Summer wants for nothing but your bathing suit and your spirit. For gioventu, endless energy and endless days, an ice-pop, and a floating island for diving from morning until sunset against a sky as unmarred and infinite as youth itself.
La luce di un mattino, l’abbraccio di un amico, il viso di un bambino, meraviglioso.
La spiaggia. Il mare. Il sole. Add to that la famiglia and gli amici, maybe a little amore, and the Italian summer is complete. In a country nearly entirely surrounded by water, there are countless beaches to choose from for your August escape; the month that quasi tutti make their grand exodus for the sea. August is mayhem at Italian beaches, and for this reason I choose to go in the opposite direction of Amalfi, Portofino, and Salento, in pursuit of a beach town that cannot be pegged as ‘trying too hard,’ a town whose charms unfold as you get to know the organic fruit man and the time of day 9-year-old Dante eats his focaccia in the sand. There are certain moments when you care not for a stylish bathing suit shop, an upscale hotel, or a chic restaurant, but rather a demonstration of genuine life, of the simple, stripped-down pleasures of summer, the summer you loved as a child. You want to return to your bare-bones motel room with sand in your shoes. This is the only thing that matters; that there is sand in your shoes.
For Italians, the choice is either to return to the beach that knows your name, a la Cheers, or to venture towards a more lively paradise where the day begins after dark and the sand is made for dancing, a la Sardinia. The ideal summer is a little bit of both, with a few days in the mountains to break up the potential monotony of the azure horizon.
A beach that knows your name is the seaside town wherein the Italian has spent his or her summer since they can remember, reunited with the friends who also return to familiar waters each season. Decades later, over a few bottles of wine, childhood memories and moments one might rather forget come trickling out. This is a culture that is devoted to its memories, its ‘sameness,’ its traditions, and while in certain connotations complacency hinders advancement, there is a definitive charm to a nostalgic seaside town, sopratutto in the summer months. Imagine walking by the same focacceria where you used to line up with your friends for al rosmarino just out of the oven, the telephone booth where you had your first kiss next to the bar where you drank too much for the first time, the now-defunct train track you used to run across for thrills… Now these places are entertainment for the next generation. Now you walk by the children whose youth is so tangible you can almost feel the sticky cocomero on your fingers. Now you tell your children these stories, and your friends’ children, as you watch them discover the summer games and habits that you recall so well.
As an outsider, people-watching at an Italian seaside town brings about a different kind of nostalgia. If you are lucky enough to find un paese untouched by tacky tourist trips, you will see how little has changed structurally in the past few decades. It might look as if you are walking through a movie set from the 1950s, 60s, or 70s, depending on the typeface of the gelato shop or pescheria.
I brought a book along with me, but I find it impossible to concentrate on yet another Downton Abbey spin. I am absolutely entranced by the color of the water, the horizon, and the Italians in their element. I watch a young boy about 8 years old ferociously punch the water with his fist, laughing at how impossibly entertaining this once was. To watch the people on the beach, hardly anyone under the safety of an umbrella, absolutely no one wearing a hat as nearly all Americans do at this point, is to witness the Italian culture at their most content state. Here they are, baking in the sun, rising only to dive into the refreshing sea for a bagno and perhaps for a panino and a caffe at the beach club bar. How many times did I hear ‘Ma tu non prendi sole?’ There is no rest for the parents; back and forth they go with the little ones, carrying toys and dragging rafts. Everyone knows everyone; everyone’s children knows everyone else’s parents. If you wore that bathing suit yesterday, certainly everyone will notice. If you prefer an ounce of privacy, perhaps rent a front row beach spot at a club farther down the strip.
If you find yourself in a tiny Ligurian town, you might start your day with a focaccia, perhaps with rosemary, olives, or onions (follow the lead: pack a few extra for the beach). Morning sees the most movimento at the fruttivendolo; you’ll likely see a line of grandmothers buying vegetables for the family dinner. A lemon ice bar from the Bagni’s cafeteria is the preferred afternoon pick-me-up, another nostalgic summer habit for all generations. By 7, people begin to pack their toys up for the day, and there is a joyous line of laughing, sun-dazed Italians walking back to the piazza to wash the sand out of their suits and rest before cena. I make it a habit to venture to my adopted pasticceria for my new favorite chocolate and hazelnut cookie, a village specialty; my own bite of Italian seaside nostalgia. Evenings are ideal for coastal runs or passeggiatas, eyes on the infinite horizon as it gracefully seeps pastel pinks. To end an evening jog above the sand, watching the last stubborn ragazzi playing until dark, using the wood banister of the promenade as a stretching post, and the sky alight in pastels is as close to perfect as one gets. As a person who cannot sit still, I find the summer sky in this magic town insanely therapeutic. I imagine I could stare at it for hours and feel not the least bit lazy. I daresay I am cured of all negative New York habits.
After a no-fuss dinner at a local trattoria in the piazza, do as you did as a teenager and wander back onto the sand, now devoid of people but filled with romance and starlight. Sit between the folded umbrellas and chairs and let Fred Buscaglione and Domenico Modugno sing you a summer tune. Guardando l’acqua scura… … La notte era finita, e ti sentivo ancora, sapore della vita, meraviglioso.