The Italians Are Coming, The Italians Are Coming !

FEATURE by Willard Manus

LINDOS, RHODES -- The Italians, what would Lindos be without them?

They began coming to the village in the 70s, mostly in August when Italy shuts down like a bankrupt factory and the population flees south, mostly to the Greek islands.

In Lindos they became a world unto itself, orbiting around the village like the earth around the sun. Most of the Italians came from Milan's wealthy, privileged class, but there were others who worked in Rome's film colony or ran publishing houses in Naples or hotels in Florence.

About a dozen families bought houses in the village. Another dozen-odd rented on longterm leases. If you factored in children, nannies, friends and relations, the Italian contingent topped the hundred-strong mark during the summer months. Although they differed in age, wealth and politics, they were similar enough in key ways to qualify for a composite portrait.

Let's call our proto-typical Italian couple Aldo and Lydia. They are in their early 40's, with two small children. They arrive in Lindos driving the family car and towing a motorboat the size of a Venice gondola. They have been traveling by land and sea for four days. Nerves are frazzled, tempers boiling.

Aldo is tall, lean, dark-haired, dressed with casual elegance in white slacks and polo shirt, with a blue cashmere sweater draped round his neck. Lydia is also tall and darkhaired, clad in Gucci slacks and shirtwaist. Her equally expensive sunglasses are tucked in her collar; his are pushed up on his forehead.

Aldo immediately heads to the OTE office to place a phone call to Italy. It will take an hour for the connection to be made. Lydia, meanwhile, deals with Tsampiko, the villager who caretakes her house and pays her bills while she is abroad. He is dispatched to round up relatives to help launch the motorboat.

The children begin unpacking the car. Suitcases come out as well as boxes stuffed with all manner of things for the house: trinkets, tools, accessories, floor-coverings, lampshades, hi-fidelity equipment, padded hangers for Lydia's suits and dresses. Many of the boxes contain packets of pasta, prosciutto and parmesan cheese, enough to sustain the family for the entire month of August.

The Tsampiko clan arrives, exhausted and sweating from having spent the last twelve hours cleaning and whitewashing Aldo and Lydia's house, a job that should have been started and finished weeks ago. Tsampiko's wife will press a limp bouquet of flowers into Lydia's hands and embrace her fervently before handing her a bill for three-thousand-dollars' worth of special services rendered over the off-season.

A long line of Greeks and donkeys will set off for Aldo and Lydia's villa, struggling under the weight of all those crates and cases. Lydia will have a conniption fit when one of the Lindians drops the box containing the tv set she has smuggled over the border to save on Greek taxes.

Down at the beach Aldo will do some shouting of his own when the gang Tsampiko has assembled to haul the motorboat over the burning-hot sands to the water's edge drops the varca and cracks its engine mounting. The damage allows seawater to seep into the hull and contaminate the fuel line. A Rhodes mechanic will be needed to repair the leak; he promises to come tomorrow but will not actually show up until the day before Aldo and Lydia leave for Italy.

All that month, whenever Aldo is asked how his boat is, he will give the same reply: "It is a disaster." Pronounced deee-zaster, this is a word Aldo and Lydia will use many times over the weeks to come, so often that people will assume it is an Italian word.

Aldo will also unpack the expensive toys he has brought for his children: sea sleds, which were all the rage last season at Capri and Positano. The sleds have an elevated seat and a small gasoline-powered engine which zips over the waves at 30 mph.

The children will play with the sleds for three days, giving all their friends rides around the main bay, until the engines overheat and burn out. Aldo will have to call Italy for replacement parts, which will be tied up in Customs for nearly a year. The children, when asked what happened to their sleds, will explain, "It was a deezaster!"

Lydia will spend her first days at home, trying to refurbish the terrace cushions and mattresses which her Greek caretakers left outside all winter long, against her orders. It means having to track down Kosta the Diddle-Dee-Ah-Dah Man when he visits from Archangelos with a stack of dry-goods on his shoulder, then going to Dimitri the Tailor's shop. Dimitri will work long hours in the heat to satisfy Lydia. No matter how much time he puts in, he will always charge the same price: a thousand drachmas per item.

Lydia will also discover that ants have set up residency in her kitchen. While one line of bugs carries bits of food from left-open boxes and jars up the wall to its nest, another proceeds single-file in the opposite direction, toward the food. The ants are big, red and fat, the size of cockroaches. Some of them have wings and can go airborn.

Along with the ants, Lydia will also find her kitchen is infested with water bugs and mice. And that its walls have been attacked by termites. It means that everything must be removed while the room is bombed with pesticides. It will be days before Lydia will allow her family to re-enter, by which time all of the food brought from Italy will have spoiled in the heat.

Once everything is back in place, Lydia's kitchen will undergo another upheaval when it is discovered that the hot-water heater, installed only two years ago, no longer works. The children will be dispatched to find Stefanos Tinsmith, who will shuffle in a day later, moaning how tired he is, climb a ladder and wrestle long hours with the heater before he can unbolt it from the wall.

