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Italian Summers Are for Young Love

“I still remember my first teenage love as if it were yesterday, though, thinking back, calling it “love” might be a bit of a stretch.” 

In Italy, young summer love is a rite of passage. It’s the romance that blossoms once school is out, possibly with the person you’ve had a crush on for the entire year, but didn’t really speak to until the end of the term. It’s the sweet teenage fling you start during your villeggiatura with the new kid next door, only to end it once September comes around and you both have to return to your respective cities or far-apart neighbourhoods. It’s the short-lived meet-cute that takes place on a hot evening by the seaside as old people sit cooling themselves on benches by a pretty marina and children cluster around the ice cream shop. 

The details change, but the story is pretty much the same. And while not necessarily deep or lasting–quite the contrary: teenage summer love is known for being ephemeral, full of major highs and heartbreaking lows–it’s something that can be life-changing. Or at least very, very memorable. 

Just ask any Italian who spent their holidays here growing up (and by here, I mean anywhere in the country: from mountains to coast, teenage summer love knows no boundaries). Chances are every Italian has had not one, but a few seasonal romances that fall under this category–likely in the same place they’ve been spending their summers since they were children. It’s a common tradition in Italy to vacation in the same borgo (village), seaside town or island summer after summer, perhaps because we Italians can be quite habitual or perhaps because travelling to the same vacation spot allows us to create a community of amici del mare (beach friends). The classic 1963 song “Stessa Spiaggia, Stesso Mare” (“Same Beach, Same Sea”) speaks a universal Italian truth. Year after year at the same beaches and bagni, we’d play biglie spiaggia (beach marbles) and sell scoubidou with these friends, with whom we’d enjoy the sea, salt and sand for a few weeks or maybe months. Summer friendships, like summer loves, often turned out to be fleeting, though the memories are long-lasting. 

I still remember my first teenage love as if it were yesterday, though, thinking back, calling it “love” might be a bit of a stretch. 

I was 12 (a preteen, but still). He was 13 and British, and my ombrellone (umbrella) neighbour at the stabilimento my family used to book every year in Sperlonga, a small coastal town just a short train ride from Rome. 

His name was Ben, and he was handsome: tall, slender, with big blue eyes and blond curls that would turn extra unruly under the spell of seawater. Next to me–dark haired, olive-skinned, on the cusp of puberty–he looked like an Olympian god sent down by the heavens. 

I noticed him first, and promptly began making my presence known in ways that only young people would think of as “smooth”: glaringly ignoring him every time he would come near; pretending to be busy reading a book if he happened to glance over at me; singing English songs in what I thought sounded like English (but was clearly not) to show him how worldly I was. It worked. Slowly, Ben started hanging out closer and closer to my sunbed, showing interest in whatever activity I was engaged in. 

We approached each other carefully, shyly, neither of us confident or mature enough to make any sort of romantic move. We were too young for that, anyway. The fact we didn’t speak each other’s languages certainly didn’t help either (the only reason I knew his age is because he drew the figure on the beach with a stick one afternoon). 

Instead, we settled for a quiet kind of courtship, composed of jointly-built sand castles despite being way past the age for them, beelines for gelato, dips in the water holding hands and games of racchettoni (beach tennis) we were both incredibly bad at. We didn’t need words to express our respective crushes. That we liked each other was as clear as day–and the teasing that came from his older sister and my younger one were nothing but confirmation (like flirting, teasing too requires no translation). 

It was one of the best summer loves of my life. The innocence, I think, made it all the more special. We were just two kids discovering a specific type of feeling for the first time, ready to take in whatever life had to offer on a sunny beach in Italy. 

The apex of our “relationship” was a peck on the cheek one afternoon in late July. No real kisses, no hugs or declarations of eternal love. Ben and his family were going back home, and on a last silent walk along the spiaggia (beach), he tried to explain he would be leaving, then opted to show me his affection with the most timid of gestures. It was perfect.  

I never saw Ben again. He and his family didn’t return the following year, and I too stopped going to Sperlonga when my family made Circeo their new vacation spot of choice (two decades later, they still continue to go). There, I formed new connections with other ombrellone neighbours, met new crushes in my hotel compound and started seasonal flings that would fizzle by August, then begin again the following June.  

But the happy memories from that Sperlonga summer are still very much with me. That, really, is what a holiday crush is all about: a transformative, heart-fluttering, exhilarating experience that stays with you decades after it happened for how intensely alive it made you feel–even if all you were left with were sand castles.

Photography by Claude Nori