S OS with S Sorrensen - May 27

Viareggio, Italy.
Saturday 12.45pm:

My feet land on what feels like a gooey mattress. Frightened, I immediately raise my feet and peer down through the water – it’s not a mattress but rather a dark puddle of seaweed, driftwood and jetsam liberally peppered with bits of coloured plastic. It lurks in the depths like an ancient monster.

When I say ‘in the depths’ I’m exaggerating. The water is not deep. It comes to about halfway between my knees and my swimmers. Even to get to that depth I had to wade halfway to Spain.

I swim another metre or two and find a clear bottom where I can stand on what the locals call sand (sabbia) but I wouldn’t.

I’m swimming in the Mediterranean.

The water is cool not cold and green not blue. The horizon is spiked by masts, tanker bridgedecks and huge cruiser funnels just visible through the murky air. Closer, a traditional wooden fishing boat fishes for whatever the big trawlers have missed.

I dive under again and try to spot some of the little shellfish that an older bloke with a paunch is hunting nearby. Like me, he wears black budgie smugglers. I feel vindicated. Yep, like me, the Italians are stylish people.

Last night I went to a restaurant where I had a spaghetti dish liberally spiked with these small shellfish.

The paunchy bloke is dragging a net over the sea bed and catching hundreds of these tasty delicacies. I know this because as I waded by him on my way to deeper water (before I discovered there wasn’t any deeper water within a day’s wade) I asked him what he was catching.

Italians are a friendly bunch. And they have a passion for sharing. He showed me the shellfish and then gave me five of them. I said “Grazie” and waded away. I still have them in my hand. I don’t know what to do with them. They’re a gift. I can’t discard them and walk back by him with no shellfish. That’d be rude. But they’ll certainly be on the nose by tonight when I get back to a frying pan.

This stretch of Tuscan coast, fronting the old seaside town of Viareggio and a range of huge mountains behind that, is filled with umbrellas and chairs. Thousands of them, anticipating the summer flood of tourists. When I sat in one of the chairs, a young man explained to me that it was a private beach and politely moved me on. Now and again tucked in between the private beaches are narrow sections of beach where there are no umbrellas and chairs. These are the public beaches. Our public beach is comfortably packed.

But, apart from the shellfish bloke and me, there’s no-one in the water. I see lifesavers dressed in red but the only emergency I can imagine on this beach where there are no waves, no deep water and no-one swimming would be a G-string misadventure or third degree sunburn on an English back.

And sunbaking is what people do here – beautiful Italian skin being sautéed by a sun that, though filtered by a pollution that hangs like a brown shroud over everything, still burns.

Black Africans, carrying armloads of watches and handbags, wander among the frying bodies trying to sell their wares. No-one buys. Most people don’t buy their fake Italian leather handbags on the beach. (That’s what Florence is for.)

The unselfish shellfish man has waded away to the north. This is my opportunity.

I sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean and release the little shellfish.

I wade to the beach. Time for lunch. Seafood, I reckon.

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