Being here in midsummer always makes me think about Ocean City. When I was a kid, my friends and I divided ourselves into “beach people” and “mountain people,” eg, people who’d rather spend their summers at the beach v people who’d rather go to the mountains. I was a mountain person (I haven’t polled her but I suspect Suse would opt for the other team — although not as fervently as before she became BFFs with a dermatologist) but not only did I prefer heading to the hills, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to go to the beach…unless it was to check out babes in bikinis. The beach is hot, sticky, sandy, uncomfortable, loud, crowded. The roads are jammed way beyond their capacity, there’s a line at every restaurant, pizza place, ice cream stand, and fry joint. There’s no place to park, and there’s always at least one moron driving back and forth with his car radio so loud it’s obnoxious two blocks away — and of course his taste in music is always execrable. Sand gets tracked back to the car, back to the room, into the shower. It’s in your hair and in your teeth. Sandwiches are gritty with it, towels and blankets are caked with it. Lather up with sunscreen and in seconds you’re wearing a sand veneer. It makes you (me) itchy at the same time you’re sweaty. And you’re sweaty. Because being on the beach is like sitting too close to a sunlamp the size of a bus, and someone’s opened the door of the world’s largest oven. You can see the heat haze rising from the sand — even if it’s just thin strips of sand between the checkerboard of towels and blankets. You sweat every moment you’re not in A/C or the water. And then you look over at your pals and say, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” And yet maybe the most incomprehensible part of it all is that people sit in 50-mile traffic jams week in and week out to get there and back home.
Obviously, I’m the oddball here. Zillions of people like that stuff — you can’t find a room anywhere near the beach this time of year. People not only do this it, they actually spend a lot of the year planning to do it. It’s a reward for working all year. (Work that apparently involves rolling a boulder uphill.) So overwhelming is the evidence that I’m forced to conclude maybe even most people are on the beach side of the fence. But so long as I didn’t have to be there, I’ve never cared why everyone does. Until I’m brought right up against it, face to face.
Which brings me to Sykia. In midsummer.
When we bought here, we bought in a pretty little village stretched out along a gorgeous body of water. Population: 231. A park, a church, a few tavernas, and that’s all. As absurd as it sounds sitting here now, it never occurred to me that this place would be Ocean City for hoards of Athenians, that its population would swell ten-fold (at least), that parking would be impossible, that the idiot with the loud car radio and bad taste would follow me here, that the tavernas would be full to — and beyond — capacity every night, that sentient human beings would sling themselves out under umbrellas on the beach all day every day, that crossing the beach road could ever approximate running across the Capital Beltway, that the park would be full of people from other villages every night until very late at night, and that people would navigate heavy traffic for 90 minutes to get here. And yet it’s happened again this year, just as it has in each of our previous years.
I haven’t been back to OC in summer since high school but now I’m face to face with this beach thing every year anyway. I still can’t figure it out. Why do people like doing this? There are some who apparently take pride in getting the darkest possible tan. There’s one guy who just likes to fish every daylight hour. There are young parents letting their kids romp in the shallows. There are people who come down to cool off, floating around in the water for 30-40 minutes before heading back up the stairs. But for each of those, there’s one reading a book, drinking an iced coffee, snoozing, jawing with the neighbors, in other words: doing things that would be much more comfortable pretty much anywhere else. So why do they do it?
I can’t go along with the mystical idea that we love the sea because the progenitors of our species crawled out of the sea millions of years ago. After all, every mammal species did the same thing, and I don’t see cats or beagles lining up to get in the water. I’m forced to conclude the drivers of this strange behavior are habit, tradition, and, yes, conformity. “What should we do for vacation this year? Why don’t we just go back to the beach?” “I’ve gone to the beach every summer since I was a kid.” “Everyone’s going to the beach.” The possibility that anyone might actually enjoy being roasted alive while simultaneously being flayed by the pitiless sun in the close company of hundreds of other roastees is simply unimaginable.
So here I am, an accidental beach person. A bear who wandered down from the mountains. My inability to understand goes way beyond language.
My coping method is to focus on the things I love about this place — the clear blue water that’s now at the ideal temperature, the gorgeous mountains across the Gulf, and the amazing light penetrating the landscape to the cellular level. And the absence of sand! No sand. The pebbles can be tough on the feet but I never have to walk on a sandy floor or — shudder — sleep in a sandy bed. And the wine, a spectrum of spectacular summer whites so nuanced and delicious that they more than make up for car interiors so hot you have to stand back when you first open a door. Yes, the wine really helps with the coping.
Each year about this time I think back to a two-week beach vacation almost 30 years ago that straddled the start of school. The difference between week one and week two could not have been more stark: week one, high stress; week two, no stress. I thought then about the few permanent residents of little coastal towns like Duck, NC — how they must feel about being invaded and displaced by the mob each summer, and how they must long for the end of summer. I’ve thought about them again each of the past 10 summers. I never imagined my empathy would be so complete.
Come on, autumn!