I have been to Ile du Levant twice in the past six months, once by myself over a weekend adjoining a business trip, then just a few weeks ago – again for a weekend – with my wife and daughter. An annual pilgrimage of sorts. It’s an incredibly serene, beautiful place, well removed from the hustle and bustle of Nice and Marseille. The South of France as one might imagine it before all the hoo-hah about Bridget Bardot and celebrities at St. Tropez. But the best part… it’s a naturist island! Ostensibly, people live there – or at least vacation there – to live naked on the day-to-day. In this author’s opinion, there’s scarcely a better place in the world to do that. At least, until the police municipale* arrive to write you up for… wait for it… BEING NAKED!!
*In my original post, I had referred to the police as gendarmes. An on-line friend from France tells me that, in fact, the police municipale are actually quite a lot less that gendarmes – at the bottom of the ranking order for official authority in law enforcement. (Somehow, I’m thinking security guard at Walmart – with all due respect to those who perform that service.) But it does add to the comical drama of the thing. “Dispatch the security guards to secure the island from nakedness at once!” Ah, geez!
If you read French, you can click through to read the entire newsflash (no pun intended) here! As it happens, the village of Heliopolis on the “Island of Levant” is actually a commune (or a borough) within the greater metropolis on the mainland called Hyères. It is apparently the law enforcement unit from that municipality that has dispatched two officers out by ferry boat to the island to make sure the inhabitants and visitors are abiding by three simple rules.
- You cannot be naked at the port! (Don’t want to frighten the people on the ferry bound for the next island. Seems a bit irrational in France, but let’s go with it.)
- You can be naked in the town square, but only if you are walking across the town square in transit to someplace else. If you want to stop to talk to a friend about the fresh croissants, you need to cover your genitalia – for hygienic reasons!
- You may not be naked in the shops on the island. Because… um. I don’t know because.
In fact, we’ve been to Ile du Levant perhaps a dozen times now and I thought I had read every bit of legislation regarding nudity there, but this was the first time I had even heard about rule #3! Apparently, this has been a particular issue at a little grocery store with a terrace attached, where locals tend to perform on an open mic while onlookers soak up the late day sun over a glass of rosé. Mais non! say the police! Cover up now or we will issue a citation.
By the account in the newspaper, the locals – at least the diehard naturist locals – are outraged, which as has been typical in the past, leads to a call to bare arms and rally for the rights of people to live naked on the naked island.
I have probably mentioned in a previous blog entry the most excellent book by Stephen Harp, Au Naturel: Naturism, Nudism, and Tourism in Twentieth-Century France. Among other things, the author tells the story of how the naturist movement first began on Ile du Levant well before World War II and continued to grow into a tourist boom-town, especially for Germans who were all too thrilled to learn of a place that was both warm and legal for nudists. Right from the start, there were issues with the local government about how naked is too naked, which resulted in this bizarre little garment called le minimum, which I think we would refer to today as a “banana hammock.” You can still buy them on the island, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do so, as stuffing my genitalia into a little cloth sack held up by a g-string seems way more sexualized (or at least sensualized) than being completely naked.
Interestingly, the post-war tourism boom brought even more people to this little nude island, which while controversial, was generating big money in both tourism and taxes, so the story goes that the local magistrate turned a blind eye to the entire enterprise under the guise of freedom of expression. But as societal norms became more liberal, altruistic mores like naked for the sake of nature and health became much wider, which attracted the swinger crowd who embraced a different mantra something like – “You’re naked. I’m naked. Let’s do it!”
Apparently, that all changed when the naturist quarter of Cap d’Agde came on line in the 1970s. The amenities were greater, the accommodations more modern, and you didn’t even have to take a boat to get there. The legend goes that the swingers moved to Cap d’Agde, and for the most part, Ile du Levant returned to its sleepy little self where naked was normal in the most bucolic of settings.
I suppose the argument for hygiene is a legitimate one. Apparently, the authorities are reporting that people are showing up at the bars in the town square, buck naked, and planting their bare asses in lounge chairs to enjoy an evening cocktail. I have to say though, most of the naturists I’ve encountered – especially in Europe – have been incredibly conscious about hygiene, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone seated anywhere on the island without a towel or pareo underneath. The implicit dangers of stopping for a moment while walking across the square seem a bit too grotesque to imagine, but it’s difficult for me to fathom that’s really a problem having visited so many French cities where the smell of urine permeates the air of a plaza or parking garage from somebody’s makeshift urinal of the night before. (I was in a big city in France the morning after the World Cup, and I have to say, it smelled disgusting!!)
Of course, I’m an outsider. Maybe there’s more to the story that I simply don’t know. But I can report that every time I’ve brought this topic up with a local on the island the response is pretty much the same – a puzzled facial expression, and a simple reply, “It’s complicated.”
Seems not so complicated to me. When I stop to consider the officer who reported to work one day last week to get his assignment, “Take the boat to Levant and yell at the naked people,” I have to wonder about the bewilderment on his face. It’s one thing to be pissed off about catching an policeman writing you up for a parking violation, but getting a verbal admonition for being naked, on a naturist island? Sounds like that’s a bad day for everyone involved.