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Il Primo Bagno

The beach on New Year’s Day was a grey that mirrored the cold ripping into our skin. The temperature was flailing around five degrees and as we stomped in our rubber boots through the sand, a man wrapped in a black scarf blew on his hands. “Sei nuoto?” he motioned to the water. “Si”, we nodded, we were here to swim.

Kristin and I had read about the Annual New Year’s Day Swim held at Lido Beach, Venice, and had waded through the flooded streets on five hours sleep to get here. The gathered crowd, which numbered in the hundreds, milled about with anticipation, but no one looked like they were dressed, or rather undressed for swimming.

We surveyed the crowd, and noticed a cordoned-off bunker, blocked by a six-foot high sand pile, as if the beach had been prepared for battle. A security officer dressed in canary yellow pointed behind it. “Forte”, he grinned.

Climbing over the sand bunker, we saw the ‘forte’ for the first time: Thirty men and women exposing their chests, backs, and thighs, to the freezing cold. One man wore a bowtie, a blue speedo, and an ear-to-ear grin. He held a red balloon that was flapping like a dog’s tongue in the breeze.

Auguri Di Capodanno

Auguri Di Capodanno

Backstage

Backstage

Feeling the warmth

Feeling the warmth

A bare-chested man looked at us big-eyed. Swimming?!” “Yes, yes, si!”, we confirmed. “Americani!” our man gestured to the crowds. “Americanis e bagno!!” He yelled in Italian for the would-be bathers to halt while we stripped off our clothes in army tents strewn along the bunker. Within 30 seconds we were down to our suits. I flung open the tent flap, flexed my muscles against the frigid air, and grabbed a balloon.

Lines of people cheered us on as we stormed the beach, heads down, surging with adrenaline, the wind whipping our balloons, hands clapping, people cheering, the bow-tied man in front. The crowd shouting at the two of us, “Giovani! Young people!” My foot hit the water, and my hearing suddenly became muted. Napolean at Waterloo, Churchill at the gate, Tom Hanks storming Normandy. As my face hit the water, the only thing I saw was blue speedo.

March of the penguins

March of the penguins

Waiter!

Waiter!

En route to the Golden Globes

En route to the Golden Globes

Surprisingly, the water was semi-tolerable. I was braced for absolute zero, -273, but it seemed like a mere -142. Kristin was in front of me up to her waist. “Get all the way in! ” she yelled, pointing towards the men beside me who were doing back-strokes. I splashed a couple of icicles her way, dove all the way in and felt my body seize.

My organs tightened and clung together for internal warmth. My lungs cradled my intestines, my heart bulged, my parasympathetic system fought. I managed to look around, and incredibly, no one was getting out. Everyone was still happily swimming lengths in the frigid water some holding glasses of Champagne. Kristin and I huddled together for warmth while the Italians sang aloud and bobbed.

Pack-animals

Pack-animals

Next year's poster

Next year's poster

Finally, a couple of sane people broke for shore, and we followed, jerking our frozen limbs towards the sand. Cameras snapped away as we neared the shore, and as we posed for a group picture, a toweled man was interviewed on Italian TV. We ran for the bunkers where our clothes were waiting, along with wine and lentils, the traditional good luck New Year’s Day meal.

A Dutch couple approached us, the man looking like a cross between Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe, with blue, waterlogged eyes. “We got married here in Venice years ago on this same week, and we come back every New Year to celebrate our anniversary”. The woman, who had watched her husband from the safety of the beach, smiled warmly. “This year is better, last year there was snow on the ground.” I tucked my blue hands into my pockets and managed a smile.

Last year there was snow. Whether it was the couple’s story that made me feel warmer, or the fact that I had a coat on again, it didn’t really matter. The Italian spirit seems to always make things better. The crowd thinned, and as we put on our gloves and said goodbye, a red balloon disappeared over the sea, curving and dipping in a figure-eight, almost like a bowtie.

Clothed and happy

Clothed and happy

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