Not too long ago, during a lull in the month-long rains that frizzed our hair, soaked our shoes and dampened our moods, one Saturday this fall I found myself in Sestri Levante, a town not far from Genoa, reading a book, enjoying the sun. Sometimes, when you relax in the sun reading a book you’re not much invested in, a loud voice, a sharp slap, or an acute whine attracts your attention. Attention attracted, you stare. Then you fish for paper, you dig for your cellphone, and you write and snap pictures, recording the play:
“Fede, Zitto! Shut up. You want a smack?” asks his mother, a round woman in her mid forties. Dressed in black stretch pants and a black sweatshirt, she sprawls on the beach ringing the Bay of Silence, a sandy crescent on the Eastern side of the peninsula of Sestri Levante. An unseasonably hot sun shines over the terracotta roofs of the pink-and-yellow ex-fishermen’s homes that stand as a backdrop to the water.
The woman in black is in Sestri on a day trip with shopping and picnicking her twin objectives. Piles of bags from Sottovento (a clothing shop), Top 2000 (a shoe store), Tosi (a bakery specializing in pizza and focaccia), Marco’s (a fruit vendor), as well as her accent (Milanese), attest to her transient status. Next to her, sharing her towel, lies her husband, also in black. Nearby, Fede in jeans, a sweatshirt, a cap and a bandana, digs in the sand with his red shovel. His older brother, outfitted in an identical manner, buries his own feet in the sand.
The four glisten like sunning beetles on fine white granules.
“But Mamma, why? Why can she go in the water?” Fede asks, squinting, pointing toward the horizon.
“Because her ball rolled in.” The woman sighs, not looking up from Chi? gossip magazine. She’s reading a back issue about the American émigré showgirl, Heather Parisi, who recently gave birth to twins at age fifty.
“Watch it, stupido,” says his father. He raises himself to an elbow, spits out some granules and brushes off his shoulders.
“I’m not stupido,” says Fede.
“Oh,” says Fede’s mother, lowering her magazine, shading her eyes with her hand. “You mean that lady.”
“Yes, mamma, that lady.”
“Because she wants to go for a swim.”
“Me too. I’m boiling!”
“Shut up Fede! I’ll ring you like a bell if you don’t stop nagging. Have a tangerine?” She fishes one out of the bag of fruit, but Fede doesn’t take it.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Fede,” says his father. “It’s Autumn. Take your bandana off if you want, or roll up your pants.”
“Zitto, Giorgio! Shut up, will you? I’m handling this,” the woman says, peeling the tangerine, burying the peel in a shallow hole in the sand, and chewing. “Besides. There’s a breeze. Without his bandana he’ll get sick. You want him to get sick?”
“Can’t I take off my jeans and my sweatshirt? Like those kids?” Fede points to some boys playing soccer.
“Absolutely not. It’s Autumn. The summer’s long over.” Tilting her head, his mother frowns.
“These tangerines were a rip off.” She spits out a seed. “Look Fede. Those kids are foreign. See? Their red hair? Besides you can’t run around in your underpants.”
“Why, mamma, why?”
“Listen to how they talk, Fede,” she says. “Do you know what language that is?” She hands the half-eaten tangerine to her husband to finish.
When Fede doesn’t answer she sighs. “It’s English, Fede. Those kids are from England. They don’t know how we do things in Italy.”
“Do you suppose these tangerines were imported?” asks her husband, chewing slowly, a scowl compressing his features into a net of black lines.
“The fruit seller said they were Sicilian.”
“They taste Spanish to me,” he says. “This is the last time we buy fruit from Marco. He’s always ripping off the out-of-towners. You’d think he’d at least treat us Milanese better. But he even resents us coming here. If we all stopped showing up, who’d buy the fruit? How would he make a living?”
“Yes, dear. Of course, dear,” she says, brushing sand off her feet. “But you know what the locals are like.”
She shifts her attention toward her elder son who has run to join the red-headed, soccer-playing English boys in underpants. Fede’s brother takes over the ball, kicks and it bangs against a metal gate at one of the ex-fishermen’s homes. He grins at the echoing ring of reverberating metal.
“SSSSS! Lorenzo!” cries his mother. “Stop it! You’re disturbing people with that noise!”
The woman turns to her husband who once again lies prone on the towel. “Lori’s impulsive, just like you. He never thinks before he acts. Why are neither of our children like me?”
There’s no answer.
