It’s absurdly tiny, the white string bikini with the gold lamé flower on the left breast.
I bought it on the Greek island of Crete during a visit in 2006, and I wore it numerous times during that trip, where the swimwear motto seemed to be “less is more.” But in my U.S.-centric world of one-pieces, tankinis, and stick-thin models, I was uncomfortable wearing it at home, so the bikini spent the remainder of that summer and the early part of the following one languishing in a drawer.
I worked out religiously, and I heard a ton of compliments about my shape, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake my perception of how I looked in the suit. I heard the kind words but saw rolls of pale, pink fat flopping over the waistband of the low-cut bottoms.
To celebrate my fortieth birthday, my best friend Lisa and I visited Eastern Europe in the summer of 2007 — Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Croatia. Touring for more than a week through the majestic cities of Prague and Budapest, we planned to finish with nine leisurely days on the mainland and islands of Croatia, described by friends and web sites alike as “Greece without the hassle and expense.”
Just before leaving home for the airport, I threw the bikini in my suitcase, primarily for “shits and giggles.” The chances of my wearing it were about as realistic as my parents giving me a Porsche for my birthday.
Or were they?
In this part of the world, where countless schools of art began, it’s as if the population sees the human body as a piece of art, a canvas, or a sculpture on which to place an item of clothing simply because they like it, regardless of any resulting ripples and bulges, from the Rubenesque woman in the snug, fire engine red Lycra top and matching pants to the pot-bellied men in Speedos.
In our hotel room on Hvar, an island off of the southern coast of Croatia, after some serious reassurance from Lisa, I put on the offending suit and a black sarong cover up, grabbed my beach bag and headed out, without a glance in the mirror to change my mind.
It’s a ten-minute, slightly-stomach-churning boat ride from the pier near our hotel in Hvar Town, the main town on Hvar, to the island of Jerolim, where we’d decided to spend our first beach afternoon.
We stumbled across stones, pebbles, and boulders — rocks as diverse as the bathers who sat on them — and stopped at a small, warm, natural pool that separated the land from the chilly, brilliant waters of the Adriatic. We decided the spot behind it would be our home for the afternoon, and we paid an older man wearing too-short denim cutoffs and a fanny pack, to place two white plastic chaise lounges, clean but stained from years of abuse, on two large, relatively flat boulders.
We succumbed easily to the beauty of the landscape. Journal in hand, wearing only my little white bikini, a large straw hat, and plenty of SPF fifty for protection, I napped, wrote, and stared at the exquisite expanse of blue-green and at the countless sailboats and yachts, some anchored and others moving lazily downstream. Drowsy, I felt almost comfortable in my skin and with all the parts of it that were showing.
After a short peace though, something disturbed our isolation.
We looked up to see a tall, attractive man in a tight T-shirt and long flowered shorts navigating the rocks with relative ease; his Pumas made the walk less treacherous than our flip-flops. He strolled our stretch of beach several times before depositing his towel and knapsack a few feet behind Lisa. Smiling a greeting, he knelt down to take off his shoes, his socks…and all his clothes.
He was an imposing figure: well over six feet, lithe, very tan, and very naked. Lisa and I tried hard not to look in his direction or giggle like ’tween girls who’d recently discovered boys. Lisa even rearranged our chairs so there was no chance of an accidental viewing.
“I didn’t want you to have to stare at his package all afternoon,” she said, grinning.
It was a losing battle.
To create distance from our new friend and to get some relief from the extreme heat, we headed for the water’s edge. Talking none too quietly, we decided from his shock of bleach-blond hair, soul patch, and propensity for nakedness, that he had to be German.
After a frigid few minutes in the water, I was ready for the warmth of my chair and baking in the hot sun. Preoccupied, I stubbed my toe on a half-submerged rock as I turned back toward the beach. Pitching forward, I landed on my ass in our private pool and laughed out loud as I took in a mouthful of warm saltwater.
“You really should be careful. This beach could kill you,” I heard in a southern drawl. Apparently, Naked Man was from Louisville, Kentucky.
And so began a friendship, the kind that develops when American strangers find themselves together on a beach in a foreign country and one of them is naked. (The concept of being candid because there’s little risk of future contact didn’t exactly work for us. We’d meet Bart countless times during our days on Hvar, on the ferry to Dubrovnik, and during our five-day stay in Dubrovnik.)
Lisa and I tried, unsuccessfully, to focus on Bart’s eyes. I can’t tell you what color they were.
We learned how much he was into the Grateful Dead — it was the twelfth anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death — and how he (Bart) had just quit his job at age thirty eight to begin a nine-month trip around the world. Most interesting to me was his interest in what he called FKK. Loosely translated from German, he told us FKK is short for FreiKorperKultur, or “free body culture.” Basically, Bart’s a nude sunbather. He and others like him travel around the world looking for unique places to sunbathe. Croatia, he told us, is known in the FKK community for having some of the most beautiful FKK-only beaches in the world.
