I was thinking of this today as I lay in the sun after swimming. As I wrote yesterday’s blog I also thought about it so I decided I’d explain.
My first experience with a beach was when I was in my early twenties. I was living in Italy, on a small island in the Mediterranean. A very small island. You could circle the island in a day by bike, although I never did that.
At that time I was married to my children’s’ father who was in the US Navy. Very shortly after our marriage he received orders to La Maddalena Italy. Neither of us had ever even heard of it before, but a look into an encyclopedia (yes, that was before the joy of internet!) showed a tiny speck off the north east tip of a larger island, Sardinia. Wow that was where we were going!
Actually getting there is a story in itself – for later maybe.
When I arrived on the island for the first time it was stunningly beautiful. A rugged, wind swept terrain with the most beautiful water I had ever seen. The military had made an error and sent my husband there too early. There was no American presence on the island yet. A submarine tender was arriving in a few days though. In fact I wasn’t supposed to be there at all – no wives were included since there were no “facilities” yet. Hummm… my husband on an island paradise and me in Virginia alone? I don’t think so - I just bought my own ticket and went anyway. One of the best decisions I ever made.
Because there were no Americans living there, no one spoke English. Some of the people had taken it at school and knew a few words, others – like my landlord knew a few phrases from the war days – things like “chocolate”, and “stockings” but no one could speak it. The island folk were not too happy about the US setting up camp there. The main income for the local people was from tourists. Not run of the mill tourists like you and me, but the big bucks tourists. Since this island is so small and well known it was a favorite place for the filthy rich, like Jackie O and movie stars. Yachts would anchor there, and the owners would enjoy the beaches and the local cuisine at LaMaddalena’s restaurants, all undisturbed by the press or gawkers. The locals were afraid that the presence of the US military and their families living on the island would scare off their income producing tourists. I am not sure what an impact it had, but I learned that the military did not stay for long, and they have been gone for many years now. I am happy to know this.
Back to my story. No one spoke English other than a few words, and no one hated Americans (yet) so I was received with open arms. Finding a place to rent was a bit tricky though. Most of the uninhabited places were owned by Italians who lived in mainland Italy, and used they used them for their vacation homes.
The clerk at the “city office” referred us to Mario. A bit about the city office. In Italy everything is verified by this office. Putting bills into your name, rental contracts, big purchases, taxes (a lot of those) – you name it and it required a trip to the “office” where a multitude of papers would be stamped – usually in red ink. It was comical to me, as an outsider. In fact it reminded me of a cartoon rather than real life. The clerk would hit the stamp on the ink pad, then on the paper, then on the ink pad then on another paper – repeated maybe 8 or 9 times before whatever you were doing was completed. It was amazing the rapidity and rhythm with which this was done.
Any way – I found Mario’s office and he was able to find a place for us to rent – in his back yard, literally.
Mario was a contractor and owned several buildings in town – apartment type as I remember. He lived on a small dirt road off the main road that circumvented the island. In fact he owned the dirt road. It contained three houses. His was in the front. Behind his house was a small duplex. In one half lived his father-in-law, and the other half was used by his sister for vacations. She lived in Rome. Behind this was a third house where his sister-in-law and family lived.
I was offered the empty side of the duplex, a small one bedroom apartment with a nice front porch. When I moved in I did not realize how lucky I was. Not only did I get a nice home, but I was adopted by the Mario family. There was Mario and his wife, Enza, their two boys and two daughters. Patricia was the oldest and she helped me with Italian and I helped her with English. She was 13 then. We became fast friends.
Nono (grandfather) lived in the other half of my house. He was a real character and always brought me flowers. In the evenings he and my husband would drink wine and play checkers by the hour.
Behind that was Pino and Pina’s house. Pino was Enza’s brother, and he and his wife had the same first name – just with masculine and feminine endings. They had three children. Their youngest was three and she thought I was the most stupid person in the world. Here I was, a grown up adult and I could not speak! She had never met anyone with a different language and she just could not understand why I could not talk. When I was trying to speak in Italian she would politely listen, and then when she thought I wasn’t looking she would shake her head as if I was the most pitiful person she had ever met. Everyone laughed at her attitude towards me.
