Sometimes, for a change of pace, it’s nice to take the more traditional route and make use of i bagni at the beach. While I definitely prefer the Mediterranean Sea in its naked, for-the-most-part un-art-directed form (please see “Now that’s a swimming pool“), there’s an anthropological pleasure in joining the masses (German, English, Italian, Rumanian, Austrian, Swiss, some Russian) under the umbrellas of Italy’s miniature kingdoms by the Sea.
I bagni. These are the stunningly well-organized establishments along the public beaches of Italy, that are mostly known to foreigners for their picturesque rows of brightly colored ombrelloni, lounge chairs and candy-striped cabanas. But they are more than that. They often also include life-guard services, showers (indoor and out), bathrooms, bars and restaurants. Everything one requires for a full day at the beach. At a price.
Two years ago at the smallish Biodola beach on Elba we rented our lounge chairs and umbrellas from a man known simply as Chicco (which means kernel, seed or small piece of fruit). Chicco, befitting his name, was small in stature, tightly muscled like a wound spring, and as brown as a coffee bean. He commanded (and I’m sure he still does) the small crescent shaped beach like a kindly dictator, saving the best spots for clients he favored and working real estate deals on the side. He was, without a doubt, a king in his own kingdom. “Bagni Chicco” was a simple affair compared to many. No facilities. Just chairs and shade umbrellas. But his large personality—a powerful mix of warmth and charisma peppered by a spotty ability to speak any language—more than made up for the elementary nature of his offering. Bronzed behind reflective aviators, he spent the day charming other men’s wives, correcting the behavior of unwieldy bathers, and negotiating god-knows-what on his cellphone.
For me, the bagni, more than anything, resemble 747’s or movie theaters (right before the flight or movie has begun. There is a non-stop festive milling about—families attending to their needs, each feeling privately invisible within the sphere established by its one or two umbrellas. Couples canoodle. Bikini tops are dropped. Diapers are changed. Summer homework is done. Novels read; crosswords completed or tossed down in frustration.
Vendors from the Ivory Coast and elsewhere, walk through the “aisles” selling their wares in multiple languages: beads, hats, pirated high-fashions, cigarette lighters, pareos. Some cry “Cocco beeeelllllllo!” (Beautiful coconut) “Ananas!” (Pineapple!) and for these, I always open my wallet. In other words, Life goes on and on in breathtaking living color between intermittent trips to the aquamarine reason for everyone’s presence: the Sea, the Sea, the beautiful Sea.