From an old city by the sea #3
Studies in minor details: Too long after we arrive, we finally go swimming—in search of a dazzling shore. Plus: a swimming lesson from Mao and Khrushchev.
Before we begin: press play for an extended reading of a passage from one of my favorite Cheever stories. It’s about a man who, in a sudden fit of inspiration, decides one day to swim through the pools of the upper-class houses that populate his neighborhood to get home, and the hallucinatory turn his journey takes. (It shares the same spirit as another short story I read from, by Steven Millhauser, in this previous letter.)
His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that, by taking a dog-leg to the southwest, he could reach his home by water. His life was not confining, and the delight he took in this thought could not be explained by its suggestion of escape. In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda, after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original, and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.
—John Cheever, “The Swimmer”
This is the last of my personal dispatches from Croatia. I wrote fragments of it months ago, and finally pieced them together into something coherent so I can close the chapter on my time there: as one of the places W.C. and I, citizens of different countries, could both enter and stay in together during the pandemic. Does anyone else feel like their heads are bound up in chapters—of all the things yet to record, threads yet to pull at, contradictions yet to resolve, in order to move on to the next chapters? I feel like this constantly, both in documenting the external world and my own.
Part of the reason I left this for so long, and I fall into this trap almost every time I write something personal, is, I asked myself, So what? Does anyone actually want to read about me observing my surroundings? It has to do with the current moment, when just about everything else happening in the world feels more pressing. I have to remind myself that I mostly write for myself, to remember; and I started this newsletter to keep myself writing more outside work—to give myself permission to explore the minutiae of places and environments more keenly, as practice that I know will, in turn, sharpen both my observational and writing skills and how I make connections between things. In many ways, writing or creating for myself has always been a greater motivation for me than writing to to sources of authority. In primary and high school, I built websites about things I found interesting and made actual paper newsletters while procrastinating on homework. In the adult world, it’s harder to do that without serious consequences, but this newsletter has granted me something of a halfway house.
Anyway, I realize I often preface my letters with thoughts on writing, and I hope it hasn't been too repetitive for the non-writers among you. But I look back on previous letters now and find it interesting to remember how I felt about writing at certain points in time—whether I am doing it (Am I doing it right?) or not doing it (Am I doing enough?). With this letter, I was encouraged to make something of the fragments I had jotted down after reading Deborah Levy’s autobiographical Real Estate. She’s so deft at elevating the simple details of life, which we’ve all surely come to appreciate more in this pandemic, to connect with larger themes—segueing smoothly from one memory into the next, and the next. Every detail on its own can seem insignificant, but strung together they make up a lively tapestry of meaning. I don’t dare say I was trying to do what Levy does; this letter was simply an attempt at freewriting to discover what surfaces.
P.S. There’s a bonus at the end—a story about Mao and Khrushchev and that time they went swimming.
In search of a dazzling shore
From a moment and place already left behind:
The sea salt has curled our hair in places, misted our skin. We wear our straw hats slant across our faces and lie on our backs to dry off on towels spread across a concrete slab, paved between craggy rocks. We can hear the waves slapping against the shore, bright green Aleppo pines swaying overhead—and every so often, the breeze sends a rustling through the leaves, casting dancing shadows on our faces, shaking spiky brown filaments and pinecones down on us. Earlier, I had seen ants scurrying in their midst, and try to keep a childhood memory from intruding: sudden stabbing pains deep inside my ear, my parents driving me to the nearest clinic as I whimper in the backseat, the doctor tipping in an oily solution to wash out a pinprick of a creature that didn’t look like it could possibly have caused so much trouble.
