I believe in Savouring Life’s Bittersweet
Down and Out in the Roman Summer (the beaches of Tor Vaianica)
As a struggling single mom living in a small town outside of Rome, Italy, I look forward to the end of May, when my son and I can go the beach. The closest beaches are the natural dunes of Tor Vaianica, flanking the city of Pomezia, home of… big furniture outlets. The beach territory is partitioned and staked out by “stabilimenti” or bathing establishments, essentially coffee bars with a palm-frond roofs that rent out beach chairs and umbrellas, and can offer such luxuries as restrooms, showers, restaurants, and playgrounds. The main benefit of the stabilimenti is that they keep the beach clean, unlike the tiny public beaches, which could be represented by the image of a dirty diaper half-buried in the sand of a giant ashtray. Each stabilimento advertises its affiliation by the choice of it’s name, visible from a tatty flag visible over the dunes from the street. “Sol”, “Cuba Libre”, “Zion”, “Peter Pan”, “The Beach Oasis”: almost all the names recall far-away places, an idea of escape not quite congruent with the sea of tan limbs and the opaque water.
Cuba Libre offers Sangria. At Zion recently a DJ spun reggae, and tattoos prevailed. The beach is quiet until around 12 pm, when the partygoers arrive on their motorcycles and quickly sort themselves into 2 groups: the active, with their water volley games and their beach racquetball, and the lazy, who gaze at the sea and each other through a cloud of smoke from funny cigarettes. And then there are the families, who always look the same: the kids are having a ball and the parents look like they don’t get enough sleep. Could it be the Italian custom of letting kids stay up as late as they want?
And who needs a boardwalk with tacky souvenirs, when the boardwalk can come to you? Barely a minute passes without an immigrant vendor (rigorously dressed in long pants, long sleeve shirt, and sneakers) declaring his wares unintelligibly: sunglasses, cigarettes, bandanas, toe-rings, bedspreads, Bermudas, fresh coconut, beer, inflatable rafts. I often wonder what the vendors think of this strange destiny that the fates have awarded them: to trudge stoically with their duffels up and down this sandy expanse of pink human flesh, with its flashing bare breasts, 6-year olds in thongs, 60 year-olds in bikinis, tanning freaks disconcertingly brown in places that should never be brown, and cover-ups that don’t cover up anything but are studied to accentuate the curve of a perfect buttock.
But clothed or not, it’s still a place to let the sand run through your fingers, trapping tiny lavender shells, to hear the waves breaking and the excited shrieks of children who have found a dead jellyfish, to observe this human zoo, and to recall the people you’ve met who say they never go to the beach: it’s too crowded and too dirty. I wonder where they’ll find their desert island—haven’t they all been taken by Reality TV shows?