A summer within, a summer without: Thoughts on watching a beach in Italy's Boccadasse
In a 'cruel summer', watching days and nights unfold on Boccadasse's beach
A summer within.
A summer without.
‘Without’ meaning sans, but also outside.
Over the past several days, I have been watching a live webcam feed of a small beach in Boccadasse, Genoa. A cluster of pastel-coloured buildings of varying heights takes up most of the space on my phone screen. There's a slim stretch of sky visible above the roofs that a bird or two flits across. To the left of the screen, walled on both sides by the houses, a narrow set of stairs leads down the street. The front-most row of houses — with a lone pizzeria called ‘Asporto’ among them, and a low cement wall that holds off the sea — open onto a small gravel beach. A canvas-covered boat is pulled high up on it, away from the reach of the waves. In this scene, only the waves move; everything else is at standstill.
Sometimes the sea is quiet and the waves lap more gently at the shore, a new one materialising in a burst of surf at just the point where an older one has receded. Sometimes it's choppier, and then the waves rush up the pebbled beach in an excess of froth. They crash against a small rocky outcropping a little way out in the water, on which a sturdy flag flaps in the wind.
The daylight lasts long into the evening, but the sun is rarely ever “too bright to bear thinking of”. Europe’s heat wave of last summer seems distant. Now there's something else scorching its way through the continent.
At night, the windows of the houses glow with yellow lights; the seawater turns inky black, the surf an understated glitter. In the early morning, at 4 am, it's even quieter. A stray rectangle or two of white light. The sea, continuing.
Tiny figures sometimes appear on the narrow street to the left of my screen. They usually walk alone, and quickly. No one lingers. On Day 2, a fisherman with his line, at the edge of the beach. On Day 3, a man — possibly a chef — emerges from the Asporto and stands on the street for a few moments before going back in. That same night, two women climb down the stairs between a row of buildings and walk towards the street. They pause for a minute at the foot of the stairs, and look back at the sea, a hint of mischief in their attitudes. On the morning of Day 4, a solitary jogger runs up the street, flickering in miniature on my screen, before he disappears even more quickly than the others.
When the lockdown eases, for a few hours each day, more people come — children splashing in the waves in twos and threes, a couple of families queueing up outside the Asporto. Sporadic streams of passersby on the stairs; a woman resting her heavy bag to pull something out and clutch it under her arm before she continues on her way; friends sitting on a ledge. The activity doesn’t last very long.
Sometimes, the video feed lags the merest bit as you zoom into these figures. A faint vestige of them stays behind even as the more vivid, solid part of them moves a step forward or performs the next action — the lag creating a ghostly effect.
There's something calming about watching this fixed scene. Maybe it's the voyeurism of the act — I've always loved looking up at lighted windows and wondering what goes on beyond them: If my life would be different if I lived behind one of those windows, if I would be different.
I refresh the tab sporadically through the day, watching the light change, the sea do its thing, the village going about its disrupted routine. A white sailboat drifts by one afternoon. If I focus enough, I can pretend I'm watching the beach from an adjacent window, and feel the sharp sea breeze tangling my hair.
There's something endlessly fascinating about watching this fixed scene. Waiting for a sign of life. Spotting the subtle differences. Maybe it's because this is all the travel I'll do this year.
For the past two years, I've been travelling solo over the summer. Nothing terribly adventurous — just a way, during a particularly severe bout of depression, to answer the question: "Isn't there anything you look forward to?" There wasn't. So I created something to look forward to. Something that staved off what at that point in time seemed inevitable, life-direction wise.
Boccadasse (Bocadâze in Genoese) is an old mariners' neighbourhood of the Italian city of Genoa… It is enclosed in a narrow bay; at the eastern side, the cape of Santa Chiara with a castle, and on the western side, the rocks, with a tiny pebbled beach in the middle, where the seamen's boats rest.
I read the Wikipedia entry, scan a few travel blogs, look at photos of Boccadasse online — photos in which the colours of the houses and the sea and the sky are brighter and more saturated in contrast to the greyer cast of the webcam footage. In some of the photos, I see what’s on the other side of the camera: more houses, rows upon rows of covered boats, a road that leads to a gelateria. It’s a perspective that doesn’t exist when you’re looking at the live stream — the fourth wall is broken.
Sporadically, I take screenshots: the live stream feels — despite the unchanging scenery — ephemeral. What was a moment before is gone the next. And what if the camera itself were to be turned off? There are other locations on the webcam website: Milan, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Ibiza. But their thumbnail icons don't induce me to click on them in the same way that Boccadasse's did. It’s love at first sight, this beach, even though my answer to “Mountain person, or beach?” is always “mountain”.
A summer within.
A summer without.
The grim news piles up every day. Some of us experience minor inconveniences, and think of what it might mean to never travel again (or at least not for a long time), and panic over the future, and fret over the contours of ‘the new normal’. Others experience bereavement and illness and loss of livelihood and starvation and a damning collective apathy. It is, as the song declares, ‘a cruel, cruel summer’.
On a quiet little beach in a now quiet little Italian village, the sea continues its backward and forward motion across my phone screen. I watch the waves. I watch for a sign of life.
This essay is part of our 'a summer without...' series. Read more here.
All screengrabs via SkylineWebcams feed
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