A sparrow hops and pecks around the edges of the towel where miniscule focaccia crumbs from lunch glisten. The woman waves her hands. Startled, the bird splats a ring of white on the sand and then, with quick flicks of its brown wings, flies off.
“I’ll tell you why,” puffs the woman, covering the sparrow droppings with a shovelful of sand. “Because they’re not girls, that’s why.”
“Are you starting up that trying-for-girls thing again?” asks her husband, nodding at the magazine with Heather Parisi on its cover. “Because if you are, count me out. I’m no glutton for punishment. We’re almost out of the woods with Fede and Lori. Besides you’re…we’re too old.”
“Madonna mia, Giorgio. You can be so obnoxious. Don’t you think I’m a good mother?”
“Well? Are you?”
“Am I what? Trying? Or a good mother?”
“Do you have a handi-wipe? My hands are sticky.”
The woman riffles through a black-patent-leather bag. She locates a blue plastic box, opens it and fishes out a wipe. “You know, Giorgio, where there’s room for four there’s room for five.”
“Jesus, Gloria. You have got to be kidding.”
“Me too!” Fede interrupts with a shriek. He watches his brother run toward the water after the soccer ball. “I’m going into the water too!” Standing, he unbuttons his jeans.
“Fede, shut up,” says his mother. “Everyone’s looking.” She mutters through her clenched teeth to her husband. “Do something.”
“Lorenzo,” yells his father, raising himself up to his elbow, “Lori? Do you hear me? You may not go in the water. Not even to get the ball. Send the owner after it. Let the owner get wet.” Giorgio lowers his voice and leans toward his younger son. “Fede, button your jeans. And do what your mother says. You’re six years old. This isn’t the first time we’ve come here in the off season. You should know how to behave on the beach by now.”
Fede digs. Lori plays soccer. The woman licks an index finger and then turns a page in her magazine. Her husband stands.
“Can’t you relax?” asks the woman, looking up and squinting into the sun.
“Madonna mia, Giorgio.” She bunches her eyebrows and squeezes her lips as if she’s just eaten another of the tart, imported tangerines. “Look. You’ve transmitted your nervousness to Fede.”
Fede has dropped his shovel and runs toward the water. “Fede,” she yells, “get back here. This instant. Giorgio. See what you’ve done?”
Giorgio sighs. “Fede, you’ve made your mother mad,” he yells.
“She’s always mad,” says Fede, yelling back. On the shore Fede’s feet slap against the wet. A wave crashes and Fede laughs, running from the foam.
“True,” says his father. “Come on.” He grasps Fede’s hand and the two walk toward the old Dominican monastery at one end of the beach, searching for seashells.
The woman in black sinks back into her towel. “What paranoiacs,” she decides. “If only I’d had .…” the unfinished sentence hangs in the summer-like air.
When Giorgio and Fede return without any seashells, Fede jumps on his mother, crumpling her magazine under his weight.
“Uffa!” says the woman, pushing him off. “Federico, I swear, I’ll ring you like that big bell in the church over there.” She points to the striped Capuchin monastery at the other end of the bay. “Sit down. Make a castle,” the woman hands Fede his shovel.
Fede flops into the sand but he doesn’t dig. He watches his father, pacing back and forth in front of their towel. His mother, after having smoothed out her reading material, rolls her eyes.
“You weren’t serious, were you, Gloria?” Giorgio asks, stopping, pushing his Raybans up on top of his unruly black-and-gray curls. Underneath the buildup of oily sweat, his skin is green.
“You know,” Giorgio nods at the magazine.
“Are you kidding? Of course I wasn’t serious.” She flaps her magazine at him. “I’d have to have my head examined. Another kid? It’d probably end up being a boy.” She stares at him. “Is this why you haven’t been still for ten minutes? Is this why you’ve been driving me crazy? Is this why you’ve worked Fede up? Is this why you’re looking sick?” Exhaling loudly, she flings her hair from side to side. “You bought a newspaper. Read it. Is ten minutes of peace from the three of you too much to ask for?”
Giorgio flops belly down next to his wife. He closes his eyes. Soon Fede digs. Gloria returns to her magazine. Lori, two hundred meters away, playing soccer with the English boys, aims the ball at an old lady dozing in her mink coat on a beach chair but misses. A short time later, the ball smacks a fat man who was sleeping on a towel and digesting his lunch. Lori raises his hands in apology.
“Scusi,” he says to the startled man. “I didn’t mean it.”
The red-headed boys snicker.
“Sí,” says Lori.
