Tales of a wandering lesbian

Not-so-free beach

I spent a couple of afternoons on free beaches in Salerno.  Carmine had pointed to a few of them on our first day orientation drive around the city.

“How are the free beaches?”  I’d asked.  The idea of paying to sit in the sand is a foreign concept to someone from Oregon.  The beaches in the state are all considered public.  All of them.  Every grain of sand.

In Salerno, however, probably 80% of the sand is contained within fences and barriers, cordoned off into color-coded parcels marked by striped umbrellas.

Early into the trip I’d decided to take a run over to one of the free beaches that was halfway between our apartment and downtown Salerno.  It was about a 20 minute run, perfect on a hot day.  I packed up my towel, water bottle and book.  I left anything valuable, including my camera and ID home.

When I returned with my aunt, a week or so later, however, I made sure I had my camera.  The scene was just too rich to miss.  I’d risk it.

The walk to the strip of beaches took us through the underground passage for the under-construction train station, along stretches of abandoned private beach resorts, and past an ancient lighthouse.

The day was really quite hot, and the humidity was pushing us into the realm of uncomfortable.  We laughed as we walked past a disembodied room fan on the sidewalk.

The Ant was a trooper throughout the trip.  Whether walking too far along the beach, or dragging a suitcase over the bridges of Venice, she only occasionally asked me if we were there yet.  Today, though, I could sense that she was wondering whether I had sent her on a death march.

“We’re almost there,” I said, pointing at the cabanas we were passing on our left.  “We just have to go past these ones with red roofs, then some blue ones, and then the other red ones.”

Almost there.  What it really meant was that I knew where we were and where we were going.  Not that we were, actually, close.  The Ant knew this.

“Okay,” she nodded.  I knew she wasn’t convinced.

Forty-five minutes, and several water-stops later, we were there, at the free beach, staking out our spots, and taking in the scene.

Free beaches are free for a number of reasons:

  1. Nobody cleans up the trash that is washed up or left behind.
  2. There is no shade.
  3. There is no fresh water, either for drinking or washing.
  4. Beach vendors are allowed to walk along, and peddle their wares to anyone and everyone, relentlessly.

The vendors are easily enough dealt with.  A simple, “No, grazie” said firmly, and often, even over the top of the low-toned pitch, will almost always work.  It’s just that the process has to be repeated every 2-7 minutes as a new vendor, always a young man, and almost always a dark-skinned African immigrant, wanders by, tries to catch your eye, moves in close, and presents his product.  Sometimes it’s beach toys.  Other times clothing, or bolts of fabric.  Once in a while it’s jewelry or small pieces of art.

They start in Italian, then move to English, or German, or whatever language they determine will garner the most response.  With each firm, “No, grazie” I lament my inability to connect on a human level.  Eye-contact always prolongs the interaction, serving as a kind of affirmative response to their wares.

In the US, I will usually take the time to look a street vendor in the eye before saying, “no thanks.”  But here, in a less-familiar place, I feel unable to do so.  And saddened by that reality.  I also feel humbled.  As I listen to these men, watch them comb the beaches for the few Euro they will make each hour, I am incredibly humbled by my ignorance.  And my privilege.  That’s not a word I use lightly, but it feels apt here.  I speak one language.  I know a few words of Spanish and a few of Italian.  Not enough to get by selling garments on a beach.  My fear of misspeaking gets in my way.  Yet these beautiful vendors speak unabashedly with me, passing through their rotating vocabulary, hoping to hit on a language familiar to me.  And here I sit, with the great good fortune to say, “no, grazie.”

Today, though, the vendors were light, leaving us room to take in the vignettes unfolding before us.

What I had found most interesting on my first trip to the beach was the gender dynamic that was so heady.  The boys were in one area, and the girls in another.  There was one girl that ventured into the area up against the paid beach wall where the boys had claimed the shade.  She had a bemused look on her face the entire time. Crouching inside the protection of her towel, as though she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to put herself there, and not entirely sure it was a good idea.

