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A Southern Girl’s Summer in the 90s

“Those little pieces of sea that I would glimpse from the car window met all expectations: the water sparkled under the relentless southern sun and invited me as if we were friends.”

In the 1990s, the summer months often stretched so far that it was the destiny of many lucky people to go on villeggiatura. Villeggiatura was not just a simple holiday, but a real way of life, especially for those people who owned a beach house. You would leave in June and return in September, and the routine of waking up late-breakfast-sea-sea-walk-ice cream became almost tedious–so much so that some people couldn’t wait to go home (or if you can believe it, back to school). I didn’t think that at all. I would’ve stayed there forever.

I could say that in those years, the lives of us all were simpler? More habitual? We knew since winter that we had to go to that place–whether it was in Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany or wherever–and we had not the slightest intention of changing location. As Piero Focaccia sang, “stessa spiaggia, stesso mare” (“same beach, same sea.”)

In my case, there were two choices, always the same: the wild Gargano or the deep south of Calabria, where some of my most beautiful summer memories were made.

I looked forward with excitement to the end of school, counting the days on the calendar and fantasizing about what I would do, which friends I would meet again (that is also the beauty of villeggiatura: to meet again friends after 12 months), how dark my skin would become and how many diary pages I would write.

The Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway, at the time, was a test of courage: we set off at night, but even with that precaution, we were often stuck in traffic for hours. Not a few times I watched entire families disembarking and setting up tables on the hoods of their cars, complete with panini e parmigiane because if you had to wait, at least you did it with a full stomach, right?

My mother became restless every time, as if forgetting the previous years, and my father nodded resignedly at the wheel; my brother and I, in the back seats, read Topolino or Cioè, melting because obviously the air-conditioning didn’t work in our old Volkswagen Passat. Poor car, laden with all sorts of parcels, packages, suitcases and backpacks. 

“We’re going on holiday, don’t complain!” my father would mumble. Even Goldoni (considered one of the fathers of modern comedy) said in his “trilogia della villeggiatura” that the three things about villeggiatura are Smania, Avventura and Ritorno (Hunger, Adventure and Return).

And so, after herculean exertions and more than plausible risks of losing our minds, we arrived at our destination, usually a rented cottage. Those little pieces of sea that I would glimpse from the car window met all expectations: the water sparkled under the relentless southern sun and invited me as if we were friends.

So the routine began: shoes were relegated to a corner of the house and would be taken up again in September. We went barefoot to the beach, to the village, to the Tabacchi, everywhere. Our feet stretched out, and when it was time to return to normality, they didn’t want to know about shrinking again. The mornings began slowly, the heat already stifling, with breakfasts of fruit: I have a sweet memory of these plastic cups filled with chunks of peach and sugar, or of the lemons from the Costa dei Gelsomini, the spongy white part of which we ate (and still do). While my brother and I took our time, my mother would prepare a snack to take to the beach: pane e pomodoro with olive oil and oregano, slices of melon or watermelon, or if leftover from the night before, some pasta or rice salad. 

The sea at last: the first dive was liberating. I could enjoy the sea as long as I wanted, and that certainty of not being in a hurry made me feel good. Mobile phones were not yet widespread (I didn’t have one), and so to socialize you had to go to the lido bar: the speakers often played summer songs, the classic tormentoni (catchy tunes) that still haunt us today like “Un’estate Italiana” by Bennato and Gianna Nannini, “Sotto Questo Sole”, “Rhythm Is a Dancer” for the “international” guests and my favorite, “Mr. Bombastic” by Shaggy.

We listened to some music, got something cold (remember the ice creams from Eldorado like the Piedone?), made new friends, got sand in our swimming costumes and between our fingers, and in all likelihood, got our backs burnt because the Bilboa sunscreens were quite mischievous.

Those were peaceful days. After a snack and the required wait before swimming again, we would take a pennichella under the beach umbrella, lulled by the reassuring, ancestral sound of the waves. And then it was off again to dive; play table tennis, beach volleyball (not me, I have always hated beach sports) and cards; or simply to read a good book–not the ones assigned at school for the summer holidays, but the ones I chose myself. I devoured dozens of books and carried a separate backpack just for those. 

One of the nicest parts of the day was slipping into the shower to check my tan lines: I had a real tintarella (tan) fetish because when we came back from holiday, we competed with our friends to see who had taken the best color.

After showering, the saltiness slipped away and I felt clean, calm, at peace. Often, to keep my long hair at bay, my mother braided my hair on the porch of the house–surrounded by lemon, orange, amaranth, jasmine and bergamot trees–while the sun set. 

The light dinners, the fights to chase away the mosquitoes and gnats, and long walks in the village wearing the first thing found in the wardrobe and a pair of sandals already half-broken. It was good fortune to come across some sausage or peperoncino festivals. 

In Palmi, the sheer panorama over the coast of Sicily, or on a clear day, the magical profile of the Aeolian Islands. I used to sit there, on a wrought-iron bench, watching people fare lo struscio (strolling) and imagining I would meet someone, a summer love perhaps or at least someone to chat with who was not my mother or my little brother.

The nights, warm, were studded with the song of cicadas, but featured such deep sleeps and dreams due to the fatigue accumulated during the day that in the morning, I woke up regenerated. Sometimes I was awakened by the sound of the Adoration Church’s bells–especially on Sundays (then again, during the holidays, every day was Sunday) when I would fight with my mother to skip mass and go to the beach.

Slowly, but never slowly enough, the days ticked by and Ferragosto came, time for the banquets, the overflowing food, the karaoke, the fireworks over the sea and, one of my fondest memories, the ferry excursions to Stromboli, a blessed place with its beaches of black sand and lava flows roaring in the dark of night. Once mid-August had passed, a feeling of melancholy began to set in as I realized that summer was almost over. Returning was always a time of extreme sadness because I just did not want to leave the sea and because I hated and still hate winter.

I sometimes miss those years, that childlike carefreeness and the freedom to come and go barefoot. The summers of a simple southern girl, like so many others, meant this: slow life, authenticity, time spent in the best way possible, and an accumulation of indelible memories that, fortunately, remain in place.

Is this not what we are constantly seeking in this hectic life? Especially in the summer, we awaken that nostalgic feeling of our holidays, of freedom, of time without the obligation of social networks when things were less rushed and we were more aware of what was beautiful and meaningful.

“Oh estate abbondante, carro di mele mature, bocca di fragola in mezzo al verde,
labbra di susina selvatica, strade di morbida polvere sopra la polvere,
mezzogiorno, tamburo di rame rosso,
e a sera riposa il fuoco, la brezza fa ballare il trifoglio, entra nell’officina deserta;
sale una stella fresca verso il cielo cupo,
crepita senza bruciare la notte dell’estate.”
Pablo Neruda – Oh Estate!

“Oh abundant summer, wagon of ripe apples, strawberry mouth amidst the green,
wild plum lips, streets of soft dust above the dust,
noon, red copper drum,
and in the evening the fire rests, the breeze makes the clover dance, enters the deserted workshop;
rises a fresh star to the gloomy sky,
crackles without burning the summer night.”
Pablo Neruda – Oh Summer!

Photography by Kurt Bauer