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.
The effect of this organizational system is that my swim takes much longer here in Paris than in New York. I can’t do flip turns, because someone could be trying to pass me from behind. And to add to the excitement, people sometimes switch lanes at the deep end as well as the shallow end, cutting in on you as you reach the wall. It’s almost impossible to swim continuously, because of the small crowd gathered at the shallow end. And almost no one, even in the ligne rapide, swims continuously: They act like third-world cab drivers, accelerating madly down the lane, then resting at the end.
As an American already inclined to be prejudiced against France’s over-organization and controlled economy, the Piscine Pontoise reinforces my beliefs. It reminds me of an argument I’ve heard over the years from French friends that American society is too competitive, with no thought to taking time to smell the flowers along the way. But of course, one could say that because the Pontoise management fails to divide the lanes sufficiently by the skill of swimmers, it actually increases competitiveness (in the form of passing) and decreases relaxation.
In the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss, I’d speculate that the ambient anxiety of never knowing if someone will try to pass in the opposite lane is actually welcomed by the French as a diversion. While we Americans may see our time in the pool as an opportunity to escape social interaction and to “zone out,” the French find incessant interruptions and the need to deal with the unpredictable behavior of others enjoyable.
I do have one word of praise for Pontoise, however: The changing-room system is the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. You find an open cabin, each of which is numbered, and you stash your street clothes and shoes there. Then you slam the door behind you; it’s now locked until, after your swim, you summon one of the attendants to unlock it for you. So you have a completely private place to change, and there’s little fear your possessions will be stolen.
Trust the French to make it difficult to enjoy swimming but a pleasure to get changed.
Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context.