"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

July 30, 2003

baring it and grinning, italian style: summer, '03

{Note to readers: This piece is meant for publication, but I'm archiving it here for safe keeping. Excuse the black squares: they note places where originally there were italics or quotation marks. Sorry. Happy reading.}

Having domesticated for eighteen years with my immediate family, and thereafter, another twelve with an assortment of spastic, scrupulous, apathetic, intense, and, thank goodness, humorous roommates, I live alone. Finally. The adages that accompany news of solitary occupancy usually revolve around how lovely it is to walk around without a stitch on oneâ??s body, to be, as many say, "free" This doesn't come easily to one who spent so many years wrapping and clutching too-small towels around her midsize frame, en route between bathroom and bedroom, post-shower, praying that her wet feet didnâ??t slip on the waxy kitchen floor to expose her most private assets to people who werenâ??t parentally or romantically involved with her; nor does walking around naked come easily to a gal who still giggles, at public beaches, at the sight of large men in bathing thongs.

Perhaps I owe my Victorian chasteness to my profession. Ingrained in me is a hyperconscious tendency to fasten myself up, a la Marion the Librarian, around my adolescent students, no matter how unseasonably warm and stuffy my classroom can get. I've grown accustomed to the occasional 'psst!' by a conscientious young woman in the back row, who'll flash me the universal sign for 'your strap is showing' (place thumb and index finger together and touch collarbone). Being revealing never really bothered me until I began teaching, a job wherein the dress code is altogether a saving grace and fashion guide for our less-than-cooth Abercrombie micro-mini wearers who relish the opportunity to pick up stray pencils. Note that I, too, am subject to such standards. Once, a fellow teacher accosted me--literally--in our faculty room to tuck my bra strap back underneath my sleeveless oxford, from which it had sinfully strayed, as if I were a professional, grown-up Lolita. "You don't want those boys to think about anything but English class!" she warned. Yes, I too rolled my eyes, echoing the disbelief of any teen who's told that she's inappropriate. It was hard to believe that in an age when thong-sticking-out-of-pants is a widely accepted trend by American youths, an adult would admonish me for the slightest glimpse of nude-colored, wide-strapped lingerie that wasnâ??t even sophisticated enough to warrant its French classification.
That latter encounter--the shooing of the straying strap back to its dark space under my shirt--stayed with me. It even accompanied me to Italy, where I was to spend my first non-working summer vacation since Iâ??d started teaching, eight years earlier.

Ten women, including myself--most of us, educators, all of us, professionals--rented an improbable, statuesque, 13th-century villa in the foothills of Tuscany for ten days. It was blissful, and so that I donâ??t mislead anyone here, it was not an orgy. (I state that because Iâ??m so often asked what kind of trouble ten women can find themselves in, given the scenario.) Sure, we drank wine--loads of it, for we were, after all, perched at the edge of a local vineyard in the lush Chianti region--and after all, we were on vacation. Admittedly, we skinny dipped (after dark). We made indulgent, epic dinners, experimented with local liqueurs, danced with wild abandon well into some nights, exhausted ourselves on fun: Iâ??m told that these are the ingredients of old-school, Roman debauchery at its finest. But there was no nudity (save for the skinny dipping, which was, remember, after dark). I marveled at our professionalism! Our modicum of modesty! Even my roommate at the villa--whoâ??d already been my roommate a few years back--often changed in the bathroom, not for modestyâ??s sake, but mere convenience.

Of course, this didnâ??t hit me until our stay at the villa sadly ended, and our group separated, more sorry to leave the dreamy villa than each other. Iâ??d extended my stay in Italy a few more days to visit a Western coastal area, Cinque Terre (literally, â??five landsâ??), about which several friends back home had raved. Cinque Terre took seven and a half hours, two missed trains, one train in the wrong direction, and one leering, suspicious thug--whose advances I narrowly thwarted by spontaneously conversing with other strangers--to reach from Castellina en Chianti. I arrived at twilight, with my 38-pound backpack in tow, in search of lodging, which Iâ??d secured for myself from a dilapidated phone booth at a deserted train depot in the middle of nowhere, after missing the second train.
Located ten blocks from the station and two relentless flights up, the small hostel--Albergo Teatro--had nothing to boast of, despite its promising name, save for its proximity to local bus stops. When I handed my deposit to its owner, he ceremoniously handed me, in return, a palm-sized box with three electrical prongs. â??I am sorry for the mos-kwee-tos,â?? he shrugged. (I had, and still have, no idea what this contraption was meant to do.) He showed me to my room: a sweltering closet, about seven feet squared, with a window that spanned the length and nearly the height of one wall. â??Va bene, va bene,â?? he assured me. â??Youâ??ll be good here.â?? He tossed the key on the bed, winked, and cautioned me not to open the window â??for the mos-kwee-tos.â?? As soon as he left, I opened the window: a stench wafted in from the common courtyard. I had no other choice but to heed his words, unharness my corset-like pack, strip down, and fall with exhaustion onto the stiff bed. I admitted to myself that Iâ??d forgo the infuriating, incessant, high-pitched buzzes in a breezy closet for a decent, albeit hot, night of good sleep, and sleep I did.
When I awoke, the bed was soaked with sweat. I was parched. I located a pair of underwear and my sad bra, aching to be hand washed, put them on, and made my sleepy way down the corridor to the common w.c. The hostelâ??s proprietor must have heard my door open, for he yelled, from the opposite end of the hall, â??Buon giorno! How were the mos-kwee-tos?â?? I smiled and shrugged my unbitten shoulders, as if to say, â??what mos-kwee-tos?â??--instead of yelling and waking the other occupants. And in the washcloset, which I could only enter by clumsily stepping over the bidet, it occurred to me that Iâ??d just had my first conversation with a stranger in my skivvies. Sure, Iâ??ve speedily changed in public dressing rooms and locker rooms, but the context here was completely different. In a country not my own, in an unfamiliar place, with a man whose language I barely shared, Iâ??d exchanged morning niceties without being terribly concerned that I was really letting it all hang out. I liked it.