The rest of the girls were traveling in packs, venturing into the water, and out again, inching closer to the boys that were playing soccer in the foamy sand.  Interactions between the genders were punctuated by raucous clashes:  sand kicked at a girl, and the resulting screech.

More interesting, though, was the interaction between the boys.

It has taken me a while to become comfortable with the overt sexuality that is part of Italian culture.  It seems strange to some people, that the country that is home to the Vatican is so sexually charged.  Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s there.  And on the beaches, the sexual electricity that lies just below the surface was almost alarming to a kid who grew up in a country like the US.

Laying on my little towel, I peeked from under my hat and over my sunglasses to watch.

The four boys in front of me looked like they were maybe 19, maybe 20.  Old enough to have the bodies of men, but still awkward in their bravado, adjusting their tiny bathing suits, and opting to let the sun reflect off of their wet bodies, rather than towel off.

They would take turns hoisting their well-tanned bodies from the sand and diving into the sea to cool off.  They would emerge, and with a well practiced move, brush the water from their hair to good effect, leaving it spiky, erect, interesting.  Then they would lie down next to each other to let the sun dry them.

The girls would scamper around the sand, pretending not to notice, adjusting their equally tiny suits and making sure the ball they were kicking around would drift into the boys’ line of sight every so often.

For their part, the boys seemed honestly disinterested in the girls.  They took more interest in each other, leaning on each other’s shoulders, laughing together.  At least most of them.  Twice I watched as two older-looking guys came over and asserted their dominance – physically and directly.

First was someone who seemed to be a friend.  His towel was positioned with the other 3 in front of me.  In his racy red suit and shaved head, he was more muscular than the others.  Throwing all of that muscle on top of one of the smaller boys, he crushed his body into the other, almost the way a wrestler would dominate an opponent.

Hips ground into the other, arms pinning the smaller boy’s arms above his head, the bigger boy laughed into his ear as the others watched.  Then, when he’d decided the emasculation was enough, he rolled over onto his own towel, and all returned to normal.  Except for me.  I was a little scarred.

About a half hour later, as I was just getting over the first exchange, a much older and bigger boy with a tattooed leg, and longer shorts made his appearance on the beach.  He was apparently known to many on the beach.  “Nicola!” came the cries from different areas.  It wasn’t clear to me whether he was loved or feared.  Only that he was known.  He made a wide circuit, strutting from group to group, his soft body a contrast to the younger, more athletic boys.  His tattoo a brazen one, taking up the entirety of his left calf.

After spending time with the group along the wall, and kicking the soccer ball out of the group at the water’s edge and into the ocean, he came over to my boys.  Only one of them was on his stomach.  Nicola headed straight for him, and dropping his body down, placed one knee roughly in the other boy’s lower back, apparently trying to separate his hips from the rest of his body.

The boy screamed, actually screamed as Nicola pinned his arms to his side and laughed.  The others looked nervously over, but they only watched as their comrade struggled fruitlessly to move out of the hold, crying out, “Nicola, basta!”  When he decided it was enough, Nicola released his hands, and pushed off of the boy, up to a standing position, still laughing.

The boy did nothing.  He lay there, and adjusted his suit.  Nicola greeted the others.  It wasn’t a friendly greeting he received.  Just a nod and maybe an embraced hand.  Not like the hugs and heads leaned onto each other’s shoulders.  This boy, this bully was both enforcer and violator.  His presence was accepted, expected, but not appreciated.

Nicola walked away.  He had no towel.  He had no group.  He had no girls looking slyly at him, or boys welcoming him.  I didn’t see where he went as I gathered my towel and book and headed out.

On the way home from our beach excursion, the Ant and I stopped for an emergency gelato.  Along the dingy street that led to the underpass, we ducked into a nondescript bar with a dark-browed man behind the counter.  He peered at us, clear strangers in this locals’ bar.

We smiled our hellos, and moved toward the unpromising gelato case.  The flavors were meager, and clearly not house made.  But we were in a bad way, so it would have to do.

As soon as he saw us move toward the case, he melted.  Whether we reminded him of family members, or he just liked gelato, too, he patiently waded through our butchered Italian, and soon enough we had lovely cones of respite.  We sat in the cool shop and ate quietly, the World Cup showing in the background.

