Josna Rege

96. Learning to Swim

In 1960s, Childhood, Greece, Stories on February 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm

photo by Leslie Mesogios F.M. from Panoramio.com

I learned to swim one summer on the Greek island of Poros.  Each of my parents had a teaching style that contributed to my eventual success, though I recognized this only in retrospect long afterwards.

My father was the first to try. He took me to a fisherman’s dock and we walked together to the end of the jetty.

“Jump!” He commanded.

“No!”

“Jump!” (louder)

“No!!” Even at not-yet-eight I could match my dad decibel for decibel.

“JUMP!!!” This time it was a bellow, and I jumped.

I sank to the bottom, bubbles escaping from my mouth and nose.  Without any effort on my part, it seemed, I soon found myself coming back up. I yelled for help, but succeeded only in gulping down a mouthful of sea water. Before I knew it I was going back down, down, down. . .

and coming back up again. As I rose to the surface for the second time I flailed my arms blindly but, immediately and inexorably, it seemed, began to sink.

Yet again I was propelled upwards but began to feel myself helplessly sinking again even as I broke the surface. “Going down for the third time,” came a small, wordless warning. Somehow that quiet voice penetrated my consciousness even as my body had already succumbed to the inevitability of a watery fate: I stretched out my hand and grabbed the edge of the dock. Dad was waiting there as I pulled myself back up. “There! Was that so bad after all?”

I said nothing. It hadn’t been so bad. All I had had to do was to reach out and catch hold; but I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to Dad. I sulked outwardly to cover an inward self-satisfaction as I walked back with him, dripping dry, to Mum, Sally, and breakfast.

Back in the early Sixties there wasn’t an established tourist trade in the Greek islands. Poros was a sleepy little fishing community and I can’t recall meeting any other foreigners or holiday-makers while we were there. I remember only vaguely the sunny, sparsely furnished room we stayed in, upstairs from the taverna where we also ate some of our meals. But I remember well our own completely private cove, the one we set out for every morning after breakfast, as soon as Mum had packed towels, plastic buckets and spades and rubber rings for me and two-and-a-half year-old Sally, and sandwiches for lunch. The rocky coastline of the island must have been made up of dozens of these coves, and ours was a gently ebbing and flowing pool of water warmed by the morning sun, protected from the force of the waves by a semi-circle of black rocks, with a firm, sandy beach sloping down to the sea; perfect for children.

With one exception: the jellyfish. Our little bay was swarming with them, and Sally and I were adamant about not setting even one toe in the water if there was any chance whatsoever of coming in contact with their gelatinous, flesh-crawling coldness. So, good father that he was, Dad went down ahead of us, diving repeatedly into the water until he had collected every single last jellyfish from the cove and set them all out on the rocks to dry. When the water could be definitively declared jellyfish-free, Sally and I consented to set out for the beach and flanked by each of our parents, to venture gingerly into the gloriously warm, gently undulating Aegean Sea.

Mum’s approach to teaching me to swim was as gentle as the wavelets in the cove.  We waded into the water together until she was waist-deep and I chest-deep, safely inside the inflated rubber ring. As I stood on tiptoe with the water lapping at my chin and my fingers grasping the edge of the ring, Mum quietly swam a few strokes away from me, breaststroke, head-above-water, as always. Then, standing no more than ten feet away, she reached out both arms and said quietly, “Come to me.” I hesitated, but not for long. I could almost reach out and touch her, I knew from the day before that the water itself would lift me up, and besides, I had the rubber ring. With hardly a second thought I took  the leap of faith and flung myself toward her, arms frantically doggy-paddling, feet lifting off the sea floor almost of their own accord. Within seconds I was there. I had done it, and everyone was cheering.

