It is with immense joy I announce that Summer 2011 for yours truly shall entail total avoidance of Italian beaches. (I've written about my particular aversion to the peculiarly Italian style of fun-in-the-sun here and here). In a way, eschewing the oven-baked, seething stretches of Tuscan sand--bordered by traffic-choked streets, ugly apartment blocks, video arcades and tawdry Luna Parks--has become something of a point of pride for me. I much prefer Italy's mountains--my beloved Dolomites--for a getaway that gives me everything I crave: the wonder of nature, luxurious amounts of sweet fresh air, space to breathe in, pleasantly arduous physical activity, great food and wine, and relief from the heat.
To further tickle the repulsion centers of your brains, I shall relate to you a vignette or two from beach vacations past....
The scene: Elba, June 2001. My brother- and sister-in law--otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Weiner--and their two young, catatonically-compliant daughters crashed our vacation. My husband and I had been living with his parents in Florence (this was a folly for which I'd gladly render my kneecaps in order to completely erase from memory), I was in the early months of my first pregnancy, and we had come to a shady hillside above Cavoli to relax, escape family and enjoy some much-needed Couple Time. My mother-in-law--curse her black, meddling, pantyhose-constricted soul--saw fit to reveal our secret location in a rented house to the Bürgermeister, who then showed up on our doorstep and summarily dumped his bags.
What was perhaps even more disturbing to me than this total disregard for our privacy was the revelation that the Bürgermeister and brood go to the beach and then spend most of the time there actually shunning the water.
Because water--like ice cubes or air conditioning--will kill you, of course. Therefore it is to be avoided--regardless if it's 105 degrees out, and the hot sand shears off an onion-thin layer of your feet each time you step on it. This is Italy, after all, where the feathery tendrils of tepid breezes on even the most scorching days bring on raging pneumonia, where drinking cold beverages freezes your digestion and proceeds to decimate your internal organs with pernicious stomach acids, and where getting wet--either from bathing, swimming, water-pistol fights, or rain--carries the risk of slow and torturous total bronchial annihilation.
They're a strange breed, these Italians. I mean, to them, shampooing your hair and letting it air-dry, or riding a public bus with the windows open (in summer) is considered a come-hither to the Grim Reaper--while running red lights with impunity, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, or passing on a curve at 100 miles-an-hour is regarded as completely innocuous, if not downright wholesome.
I digress. At the small local beach, Frau Weiner smothered a chaise with her rear end and remained there under the umbrella, as languorous as a corpulent Salome, the entire day--all the while shouting dire warnings at the girls who were forbidden to wade past ankle-deep in the mild surf. Me being American, young(er) and blunt, asked, "Why don't you go in the water?"
"Oh, I don't like the water! I never go in," she replied.
"Then why do you come to the beach?"
She volleyed me a look that said "you impossible fool, one goes to the beach because everybody goes to the beach," and busied herself arranging the elaborate, black, see-through, sequined cover-up over her plump thighs.
Meanwhile, the Bürgermeister refused to join us under the umbrella; he stood--stood, mind you--on his hind legs for hours under a tree back near the road, in a white tee-shirt and swim trunks, watching the girls at play with fixed and vigilant eyes, like some prissy, neurotic lifeguard. This was when I tried in vain to come up with the Italian translation of "Jeez, but that guy's got a big stick up his ass" for my husband.
Frau Weiner's aversion to water is inbred, I found out. Her parents have a beach house in Viareggio, mere steps from the boardwalk, and religiously rent a front-row spot in one of the more expensive bagni every summer--but they, too, never deign to enter the water. In fact, even though they pay through the nose for the privilege of having their chaises and umbrella available for the three-month duration, they've stopped going to the beach at all, abandoning their precious patch of sand to visiting grandchildren. "It's too hot," they complain.
That's why there's the water.
One summer, we accepted an invitation by the Bürgermeister clan to join them in Viareggio, and watched the Fear-of-Water-Hurly-Burly-Show play out daily. As usual, Frau Weiner was ensconced on her chaise like Jabba the Hutt on a plinth, each day sporting a different fashionable swimsuit with gauzy, coordinating cover-up and sparkly infraditi. This time the Bürgermeister managed to actually sit for periods--albeit bolt upright--in a canvas director's chair, craning his neck to watch every life-threatening splash the girls made. An oversized canvas beach bag sat next to Frau Weiner, and every time the girls would tire of their games and come out of the water--to play in the sand perhaps, or get a drink of water or a snack--she would pluck two fresh bathing-suits out of the bag and immediately change them, towelling them off frantically, lest they catch a chill. Every time. I was as riveted by this ritual as if she were Houdini performing the handkerchief trick out of a top hat--bathing suit after bathing suit kept coming out of the bag, in seemingly endless supply. Once again I couldn't resist:
"Why do you change them every time they come out of the water [you psychotic, Lycra-encased sausage]?"
"Because they'll get bronchite if they sit around in wet suits [you hopelessly stupid, foolhardy Yank]."
"Oh." I squinted up at the molten, orange orb in the sky and at the waves of heat shimmering along the shoreline, while sweat pooled in-between my toes. "Well, we wouldn't want that."
If the poor girls had even so much as one bite of focaccia, or a cracker, or a piece of fruit, the Bürgermeister would command from his director's chair, "NO GOING IN THE WATER NOW FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS, OR YOU'LL GET A CRAMP AND DROWN!" Apparently that was his sole function and purpose for being on the beach at all--since nary a stiff, punctilious toe of his ever even dipped in the water.
So if I shan't be spending summer in this Hell--a Hell that could kill me quicker than if I were to be smeared in Spam and left for bear bait--where will I be spending the dog days, you may ask? Why, in Heaven, of course. I shall be enjoying nearly two glorious months in the majestic Pacific Northwest. What's more, I plan on wantonly indulging in all the things that would kill an ordinary Italian: basking in air-conditioned environments until I get goose-flesh, swilling iced tea that is chock full of ice cubes, eating spicy ethnic food, getting soaked at water parks and letting myself air dry--and did I mention eating spicy ethnic food?
Here's wishing a wonderful summer full of similar risks, dangers and pitfalls to all of you, my dear Readers. I may post while abroad, or I may not--we'll see. But rest assured that I'll be back in September--if the Sasquatch doesn't get me, of course. Or the water.
Yours, ever recklessly,