The Roman beach experience: Culture shock all over again

Posted on July 2, 2013

I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t really like going to the beach. Or at least I didn’t, until very recently. It doesn’t make sense, of course – I really should have loved the beach. I grew up on an island; I lived within walking distance of not just one, but an entire selection of beaches, and family vacations at the beach were a regular occurrence all throughout childhood.

The typical Victoria beach experience, though, involves swaths of pebbles streaked with dried seaweed and clumps of kelp in varying stages of decomposition, heaps of tangled driftwood occupying most of the usable space with a thin strip of damp grey sand studded with razor-sharp clamshells in front of an ocean that, regardless of the season, remains toe-curlingly cold. For the most part, a “beach day” means spreading a towel directly on the ground (trying to avoid the sharpest of the shells and any hidden surprises left by passing dogs), stripping down to a bathing suit in a brief moment of extreme optimism, then adding layers back on, one by one, until you’re hunkered down in jeans and a windbreaker while rain clouds gather overhead and gusts of wind materialize out of nowhere.

So naturally, I had my doubts when one of my friends – a Romano da Roma, a born-and-raised Roman – enthusiastically invited me to spend the day at the beach along with some of his friends. Usually, I couldn’t manage to spend more than an hour or two at the beach before something – the cold or the wind, or the lumpy ground, or in rare non-cloudy moments, the fact that there was nothing to shield you from the sun – annoyed me to the point of fleeing to the car and heading back home. An entire day at the beach, from morning to sundown with no option to escape early, was an unnerving concept. Still, curiosity got the best of me, and I accepted the invitation.

After a requisite cappuccino to kick off the morning, we hit the autostrada out of the city, windows down, an increasingly green countryside whipping by as we drew closer to the ocean, about a half-hour’s drive. By the time we turned onto the back streets, in Maccarese, the scenery felt positively tropical: Palm trees everywhere, lush green, roadside stands selling fresh fruit. The conversation in the car turned to food – a topic Italians will seize with enthusiasm in almost any situation. “Al mare, si mangia bene” – at the sea, you eat well – my friend told me, twisting around in the front seat to describe plates of spaghetti alle vongole verace washed down with plenty of chilled white wine. I was feeling increasingly optimistic about this beach day.

It was when we reached our destination that I began to realize just how different an experience this would be than what I was used to. Upon stepping out of the car, I was hit with a wall of warm air laden not with the fresh tang of salt water and seaweed, but with the scents of cooking seafood with heavy undertones of fritti. The beach in Maccarese (along with others all up and down the Italian coast) is lined with a string of stabilimenti – literally, “structures” – an eclectic smattering of private beach clubs, many with their own restaurants.

This is how it works: You choose a stabilimento – although the basic premise of beach access and food is fairly constant, amenities, style and clientele vary hugely – and pay for a lettino, or lounge chair, which will be yours for the day. An assistant on the beach will set up all the lettini for your group, a process that involves much rearranging, towel flapping, and discussion over whether an ombrellone will be necessary, and then you will strip down to your bikini and drape yourself over lettino, getting up only to fare il bagno (swim; or, literally, to make a bath, because calling it “swimming” erroneously implies that some physical exertion is taking place in the water) or eat something.

Our chosen stabilimento was known as “Il Castello” – a small ivy-draped castle of undeterminable age and authenticity positioned at the edge of the beach and also at the edge of that very fuzzy border between elegant and ostentatious. Inside, there was a massive white marble lobby with a long coffee bar and a smattering of ultra-modern low-slung white plastic chairs. Outside, a large swimming pool, an outdoor restaurant, another bar in a little thatched-roof hut, and then the beach itself; a stretch of perfectly yellow sand (raked smooth every morning for maximum visual appeal) dotted with evenly spaced blue beach umbrellas and little groupings of lettini. There was no driftwood. No sharp clamshells poking out of the sand. Only a sea of impossibly bronzed flesh – and lots of it – proudly on display.

