Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore -- or as it is truly pronounced, the Jersey Shaw -- holds a particularly special place in my heart for more reasons than just growing up a Jersey Girl. I was actually born in the Bronx, just like JLo, (grew up in North Jersey) I often repeat her lyrics with my own spin, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Franny from the block.” Problem is, I do not have the rocks and no one ever calls me Franny. The only connection is being born in the Bronx and my affinity for JLo... 

Annnnnnnyway, growing up in New Jersey, going down The Shore is a summer ritual enjoyed by just about everyone. But my Eastern European immigrant parents thought that going to any beach that is not the Adriatic wasn’t worth the hassle. My single mom never learned to swim, so beach or even pool days weren’t part of any kind of summer tradition. Most of my summers were spent in North Jersey sweating it out with any other misfit or less fortunate kids that had no place to go for the summer. A few of my summers were spent traveling to visit relatives in Croatia and my mother’s homeland of Skopje. Apart from that, I had the occasional days at local public pools and a few times we made my mother’s dreaded beach trips in a big group of families. But those rare trips were either to Orchid Beach or Jones Beach, not the Jersey Shore. 

Dreaming big dreams, I realized early on that the only way I would have the things I dreamed of was by working hard for them. So at the ripe age of 11, I was quick to help any woman who had children as a mother’s helper for a few bucks. And eventually I grew into a full-on babysitter. I loved having the extra spending money to use on the things I wanted, and I also loved sharing my earnings with my friends. I was always quick to buy someone else candy, breakfast, ice cream or whatever they wanted until I was out of cash. Saving my earnings wasn’t exactly part of my personality -- I liked living like a rockstar. One summer, the family I babysat for asked me to join them on their summer vacation. They told my mom I would spend the week with them and another family at the Jersey Shore. Both families would pay me to help look after all the children for the week, and at night the adults could go out while I stayed back with the kids. I happily packed my bag with the only one-piece bathing suit I owned, a few pairs of shorts and some tops. I was just so excited by the thought of spending the week at the beach.

When we arrived at the hotel -- Bal Harbour in Wildwood Crest, NJ -- I was completely awestruck. I was enamored with everything from the decorations in the lobby to the bellhop helping with our luggage. I felt like I had just stepped onto “Fantasy Island,” the show from the 80’s where the little man would shout, “Ze plane! Ze plane!” Today, I crack myself up with the thought that I was so dazzled by this hotel, but I was only 13 years old and incredibly impressionable. Not to mention, I thought the family I worked for was like the Royal Family. I loved going to their huge house every week and pretending it was my own. I dreamed of one day living like them: fancy friends and parties, fur coats, fine clothes, beautiful jewels, amazing gifts, fancy cars… even just a house alarm. And now I could add vacations in swanky hotels to that list. When we got upstairs, I saw that I was sharing a room with the two small children with our own bathroom. The parents were in the adjoining room. I remember feeling a little nervous that the parents were in another room and I was in charge of our room, but I played it off to the little girl who asked me to hold her hand while she slept because she was afraid. I was a bit afraid too, so I was happy to have her hand to hold.

The next morning we woke up, packed some beach bags and headed down to breakfast. Once again, I was wowed -- it was a full-on buffet. Not understanding the concept of a breakfast buffet, I took a modest amount of food and focused more on taking care of the children. After breakfast, we went to the pool area. I distinctly remember the pool being massive and in the shape of an 8. The parents all set up their belongings on lounge chairs with matching umbrellas and asked me to take the kids to the kiddie pool. This was where I spent most of the next 7 days. I was thrilled just to be able to experience it all. I happily trucked the children from the beach to the pool throughout the day, and I spent some afternoons in the hotel room while the younger child napped.

One night, the parents decided we would all go to the boardwalk. I had no idea what they were talking about -- I thought the boardwalk was a restaurant. Imagine growing up in Jersey and not knowing what the boardwalk was. I noticed the rides on the way to the hotel but I thought it was some sort of local carnival. We piled into the family car and drove to the boardwalk. When we arrived, I was astonished. I recall looking around at the games and people walking around with big stuffed animals and the massive Ferris wheel, dinging bells, lots of noise, lights flashing...  I felt like I had arrived in some kind of wonderland.  I was a big fan of the movie “Grease” and it looked like I had stepped into the finale scene at Rydell High. The kids were very excited and the parents were ready to buy them tickets for rides and games where they would win useless, dust-collecting stuffed animals. 

