In Praise of the Playa

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Sand, sky, and sea: the perfect antidote to our times.

Yes, there’s the Rioja and the tapas, the flamenco and the paella – but then there’s the beach.

And now in the time of coronavirus, the beach is the one place where you can shed your mask, and even all of your clothing (see Phase 1), breathe deeply, jump into the ocean, and pretend it’s all just been a bad dream.

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The emerald-coloured waters of Cabo Udra.

As you swim through emerald-coloured water so clear you can see every shell, every piece of kelp swaying on the sea floor, you will enter another sort of dream. A dream where, if you look to the west, an island shaped like a woman reclining juts from the open Atlantic, and, to the east, smooth grey rocks jut from a forest of eucalyptus and pine.

But it’s not just about nature. Beachgoing in Spain is a cultural experience you won’t find listed in any events guide. Here, the beach is not the kind of place where you just show up with an old towel and a tote bag containing your sunscreen and trashy magazine (although you will be forgiven for such transgressions).

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The beach umbrella – the first item on anyone’s beach-kit list.

Who knew that beach umbrellas could be so colourful, so jaunty? That towels could be smooth cotton on one side and terrycloth on the other, eliminating the danger of an unflattering imprint upon one’s cheek?

Who knew that grandmother and granddaughter could wear matching string bikinis and walk hand-in-hand along the shore? Or that you could build cute wooden structures (called chiringuitos) strung with faerie lights, and sell freshly grilled fish and crisp white wine? That you could sit there in your wet bathing suit, toes sinking into the warm sand, and watch this whole show in slatted shade from beneath a bamboo awning?

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For those who prefer sunsets.

Anything goes at the beach, and everyone is welcome. The young, the old. The wealthy, the poor. The prone-to-burn Canadian. Wear your swimming trunks or Speedo, bikini or one-piece. Go topless or nude. Don’t worry about fat rolls or cellulite. No one cares (and they’re not just saying that and secretly checking you out). It’s a kind of democracy of the flesh, and as refreshing as the sea.

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Zen and the Art of Entering the Water.

Here we can gather in a ritual as ancient as humankind – to face the sun, to infuse our skin with saltwater, to walk upon entire universes – mountain ranges, civilizations – all ground up into fine particles of white sand.

And such a ritual deserves its very own beach kit.

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Grumpy people named Angie may become annoyed when you play this right beside her head, but just ignore her.

The first purchase I made when I arrived in Spain was what I’d assumed to be a shopping basket. Little did I know I’d purchased the classic beach basket that almost every beach-going individual, months later, would sport in some sort of shape and colour.

Slowly, I’ve been  learning what other objects constitute the perfect Spanish beach kit. There is the low-slung beach chair, the sunscreen sold in bottles that squirt like bathroom cleaner, the insulated Thermos bag, the paddleball set, and, for the more adventurous types, the flotation device.

But beyond the kit is something that can’t be bought – an innate ability to relax, to sit for hours in a mini shade village created by a circle of perfectly placed beach umbrellas, and chat with friends or family, or, when the conversation wanes (which seldom seems to be the case), simply stare out at the blue, blue sea.

Every day I witness this spectacle with increasing admiration. As the tide comes in, I watch people stand and chat, entering the water in increments. Ankles, Calves. Thighs. It’s rare to see someone do what we Canadians do – simply stride into the water without thought, and dive. Perhaps this is because people here don’t like the cold, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s a type of ease, of being able to ease into the moment.

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Sorry, Portugal. I love you but your beach cabanas just don’t cut it.

Poco a poco – little by little – is something I’ve been told many times in Galicia, whether it’s about learning the language, or weeding my unruly garden. And the other thing people say to me, as I rush about or worry about this or that – something everyone I know from Toronto excels at – is tranquila.

The way they say this to me – the tone, the soft roll of the vowels – is as soothing as the rhythm of the waves crashing against the shore. Tranquila, tranquila.. Don’t worry, Angie. Be calm. Yes, these are uncertain times, so squirt on your sunscreen, spread out your towel, and close your eyes.

Some sad news. Our lovely friend Molly went missing five days ago and we fear the worst.