Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Location location location: Place and the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior

A young American is living in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and is working as a trainer/teacher at General Motors and a local university. His good friends include many young and hip urban professionals (a dentist, a manager from a multinational corporation, a university administrator, and a PhD candidate), not the sort of folks you'd expect to lead him down the primrose path. One day he accompanies two of these friends, a couple with their two young sons, to Costa da Caparica, a 10-mile stretch of fine beach just south of Lisbon.

They head for a specific beach, Praia do Meco, a nudist beach. Being an American from the conservative Midwest, he is a bit skeptical about being butt-naked in public, even at a beach. His friends convince him that it's perfectly acceptable and that he has nothing to fear. When they arrive at the parking lot of the beach, which is set in a pine grove with a sandy floor, he wonders if he can really get nude with strangers. In fact, as they all walk to the beach with bathing suits and baggy T-shirts still on, he decides he won't completely undress. But when the group walks over a sand dune and onto the main Meco beach, and he sees at least 100 unclad male and female bodies before him, many of them laid casually across towels, others swimming in the sea, and others frolicking in the waves, he loses his fear.

His hosts take off their T-shirts, then their bathing suits, and join the nude crowd. The American, still clothed, sits quickly on a towel, and only after some time, decides to wiggle out of his suit. He doesn't want to be considered uncool or unadventurous, but he is cautious. What he eventually notices though is that everyone on the beach that day is nonchalant about their nudity. Noone is showing off. They are acting normal---just without clothing. The American starts to understand the point: it is liberating to be on a beach sunning oneself, swimming and sunning oneself again without clothes. He even develops the feeling that it is healthy, almost spiritual.

And so begins this American's adaptation to a very particular cultural norm, nude bathing, one that is much more prevalent amongst the young and hip in Europe than amongst their peers in most of the rest of the world. An exception to that is in Japan, where nude bathing in onsens, or spas, is firmly traditional, familial and common among all social classes.

For the young American, this trip to Praia do Meco is the first of many. He returns with the same family he has started the adventure with, and he goes with other friends. One day he visits with a Brazilian male friend. They go through the usual routine of wearing bathing suits to the beach, then stripping, then laying on their towels sunning themselves, then swimming, then sunning themselves again. It has all become rather commonplace.

At some point in the afternoon, the Brazilian friend points out a cabana that stands at the end of a nearby path that ascends the clay rise just behind the beach. It's a makeshift snack bar, with soft drinks and beer for sale. The two friends decide to visit, then mull over whether or not they should put their suits back on for the trip up the hill. The Brazilian dresses in his jean shorts; the young American decides to walk up the nearby slope in the nude. After all, it's a hot afternoon.

When they arrive in the cabana, it's empty, except for the dozen or so small wooden tables and benches in neat rows. There's one middle-aged woman, fully clothed, behind a big table where coolers and cases of drinks of various sorts are piled high. She doesn't flinch at the two customers, though one is naked. The guys buy drinks and take seats on a bench in the back of the place. Within the next 20 minutes or so, as the two beach goers sit and chat, others arrive from down the hill to escape the sun and to buy drinks: a young couple, a group of three, another couple with a child, and another small group. Soon the Brazilian and the young American notice that the place has filled up. Nearly every table is taken, with the cabana now holding 25 or 30 refreshment seekers. Aside from that, there is one more glaring fact: everyone except the young American is wearing some sort of beach wear (even though some are only sporting spartan bathing suits).

Suddenly, being nude has become an oddity again. In this shop so near to the nudist beach, the norms have changed. The young American becomes worried, wondering how to escape unseen. But it seems there's no way out. At last, he garners the courage to get up and leave, yet he does so while covering his private parts with his hands, something he didn't have to do down on the beach.

1 comment:

giant said...

Was this real or a dream? Seems like a dream I've had! Perhaps because I'm of the same conservative American ilk. But there are certainly some 'au-natural' oases in the states. Once, I stumbled upon one (with a Japanese friend!) in Vermont. Japanese seem even shier at times, but then there is the anomaly of the 'konyoku', or 'mixed bathing' onsen. It's good you were able to overcome your upbringing.