“D’you want a bag for that?”
I half detected a sneer and glanced up to check her face for the thinly veiled contempt of a Topshop sales assistant, but what I saw was the sweet young girl just doing her job.
“I think it’ll go in my handbag, thanks”
Relieved, I stuffed the wayward tentacles of hot pink Lycra string and triangles into my little purse and left the store smiling to my forty-five year old self that for £8 in a closing down sale I had just purchased an awesome bikini, and was actually going to wear it.
In my thirties I would have been appalled at the very idea of revealing my twice-stretched and deflated boobs and belly in public. Both children, (who, incidentally, are to blame for my ravaged body in the first place), were possessed by an evil impulse to unexpectedly expose my tummy to strangers, nice people who hadn’t bargained for a sudden sickening flash of soft pallid flesh spilling over my belt. A sticky little hand would swiftly lift my top right up, sometimes giving the blubbery mass a pat, or even a satisfying slap as if to brag ‘I used to live in there.’ Of course it was simply a cunning ruse to stop me talking to grown-ups and to re-divert my loving gaze back at them, but at the time it was mortifying.
Last week, however, as I exited Topshop, seven days of uninterrupted sunshine, sea and swimming on my horizon, I couldn’t give a flying fig leaf what I look like in a two-piece, because I was on a mission, to soak up every last drop of that golden Greek light, like a big Ionian sponge.
In fairness, on Day One of the trip, I opted for a more demure backless halter-neck swim-suit in a deep shimmering turquoise, knowing that, at some point, our villa was due a ‘welcome visit’ from someone called Andrew. That morning, as I carefully angled my poolside teak sun lounger and commenced the soaking up process, I mused over the name and wondered if it was ‘And-ray-eu’; a handsome swarthy beast with bronzed hairy arms, or was it ex-pat ‘Andrew’ from London, pink linen shirt, skinny legs and tan leather boat shoes? It shouldn’t matter either way, but I was keen not to frighten off our friendly host with unnecessary glimpses of my long-wintered flesh. As it turned out, after checking that we had everything we needed, young Andrew (in pink chambray) was not inclined to stay for a chat despite the protection his Ray Ban polaroids might have afforded him against the glare of my milk white thighs, and so we were once again free to resume our enjoyment of the complete seclusion and privacy of our Paxiot home-from-home.
Having eased my blue northern skin into the first eight hours of exposure to the fireball above, and avoiding the ‘Brits Abroad’ trap of roasting to lobster red with judicious slatherings of factor 30, it was then safe, on day two, to tie on my little pink confection which I then virtually lived in for the rest of the week, gradually shifting down the factors until I was basting my legs in the scented amber oil of a reckless factor 15.
For me, the turning point in the battle with Bikini Readiness came three years ago when I found myself optimistically buying and packing a sturdy balcony bikini set for a trip to the magical island of Capri. It was tucked into my suitcase more as a lucky talisman than anything else, but feeling fanciful very early one morning, wearing it under my shorts and tee shirt, I ventured out alone to find the rocky swimming ledge beside the Grotta Azzura. There, I was met with a heartwarmingly marvellous sight, local mamas, (and papas) of all shapes and sizes, in colourful and patterned swimsuits and bikinis, who invited me to join them in a refreshing first bathe of the day. Enormous trussed up brown bosoms, taut barrel bellies and saggy walnut buttocks featured in a wanton display of joie de vivre as they climbed down the iron steps into the swelling azure water flexing strong scooter-hugging thighs, powerful pasta-making arms and a complete confidence in their own fat bodies; functional, fit and far from past it. It was there, lying on a rock in the already hot morning sun, that my belly was freed from years of self-conscious confinement and allowed to face the restorative radioactive rays unfettered.
There were a couple of moments during the past week when I had cause to stop and note the absurdity of my teeny weeny two piece. Once I was preparing lunch, and had just put a basket of bread and balsamic vinegar onto the counter of the cool shady kitchen, when I caught sight of myself in the large mirror opposite: droopy, domesticated, and dutiful, barely clad in an ensemble more befitting the honed mahogany figure of a champion female body builder, not a housewife from Yorkshire. But it made me laugh, not cry, and I carried the dish of tomatoes, cucumber and feta out to the verandah, wobbling a bit here and there, but fine with it.
Then, having escaped for an afternoon’s lone snorkelling at Levrechio beach, I found myself within earshot of a respectable British family picnicking near to my chosen sun-basking boulder. The two little boys sat on blankets obediently dressed in long sleeved rash suits and those French Foreign Legion hats with flaps to protect the neck from fierce desert sun. They goggled at me as they munched on neatly sliced sandwiches, which had been carefully wrapped in tinfoil by their nice slim respectable mummy, sensibly clad in a black flowery one-piece and a wide brimmed sun hat. Knowing how my own children had been at their age, I could sense that one of them was forming in their head a loud and embarrassing question about my appearance, and to spare us all, like a giant octopus, I slipped back into the water to dive for sea urchin shells.
There were also a couple of afternoons at the villa, when I managed to casually tilt my chair away from onlookers towards the open sea of silver-green and deep blue beyond, and surreptitiously pull the pink string at my back, thus releasing the final taboo. We are British after all, and toplessness is still a bit racy for most of us, particularly in the presence of a teenage son. But as liberating as a skinny dip, the feel of hot sunlight on your baps is pure delight, even if they do end up tucked under your armpits.
The Greeks have six words for ‘love’, and number six is Philautia, or love of the self. This interesting online article in Yes! Magazine says:
“…the clever Greeks realized there were two types [of philautia]. One was an unhealthy variety associated with narcissism, where you became self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune. A healthier version enhanced your wider capacity to love.
The idea was that if you like yourself and feel secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give others (as is reflected in the Buddhist-inspired concept of “self-compassion”). Or, as Aristotle put it, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”
It might just have been the sun-warmed scent of olive groves, the post grilled saganaki highs or the Mythos beer, but during that week of healthy philautia, I felt very much in love with my traveling companions; the one that spent every waking moment in the water playing like a demented sea otter, the one that mostly scowled and was permanently attached to his iPod nano, and the one that muttered intermittently about the effing flies while he basked in the dappled shade beside me and read a gripping book about cephalopods. (Highly recommended, find it here)
It was torture then, after such delicious freedom, and seven long dreamy days of perpetual almost-nakedness, to be swaddled back into ‘proper clothes’, jeans, socks and sneakers, and then, as we stepped off the plane into the gloom of an overcast Newcastle Airport, a jumper! It was all I could do not to scream.
Last night I unpacked all the little brown paper bags of goodies and trinkets that we picked up along bouganvillia strewn side streets of Gaios, Lakka and Loggos; the carefully folded and sellotaped coloured paper packages of blue beaded friendship bracelets, olive oil soaps, tin lizards, candied kumquats and olive wood spoons. But, when I went up to bed, I lifted my top in front of the bathroom mirror and marvelled at my best souvenir of the holiday; a nut-brown belly.