The French Art of Swimming
Finding characters and a kind of therapy in the quirky pools of Paris.
If you get there early enough — and I nearly always do — you can be first into the water. But for the moment you stand at the side of the pool, toes curling as you contemplate the perfect rectangle of turquoise, broken only by the cheerful red-and-white beads of the lane dividers.
You flex your knees, lower your head. And then you’re in, gliding through a cool blue world, utterly cut off from the distractions of terrestrial life.
Swimming is not just exercise. It’s a tempo, a rhythm, a chance to reflect. Immersive is the word, all right.
I only started swimming seriously when I first moved to Paris. Back in London I’d take a dip from time to time, but when I discovered that the public baths just down the road from me in the 9th arrondissement were open every day at seven, I started going before work.
After all, Paris didn’t seem quite right for the mechanized exertions of the gym. Swimming is a far more graceful activity. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for with my sedate three-stroke crawl. My swimming style is like my lifestyle: not in the fast lane, but not in the slow. Somewhere in between, with plenty of time to breathe.
My first Parisian pool was a rather quaint affair. It was located underground, below a fortress-like school, and as you clopped down the tiled steps the atmosphere became subtropical and suffused with the medicinal odour of chlorine. Having shed your clothes in one of the narrow cabins, you placed them in a plastic basket and handed them to a man behind a desk, who slid them onto a shelf and gave you a numbered rubber wristband in exchange. I felt like a spy doing a dead drop.
There was a code, but it related to dress. Baggy trunks and — quelle horreur!– board shorts were forbidden. This was Speedo territory. A bathing cap was de rigueur.
Once in the water, I noticed that many of my French fellow swimmers had adopted an admirably relaxed approach to exercise. They would linger over their swims, frequently pausing for conversations by the side of the pool. All this gave the piscine a sociable, Mediterranean air.
There was also a group I rather uncharitably thought of as “the jellyfish”; an older crowd who swam a sort of improvised backstroke. They would launch themselves from the side without checking their metaphorical wing mirrors, assuming the rest of us would scrabble out of their way. Then after a brief burst of energy they would lapse into near inertia, jerking themselves through the water with twitching limbs as if they were still in their beds experiencing vivid dreams.
The backstroke brigade generally appeared at eight o’clock, which was my cue to haul myself out of the water.
After that, there were the mixed showers. Yes, in the uninhibited 9th arrondissement, men and women showered side by side. Of course we wore swimming costumes, but it was not a scenario for the prudish. One morning I actually found myself taking a shower next to my concierge (that formidable French equivalent of a building supervisor), a buxom Portuguese lady in her late fifties.
“Bonjour madame! What are you doing here ?” I asked, stupidly. “Ah, c’est vous, Le British,” she beamed, as she briskly soaped her armpits.
I’ve moved since then — and my new pool in Clichy is a much slicker affair. Above ground this time, in a modern building of glass and brick. Light falls on you through the ceiling-high windows as you swim, and on a sunny day, even in winter, you’re on vacation.
The pool is watched over by a squad of lifeguards — except here they’re called maîtres-nageurs, or master swimmers — all nattily dressed in white T-shirts. I’ve become quite chummy with one of them: a stocky Norman by the name of Loïc, who has a suitably streamlined bald pate and the glinting brown eyes of the perpetually amused.
“Exit or Brexit?” he invariably teases me, when I emerge from the water.
I got to know Loïc because he was one of my seven-year-old son’s swimming instructors. Yes, I’ve successfully transmitted my chlorine addiction to the next generation. He has a lesson once a week and on Sunday mornings we go together to splash around. And then suddenly the pool is full of sharks, crocodiles, whirlpools and hurricanes. Last week we survived a shipwreck. And all the while his technique evolves. He’s sleek as an otter — no jellyfish, my son.
Swimming is the cure for everything. Got a hangover? A swim will fix it. Feeling tired? You’ll wake up as soon as you hit the water. Even parenting is easier here. Water soothes the fractious. Disagreements over homework and dinner times are left on a distant shore.
At the pool, we get along swimmingly.