A Tale of Two Beaches

The Baltic stretches out to the horizon placid and pink from the reflection of the early morning sky. There is only a bank of cloud to the west, still heavy and purplish with night, but the eastern sun is quickly burning the sky above the ocean blue and white. I stand at the water’s edge; my bare skin prickles against the chill. I breathe in deeply and walk into the water.

The ice of it sucks my breath away, and today it’s all me propelling my body forwards and under. Gone are the greenish, churning waves of the last few days that slapped up against my belly and chest and made short work of getting in. But also gone is the wall of seagrass torn from the ocean floor and hurled against my legs and into every seam of my swimsuit. The water today is clear. I can see all the way to the neat, rippled rows of sand beneath my feet.

Finally, I’m up to my neck. The horizon is nothing but a scar. At my feet, mitosis; an underwater tumbleweed splits apart, and one half of it is a crab, its back the color of salad leaves left to wilt in the fridge. It scuttles in half circles around my feet and warily, carefully, we dance.

Ten minutes. That’s how long we stay in the water. It’s one minute for every degree Celsius that your body can take before it begins to cool too far, and the water here is fifteen degrees. So ten minutes is safe. Still, my wet skin prickles with goosebumps as it meets the salt-soaked air. The water is only at knee height when a reddish bloom catches my eye. Pulsing furiously and too fast for comfort, a jellyfish red as washed-out bricks shows us his tangled underbelly. I’m glad I am jumping distance from shore. I hate jellyfish.

At my feet, mitosis; an underwater tumbleweed splits apart, and one half of it is a crab, its back the color of salad leaves left to wilt in the fridge.

This is partly why, on our first full day in Denmark, we made a meal of him. A symbolic conquering. Last year here, to conquer our fears, we researched. We learned: moon jellies do not sting; those pastel ear-shaped marks on their backs are actually sex organs, and sometimes when you get an itchy rash at the beach it’s because of microscopic baby jellies. Also that, when eaten, jellyfish are an excellent source of protein and very good for your skin.

Fast forward to a bowl of dried jellyfish soaking on the counter, looking yellowed and leathery and dubious. Meanwhile, we slice cucumber and cilantro, and poach chicken in a broth of ginger, scallion, and black pepper. The sauce is Chinkiang black vinegar, crispy chili oil, sesame oil, garlic, and soy sauce. At least that combination is solid, no matter what the jellies might do.

It’s all we have planned for lunch, which makes us both slightly nervous. It’s hard to imagine the gibbous, glibbery jellyfish, with its tissue-paper fragility, as something solid enough to eat. So we’re pleasantly surprised to find that it isn’t slimy, but chewy, the texture of a piece of pickled ginger or daikon. It reminds me a little of pig’s ear. For the most part, it works like a charm to keep the still-living jellyfish away.

I keep my time in the ocean to the morning dips; no need to brave the creature-filled cold more than once a day. But with a book in hand, I enjoy the quiet down by the water. This beach is almost always deserted, even at the height of summer, and it’s even quieter behind a wall of dune grass that shelters us from the wind and keeps the temperatures warmish. All we can hear is the steady rush of wave breaking against shore.

That is one kind of beach, and it is very different from the other beach that bookended my summer. The beach on Isle of Palms is hot. The sun-infused sand stings your bare soles, but it is soft and drifty, free of stones and sharp shells. And the gray Atlantic is warm too, tempting you further into its frothy, joyful waves. Here I finally understand the pleasure in wave-jumping, but because I am a fearful soul, my sister-in-law takes my hands and holds it as she leads me deeper in.

A week is a blink for family vacation when you haven’t seen your family in over a year, not even been able to see them for that long. And somehow, the house fills, the children shout and play, there is the sound of bacon crackling, the flurry of people passing each other on their way out to the veranda, down to the beach, up to the balcony, through the kitchen, to the table, into the pool, and I can’t remember what a year and a half felt like without this commotion.

But the house holds us all without complaint. Its long wall of windows faces the ocean, and from the veranda we can see the white beach begin to bake as the sun rises relentlessly in the early July sky. Jetlagged, I am always up early, but miraculously, someone else is always up first, and more miraculously still, has already made coffee.

At mealtimes, the long wooden table is overflowing. We take turns cooking. An Ottolenghi-inspired meal of grilled chicken, cucumber salad, and corn. Big pans of lasagna and garlic bread. A southern feast of fried chicken, red pepper baked fish, creamed corn, beans & rice, pickled summer squash, and homemade rolls. Even a banana bread cook-off. On the Fourth of July, we let Rodney Scott cook, and there is bounty. Mountains of pulled pork with vinegary sauce, BBQ ribs and grilled chicken, potato salad, baked beans, collards, hush puppies with honey butter, and a mac and cheese we all agree has traveled well considering this is takeout. There is one gallon of banana pudding.

The mornings are for the beach, but the evenings are for the pool. E, who is five, is a fiend, and conscripts everyone in turn for the endless pool party. There are water gun battles and escapes from pool noodle jail, demonstrations of how to do the “torpedo,” floating lessons, races, and cannonballs. And still, it is never enough, and only when the half-hour-till-dinner warning rings out over the deck will she reluctantly release her subjects. But only after one last race. And one last cannonball. And just one more last race.

Jetlagged, I am always up early, but miraculously, someone else is always up first, and more miraculously still, has already made coffee.

A hurricane worries the edges of the radar. We keep a close watch on its projected path as it creeps our way. By the time it’s scheduled to arrive, it’s just one night of side flank we have to get through. Strong winds and heavy rain. But at three in the morning, every cell phone in the house screams in alarm. There are tornadoes touching down around us, and so we troop down to the pantry and the protected, window-less hall of the western wing, and all eighteen of us huddle there until our phones tell us that the danger has passed.

In the morning, the ocean looks calm, though maybe it’s just worn out from the night’s long churning. But the skies are clear and bright blue, and the sun is promising another warm and peaceful day.

What a gift it is to be together. What a blessing of cacophony.

“Let’s have a pool party!” E says, and so we do.


  1. Laurel says:

    And in the blink of an eye, summer is over :( Beautiful pictures!

  2. Jules says:

    I enjoyed the fun at the beach.

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