A while ago, thinking about the upcoming summer vacation, I started to think about what the instinctual longing for the summertime return to the sea really meant. Not only that, I felt it deeply.
It’s not just about that feeling of surrendering yourself to the sea’s currents and floating out so far that the beach umbrellas and sunbathers on the beach turn into a pointillist still life. It’s not only about the zen of gazing into waves that crash against rocky shores. It’s about those waves and rocky shores as a deep miraculous witness of time.
You can think about summer vacation as a return to self or even a return to the primordial. A return to the water from which we came from in the first place.
No matter our financial situation, its ups and downs, there was never a question in my family of whether we would go to the sea or not. It had to happen at least once a year. That was the end all be all, an indisputable constant.
The reasons were simple: healthy sea breeze, relaxation. But there was an irrational side, especially coming from my dad. Summer vacation was a return to a lost paradise, to pre-existence, to the idyllic, because everything is just fine by the sea.
Going to the seaside reminded my parents of their youth when they traveled to Pelješac or Brač in Croatia. In difficult times our vacations were an escape from the everyday, ten days of a nice calming routine.
By thinking about where we traveled, what we ate or how long we stayed, those summer vacations were an indicator of the broader world, from the geopolitical situation to local fissures.
My first summer trip
Even though I can not remember my first seaside vacation, I often reconstruct it through family photos, I feel free to add various elements to the memory that may or may not have really been there.
I was eight months old and I cried like crazy on the plane from Belgrade to Tivat, so much so that I’m sure the other passengers still haven’t forgotten that 40-minute flight. One of the flight attendants tried her best to entertain me and help me forget the pressure in my ears. But there’s another type of travel pressure: anxiety. No matter how beautiful the destination, some people are always anxious before a trip, sometimes so much so that they don’t want to go at all. The best advice is this: just go, throw yourself in, like a kid learning to swim.
My memories of my first summer vacation are porous and fluid, they are a reconstruction built from photographs of my gorgeous young parents sporting New Wave hairstyles. My dad holds me in the shallow water, behind him people are playing ball, eating ice cream, moving about, caught in the photo.
With mom; Inex Golden Coast, 1985. Photo: Courtesy of the author.
I wonder where they are now. Where is the man who’s looking directly into the camera from afar? Where is the elusive world of childhood, the world of the Ineks “Zlatna Obala” tourist complex? It was a whole way of vacationing, the blue and white cups, everything so Yugoslav. It was modest and humble, a summer vacation for the masses. It’s all turned into a resort.
A number of artists have created exhibitions and TV series about these legendary places from childhood, offering iconic representations of the abandoned objects, hotels and lobbies, as well as those remodeled by capitalism into something different and new. And new is supposedly better.
Many things may change, but nature holds steady. That is the power of the sea and the mountains: nature resists. There’s one particular spot where I always recognize the curves of the coast and the way my feet sink into the sand. It’s something that makes my stomach turn and gives me goosebumps. My first summer vacation sits in my consciousness like an astral projection.
Picture a baby in her mother’s arms in an oak forest, all in the brownish pinkish hue of so many photographs from the 1980s.
"I never wanted to go back to our hotel; even though the boardwalk never changed, it was vibrant at least. All that hubbub aside, I felt much better there than in our room, where I was expected to go to sleep after having a couple slices of melon."
Around the time the Serbian musician Bajaga was calling everyone to Montenegro and German supermodel Claudia Schiffer was promoting the land as ecological and clean.
But I felt this desire for my summers to be something different. I wanted a shift. I was done with the visit to my grandparents in Nikšić before heading for the seaside, where I used to carry a parasol around in order to finally stick it into dry sand every single day. That would mark the onset of monotonous beach hours that culminated in the same old, same old evening stroll with my parents; we would walk up and down the boardwalk, past those never-changing carousels and stores where people were selling seashells by the seashore. And then we would go back to our hotel. Without fail, mom and dad kept me company. No chance of spending time with others.
Evenings became more fun when I, for example, would sit down to be painted by an artist on the promenade, or if my parents took me out for fish (though I always had to pick out a live one) or other seafood or grab some cakes.
I hated going back to the hotel. Even though the boardwalk never changed, at least it was vibrant. I felt much better there than in our room. Every evening, I was expected to go to sleep after having a couple slices of melon on our balcony, from where we observed the commotion outside. I wasn’t into the watermelon, I wanted cakes from the most luxurious hotel in town.
I’ll forgive you for never taking us to stay there, but couldn’t we have just sat and had a bite there so I could inspect the rotating glass dessert trays? Oh to see those cakes and ice cream sundaes before picking the most impressive one with a heavy heart. You were a Belgrade child, you’d already seen it all, but whenever you went to the sea, especially if it was a small town, you started grasping for those bits of urbanity and luxury. So that sundae with the mini-umbrella and flamingo and the cherry on top, the whole process of picking out a dessert meant the world to you, it was your link to the city.
Curls, sandals and stone paving
The image of my first seaside vacation is of my mother and her baby, hologram-like, in the forest. Similarly, my image of my tenth annual seaside vacation is defined by a photo showcasing curls, sandals and stone paving.
Those were mom and dad’s younger childless friends who we ran into in the old town. I don’t remember the guy too well, but the woman had curls and wore silver sandals on her feet, gliding across the stone paving dressed up in satin. It was a hot night in August, and she was on her way to have olives and wine with her boyfriend by the clock tower. They were going to be there all night, unlike us, who were already heading to our room. They were going to have an exciting late night at the restaurant in the middle of the town. Amidst the laughter, perhaps they’d even kiss, free as they were, while poor me had to go to bed. And my parents, who I considered so boring, would go to bed too. Why wouldn’t they let me live?
"I was looking forward to growing up; I was eager to go wherever I wanted, have wine and a boyfriend, and wear a pair of silver sandals."
Going out at night became the holy grail of my life, a goal for the future. I could hardly wait to grow up, to go where I wanted, to drink wine, to have a boyfriend and wear sandals. It wasn’t just that I wanted sand, waves and peace of mind, I longed for something exotic and mystical that I was unable to access because it all happened behind the walls of the old town after midnight, like some sort of secret.
Instead, I would get Evzonoi brand ice cream, which we didn’t have back home. We’d wait at the border for hours, nervous drivers stepping out of their vehicles here and there to check whether the line was moving while us carefree kids, including myself, ate the ice cream we bought at the border.
I loved the sunsets during those summertime trips and the wonderful vital feeling in my body after long swims. I loved the fine sand that danced between the pages of the book I was reading under the hotel terrace, ordering a salad, safe from the sun that kissed my salty skin earlier. What I loved most was the shopping we did in Thessaloniki the last day before we returned.
Thessaloniki shopping sprees marked the end of the summer and the start of school. I would buy sweaters, coats and pencil cases (and a couple toys — troll dolls were the thing back then). What made me happiest, and what probably separated me from the other children, was my love for the beginning of school and returning to the city. Later on, during university, I used to love all the festivals, exhibitions and performances of early autumn.
In front of Sveti Stefan. Photo: Courtesy of the author.
That’s just how I am, someone who’s always wanted more. On vacations I wanted the popular beaches and the hidden beaches, fish markets and cruises, sleepless nights drinking wine, old churches on a hillside, caves and riverbanks, calm and quiet on one hand, extravagance on the other. Ever as a kid, before the internet, I loved circling ads in the newspaper for tourist packages, especially the unattainable ones like Singapore, Cuba or 1,000 deutschmarks for a trip to Disneyland.
My newfound zen
With time everything balanced out. I matured into my thirties, a time when anywhere is enjoyable as long as you are healthy and in your element.
I tend to avoid going to hotels that resemble shopping centers because having everything at hand isn’t the point of traveling. The point is to explore. Why not stumble upon a tavern from the 1970s, during the period of the military junta, or a tiny alley restaurant where a Turkish grandma will treat us as her own grandchildren, who are there and are playing with your own kid there on the floor adorned with oriental patterns eating free fruit.
Even in the smallest fishing villages I find places that suit me, for example, just last summer I discovered Benitses, Corfu, where The Beatles and other less well-known British Invasion bands found refuge in the 1960s from the paparazzi. Even this tiny place had its own turbulent nightclub history, of which only echoes remain.
The most important part of my newfound summer zen — which coincides with some very positive social developments — is accepting my beach body, which also happens to be my December body. I’ve accepted that there is a limited amount of time and I want to spend it well on every trip, to have experiences I will remember.
I will remember one of these trips for the hiking we did, another for the true peace and happiness that stemmed from the three of us being together, alive and well. You can’t see everything. Whatever moment you manage to capture is a blessing in itself. Just get some rest and try to reconnect with yourself and your emotions. Let it all soak in, the earth, the sea, the scent of conifers, ferns, olives and salt that I always want to somehow conserve and bring back with me to smoggy Belgrade.
I’m always trying to recreate the moments my parents created for me, while also adding my own spice.
I saw this slogan recently — “Let’s travel how we used to” — and I was moved. The world has changed, everything has changed, but this statement brought some nostalgic charm to me, this good feeling about a time when people had more trust in the world and when the world rewarded that trust.
"It’s healthy to let go of the pressure that forces you to impress people with your body or destination of choice."
One thing that has changed due to the nature of social media that most of us are on is that we have the urge to show off where we are and how we’re doing. We end up simulating joy even though we were nowhere close to it. It makes me think of the old popular Mexican soap opera “The Rich Also Cry,” in some photos I’m my prettiest self hanging out in a luxurious spot. You can’t tell that I had been crying just moments before.
That’s why it’s healthy to let go of the pressure to try to impress others with your body or your destination. There’s no need for the summer to be an extravaganza of demonstrating how much you’ve earned that year or what you’ve done with your body. It is perfectly fine to show your thin legs or white flab on the beach. Anyone who would sneer at you is a good-for-nothing. Same goes for anyone who looks down on people who bring food from home to the beach.
The world is a wonderful but cruel place. People ought to be happy to just be happy, together, near the sea, even if they head for the nearest seaside spot, overfull with others, instead of some remote fashionable island. We can and must find magic in everything everywhere — any moment can be inspiration for a new philosophy. I make a point of it when I’m on vacation, like my theory about how summer is a return to water and our primal state of being, to the amoebae and reptiles that my child swims with.
Maybe he’s even bored sometimes, like I once was, but maybe he revels in our wishful daydreaming where we imagine where we might travel next while our feet are caressed by grass swaying in the breeze.
Feature image: Courtesy of the author.
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