“Ok, then.” The man laughs and tosses the ball back. “As long as you’re not for Sampdoria. We don’t like the Samp much at this end of the beach.” He indicates another man sleeping on a towel several meters off. “We’re for Genoa.”
“Genoa isn’t in the A league,” Lori says over his shoulder, running off.
“Yes it is,” yells the fat man, reddening. “Little Milanese brat.”
Giorgio, now on his side, watches his firstborn. “You know, Gloria?” he says, “a day like this is doing Lori so much good. The air. The sun. The sea. He’s burning his frustrations off.”
“Well then,” she says, “why don’t you go and play?”
“Of course,” he says. “Why not?” He lies down again.
“Bravo,” she says. “Now you’re behaving.” She pulls a comb out of her black-patent-leather bag and pulls it through her hair. Her tone lightens. “Shall we come back again soon, amore?”
“To Sestri? Maybe. But not here to the beach. I couldn’t ….”
“I know. You couldn’t stand it,” she laughs and kisses him on his forehead.
“Can we go now?” he asks, hopeful. “It’s been more than two hours today already.”
“Not yet. In a minute. The sun is doing us good. So relax. Can’t you relax in the sun?” She stretches like one of the shiny stray cats arrayed on the fishermen’s rowboats behind her. Beached for the winter, the boats hulk under green or blue tarps and provide bad-weather housing to the town’s burgeoning feline population.
“Mamma,” Fede says, interrupting his mother’s reading. “I’m hot.”
“Madonna, Fede,” she says. “I can’t seem to get beyond this same paragraph. Stop interrupting.”
“You absolutely, positively can’t go for a swim.”
“Because the water is dangerous. See how it turns dark blue in the middle? Fish with big teeth hide in the seaweed there this time of year.”
“Then why is that lady swimming toward the dark blue?”
“Because she’s stupid.”
“Well,” says Fede, jumping up and down, laughing, “I’m stupid! Papi said!”
“You want wet sand stuck between your cheeks?”
“What?” Fede blinks and stops jumping. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to understand. You only need to know. No.”
“I want to swim!” Fede kicks at the sand.
“Now!” Fede starts to cry. His face flames with a red flush.
“If you don’t stop fussing, I swear, Fede, I’ll ring you like that bell in the campanile. Ding dong. Ding dong. You want that Fede? Besides, those people in the water. They’re foreigners. That means they’re not Italian.”
“So why do they get to have all the fun?”
“Because they don’t live near here. They don’t care what people think. Now look over there. See that boy and girl? See how they’re wearing sweaters? They’re not fussing and whining. They know it’s not the right season. I heard their mother talking before. They’re from Milan, just like us.”
“I don’t care,” says Fede. He throws sand with his shovel.
“Basta,” says Giorgio, standing up. “Enough is enough. Fede, put on your coat. We’re leaving. Gloria,” he turns to his wife, “I can’t stand one minute more.”
“Madonna Mia, Giorgio! You’re a walking disaster,” says Gloria. “Can’t you manage to enjoy a beautiful day after so many days of rain? Must you ruin it for me? I’m trying to relax. All I ask for is another ten minutes. But a good ten minutes. Ten minutes of Quality Time. OK?”
Giorgio throws himself onto the towel. Gloria reads. Fede digs. Lori runs toward the smallest red-headed boy, knocks him over, scores a goal, rips his bandana from his neck and throws it in the air. “Alé!” he cries. “Alé!”
“Wow,” says Giorgio, sitting up at the noise. “Wow. Athletic our Lori, no? He’s got talent. Maybe we should think of signing him up with a better team. With the proper training who knows where he might go.”
“Yes,” says Gloria, without lifting her eyes from her magazine. “But tell him not to yell. He’s bothering people.”
“Hey, papi,” yells Lori, “you want to play?”
“I’m tired,” yells his father.
“SSSS. Lori! Giorgio!” Gloria yells. “People are sleeping. Lori! Come and play here with Fede. You can make a volcano.”
“Sí,” cries Fede. “Let’s make a volcano!”
“Oh, all right,” says Lori.
With their shovels, Fede, Lori and a little red-headed girl in a wet undershirt dig a hole in the mountain of sand they’ve just built. Deep inside the crater they will bury the lava: a piece of Giorgio’s crumpled newspaper with pictures of Berlusconi and the young woman with whom Berlusconi has been creating a din in the headlines. When the paper’s buried, with a tip sticking up, Giorgio will light it so that flame and smoke billow forth.
