My new book is due out this July. Here is an excerpt from it (Chapter 8). I hope you enjoy it!
“People travel to far away places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
- - Dagobert D. Runes
I grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes. If you’ve never been there, particularly Michigan’s west coast, picture one of the famous California beaches: pristine sand stretching for miles along endlessly pounding surf, thousands of people, girls in bikinis, mountains in the background, sunshine beaming brightly, sports cars driving along the boardwalk, and surfers out in the waves. The beaches of Lake Michigan are exactly like that, except for the surf (fresh water chop instead), people, bikinis, mountains, sunshine, sports cars, boardwalks, or surfers. If you next dropped the water temperature twenty degrees, you’d have a pretty clear picture. The shores of Michigan are stunningly beautiful, largely abandoned, and frigid as all get out. Every now and then, however, you catch a few pretty good days. At such moments a Great Lakes beach can seem like heaven on earth.
So I consider myself at least a little bit of a beach veteran. In addition to the extensive Michigan experiences, I have also enjoyed beaches from Japan to the Caribbean, Florida to Hawaii and Bora Bora. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the experience of a beach visit along Italy’s Amalfi coast.
After a day of touring ruins, I thought a little break might be a good reward for the kids. So the next day we packed up the trusty mini-bus with towels and sunscreen, balls and sunglasses, and drove into Maiori, scene of the famous grocery heist just days before. It was early morning, and a work day for most, so the town was significantly transfigured from the jam-packed beach festival we had earlier encountered. There were still quite a few folks about, but we were actually able to find a parking spot right along the beach. Little did we know it would be the last good real estate we’d acquire that day.
I had a bit of an inkling how this was going to work. I’d seen it all along the French Riviera a few years prior. Whereas the beaches of most of the world are wide-open, free-range sort of affairs, for some reason many beaches along the south of Europe get a little strange. Maiori would be no different. With the exception of a little postage-stamp sized “public beach” section, usually at the end closest to the messiest boats and worst seaweed and largest dead fish, the entire beach is occupied by businesses. I don’t mean businesses along the beach; I mean businesses on the beach itself. Almost all the way to the water’s edge umbrellas are arranged neatly in rows, crammed together so their brims almost touch each other. Along both sides of such a property extends a chain or rope, cordoning off that business’s section of beach from the neighboring competitor. One can easily keep track of the different sections because the umbrellas are color coordinated: all red in this section. Next door? All green with white stripes, etc. You show up at the curb, pay an un-posted amount of money, then someone escorts you to your umbrella.
For us it was 15 euro for the whole day. I asked about being in the row in front, near the water, and was told: “It is not possible.” Then we were led down some steps to beach level, out across a wooden walkway, then down between a row of umbrellas all the way to the end along the plastic chain separating our establishment from the one next door. It was like being given the home in the neighborhood that faces the water tower. I looked out toward the sea and saw six or more rows ahead of us. The one along the water’s edge was completely unoccupied, as were 90% of the spots in the whole complex. Compared to the acres and acres experiences we’d had on beaches around the world, this was high up on the strange list.
Next I surveyed our “property.” It was at least nine square feet, consisting of the aforementioned umbrella flanked by a lounge on one side and a high-backed chair on the other. I can’t help a small diversion describing these chairs:
Italy is known around the world for its design. This applies to cars, motorcycles, architecture, clothing, leather goods, what have you. There is a style to the things Italians make that is unique and appealing. In most cases, they just get it right. Not so, however, when it comes to beach chairs. Everywhere we went, from the hotel pool in Sorrento, to Villa Scarpariello, to this beach in Maiori, and later at our villa in Tuscany, we encountered these same awful chairs. They were everywhere. Pick up any brochure for a hotel and you’ll see them by the pool. Drive by any beach and it’s all they’ve got. Yet for us, the darn things were impossible. We couldn’t figure out how in the world anyone could get comfortable in such contraptions. Take the lounge, for instance; it was adjustable to two settings: 1) back ache and 2) neck ache. Whoever had designed this highly popular chair had never taken a look at the human skeleton. In the lower position the lounge required one to bend at the shoulder blades. In the upright position one was expected to bend at the kidneys. More time had apparently been invested into the device that folds up over the head, ostensibly to shield out the sun. Instead, it invariably ends up in one’s face or hair. Eventually I concluded this handy feature must be there to hide one’s grimacing face.