When we stood to leave, the shop-owner called to us in a friendly tone, and we waived, the familiar, “Ciao!  Grazie!” tossed back and forth.

In the now-short blocks home, we walked, looking down the alleys that led from the ramshackle street to the beach.  I pulled out my camera to capture a boat I’d noticed before.  And, as I raised the camera, something caught my eye.

“Redfish.”  The white name scrawled along the dusty red hull of the rowboat rang out to me, the name of the lake and the beach where I’d spent my childhood summer weekends.  The place where I’d played with the boys and watched the girls.  The little boat smiled back at me, playful and comforting.

Bookmark and Share

June 30, 2010   1 Comment

A day at the beach

After a culturally significant trip to Paestum, we were ready for a day of rest.  The weather had been getting gradually warmer and sunnier, a challenge for my afternoon runs, but gorgeous for a bit of beach.  Salerno sits on the gulf of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The water is warm, salty and blue, blue, blue.  The colorful umbrellas of the pay-to-play beaches called a siren song, inviting us to enjoy a lavish day in the Italian sun.

We gathered our books and towels, donned our suits and slathered ourselves in sunscreen.

The owner of our apartment, Carmine, had pointed out his favorite private beach and the underground passage that would take us from the bus stop behind the apartment directly to the crosswalk in front of the beach.  Beach bags in hand, we decided it was time for a mid-morning snack to prepare us for the sea.  Like every morning, we’d made our espresso in the stovetop Moka pot and heated our croissants in the little toaster oven.  But we weren’t sure what kind of food we’d find at the beach, and we didn’t want to cut the day short if we got hungry.  I like to eat, but I also like to swim.

Considering and rejecting the possibility of carrying a pizza box with us, we stopped by our local coffee shop for a cappu and pastry.  We’re good at ordering and eating these things.  We’re not so tidy with it, however.

This view would become a familiar one to us, and to our patient waiters and waitresses.

Once full of pastry, we located the underground pass-through and descended the stairs into the passage that used to serve an out-of-commission train station.  The entrance was obscured by an orange construction barrier, its walls plastered with colorful posters and littered with graffiti.  But it provided a valuable shortcut over the coming weeks, allowing us quick access to gelato and sand.

Carmine’s beach, Karsaal seemed to be a favorite for many locals.  With a large parking lot, fancy sit-down restaurant, fine pool and pretty beach, it was much more full than many of the others we’d walked by on our adventures in Salerno.

Along with mothers and children, grandmothers, and men strutting like peacocks, we followed the after-church rush through the gates.  For 15 Euro a piece, we had the run of the place.  Lounge chairs, umbrellas, pool, cabanas, and some of the best people watching, ever.  We headed to the waterfront and chose a couple of lounge chairs under an umbrella on the small black and white rocks.  We watched the locals for a bit, and I dragged one of the fancy chaises that littered the beach over to our camp.

The built-in shades were amazing.  For the next couple of hours we bathed in the sun, swam in the sea, and watched the scene unfold in front of us.  Spettacolare.  Sailboats danced across the bay, competing for our attention with the sea of humanity dancing on the sand.  A pair of men, lounging in their tiny swimsuits, and gold chains, gestured wildly, emphatically trying to convince each other of their position on some unknown topic.

A young buck of a man who looked like a statue of a tattooed Roman god strutted back and forth from the water to his chair, lovingly arranging his girlfriend’s towel on the matching chaise.

Despite our best efforts, the morning pastry was wearing off.  We’d missed the lunch rush, watching families disappear from the sand, and reappear with sandwiches.  I ventured out again and again, taking advantage of the deserted sea.

Eventually, we agreed it was time for food.  We packed up, smiled our goodbyes to the tattooed god and trudged up the stairs in search of a pizza.  Our first attempt was the restaurant.  It was short lived.  Walking along the patio above the beach, we peeked at the people who were dining.  They weren’t eating.  They were dining.  In dresses and white linen pants.  My hula-girl camo boardshorts weren’t going to cut it.