Later that afternoon, I revealed that although I’d been topless on trips to Europe and Israel, I’d never been on a nude-only beach, nor had I ever sunbathed or swam naked. I knew little about the FKK culture, other than what I’d seen on one very quick, accidental visit to Black’s Beach — a nude beach in San Diego — years earlier, when I’d wandered into a nude volleyball game. Although I was comfortable sunbathing without my top, I’d never considered complete public nudity. I didn’t like my body enough to let strangers see it, uncovered, from head to toe.
But in those first few hours, Bart had me convinced I had to see the FKK beach on Lokrum, off the coast of Dubrovnik. It was breathtaking and secluded, he said, and the perfect place for my first FKK experience. If I wanted to see the beach, located at the far eastern end of one of Croatia’s national parks, I wouldn’t have much choice but to see it in the nude. Nudists, Bart explained, don’t appreciate visits by non-FKK’ers, even those only partially clothed.
I half-heartedly agreed to meet him when the three of us arrived in Dubrovnik a few days later.
Walking down the tree-lined, dirt path from the boat dock on Lokrum, I passed a large, off-white rectangular sign showing what wasn’t allowed on the stretch of FKK-only beach: simple drawings of a faceless man and woman in bathing suits, separated by a picture of a camera, a thin red X stretched diagonally across the entire, odd scene.
“No clothing! No cameras!” it screamed.
Wearing my little bikini, with a large towel wrapped around my lower half, I kept walking. A minute later I picked out Bart’s naked, reclining outline through the grove of thin trees separating the FKK beach from the path. Our eyes connected, and he stood up and waved. I focused intently on his eyes as I made my way over to him, spread out the towel, and sat down.
The possibility of being naked in front of him and other naked strangers didn’t seem nearly as disturbing to me as it was before we arrived in Europe. As I peeked, and tried not to stare — because that’s what American tourists do — at the scantily-clothed bodies we’d seen that week, bodies of all shapes and sizes, my reservations shrank to the size of the bikini I was seriously considering removing. If they were so comfortable with their bodies, what was keeping me from joining them?
Nothing really, except years of U.S. body image lessons — Thin is in! Don’t eat that pasta! Cover up those grandma arms! — which weren’t going away overnight. Even with my new, relaxed state of mind, I wasn’t ready to go all the way. With Bart gently egging me on, I sunbathed topless that first afternoon. The small triangles of my bikini bottoms offered no real coverage, but they stayed on. And anytime I stood up, I tied my top back where it belonged.
Until I went into the water.
It was hot, really hot, and it wasn’t long before I needed to cool off. I walked to the water’s edge and climbed down several rungs of a rusty ladder, where I stopped and untied my top — leaving it on a rock next to the ladder — before turning toward the water, grinning, and diving in. Did I really have anything to lose, I wondered to myself. If they laughed, they laughed.
There was no laughter, so on the second day I gave in completely; I was sunbathing and swimming nude, my suit crumpled and lonely on my towel, which was more than a few feet from the ladder.
That first day, no one insisted I remove my bottoms, and I didn’t dare look to see if anyone was looking at me. I did, however, steal a glance at a dark-haired, round, naked woman cradling her naked significant other’s head in her lap and tweezing his eyebrows. Those around me weren’t concerned with me or the shape of my body. They were enjoying their own naked beach time.
Bart went out of his way to remain a total gentleman, which also helped, because he’d turned from stranger to friend, which could have made things much more difficult. Aside from standing up to move to the water and back, he kept his private parts pretty private, lying on his stomach or on his back with one knee bent strategically.
Lokrum was indeed magical, but its spell was much deeper than the intense beauty of the landscape. Naked, on my back on my large, flat rock, with the sun warming me from my head to my toes, my few remaining fears slipped away, drained in the sweat that pooled between my breasts and in my belly button, and then ran down my sides. I even sat up, without putting on my top or wrapping myself with my towel, to wave to gawking kayakers who’d stopped in the water below and peered up at us through binoculars.
Over the next several days, I returned to the same beach with Bart, leaving Lisa bathing suit-clad on her own rock by the docks, with her MP3 player and the latest version of People Magazine.
On my own, and naked, I saw myself through other’s eyes. No one made faces or commented when I took my suit off. In fact, no one seemed to care.
And amazingly, neither did I.
Faye Rivkin lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband Marcos and their dog, George. Two words she never expect to write for a client in her role as a freelance writer: “public urination”! But she just did and wonders what she’ll be writing next, since she can’t quit just yet to travel around the world and gather material for some sort of travel book, or her family history.