It wasn’t until I experienced swimming at a Parisian public pool that I understood certain aspects of the French mind. I’ve been visiting France occasionally for 30 years, have dated French men, and I read French well. But a few hours in the water has done more for my amateur anthropology than anything else.
When I decided to spend a month in Paris, my first thought was to find a place to swim. At home, I swim a mile five or six days a week. It’s one of the most relaxing times of my day, an opportunity to step back from what I’m working on and enter another realm. I thought that the French would probably not be as good as the swimmers I’m used to at New York’s Chelsea Piers gym, home to a top triathlon team; but then, that might make for a more leisurely experience, perfect for de-stressing.
My first surprise was that there are no private health clubs or gyms with 25-meter pools in Paris. The longest is 17 meters and not very convenient to where I’m staying on the Île Saint-Louis. (Few of the five-star hotels have good-sized pools, and they charge $65-$200 a visit.)
Then my friend Helena turned me on to the public Piscine Pontoise, located just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain in an upscale neighborhood. For $6 a visit, it’s a comparative bargain. Dating from 1934—and, according to my French friends, semi-legendary for its inclusion in movies—the outside is a bit grim. The interior, with three tiers of changing rooms mounting around the pool, is dramatic. I was excited when I saw how long it was: At 33 meters, the mile I usually swim only takes 25 round trips rather than 36. I thought I might gain some time, and at my level, every minute helps.
I was in for a rude surprise. First of all, the pool is very crowded by American standards, even in mid-afternoon. Nine or 10 people in a lane, plus a handful hanging out and chatting at the shallow end, is common at Pontoise. Even though the lanes are wide enough for three swimmers, and are longer than usual, the sheer number of bodies makes for some anxiety.
Part of the reason why the lanes are crowded is that the categorization of swimmers is done in a way that makes little sense to an American. It’s not how fast you are, it’s . . . what you wear. While American pools, both public and private, typically have three, four, or even five speed designations, Pontoise has only one: the ligne rapide. The rule in this lane is that, if it’s crowded, the staff can evict swimmers with fins or handpaddles, but they are otherwise allowed. Breast stroke (la brasse), however, is strictly forbidden, never mind if the breast-stroker is faster than most of the crawlers.
And the ligne rapide is not all that rapide. While I wouldn’t think about swimming in the “very fast” lane at NYU or the “fast” lane at Chelsea Piers, I found that I could keep up in the Pontoise ligne rapide. The only problem was that the almost-exclusively male (and big) clientele are addicted to passing each other, just like French motorists. So, one either finds oneself trapped behind a slow swimmer—and wondering if it’s safe to pass him before someone else decides to pass from the opposite direction—or one is unable to slack for even a few seconds lest the guy behind try to pass. I haven’t seen a collision yet, but I have hit some people in the leg, and vice versa. It’s not relaxing.
Nor is the problem solved by scaling down to a slower lane. Next to the ligne rapide is the ligne avec équipement, which is for everybody who uses fins or handpaddles, no matter how fast they swim. Sometimes the fin lane contains swimmers of roughly even ability, a little slower than the ligne rapide, and a few really accomplished swimmers. On my first day, I thought it would be ideal for me. But even if you want to swim in this lane without fins, it’s forbidden, apparently for safety reasons. Since I usually swim with fins in New York, I decided to buy fins and use this lane. The only problem: With fins, I was faster than almost all the people—90 percent female—in the lane.
The next lane, where equipment is forbidden, is populated by people who can barely swim. Then there is a large area, about the size of two or three lanes, which is a sort of free-swim zone in theory, but in practice is for kids and people who doggie-paddle.