It wasn’t hard to take the next step and discard the rubber ring; in fact it was easier to swim forward without it in the way. I was a swimmer now and no longer feared the sea. Looking back, I see that each of my parents’ approaches nicely complemented the other. If my father had tried shouting at me again, I would probably have dug in my heels, stuck out my lower lip, and stubbornly refused to move. But if I hadn’t learned the day before that the water would naturally buoy me up, I might not have dared entrust myself to the waves, no matter how gently my mother had urged me on. Still, my swimming prowess stopped somewhere in-between Mum’s cautious, head-above-water breast-stroke and Dad’s easy, confident crawl.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. You’re on a writing roll!

    I’m amazed at your sharp memories. Your parents were such a nice complement to each other, although here it’s almost the opposite of one of your earlier posts, where your mother taunted the opposition by sucking lemons and your father was all sweet reason. Anyway, this makes me want to go to Greece tonight. I’m imagining the blue sky and blue water, the rocks, sun, food, eating at a taverna on one of those incredible days, with hours of nothing to do stretching ahead . . . and maybe watching a couple of little girls carefully sticking their toes into the water to decide whether or not to go in.

    • That’s why I wrote this story now—I needed to visualize that Mediterranean blue.
      I don’t know how sharp my memory is anymore, but I will never forget grabbing hold of the dock just as I was about to go down for the third time. Do I remember exactly what my dad said to me when I pulled myself up onto the dock? In lieu of a reply, may I draw your attention to this blog’s title, Tell Me Another? x J

  2. You still remember an impressively heck of a lot.

    I hadn’t put that spin on your title before. Good one!

  3. My dad had the same teaching style except my ‘jump in’ experience was in an outdoor swimming pool in the UK so a bit different to the Greek Islands. Same result though – I was 8 years old and had to be pulled out by a life guard!

    • Hello and thanks for your comment. I didn’t mean to make light of a hard-line approach like that. Thankfully, in my case, it worked (more or less) and wasn’t particularly traumatic, but it easily could have been much worse. There’s a haunting swimming-pool scene in the movie Slaughterhouse Five in which the father barks at his young son to jump in. He obeys, and simply sinks to the bottom like a stone.
      I’ve visited your site and read some of your interesting posts on your travels in and amon the Greek islands. You might be interested in some of my other posts on living in Greece, especially “Greece in the 60s: Expats and Other Animals.”

      • Dad’s approach wasn’t hard-line at all. I think he meant it as a joke and never expected me to comply. But sons who look up to their dads will do anything I suppose. I think he was a bit stunned when I did as he said and that’s why someone else had to pull me out!

        • Yes, I see. Sounds a lot like my Dad, then! It looks as if you love the water now, so it must have worked. Cheers, J

  4. This reminds me of when my American grandparents came to India for a visit and took our family down to the beach in Puri, Orissa for a wonderful Summer vacation. We rode in the little tan Chevy they had managed to bring with them, and it was a real adventure trip, complete with punctures at regular intervals and even a punctured gas tank which had to be repaired with Sunlight soap!
    I remember being taken out to the ocean when we finally arrived there, by very dark men in pointy, hard white hats who were assigned by the Railway Hotel to look after the children.
    They caught hold of our hands and we went out into the surf together because none of us could swim at all. But what a thrill it was to be swished through the surf and then finally come running back up that huge white beach to the hotel for a bath and dinner at the end of the day.

    I actually learned how to stay alive in water about a year later in the green algae filled pool at Mount Hermon, but did not enjoy swimming until I arrived in my Grandparents home in Escondido where the water was so clean you could actually see the bottom of the pool and the temperature was the same as it was in the Greek islands!

    • I didn’t know you’d been to Puri, Marianne! The beauty of that beach is legendary. The only beach we went to on the East Coast was at Digha in West Bengal with another family–it must have been around the same time you went to Puri. We slept out on the beach and the place was swarming with mosquitoes. We children slept in a tent but the parents kept a fire going and stayed up talking late into the night. Almost the only thing I remember is a hyena slinking up to our campfire, skuling in the shadows, probably the most hideous animal I’ve ever seen, poor thing.

      I’d forgotten that the water in our MH pool was algae-filled; or had they cleared it up by the time I got there?

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