Unpacking our bags I unpack our travels, sliding their adventure, zest, and freedom of thought and body into our more quotidian existence. Zipping open my backpack, I release into our Bronx living room, as if out of a cage, the following:
Essence of sea; tingle, twang, and lilt of spoken Italian and her northwesterly dialects; perfume of Nonna’s house, slick of maccaia and salt, swoops and screeches of rondone, rondine and monk parakeets; sweat, wine, lemon, espresso, Rossese, Chante Clair.
I pull out all the gifts: books, baby clothes, a hunk of undeclared Parmigiano Reggiano. Then, out among the last small treasures, these:
These fully precious stones are rocks from the spiaggia libera, the free public beach along Corso Italia in Genova, Italy, my husband’s motherland and his mother’s land, where I recently took my first swim in the blue-green Ligurian Sea.
It was a hell of a christening: salt making a body so buoyant it recalled old photos of the Great Salt Lake, and water so blue and clear I was sure I couldn’t express it in words without comparing it to our daughter’s eyes. I wept, quietly, from the stage of the Stella di Mar where we took our post-soak caffe and aqua frizzante, looking out over the sea of bathers stretched out on loungers rented for a euro an hour.
The rocks don’t smell; how is it, then, that they carry me back there so eagerly, so urgently? Lines of white, thick bands and thinner filaments, topographies, fingerprints in time over fields of ardesia-black, slick and smooth and more often than not, round. I have been visiting these rocks for nine years but had yet to wade out on them into the water. Doing so upended everything, made clear to me the heart and soul and uncomplicated function of this city: the sea that lights the eyes of all Genovese, the sea-sun that colors and conditions her skins and houses, the going-to-the-water that occurs for these people not just thrice a season but daily and oftener, before work and after, and during those luxurious (and necessary, climate-respecting) three-hour lunch breaks.
Each morning while we were residents of Genova I ran along Corso Italia, noting the divisions between stabilimenti, beach access resorts, by the changing colors of their ombrelloni: matching umbrellas that close at night then open like primroses for peak beachgoing hours.
Candy to the eyes, these establishments hailed images of 1950s and 1960s post cards, but my swims were set against more diverse and less exclusive backdrops.
At the spiaggia libera, then later at Boccadasse—a photogenic fishing village that locates itself inside many a foreigner’s coffee table book—and rocky Portovenere, we trekked toward the water with our suits on under our clothes, hauling a borrowed stroller out over cobbled rocks.
Our daughter is half genetically pre-conditioned to love the sea, and she lived up to her heritage. This tiny child showed no fear of rock or water: she tickled the waves with her toes and negotiated (not alone) the rocks with aplomb. She giggled at the latter, lifted them, let the smaller ones run through her fingers and licked at the larger ones. She was baptized there, too, held up in mine and her father’s, then more meaningfully in her grandmother’s arms, dipped into and marked by the sea, tied back once again to the salty brine of her birth and birthright.
What is it to belong to a place? I might ask these rocks, these stones I hold as I write, as I dabble, as I begrudgingly reset my mind and body to home, whatever that is, to the Bronx, to the stay-at-home, to mothering and writing and waiting. Once upon a time, a year ago, I took one of these rocks to the hospital, where it sat vigil in my bag as I gave birth to our daughter. I gave one to a sister-in-law this spring just before she birthed our nephew. The rest of our collection, honed over nine years of visits, sits in a woven basket on a glass-top table near the entry to our home.
What do these rocks have to say about distance, about time and tide?
They remind me that distance is real, that it is important, that the difficulty of the journey is what makes it worth the while. This despite the too-easy convenience of trans-Atlantic travel, of daily videochats that cross the vastness without notice, let alone awe.
They remind me that their home waters’ purity is not to be taken for granted—because while I swam thrice in pristine waters, I also swam twice in mottled ones, on agitated days the sea brought to shore tiny slivers of that still not talked about enough phenomenon known as the great garbage patch, spiralling around mid-ocean in an area larger than France and growing. I swam between cigarettes and bottle tops, then went home or to the Stella di Mare to drink myself fresh and bubbly out of plastic bottles.
We are all complicit.
I would like to hold, at the same time, all that these rocks conjure: the picture perfection of the sea, the shore, the moment; the holiness of first touches; the questions themselves. The mystery of geologic time, of layering, of deposition and erosion and carry and migration and drift. Human effect and affect; action, inaction, collective impact, difference and indifference, time scales vaster than our own. The shifting, cyclical contact of water on land.