It’s the late afternoon, and we’ve spent several hours at Divovici “Beach”, emerging every so often from the water just so we can dive in again off the steel ladder that has been affixed into rock and cement—left rough and rugged in places so that what’s manmade segues seamlessly into the natural, and smoothed over in other places to provide concrete sunbeds. I relish feeling the current course all along my body as I push deeper into the water, its glacial weight slicking my hair back onto my scalp as I come up for air. Sometimes, we tread into pools of iciness and it’s a jolt to the whole being, reanimating bodies that have been hunched too long over laptops. W.C. likes to open his eyes underwater while I prefer to keep mine closed. Despite all the hours of my life that I’ve spent underwater, I never learned to condition myself to the seawater’s sting on my eyeballs.
It’s been a long time since either of us has been to the beach. I grew up taking swimming lessons until I turned twelve—I want to say every evening except the weekends, though that sounds like a lot. As far as amateurs go, I was a fairly strong swimmer, won some medals. I swam less frequently in secondary school but made its reserve team. I took secret pride in beating an Aussie girl who was bigger and taller than me in a hundred-meter freestyle race. The body retains the memory of the strokes, the breathing. But after that, I never swam regularly again—occasionally in home and public pools, occasionally in the sea. Despite growing up in tropical Malaysia on family holidays by beaches and waterfalls and, a handful of times, on sputtering wooden boats where I first marveled at an injured sea cucumber that had washed up on deck—Daddy, how is it possible that a vegetable bleeds?—I’ve rarely felt the urge to go swimming, to sink my feet into burning white sand. I sometimes think I prefer the idea of flinty desolate beaches, the kind I’ve seen in Dorset or Lima or in mysterious movies, where I might be dressed in a coat rather than a bikini, sitting on a large piece of driftwood, watching the waves roll in and out while I read a book—though this season here in Dubrovnik might well change my mind. I’ve changed my mind before, after Rawa, after Canggu. It’s also true that when I glide into water, anywhere, it is always with practiced ease, and I always ask myself why I don’t pine for this underworld more often.
W.C. is the same. Until this weekend, he didn’t even own bathing trunks anymore. He grew up far from water in and around Leipzig, Germany, with a particularly serious case of eczema, and thought for a long time that the chlorine in pools made his skin worse, and so avoided it. The beaches he remembers are the beaches of Burgas, Bulgaria, looking out over the Black Sea, where he spent summers visiting his grandparents and cousins. So he had to buy a new pair of swim shorts here, in a mall we passed yesterday along the way to another shore—further west, in the Babin Kuk neighborhood. The shop assistant laughed conspiratorially when I made a beeline for a pair of blue shorts printed with bright orange lobsters I had seen in the window display. “This!” I exclaimed in triumph; I thought it a done deal. W.C. bought a plain navy one instead.
Later that same day, we walked from the old town of Dubrovnik, through Lapad, to Sunset Beach near the holiday resorts of Babin Kuk, and then along the elevated boardwalk that clings to the winding coast. Steps leading down to the water punctuate intervals between small coves along the flanks of an inlet—some alluringly private, with no connecting path to the next one. Swimming there required more mindfulness. The waves swelled and sucked at the shore like a giant octopus, threatening to swallow us back up when we climbed out. After we dried off, W.C. clambered up a ridge wall as far as he could go, having missed more than a year of bouldering at the gym, while I followed the footpaths whenever they appeared, stumbling across a dead fish, its tail cut clean off—the unfinished meal of a seagull? It imprinted a shadow of a feeling still indiscernible onto me, yawning into a fantastical possibility of a fictional story I would never begin nor complete.
But before we stumbled upon Divovici earlier today, we had actually first made our way to Banje Beach, which is a short stroll eastward from the old town. We took a steep flight of steps down the cliffside to get to its broad sand stretch and was dismayed to find it full—half of it filled with white plastic loungers costing a hundred kunas per person, while the other half was free to the public. Even the waters were more populated than I was comfortable with in a pandemic, since we were not yet vaccinated. We had walked past Banje weeks ago when it had looked lonely, spotted with just scattered handfuls of solitary figures, and I regretted not coming out here to swim before more people arrived. We sat on a big boulder at the edge of the water for a while, still fully dressed and baking in the heat, and W.C., sensing my indecision and sudden deflation in spirit, suggested we looked on Google Maps to see if there were other beaches nearby.