"It is a disaster," he will tell Lydia and Aldo. "A dee-zaster. You must to Rhodes go for a new thermostat."

This is the third trip to Rhodes in five days for Aldo. He doesn't mind this as it is easier to call Milan from the big city. Also, he can check on the money that is supposed to have arrived from Italy, money that he transferred a month ago.

The money is not there. It will not be credited to his account until after he and Lydia have left for Italy, leaving a trail of unpaid bills behind.

Lindos will not be all suffering and misery for Aldo and Lydia. They will enjoy the sea, if not in their own boat, then in one belonging to friends, whom they will meet at the beach, at one o'clock every afternoon. Aldo and Lydia, like all good Italians, believed that one should never swim in the sea before mid-day.

They will not actually exit the harbor until two or two-thirty as it will be discovered that a child is missing or that someone has forgotten a picnic basket. There will be angry shouts, recriminations, innumerable Italian curses. Finally everyone and everything will be assembled and the boat begun to be loaded. It will take a half an hour to complete the job, owing to all the food hampers, thermos bottles, cushions, radios, portable record-players, sunhats, rubber rafts, dive equipment, wine coolers, stacks of books and fashion magazines that must be stowed away.

Finally, the boat will chug out to Salt Island or I Fungi (The Mushrooms), where the anchor will be dropped and a line tethered to shore. The children will leap into the sea or gambol about, while Aldo and Lydia (and the other adults) will peel off their clothes, rub gobs of sun lotion into their flesh, and sink back onto cushions murmuring, "I am exhausted, exhausted!"

It is only later, after they have slept in the sun, that they will begin to eat, packing away vast amounts of pasta and macaroni salad. As soon as they have finished, they will begin arguing about where they should dine that night and what they should order--fish or meat, or maybe both.

This will be followed by a swim, though Aldo and Lydia prefer lying on plastic rafts to splashing about in the sea. They will continue to doze and sunbathe until the sun starts slipping down behind the hills and the sea turns cold and purple. Then the engine is started, the anchor is pulled up.

Rather, the anchor is almost pulled up. Aldo heaves with all his might, but the anchor will not budge; it is caught beneath a rock. The skipper reverses the engine; Aldo yanks on the line from a different angle. No luck; the anchor doesn't budge.

One of the children is given a mask and snorkel, told to go and take a look. He reports back, describing the problem. Aldo volunteers to dive and free the anchor. Without a weight-belt it is a struggle to descend five meters. Aldo also forgets to compensate against the pressure of the sea, resulting in a burst eardrum. He has to be hauled on to the boat, where he lies howling with pain.

Finally, the skipper hacks at the line with a hatchet, leaving the brand-new anchor at the bottom of the sea.

When they reach Lindos and wade ashore, one of the children will step on a sea urchin and let out a shriek. Lydia will spend the next hour picking out spines with a needle. Aldo will spend the same amount of time in the village doctor's office, waiting for treatment. The doctor will not show up.

On the way home, Lydia will do the shopping she has postponed until now because of the heat. Trouble is, most of the fresh produce will be gone, except for eggplant. The bread is stale and the butcher has only frozen meat for sale.

At home, it will be time for cocktails. Their friends will come by, freshly showered and attired. They will all drink Campari and soda or vodka and tonic. Aldo, deaf in one ear, will whip up an antipasto, tiny, local shrimp cooked in oil and soy sauce. He and Lydia will argue vehemently over how much sauce should be used.

Three drinks and two additional arguments later, they will start thinking seriously about dinner. Having agreed earlier to eat fresh fish at Mavrikos', they will reach the taverna at 10.30 p.m. Dinner will last until one a.m., at which time the children will be sent home and the adults will head to Socrates' Bar for a nightcap and a game of backgammon.

Aldo and Lydia will play six games of backgammon, all of which she, a beginner, will win. Aldo will be so furious that when they get in the car and drive down to the discoteque, he will miss a turn and skid into a ditch. In the morning, when Berasco, a local truckdriver who speaks Italian, comes and hauls the car out, it will be discovered that its front axle has been bent. It is yet another deezaster.

There will be many more deezasters before Aldo and Lydia leave Lindos at the end of August. The child who stepped on the sea urchin will burn his hand on the kitchen stove, necessitating a trip to the Rhodes hospital. The brand-new thermostat in the heater will prove to be faulty, requiring yet another visit by Stefanos Tinsmith. The family will have to live without hot water for two more weeks while a replacement is found. The ants will reappear in the kitchen, the termites and the mice as well. Aldo will be bitten by a sea worm while diving to free yet another anchor.

No matter. Despite all these accidents, injuries, frustrations, irritations, spoiled food and wasted hours, Aldo and Lydia will leave Lindos believing their vacation has been a success. They will be back next year, just as sure as you can count on death, taxes and deezasters.