Wherever I travel to write my books, preferably somewhere with the song of cicadas to keep me company, I need to swim for hours every day. The moody Mediterranean with its weeds and winds, or the serene Aegean, which hides its fierce sea urchins from the soles of my feet, are my salty, beloved inspiration. Perhaps even my muses.
The glittering Adriatic in Trieste is somehow a heavy-hearted sea, while the Atlantic is exhilarating, but too cold to have a good stretch, though I have surfed the waves with its bright-eyed penguins. I have swum with jellyfish on all the beaches of the Cabo de Gata-Níjar, a nature reserve in the province of Almería in southern Spain. In April, I have marvelled at how this lunar landscape morphs into something gentler when the spring flowers burst through the sun-parched earth.
Swimming flows into my writing, opens my mind, makes everything possible. A slice of watermelon, a handful of almonds and a small cup of aromatic coffee is the perfect dawn breakfast before diving into any ocean.
I have travelled solo to write for many years now. In my 20s, I always carried my portable typewriter with me, an Olivetti Lettera 82. For some reason, butterflies and dragonflies were attracted to its turquoise case. There were many summers I lugged it up steep mountain paths to stay at various pensiones in the hills above Palma, Mallorca. In the afternoons I slept under graceful, fragrant pine trees and, when the sun was less fierce, collected apricots and lemons from the orchards. The American writer Gertrude Stein once invited the poet Robert Graves to consider making Mallorca his home. She told him, ‘It’s paradise – if you can stand it.’
I now travel with a MacBook Air, which seems to attract bees rather than butterflies. It was on this less romantic machine, while staying in the Côte d’Azur, that I wrote my novel Swimming Home. One morning as I was moving towards the horizon in the strange chalky-blue water of the Bay of Angels, I turned around to glimpse, in the distance, the pink dome of the Hotel Negresco. It seemed to me that it was covered in snow, despite the sun beating on my shoulders. It was such a strange moment, but then I realised the carpet of snow on all the roofs in the city was in fact a multitude of plump, white seagulls, resting on the terracotta tiles.
‘It’s snowing seagulls’ found its way into that book, as did a fatal seduction scene that I imagined while coming back to shore. I decided it should take place in the Hotel Negresco, and that a pianist, hard on his luck, would be playing ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the bar.
There is nothing I truly dislike about travelling. At the moment, in this year of pandemic, I even miss the queasy night before an early-morning departure. The excitement of packing sandals, summer dresses and citronella coils when rain is falling from the grey skies of Britain is always intense. I have even accepted that my indoor plants will never look the same again when I eventually return home to unpack my swimming costumes.
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