I started early, took my dog
And visited the sea
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me
By the Sea by Emily Dickenson is one of my favourite poems about the sea. This is the first stanza. Dickenson has written many poems, almost 100, to do with the sea. It’s rather unique, I would say, as Dickenson has lived inland all her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is far from the sea. The sea has a mesmerising effect on many people. One could even say, a magnetic attraction. Could it be that Earth is more than 70% water? We have oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, pools and ponds, lochs and lagoons. All these different words that mean the same thing — a body of water. Bodies of water that attract physical bodies to them.
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the time of the year when Europeans travel to the seaside in droves. La famiglia and I have just returned from Italia, where we visited Sardegna. In English, it is Sardinia. Sardinia, sea and sun — what lovely sibilant sounds this sentence makes. As a children’s book author, I love playing with words and sounds. Alliteration — when each word in the sentence begins with the same letter like in Sardinia, sea and sun — is a fun way to fine tune children’s ears to the sounds that different letters in the English alphabet make.
The sea in Sardinia is a sheet of turquoise with the water closer to shore a shade of aquamarine. The sea reflects the sky and the sky mirrors the sea. On a clear and cloudless day, when you know it will be a very hot day, black-tipped wings dot the horizon. These are seagulls swooping in and out flying free.
I am an island girl, as I’d said before. In this post, I’m going to stick to the Italian spelling of this island in the Meditterannean Sea — Sardegna. I just prefer it when a name is in its original form. I love island-hopping and island life. I am one of the many people who is drawn to the sea like magnets to metal. Could it be because I was born on a tropical island? I love dipping my feet in the sea water. Could it be because this was my first memory of a childhood swimming lesson? I love oysters because they taste of the sea. I wonder if this could be because my first experience of eating raw fish was slurping an oyster on a date in a city hotel far from the sea? The flavour was so intense that I was instantly brought to the sea.
Sardegna, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, inspired three picturebooks stories this summer. One of these stories has to do with the sea, of course. In fact, a seaside holiday with a bird’s eye view. It is an Italian tradition to go to the sea or il mare. Despite the COVID, there are families — the old, young and middle-aged — at the seaside in Sardegna. No virus can break a centuries-old tradition of taking a dip in the sea, which in Italian is called fare il bagno — to make a bath, literally. The salt water is good for the skin, the sea air is curative, and it has been scientifically proven that water is therapeutic. Artists from Claude Monet to Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida have all had love affairs with the sea. Even John Constable, the English landscape painter, had a thing for the sea. For him, it was Brighton, though it was his wife’s ill-health that made him move the family there in 1824.
My second story involves an Italian celebration and regional food. Folks know how I just cannot get away from writing about food. Sardegna, one of Italy’s twenty regions, produces seafood or i frutti di mare — fruits of the sea, various grains, wines, and cheeses, amongst many other regional products. It is a very self-sustainable and self-contained island in this sense. There’s a bread there that I love to munch on — il pane carasau. This bread is so thin, so flat, and so crunchy and ever so moreish. It looks like a simple bread to make, but I’ve been told that the dough for pane carasau needs tender loving kneading and it is always hand-made and takes a lot of effort. And, I suspect like many dishes or food in Italy, made by women. We bought half a kilo of pecorino which is a type of hard cheese made of sheep’s milk. This one I can safely say was made by a Sardo sheep farmer. To profit from the tourists (many of whom were locals), this paunchy sheep farmer and formaggiaio or cheese-maker, walked the length of the beach selling his produce. Pecorino e pane — delish. I also drank a lot of white wine made from the Vermentino grape. It’s light, fresh and fruity.
Incidentally, profitare in Italian is not the English equivalent of making a profit, though in this Sardo’s case, it was. Profitare, the infinitive noun, means to benefit from. And there’s no better way to benefit from a busy touristy time of the year than announcing your products on the beach with your refrigerated cheese van parked nearby. Winter in Sardegna, although still warm, is not a peak tourist attraction like it is in the summer.
The sea, the sea, let’s all go to the sea. If you can’t make it in person, let some art work transport you there. I love this oil on canvas by Claude Monet. ‘The Sea at Pourville’, painted in 1882 captures the impression of a seascape and reminds me of the sea I saw in Sardegna. It’s a seascape of tranquility, a zen image great for early morning meditation and yoga.
But it is Monet’s ‘Sea Study’ that he had painted a year before which really captures the Sardinian sea accurately for me. Here’s Raffaella’s photo to compare. Monet’s version has frothier waves, which he created by dabbing white paint on a blue background. As you can see, the fluffy white clouds mirror the foaming waves. This is a picture perfect place to be, methinks. I can just imagine myself floating face to the sky in this blue sea, allowing the waves to carry me far far away.
Travelling in the New-normal
To get to Sardegna, we had to jump through many hoops. First there was the PCR test (at £99 a person) that we had to do at a pharmacy in London before we were allowed to travel to Italy. Italia, the country of my husband’s birth is my second home. This is where the other half of the exteneded family lives. My kids haven’t seen i nonni, the grandparents, i zii, the aunts and uncles, and i cugini, the cousins, for almost 2 years. It has been too long.
With a negative test, we flew to Bergamo in a positive mood. Ryanair requires everyone to mask up while in the plane — ma, e normale! This is the new-normal, so it’s normal to mask up. Flying from London to Bergamo is a toddle — in less than 2 hours, we were home. Disembarking is now allowed one row at a time. The flight attendant announced specifically with instructions on what each passenger has to do: “Remain seated until the row in front of you is empty. Once the passengers in front of you have all disembarked, then only can you get up from your seat to remove your baggage from the overhead locker. Disembark in an orderly fashion. Thank you for your cooperation.”
