Who’s the Oldest of Them All?


PERDASDEFOGU, Sardinia — Deep in the Sardinian mountains, a sign on a winding road opposite an abandoned playground welcomes visitors to Perdasdefogu, home of the “World Record of Family Longevity.” Black-and-white portraits of the wizened locals who reached age 100 look out onto a sleepy main street near “Longevity Square.” Campaign posters promise the town’s rebirth through “DNA” and “Longevity.”

The isolated town, once best known for a military base that for decades was a launching pad for economic opportunity and long-range missiles, is trying to position itself as a global capital of long-range living.

Gutted like so many Italian towns by the loss of jobs, low birthrates and the fleeing of young people, Perdasdefogu is seizing on its recognition from Guinness World Records as the municipality with “the largest concentration of centenarians” — currently seven of them in a population of about 1,780 — to spur an economic rejuvenation.

The hope is that mortality-adverse foreigners desperate to learn the secrets of perpetually sticking around will fuel a tourism boom, or that genetic researchers eager to study the residents’ raw materials will invest in state-of-the-art facilities, and maybe even improve the spotty phone service by laying down fiber optic cables.

But there is a trespasser on the town’s oldest-timer territory. Seulo, a smaller town deeper in the heart of the island, has threatened Perdasdefogu’s grand plans by staking a rival claim to the title and Perdasdefogu wants it off its lawn.

“They’re not even worth talking about,” said Salvatore Mura, 63, an engineer and local politician who submitted Perdasdefogu’s application to Guinness. He argued that since Seulo didn’t have 1,000 residents, it didn’t meet Guinness’s requirements for the ranking and was out of the running. “It’s a question of mathematics.”

Mr. Mura, joined by Giacomo Mameli — a spry 81-year-old author who hopes the town’s new status will generate publicity for a literary festival he runs — walked by Judgment Day square and a mural of old men in sweater vests and coppola caps.

The two offered all sorts of explanations for the longevity of the townspeople. They pointed at the many vegetable gardens with their oversized zucchinis; talked up the local potato bread that they suggested was studied by geneticists; and exalted the natural digestive aids, including an acidic cheese that jiggled like a chalky cube of Jell-O.

“This,” Mr. Mameli said, holding up a bowl of it, “is natural Maalox.”

The men pointed out the portraits of centenarians by the flower shop — whose biggest business is for funerals — and by the bed-and-breakfast run by Mr. Mameli’s sister, who mentioned that Seulo had a higher concentration of centenarians. (“But they don’t have 1,000 people,” responded her brother mordantly. “Too bad.”)

The men stopped by the bar owned by the Melis family that in 2014 won the Guinness record for highest combined age of more than 800 years for nine living siblings.

Mr. Mura said the economic miracle of Perdas, as the locals call the town, had already begun, with a wine label inspired by the centenarians and a new business that promoted honey sweetened by the air “that the old people breathed.”

On their walk, he and Mr. Mameli visited town elders in piazzas and on their porches, and fed the century-club members longevity lines about the power of local minestrone and mountain air, chickpeas and the simple Perdasdefogu lifestyle. But the centenarians had a tendency to go off script.

Mr. Mura prompted Bonino Lai, 102, to talk about the local superfoods. Mr. Lai instead recalled how, after missile launches from the base that prosecutors once shut down for dumping hazardous, uranium-enriched waste, he and his friends would scavenge for fallen parts “and mushrooms.”

“They were good!” he added. “Everybody was looking for them.”

When Mr. Mura tried to veer Mr. Lai back to talk of working in the open air, he instead extolled the benefits of procuring a permanent sinecure in town hall.

“I knew the mayor and the councilors,” he said. “They thought I was a nice guy.”

Others said variety was the spice, or at least, preservative of life.

“One day I do this,” Annunziata Stori, who will turn 100 in August, said as she blindly rolled semolina into tiny beads of fregola pasta. “The next spaghetti. Another day lasagna.”

