Chasing Matisse: The Book
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July 7, 2003
Shedding My Skin
I love French women. They sunbathe no matter how fat or thin they are. In fact, they sunbathe topless no matter how fat or thin they are-old or young, pregnant, or for any other reason that would prevent an American-at least as far as I can tell. (Although I have begun a non-scientific study to determine if there's a resistance to this urge in pre-pubescent and teenage girls.) French women accept their body-types publicly, and they take pleasure in emancipating their breasts while lying in the hot sun.
Listen, sisters. I don't blame them. It feels happy and free to have sunbeams warming your usually bound and covered chest. It's not even bold behavior here. Almost all French women do it with their husbands and children, grandchildren, boyfriends, fathers, sons, and brothers-anyone-around. It is an established piece of culture that no one thinks about. It's not sexual. You don't see a bunch of men with their tongues hanging out, staring, or making lewd remarks, because naked-chested female pool- or beachgoers are incoming. Topless sunbathers are not slutty, forward, or unusual. They're remarkably status quo. French men see bare breasts, boobs, titties, knockers, headlights, honkers, hooters, jugs-whatever you want to call them-all the time at the beach and pool. So?
Jim asked me if American women were the only ones who don't spend part of their adult public lives with uncovered breasts? He brought up all the National Geographic photos of African and other native women who don't clothe their bosoms. Good point, and who cares about their bare breasts? Another question arises: Do all European women disrobe their chests for sunbathing? I don't know. No doubt I'll have to study this as well. I doubt the Spanish-influenced cultures engage in this tradition. Too many macho men would have heart failure, kill someone, or both.
When we rented a house in Gordes five years ago, I sunbathed topless at our pool. Bret was 14 at the time and totally humiliated. She kept bringing a towel and covering me up. I felt a little weird about it myself but wasn't going to be deterred by my Puritan hang-ups. Besides that, I liked the sun on that part of my body--the water as well. Of course, there were no men besides Jim and his son Matt, but Bret was horrified just the same. I think she would have been embarrassed if there had been none at all, and I felt bold doing what is so not-daring here.
Anyway, what brought this to mind is we were sitting on our balcony in Cassis enjoying breakfast and observing the topless sunbathers at the beach. The sun was hot, and we put on our suits and walked over, found a spot on the rocks and laid out our towels. As I slathered on my sunscreen, my skin came off in rolls. I shed my skin today. Is my body telling me something my mind hasn't clocked in? Is this date important? I think it's about time to be rid of it. This physical and mental statement packs such a release!
I peeled my top down. It was a one-piece, and after a few minutes, I didn't even care that my own breasts were basking naked in the sun with multitudes around. Unless I did this many years ago, this is the first time I recall being topless at a French beach. We've foregone the coast every other time we've been here. Frankly, I don't remember, but Jim liked the fact that I bared myself like all the other women. I took this as a compliment, since I personally wished I weighed about 20 pounds fewer. He sketched while I lay on the pebbles like the purported Queen of Sheba. Swimming was not on my agenda. The water was icy, and I'm not a cold water girl. So even though the sun was searing, I walked in up to my hips once and retreated to the shore. The Queen had spoken.
After a pleasant seaside lunch by the cerulean sea, we showered, dressed, and went out for a drive. Cassis and the area around it is a blast of blue ocean, white sailboats, silver fish, rocky limestone cliffs, the famous calanques, and miraculous views. But first we had to get out of town, and there was a traffic jam going up the long hill. (I can only imagine what this mess would be like in High Season.) Anyway, we were hardly moving. It wasn't until people began honking and pointing that we realized the smoke we saw was pouring from our car. Jim pulled over as far as he could and stopped to make the traffic jam worse. We looked like Jeem and Beth Joades in their old clunker trying to get out of town. Quelle damage!
Jim lifted the hood like he would know what was wrong, while I called Peugeot. With our lease, we had roadside service and this was SOS. While I was talking with the Peugeot woman (who was being very helpful) and trying to find any street signs to relay our location, a woman huffed and puffed up the sidewalk chasing a runaway puppy. He was merrily escaping her, so I ran over to assist. I laughed in peals explaining to the Peugeot woman that I must try and catch the puppy in the middle of our dilemma, otherwise he would get run over in the street. She giggled with delight as I improved her boring day, giving her the step-by-step commentary of my silly actions corralling this silly dog. The would-be owner (or so I thought) quit the chase and walked away, which I thought was awful, but I wouldn't give up. Jeem was surveying the spectacle and hee-hawing as was everyone else on the road. He finally got out to help me as I caught the scoundrel puppy.
But once I had him what I was going to do with him? Where or to whom did he belong? Not to the woman who'd tired of the chase. Peugeot was sending a mechanic, and we were hoping we hadn't burned up the car, when another woman walked up with attitude. No doubt the dog was hers, and I was looking like a kidnapper, holding evidence in hand-her lost pooch. I explained what happened as best I could in my fractured French, and she thanked me much, then nervously stood around knowing she should try to help since I'd saved her dog, but what to do? The mechanic drove up, took one whiff and look, and related to us that Jim needed to stay off the clutch. Being stuck on that hill, he'd almost burned it up. This is a mistake a European doesn't make. Now we were back to Monsieur Bubbah and Madame Bubbette as our alter-egos and not-so-secret identities.
Our drive then consisted of returning to our pleasing Mahogany hotel on the scenic Plage de Bestouan (with our view of the merely perfect and elegant house on a point that juts to the sea) and having a cocktail to ward off the smoke. We consoled ourselves with a dinner of caviar d'aubergine and soupe de poisson, wonderful filets of beef, and a bottle of delicious, strong red wine at the wonderful Jardin d'Emile.
I woke up the next morning with the desire to be healthy and thinner (what's new). I saw a vision of myself happy and carefree at my fantasy French country house with a lovely terrace and view of the sea which I was close enough to hear. I must say I looked delectable in my turquoise sparkly skirt. Though it's currently too tight, it was hanging loosely. My feet were bare, and my hair was long and flowing (which is odd since I don't like to be barefooted and don't want long hair-yet I think this sounds more freeing). I twirled in dappled sunlight.
As we were leaving the lovely Cassis (where Matisse basked in the light and sea and Winston Churchill learned how to paint) with its beaches and cliffs and village houses spilling down charming rues to the port, we at last found our way with our intact car to the Cap Canaille. It is a road that reminds me of driving up to the volcano Haleakala in Maui. The mountain is high. The sky is big, and the views are long and luscious. The Mediterranean flowed in front of us like indigo lava, and Cassis was a mystical haven that blossomed by the molten blue.
Thoughts of my mother drift in with the tide. The feelings wash over me, yet her death does not seem real. I think I have more skin to shed.
posted by Beth on July 7, 2003 | View All Diary Entries
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