The Mermaid Prescription


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Get into the sea, breathe in the salty humidity, stick your head under, blow bubbles. Bring up the gloop and spit. No matter that it’s April in Northern Spain.  This is Doctora  Aczuarte’s prescription for a cough, sore throat and wavery voice.

Doctora Aczuarte’s, is my second water cure in this town: on removing my cast, I was told to undertake baños de contraste and swirl my healing ankle for five minutes in hot water, before plunging it in cold. The idea was that the water’s resistance, would reintroduce mobility to my cast-stiffened ankle. It was a notion foreign to the Anglophone internet, but appropriate for this Belle Époque seaside town, which has traded in the medicinal properties of water, since the nineteenth century, when aristocrats and royals headed here for their health, wearing bathing suits so hefty, it’s a surprise they didn’t  drown. You can see a remnant of this aquatic health culture today, at La Perla thalassotherapy centre, where bathers immerse themselves in salt water pools, wearing turquoise cloth swimming caps and severe expressions. Sometimes seaweed or sponge enters the water, but no-one acts like it’s anything extraordinary. The contrast of voluptuous water and convent-like sobriety gives proceedings a ritualistic, medicinal air. A place for jumping around in a jacuzzi, La Perla ain’t.


In literature, water is often used to tame and discipline women of unruly body and mind. Take for example,  The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, where three sisters are forced to perform torturous underwater activities in a pool, in order to be able to withstand an invasion of their island, while Lila in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of A New Name,  is prescribed swimming by her gynaecologist, who says that she needs to get stronger in order to conceive. I’m to resume my old hobby, winter swimming to get rid of my cough, a surreal, embarrassing reflex that makes me forget the previous moment, that important thing that I, or someone else was saying. Estoy tosiendo (I’m coughing), I have to tell pharmacists, doctors and everyone I meet – all the while blushing, trying not to think about what English word toser sounds like. I mean, coughing is Anglo Saxon and guttural, almost onomatopoeic, but tosiendo, is more sibilant, like you’re renegotiating your liquids.   


So, Playa Ondaretta, the small beach off the famous La Concha,  is my destination for health. I approach the water, first from the rocks, where I can see the shape and size of the waves objectively, then the rippled sand, finally the place where the tide meets my toes. The afternoon of my first swim is bright and beamy, with the odd drip of rain that pings off my shoulder blade. Unlike La Concha, which has extensive shallows, Ondaretta will gulp you whole. As the water-level reaches my belly button, I retrieve my hair, which is thick as a muscle and liable to soaking up the entire Cantabrian. On a count of three, I’m in. Everything moves quickly in water this cold. Breaststroke towards Santa Clara island and on my back, to the castlely-looking Palacio Miramar. Flip over again, stick my face in the water and blow bubbles. There’s coughing resistance, a feeling that I can’t breathe and then, at last, air.

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This is just one of a series of posts about moving to San Sebastián from London. Head to my blog home page to check out my other posts and I’d love it if you would like, comment or share.