The ordeal of the beach

One of the reasons I like this blog is it helps me to analyse things. Well, I mean to say that I actually analysed this whilst talking to F, to explain about ‘why’, but the blog and writing something means that I analyse it in a more structured and clear manner (although you may not think so).

So, in this case, we must go back (ahem) a few years to before I was 14. Every year, my parents would take us on holiday for a couple of weeks. We were a quite large family. 6 in total. These were the days before package holidays and before everyone flew off to become like lobsters on a beach where people resembled a tin of sardines in the south of Spain.

We were well-off but not so rich that my parents could afford a holiday abroad for them and four children. Instead we had a caravan. Originally a four-berth, when the two younger children were old enough, the caravan was ‘extended’ by means of an awning. There would be the ritual of ‘packing’ the caravan, trying to get the weight balanced so that it made towing easier; the packing of everything that would then be unpacked the other end and then repacked at the end of the holiday to be unpacked again at the journey’s end. The packing and unpacking seemed, to me, to take days. Then there was the ‘putting up’ of the awning. I never really worked well with my father. We never ‘connected’ when it came to doing things. If he wanted a screwdriver, you could be certain I was holding a spanner. If he wanted something holding, you could be certain I was holding the thing that wasn’t necessary. Instructions from him were a little like Italian is to me now – to my ears. The middle brother always got it right (when he was old enough) and I always got it wrong.

I hated the holidays. Well, that’s not entirely true. Some things I did like. I liked bacon for breakfast and the smell of it percolating through the caravan and outside; I liked it when we picked mussels from the sea-shore and brought them back and my father would cook them; I liked building, not just sand castles, but whole walled towns on the beach – well, until I was about 10 or so.

And talking about that, let’s talk about the beach. The beach was like a mini-caravan-holiday but in just one day. First there would be the preparation. We would be taking the deck chairs or sun loungers, the changing robe (made by my Mum so you can imagine it looked like an old curtain), swimming costumes and towels, the windbreak, food (in the form of bread, stuff for sandwiches, butter, knives, bread board, plates, etc., etc.), buckets, spades and so on. This would all have to be packed in the car, and then we would all squash into the available space in the car and be driven to the beach.

On arrival, we would enter the beach. For me, once we hit the beach I was thinking that we could stop just there. But no! My parents didn’t like being near all the other people. We would have to go where there were less people – some several miles and hours along the beach from the entrance. OK so I exaggerate a little – but when you are 10, five minutes seems like an hour. Worse still, I was the eldest boy. My siblings were my sister (18 months younger than me) and my two brothers who were several years younger than me. So, you can imagine, with all this stuff, I had to carry a lot – and I loathed it. Worse still, I knew this had to all be carried back at the end of the day!

Then, having picked somewhere out of the way of everyone else (now, of course, I realise this may not only have been for their benefit – maybe, having four kids who fought and squabbled, it was for the sake of the other beach users too!), we would have to put up the windbreak, put up the loungers or deck chairs and then wait as, one by one, we used the changing rode, to get changed – me having an absolute morbid fear of being seen naked by anyone (perhaps that’s worthy of another post sometime) and the idea of my naked body being only a curtain away from being seen by everyone at the beach was almost too much in itself.

And then, of course, this was the UK – so no guarantee that it would be sunny or, for that matter, even warm! No, apart from the sand towns that I built, I remember nothing really good about the beach.

Fast forward then to about 22 years ago.

Our first holiday together. V (only having been to Jamaica once) had never been on a holiday like the one I was taking him on. We had been together a few months. I chose Italy. I chose Sorrento. We had a glorious holiday. But, at that time, I really liked to get a tan. One day we went to ‘the beach’. I knew nothing, of course. Sorrento, being mostly built on high rock, bathing was by means of jetties at the bottom of the cliffs. To get to these one had to be staying at the hotel or to pay for the privilege. Since V couldn’t swim (and I wasn’t that good) it seemed a waste – and I had never paid to sit on a beach in my life! We traipsed to the only free beach that we could find, some half hour out of Sorrento.

