Thursday, October 10, 2013
How to go to the beach
When I was a little girl, my grandma, who was English and born in 1903, taught me that only a certain sort of lady (you could almost hear her putting the quote marks on "lady") allowed her skin to turn colour in the sun. I never asked what sort of lady, exactly, but got the idea she wouldn't be very nice.
Grandma taught me, more through example than words, that it is a kind of feminine duty to maintain one's looks, and that the foundation of that was to care for one's skin, especially face, neck, chest and hands. I wore hats a lot as a kid, even while playing in the garden.
Grandma and I went to the beach together regularly, and she taught me to swim in the sea, but she was quite strict about the proper way to dress outdoors. One covered up. I put my swimsuit on, and then we each had a "beach wrap" of a light dress to put over top, (when I was quite small she made mine by recutting one of Grandpa's old cotton shirts) and then a hat to keep the sun off our faces. I remember hers particularly, it was black straw. Mine was pink with blue flowers.
When we got to the beach, grandma would lay out our towels and sit down, and I would take off my dress and run over the flat black shale pebbles and splash madly into the water. She always made me wear canvass sneakers in the water for fear I would cut my feet on the stones and barnacles. The best thing was to get a log off the beach and roll it into the water and use it as a canoe.
She would sometimes "take a dip," and always walked sedately into the water up to about waist deep, and would swim solemnly and deliberately across the little bay several times.
When I got out - and the water in the north Pacific around Vancouver Island is always icy - grandma would help me towel down straight away, and I would put my dress and hat back on. She usually brought a bit of a lunch with us, a thermos of tea and her sketchbooks with a stump or two of charcoal. I would sit drying off in the sun and watch her sketch the trees and mountains around us.
Sometimes I would lie down on the pebbles and let their heat dry me. You could almost hear them sizzling slightly as they boiled off the water, and then you could lie on them for a few minutes while they warmed you up. Then when you sat up, they'd be stuck to your skin. Then it was off to climb around on the rocks and poke my fingers into the velvety green sea anemones, pry the purple star fish off the rocks at the tide line, and see if there were any octopi caught in the pools. The beach always yielded fossils, tiny imprints of unimaginably ancient clam shells caught in the lava flow 300 million years before and turned to stone. I had a large collection.
That was how Grandma and I went to the beach.
This ugly business of displaying as much of your oily hide as possible, laying it down on a rented lounge chair and attempting to turn it the colour and texture of old saddle leather, along with about 10,000 other people doing the same thing, strikes me as unnatural and distasteful in the extreme.
I'm always happy when The Season is over in Santa Marinella, and the regiment of umbrellas comes down and the beach starts being cleansed of the summer detritus by the first storms of autumn.
It is true that Italian women are some of the most stylish and style-conscious in Europe. Their taste isn't really mine, (or at least Roman taste isn't; I was gobsmacked in Florence and have vowed never to shop for clothes anywhere else in Italy again) but in their own way they always take care to look good and they spend a lot of money on clothes, shoes, handbags, hair styling and whatnot. The shops are full of skin care products and cosmetics and there is always a crowd at Sephora.
Which is why I have never understood why they all want to roast themselves in the sun. It simply isn't possible that they don't know what the rest of the world knows about the damage the sun does to you. Quite apart from skin cancer, it simply ruins you. The science is done on this: the two things that most harm your skin, and therefore your appearance, are sun and smoking. And Italian women all deliberately roast their skin all summer and puff away while doing it.
When the doctors told me at the end of my first chemo treatment that, pretty much from now on, I was going to be extremely sensitive to the sun, that I must wear 50 spf sunblock every time I went out, wear long-sleeved tops and hats, and even carry an umbrella, they were a little surprised to hear that I already did all this. I was already well-resigned to walking around Italy looking like one of the little old English ladies in Tea with Mussolini. (I always hoped that I would turn out to be more like Maggie Smith's character, rather than that insufferable nitwit Judy Dench. No chance at all of turning out like the kindly and sensible Joan Plowright.)
Shortly after receiving these encouraging instructions, I was in the station bar buying a train ticket and a bottle of water, and there were two old chaps there having a coffee and a chat, as you do, and I noticed they were teasing me about my white, white skin. Not in a mean way (they're Italians, after all,) but they obviously thought it peculiar. I think they thought that because I was a straniera I wouldn't understand them, so they seemed surprised when I turned around and asked how old they thought I was.
The looks on their faces were priceless when I told them.