Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach I soak up the eccentric backdrop. This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea. You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of serious concussion or spinal injuries, there are endless craggy boulders skulking under the water.
Walking down the beach my shoes begin to fill with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. How I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under fine grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, there isn’t the convenience of a single shop or public toilet. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.
Watching beach umbrellas, pop up along the seaside, I begin to smear myself with sunscreen, as this is the standard procedure for people with milky coloured thighs left unexposed to the sun during winter. In Australia the sun is one danger of many to protect yourself from, an Australian doesn’t go to the beach without sunscreen nor do they go walking in long grass without boots or ever forget to check their shoes before they put them on to look out for poisonous spiders. Around me I see at least half a dozen women roasting themselves in the sun, I can smell barbecue meat.
Italian women take an enormous risk during the summer, turning themselves the colour of roast chicken. The tanned look is very fashionable and according to popular logic; the darker you look, the healthier you are. Obviously, they are in denial about the existence of skin cancer.
We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and their children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. Here the sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.
All my female companions are in bikinis and I am in a full piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach. It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. I’ve always been self-conscience about exposing my body at the beach, I’ve never been part of that tall tanned beach going Ozzie set. I’ve never spent an entire summer at the beach, neither am I the athletic type.
These conservative Sicilian women, usually cover their bodies so carefully and fashionably during the year, yet in the summer they easily strip down without a second thought into the bare minimum of beach attire. They abandon themselves to the ideal bohemian fantasy of summer, without looking at themselves in the mirror.
Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in the large industrial cities like Milan and Turin, return every summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily, who really don’t work very hard during the year, at least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who are fully deserving of a restful holiday.
Beach-going is extremely fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our own little-isolated strip of Sicilian coast, there are people who have convinced themselves the world is watching them in their seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest shaped fashion sunglasses and the occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.
Trying to be social and fit into the beach going routine, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas, as everyone strips down, I just want to dive into the water and have a swim but obviously, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings on at the beach and the local gossip.
Not having any desire to participate I soak up the sun until a collective decision is made to play volleyball in the water to gradually dip ourselves into the sea. It becomes obvious no one is taking the game seriously, either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.
The gossip continues, the ball is bowled back up onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues to talk. I really don’t know about any of the people featured in the current conversation. I am excluded from the intricate web of social connections and nicknames so I cannot contribute anything to the gossip session and struggle to understand the shorthand speak being exchanged.
After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up they wave and whistle out to me, I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way back with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I just wanted to swim.
The others are surprised at how well I move in the water and everyone said they thought I’d drowned. A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile to myself as I remember my childhood in Australia, every summer at the local pool had made me a good swimmer by Sicilian standards, yet in Australia, I always came dead last in any school swimming race.
Italians at the beach are dispersed in small chatty posed groups, roasting and gossiping in the sun, only the children are playing or swimming. Why would someone go to the beach and not swim?