My Favourite Holiday
The nudist beach at Les Sables D'Olonne.
Photo: Geoff Strong
There was my school penfriend Dominique, lying on a beach towel next to me as we talked in cobbled together sentences of French and English. Years had passed since our letters stopped, but this was quite literally our first meeting in the flesh. My thoughts flicked on and off like a neon sign - was this bizarre? Both of us were stark naked.
"Bonjewa," was how I pronounced my first foreign word, a skinny Brisbane high school kid, shoe-horned into the French language class. It was a matter of administrative convenience rather than choice. The slower kids did Italian, the bulk did German while French was for kids considered bright, but not bright enough for Latin.
The idea of a French female penfriend offered a frisson of transglobal sexuality. Dominique lived in the Atlantic coast town of Les Sables D'Olonne, just south of Brittany. We exchanged photos. She sent me several which I placed in my album.
One was a portrait with its edges cut in a border as frilly as feminine knickers. Others showed her off in a bathing suit; she was a school swimmer. In one she was diving into a pool. "I plonge," it had inscribed on the back. I sent back pictures looking muscular my rowing shorts and singlet, plus selected Brisbane beauty spots.
By 1984, my wife Jill and I saved up enough to spend a year overseas, mainly in Europe. The Australian dollar was hovering around US90 cents and it bought more than seven French francs. It let us indulge in good wine and large lumps of roquefort cheese, which made us look terribly gauche in the eyes of Europeans.
It was partly an exercise in BOFAR travel (bludge off friends and relatives) and directed at those who had already done so with us. There was Jill's step-Granny in Gloucestershire, my ex in Glasgow, a French friend in Paris, her sister and boyfriend in the ski resort of Samoens and a pair of Swiss hippies I had befriended years earlier at Sydney airport.
The idea of Swiss hippies does seem an oxymoron. They lived in a 16th-century farmhouse near Lausanne, a bicycle ride from Lake Geneva. And yes, they ran their lives like clockwork, smoking one joint at precisely 8pm every evening, the weed for which they had culled from their perfectly manicured and neatly swept dope patch.
Among the things I did in the month we stayed was help install a bath, outside in full view of the neighbours. It had heating, so it was an improvement on the existing arrangements, which involved standing naked outside under a tap fed by freezing springwater. It also seemed a representation of the Continental attitude to the body, more exciting than Anglo prudery.
In those years the West was enthralled by the sexual/moral revolution that started in the late 1960s. The Europeans took it on with enthusiasm. Compared to now, when the forces of American Christian puritanism are at war with Islamic conservatism and the gross mechanical sexuality of the commercial sex industry, those years seemed a golden age of the unencumbered torso.
For my 34th birthday Jill and I were in Vienna and went to a beach on the Danube. We noticed a walled-off section with signs warning that, once inside, cameras and clothing were banned. This place was jammed with bodies of all shapes, sizes and degrees of sun exposure. The only waxworks I had heard of in those days was Madame Tussaud's, and Brasilians were known for carnivals, not bald pudenda.
It was here I noticed a strange phenomenon among the women. Rows of them lay, legs spreadeagled towards the sun. I couldn't work out whether it was part of a sun-worshipping cult, or they were trying for a truly all-over suntan.
From the Mediterranean to Sweden, there seemed to be nudist beaches that were as popular as the adjoining clad ones. People even removed clothes on the banks of rivers and we saw a couple basking naked in a public park in the German city of Munich. No one seemed to mind.
Other than what the French call naturisme, our trip involved many cultural experiences. We indulged in art galleries, operas, mountain treks, food and even religion. And it was not long after we had left the Catholic shrine of Lourdes that we decided to head north to the Atlantic coast.
I had not heard from Dominique for 18 years but, because of the connection, Les Sables D'Olonne seemed a good spot to pitch our tent. Jill suggested looking her up. Her name was Pasquinelli, which is Corsican, and there was only one in the book. Her mother answered and yes Dominique had just come down from Paris a few days earlier with her husband and daughter. We were invited over the next night.
"Why did you stop writing?" she asked, throwing her arms around me.
"I got a girlfriend, sorry," I answered in French. Everyone laughed.
We hit it off immediately, also with her husband (named Dominique too) and her mother Marguerite. We named him Le Dominique and her La Dominique, so we could tell them apart.
They were quite impressed that we lived on the other side of the planet and could laugh at the same jokes. Much alcohol was drunk and, while La Dominique's English improved, our French deteriorated. Then at about 11pm Marguerite (who was about 70) suggested we all go out to a bar.
The next day we agreed to meet the two Dominiques and their eight-year-old daughter Caroline on the beach. When they tentatively suggested "la plage naturiste", we were able to laugh that we had already been there the day before.
The beach was packed, but we played beach tennis, swam, drank wine, talked and had a great time. We even took some photos in which we drunkenly tried to imitate the poses of some 19th century impressionist bathing paintings that, of course, had all been clothed. All except Caroline, who was quite happy to romp around in the buff except when it came to the photos.
When we got back to Australia we went up to Brisbane to see my parents. I told my mother I had finally caught up with the girl who I used to write to in France all those years ago.
"Did you take any photos of her?" she asked.
But for some reason I never got around to showing them.