From nudism to Buddhism

After breaking up with her boyfriend, a woman journeys to three different kinds of retreat in Europe -- a nudist colony, an isolated village and a meditation center.

Published September 11, 1998 7:21PM (EDT)

When I broke up with my boyfriend last summer, I did what I always
do under such circumstances: fled the country. Not everyone considers this
the healthiest way to deal with personal crises, but I figure it's my life,
and if I want to run from it, I can. Fortunately, my face had appeared in a
deodorant commercial a few months before, so I had enough cash to take off.

Since both funds and morale were low (the deodorant
commercial notwithstanding), I decided to begin my trip where people knew
and loved me and would be likely to buy me meals. My father and his wife
spend every summer at a nudist colony in the South of France and had
begged me to visit for years. Though the thought of being naked with my
father made me slightly uneasy, I decided now was the time. Perhaps the
stripping away of clothing would help me to cope with the unadorned truth
of my break-up.

I'd intentionally left the next few months free of commitments,
since the now ex-boyfriend and I had been planning a trip to Mexico, so I
bought an open-ended ticket to Paris. I figured I'd stay at the nudist
colony for a while to recuperate in the bosom of my family, and then travel
in France and Spain till my money ran out.

Cap d'Agde is an enormous resort community divided into two
sections: the "naturist" section and the "textile" section. In the summer
the naturist section swells to a whopping 40,000 people. It's an
international clothing-optional city, with its own produce shops,
bakeries, restaurants and nightclubs, where people in every possible state
of dress and undress roam freely. Waiting to pay for your grocery
purchase, you might easily find yourself standing behind a French woman
with a full shopping cart, naked except for her high-heeled sandals and
pale blue nail polish, while behind you a portly German man wearing only a
tight-fitting American T-shirt and broad straw sun hat waits impatiently to
buy a bottle of ketchup. Only on the white sand beach do you find signs
reading Nuditi Obligatoire -- ostensibly to discourage voyeurism. In the
evenings, however, when it cools off, people dress for dinner -- this is still
France, after all!

My Dad, whom I call Vati (pronounced Fah-tee, German for Daddy), is
78 years old, a Vienna-born Jew who fled Austria with his parents shortly
after the Nazi occupation. Five-foot-five and deeply suntanned, with flying,
Einstein-like white hair, he beams with an exuberant, infectious joie de
Betty, at 65, is a wonderful example of a sexy and confident older
woman, at peace in her body, with or without its elegant draping of
clothes. A diagonal scar between her breasts marks the place where she had
heart surgery last year. They are into the philosophy of naturism, how it
breaks down notions of the body beautiful. They see nudity as a kind of
equalizer, like school uniforms for kids.

Vati and Betty love the freedom of the wind and sun on their
bodies. I appreciate that on the beach, but walking around town I feel
self-conscious, perhaps because I am a young woman and used to being looked
at and appraised. The discomfort is particularly acute when my father
proudly introduces me to the fully clothed young men working in the shops
("This is my daughter"). Somehow it's hard to discuss Asian travels with
the handsome French butcher's assistant, he in his blood-stained apron, me
in my birthday suit.

I notice, as well, that the women here are smooth as mannequins.
Gone are the days when European women were symbols of vital, hairy
femininity. Even their pubes are shaved into neat little triangles. I'm a
shock of wild dark grass in a world of pruned hedges. I take to wearing an
extra-large T-shirt that reaches to my knees, providing Vati and Betty with
much hilarity about the prudishness of the younger generation.

In the end, the whole effect is profoundly desexualizing, and the
presence of so much flesh begins to repulse me. Even before I am
propositioned by a pasty Pillsbury Doughboy of an Englishman who tells me
his wife won't mind as long as she can watch, I decide it's time to move
on. Besides, I'm not crying enough. I decide this means that I'm not
actually dealing with the loss of my relationship, and I need to spend time
alone and "work through things."

I set off for Spain. On the train I run into a group of six young
Americans. They're all about 18 years old, wearing loose cotton
clothes and dangly earrings. Back in San Francisco I have friends in comparable positions, but here I feel like an impostor: a 30-year-old who looks like a
20-year-old; someone out of college almost 10 years who can afford to
take two months off and travel but not to stay in hotels. The young
travelers assume I'm their age, and I play along, talking about my major,
where I go to school.

