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#56 Summer in Italy
who goes to the beach to gossip?
It's been a sweltering and frustrating summer this year in Sicily. As the heatwave has been sapping my energy and concentration, I've been getting precious little writing done. I'm usually okay with the heat, heck I am Australian and used to live in one of the country's driest and hottest capital cities (Perth, Western Australia). But this year's humidity and record-breaking temps have been out of this world. Sicily has been burning with fires, liberally dotted around the island, which sadly is becoming an annual summer occurrence.
The weather is all over the place; in the first month of Summer (June), it was freezing and raining all month, then July has been belting us down with extreme heat in an endless 40-degree (100 Fahrenheit) days. For most of last month, I stayed barricaded inside with my fan persistently on me. I only went out after dark when it cooled down. I was living as a vampire. I couldn't bare to cook any food; the heat of an open stove top was unbearable, so it was all about salads, fruit and anything cold.
Despite all of my complaints, there has been an incredible miracle. A few weeks ago, it rained. And now I feel revived. It's surprising how a slight change in the weather is enough to change my mood completely.
I feel like I have become obsessed with the weather, like a 90-year-old Sicilian woman who shuffles along in the piazza making conversation with everyone she meets, complaining about the heat. Perhaps I am becoming like a Sicilian Nonna before my time. My neighbours are elderly, and I hear them shuffling and sweeping in front of their front doors every morning, greeting and gossiping with whoever walks by. And I think that's going to be me one day. But then perhaps it is already me.
I've been in a creative lull and feel burnt out, unmotivated and defeated by all those negative thoughts swimming around in my head. That's why I haven't been posting too much. I even contemplated giving up writing altogether. But then I recall all of the positive comments and messages I've had in the past and the simple joy and sense of accomplishment I feel whenever I write. So, for now, I am barely holding on, pushing myself forward, trying to ride this wave of negativity and waiting to come out of the end of it all to start a more productive season.
So here is to holding on and moving towards persistence.
Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach, I soak up the eccentric backdrop. It doesn't feel like 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 severe concussion or spinal injuries; endless craggy boulders are skulking under the water.
As I began walking down the beach, my shoes filled with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under refined grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, a single shop or public toilet is not convenient. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.
Watching beach umbrellas pop up along the seaside, I 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 for many to protect themselves from. An Australian doesn't go to the beach without sunscreen, walk in long grass without boots, or even forget to check their shoes before putting 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 fashionable, and according to popular logic, the darker you look, the healthier you are. 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 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, and neither am I the athletic type.
These conservative Sicilian women usually cover their bodies 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 large industrial cities like Milan and Turin return every Summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily 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 fully deserve a restful holiday.
Beach-going is hugely fashionable, as it was once enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes a little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our little-isolated strip of the Sicilian coast, some people 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 want to dive into the water and swim, but obviously, it's not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings at the beach and the local gossip.
Not wanting 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 apparent no one is taking the game seriously; either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.
The gossip continues, and the ball is bowled back onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues talking. I don't know about any 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 exchanged shorthand spoke.
After a bit, I decide I've had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further from the group. As I pull my head up, they wave and whistle. I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way around 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 swim out too far into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile 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?
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something here as often as I can.
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