So we doubled back and hit the snack bar.  They had colorful industry signs for gelato and snacks.  And an empty case that looked like it might have held real food at some point.  I sidled up to the bar and braved a question, “qualcosa para mangiare?”

The girl looked back at me and pursed her lips, looking at the empty case.  “Un attimo.”  She disappeared into the back of the shop and reemerged with a middle-aged woman, who was carrying a good amount of sas in her mane of auburn hair.

“Di mi,” she commanded.  Okay, but tell her what?  I tried again:

“Qualcosa para mangiare?”  We were just looking for something to eat.  The people outside were eating.  Was she the keeper of the food?

“Si.  Panini?”  I nodded.  A sandwich would work.

“Formagio, salume?”  She ran down the list of ingredients, shrugging.  “Prosciutto.  Cotto o crudo?”

I looked at the Aunt.  “You want ham and cheese?  Cooked or raw?”

“Cooked.”  She was nodding.

“Cotto,” I confirmed.


“Due, per favore.”  There was no way we were sharing today.

“Okay.”  She turned to walk away.

“Pero, sono vegeteriana.”  I didn’t want ham, cooked or not.

She turned halfway around, and looked at me, challenging.  “Quindi?”  So then what the hell did I want?  “Formagio?  Pomodoro?”

“Si, si.  Buono.”  I get pretty thrilled when it comes to food, and my excitement about the sandwiches this woman was about to make was starting to show.

She turned to face me fully, “buonissimo?” she asked, an amused look on her face.

“Si.  Buonissimo,” I said, smiling and giving an affirming hand gesture.

She nodded, closed her eyes briefly, and disappeared into the back room.

While we waited, we cruised around the little shop.  We looked at the gelato, and perused the bags of chips, deciding we’d probably need some of the “Wacko” brand.  A few minutes later, the auburn food commander reappeared with two wicker baskets, and two beautiful sandwiches.

The girl at the register looked at her, and the commander told her how much to charge us, shrugging as she apparently pulled the number out of thin air.  Perhaps this wasn’t where the locals were getting their sandwiches.

The little patio outside the shop was empty, and we chose a table closest to the view.

On closer examination, it was clear that the sandwiches we’d seen in people’s hands weren’t these.  Those were more like pre-packaged deli sandwiches.  These were not.

I’m not so sure how it is that we came to have these spectacular sandwiches.  We didn’t see any others like them.  We gobbled them down, along with the un-spectacular Wacko chips and a decent, no-color-added Fanta orange soda.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the pool, by the edge of the turquoise water, rimmed with mahogany cabanas, more lounge chairs, and people in colorful bathing caps.  I’d been looking forward to a dip and a swim, but first I thought I’d let my lunch digest.  Safety first, you know.

We sat and watched the kids running around the edge, the lifeguards yelling at them, the girls tucking their hair into the swimcaps.  The boys tucking their hair into the swimcaps…then the Ant noticed it.  Everyone in the pool had a cap.  90% of them looked the same:  yellow with a white racing stripe.  Maybe we needed a swimcap to go in the pool?  Interesting.

I pulled out my little dictionary (I bring it pretty much everywhere – even to the beach) and looked up swimcap.  “Cuffia.”  The Ant had seen a couple of girls picking up yellow and white packets from the front desk.  I gathered change, practiced the word, “coof-ya” and walked to the desk.

“Ciao,” one of the women was looking at me with a friendly smile.  The other looked like a puppy that someone had kicked.  “Una cuffia?”  The puppy woman looked at me like she didn’t understand.  The other responded.  “They are all done for the day, I’m sorry.”

“Can I swim without one?”  She looked shocked.

“No, I’m sorry.”

Back at the pool, I watched the swimmers taunting me.  In their colorful caps, they lazed about, up and down the lanes.  Teenage boys splashed each other.  I was quarantined to the poolside, my short hair a menace.

As we packed up, I reviewed what I’d learned that day:  if you’re hungry, ask someone to make you a sandwich; also, along with my little dictionary, I should always carry a swimcap.  These were valuable lessons for someone who likes to eat and swim.

Bookmark and Share

June 20, 2010   Comments Off on A day at the beach