Over the next month I travel madly through Spain, keeping off the
beaten track, staying with Servas hosts in suburbs and villages. (Servas
is an international friendship organization that hooks up hosts and
travelers who have a mutual interest in peace and social justice.) I do,
however, spend a night each in the more touristed spots of Granada and
Cordoba, where I meet a very young Portuguese painter and make out with him
on the floor of the Alhambra's elaborately carved chambers and amid the
columns of the famous Cordoban mosque. Parting from him, I decide I'm
definitely not dealing with my break-up in a healthy way, and I need

Sometime during the bus journey out of Cordoba, I casually tell the woman sitting beside me that I'm looking for a
remote village.

"Get out right here! Right here!" she exclaims, and hails the
driver to stop.

"Here?" I look doubtfully at the olive trees and looming gray
rocks. We're on a winding road through the mountains in Andalucia, about
an hour from Ronda.

"Walk two kilometers down that road and you will come to
Benalauria, where my grandmother comes from. Ask at the Meson la Molienda.
They have rooms. Tell the proprietor I sent you!" she calls as the bus
pulls away. Only then do I realize I never asked her name.

Sweating in the beating sun, coughing in the dust my feet stir up
on the dirt road, I think, "Whose bright idea was this?" But when I see
the tiny whitewashed houses nestled against the wooded hillside, my spirits

The proprietor of Meson la Molienda looks surprised to see me, but
giggles shyly and shows me to a tiny room, with rough plaster walls painted
a dusky rose and a handmade quilt on the bed. A small window shows wooded
mountains and the red tile roof and whitewashed walls of the next house.
The price, about $30 a night, is a splurge for my budget, but at this point
there's no turning back.

I venture forth into Benalauria, population 350, and doors close as
I approach. Eyes peer from behind shutters. Children scurry around

Panicked, I hurry back to my room. This is what you wanted, I tell
myself miserably. I lie on the bed and cry, loudly and indulgently, as the
sun dips in the sky. No one knocks at my door. Eventually, several
shuddering hours later, I fall asleep.

The next morning a horde of children descends on me. "Csmo te
llamas? De dsnde vienes?"
Apparently they had conferred and decided to
approach the stranger en masse. I am carrying a notebook and a plastic bag
filled with colored pens. They grab the notebook and fill it with doodles
and messages in Spanish: "Please come and visit our town again, American
friend. Con cariqo, Paula."

Later that afternoon as I sit on the steps of La Molienda with
my watercolors, Juan, the maintenance man, beckons to me.

"You are an artist," he says, indicating my notebook.

"Just for fun," I say.

"Come," he says. "I will show you my paintings."

I follow Juan to his little house, where he introduces me to Maria,
his wife.

"Come," he says.

We go upstairs into a little attic, which I'm amazed to find
crammed with canvases. They are mostly domestic scenes: fruit on the
table, a woman stirring soup, a man playing guitar. They are wonderfully
vivid: Their broad strokes and bright pure colors remind me of Matisse.

"Where did you study?" I ask.

"Here," he says, pointing to his forehead. "Only here."

Eating tortillas de patata with them that night, while a
competition of child singers blares on the television set, I feel a deep
contentment. They seem truly moved by the gift of a plastic San Francisco
key chain with a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge on it that I present to
them when I leave.

"I'll keep it always," Juan says reverently, tucking it in a drawer.

Concerned that all this camaraderie is distracting me from my
grief, I decide to move on. Flipping through my address book, I come
across a phone number my roommate gave me of a place called Plum Village, a
Buddhist community near Bordeaux, run by the venerated Vietnamese monk
Thich Nhat Hanh. What better environment for seeking inner peace?

Breathing in, breathing out

Breathing in, breathing out

I am blooming like a flower

I am fresh as the dew

I am solid as a mountain

I am firm as the earth

I am free.

-- Thich Nhat Hanh

I arrive at the Upper Hamlet tired and cranky from a long night on
the train, looking forward to a shower. When I go in to register, I find there is no
record of my coming, though I'd telephoned from Benalauria to set it up.

"We'll see if we have something," says the placid nun at the desk.

"See if you have something!" I am alarmed.

They place me in the New Hamlet, a 35-minute van ride through the
placid French countryside. About 90 monks and nuns
are full-time residents here, but I've arrived during the summer retreat,
which 500 people attend. There are four hamlets, grouped by
languages. New Hamlet has a sprinkling of Americans, and large groups of
Dutch, French and Vietnamese.

