Oh, how do I love an Italian beach, the crowded, sandy kind with its endless, orderly rows of beach umbrellas, its cloudy gray-green seawater and hordes of potbellied men never reaching the end of their newspapers. Their wives, evenly tanned to a deep orange-brown, rifle through plastic beauty cases for a comb, a fresh pack of cigarettes, a lighter they will never find. Without looking up from the paper, the husband reaches over to the small plastic disc of a table affixed to the beach umbrella and locates it soundlessly, then lights her cigarette. If you were expecting chivalry on an Italian beach, that is about as good as it gets.
The man who shows you to your assigned spot and opens your umbrella trudges quickly through the sand, he never offers to help you with your bags of beach toys and towels, the sticky three-year-old in your arms, snacks and books, and you can barely keep up. When you lag behind, he stalks ever faster through the sand, then turns to wait for you, and smiles, but huffs a little when he wipes his brow with the back of his hand.
The kids, they are everywhere. The little girls wear bikini bottoms only, with the long ties at the sides swinging when they run. Then there are the vendors selling towels, beaded necklaces, sunglasses, designer bags. They stream past endlessly, endlessly, begging you to just look up at their wares.
There is one I wait for: the Cocobello man, my favorite. He is short and compact, darkly tanned in his t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. “VITAMINA! COCOBELLOCOCOBELLOCOCOBELLOBELLO! VITAMINA!” he calls out in the most grating of voices, a basket full of jagged pieces of fresh coconut on one arm and a bucket full of water sloshing on the other. My children usually cannot resist, although after two bites they say “Bleh” and give it all to me.
The Austrians read novels, play cards or dice and build castles with their children. The Italians mainly scold their young. Almost everyone goes in just before one for lunch, returning to the beach in the afternoon, around five o’clock, when le ore piu’ calde, the hottest hours of the day, have passed.
Early morning, but especially evening are the times I love it best. There is almost no one by the water, and those who are speak in hushed tones, almost out of reverence for the perfect time of day: the light is poetic on the sand and water, all the umbrellas lined up just so, the fine footprints of the seagulls, the sound of the waves mingling with far-off voices and ah, that golden light, it is so right you feel nostalgic for it while it’s still there.
Then, after night falls, the moonshine turns a section of the sea a glittery pink, and boats blink in the distance, the waves are smaller and they whisper secrets to the shore. The boys see a lighthouse across the way. Their faces are covered in chocolate ice cream and their toes in cool, damp evening sand.
Later, I am hunched over a computer in our small hotel room, knocking out translations while the boys watch cartoons into the wee hours of the night. Three asks to go to sleep. “I’m tired, Mommy,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “It is late. I’ll tuck you in as soon as I finish this. I’m sorry!”
And Seven says, “Don’t be sorry! This was the best day ever!”
And it was.