The Magazine

Parisian Lap Dance

Municipal swimming in the Gallic mode.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By ANN MARLOWE
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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

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