I've missed the van to the New Hamlet, and I wait outside for four
hours until the next one arrives. When I finally get there, I'm told there
are no available beds.

"Now look," I say to Sister Ving-yip, the sweet-faced Vietnamese
nun signing me in. "I'm very tired. I was on the train all night, I sat
in the Bordeaux station for five hours, and now I've been waiting all day
for the van. I need a place to shower and lie down."

Putting out aggression, I expect aggression back. But Sister
Ving-yip smiles and takes my hand. "Yes, Sister," she says, holding my
hand. "Yes."

Completely disarmed, I watch my irritation slip away, like dirt
washing off in a cool stream.

Welcome to Plum Village.

Bells bells bells, morning till night. The bell is the voice of
the Buddha, reminding you to be present, and every time it rings you stop
whatever you're doing and watch your breath until the last echo dies away.
This is no small challenge with a clock chiming every 15 minutes. It
goes for the phone, too: You breathe through the first three rings before
mindfully picking it up. Imagine my surprise when I was registering and the
phone rang to see the nun freeze with her pen in mid-air. I thought she
was having some kind of attack! This was all the more bizarre when it
happened about four times in quick succession. Once I figured out what was
going on, a comic sketch popped into my mind where Inspector Clousseau is
desperately trying to get some information from a slow-talking nun, and
whenever she gets close to the crucial piece, the phone rings and she
freezes. Then I thought of a scenario in which someone goes home, dials Plum
Village, and sets her phone on automatic redial, immobilizing the place.

Mealtimes are a system of torture designed especially for me. We
stand silently in line to serve ourselves, then sit at the long wooden
tables with our plates of food in front of us, breathing in their savory
aromas while every single person in the hamlet serves him- or herself. When
everyone is served, a prayer is spoken: "This food is a gift of the whole
universe -- the sun, the rain and a lot of hard work ..." As the prayer
nears its end, I begin to salivate, but no, it is repeated, first in Dutch,
then in Vietnamese, sometimes in French or German for good measure. Then
we have to wait for the bell to ring three times. Yesterday I swear they
waited a solid minute and a half between the second and third ring.

Another thing about the food -- there isn't enough. Whoever's at
the end of the line misses out on the good stuff, and ends up with a
plateful of lettuce and rice. So while we're supposed to be walking
mindfully across the courtyard upon hearing the lunch or dinner bell, I
find myself surreptitiously hurrying to get to the front of the line.
You'd think with all us wannabe Buddhists cultivating compassion and
generosity, we'd take moderate portions, but much to my surprise, all the
people at the front of the line load up their plates. During the second
week the line "let me not act with greed or gluttony" is added to the
mealtime prayer.

On my fourth day in Plum Village, after continuously finding
fault, brainstorming comic torture scenarios and bonding with others
through eye-rolling and sighing when the clock chimes, I go for a walk and
give myself a stern talking to.

"Look, Tanya," I say, "did you come here to learn about this
stuff or to mock it? All the rest of your life you can go around in a big
rush, never having to stop for bells, not chewing your food 30 times. You
came here because something is missing in your life. The least you can do
is commit while you're here."

After that I find, much to my surprise, that if, when the bell
rings, I truly stop what I'm doing and focus on my breath, rather than
waiting impatiently to continue whatever trajectory I'm on, the moment of
stillness becomes a kind of refreshment and regrounding, a reminder of the
silence beneath the words. Which I suppose is the point.

A week later, as I sit in the morning meditation, I begin to think of
moving on.

"Where should I go?" I muse. "It's almost September. If I could
make it to Italy, I could pick olives in Tuscany for a while and make some
money. And after that maybe grapes ... Then I'd have a chance to really
process my break-up. I could find a place by myself, away from all these
people ..."

Just stop it, Tanya. You've done the naked city, the mad dash
through Spain, the passionate affair, the remote village and now this.
Just stop. Sit down. Right here.

So I do. I sit. I sit for many weeks. And when I can't sit anymore, I get up and go home to my newly single life.

By Tanya Shaffer

Tanya Shaffer is a writer and actress who lives in San Francisco. Her most recent solo show is "Let My Enemy Live Long!"

MORE FROM Tanya Shaffer

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