The summer before my freshman year in college, I had a job in a shop on the boardwalk selling sun cream and novelty t-shirts and goofy hats. In my free time I’d ride my bike in the opposite direction, to the southern-most end of the island, to visit my friend Lisa, who worked at a beachfront parking lot. She sat in a beach chair, and listened to music from a small radio, and was allowed to wear a bathing suit. We’d hang out and talk about nothing and laugh ourselves silly. Maybe once an hour, she’d have to get up and take five bucks from a family in a station wagon.
Somewhere I have a picture of us from that summer, taken by the ice cream guy whose last stop was that beachfront parking lot. He’d park, walk up to the dunes, ring his ice cream bell DING DING DING, and then come back and fail spectacularly in flirting with us. One day I brought a camera and he took a photo of us against the side of the truck. In the photo we are laughing and thin and tan and wearing bathing suits and board shorts.
During college, my summers were not terribly inconvenienced by the burden of employment. But after that, real life happened and the next 10 summers I found myself either sweating in my apartment in Manhattan, or sitting on a bus in absurd amounts of traffic to spend maybe 36 hours at my parents’ house, the house I grew up in. Sometimes I’d bring friends. At the end of the too-short weekend my mom would pack up some leftovers and put me back on the bus. Hours later I’d find myself on a hell-hot subway platform, sunburned with sand in my shoes and holding a Tupperware container of meatballs, wondering how on earth I’d gather the will to be back at work the next day.
There are many reasons why I decided to leave that life behind and move to Europe, but if I’m going to be honest with myself, taking back summer was one of them.
The first summer I spent in Rome – the summer hundreds died from the record heat – I went to the beach at Ostia sometimes. They have beach clubs, called stabilimenti. I’d rent a chair and an umbrella, and spend a couple of hours willing that summer feeling to come back to me after having lain dormant for so long.
I had brought with me from the States a one-piece bathing suit that resembled a tennis player’s outfit, with a little skirt at the bottom of it. I wore this on a beach almost completely populated by women whose husbands were back in Rome, eating gelato with coworkers after lunch, and was openly stared at as if I’d brought six heads in my beach bag. One day after returning to Rome I went directly into an Upim and bought a two-piece, and was barely given a glance thereafter. The next summer I went topless, and was entirely ignored while getting a better tan. I love Europe.
The summer I moved to Montpel Cal took me to the beach for July 4th weekend. They have a stabilimento there, too, but I don’t know what they’re called in French. He read and I listened to my iPod and every hour or so the kid who worked there would come out and re-position our umbrella. We went there again the next year.
That was five years ago.
Now, I haven’t been sitting in a cave these past five summers. I’ve had my fun. But because of the kind of freelance work I excel at, more often than not I’ve come to know the season by the sliver of direct sunlight that appears on the floor next to me for about an hour a day during the peak summer months.
This is an ordinary occurrence for pretty much everyone I know, so I don’t expect anyone to have even a shred of sympathy for me and my plight here in the South of France. But dammit, I chose this life so that I could live it more fully, not to be chained to my laptop in the back room seven days a week.
Last summer was the worst one I’ve had, maybe ever. Several plans I’d made had fallen through, and other ones hadn’t gone as I’d hoped, and my workload meant I rarely if ever left the house at all, let alone during daylight hours. For the first time in my life, I had what could kindly be called clinical depression.
On the cusp of winter, armed with an inspirational phone call with my mother and an almost-expired Eurail Pass, I spent two weeks in the eternal twilight of a Berlin December and then headed to Paris to spend my 41st birthday with my Very Best Friend In the Whole Wide World and her fantastic husband. I spent Christmas with Cal and returned to Rome for New Year’s Eve. Then I spent a month in the Jura, house-sitting in blissful solitude, and I saved a dog from drowning in a frozen lake. And somewhere in between, I decided that by any means necessary, I would never, ever waste another summer.
On the cusp of summer, the day before I left Rome once again, I took a day off and the Gay Mafia and I went to the beach. We stopped along the way to get sandwiches for later and when I got out of the car, I felt the sun on my face and could smell the sea. I almost cried.
I returned to Montpel the day before the Solstice. The next day was France’s national music festival. I met up with friends and we found a square where our friend was DJing and we danced and laughed and I complimented a man on his stiletto heels.
Since then, Cal and I have gone to the movies. I’ve gone to brunch – twice. I’ve taken advantage of the July sales for the first time since moving here. I’ve spent two days at a friend’s backyard pool. I’ve painted my nails a glittery kelly green. I found an old toe ring at the bottom of my jewelry box, and shined it, and am wearing it now. I bought huge cheap black sunglasses. I’m using my LL Bean Boat and Tote bag exclusively. I’ve perfected Marco’s lemon pasta recipe. I’m not taking pictures of the sky, because it hasn’t had a cloud in it for two weeks. I took the new tram line to the beach, and when the doors opened at the last stop I could smell the sea and I did not almost cry.
For perhaps the first time since I sat in that beachfront parking lot cracking jokes with Lisa, I’m having an endless summer. And I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.