Il Castello - a private beach on the seaside close to Rome

Italians are not afraid of the sun the way North Americans are. The ombrellone have been raised, but the pools of shade they cast are  empty; there, I would surmise, primarily as a symbolic gesture or to add visual interest to the scene. The sun tans range from deeply golden to nearly black, and the bathing suits from tiny to nearly nonexistent – like the umbrellas, the presence of a few microscopic triangles of brightly coloured fabric are symbolic rather than functional. Next to the Italians, my skin (already deeply tanned by my own personal standards) looks milky white and my black bikini (very average by North American standards) looks gigantic and boring. I stand out; la straniera on a beach full of Romans.

Moments after falling asleep on my lettino, I was jolted back awake by an almost pained-sounding cry coming from down the beach. “Coccooooooo! Cocco Frescoooooo!” I spotted an immigrant worker trudging along with a big bucket; inside were chunks of fresh coconut for sale. A man selling sunglasses (wired onto a giant piece of cardboard – a makeshift display rack) and sunhats (stacked six high on his head) walked by chanting “occhiali-occhiali-occhiali”, and minutes later a cart selling bikinis, towels, and sarongs rolled down the beach, brightly coloured fabric flapping in the breeze. You could, it seemed, arrive at the beach without any of the appropriate accessories and soon find yourself stretched out on a new towel wearing a new bikini with a new pair of sunglasses perched on your nose. And after all this, another cart rolled by (accompanied by blasts on a whistle to announce its arrival), this one selling Grattachecca, a Roman take on shaved ice with fruit juice and fruit chunks.

And then, with the sun high overhead, it was time for lunch; the famous spaghetti alle vongole verace, some bread to mop up the sauce, a bottle of Frascati white wine lounging in a tub of ice, a bracingly strong caffè to finish it all off. This is all served under an airy canvas awning, white tablecloths fluttering in the breeze, pool sparkling off to the side and the ocean straight ahead. It is all very sophisticated, very quintessentially Italian, and a far cry from the coolers of cling-wrapped sandwiches, bags of chips and hotdogs of suspect origin that I had previously associated with a lunch at the beach.

However, there is an important factor to consider when timing your lunch at the beach: According to the Italians, you can not venture into the water (not even to wade or to float around listlessly) for at least two hours after eating (although, confusingly, you can take a quick dip immediately after eating, just not, say, half an hour later), otherwise you will be overcome with some kind of mysterious ailment known as congestione, which apparently leads to cramps and then… death. I learned these facts as I enthusiastically shovelled spaghetti into my mouth while simultaneously shooting sidelong glances at the swimming pool. I laughed, convinced it was a joke, and was met with the most serious of stares from across the table. Non si fa. You just don’t do that.

With the water out of the question, I returned to the lettino and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading, which is actually to say that I spent the remainder of the afternoon with a book propped up on my knees while people-watching and eavesdropping on the conversations taking place all around me. You could call it voyeurism. You could call it an extended language lesson, with emphasis on some very Roman expressions. You could call it cultural observation at its finest. In any case, for someone previously convinced that beaches were boring, the afternoon was proving itself to be highly enjoyable.

And finally, with the sun dipping lower in the sky, aperitivo time, which meant wandering down the beach to another stabilimento – this one more crowded, younger, more energetic. Low-slung, bed-like lounge chairs were grouped around a big central bar, there was a DJ playing disco music, and people – showing off their newly-acquired, darker tans – were clustered around in big groups, chatting loudly and gesturing wildly and moving in time to the music. This was a long way from a beach day in Victoria. And all things considered, this – between the food and the minimal-effort relaxation – was the kind of beach experience I could really get used to.

Sunset at Maccarese, Italy
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Comments on this post

Trevor 7 July 2013 at 9:22 pm

This is going to seem weird from one of your followers, but this is true. It seemed as if you stopped blogging sometime February 2012, and it made me think that you had maybe died or just stopped altogether. It turns out it must have been my browser or something. I am so glad I tried your link just now. I think I got lost in the others links you once had. You have a very fresh way of crafting your observations through your words. Keep it up. I’m glad you’re not dead. Jealous of your location.

jamie-lee 8 July 2013 at 4:09 pm

I have to say, you write beautifully! I love your story, I always find it difficult to believe when someone tells me they don’t like the beach, like my sister, who virtually loathes going out in the sunshine.

Alice Adams 7 January 2015 at 4:30 pm

Maybe because it is raining I chose to read this post first! So beautifully written, you sum up the culture shock element if the Litorale Romano so well. I look forward to reading more.

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