When we departed for a ludicrously expensive multi-generational, guided, two-week tour to Greece, I imagined gaping at the architecturally perfect Parthenon, feeling spiritually-centered in Delphi, home of the Oracle, center of the Earth. I imagined running faster than the other tourists at the hallowed Olympic grounds (I had read that tours typically stage races on the original track…I made sure to wear my newest running shoes that day) and being crowned with laurels atop a marble slab, olive trees glistening silver in the background. I may have even imagined bystanders being privately impressed by my speed and agility in the hot Greek heat. I had not accounted for the teenagers in the tour group. Their young legs left my tennis-playing limbs feeling more like those of a tortoise than a cheetah.
I imagined eating feta and olives at a rooftop café overlooking blue-topped, sugar-cube houses clinging to the rugged hillside like wedding cake decorations. I imagined bathing in volcanic springs and hiking on cypress-lined paths with my three children, all of whom had been fascinated by Greek mythology during the unit on Ancient Greece in third grade. Never mind that my boys were now 15 and 13. I imagined sun tanning on black sand beaches, and perhaps even tackling an extreme water sport or two.
The sightseeing boat, complete with a bar and café, pulled up slowly to shore, giving us time to take in the volcanic-black sand, the many thatched straw umbrellas shading pairs of lounge chairs, and the calm turquoise water scattered with people swimming and floating on rafts. As we drew closer, I was surprised by how close together the beach chairs and umbrellas were. There was no room to spread out a towel like we would on American beaches; we definitely needed to snag these sets of chairs. All five of us disembarked lugging towels, sunscreen, snacks, and dry clothes. As we walked together down the boardwalk between the boat dock and the beach, I felt a sense of lightness and relaxation; after six days of serious sight-seeing, I was ready to relax for the first time on a Greek beach.
Suddenly, I saw breasts. Bare. Old. Wrinkled. They had lost their war with gravity. And then the breasts laid back down on the lounge chair. I felt my stomach drop. Had my teenage sons seen this topless bather? As I glanced to my left, I saw the look of horror and embarrassment blooming on my son’s face. And then I felt the poking.
My daughter, Caroline, said rather loudly, “Did you see that, Mom?”
Before I could answer, the topless sunbather sat up again. Bolt upright. Well, some of her was upright. As I struggled to find words, I noticed a man stand up. Without a stitch of clothing.
Caroline started pointing. “Mom! Are we going there?”
We are within yards of the beach. The boat has sailed away. Other than jumping in the ocean with all our stuff and swimming for three hours, there is only one way to go. Forward.
My son muttered under his breath: “Oh my God. I can’t believe you brought us to a nude beach.”
My husband remained silent. I took a deep breath, feeling the Victorian values of my English heritage and the Puritan views of my American upbringing converge.
“It’s just the human body,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “You just spent almost a week looking at Greek statues of people without clothes. Just think of it as contemporary art.”
We are now on the beach, and I feel my husband hanging back, leaving me to guide us to the beach chairs, which are immovable and even closer together than they looked from the walkway. I scan the sea of people, looking desperately for five spaces together. The same topless woman pops up again, turning slightly so we get the full frontal view, this time from just yards away. Suddenly, I chuckle.
“Alex,” I whisper to my fifteen year old, “It’s not supposed to look like that.”
Without missing a beat, he says “Thank God.”
And we laughed for the first time, trying desperately to push through our American Puritanism. Only then did I notice Caroline pointing again.
“Stop pointing!” I reprimanded.
At which point my sensitive child bursts into tears. I still haven’t found chairs for us. My husband is still silently standing just a few feet behind the four of us, waiting to see what I will do. Finally, I locate chairs somewhere towards the middle of the beach, meaning we walk right by a host of people in their birthday suits. When we finally collapse into the chairs, towels and flip flops, cell phones and sunscreen scattered around us like the remnants of a plucked turkey, I look up to see the naked man walking by. My daughter points again.
“Just think of it as a Biology lesson,” I quip.
My middle son, Austin, groans.
“Thank God Gpa isn’t here,” Alex says.
Just the mention of my 75 year-old Thatcher-loving, British dad makes my stomach somersault. My eldest son is always the optimist, able to find the silver lining in any situation. Sun bathing has suddenly lost its appeal; relaxation no longer seems possible.
“Let’s get a snack,” I suggest.
As we make our way back through the sea of liberated sun bathers, I wonder why this seems simultaneously traumatic and hilarious, like my kids may never recover from the embarrassment of seeing naked bodies during their teenage years with their parents in tow. And then I wonder why only older people are nude. Why not the hot twenty-something blonde on our tour? Would that have been better or worse for my son to see? Am I worried about them seeing a naked body because I fear the desire it might stir in their teenage selves? Like it isn’t there already? Am I worried about witnessing that interest? Why? Does it remind me of their own sexuality, which I’d rather not think about? Does it remind them of mine, which none of us want to think about? Am I worried that they will see an older, wrinkled body that doesn’t fit the bodies in magazines that we are all supposed to desire? Why did I say “It isn’t supposed to look like that?” Why did I want to reassure my teenage son that if he was not aroused by a naked female body that it was okay? Am I afraid to witness his desire or not witness it? Why am I assuming he would be attracted to a female body at all?
Caroline breaks through my silent musings, “Mommy, why are they NAKED?”
“In Europe and other places, people often don’t wear tops or bathing suits on the beaches.”
“Eww. Gross. Why?”
“I don’t know. I guess it is just a cultural difference.”
When in doubt, try for humor. “What I want to know is why none of the young, hot people go nude.”
“Mom!” Alex and Austin say in unison.
“Hot like temperature hot or the other kind of hot?” Caroline queries.
“I guess it just takes confidence and self-assurance to go naked. I wonder why Americans are so weird about nudity.”
“All the religious people in America,” answers Austin.
“Hmmm. We should think about why Americans and Europeans view the human body so differently. I bet being naked on the beach is more comfortable than wearing a wet, sandy bathing suit.”
“Oh God, Mom. Please tell me you are not going to try it,” Alex says, his voice laced with desperation.
“Not this time. How about a snack and an extreme water sport instead.”
My children appeared to survive our afternoon at the nude beach, though I’m not sure if the experience will come up in later therapy sessions, or worse, in school essays. We spent a small fortune on what was an extreme water sport for this forty-something, but in reality was just an overpriced ride on a large inner tube pulled behind a speedboat. It was thrilling, though I was surprised when Caroline went airborne as we flew over some choppy wake. It was perhaps not the safest excursion, but then again, what choice did we have? Nude beach or unsafe, exotically expensive extreme water sport ride? As open-minded as I tried to be, we had, after all, just spent an afternoon on a nude beach with our three children.
While this wasn’t the Greek adventure I had imagined, it has remained our most frequently told story. I’ve got the punchlines down, and I always get just the horrified response I expect from my American listeners. Our visit to the nude beach in Greece has become part of family lore. It has become part of our collective memory. It has become an afternoon I often return to in my mind because I haven’t yet worked out the deeper questions it raised about parenting, morals, ingrained values, modesty, biology, desire, and humor. It remains a moment of partial discovery, one of those times that I expect to keep unraveling with time. I suppose, then, what began as a colossal mistake has become quite the opposite. Just at that moment when we were not looking at ancient ruins or hallowed sites, we were forced to look more closely at our own perspective. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, the serious travelers among us, those who plan trips and dream of foreign shores, travel to discover ourselves.