memoir, travel

Piz Buin Nostalgia

I’m on the beach right now. I’ve been in and out of the water a couple of times. The surf is lush today. I don’t trust it enough to swim far, but I’m willing to play with it, ride its ebbs and flows, checking occasionally for the ground under my feet. As I write these words, I have my jumpsuit wrapped around my head because I forgot to bring my hat. In fact, I forgot that I need a hat in this kind of sun.

The surf’s rush, the sun’s heat, the sand sticking to my damp skin, my body is receiving all these sensations right now. I pick up the delicious smell of Piz Buin sun lotion, and it triggers sadness. What’s that about?

I love Piz Buin, its sweet scent different – more exotic? – than all the coconut-based lotions I’m used to. I discovered Piz Buin in the summer of 2019, at a Boots store in Chatham, UK, just before going to Montenegro and just before things took a horrible turn in my solitary life and about a half-year before things took a horrible turn for everybody we know.

The scent of Piz Buin takes me back to 2019 in Herceg Novi, mornings at a beach bar where I had familiar faces and daily swims in turquoise-clear water and the nicest coffee I’d ever tasted. It takes me back to a time when I feel fit and beautiful, two qualities I’ve never claimed for myself but in that place, I can believe they are part of who I am. In Montenegro in the summer of 2019, I’m funny and smart and fit and beautiful for a little while.

I look up from my scribbling now, rouse myself from this two-dimensional rendering of Herceg Novi of August 2019. I look up, and there’s the Mediterranean slapping the beach in Nerja, Spain. A church bell is ringing now, too. The water is sparkling back at the sun. The waves are sloshing on the rocks like the water does at Cape Spear, aqua-green and frothy, but here it’s safe to play in them.

To my right on the towel is my knitting project. I’m making a tiny rust-coloured sweater, I imagine it might become a Christmas tree ornament. I’ve reached the yoke, where I’m trying to create a Scandinavian-style row of pine trees. I just lost myself in concentration, trying to set up the colours evenly in the round of stitches. I’m working without a pattern, so it’s a trial-and-error situation with a lot of backtracking. I lost myself in concentration and forgot where I was, until the sun’s intensity forced me to find something to cover my head.

A breeze blows across now, and there’s that Piz Buin scent again. When I left Montenegro in 2019, I brought the almost empty bottle home with me. A Google search told me that, from Canada, I could get the stuff from Amazon. I’d have to pay a small fortune to Amazon if I wanted more of this drug store sunscreen lotion. So, through the lockdown years, I’ve spared that tiny leftover bottle along, using it ceremoniously, like the precious oil used on the feet of a saviour.

Meanwhile, here in Nerja, a gust of wind took somebody’s beach umbrella and sent it tumbleweeding through all the sunbathers, catching each group by surprise. I watched it from my vantage point further back and was able to catch it before it did anyone some harm.

The sunscreen I’m using today, a travel-sized tube, has a classic beachy fragrance. This scent triggers deep-back memory feelings of childish delight, when opportunities to go swimming were rare. Back then, going for a swim involved decisions made by grownups and lots of time-consuming preparations. Even today, the idea of just showing up at a beach on my own and walking into the water feels transgressive.

I find myself looking for protocols. Where’s the appropriate place to set up my gear? Is this towel appropriate? How long should I stay in the water? How long drying off? I knit to calm my nervous fidgets. That too feels like an anti-beach activity, especially when I get lost in concentration, trying to set up the Christmas-tree pattern.

I first set foot on this beach in December 2019, last time I was here in Nerja. It was a chillier day than today, sweater-ish weather. I was the only person here, and the off-season expansiveness made me imagine one day coming back to swim on a beach all to myself. As I write this bit, a group of folks have set their beach chairs down directly between me and the sea, messing up my view.

When I was here in 2019, I was powering through my personal crisis on fumes, unaware that a pandemic was already marking its territory on the human race. I was in a personal, private crisis at that time, and it was driving a wedge between what my body was experiencing and what my mind was processing. I couldn’t fully hear the surf, couldn’t fully taste a street crepe, couldn’t really smell the orange blossoms, because I was preoccupied with a problem I couldn’t in these moments solve.

When you’re going through a private crisis, all pleasures can feel forbidden. My mind told me that pleasures like sitting on a sunny beach or taking photos of beautiful surroundings are for people who have their lives sorted out. Sun and sea have healing properties, but I felt I had no right to them.

This week, I catch myself feeling subtle delight as I walk the same stone roads, poking at displays of shawls, leather bags, tiny Spanish tiles. I’m not shopping much, but I’m also not disenfranchised from the marketplace. I get a small thrill when I understand a phrase of Spanish, an outsized thrill when I have opportunity to use French or German and find it works. It’s delightful, this sense of belonging.

I actually have a full bottle of Piz Buin at home now. Got it in Dublin airport on my way home from Montenegro in September. Oh yeah, and I picked up a bottle on my way to Montenegro just this past summer and used it while I was there for two months.

That’s the strange thing: why the scent of this suntan lotion on this beach is giving me a sad longing for the summer of 2019, when it might just as easily trigger a happier memory of this past summer.

The horrible circumstances that came to me in the summer of 2019 are pretty much resolved now. And while we still have COVID-19 and all its nasty offspring, life as I knew it has been coming back in some modified form. New scary and heartbreaking things are also coming to pass, as they have always done since time started passing. But I have things to look forward to again, things to savour and celebrate in the here and now.

I suspect the pandemic and all the surrounding crises have given me a chronic case of nostalgia. I don’t have to be sad for the “before time” today, because today is new and good. Not relatively good, not “good, all things considered,” but objectively good. The nostalgia is a holdover from the dark days, pain from a phantom limb. I don’t need to feel nostalgic when I smell that suntan lotion from a three-year-old summer holiday; I am having new holidays, making new plans, and I have a whole bottle of Piz Buin at home.

And now, after another lapse into concentration, I’m putting my notebook away, lifting up my head, and remembering where I am. I’ll go back into the water for a bit, then get a street crepe and fresh orange juice on my way home.

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