Life’s a Beach

14 Aug

I’m not long back from my latest excursion to Albania. I didn’t spend as long as usual this time, just the three weeks (I know, your heart bleeds), but I did find some time to get away to the beach while I was there, and thought I would give a quick impression of the differences between British beaches and Albanian ones (or Mediterranean ones more generally). If you’ve spent time at both and know all this already, feel free to skip, but if you’ve never experienced the sweaty hedonism of a Mediterranean beach, or the chilly exhilaration of a British beach, read on.

Seagulls

This was the thing that got me thinking about the differences to start with. I was lying on my lounger (of which more later) in Spille, reading This Must Be the Place, when I heard what I thought was a seagull crying. In Scotland, this sound is so ubiquitous at the coast, and even in cities, that you don’t register it, but when I heard it on that beach I suddenly realised it was the first one I’d heard. So I looked up to see – a man selling squeezy horns for kids to play with, along with other toys and games.

A seagull doing its thing

In Scotland, and the rest of the UK, seagulls hang above the seaside like stringless kites, ready to dive-bomb anyone who is too careless with their chips. At Spille, the avian background music was provided by peaceful wood pigeons, or duduftu (brilliant piece of onomatopoeia).*

Vendors

If you harbour dreams of being waited on hand and foot, or fondly imagine that you were Cleopatra in a former life, Albanian beaches might be for you. You can turn up with just your towel and your swimsuit, and people will come round selling you everything else you need, including on beaches where this is explicitly prohibited. Here are some of the items that will come to you, if you wait long enough:

  • Doughnuts
  • Playing cards
  • Novelty horns (see above)
  • Newspapers
  • Bananas
  • Cold(ish) drinks
  • Sets of dominoes
  • Candy floss
  • Inflatables
  • Buckets and spades
  • Corn on the cob

Some of the more touristy beaches even have massage and hair braiding. No one seems to sell novels though, so bring your beach read with you. In Britain for sale actually on the beach you will find:

  • Donkey rides

And that’s about it. That’s not to say you won’t find plenty to eat and drink and amuse yourself near the beach, but there’s pretty much nothing on it. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason that lies behind point 3:

Sun loungers

Shezllone in this picture is not the name of a place, it is the Albanian word for sun lounger, which they have clearly borrowed from the French. (Say it out loud and see if you can work it out.)**

Albanian beaches, and Mediterranean beaches in general, are covered with pairs of sun loungers arranged in neat rows, usually with an umbrella complete with mini table. There are obvious advantages to this system: you don’t get nearly as sandy, the sand doesn’t blow over you, you’ve got shade without having to hoik an umbrella around with you, you’ve got somewhere to put your drink and hang your clothes, etc.

The disadvantage is that these loungers belong to someone, usually to the adjoining beachfront hotel or café, and you have to pay to use them. If you don’t want to, you’ll struggle to find an unused bit of beach to lay your towel on. Being a bit lazy, especially when it comes to carrying things in hot climates, I like the shezllone system, but I understand why it wouldn’t work in Britain. Even if we did have enough hot weather to justify permanent beach furniture, there’s a very good reason why nothing is left on the beach overnight, which is…

Tides

On our second day in Spille, it was very windy (though still hot) and this meant that the sea was full of waves. My mother-in-law thought that made it very unsuitable for swimming and was a bit concerned when I went in, but for me it brought back memories of holidays as a kid, jumping over small waves and body-surfing the big ones (and ending up with lots of salt water in my nose). This is because the coast in Britain is full of waves all the time, whether it’s windy or not, because we have tides.

It’s one of those things that feels unrealistic, like the water running down the plughole in the opposite direction in Australia (allegedly; I’ve never been). When you’ve grown up with a sea that advances and withdraws by hundreds of yards twice a day, it just doesn’t feel safe to leave your sandals right next to the water, even though you know they’ll be just where you left them when you come out. I have a vivid memory of seeing my clothing float past me at Southport, even though we had all left our clothes way up the beach. It’s hard to get used to the calm, stationary Mediterranean, with its more-or-less stationary waterline.

It’s easy to get used to warmth, though. Sometimes even the Mediterranean seems too cold to me these days, and I grew up paddling in the Atlantic, and even went swimming in the North Sea at five in the morning. I have become nesh.

Kids

My final observation is really a reflection of wider Albanian culture, not just beach culture. Kids go everywhere, at every time of day. There were kids on the beach in the blazing heat of noonday. If they got crotchety (as you would expect) the solution was to put them down for a nap, tucked under a sheet – on a sun lounger in the blazing heat of noonday. This would not be recommended practice in Britain, to say the least.

But kids go everywhere and sleep anywhere in Albania – including music concerts. In the photo above you may be able to see small children and babes in arms at the Maratona e Këngës (Song Marathon), which started at nine in the evening. “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” does not ring true in Albania. In theory they should all be suffering terrible developmental problems due to the haphazard sleeping patterns, irregular meals, excessive exposure to TV etc. But in reality they seem to turn out fine, so maybe they’re doing something right.

Anyway, now it’s back to late summer in Scotland for me, which in practice means cold and rain. It’s been excessively hot on the Continent and, as is often the case when that happens, it’s been unusually cold and miserable here. So no one will see my beautiful tan because I’m wrapped up from head to toe all the time. But if you bump into me, do feel free to compliment me on my wonderfully bronzed hands 😉

 

*  Please don’t give me any of that rubbish about seagulls not being a real thing. They’re gulls. They live by the sea. They’re seagulls, alright?

** Chaises longues

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