How One French Mom Forever Changed The Way I Go to the Beach
Going to the beach is amazing. But it’s also really strange.
On one hand, it’s cool water, beautiful scenery, and a refreshing breeze. It’s beautiful summer days, long-legged shorebirds, and endless opportunities for day drinking.
On the other hand, going to the beach is weird. First, you take almost all your clothes off in front of strangers, exposing rarely seen areas of flesh to bright, burning sunlight. Then you slather and spray yourself with sunscreen, which should actually just be called what it is — sand adhesive. All for what? To read two lousy pages in your magazine and eat half a sandwich while a seagull heckles you?
Whether or not it’s weird, going to the beach is definitely popular.
And in America, we have our own special way of going to the beach. When we go to the beach, we go big. We bring everything. There is no item too trivial to bring to the beach. Do you know that there are special coiled metal stakes that will hold a can of soda or beer so you can ensure that your drink is never sandy and never more than six inches away from your hand?
When we go to the beach, we expect the same level of comfort we feel at home. This takes a significant amount of shopping, packing, planning, and carrying heavy stuff through the sand, but dammit, we are going to the beach, so we do it anyway.
Of course, we’ve got to bring a freestanding shelter. This could be a tent, a giant umbrella, or something that has to be towed behind a pickup truck. The more complicated the better, here, so springs, coils, wires, zippers, velcro are all options.
And we need chairs — at least one per person. A plain old 4-legged chair might do at home, but beach chairs need to have features. At a minimum, they need backpack straps, a little velcro pillow, a 6-pack zip-up cooler, and should adjust to at least 8 positions.
We bring Bluetooth speakers, coolers, diving rings, and inflatable donuts. We bring kites and sun hats and snacks. Capri Suns, goldfish, grapes. Hard seltzers, regular seltzers, bottled water. And the sunscreen — some for your face, some in a spray bottle, some in a little roller tube. Malibu Breeze, Coconut Alley, Bahama Blast. No name is too cheesy when it comes to naming sunscreens.
The logistics of our beach stuff can be tricky, so we also invest in all manner of folding carts, wagons, and rolling duffel bags. We’ll strap them to the top of our cars or walk 14 blocks pulling them with a rope.
Just so long as we have every single thing.
I used to live this way too. Every summer, our family’s beach kit would get a little bit larger. We wanted to have a fun day and you can’t have a fun day if you have to do without. In fact, it seemed like the goal of going to the beach was to make sure you never actually used everything you brought.
A sign of a good beach day was unpacking and cleaning all the toys and food you never touched.
“We had such a fun time playing in the waves, we never even got out the travel Scrabble game we packed!”
But then one day at the beach on Cape Cod, everything changed.
My husband, three-year-old daughter, and I were on a quick vacation at the end of the summer. I was eight months pregnant, so we were trying to fit in some fun before we had another baby to manage.
We packed and parked and schlepped and carried.
We got to the beach and claimed a spot wedged in between all the other families who were also setting up beach tents and arranging their chairs.
I ducked into our little tent to change my clothes. It was hot and I was sweaty, and fitting into my maternity bathing suit was no easy task. From outside the nylon tent walls, my husband asked if I was changing or wrestling an elephant.
After escaping the tent, and collapsing in my many-function chair, I was met with a shocking sight.
A woman was walking down the beach with three children. Her hands were empty except for a paperback book. She was wearing a striped bikini and she came and sat down in between me and the tent that another family had put up next to ours. There were three children with her, and they were barefoot and empty-handed as well.
I was baffled. Where was her stuff? Where were the toys and snacks? What about sunscreen?
While my husband dug through our bag of sand toys to find the pink shovel, because the yellow shovel wasn’t pink enough, I heard the mom talking to her kids. Ah, she was French! How novel! How quaint!
Apparently, nobody told her that in America, you’ve got to bring at least $700 worth of colorful shitty plastic to the beach if you expect to have a good time.
But what happened next shocked me. Her kids — probably between 8 and 12 years old— ran down the beach, and she laid down on the sand and opened her book.
I was fascinated.
And then…she kept reading. Page after page, lying on the bare sand like an animal.
Her kids came over and chatted for a few minutes and ran back down to the water. She did not apply sunscreen or give them gummy snacks. They did not have a mesh bag of flimsy plastic shovels and buckets.
However, down at the water’s edge, the kids found an old Doritos bag floating in the waves. They played with it, filling it up and holding it high in the air. They squealed with delight as tiny streams of seawater squirted out through tiny holes in the sides.
The mom read on.
And then they left. Just like that, they all just walked off the beach. There was no packing, no carrying, no tying or lashing gear together. It was amazing.
When our family left, it was a 45-minute ordeal that I swore never to repeat.
The French mom reminded me that a beach is an awesome place all on its own. Kids know this. Set any kid-free on the beach and they’ll occupy themselves with seaweed, rocks, or dead crabs.
The beach is better when you haven’t surrounded yourself with half the contents of a Target store.
Last week, my family took a drive to New Hampshire’s little sliver of coastline. We brought a kite, a water bottle, and some soccer balls. We had no place to sit, nothing to eat, and no music, pillows, or blankets.
Our kids ran up and down the beach. We made up family challenges. We stacked rocks and played Simon says. And while we did, I watched other families arrive with carts, wagons, and coolers. I watched the wind blow their shelters around and I saw them staking down blankets and chairs.
There are lots of ways to have fun at the beach. You can carry half a ton of crap over the sand if you want to.
But as for me, I’m sticking with that French mom I saw down on the Cape.
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