In Spanish-- and in most romance languages actually--they do not refer to going to the beach as going swimming, even if you are going to get in the water. Instead, they called it bathing. It can be a tad disconcerting sometimes for to someone ask if you are going to take a bath when at the beach, because, for Americans, this obviously has a different connotation. And, I have learned, it is because in the US, we draw a pretty hard line between the two.
The beach in Barcelona is nothing spectacular. It’s a manmade affair, a remnant from their Olympics in the 90’s, but on a hot spring or summer day, no one is worried about where the beach came from, everyone is simply happy that it is there.
On one particular day, I took the long walk from the Eixample, all the way across town, past the Gothic Quarter, and over to Barceloneta where the beach waits to be filled to brimming by locals and tourists alike. But, it is pretty simple to tell the difference between locals and tourists.
The tourists are wearing tops.
Now, I wouldn’t normally consider myself a prude. In fact, I like to think of myself as a kind of travel hedonist. But when it comes to taking off my bikini top off, stone-cold sober, in the daytime, on a public beach…there’s just something about my mother’s disappointed face that stays my hand from untying those bikini strings. I think, in general, that most Americans have a little Puritan remnant lodged in their subconscious. Something that just says, what if someone takes a picture? What if my boss sees this? What if my mother sees this? And any ideas of public semi-nudity are shied away from.
Not so the Spanish. And strangely, even on beautiful woman, there is something…non-sexual about it. Just women, fat, thin, old, young, all shapes, all sizes, all colors, topless and without a care. Sangria is served on the beach (because, of course it is) and strange men walk around offering coconut pieces and sketchy faux name-brand sunglasses. And no one seems to care at all that there are breasts, just, everywhere. In fact, as long as the women are European, I am totally cool with it too. Girl power! Making choices about your own body! Yay, Feminism!
And it was here, in this setting, top securely tied, eyes on the blue waves, soaking up the Spanish sunshine, that I learned a little something.
A group of four American girls laid their towels out near me. How did I know they were American? Because they were loud, obnoxious, and speaking English. Anyway, they started whispering, then talking, with lots of gesturing and pointing, while I tried to ignore them. But after a few moments it was clear. They were discussing going topless themselves.
These were college-aged girls, and so I felt sort of big-sister-y for them. Part of me thought, YES, embrace Spain! Do it! And the other, Puritan part, longed to slap their acrylic nails away from their bikini ties. No! Pictures will surface! Forget every career choice you’ve ever imagined!
In the end, I said nothing. Merely watched, fascinated, as one by one they untied their suit tops, and listened as they giggled every two minutes or so, which didn’t help pull off the attitude of careless-not-giving-a-damn by any stretch of the imagination.
I learned a little bit that day about my own American-ness. There is a reason we don’t call swimming, “bathing” and I think it is because bathing has a connotation of nudity, and our American sensibilities just feel…a little weird about that. So, at the beach, the only bathing I’ll be doing is sun-bathing, with my top firmly tied on, thank you very much. 'Merica.
This article originally appeared in My City Magazine