Cinque Terre is comprised of five towns connected by railway and footpath; rarely is a car seen traversing the grounds between them. A haven for newlyweds, the area is situated on the turquoise Mediterranean; its five towns, over centuries, have nestled themselves into the adjacent, seaside cliffs, so that in intertown transit, whether by rail or foot, one sees what may be the most serene communities known to the Western Hemisphere. I couldnâ??t wait to get started on my scenic trek.
Italy had been suffering a heat wave for the weeks since Iâ??d arrived, and though I was coastal, the breezes did little to abate a searing afternoon sun at the end of July; cafe and freddo were becoming two of my favorite words. Traveling solo, Iâ??d made sure to stretch my comfort limits so as not to wind up an aimless, thoughtless wanderer. I hiked Riomaggioreâ??s endearing, graffiti-laden Via Della Amore, where tourists and locals alike profess their amore maggiore in spray paint. In Manarola, I engaged in dizzying circumlocutions about train schedules with locals in my very lacking Italian. I got very, very lost in Corniglia, trying to find airmail stamps, and sampled a ravioli di mare spread--including mini octopi (come se dice â??squishyâ???)-- and rose-flavored gelatto for lunch.
Upon arriving at the fourth town, Vernazza, I came upon a relatively expansive stretch of public beach at the end of a row of street shops. Procuring for myself a straw mat from a local tourist trap, I made for the sand. Perfecto! Here, Iâ??d relax, cool off in the water, and catch up on my reading, all of which I was happily doing--until I read a small sign 20 or so yards downshore: â??You! Kayak! Here--5 euroâ??. A man wearing an abnormal amount of gold jewelry and--of course--a thong bikini noticed me contemplating the sign; he wagged his eyebrows at me. Before I could let myself snicker, I rolled up my mat, put away my guidebook, brushed myself off, and realized that this sporty spontaneity would give me wet butt for the rest of my day--and if I wanted to hike any further, Iâ??d be one chafed, hurting tourist by dayâ??s end.
It was at that moment I remembered the morningâ??s first encounter: with little on, exchanging pleasantries with a stranger. It wasnâ??t so hard, and there was no shame in it.

Off came the clothes. I was proud that my bra and panties happened to match this day, and especially proud for having chosen lycra instead of cotton. (Lycra dries faster.)
I balled my shorts and tanktop into my bag and strolled confidently towards the kayak people, euro in hand. â??Ciao!â?? I chirped. â??Per favore, une kayak.â?? The bronzed blonde looked at me ironically. â??Sure!â?? she chirped back. â??Where ya from?â?? Face-to-face with a Texan, my modesty returned with a vengeance. I crossed my legs, and my hands glided towards my bosom: would she recognize the very undergarment-essence of my ensemble? Did she own some of the same? After a painful few minutes of talking about why were we here, she pointed me towards my boat and, handing me the oar, wished me a good time. She even waved from shore.
Clothes safely stowed in wet bag, camera in lap, water bottle at armâ??s reach, I paddled about half a mile away from shore. For the first time in my life, the quiet of solitude both thrilled and terrified me. No one knew I was here; no one would find me if I drifted too far out.
It was a perfect opportunity to go completely nude.
(Note to readers: If youâ??ve ever tried to get undressed in a sea kayak, youâ??ve probably come as close as I have to capsizing. This is also thrilling and terrifying, compounded by the threat of hungry-looking jellyfish around your boat. Avoid this if possible.) But Iâ??d done it: the underwear joined the rest of the dayâ??s outfit in the wet bag, and I paddled, glided, and paddled for about an hour towards the town Iâ??d been in only a few hours ago. Salty, saturated sea air clung to parts of me that had never been exposed to the Great Outdoors. Before long, little dots of people started popping up on shore, and it was time to savor the final moments of being full monty. I closed my eyes, put my oar on my lap, felt the lulling of the sea beneath me, and took some deep breaths, face raised to the sun. It was a peace (and a sunburn) I will never forget.
I wasnâ??t conscious that Iâ??d been smiling; until from nowhere, or really, what seemed to come from my inner cochlea, there came a buzzing. I looked about me for the insect--surely a large-toothed mos-kwee-to whoâ??d been slighted the night previous was out for my blood. I honed my vision, squinting for the bug; there was nothing to my right. To my left, however, roared a motorboat. With people. Lots of them.
There was no time for modesty. This was an exercise in being truly â??freeâ??: could this modest American shed her threads and Mean It? Could I own my nudity, as so many do on those European and tropical beaches? Could I be the new poster child (Experience the Sea--the Way it was Meant to be Enjoyed!) for the Italian travel industry?
Fortunately, a large protruding rock lay close enough to paddle to and hide behind. I thanked my lucky stars for being strong enough to paddle fast, and not to wind up in a boatload (pardon the expression) of German touristsâ?? vacation pictures. Had anyone ashore or adrift spotted me, Iâ??d probably have looked like cro-magnon woman, crouched over myself humbly, hiding in vulnerability. With a bright yellow kayak.

A year later, my 19th-century decency has vanished. Living alone affords me the luxury of indulging myself in nudity when and how I wish. I can now enjoy sipping my morning coffee completely in the buff. I can walk right out of the shower with a towel on my head, letting the rest of myself â??air dry.â?? And when Iâ??m good and ready, Iâ??ll be able to walk past that shadeless, front bay window with nothing to shield me but my nonchalance. Va bene.