Life on a nude beach is surprisingly polite - at least in France. For one thing, it is terribly bad-mannered to stare at fellow nudies or, for that matter, to even essay an admiring glance. Eye levels remain discreetly above the neck.
That is not to say nudies don't stare or look disapproving. They do - at invaders, fully suited bathers who dare to trek to their stretch of beach to enjoy sun and surf. Word of an invader - a voyeur - spreads quickly.
"I see some voyeurs!" announced a muscular man breathlessly as he plunged into the ocean. "Where?" we gasped. "Over there, among the sand dunes."
Extending his hand, he introduced himself. Jacques was angry. "Where has etiquette gone? How impolite to stare. Surely they are not French," he concluded haughtily.
I couldn't believe it. Me, naked, discussing etiquette with a stranger, also naked, as casually as if we were discussing directions to the Louvre. Two weeks ago, I would have said the idea was preposterous! But that was before I called my friend Julie in Paris to announce I'd visit her in July.
Julie said she wasn't going to be in Paris. She would be on the west coast of France, and suggested I take a train to Les Sables to join her. Peter, her
Danish husband, would pick me up. I could spend a week in Longeville, a nearby village where they'd rented a cottage. "The beach is gorgeous," she proclaimed. "No other Americans except us. Mostly French. Some Germans, Dutch, English - and miles of Atlantic sand, dunes and pine trees.
"Joy, there's just one thing you should know - the beach we use is nude."
Me nude? Never! I thought piously. When no beach house is available, my European friends may change into a bathing suit in the open. But me - I'm the gal who changes covertly in the car.
I said, "Thanks anyway. I'll see you soon."
I hung up and reassessed the situation. Seeing my lifelong friend and catching up on our lives and children were more important than my deep-seated Midwest inhibitions. I'd call her back. But how would I handle talking to Peter in the buff? Political theory over a bottle of wine at a cafe made sense. Under a hot sun au naturel was another matter. Besides, I was no Bo Derek 10 - not even a midway 5. There was no way I could shed my extra padding so quickly. I sighed - and then called Paris.
I arrived at Longeville with enormous apprehension, which I took great care to hide. I was too embarrassed to admit how nervous I was about bare encounters. The next morning, Julie suggested we take a before-breakfast walk on the beach.
As we came up over the dunes, she took off her T-shirt. I did, too. It seemed odd walking outside in my underwear. But then again, this was France.
Julie was right about the magnificent beach - long, wide and, best of all, uncommercial, except for a small restaurant and beach house. "This section is for the textiles, or the people wearing bathing suits," she explained.
We walked along the water's edge, T-shirts and tennies in hand. Suddenly, Julie took off her bra. So did I. "This section is for the semis," she said. I had never been to a topless beach, but had no opportunity to comment, since she was busy telling me about her work with UNESCO.
Finally we came to the nude beach. No bare tops or bottoms in sight - too early to sunbathe, I gathered. We returned to the cottage to prepare for the real day at the beach. "Put suntan lotion everywhere," Julie cautioned, emphasizing everywhere.
Peter left for the beach first with daughter Mary, and was already in the water when Julie and I arrived. Thank goodness. That bought me time to adjust. The nudies were out in force, basking in the sun and frolicking in the ocean. Julie took off her bikini. I doffed mine, too, pretending this was as natural as slipping off a jacket. We stretched out, feeling the warm sun full-body.
Amazingly, it took very little time to forget my shyness. Swimming without the restriction of a suit felt wonderful. Still, I was embarrassed, but not
because I was "dressed" like the emperor in "The Emperor's New Clothes." The problem was color. I was pale as the underbelly of a fish. Next time, I resolved, I'd go to a tanning salon first.
Fascinated, I surveyed the nude scene. Carefully, of course, so as not to offend anyone. Tall, short, skinny, flabby, muscular - the nudies came in all sizes and shapes, from grandmothers to toddlers. All these bare-as-a-bun people walked around chatting, sunning, swimming and batting beach balls with as much ease as if they were strolling along the Champs-Elysees.
Even more surprising, the scene was about as sexy as a picnic in the park. There was cuddling among the textiles and among the semis. But not the nudies. Their manners were impeccable.
If you are a voyeur in search of sexy women or men, stick to the beaches with the string bikinis. With nothing else to reveal, we nudies are actually a rather boring lot.
That evening back at the cottage, Peter and I continued the political discussion we had started at the beach. Or rather, I listened and he
expounded. Finally I interrupted. "I've got a pressing question - one that's been bothering me since we left the beach. How will I recognize Monsieur and Madame Tousquet with their clothes on?"
"Tres simple," he said. "Madame is the one with haunting brown eyes. Monsieur has the salt-and-pepper mustache."