Adolfo Melis, also 99, and a surviving member of the record-breaking siblings, keeps rosaries in the pocket of his track suit jacket and said the important thing was not to get worked up about things.

The town’s oldest official resident, Antonio Brundu, 104, whose father lived to 103, spoke gravely about persevering through suffering.

“If you don’t have stable work, what life do you live?” he asked, looking askance at the stack of local newspapers reporting Seulo’s rival claim, and with concern at his great-granddaughter, 26, who ignored him and scrolled her phone in the kitchen. “I had 45 goats!”

One thing they all agreed on was pride in their town’s new record.

“Inhabitant for inhabitant, we are No. 1,” said Antonio Lai, 100 (no direct relation to Bonino), who goes by the nickname “The Pistol” and boasted that as recently as two years ago he renewed his driver’s license. (“It must have been an English license,” his grandson-in-law, Giampiero Lai, said. “He drove on the wrong side of the road.”)

The fame of the Guinness ranking came with benefits that Mr. Lai had no intention of relinquishing. “An 84-year-old woman — a big woman — came over and gave me a kiss,” he said.

The town’s few remaining young people were less enamored with holding earth’s creakiest title.

“Everything is geared toward the old,” said Alessio Vittorio Lai, 16, the great-great-grandson of “The Pistol,” as he fed coins into a cigarette machine one night. His friend Gabriele Pastrello, 16, the grandson of Bonino Lai, the mushroom enthusiast, agreed. “There’s nothing going on here,” he said.

Not much seemed to be going on in Seulo either.

The town had a similar welcome sign — “The Town of Centenarians” — and also decorated its hillside street with the black-and-white photos of residents who had hit the 100-year milestone. Its tourism shop offered copies of “The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100” by Dan Buettner, a self-described “explorer” — and Guinness World Records holder for distance cycling — who has helped put Seulo and other so-called Blue Zone hot spots, where people live long, on the map.

Locals in Seulo scoffed at the pretension of Perdasdefogu to the geriatric throne.

“It’s just not the way it is,” said Maria Murgia, 89, in a black veil and dress, as she strolled with her friend Consuelo Melis, 30, who wore a sports bra and yoga pants. “They got their calculations wrong.”

“It’s us,” yelled Giovanni Deiana, 79, who sat on a bench with his friends in an otherwise empty playground at the edge of town, and worried that his wife would live to 106, as her mother did. “Us!”

Like Pedas with its missile base, Seulo too used to be known for something else. A mural on the wall of city hall shows a bearded young man from the 1930s wearing pastor’s boots and holding a medical degree to honor the town’s former record of having the highest density of college graduates in Italy.

“But then they left,” said Enrico Murgia, 55, the town’s mayor.

Mr. Murgia said the town’s five living centenarians — with two more on the near horizon — gave Seulo, with only 790 people, a much higher density of the super-old than Perdasdefogu. (On Saturday, one, Pietrina Murgia, died, at age 100, bringing the number down to four.)

An engineer by training, he drew pie charts and made equations to show “the real figure that launches us as the town with the greatest longevity in the world.”

Calculations aside, Seulo’s distinction for extreme longevity, he said, was a “marketing vehicle” and he headed out into the town with a handful of tourism brochures (“Discover the Elixir of Long Life.”) He handed them to people who already lived there.

He stopped by the home of Anna Mulas, 100, who, when asked about the secret to her remarkable resilience, recalled carrying cement bags on her head to help build her house. Mostly though she castigated her daughter for not offering enough candies to guests.

Mr. Murgia walked up to the soon-to-open Museum of Longevity, painted with murals of old people, and promised “an experiential tourist activity.”

At sundown, he took in the view of his pastel-colored town and regretted how years of a swine flu had killed thousands of pigs, costing many jobs and forcing at least 200 residents to move.

“We would have had 1,000 people,” he said. “With those 200, we could have stuck it to Perdas.”

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