street and even restaurants feature them as seasonal specials in their menus. Of course if one goes mushroom picking, an obligatory step is to post pictures of the day’s catch on Facebook together with at least 20 hashtags.
The other great thing about autumn on the island are chestnuts that are readily available roasted to perfection sold on the the streets where people pass every evening.Locals  start selling them from September all the way to December.
For more information on the festivals search for ‘Autunno in Barbagia‘ if you are confined to travelling by public transport there are also express coaches chartered especially to go from Cagliari to the different villages following the festivals.