A birthday, a boat and some islands

Posted on August 3, 2016

How do you fill the empty space that inevitably takes over the days after the best week ever is over and done with? You can mope around the apartment, hot and dark with all the shutters closed against the force of the summer sun. You can throw yourself back into cooking and trips to the market, optimistically try out new recipes, then regret turning on the oven. And you can sit in front of the computer and scroll through your photos from that week over and over again, soaking up the colours and the light and the memories while trying to hold on to how it all felt.

The best week ever happened to be the one leading up to my thirtieth birthday. It also happened to be spent on a friend’s boat at the Isole Pontine, an archipelago of little islands off the southern coast of Lazio. The weeks beforehand had been steeped in a potent mix of excitement, introspection and insecurity (there is nothing quite like standing on the edge of a new decade to trigger feelings of insecurity), and stepping onto the boat on the first night felt like permission to relax, to push real life to the side for just long enough.

It was, as far as experiences go, close to perfection.

Ponza, Palmarola and Ventotene, the three main islands making up the Isole Pontine, are like little jewels in the sea. From a distance they look hostile and imposing, all cliffs and sharp points and unwelcoming wildness. Coming in closer, the islands reveal themselves as a patchwork of plunging chalk-white rock faces and rust-coloured arches topped off with scrubby greenery, the entire coastline dotted with the dark entrances to sea caves. The water changes abruptly and transforms itself into shades of sapphire and emerald and straight-up transparent turquoise – the kind that looks like it came right out a glossy, oversaturated travel magazine – and quickly seduces you into throwing yourself in. People are powerless against this water. I certainly was.

Not everyone takes well to a week on the sea in a relatively small, constantly bobbing and lurching space, but I loved being on a boat for such an extended time. I loved falling asleep to the gentle smacking sound of waves against the bottom of the boat, waking up to see fiery  sunlight beginning to pour in through the portholes, feeling the floor shifting and bouncing under my feet as I showered. I loved spending each day sun-screen-slicked and salt-encrusted, my hair wild and my face bare. I spent hours just staring at the water, at the other boats swaying together at the dock every evening, at the way the sunsets somehow seemed amplified when seen from the water. I felt calm.

One morning, towards the end of the week, a storm rolled in. I stood on the prow of the boat as it pulled hard against its lines, watching the waves chop at the small boats rushing to cross the harbour, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should feel nervous, or seasick, or at least vaguely anxious – but instead I was invigorated. By late afternoon the clouds had cleared away enough to walk into town and up the streets zig-zagging into the hills (dodging the occasional rain shower), and the sunset was spectacular.

The Isole Pontine feel like they’re made for watching the sun rise and set. The towns on Ponza and Ventotene (Palmarola is uninhabited) practically glow in the morning and evening, their sun-baked walls absorbing the light and throwing it back with a kind of extra-concentrated intensity that gradually fades into the softest of pastel tones. In the morning, the towns are quiet – a few fishermen by their boats on the dock, a few old men already gossiping in a piazza. Evenings are exuberant, restaurants filling up, glasses clinking, boats docking for the day, the smell of fish – fresh and fried – carrying on the breeze. Everything feels gold-edged and lemon-tinged, like it’s almost too good to be true.

On our last evening I welcomed in my thirties with a dinner on the back deck of the boat; chairs, friends and the man I love squeezed around a table just a bit too small for all the food on it. There was cheese, to start, then dishes of intensely-flavoured vegetables, and there was an octopus, perfectly tender and just slightly spicy. There was wine – quite a bit of wine – and then, when I could hardly even think about eating anything else, a cake with “buon compleanno” scrawled across the top in chocolate. It was exactly the right way to end one decade and start off another.

It was, as far as experiences go, close to perfection.

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Comments on this post

Natalie 4 August 2016 at 8:03 am

Sara- this is beautiful. The words, the photos, the portraits. Love them all!

Welcome to the next decade – which seems off to a perfect start.

Donna 5 August 2016 at 12:55 am

I could feel the gentle sway of the boat and the warmth of the sun on my skin, smell the tang of salt air, hear the cries of the gulls and the lap of the waves, and was temporarily transported away from mundane everyday life. Keep writing. Your words paint beautiful pictures.

Eduardo Mangiarotti 10 August 2016 at 9:27 am

A lovely combination of words and pictures. Auguroni!!

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