When I talk about the family doing things together – it includes all of these people. They were “now my family”.
I know this is not about the beach really – but you need to know the situation…
Every day during siesta time the extended family went to the beach, usually setting up a bit of a camp and cooking their immense lunch there. Of course since I lived there I was part of the family so this included me too.
Imagine for a minute what my life was like. I awoke in the morning to a sunny day. Occasionally, if I had left a window open, I might awake to a bull’s head in the bedroom, but he was friendly, he often came to visit in the mornings.
After I made breakfast I sent my then husband off to work (establishing a medical clinic on the island for when others would arrive.) Next I would throw my bedding over the window sill for airing (when in Rome… pardon the pun) then I’d meet Enza (Mario’s wife) and we would walk the mile or so into town. Once there we would make our first stop at her favorite bar/coffee shop on the red plaza. We would have cappuccino and a pastry with some of her friends before starting the day’s shopping. We then went to the shops – the butcher, the baker, the green grocer etc. All food was bought fresh on the day it was prepared. Enza had a large frig – but it was always empty except for a very few leftovers. We then headed home with our purchases.
A side note here – whenever I would enter a store the owner would teach me new words in Italian. He might hold up an onion and say “chipole, chipole” and the next time I was there he would test me on it. I learned a lot of Italian vocabulary that way. Since no one spoke English it was sink or swim with the language. Full immersion. It worked well for me and I was semi fluent in a short time – I always had trouble with grammar – no one wanted to correct me – they thought it would be embarrassing.
Back to the beach. As soon as it was warm enough in the spring to hit the beach we would head there for lunch and siesta time. In fact, Enza and Mario set up a permanent camp there in the summer for a month. They would rent their big home to a rich tourist and they lived at the beach. Not bad at all. The children would return from school around 1 PM that was the end of their school day – they went to school 6 days a week though. Usually school was out for the summer about the time camp was set up. Husbands came home for lunch and siesta too. They would return to work in the evening – 5 – 6 PM or so, that is when homework was done too.
At the beach Enza and Pina would produce a typical Italian meal. Salad, fruit, cold pepperoni sausage etc., a pasta of some kind, primavera, carbanara or some other variety, a vegetable, perhaps stuffed egg plant or sautéed zucchini, bread, and a meat dish. Then there was a dessert (after the cold meats and fruits) some awesome pastry usually. That was lunch. Every day. Like a Thanksgiving meal. Often Pino would take his small boat out and throw a net in the ocean – pulling in a catch of fresh fish. Enza and Pino’s wife would scale them and we had them for lunch right then and there. One time there were hardly any fish in Pino’s net – an octopus had gotten into the net and eaten the fish. No problem said Pino. And I quote – in his little bit of English, “Octopus eat fish. Pino eat octopus”. And we did – for lunch that day. It was large; the tentacles were at least 7 feet long. It was my husband’s job to keep the octopus from getting out of the boat as they made their way to shore that day. He said it was a close race between who would get out of the boat first, the octopus or him. It was his first time going out on the boat with Pino.
After lunch the siesta started. This entailed lying in the sun on the sand and listening to the ocean. Usually we slept for an hour so. I can tell you there is NO BETTER WAY IN THE WORLD to go to sleep than to the sound of the waves breaking gently on the shore, and the smell of salt air in your nose.
After an hour or so everyone would wake up and then it was time to swim. The Mediterranean waters were crystal clear. Visibility for ever. It was the best snorkeling water I have ever been in.
Usually Enza and I would swim out to a small rock outcropping – it was about a mile from shore. We would rest on the rocks for 15 minutes or so – there was barely enough room for both our skinny derrieres. Then we would swim back to the shore. That was out daily exercise. After that I snorkeled around – there was so much to see. Puffer fish, eels, octopus, garibaldi fish – and so many others that I can’t remember the names of. There were tons of star fish. An astounding variety too. The standard five armed ones most people know, but also others, brittle star fish, different colored star fish, one was a vivid red. Some had hundreds of arms – OK probably dozens though. Enza told me anything over five arms was poisonous. There was so much to see, and such clear water that you could see it all.
