On the Beach

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(This was first published in Le News 4 September 2014)

One morning during our recent summer holiday in England, my husband leaped out of bed, joyfully announcing, ‘It’s a Beach Day today!’

‘Really?’ I asked, peering out of the window at the grey sky and the trees bending horizontally in the wind. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it’s not raining!’

The children and I balked, but my husband, who has spent time in the UK before, reassured us. ‘It’s what everyone does on a day like this. Let’s go.’

So we grabbed our beach gear – fleeces, jeans, umbrellas – and headed off. And he was right. Everyone was doing it. Although they were doing it with metres of stripey windbreaks and flasks of steaming tea, so we really stuck out as sadly underequipped foreigners.

No matter. The family had a wonderful time. My husband went surfing, and the children raced around with buckets, spades and fishing nets, giddy with beach-joy. I watched them for a bit, then retreated behind a rocky outcrop to attempt hibernation. And while I did so, my mind turned to memories of Beaches Past, and how different they have been to one another.

For example, before we left South Africa we spent a bit of time in the Cape and landed up, on New Year’s Day, on the beach in Muizenberg. The sun was blazing, the waves were big, and you could hardly see the sand for all the people: people playing beach sports, people sunbathing, and lots of people in the water, paddling, swimming, bodyboarding, surfing, kayaking …

And every now and then the Shark Spotter, sitting high on an east-facing cliff, would see a dark shape easing along the coast. The spotter would then radio down to a compatriot on the beach, who’d sound the shark siren and raise a white flag, and everyone would get out of the water. Calmly and immediately. There was no Jaws-like panic, no stampede, no screaming. Paddlers, swimmers, surfers … they just walked out of the sea and waited on the beach until the dark shape moved on. When the white flag was replaced by a green one, they trooped back into the water again.

I thought it was all pretty hardcore, so I was very surprised a few months later when we headed down to Lac Léman for our first Swiss swim, and my daughter refused to get in.

The whole lakeside area looked like something out of a fairytale, with a manicured lawn and white swans drifting past us on water as flat and clear as a mirror. There was no one else there, apart from a group of pensioners having a chat in the sun after their morning swim.

‘No way,’ said the small one, sitting back down on her towel. ‘Too dangerous.’

Dangerous?’ I repeated, baffled. ‘Child! You’ve never been anywhere safer!’

In reply, she narrowed her eyes at me, as if she’d just realised I was actually trying to kill her. ‘Mommy. How can you expect me to swim on a beach where there are no shark flags?’