by Aidan O'Shea
Dateline: Calpe in the Spanish Province of Alicante, July 2010.
It's a challenge being a grandad on holiday. The Ford S-Max diesel growls its way down Avenida de Los Exercitos Espanoles, turns into Calle Gran Bretana, and parks on sandy waste ground. Operation Beach is under my daughter’s command. "You take the towels and togs (swimsuits), you the parasol, buckets and spades, and, Dad, get rid of the recycling. Monika (the au pair), catch the girls’ hands while I take Róisín in the buggy." This highly-trained commando unit is about to establish its beach-head on Playa Arenal.
We are not alone. A solid phalanx of bathers and baskers has already occupied a line less than a metre from the tideless edge of the sea. But niche is our middle name, as we use the buggy to prise a space wide enough for our Iwo Jima moment. I plant the parasol base in the sand, screwing home with practised ease. Then I unfurl my blue and white ensign (Dunnes Stores @ €12.99) and set up base camp. I mutter the motto of the Spanish Republic, No pasaran, they shall not pass, as I vow to hold this beach-head against all comers.
No word is spoken as tops and shorts come off in a trice, revealing skimpy swimsuits and vast expanses of white Irish flesh. This is soon camouflaged in buttery layers of Ambre Solaire Factor 30 for kids. The same kids are by now amphibian, and they hurl themselves into the sea, flanked by two of the adults. The Mediterranean caresses our skin, in contrast to the icy embrace of Ireland’s Atlantic waves. We go for baptism by total immersion, competing with shoals of little fish which dart and weave balletic moves around us. Guard duty changes after about 15 minutes, as I already feel the sun’s glow on my neck and shoulders.
I retreat beneath the parasol to guard the handbags and cash, taking time to watch the passing parade. It’s mostly locals today, who talk, gesture and jostle in a friendly jumble of sound and movement. Dads play beach tennis and let their kids beat them. Others strut by dressed in the minimum of fabric or even less, indifferent to the effects of excess weight and gravity on the human form. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem seem to have stayed at home today.
The sun reaches its zenith and the neon sign on the nearby pharmacy shimmers at 33 Celsius; it is time to beat a retreat. Sand takes its revenge at this point, clinging in between the toes and forming an invisible film in the underwear. Beach bags become like lead, tempers fray and children beg to stay longer. Vamos! My daughter commands. She marvels that the children never asked for the toilet, that fiery cabin at the edge of the beach. I decide not admit that I had taught them that essential skill, namely peeing in the sea. Our small organic pollution is unlikely to tip the balance of global ecological meltdown.
Playa Arenal is one kilometre long, so its promenade is a competitive sprawl of bars and restaurants, all offering a Menu del Dia under €10 for three courses. Damp hair and sandy feet are quite the thing at lunchtime, and the kids are transfixed by cartoons on Spanish TV over the bar. Three litres of water, a glass of beer and lots of pan y aioli later, the world looks good again. Kids eat calamari and we don’t mention the word squid. We live in the incandescent moment. Costa Blanca? More like Costa Blanka, I think. Fed and watered, we trudge back to our combat vehicle, chafing sandy legs on melting upholstery, and head home for a siesta to the chorus of "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga.