Bathing in Barcelona


In the Spanish language, and in most romance languages actually, the activity of going to the beach is not referred to as “going swimming,” even if you plan to get into the water. Rather, they call it bathing. When on a beach in Spain, it can sometimes be a tad disconcerting when a local asks if you’re going to “take a bath,” because for Americans, that obviously has a different meaning, and we draw a pretty hard line between the two.

The beach in Barcelona is nothing spectacular – it’s a man-made affair, a remnant from the summer Olympic Games they hosted in 1992; but on a hot, spring or summer day, no one is worried about how the beach got there … everyone is simply happy that it is there.

On one particular sunny 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 with locals and tourists alike. But, it is pretty easy to tell the difference between the two groups.

The female tourists are wearing tops.

Now, I don’t consider myself a prude. In fact, I like to think I’m kind of travel hedonist. But when it comes to removing my bikini top, stone-cold sober, in the daytime, on a public beach … there’s just something about the thought of 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 asks What if someone takes a picture? What if my boss sees this? What if my MOTHER sees this? And these questions preclude any ideas of partaking in public semi-nudity.

Not so for the Spaniards. And strangely, even on a beautiful woman, there is something non-sexual about it … just women – chubby, thin, old, young, all shapes, all sizes and colors – topless and carefree. Sangria is served on the beach there (because, of course, it is) and strange men walk around offering coconut pieces and selling sketchy faux-name-brand sunglasses.

And it was here, in this setting, bikini top securely tied, eyes on the blue waves and soaking up the Spanish sunshine, that I learned a little something. A group of four American girls had laid out their towels 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, whilst I tried to ignore them. But after a few moments, it was clear: they were discussing going topless.

These were college-aged girls, and so I felt sort of big-sisterly toward them. Part of me thought, YES! Embrace Spain! Do it! And the other, Puritanical part, wanted to slap their hands away from their bikini ties. NO! Photos will surface! Forget every career aspiration you’ve ever had!

In the end, I said nothing to them – merely watched, fascinated, as one-by-one, they untied their tops, and giggled every two minutes or so, which did nothing to help them pull off a careless-not-giving-a-damn attitude.

That day, I also learned a little something about my own American-ness. There is a reason we don’t call swimming “bathing,” and I think it is because the word infers nudity, and our American sensibilities make us feel just a little weird about that. So, at the beach, the only bathing we’ll be doing is sunbathing, with our bikini tops securely tied, thank you.


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