Sunday, February 19, 2006

At Least You Can't Stain Your Shirt

Naked lunch? Make it dinner

Eating in the altogether with perfect strangers is not everybody’s idea of a relaxing evening, but one Edinburgh couple has turned it into an art form, writes Eva Langlands

The Times Online – Scotland

February 19, 2006

It’s eight o’clock, the candles are flickering merrily and Roxanne is putting the finishing touches to tonight’s meal. Her husband, Richard, is entertaining the guests, the sound of Michael Bublé humming soothingly in the background. Conversation is polite — it’s the first time the couples have met — yet brimful with anticipation.

Everyone is waiting for the party to begin. Finally the signal comes: “Dinner’s ready. If you’d like to get changed we can start the meal.” Disappearing into separate bedrooms, the couples re-emerge minutes later. Naked.

Nude dining may not be everybody’s ideal way to spend a Saturday night, particularly in the company of strangers. But in a surprising number of Scottish dining rooms, people are willing to bare all before the breadsticks arrive and only cover up again as the carriages are called.

The whole naturist thing is bigger in America, of course. In New York, nude dinners are a huge hit and naturist groups host “clothing optional” meals at restaurants around the city. American converts to the cause can indulge in naturist cruises, flights and even train journeys. Instinctively one knows this kind of activity is never going to break out on the 8:15 from Falkirk High.

But if naturism has never quite achieved the market penetration in Scotland to match its successes on the other side of the pond, it plainly has a growing band of adherents. And when the options are the plunging temperatures of winter or a midge-infested summer, it’s easy to understand why, rather than parade in public, our hardy home-grown naturists have begun to open up their dining rooms to perfect strangers.

If their retreat inside is understandable, other questions about naturists nag away. For a start, if it’s not about sex, then what is it about? Self-respect, apparently. According to the British Naturism organisation, it’s “a way of life in harmony with nature . . . with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment.”

Given the apparent maturing age of many of its adherents, it might be possible to accept the British Naturism notion that “nudity in sun clubs is not sexually stimulating”. But it seems fair to ask just what is it with some fiftysomethings that makes them whip their kit off as soon as their stomach muscles slacken? The answers from the converted are amazingly bland. It seems a BBC documentary first made Richard and Roxanne curious about naturism, and they broke their duck 10 years ago on holiday in Spain. They were apparently attracted not by the aesthetics of the human body but by much more mundane factors. Roxanne mentions the comfort of not having to wear damp swimwear. For Richard there was a certain classlessness about the whole thing. After all, your top hat’s not too much use if you’ re naked, however rich you are.

On their website, the couple explain themselves with a certain diffidence: “We are definitely not models and we welcome couples of all shapes and sizes from all backgrounds and religions, to join us for a nude evening, dinner, and a good conversation. Roxanne is a mild smoker and we don’t mind if you do either.” Heaven knows where the smoking ban will leave them. They plough on: “We deliberately have not placed our photos on this site as we have family who we do not want to offend, we’re sure you appreciate this.”

Other Scottish naturists are more robust. Take the publisher of the online Secret Naturist Handbook who boasts: “For more than 20 years I’ve explored the rolling hills and valleys of southeast Scotland. I have walked for miles across the heather moorland of the Southern Uplands, mountain biked along lonely forest trails and splashed in the cold waters of the North Sea. All the while totally and utterly naked!” Totally and utterly naked they may be, but Richard and Roxanne are less evangelical. They have made the choice to be more discreet, offering three-course dinners at their detached home, somewhere near Edinburgh. The evenings are entirely free of charge.

“Lots of people think there must be a catch. To be honest, I think we’d get more people coming if we charged,” says Richard, who wishes his surname to remain confidential. “But we do it for social reasons, not to make money. We have dinner, blether for a few hours and then the guests go home. Nothing more.”

The couple believe they are the first to host nude dinners in Scotland, though there are naturist guesthouses in the Borders and Glasgow.

After their experiences abroad, Richard and Roxanne couple reckoned there had to be naturists at home who wanted to socialise just as they might in Spain — but without the hazard of a fierce Atlantic gale playing about their parts. Eighteen months ago the couple decided to go public — well, almost. Richard, a 52-year-old IT expert, created a website inviting naturist couples for “an intimate nude dining experience”.

Since then, the number of inquiries has risen exponentially and the website receives about 300 hits a day. While many inquiries are from people wanting more intimate entertainment, a substantial number are from genuine naturists eager to meet like-minded people. Now the couple host nude dinners every month.

The list of participants seems endless. A sheep farmer from Australia. A range of academics from central Scotland’s bigger cities. Local council workers, doctors, nurses and a recently retired army officer.

“Most people are around 50 years old, says Richard, “but we had one American couple in their seventies. Like us, guests are couples whose children have fled the nest. They see this as a chance to have a good night out in good company.”

Swinging is strictly off the menu, a no-nonsense approach that is spelt out on the couple’s website. To safeguard against undesirables the couple chat with people over the telephone first. Couples are not given the home address but instructed to meet Richard at a nearby hotel. Here he assesses the couple’s sleaze potential over a pre-dinner drink. If the couple pass, which all have until now, he shows the way to his home where Roxanne gives the guests the final once-over. Only after this final check, lasting about an hour, do the clothes come off.

“I’m sure the day will come when we get the wrong sort visiting. It’s bound to happen just because of the law of averages. We expected to have more bother. But so far we’ve been really lucky,” says Richard.

And what’s the key to a good nude dinner? Satisfactory room temperature? A ban on double entendres involving meat and two veg? No hot soup on the menu? None of the above. It’s just like any other dinner party, according to Richard, who says he is “a sociable character, willing to speak to anyone”. Keeping wine and conversation flowing is essential. Many people — especially first-timers — are understandably nervous about revealing all in a stranger’s home. Job descriptions, addresses and workplaces are kept secret as diners attempt to safeguard themselves from unwanted revelations on departure. With napkins strategically placed on their laps and bare bottoms resting on discreet hand towels, guests and hosts keep to safe topics of conversation such as football, naturist holidays abroad and, of course, the weather.

Despite becoming increasingly expert in the art of nude dining, Richard and Roxanne maintain that the best dinner was their first. It was the guests’ wedding anniversary and the couple — an Australian and a Scot — decided to dine nude to celebrate. Richard remembers: “It was just one of those nights where everyone got on really well. Sometimes conversation can dry up after an hour or two when you don’t know people. But that night the chemistry was just there.”

The good experiences have encouraged them. The couple once considered buying a holiday flat in a naturist resort abroad, but they couldn’t imagine how they would keep it a secret from their non-naturist friends and family, who are currently unaware of their passion, but who would have wanted to visit. These days, emboldened by their success on the dinner party circuit, the couple have plans to open a naturist B&B of their own.

“It would mean moving house, but it would be worth it,” reckons Richard. “A nice place in the country where people can come and relax would be great.”

Until then, they’ll spread their naturist good news at home, but with the curtains firmly shut.



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