I love the new disembarkation procedures because it requires organisation and order. I am rigid like that. Unlike the old days when everyone would be scrambling from their seats before the seat belt sign can be swtiched off to rush to get their bags from above them, this new-normal way is quieter, more efficient, and keeps people from jostling one another. I love the 2 metre rule…because, please don’t touch me, stranger! Why we needed a virus to make this happen, I don’t know.
Well, the virus is here to stay, despite some country’s intolerance of its endemic nature. We must learn to live with it.
We were required to observe a five-day quarantine, which we did happily. This simply allowed us to spend some precious time with la mamma e il papà, namely, my in-laws. Their combined ages make them approximately 180 years old — that’s ancient to many people. The Mediterranean diet has ensured that they’re healthy and glowing at their ages. The only thing is that the FIL is unable to walk unaided — he is after all 91. The MIL still cycles and is as agile as many 25 year olds for being someone in her mid-80s.
On the sixth day, we were allowed out, but were obliged to do another rapid PCR test (€30 per person) at the nearest available pharmacy. This we did. After 20 minutes, we were given the all clear — “tutto posto” — and a thumbs up, with a set of papers as confirmation. This test was also required in order for us to fly to Cagliari, Sardegna’s capital, where we had to go to get to Villasimius, our summer holiday destination. No test, no flying is the rule in the new-normal. Italy is very strict with COVID regulations as ALL nations should be. There is a sense of freedom but rules are rules, and they must be observed. The 2-metre rule still stands, so beach goers made sure that we were some distance apart. This is a seaside holiday in the new-normal. We arrived at Cagliari pale and pallid. After a few days of sea air and sun bathing, I am bronze and glowing. In Italy, someone with a tan is described as bronzato (for men) and bronzata (for females). Isn’t language just so fun?
We rented a little cottage by the sea in the village of Villasimius, in the south of Sardegna. Our friend’s cottage was next door, which had a swimming pool. They kindly let us use their pool. They were on holiday too. However, we were within 15 mins walking distance to the nearest beach. The swimming pool came in handy some afternoons before we set out for the next beach. We were spoilt for choice in regard to beaches, frankly. My favourite beach has to be Spaggia Piscina Rei in Costa Rei. The sea was a natural swimming pool (piscina). Speaking of natural, in front of our little cottage by the sea was a natural lagoon, a wild flamingo reserve. I swear that I’ve not seen so many flamingoes gathering in one spot before. They were there to feed on the algae and tiny sea life in the lagoon. This pair is ever so lovely and loving, don’t you think?
Two days before our holiday came to an end, we hired a boat to take us beach hopping. It was such fun! The skipper, a professional deep sea diver, named Marco, regaled us with stories of his island — lucky Sardo he is. He knew every nook and cranny and hidden beaches where we could dive in and swim, sometimes with the fishes. Sardinia, sea and sun. Lunch was at iki beach, where the sea was sublime and the food first-class. Taste their frittura mista — literary ‘mixed fried things’, in reality fried seafood. Yumalicious! Wash that all down with an Aperol Spritz — make it an Italian Seaside Holiday to remember.
Our seaside holiday came to an end all too soon. As they say, when you’re having fun….
Before flying back to London via Rome, we had to do another set of rapid PCR tests (€50 per person). This is the mandatory 48-hour test before flying — the fit to fly test. I have never had a doctor stick a flexible wand-like instrument so deeply in my nose before. That is how strict the medical staff and authorities are in regard to COVID in Italy. All very good, I feel. Though it really didn’t feel good. It hurt some but only for a couple of seconds. Before I could say ouch, it was all done. I blinked the tears away and smiled through my mask. It’s the bravest face I could put on in the moment. I discovered that a PCR test is also a great way to find out if you’ve got a septum deviation. Apparently, the ballerina-princess has a deviated septum. Hmmm. Nothing serious, I was told, and easily remedied through a septoplasty. But right now it is not the time to worry about this type of deviation. Our flight had to deviate to Rome because our original flight with British Airways, which would have flown us directly back to London from Cagliari, was cancelled. All ahead of time, of course. With our plans deviated, we flew with Alitalia instead. Viva la Italia!
Now, we’re back in London. Three self-testing kits arrived at our home the next day. We were obliged to order this from the NHS at £20 per test. So, it’s a do-it-yourself test that comes with full instructions on how to do it. Then we sent the results back to the NHS where they will lab-test the swabs and give us the all clear if negative. As UK changed its quarantine rules on July 19th, we didn’t have to self-isolate. But we had to test negative first before the all clear can be given. However, we chose to do a self-imposed quarantine before our test results are returned, which should be tomorrow. Quarantining is good for writing, in my experience. So here I am, writing this.
And here we are — travelling in the new-normal. And it wasn’t all that bad, to be honest, albeit more expensive. In fact, I think the plane was really the safest (enclosed) place to be because everyone — the crew and passenger — was COVID negative.
Testing and then flying, this is the responsible thing to do. If one is safe, we’re all safe. As it has been famously said before, “All for one and one for all.”
So, test yourself, mask up, and let’s learn to live in this new-normal in an organised and orderly fashion.
But don’t get me started on UK’s new stance on liberty. As for my family, we’re keeping our masks on outside and staying as far away from folks as much as possible. Back to Italia, my adopted home — ci vediamo presto!