There was! Eastward: Bettina Cave Beach, looking stirringly unkempt in the photos that came up—a small pebbly sand strip at the mouth of the yawning cave, bright yellow-orange kayaks pulled up on the foreshore.
We left Banje and went in search of the cave. Google soon told us we had missed it or were on top of it, but we couldn’t find any steps built into the cliff that would take us below. We saw the back of a white stone villa, obscured by imposing walls laced with star motifs—you had to peer through the holes in the stars, obscured by brambles and flowering trees, to see what was inside. My eyes were drawn straight to the curious turquoise dome set against the paler blue sky, and as I walked along its perimeter at street level I found a locked back gate and peered through it, saw twin flights of stairs plunging into a lush, unkempt garden compound, which hinted at its depths. The mishmash of the villa’s architectural style elements—Italian, Moorish, Jewish?—almost gives it a hint of caricature.
We’ll find out later that it’s the Villa Sheherezade—named after the Persian King’s wife in One Thousand and One Nights—apparently built in 1929 by a wealthy Russian Jew for his lover and since converted into a hotel. But just then, we held on to this puzzling curiosity and walked further along until we came upon an American couple emerging from a steep flight of steps.
They had passed a string of coves along their way from St. Jacobs Beach, they said, and saw people bathing there. Was that what we were looking for?
We descended the same narrow steps, hooded by heavy foliage, and turned sharply into a long and slender plateau dotted with cypress trees, aloe vera plants, Mickey Mouse cacti, and a few empty wooden benches. Looking out at the Dalmatian coast from this obscured vantage, I saw what the Americans had seen—Divovici!—and felt a strong desire to be part of its landscape. I wanted to join the figures I saw lounging about indolently, sunbathing or reading, checking their phones, waiting their turn to dive off. I snuck a picture of the scene, redolent of some rediscovered settlement once abandoned to strange elements, made brilliant by the animated play of shadow and light. The particular quality of the glare then reminded me of the scintillating sun-drenched scenes in the film Atonement, when Cee, sheathed elegantly in a white bathing suit and cap, took one last drag of her cigarette before nosediving into the lake, exasperated by the talk of Robbie, whom she already loved and resented. Later, I would share this photograph with a friend, who, steeped in the worst throes of the pandemic back home in Malaysia, would text back, “omg this doesn’t even look real to me right now.”
We made our way down and picked our way through the sunbathers and across what looked like shallow miniature amphitheaters—comb-shaped, some of their surfaces completely smoothed over by high tides—connected by steps as bridges for people to navigate across. I avoided some of the deeper hollows, which harbored little shoals with tiny fishes and crustaceans. The landscaping is artfully done, but there is no fanfare—no gatekeepers demanding a fee, no entrance or exit. It’s just somewhere along a path you can simply stop in at, or not. I couldn’t pick out English in the murmurs around me.
Later, treading water, we peered up the cliff face and panned our gaze west along the coast, and saw Bettina Cave: a yawning, forbidding chasm. I have always felt in the sea a strange wildness that puts me in a state between disquiet and awe. I’ve watched enough movies to be able to conjure up, in my mind’s eye, all the unrecognizable creatures lurking beneath and forces we land-dwellers can have no understanding of. It’s the same reason I enjoyed earning my basic open-water diving certification years ago but have always found a reason to put my next dive off—even though I know that, once I’m in the water, I’ll feel that I should have come back sooner. We started splashing towards the cave, but half-heartedly, and turned back midway. People usually paddle here with kayaks; there is no foot access to the cave.