The locals would collect the female sea urchins. You would crack them open with a knife, rinse them out in the salt water, and you were left with an almost empty shell. All that was theret were five radiating rows of roe. Poor-man’s caviar. I can’t tell you how many of those I collected.
After cleaning up the lunch stuff I would return home. I would be there to greet my husband when he got off work and make dinner for him. I always felt so sorry for him that he did not get the same experience that I did while we lived in Italy. On weekends we lived at the beach, but he missed being adopted the way I was.
There were divers on the sub tender anchored in LaMaddalena’s waters. I was able to talk one of them into teaching me how to scuba dive. I eventually purchased scuba equipment of my own and that brought a new dimension to my swimming.
The second year there I had a friend with a sail boat (much better than having your own boat). He had been a big-time designer from Milan. He had it all – the mansion, the boat, the money, the hanger-oners, the pressure etc. One day he said enough. He left town with the money in his pocket and with his girl friend and sailed away. He had not been home or seen his family in five years when I met him. He spent a lot of time in LaMaddalena. He made his living by taking people out to fish. He said he never missed his old life, not one day.
I met him somehow – I can’t remember, and we became good friends. His girl friend could catch fish like no body’s business. The only problem was that she did not like to sail. So, I filled in for her. I often went out for the day with his tourists acted as hostess and we sailed to nearby smaller islands. I would dive from his boat too. You had to be pretty carefully diving. Since the water was so clear, and the sunlight penetrated so deep, it was very easy to find yourself at 200 feet without realizing it. From that vantage point I could look up and see the bottom of his boat. Amazing. SCUBA gear wasn’t as sophisticated then as it is now. I had to keep an eye on my monitors and calculate how long I could stay at each depth I reached. I like the new equipment they have now, all automated, but it is still good to know the old way – what if it malfunctions?
In the evenings – in Italy evening started around 8 or PM – after the men got off work we went to the Piazza Rosa again - it was the only real plaza in our small town – which was the only town on our small island. This is when courting and visiting occurred. Everyone would return to the coffee shop/bar – at night it was the bar, and have a glass of wine, or uzo or whatever and stroll around the plaza. Friends were visited and gossip exchanged. Young men and women would eye each other – that was dating in La Maddalena.
It was still a little isolated, old fashioned part of Italy at that time. There were no telephones in homes then. Businesses had them, but not private people. I learned to live without one pretty easily. Instead of calling someone up to tell them something you just went to their home. If they were not there you left a message. Simple. On such a small island no one lived very far away. If it could wait you would tell them yourself at the market in the morning, or strolling the plaza in the PM.
The Italians have a saying. “Domani, dopo domani, dopo dopo domani” it means tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the day after the day after tomorrow. That is how they lived. Nothing was so important that it could not wait. Life was slow and to be savored. I swore I would not get caught up in the rat race when I returned to the states, but of course I did. You can’t just stand still in the midst of a fast flowing river.
I spent three summers living this life. (Winter was great too – almost the same but without the beach). Whenever I think of the ocean, or hear it or smell it I am back in Italy for a few moments. I told someone once that it is sad that my life peaked at such an early age – nothing has ever been as good as that time was.
So you can see why I love the beach so much. Not only is it the water and the beach, it is all wrapped up in the slow and peaceful life on that little island.
To be fair I loved swimming before I went to Italy. I learned to swim before I could walk. My father was a big-wig in the government and we spent a lot of time at the Washington Gulf and Country Club – he said he did as much business on the course as he did at the office . My mother and siblings spent the time at the pool. Mom said I would crawl over to the edge and slip into the water – and just swim. The first few times she was terrified, but as she became confident of my skills she relaxed a bit. I understand I was retrieved by a life guard a few times during my self-learning phase.
I know that I can never return to that time and place. If I went back to LaMaddalena now it would be so different. I hold the memory dear, but it dosent tarnish my beach experience now. I still love to lie in the sand and just listen to the waves and smell the air. A primordial heart beat that is so calming – and the saltwater that all of us are made up of.
It doesn’t get any better.