We got to the beach and it was fairly quiet. Not too many people. I went for a swim. V didn’t. I sunbathed – V was covered head to toe (using my shirt to cover his head) as, at that time, he used lightening cream to lighten his skin colour and didn’t want the sun to make it darker. Aside from the fact that it made us look a weird couple, it wasn’t really that enjoyable. I don’t think we ever went to a beach again (although we probably did, just not in summer).

Fast forward, now, to the year before last or, maybe last year. Best Mate came over. She wanted beach. We went to the Ligurian coast. I really wasn’t keen. Firstly, it had been a lot of years since I had worn swimming trunks in public, secondly I wasn’t a good swimmer, thirdly I was as white as white can be and fourthly – being on the beach would be boring and I would get too hot. In addition to all that, I was aware, by now, that one had to pay to get on most beaches in Italy! Pay? Are you MAD?? I pay to lie somewhere that’s too hot; that I’m bored with, within about an hour; to lie next to (and I mean about 5 inches from) someone that I don’t even know??? NO WAY!!!!

We found one of the free beaches. Small, pebbly, uncomfortable, I did the bit for as long as I could take it. I didn’t go in the sea. I was ……. uncomfortable and hated it – but I did it for Best Mate – as one does. I was so grateful when we left the beach.

Fast forward again to last October. I met F. F’s idea of the perfect day was a day on the beach. This is a problem, I thought. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that, I have to go with it. If I really hate it I can always say so ……. I suppose …… maybe.

I realised, when we got to Carrara the first time, why his perfect day was a day at the beach, in the same way that my perfect day is a day in the countryside, walking through woods and fields. It’s where we grew up and it’s what we remember or are used to.

I will be honest, I was filled with some fear. He had seen me naked and I have no problem being naked in front of him – but this would be naked in front of loads of other people, some of whom were his family. Well, not EXACTLY naked, but near enough.

In addition, it would be boring. And, as I can’t see without glasses, I wouldn’t be going to the sea; and I would get too hot; and everyone would be too close; and I wasn’t that bothered about being brown; and….. ; and…….

Should I wear my trunks or not? What about a towel? What about money and the mobile phone? What do I do, how should I be, what should I expect? There were many questions – mostly I didn’t ask them. Yes, I should wear my trunks; no, don’t take your wallet, just 50 Euro or so; yes, take your mobile phone, of course.

I wasn’t shaking but I was nervous. It was almost like going to the dentist.

We go to the beach on which his sister has a place. She has it for the season. She pays about 2K for it!! We walk down to the beach, through the car park. I’m sure the Italian coast is really lovely to see but you can’t see it from the land – not like in the UK where you have a promenade, overlooking the beach – to take in the sea air, to look out over the ocean. Here, jostling, side by side are the private beaches. You can’t see them from the road – the beach is behind a building – the building housing changing rooms; a bar/café/restaurant, shower block, bathrooms, etc.

We walk down the gravelled car park, past the toilets, the showers and the changing rooms (although we stop at his sister’s to drop off our shorts and T-shirts). I am naked or, rather, I feel naked. And white. It wouldn’t be so bad if I were see-through – then no one would see me. Now they will look at me, see this old man with this crap body and, probably, point and whisper and laugh and I SO want to run back.

I follow F down the footpath. We aren’t even at the beach yet. I just know that I am going to hate this day but I must do it – for F, for me, for us. We get to the bar. F asks if I want breakfast (it’s about 10 a.m.) and I say yes. Anything to delay the final bit of getting to the beach and it gives me time to observe. We get cappuccinos and a cream-filled doughnuts (our favourite breakfast). We go and sit down in the seated area. F explains that the area just behind us is where everyone goes to play cards later in the afternoon, after lunch. The area behind that is where people who’ve brought their own food, go to eat. This area is where the people who buy food from the café eat.