The Adriatic’s waters this time of year are warmer than I expected, but all the same, I prefer not to submerge myself for too long before drying myself off on the hot pavement, and then heading in again. W.C. stays in the sea for longer stretches each time, and I try to remember to leave him something of the grilled burrito and fruits we packed from home. Finally, we both decide that we’ve had enough and take our last plunge. I had brought my notepad and W.C. his sketchbook, but we don’t avail ourselves of either, trying to be present in the fresh air and the golden light. It’s nice to finally give myself permission to relax—W.C. has a week off before starting on another project, and I managed to finish a spate of deadlines in time to coincide with his break—and in a place like this. Our perfect shore. Dazzling and moody.
As dusk falls, we make our way back to the old town, our skin still rough and grimy with brine as we stop in at a café, then somewhere for dinner. When we first arrived in Dubrovnik, weeks ago, we had been surprised to find that we couldn’t really taste the salt in the air unless we were quite close to the water’s edge. Since the city has settled deeper into summer, we’ve started seeing more people strolling through town with their hair slicked wet, clothes gaping open, towels slung around their necks. There are many rocky perches on the outer fortress walls on which to cool off—desolate, inscribed with graffiti like “GOD HELP US”; or festive, decked out with pulsing bars.
On another evening, as the gloam settles over an outcrop jutting into the sea from Buza Bar, I notice a weathered dame with short cropped hair arriving in a two-piece suit so no-nonsense I hesitate to call it a bikini. She unfolds her towel, shakes off her slippers, and dives casually into the waves. Later, she hauls herself out and settles on a stone perch and starts speaking, business-like and hands-free, into her mobile phone. Something about the ease she moves in this place just marks it as hers, though not just hers. I imagine people like her who have grown up here, or returned and retired here, walking among the stately old-town ruins that are everyday reminders of both the permanence and impermanence of things, taking a dip in the middle of the afternoon, or whenever they wish.
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A swimming lesson from Mao and Khrushchev
Back in law school, where I also took a couple of history modules, I learned about the historic (not for the reasons you think) swimming session Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev had “enjoyed” together. The two men had a contentious relationship—Mao having felt, on his visits to Russia, that he had not been treated with the respect he was owed. So, when Khrushchev visited in 1958, Mao reportedly proposed discussions at his private residence, which had a swimming pool. While Mao was reputed to be an excellent swimmer, he knew that Khrushchev had never learned to swim.
Can you tell what’s coming? 😆 This writer tells the story so well, so hilariously, I’ll just echo him here:
when Mao turned up at the talks of August 3 dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, Khrushchev immediately suspected trouble, and his fears were realized when an aide produced an outsize pair of green bathing trunks and Mao insisted that his guest join him in his outdoor pool.
A private swimming pool was an unimaginable luxury in the China of the 1950s, but Mao made good use of his on this occasion, swimming up and down while continuing the conversation in rapid Chinese. Soviet and Chinese interpreters jogged along at poolside, struggling to make out what the chairman was saying in between splashes and gasps for air. Khrushchev, meanwhile, stood uncomfortably in the children’s end of the pool until Mao, with more than a touch of malice, suggested that he join him in the deeper water.
A flotation device was suddenly produced—Lorenz Lüthi describes it as a “life belt,” while Henry Kissinger prefers “water wings.” Either way, the result was scarcely dignified. Mao, says Lüthi, covered his head with “a handkerchief with knots at all the corners” and swept up and down the pool while Khrushchev struggled to stay afloat. After considerable exertion, the Soviet leader was able to get moving, “paddling like a dog” in a desperate attempt to keep up. “It was an unforgettable picture,” said his aide Oleg Troyanovskii, “the appearance of two well-fed leaders in swimming trunks, discussing questions of great policy under splashes of water.”
Mao, Taubman relates, “watched Khrushchev’s clumsy efforts with obvious relish and then dived in the deep end and swam back and forth using several different strokes.” The chairman’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, believed that he was playing the role of emperor, “treating Khrushchev like a barbarian come to pay tribute.”
The Sino-Soviet Split happened soon after.
Thanks, as always, for reading.