The Giornale di Sicilia reports discontent with the late completion of the new stabilimento balneare to serve the bathing needs of both local population and visitors. It will not be completed until well into July, and June was hot. The local people would like to be using it now. Some feel that a really splendid lido - the model displayed in the local tourist office window is a work of art - may be just the thing to attract more holidaymakers. While the local Greek temples get their fair share of short-stay visitors, it would be good to attract the sun-and-sea trade, especially outside the currently short season of July and August.
This dream is shared widely by hoteliers and restaurateurs in Sicily, Calabria and Puglia outside those few resorts such as Taormina in which its reality has become a nightmare. In pursuit of it the brochures promise unspoilt beaches, breathtaking coasts, bluest of blue seas - all that sort of thing. Perhaps they have got it wrong: after all, these supposed attractions are readily available elsewhere in countries cheaper or more accessible than southern Italy such as Spain, Portugal or Greece. Should not the promoters of Sicily and the Mezzogiorno emphasize instead their unique attraction: southern Italy is the one place, the last place in Europe, where a certain sort of chap, with or without hair, of either sex, a chap with a stomach, can feel thoroughly at home.
As I look up the beach there are lots of Italian chaps who look just like me, rather short, not badly proportioned, but with a definite stomach. They are standing in about six inches of water, their stomachs gently flopped over the top of colourful bathing trunks. They make no attempt to conceal them. They have stomachs and they don't care. Everyone has one.
Well perhaps not quite everyone. Babies and young children have them and very happy they seem with them too, always laughing, and the ones who laugh most seem to have the mummies and daddies with the biggest stomachs. But after childhood, they (the stomachs) go away somewhere and do not reappear until the early twenties, when they return for good. The male teenagers who spend all their time zipping around three to a Vespa, hanging upside down in the new telephone boxes which have appeared everywhere or asking people with tummies for a light are not remarkable for their stomachs or much else.
After the age of twenty, however, those who have not acquired some sort of stomach are in an extreme minority, and obviously know it. They look shifty, guilty even, and stand, the palms of their hands resting between the small of their backs and the even smaller of their buttocks trying to push out what is not adequately there in front. On my left, two of these unfortunate wretches have given up and are now seeking to conceal their shame under a striped parasol.
The stomachs are the result of hard work: coffee with lots of sugar and buns stuffed with ice-cream for breakfast, heaped plates of pasta with aubergines, sardines, different cheeses, tuna-fish, ragu, tomatoes, basil, ham or just plain garlic, chillies and oil for lunch or dinner; or perhaps a risotto with seafood for a change and baked pasta for Sunday. Then some meat or fish, salad, fruit, sweets and more ice cream. In between, at what seem hourly intervals, deep-fried rice balls, puff pastry with fresh cheese, individual pizzas, beer, and more ice-cream, often in a bun, occassionally stark and ascetic in a simple cone.
But though the food is excellent and married northern Europeans with stomachs will thoroughly enjoy it, it would be silly to claim it is better than, say, French cooking. Where the southern Italians score is in their attitude to eating good food and its consequences. No menus here for dieters or vegetarians. Germans who ask for less than the standard portion of pasta are regarded with disbelief. Even the children receive and usually finish adult portions, and if not there is always a kindly adult keen to manage a portion and a half. Nothing is left. Nothing is refused. The amply proportioned customer who, after his huge soup bowl of pasta e fagioli, pesce spada and insalata decides that a few potatoes in oil might be just the way to use up his bread provokes no sniggers from staff or fellow diners, not so much as a quizzical look.
And he himself would never dream of seeking to excuse his appetite or hide its effects: indeed, on the beach, where truth will out, many of the largest chaps choose to sit on the smallest portable wooden beach chairs which set their proportions off in impressive relief. And ladies with big bottoms disport themselves in bathing costumes which look expressly designed to make them appear even bigger.
A couple of weeks in Sicily and Calabria and the Anglo-Saxon horror of stomachs seems strange and pathetic. Where does it spring from? We cannot blame it on the new crop of food-Leninists who want the government to control our diet by a 15-year state plan: disapproval of stomachs antedates them, reaching heights of intolerance in the inappropriately named 'permissive Sixties'.
Anyway, the cult of the flat abdomen is chiefly aesthetic, not dietetic. Middle-class Anglo-Saxons see nicely rounded stomachs as ugly even when their owners are not generally overweight and even when they own a good one themselves. Perhaps it's another consequence of our secularized and perverted Puritanism. But the origins are not at issue. If you have a stomach and think it likely to be permanent, there is no better tonic for you, and it, than to take a couple of weeks in Agrigento, Soverato or Otranto. You will come back feeling exactly the same person but everyone else will look pathetically different.