It was so mundane it was exotic. So hyper-simplified to be nightmarish in the smiling precision of the simulacra on offer. It was loud, brash and regimented.
It was a vacation in one of the villages of a major brand name on the Italian package holiday market. For us, mainstream vacation methodologies were rather mysterious. We were used to independent travelling: fly and/or drive somewhere, walk about, get lost, find places.
This summer, to paraphrase Monty Python, we thought we'd try something completely different. We wanted to rest, do some hiking, read, provide some social activities for our 3.5 year-old daughter.
To say "Village" was semantically tongue-in-cheek. The village, located in the eastern Italian Alps, was a cement complex that jutted out the mountain side like a stranded aircraft carrier camouflaged in the futuristic aesthetics typical of the 1970s. The stain of an architectural wet dream turned dirty yellow and flaky.
Inside, the wood panelling that lined the corridors was marked by scratches and scrawled with the odd love message - the empty riverbeds of holiday romances that evaporated with the melting of the winter snow.
But this story is not about the way cement ages so quickly and ungracefully. This is a tale about the strict division of leisure.
When we arrived we were assaulted by legions of animatori (literally the "animators" - the foot soldiers in charge of driving rest & recreation activities), all saying "hi/hello" with the kind of emphasis found only in the best tradition of vacuous customer service. Beyond the continuous verbal stream of greetings, when we asked about places and events outside the village we received blank stares. Ignorance aside though, they all acted as if we were best of friends. In fact, amici (“friends”) was what they called the customers.
Saturday was turnover day. For the people working there it must have been like Groundhog Day, but on a weekly cycle. The routine was quickly outlined through sound system announcements. All activities regulated by the conveyor belts of time, turning holydays into clones of a working week. And like any self-respecting business venture, company was compulsory - "you will take part in group activities" was the not-so-subliminal message.
If you've ever taken time out in mountain settings, you may agree that one of its pleasures is enjoying the intimacy of a hike alone or with a limited number of companions. The sounds of the forest as soundtrack, the odd animal, the gurgle of a stream. Now imagine coming across dozens of people all rambling along together in a cacophony of extra-alpine sounds. After that first encounter, we bought a map and always headed off in the opposite direction from the daily communal walk.
The village became society, with its rules and regulations crawling all over you like spiders in some pop-anthropologist's delirium tremens. We rapidly fell into outsider roles, although by an ironic coincidence we kept dressing in the same daily colour code adopted by the animators.
We learnt not to try and have a snooze early in afternoon, as that was the time for the amplified guitar sing-a-long.
We also learnt lessons on the porousness of national identity, plummeting standards in culinary expectations and the pervasiveness of brand culture. The first two of these points went together like knife and fork.
I eat therefore I am (Italian).
Together with football, national pride runs through a gastrointestinal route in Italy. Being a gourmet is thought to be genetic here. And yet no riot broke out over the food being terrible. On the contrary I heard praise and saw heaped plates. To heap was to reap profit not pleasure from a buffet designed to qualify quantity and not quality as the driving spice in village life. Beyond badly cooked dishes, basic ingredients were bereft of identity. The tomatoes, which in Italy grow as red and ripe as a post-maoist capitalist, were tragic in their tastelessness, as were the mozzarella caricatures or the coloured water masquerading as wine. Outside the feeding pen, framed pages from their brochure featured Audrey Hepburn and the caption: "Diamonds aren't only for breakfast here..."
After a couple of days, our daughter started shouting "Italia Uno" each time she saw a fire detector. "Italia Uno" is the name of one of Berlusconi's TV channels. She explained it was the way to say hello to the gnomes that lived within. The children and kids put on a show inspired by, as the animators stressed, Disney DVD tales.
On our last evening, as we were greeted by a staff dance before dinner, I finally found the key that deciphered the experience: this was just like living inside Italian TV, with its endless programmes all made of white noise and dirty dances and primary colours and cheap sex & gender innuendo and the trivial pursuit of nihilism.
We checked out that same night. A day early. "You're not even waiting for the goodbye ceremony in the amphitheatre?" they asked at reception in disbelief. I realized that in terms of village-society rules we were being very rude.
As we escaped the day was dissolving in delightful technicolor. Shadows were the showreel for the coming night.