Late Summer Conversations with Strangers at the Beach



If only we could tell strangers exactly what we really think. But we don’t.

While my friends will tell you (ask them!) that I am overly-candid when offering my opinions, I don’t go around sharing my inner thoughts with complete strangers.

Not that I wouldn’t like to do so. But probably saying “those horizontal stripes aren’t your best look”-  or “have you considered eating with your mouth closed?” would not endear me to others.

So I keep my own counsel. Mostly.

An incident at the beach last week makes me think this may be changing.

My husband and I like to spend the last week of August at the beach when it is at its uncrowded best.  During the rest of the summer, when we go on weekends, people are wedged in tightly with little room between the clusters of umbrellas and beach towels. You can hardly see patches of open sand.

But the week before Labor Day is different. School has started, college is back in session, worker-bees are at their desks.  The crowd has thinned out to some families with toddlers, couples and singles here and there. And as fascinating as overheard conversations are on a crowded beach, hearing the sound of the surf rather than the noise of human voices is lovely.

So relishing the sandy spaces, on the first day of our August vacation, my husband put up our umbrella in a wide open spot, and I settled in under the shade. He left to take a bike ride in town and I was happily alone with my book and the breaking waves.

20 minutes later, I looked up, startled when, just over my left shoulder, one of the young men who works at the umbrella rental stand stood with a woman about my age, about to plant her umbrella within a few feet of mine.

A voice arose from my inner heretofore-mostly-contained-don’t-talk-to-strangers-self.

“Umm, excuse me, but could you possibly put your umbrella a bit farther away?”

The woman turned to look at me, a shocked look on her face,

“What did you just say?”

I responded,

Since there is so much room to spread out on the beach today, if you could possibly leave more space between where my umbrella is and yours…”

The young buff umbrella rental guy stopped in his tracks, looked at the woman for umbrella planting direction, while she continued to stare at me.

Did I ask something so terrible?  There were yards and yards of open sand; she was violating an unwritten beach courtesy rule.

Isn’t there a concept of personal space even in a public place? Or shouldn’t a stranger speak up when someone breaks a rule?

The woman huffed a bit and moved away with umbrella rental guy in tow. The rest of the afternoon she kept (so I imagined without looking up from my book) looking back at me with a critical eye. I felt uncomfortable, my sense of relaxation diminished.

My husband joined me in the late afternoon.  Around 6:30 p.m., we packed up to leave; he went ahead to retrieve the car. As I was trudging up the hilly path over the dunes, I noticed a young woman trekking up the sandy path just behind me.  As she came up alongside me, she said,

Aren’t you the woman who asked that other lady to sit farther away from you with her umbrella?”

Wow, so much for non-overheard conversations.

“Yes”, I admitted, “that was me.”

The young woman hitched her beach chair higher up on her shoulder and started walking faster up the sandy path (pretty much everyone walks faster than I do these days.) She turned her head back towards me, as she was walking away, and said,

Good for you, she was going to sit way too close to you. That was gutsy of you to say.”

At least that is what I think she said.

Or she might have said,

How rude of you, why didn’t you let her sit close to you? That was nasty of you to say.”

I’m not sure which it was. The sound of the surf muffled her voice.

So just in case – to the woman about my age who I shocked by asking her to set up her temporary beach camp farther away from me last week, and to the young woman who overheard my surprising candor, I apologize, sort of.

I broke my own rule and said what I was really thinking to a complete stranger. But having my very own patch of sand to myself in late summer was well worth it.  I think I am going to like being a rule-breaker.






Filed under Books, Communications, Midlife, Reading, Women

2 responses to “Late Summer Conversations with Strangers at the Beach

  1. Alice Agatston

    Dear Nancy,

    Glad you granted your inner and outer space the needed room!

    I am in house sitting in SF this week until I drive back to Austin on the 9th; working on website and completing move to Austin. After return to Austin, my site will be published, work-in-progress state, and I will plan my trip and artwork move from your and Cheryl’s homes. Will update you both once moving options reach decision phase. This will take place before October! (when welding class starts).

    Love, Alice


  2. Of course you could always move your stuff visibly and make her understand she violated etiquette without risking your own breach, if you really felt guilty. But I think a little instruction is acceptable, how else will she know? Or be empowered to tell the woman next summer who wants to perch on her shoulder? I embarrassed my kids when I told someone else’s children at Grand Canyon that children die every year falling over the edge, but if it educated their careless parents and saved a child, it was worth the social approbation.


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