The mother asked if I liked salt water taffy and fudge. I said I had never tried either. Salt water taffy sounded awfully gross to me -- I wondered why anyone would want to eat anything made with ocean water. She was surprised and quickly walked me over to a storefront window where inside, a man spun fudge high in the air, making ribbons of chocolate with an abnormally large spoon. The Mrs. asked for a sample for me, and I was instantly in love. The fudge tasted like brownie batter, but this was something you could actually eat instead of just licking off your fingers as you cleaned out the bowl. I could hardly wait to get back home and tell my mom about this utopia that existed right there in New Jersey -- I needed her to see it too! When the family dropped me off at my apartment building after our weeklong vacation, the mom handed me a little box and said, “Something to remember The Shore.” Inside the box were two pieces of fudge. I was thrilled to be able to share this delight with my mother.  Little did I know that fudge existed outside of Wildwood, NJ. To this day, I am forever grateful to that family for what they exposed me to. 

I didn’t go back to the Jersey Shore until years later during the weekend of my high school prom. When you are from Jersey, that’s what you do. Naturally, this was a foreign concept to my mom who was confused why a bunch of teenagers were allowed to rent old ratty motel rooms to celebrate prom weekend. But she agreed to it, trying to act like she was accustomed to this lifestyle. She even gave me money for my room. As the time approaches for my own daughter to experience prom weekend at the Shore, this tradition is becoming harder for me to digest. Truthfully, it wasn’t until my early twenties, when I had my own car, that I really started to enjoy the Jersey Shore. My then boyfriend (now husband) and I would go to the Shore every weekend, like clockwork.  Sometimes we stayed with friends and sometimes a bunch of us with pile into a cheap motel room.  

One of my most memorable Jersey Shore experiences was when more than 20 of my Croatian-American friends rented several hotel rooms for Fourth of July weekend in 1998.  Croatia was in the World Cup playoffs and happened to win the game versus Germany on the Fourth of July. Our whole crew marched the boardwalk, proudly chanting Croatian songs in celebration of our tiny country's victory in this global event. While the U.S. celebrated its independence, I celebrated Croatia’s win with my most special friends who were also somewhat unfamiliar with The Shore but quick to adapt. It was simply one of the greatest days of my life that I will never forget.

 

Sadly, I cannot say much about the accommodations at the Jersey Shore. Looking back now, the Bal Harbour Hotel wasn’t really all that, but I had nothing to compare it to. These days, the Shore has many new elite options and the prices would blow your mind.  $1,000 a night for a Jersey Shore hotel stay may even seem downright crazy. But if you are from Jersey, you know it has nothing to do with where you stay and EVERYTHING to do with who you are with and what you are doing. I loved every minute of my weekends at the shore. I loved the smell of the ocean, the misty air, the boardwalk’s games and rides, the crowded bars, the screaming lyrics of any Bon Jovi song, the endless laughs, the boogie boarding and, of course, the BIG hair and extra make-up. It was no surprise to me when MTV decided it was going to debut a show called “Jersey Shore.” While some folks might ridicule the show and the characters’ behavior, there’s no denying how incredibly entertaining the Shore is. And now I can say that most people outside of Jersey know what  GTL, DTF, GFA, FTD and MIA mean. If you don’t know, you don’t know (SMH).. 

Year after year, my summers at the shore became more and more memorable.  I couldn’t wait to one day have my own children and bring them to the Shore, just as the parents of the kids I babysat for did. Ever since my children were infants, we have taken them to the Shore and spent at least one week doing everything Jersey. The Jersey Shore has come a long way from my first experience. The Bal Harbour Hotel is still open in Wildwood Crest, and I reminisce on my early teen years each time I drive by. I have been blessed with some great friends who have beautiful homes at the Shore and who often invite us to stay with them. These days, my children spend lots of time at the Shore and like I once told my mother about the wonderland I had been to, they come home with amazing stories of morning bike rides, miniature golf, playing at the arcade on the boardwalk, beach volleyball, football, boat rides, wave runners, beach fires and s’mores. Every summer brings its own special stories, but no matter what, the Jersey Shaw is guaranteed to make lifelong memories.

 

Jersey Strong, 

Francis Sango


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