Here at San Giovanni Li Cuti what sand there is is black. Not because it’s dirty (although it’s littered with rubbish), but because the rocks that created it were – like much of the stone from which Catania is built – once upon a time lava from Etna. In front of the sand, big rocks line the shoreline, pitted with the characteristic pumice surface of lavic stone; as I sit, I absent-mindedly rub my feet against them, getting a free pedicure along with my pitiful English tan.
Pigeons bob from rock to rock, scavenging for bits of food. From the battered, harried look of them, there isn’t much to be found. Later on, when the sun drops a bit lower in the sky and the beach starts to empty of people, tiny brown crabs will scuttle out of their shady hiding places between the rocks. I don’t think pigeons are that keen on crabs, though. So they continue to peck about among the empty plastic cups and beer bottles, missing out on the goodies at the waterline, where – apart from the crabs – the rocks are covered in algae and limpets.
More clued up than the pigeons, the pair of middle-aged women next to me giggle like schoolgirls as they splash about in the water looking for shellfish. One of them clings to her zebra inflatable, worried that she’ll sink without it, while the other – stocky, with peroxide-blonde cropped hair, leopard-print bikini and a ready grin – chips limpets from the rocks and pops the flesh into her mouth. The beaky, pale woman sitting on the rocks close by grimaces – “Che schifo!”. Limpet woman responds in a language that sounds to my uneducated ear like Russian. From the gestures that she’s making and the way that she’s popping the molluscs into her mouth with gleeful relish, she seems to be trying to persuade Beaky that she should try them, but Beaky’s having none of it. She shudders from head to foot and turns her face away, revolted by the very thought.
Arriving at the beach with pizza in hand, a small boy in armbands wades out along the channel which is the easiest entrance point to the water. Mamma, weighed down with bags and an inflatable boat, follows behind, alternately urging him forward and scolding him for going too far. “Samuele! Sit on that rock there while you finish your food! I’m not buying you any more if you drop it!” Samuele, with a Joker’s grin of tomato sauce smeared across his face, doesn’t acknowledge that he’s heard her. He does sit down, though. Mamma drops her pile of bags onto a nearby rock and goes to sit next to him. For five minutes there’s peace: then she gets bored. “Hurry up Samuele! I want to swim!” Samuele, wise beyond his years, ignores her and continues to munch at his own pace while gazing at the schools of tiny fish that dart around his feet in the shallows.
Photo credit: Mike Baird
Another small child – this time an unaccompanied girl in a pink bikini and multicoloured plastic necklace – makes her way deliberately to the shallows. In her hands she has three Barbies, their hair long and blonde. Hers is, too, but instead of perfect artificial peroxide it’s honey-coloured and mermaid-straggled from swimming. She sits herself and her girls solemnly on a rock, from which she dips them one by one into the sea for a controlled swim. Concentration writ large on her face, she then seats them in a row before wading away from them into deeper water. With her back turned and bent over as she swishes her hands through the water ahead of her to make a bow-wave, she doesn’t notice one of the Barbies falling off the rock and starting to float out to sea in her wake. I open my mouth to warn her, but as I do so she turns and sees for herself. She returns and gently places her wayward charge back above the waterline before sitting down with the reunited trio and, humming to herself, arranging their long limbs and hair just so.
The glamorous woman in black chiffon pulls her towel out of her bag with the tips of her fingers, as if it’s somehow unclean. Shaking out the folds, she tries to place it on a rock, but is unable to fathom the onshore wind, which blows it back towards her. Repeatedly she flicks it away from her, and repeatedly the wind blows it back. Eventually she gives up and drops it, wrinkled, onto the rocks, before folding one end back on itself to form a double-thickness cushion and patting a gleeful tattoo on it with both hands. Now comes the process of removing her outer clothes. She teeters unsteadily in her high wedge flip-flops as she pulls the thin gauze of her beach cover-up over her head and off into her bag. Plugging her headphones into her ears and settling back with her head resting on her bag she seems to be set for the afternoon, but the restfulness doesn’t last. She wriggles against the bag, trying to shift the contents to fit around her, but it won’t play ball. She sits sharp upright and, again with the tips of her fingers only, fastidiously shifts the contents of her bag over and over again until they’re in a pleasing formation. Twisting the neck of the cotton shopper around on itself and twitching her towel over the top of it, she gingerly stretches herself out again. Her head rests on the towel-covered bag, her butt on the next rock and her perfect, painted toes onto yet another one: this is less relaxation than Sicilian beach-style planking.
A generously-proportioned middle-aged woman battles with her bikini as she heads towards the water for a swim. First she fishes inside the top, hoiking her breasts into position. Then she pulls up the bottoms, which have folded over at the waistline under pressure from her rolling stomach. Almost at once, they fold back again. Undeterred, she starts to walk towards the water, along the channel where little Samuele is fishwatching, all the while continuing the infinite process of tucking her stomach back into its inadequate confines. She wades out until the water is waist deep, where – with a final tuck before she goes – she sinks into the waves with a grateful smile, able to relax now that her wayward flesh is hidden from public view.
With no such bodily qualms, a middle-aged man with an improbably yellow-tinged dark tan and bright orange speedos combs and smooths his highlighted mullet as he calls good-naturedly to his friends a few rocks away. Meanwhile, a teenage girl and her younger brother play cards while not five yards away a couple in their early twenties flirt and drape themselves over each other. The beach is a prime area for getting (almost) naked with your beloved, as the sunshine and acres of oiled brown skin melt all inhibitions.
On similar lines, the woman in the camo hat is here again. I’ve seen her a few times before, but didn’t recognise her at first today, as she had her hair down. It was her mirror that tipped me off. She comes to the beach armed with tweezers and spends the afternoon making good use of the light to do a head to toe depilation, including bikini line. I watch in morbid fascination as she cranes her neck forward, twisting her body to catch the best light and yanking at stubborn hairs with stolid determination. I, meanwhile, surreptitiously run my hands along my prickly calves, noticing all the bits that I missed in the privacy of my bathroom at home and wishing I had her lack of embarrassment. What it is to be English.