The local tourist

Am I a tourist if the destination is forty minutes from my home? I sat on the warm cobbled ground of the boat slipway and pondered the question for a short while, watching my two youngest children dip their toes in the cold ocean with squeals of delight. The furthest we had travelled since before March 23rd, this felt a journey of necessity.

I have visited this spot in Devon many times, particularly when feeling conflicted and needing time to reflect. The heady mix of sea air, historic architecture and my own memories are intertwined and this has been the site of many important personal decisions. Indeed the idea of having a fourth child was conceived whilst dining al fresco and admiring the boats in the harbour on a sunny afternoon; months later I graduated from university a short distance away, the first woman in the history of my family to do so and with my daughter nestled within.

On this visit we ambled along the cobbled streets, looking for a somewhere to eat lunch, the air thick with the tang of salt and vinegar, instantly recognisable as the scent of an English coastal town. Shunning the tourist tradition of fish and chips and instead choosing a food vendor offering souvlaki, a thick pillowy pitta stuffed with meat and salad, we sat in a graveyard of picnic tables, outside a restaurant still closed due to the pandemic. The taste of the food and the hot sun reminded me of the first holiday I booked, travelling to Tsilivi on the Greek Island of Zakynthos when I was seventeen.

Sated our journey continued and we headed away from the harbour and cobbled streets, along the pavement hugging the coast, rising above the sea. The ocean glittered and I reminisced of the time when I was a child and thought that the shimmers on the distance were the sunlight reflecting off of the tails of mermaids and how I dreamt of being one, just for a day. We passed memorial plaques I have read countless times, the old cannons pointing out to sea and a display which made me stop. It mentioned Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief stay in the city, but my first thought was of Sebald’s Campo Santo and Corsica, which I am currently studying.

We were nearing my true reason for the visit. The road stretches ahead, past a century old lido and runs down a hill, level once again with the sea. The total length of the road is around a kilometre and evenly parked along this road are an assortment of ice cream van in every style imaginable. My children believe the reason they don’t get to stop at the first is because they’re required to walk a certain distance before their treat, but it’s not. I’m hunting and the anticipation grows.

Finally I spot it, the perfectly shaped pastel coloured van. My children and husband pore over the board of choices, but mine is always the same and I wait patiently before ordering my Mr Whippy, childishly coated in colourful sprinkles. Whilst the attendant sees to our order, I catch sight of the girl reflected in the van’s window. She’s 12, her hair a tumbling untidy mass and she stands awkwardly avoiding catching my gaze. When she does make fleeting eye contact, I see the grief and fear that set her apart from the others around her. However when she looks into my eyes the second time, she juts her chin out defiantly and her gaze turns fierce and determined; we simultaneously reach for the ice cream and turn to face the warm sun.

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