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by Francesca Di Meglio
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A Day at an Italian Beach
Discover how Italians in Italy spend their days at the ocean during the hot summer months
Readers of this column know that I'm spending my summer in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, that is the home of my ancestors and husband. The beach is less than five minutes by foot from where I live in Ischia. Being this close to the beach - and the tourists and natives who soak in the sun - makes for interesting observations. A day at an Italian beach - actually the whole Italian beach culture - is unlike any other I've experienced.
For starters, the natives and tourists alike dress differently for the beach than your average American. In the United States, people start shopping for bathing suits in April, and magazines start publishing articles about which kinds of suits will flatter your body type. The advice is to make sure your breasts are not flying around and that your butt is covered. In Italy, everyone - from little kids to your grandma - wear skimpier bathing suits. It doesn't matter what size or sex you are, you will be showing more skin than your average American.
My cousins and husband tease me that I dress like a nun at the beach because I have two-piece bathing suits that cover my entire chest and I sometimes wear tankinis or boy shorts. In Italy, just about every woman wears a two-piece bathing suit and many of them sun bathe topless. There are some tourists here in Ischia, who will actually walk on the street topless. No one blinks an eye, although some of the natives have confided that even they find this appalling.
Recently, American newlyweds I know visited Ischia during their honeymoon, and the husband refused to take a photo because of the topless little girls on the beach. A lawyer, he said it would be child pornography. Indeed, little girls - even as old as 11 or so - go topless as well. This is considered perfectly natural and people look at me as though I have two heads when I explain that even my three-year-old female cousin wore the top to her bathing suit down the shore in New Jersey.
I know what you're all thinking - what about the men in their Speedos? You're right that some adult men leave little to the imagination by wearing tight, miniscule Speedos. But, thanks to Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, young men are wearing more traditional American-style bathing suits. Truly, only the very young, the very old and the very arrogant still wear tiny briefs to the beach.
Those of us in the States who are well aware of the damage the sun can do to your skin can't imagine what these folks have to do to protect all the extra skin their flashing. But Italians don't worry about this. They believe the sun is good for you and that you're sickly if you're not tan during the summer. They think I'm crazy for using sun protection with an SPF of 55. Every time someone sees me they ask if I'm ill because I'm not at all tan and it's July. I always respond, "I'm fine. I'm just American, so I use sun block."
Friends of mine still use baby oil on the beach - like my American cousins did back in the early eighties when people also used mirrors to attract more rays. Most recently, I've seen people use plain old Nivea cream like sun protection. I'm really surprised more people don't get skin cancer here, and I must admit that the older folks - who have already spent lots of time on the beach without sun protection - aren't as wrinkled as I would imagine. Still, I'm certain if I quit using my sun block, I would first look like a tomato and then have a face like leather.
When my cousins and I go to the beach in the United States, we pack two or three big coolers with sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and anything else we might want during the day. In Italy, carrying large coolers like the one we drag through the sand in America is considered a “cafone” move, a faux pas if you will. It is socially acceptable to bring a small cooler or bag with a couple sandwiches, some fruit, and a few drinks. Anything more and you'll be laughed off the beach or considered completely uneducated.
One thing that is the same the world over - the beach is fun and relaxing. Just like Americans and everyone else for that matter, Italians go to the beach to frolic in the ocean, play in the sand, and sleep as the waves hit the shore. Those are cultural traditions to which anyone can relate and happily emulate.
Di Meglio is the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
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