The Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.
Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:
At 8:00am you, the mother or grandmother, give the children breakfast–cookies dipped in milk–and dress them for the beach: bathing suit, coverall and flip-flops. You walk or bike to the bagno or beach establishment you use. (In the coastal towns closest to Siena, the bagni are frequented according to contrada: Onda members use Bagno Delfino, Oca Bagno Tito, Montone Bagno Laura and so on down the beach.) You converge on your umbrella, which if you’ve rented it for the whole season may be in the row closest to the water, and hang the children’s clothes on its spokes, while they unpack the toys. You then head to the bar for a coffee and start the rounds of the umbrellas, stopping to sit in the shade and exchange news with all the other families, who by the way, are exactly the same people you frequent in Siena.
These conversations continue “in the water,” though no Italians swim. The women stand shin-deep in what passes for waves and talk, while the kids play along the water’s edge. Around 11:00 or so, the children are brought up to play in the shade of the umbrellas, since, while no one uses sunscreen, it’s an iron-clad rule that the sun between noon and four is avoided. So, at all costs, are wet bathing suits: the moment a child comes out of the water, his or her bathing suit (for boys, and girls through eight or nine years of age, it’s just the little slip bottom) is pulled off and a dry one put on, such that in a typical day, you need at least three or four per child. At just after twelve, the toys are packed up and hidden under the chaise longues, and everyone goes home for lunch, “simple meals” of rice salad, cold roast beef, pasta al pomodoro, cold cuts and melon. Naptime follows, and the kids sleep soundly, while in my experience, the adults toss and turn if they have drunk too little rosé.
At four or five, it’s back down to the seashore, for what all the Italians tell you, as if imparting a secret, is the best time of day at the beach. It’s cooler, the sun doesn’t set until nine, and for some reason everyone’s stiller, the children playing diligently as if more focused now, the adults less social, content to read or watch.
On Friday night, the dads arrive, and families go out for pizza, followed by a compulsory stroll along the corso, the main street of the village, and a stop for an ice-cream cone. Saturday, the beach seems transformed, with men all over the place, talking soccer and Palio, reading their pink-tinged papers and making plans for dinner that night. They don’t swim either, but stand in single-sex groups, in their SUNDEK rainbow trunks and Ray Bans, tanning as dark as they can.
This all seemed strange to me, when I first arrived, and I couldn’t see the point. The beach for me was an empty, wild place—the deserted dunes and threatening, tempting waves of the Nantucket I knew in the 1970s, or jingle shells and isolated picnics on Long Beach in Sag Harbor with my grandparents around the same time. The cramped rows of chairs and umbrellas, the lack of surf, the proximity of the snack bars, changing rooms and newspaper stands almost erased the feel of the beach. The water was warm and harmless, even hundreds of feet out. What was to be gained? But after a few summers, I began to understand. The environment was ideal for the children, who had constant company and supervision; the parents too had their entertainment, each other, their social context, something my parents had never sought on vacation. My parents had wanted nature, each other, and us, the feel of the cool salt water churning under them as they swam across the bay, shells to take home as mementos and nothing more ambitious than that.