The serious business of swimming

Italy is beautiful but you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Even for leisure time, actually especially then. Food, drink and the pursuit of other pleasures are taken quite seriously here–and it’s been said that no one has mastered any of them as well as the Italians. Most important to one’s happiness these days is cooling off but like my Aquagym class, there is a whole system of dos, don’ts and even don’t looks (more on this later) involved with public swimming. So, we’re paying attention.

First there are outdoor pools, never heated but by mid-summer they’re warm and nice. You’ll pay an admission fee, which seems a bit steep until you realize that it includes towel service and a lounge chair.  There might be a snack bar too and if so, they’ll serve the local fare: pizza, panini (sandwiches), ice cream bars and mixed drinks (natch). Like you’d expect at home, lounge chairs and umbrellas line the deck while kids run around, splashing and shouting. And as proof of their world wide dominance, there are Water Wings everywhere.

Less enjoyable are the required swim caps. Every single person must wear one, because really nothing says “frolic” like a tight plastic hat. And don’t try to just blend in by slipping into the water, thinking your bare head will be overlooked. Because it won’t be. A pool attendant will come up to you and say lots of things in a language that you haven’t quite mastered but you’ll know what he means when he starts patting his own noggin. Defeated, you’ll walk over to the snack bar, pony up one Euro fifty for a cap…then go get a beer instead.


Italians don’t really seem to be into, say, nature. With the exception of a national obsession over fresh produce, they prefer things extremely clean (hence the caps), bundled (all children will be swaddled head to toe come September) and scheduled (C-sections are actually very popular). That’s what makes beach culture so comical. At least, lake culture. I hope to have experienced more of the sandy shores by next summer. But in the meantime…

There are are two choices at the lake: wild or civilized. The first is basically the US beach experience. First come, first serve, claim your spot on the sand with your blanket. Lie back or take a dip at will. But more common in Europe is the second. Around the lake you’ll find stabilimenti, private beach areas with little snack bar restaurants and porta-potties in the back. The beach is a business and what they are selling is comfort.

Like the pool, there are lounge chairs here too. But this time they’re rented out one by one. Ditto for umbrellas and prices start at a reasonable five Euros. This means when you amble down from the car, loaded with towels, a cooler, baby’s things and sometimes your giant Golden Retriever, you can’t just throw down a blanket wherever you want. You first register at the kiosk, pay your bit then discuss location with the attendant who escorts you to your sunbeds (not “chairs”, which is unfortunate because I knew the word for that). It’s not a bad setup really. The chairs are indeed comfy and renting them saves us the trouble of toting our own, plus Phoebe is off the ground. Perhaps the culture is getting to us just a bit…

Nottreat?Now a note about attire. There is simply one rule for Italian swimwear, shoot for the smallest amount of material possible, no matter the size of the person. Young, old, thin or otherwise, there are basically two suits on the beach: bikinis and Speedos. Sometimes a treat, sometimes  not. And a third category is toplessness, which seems to be appropriate for little girls under the age of 10, then again over the age of 16.

Now, in the waves you’ll find the following: lovers making out, a group of raggazzi (boys) throwing a ball around, kids wearing the requisite Water Wings and two dogs. On the sand, people are doing what you’d expect. Sun bathing, kicking the ball around, playing cards but mostly eating or smoking and sometimes both.

Occasionally I have moments when I think I’ll never catch on to life in Italy then something small gives me hope. Paul and I both chuckled on our first trip to the lake when we saw a little girl about eight or nine years old. She was wearing only the bottoms of her ruffled bikini but half walking, half hopping across the hot summer sand saying, “caldo, caldo, caldo” (hot, hot hot).



Filed under About Italy, Life

5 responses to “The serious business of swimming

  1. Amy

    Such a perfect description of the whole scene!

  2. Amy

    I’ve also taught Zoe the other thing you’ll hear the kids muttering as they trip across the hot sand, “scotta, scotta” (it burns, it burns) — sounds so cute.

  3. Liz Aiello

    Have you been to Fregene yet? Love it…and you don’t have to wear a bathing cap! 🙂

  4. charityc

    No, but it sounds good! We actually drove through the area last night so I’ll give it a try. Hope you’re doing great! A friend of mine is on Martha’s Sirius show quite a bit so I think of you guys often (Kate Hanley). Best – Charity

  5. holly

    ha ha ha! Oh, the quirky ways of culture. I enjoy reading your humorously insightful descriptions!

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