“Which is it this time?” asks Gloria, smiling. “Etna? Vesuvius?”
“Stop it!” cries Fede when Lori elbows him in the stomach. Fede stumbles and smashes part of the volcano. “Mamma! See what he made me do!”
“Lori,” says his mother, “don’t push. Let the little ones dig the hole and bury the newspaper.”
“No,” says Lori, sneering. “Why should I? Where do these little ones get off? Why should they get to have all the fun?”
“You’re rude, you know that Lori?” says his mother.
“Who cares?” says Lori.
“Basta! Lori. I can still ring you like a bell, you know. You’re not too big for me.”
Lori sticks out his tongue, stomps on the volcano and dodges his mother’s swinging arms.
Fede cries at the destroyed volcano. Tears track glistening trails through the dust on his face.
The little red-headed girl runs off.
“Mamma!” says Lori, grinning at his handiwork. “I want my Game Boy.”
“Negativo,” says his mother.
“Give me my Game Boy!”
“Negativo! Not with those sandy hands. Go wash those hands. And you look like you have to go to the bathroom. Go and do what you have to do.”
“Mamma do you have to yell and tell the whole beach?”
“Watch it, Lori.”
“Give me my Game Boy.”
“Negativo. NE-GA-TI-VO. Not with those hands.”
“Basta! Gloria! We’re going. Enough,” says Giorgio, jumping to his feet. “This is more than any sane person can stand.” His forehead creases like the water in the bay as breezes waft through.
“Oh, all right,” says Gloria, standing up, brushing herself off. “You all have succeeded in driving me absolutely crazy. Giorgio, take Lori to the fountain. Wash his feet. Put on his vest. And don’t forget his socks. And watch for drafts. The wind’s picking up.”
Behind her back, Fede lifts his head, loosens his bandana and lets the air cool his cheeks.
Giorgio and Lori head toward the sidewalk and the municipal water fountain where beachgoers stoop to rinse body parts with free city water. Gloria folds the towel and shoves it in her black-patent-leather bag. Straightening up, she watches her husband stick her son’s foot under the jettison of blue.
“It’s cold,” screams Lori.
“Giorgio! What are you doing?” she yells. “Not like that! You don’t wash feet like that. You’re getting his pants wet with cold water. If he gets his pants wet, he’ll catch a cold! You’re completely hopeless.” She flounces through the sand, toward the fountain, shopping bags clutched in her hands and over her shoulder. “Do I have to do everything? I only asked for ten minutes of Quality Time. What do I get? Hours of torture.”
While his parents attend to Lori, Fede is alone on the beach. He wriggles out of his pants and sweatshirt and bandana and sunglasses and abandons the unwanted sheath in a pile on the sand.
He races to the water. A wavelet froths around his feet. He sinks to his knees and another splashes against his chest. In his underpants, kicking his feet, he laughs and rolls on the slick bronze shore littered with round gray pebbles. His white briefs turn translucent with the seawater then opaque as nubby sand sticks.
Another wave breaks.
Foam bubbles over and Fede is slippery again, a little black-haired eel. When the water recedes, Fede crawls forward. He eyes the sinister spot several meters off where his mother says the biting fish lurk, shrugs and springs headfirst into the crystalline blue. Surfacing with a laugh, he dogpaddles in circles until a wave washes over. Sputtering, he stumbles to his feet—the water chest level. He rubs his eyes with two fists and then throws back his head, opens his little teeth wide, closes his eyes against the golden sun that sinks westward behind the ex-fishermen’s roofs and sings:
“Tutti al mare,
Tutti al mare,
A mostrar le chiappe chiare!
Con i pesci
In mezzo all’onde
Noi c’andiam a divertir!”
Two more minutes filled with the wanton breaking of bewildering rules ensue before Fede’s mother drags him out of the bubbling waters by a dripping foot, rubs him down with a sandy towel and then rings him like a bell, but they’re the two best minutes of his day and possibly of his entire childhood.
This is how it happened, DG, word-for-word, play-by-play; without inserting myself or my opinions into the surging whirl, I have duly transcribed the arbitrary array of strange rules and funny customs operative in a foursome’s conflicting, elusive quest for quality time. Like the red-headed English cavorting in their underpants in the rolling Ligurian surf, I’m an outsider in this country, one I’ve adopted and often revel in, but which will never completely be my own.
 To the beach
To the beach
To bare our little white cheeks!
With the fish,
In the waves,
We’re going to have so much fun!