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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: No Place Like Home for a Good Swim




The stray dogs at the wholesale market stretched out in the dust, their tongues lolling. I felt as dehydrated as they must have done. Swigging cans of soft drinks hardly helped. I wanted to be by water.


I was shopping with my friend Sveta, buying groceries in bulk so that her mother-in-law could feed her kids for the whole summer at the dacha. Sveta was grumpy because she would have to stay behind to work, economic necessity having made long, lazy holidays a thing of the past for able-bodied adults.


The trolley was piled high with macaroni, porridge, tinned fish and boxes of orange juice. "Maybe you should get some jam to go with the porridge," I said.


"Never mind that. The bilberries will soon be ripening. For now, it is luxury enough for them to be by the lake."


The said lake is at Valdai, so clean that beavers swim among the water lilies, sounded enticing. I found myself envying the children. To get a grip on myself, I went to the Olympic swimming pool.


Yes, I was already armed with a certificate from the doctor, verifying that my feet were free from fungi. Indeed, my friendly doctor had given me a whole wad of blank certificates that I could just fill in when the old one expired, so no bureaucrat was going to come between me and a good swim.


A former naval officer flirted with me in the shallow end. He actually called me a mermaid! But there was not much excitement in plowing up and down, overtaking pensioners. Or, for that matter, in being nearly kicked in the head by teenagers jumping from the diving boards.


Suddenly, I had a better idea. I would go to Serebryany Bor (Silver Forest), one of the so-called "clean" beaches on the upper stretches of the Moscow River. This was before I had read news reports about trouble at the nudist enclave.


I remembered the area of mature pines and sand dunes as a kind of Garden of Eden. I had visited it shortly after the fall of Communism, when Russians were just beginning to feel free and some used their newfound liberty to worship the sun as God had made them.


With nothing on me but a notebook, the journalist's fig leaf, I had conducted some vox populi interviews here. The nudists were all gentle, hippie types. I especially remember one man, speaking earnestly of merging with nature. He was naked except for an absurd little triangle of paper covering his sunburnt nose. But he would not drop it on the sand. The nudists never left any litter.


When I arrived at the beach this time, I immediately sensed a change. Socks and bras were hanging in the pines like garlands on Christmas trees. Noisy groups were playing volleyball and quaffing beer. Broken glass crunched underfoot. A few bewildered nudists were wandering about but most people were shamefully wearing pants and were all the more aggressive for it. Furtive sex was going on in the bushes.


I did not stay long. When I got home, I picked up this newspaper and saw that police had arrested some "real nudists," who had strayed up the riverbank in search of a new paradise.


How well I could understand them. I ran a bath, the only aqua satisfaction I was going to get that day. The following morning, I booked a flight to Britain. The North Sea is so bracing. And for the next three weeks, Helen Womack is on holiday.