The upright chair was no better. Sitting in it was an experience reminiscent of those baby bounce seats one hangs in a doorway. The baby sets down into it, fully trapped, and bounces up and down. This is exactly how this chair felt, minus the bouncing part. That would have made it fun. Instead, as soon as you plop down into it you realize you’ll need help extracting yourself. This chair, too, has two helpful settings: 1) pinch fingers and 2) pop pelvis.
Terri and I took turns trading back and forth between these two delightful implements of our most recent real estate transaction as our children frolicked in the sand. Actually, they first had to snake through the maze of chairs and umbrellas and all the smoking Italians before doing any frolicking. That’s apparently one of the largest attractions of the beach: smoking. Everywhere we looked, that’s what people were doing. Even the parents. This was far different than Ireland, where we couldn’t help but notice how frowned upon smoking was, at least judging by the warning labels on cigarette cartons, which said things such as, “Warning: Smoking has been shown to kill people outright. It is stupid, stupid, stupid!” and “Only an idiot would buy this pack of cigarettes.” And those were some of the tamer ones. So I guess what I’m saying is if you are a smoker, you probably want to choose Italy over Ireland. Besides, the beaches in Ireland are probably pretty rainy, anyway.
After taking in our position in the umbrella city, wrestling with the furniture, and observing the smokers, I next was confronted with physiques. It was hard to avoid. For one thing, single piece bathing suits must be quite out of style. Instead, what’s fashionable seems to be flab hanging down over a bikini bottom. And that was just the men. The women’s suits were even less modest. I learned more about Italian anatomy in half an hour than any lawn furniture designer ever knew. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one noticing. My five-year-old innocently made the comment, “These mommies and daddies don’t need to buy trampolines; their kids can just bounce on their bellies!”
I snaked my way through the umbrella maze and joined my children in the water. Here’s where the Mediterranean shines. Warm, calm salt water gently carried me along on my back as I surveyed the beautiful mountain behind the small town. I relaxed in total comfort, swimming with my children and gazing all around. What a beautiful place, I thought, spotting a castle I hadn’t seen before perched high up on a crag.
Back on shore we kicked around a small soccer ball, then tossed it high to enable heroic diving catches. I took the two younger children for rides on my back out past the swim area markers. Out there the water grew a bit cooler, offering refreshment against the ever-rising sun. The day was getting hotter and hotter and ashore I could see the umbrella city filling up. We headed back to our little slice of territory and our kids began digging a commercial strip mine. They piled the rough, nearly black sand high on four sides of an enormous pit. This overflowed into several other beach sites in the neighborhood, crowding others out and blatantly trespassing – all without a permit. No one seemed to mind, however, as between smoke rings we were given approving smiles and nods. Once again we were welcomed by the friendliness of the people.
Our children thought it was funny how the coarse sand stuck to them when they were wet, so they rolled around and got completely covered, sand filling their face, nose, mouth, ears, hair; all the places a parent would later have to scrub clean. For the moment, however, they were having too much fun to be stopped. We took pictures and laughed, sharing in one of those good family moments vacations are supposed to bring.
It wasn’t long, however, before I started thinking about lunch. I was going native. Not all the way, though. I’d have to be in Italy for a hundred years before I’d buy one of those tight, bikini-style swim trunks; maybe two hundred.
The Art of Vacation:
Take-Alongs and Take-Aways
- Everything looks better from the water.
- All beaches are not created equal.
- There are job opportunities for beach chair designers in Italy.