Everyone (there are not so many people but more than I would like) is brown. I feel more white than white. I do note, though, that not everyone is attractive with a great body. In fact, they are many shapes and sizes. I do feel a little better. My body isn’t THAT bad and, although white, for a 50-year-old man, at least it isn’t too saggy with too much ‘floppy skin’.

Apparently, there are no spare ‘umbrellas’ for hire. We shall have to go and use his sister’s. It’s OK. They won’t be there until the afternoon. I prepare myself to be bored to death. At least we won’t be paying for me to be bored, so that’s something! We walk down to the umbrella. Not just any umbrella but a specific umbrella. F knows where it is. They are not 5 inches apart, as I suspected but a reasonable couple of feet apart. Each umbrella has one lounger, one chair and one deckchair – except his sister’s where there is no deckchair but two loungers.

The umbrella is up. We arrange the loungers and chairs so that we can lie in the sun. I look around (but carefully, so no one sees me). Hmmm. OK, there is no one really near to us. the umbrellas near us are empty of people. I look at the people in the distance. Apart from being brown, as if they’ve been on the beach since May, I muse that people look better with clothes on.

I take some sun. After about half an hour, I am too hot. I have to do something about his, if we are to be here all day. I decide to go to the sea. I tell F. I walk down the wooden board walk thing to the beach. It is busy at the beach but not as bad as I had thought. I go in. the water is cold. I wade further. I note that there aren’t that many people actually ‘swimming’ which is good, since I am not a strong swimmer and, anyway, I can’t bear getting water in my eyes (even in the shower). I swim a little – breast stroke and on my back – before coming back out. I am cool now so can stand a bit in the sun. I get back to ‘our’ umbrella and stand there, being dried by the sun.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the sun. It provides heat and I love the heat, as you know. It’s just this boring bit of lying there like a pig roasting on a spit that I don’t really like – but, I have to admit, this isn’t so bad. We didn’t have to carry the loungers down and the umbrella was there and open for us.

F decides to go into the shade of the umbrella. I stay in the sun for a bit. I read my book. F listens to music on his iPod. We both go to the sea. He wants to stay as long as me – about 15 or 20 minutes. Suits me fine. We go back to the umbrella. He suggests a game of cards. He has taught me to play his favourite games. We play them. I read a bit more. I also go into the shade of the umbrella, being a little bit red.

Some woman comes to say hello to him. She is from two umbrellas down. They played cards together last year. She is about 60 or so. We play cards with her. Another woman comes; she is about 45. She joins us in playing cards. I think – it’s nice that all these old people want to play cards with us – that is, until I realise that I AM one of these old people!  His niece comes and talks to us. She doesn’t play cards. This beach, I learn, at least this area of the beach, not far from the sea, is used, mostly, by locals. These people are friends of his or his sister. It is very pleasant being on the beach, under the umbrella, playing cards and chatting (well, they’re chatting – I’m mostly listening).

B arrives (his sister). She talks. He has jokes to me that it takes her half a day to reach her umbrella as she has to talk with all the people on the way down. She continues to talk. We all go for a ‘swim’ in the sea. For most of them, this means wading out until you are neck high in the water and then chatting. This is quite enjoyable, I think. If this is what it is like, I can do this!

This is what it is like. I can do this. Actually, I like this. I had forgotten that I really like to be brown. It makes me feel good. I had forgotten that I like the sea. When I first met V, my solution to everything, every ailment was sun, sea and good food. Here, I am getting all of that. I feel good.

I now understand the reason for paying for the beach. Here you have all the facilities (including a shower by the water’s edge). There’s no lugging of stuff, no searching for your ‘own’ area, no traipsing miles just to get an ice-cream! People aren’t packed like sardines, they don’t stare at me because I am whiter than white (or not so as I notice).

A few days later I speak to Best Mate. I promise her that, next time, we go to a paid beach and that I’m cool with it now. The ordeal is over. Now beaches are for relaxing, reading, playing cards and talking with friends, interspersed with dips in the sea. It’s OK.