Dreaming of France: By the bay, barely [memoir]

Baie des Anges, Raoul Dufy/1928

The trouble with going topless on the beach in France is that while the French may not bat an eye, the prudish hybrid of British, Canadian, and American that I am—go ahead, call me a BritCanIcan if you can—isn’t quite so nonchalant. Even though I was thirty something when my friend Mindy and I visited Nice, I still had reservations about taking my top off on the famous pebble beach.  

The only time I’d ever gone topless before was with a couple of friends at a nude beach here in Southern California, a “secret” place where Topanga Canyon meets the Pacific Coast Highway. An unmarked path leads down around the cliff, you have to tread carefully to make sure you don’t trip and fall. An old, deeply tanned bare-chested man cruising around with a camera had made the whole thing feel creepy, and we’d left quickly, feeling dirty.  But I had that old man, leering with his camera, asking could he take our pictures, in my head as Mindy and I made our way along the Promenade de Anglais and down the stairway to the plage, gauzy cotton dresses floating over our versions of itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikinis.

I don’t know what tripped me up more, the pressure to disrobe—when in Rome (or Nice) and all that—to pull loose the slender ties bowed at the neck and reveal my breasts, small and pale, as crowds chatted and sunned themselves nearby, kids splashing in the water, waiters delivering drinks—or the idea of walking on the narrow strip of rocky beach.

I cant help it. You say beach. I say sand. Im used to the feel of the soft powdery stuff between my toes. My first beaches were the shores of Tripoli in Africa where I toddled across a desert of silky white sand that stretched out to the turquoise of the Mediterranean. Even when we moved to Canada, the beach that my family went to every summer weekend at Lake Erie was called Furry Sands. My year as a teenager in Puerto Rico was spent mostly following the sun and the boys from one soft and sandy beach after another, from the Condado to Luquillo, the Caribbean a warm blue bath Ive never quite duplicated, even though Ive spent most of my adult life in Southern California, where glorious beaches, from the coast of San Diego to Malibu, Santa Barbara and beyond, are a dime a dozen. 

There are beautiful beaches all over the world where the sun and sand is like a caress. The beach at Nice isn’t one of them. What it is, is a scene. A must see. A must do. And so we did. A wooden walkway protected our feet from the roughest spots. Under blue striped umbrellas, red-shouldered American tourists smeared their kids with pink calamine lotion and striped white zinc on their noses. Chic French women, blonde hair tucked under yellow straw hats were brown from the tip of their perfect noses to their little black bathing suit bottoms as they stood talking, watching their children play in the deep blue sea. A cacophony of color filling the air, making a kind of cover. Mindy, younger, braver, was already topless, flinging her black curls off her bare shoulders, surveying the scene. I took a deep breath, undid my top and sat on my beach mat, eyes straight ahead, facing the water. 

We were part of the scene. Semi-naked in Nice. Breathe, I told myself, breathe. Pretend it’s just another ordinary day. And no one cared. No one batted an eye.


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