To experience Paris up close and personal, plunge into a public pool

To experience Paris up close and personal, plunge into a public pool

PARIS – I slip into the water and push off quickly before the man swimming like a breast-stroking porpoise gets any closer. Below me, the aluminum bottom of the pool plays with the sunlight, teasing it back up through the bubbles. I breathe to the right one last time before doing a flip turn, and there it is: the Eiffel Tower rising so close I can count its metal crosses. The pool windows offer an unobstructed, third-story view.

Swimming in Paris is a full-on cultural experience. Many public pools don’t just feel like historical monuments, they are historical monuments. Backstroking beneath the buttresses stretching across the vaulted ceiling of the 99-year-old Butte-aux-Cailles pool feels like backstroking through a cathedral.

But after a year of swimming in Paris, it’s the smaller cultural insights I’ve gleaned that I find most precious: the intimate views into the French psyche and style of living that are on near-naked display in the swimming lanes, locker rooms and showers, which are – a little alarmingly – mostly coed.

I have been a swimmer since I was a kid. I competed on my high school team and for a year in college. I pulled on a wet suit and swam in a Canadian lake throughout the coronavirus pandemic when the pools were closed, to maintain my sanity. It’s my form of exercise and stress release.

So when I moved to Paris last August, I quickly developed a to-visit list of public pools across the city, many dating from the 1930s, during the height of the art deco architectural craze. They’re stunning.

Take the Piscine des Amiraux, built in 1930 on the city’s working-class northern edge. It’s a long, thin pool, with walls covered in white subway tiles. Look up, and you see a skylight roof, above two rings of balconies lined with the green doors of individual changing rooms. You hang your stuff on anchor-shaped hooks, and when you are done swimming, a cabin boy comes and opens the door for you.

It all feels like swimming back through time.

But even the more modern pools offer touches of beauty that seem luxurious to a North American eye raised on functionality.

Most have huge windows, letting natural light pour in. Many open onto lush gardens. I was so taken with two trees spilling lush pink blooms down one side of the Jean Taris pool that I didn’t notice the dome of the Panthéon rising behind them until the lifeguard, helping me identify the trees, pointed it out. (Crepe myrtle, by the way.)

I figured out some of the rules and unspoken systems pretty quickly: no shoes in the changing room, bathing caps required and no board shorts, just snug fits. The coed showers were harder to get used to, even though bathers keep their suits on.

Paris introduced “mixité” to the showers in 2006 to cut costs and to reflect the city’s liberal attitudes about gender, explained Franck Guilluy, a former world champion pentathlete who oversees the city’s 50 pools. The transformation, however, solved fewer problems than it created – including exhibitionism – and the city is bringing the experiment to an end, putting in separate showers as it renovates pools.

Still, however squeamish it has made me – notably when men lather up and vigorously scrub what’s beneath their suits and then rinse off by holding their shorts open to the water as they stand right beside me – some swimmers like it.

Writer Colombe Schneck, together with her artist sister Marine Schneck, visited all 50 pools and published a guide, “Paris à la Nage.” Colombe Schneck considers the public pools one of the few places in the city where there is true social mixing, disrobed of sex, gender and class.

The coed showers reinforce that communal ideal, she said.

“We are only bodies swimming – men and women. We don’t care. We should all go together,” Schneck tells me over a post-swim drink and snack at a nearby cafe, in keeping with the sisters’ mantra: “We don’t swim to get thin.” (Each pool in their guide is accompanied by a local restaurant or cafe recommendation.)

She had no answer as to why the most perfectly appointed Parisians, so consumed with fashion rules and rigid etiquette on the city’s streets, have no issue flaunting their informality in the showers.

“We are all a mix of contradictions,” she said.

That’s just one of the many cultural enigmas I’ve discovered in Paris pools. For a country renowned for bureaucracy and regulations, there’s shockingly little order in the lanes.

On a typical morning at my local pool, most lanes are full with a mix of swimmers: the serious athletes pushing buttons on their watches between sets; the competent-but-slow breast-strokers who prove difficult to get past; and those I call the sensualists: People who come to commune with the water and enter their own dream world. You might find them doing a few strokes and then drifting down to the bottom of the pool.

Technically, the lanes are supposed to be separated into fast, medium and slow. But I have seen that at only one pool.

The French bring their devotion to liberty into the water with them. You might have passed a swimmer three times already, but he won’t wait at the wall to let you by again. Instead, he’ll push off right in front of you.

“I almost never go to public pools – it’s impossible to swim,” commiserated Arthur Germain, a celebrated young French swimmer who in 2021 swam the full length of the Seine over 49 days.

French bureaucracy almost killed his project – despite his being the son of Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Germain needed approval from 14 government authorities and 330 mayors. He sees the pandemonium in swim lanes as the natural response to living with all of those rules.

“When people have liberty in France, it’s very chaotic,” Germain said. “People don’t reflect. They don’t think of swimmers around them.”

As for the sensualists, French sports historian Thierry Terret helped me understand them.

The first swimming pools in Paris were built literally floating atop the Seine and resembled a mix between a single-sex social club and a Turkish bath. People would go for the day to visit the barber, bob in the water, have a sumptuous wine-soaked meal and then take a two-hour nap.

When the first year-round pools were built on land in the later part of the 19th century, they were constructed to resemble rivers – long and thin, with changing depths and even rocks and waterfalls.

“The first real pools were built for every other reason but sport,” Terret said.

Only later, particularly during the Cold War when winning Olympic medals offered ideological superiority, would competition become part of swimming culture.

The mixed cultures displayed in pools today are a legacy of this.

At first, I found swimming here frustrating: too much dodging and motorboat-style kicking to make a pass.

But over time, I’ve adapted. