The first time I was naked in public, it was April. The sky was clear and blue, but there was a crisp wind. Everything stood on end.
I was living in Linz, the town on the Danube where Bruckner was born. I lived close to the river, where there was an old steamer from the GDR that had turned into a bar that sold cake and beer and where people went to swing dance on Thursdays. Just along from the boat was a technology museum covered in LED lights that glowed a different colour each night, and on the opposite bank was a thousand-seater concert hall.
When I had told one of my colleagues in Vienna that I was moving to Linz, she made a face. In the 80s, it was a large industrial town known for its smog and its steel. Since then, it has built up a reputation as a place of art, culture and work. Now, it bustles with music and colour.
It is also home to a beautiful bathing lake. Only a couple of miles from the centre, and reachable by a riverside path, it is an enjoyable place for a quick afternoon swim. What’s more, it has a large, leafy nudist section.
My flatmate suggested we go, and I agreed. I am not sure what I expected. Certainly for it not to be so normal. It was cool and green, less busy than the crowded areas on the opposite side of the lake. Two men were playing ping pong. I could hear the sonorous pop of the ball as it bounced and bounced across the table. One man walked past energetically, clad only in a pair of running trainers.
We found a space and sat down. Off came the shorts, the tops, the underwear. I looked surreptitiously around. Nobody was interested. A woman sat, cross legged reading a book. A man lay in a camping hammock, his hat over his face, leg lolling out of the side. A family of four was busying itself blowing up an enormous inflatable mattress and unpacking a picnic basket.
The water was shockingly cold. It rippled over me and I plunged my head down. I felt my curls unfurl and float strangely around my head. I swam down to the bottom and back up again. I could feel water on every inch of my skin, cool and lovely. Free from the restraints of a swimming costume, my breasts felt light.
Being naked in public is a lot like performing or sharing a piece of art or writing. We even use the same words to describe it. When we share something emotional, we talk about being laid bare, exposed. To walk out on stage, to publish a piece of work, to show an artwork, is to take a leap. It is to take off our clothes and reveal all. It is to make ourselves vulnerable to criticism – negative and positive.
But to be naked in public – to perform – is also to be free and unapologetic. By unapologetic, I do not mean to be callous and careless. I simply mean that we should not shrink from sharing our art with others. We should not sit, our legs drawn up to cover our nipples with our buttocks clenched.
I heard an episode of The Guilty Feminist once, where the weekly challenge was not to apologise. It wasn’t about failing to be polite when walking into somebody in the street or stepping on a stranger’s toe in a lift. It simply meant not apologising in emails, not apologising for not having the time to do something right away, not apologising for self-promotion. For me, and perhaps for many people, it is an uncomfortable thought, because I like saying sorry. It trips out on my tongue like a magic key that will fix a potentially difficult conversation.
The first visit to the nudist area was not the last. It became a habit. I would cycle down from my building along the riverside path to the place where the fence is tall around the lake and a sign warns unwary visitors about the nakedness within. Every time, I would take off my clothes and walk to the lake and dive underwater. Every time, I felt unapologetic. I felt no awkwardness, there was no uncomfortable wriggling in a swimsuit that did not quite fit. It was natural and comfortable.
Of course, it was not a performance. I am not an exhibitionist – at least not that kind. But it always left me with a sense of exhilaration. Afterwards, I was always reluctant to replace my clothes and return to my bike.
Lately, as I stay at home unable to visit the place where I lived for a short while, and the friends that I made there, I have been thinking a lot about not saying sorry. It is a way of life we should all try to live by. One that is slightly less drastic than full-blown nudism.
So, over the past weeks, I have been on a mission to be unapologetic. I have not used ‘sorry’ as a crutch in emails. I haven’t put off the awkwardness of sending invoices, and I have stopped myself apologising for asking to be paid the right amount. I have not apologised in situations where I knew I had no reason to.
And something extraordinary has happened. I feel more confident. I get clearer, swifter replies. Not only that, I feel more creative. I have read more, written more. And, by only saying sorry when I mean it, I somehow feel I’ve recaptured the feeling of Linz and the lull of the chilly sunshine, and the loll of the man’s leg in his hammock.
This blog is a guest piece written by Ilona Bushell. Ilona is a writer, translator, and producer. She was the winner of the 2019 Rothery German Prize for highest BA classification for her undergraduate degree from King’s College London. Ilona is currently working as editorial assistant at The Day and is the co-founder of Macro Magazine.