Beach Day at Anzio
Set my alarm for 6:30 AM. Regret that last cocktail with the girls at the Spanish Steps. Aaagh, it seemed like such a good idea at the time – both ordering the cocktail and agreeing to take the early train to the beach. But it’s already after midnight and I’m not going to get a sleep-in, not even on a Saturday.
1:47 AM: It’s too hot to sleep.
3:52 AM: Check I’ve set the alarm properly.
5:40 AM: How long until the alarm goes off?
6:06 AM: Do I lie here for the next 24 minutes trying not to rouse Dominic or do I just get up?
Ninja move to untangle myself from the bedsheets, collect my iPhone and silently slide open the bedroom door – a move I’ve perfected over the last four years of married life with a shift-worker. I wash away the night, throw a sundress over my swimsuit and scour the spare room for my favorite beach hat – the one with the pom-poms. I find the hat which was still cradling my jelly shoes from last summer’s trip to Ponza. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the nearby island’s painful pebble beaches without them, but thankfully they won’t be needed for Anzio’s sandy seashore. I swing my pre-packed beach bag over my shoulder and make it out the Vatican gate just as the 7:00 AM bells of Saint Anne’s Church begin to toll, waking up the sleepy neighborhood. The only souls out at this hour are runners, souvenir vendors setting up their stalls for undiscerning tourists and the constant Italian military presence on every corner of the Vatican. Today there’s no need for my usual sprint up the street to the Ottaviano Metro station. Six stops to Termini. Plenty of spare seats and no buskers or beggars. The day is looking up.
I navigate the confusing halls of Rome’s central station to make my way above ground to the trains. Find a ticket machine not surrounded by helpful gypsies. Type in A-N-Z-I-O. Three euros and sixty cents into the slot and it spits out a ticket that I mustn’t forget to validate. I’ve been warned. You’ve been warned. A leisurely seventeen minutes to pick up my soy capp and wholemeal honey-filled croissant and find Molly and Sarah. Success! Stamp our tickets – in the second machine since the first is out of ink – and board the regional (read slow) train. Today we’ll stop two stations short of the colorful, restaurant-lined port and fishing town that’s better known for the beach where US and British forces landed in 1944 and joined in the assault which liberated Rome from the Germans. It’s the perfect Italian town to visit with my parents – pretty shops and sunset cocktails for my mother and war trenches and cemeteries for my father. Everyone’s happy!
The seventy-odd minute journey south-southeast of Rome reveals a growing intensity of industrial and poverty-stricken estates thick with graffiti and garbage piles. We pass many nondescript small towns, one called Campo di Carne (field of meat) with a run-down mini golf club. I imagined that it was once the site of an abattoir. No. It draws its grim name from the famous overpass turned bloody battleground where the allied forces lost thousands of men as the Germans tried to push them back into the sea. And this wasn’t the first time this plot of land was drowned in blood. Campo di Carne has been the set for Roman military campaigns since antiquity.
Suddenly a broadcast that we will be delayed due to track work at Marechiaro (clear sea). Thank God – both for the announcement and the company of my beach buddies – because this unsigned and unsavory station is where we get off. No need to open my phone to search the way to the beach. We follow the handful of bronzed Italians laden with beach toys who’d also woken up early this morning. As the salty air wafts over me and I glimpse the sunlight dancing on the pale waters of Marechiaro for the first time, I wonder why I don’t do this every Saturday morning.
Oversized royal blue umbrellas line the beach like soldiers, each giving generous shade to two lettini (sunbeds). The sand is still cool underfoot as we stake out our position at the “Blue Bay” bathing establishment, ranked the second-best beach club in the area – according to Trip Advisor – for its fresh seafood and clean waters. We would see about the seafood soon enough but as promised, the sand is squeaky soft and the water clear to the bottom. The girls and I are satisfied and eager to swim away the chaos of Rome and indulge in a pre-lunch nap. As the morning wears on the lettini fill with bronzed bodies of every age and shape ranging from soft caramel to taut, leathery chocolate. I look out to sea. An elderly couple kayak on the horizon, paddling in time - as if to a beating drum. They turn the kayak around and lose their rhythm, momentarily. Up the front the woman sets the pace, straight-backed with long, elegant strokes. Her husband seems shorter or maybe it’s just because he’s hunched over in the back, panting with the effort of making his paddle cut the water with hers. She seems oblivious.
Yet another merchant of African descent distracts me from the rowers. This one is peddling long shiny beaded necklaces for one euro each and no one is biting. I watch his progress for a while wishing someone would make a purchase, because like the bikini vendor before him, he’s too old for this shit. Ahhh, why didn’t I just shove ten euros in his hand? The girls and I wondered about his circumstances until our stomachs told us it was time for lunch. Lunch! The moment had arrived – well not quite. It’s only a quarter after midday and the kitchen doesn’t open for another fifteen minutes. Just enough time for an Aperol spritz. We scan the daily specials chalkboard while we wait. Ooh – soup with mussels is just being added! Since my Italian is the best of the group, I ask the girl at the counter what she recommends. We stop listening after her description of home-made pasta shaped like calamari rings, served with tender calamari and mussels tossed in a garlic, baby tomato and white wine broth. Three servings please! After she collects a mere fifteen euros from each of us for the fresh seafood pasta and spritz, Cecilia the thirty-something member of the Blue Bay family wants to keep chatting when she discovers I live in Rome.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“North-east. The Gold Coast. We have sixty kilometers of white beach.” I show her the picture that always blows Italians’ minds.
“What are you doing here?” The million dollar question!
“I fell in love with Rome as a child.” She’s not impressed.
“But you have all that,” pointing at my iPhone.
“And today I have this,” gesturing towards the inviting water. For me this was a happy compromise. We share a knowing look and shrug.
I join the girls for our spritz made on tonic instead of soda water. It’s good! They’re busy analyzing the high count of men with full leg tattoos. I join in the game. Vespers, snakes, portraits of children enclosed in hearts… I even saw a boxing kangaroo! We raise our glasses and promise each other that we will never ever get a tattoo. Back to our lettini to sleep off the food coma from the seafood that’s as fresh as the time I pulled it out of the sea in Sicily. While we sleep the Italians play cards. Every. Italian. Is. Playing. Cards. After all they can’t go near the water after lunch. The official rule in Italy is to wait three hours after eating before entering the water. Otherwise you might die of anything from a cold to stomach cramps. Mammas in the know break this rule down into food groups: fruit - thirty minutes, pasta and fish - one hour, beef - three to four hours, and pork – up to five hours! This explains everything from the menu board to the popularity of fruit vendors.
The elderly bikini seller returns hauling his cart across the sand – no easy task. What a difference a few hours makes. This morning he cried out until he was blue in the face. Zero interest. Now that the Italians have exhausted their trashy magazines, cold pasta salads and beach tennis, they have a little time and less money to burn on a new swimsuit. Young women file down to the seashore to linger over the cheap swimsuits, pushing them on over their bikinis. They preen and twirl for their boyfriends hoping for nonchalant signs of approval at best. But no money changes hands until they see the results for themselves, demanding their friends take a million photos. If the suit survives this final test, then the negotiation begins. The vendor knows the game. The girls have no chance. Both parties smile as they walk away.
It’s that time of day for us too. Throw our bodies one last time into the crisp water. I’m up to my neck and the water is clear enough to study my toenail polish. Partial dry-off and quick hike up to the station. If we don’t make the 6:12 PM train, it’ll mean an hour hanging around the decrepit station. Validate our tickets, survey the surprisingly impressive art grafted onto the platform walls, and begin the slow journey home to Rome. I must do this again next weekend!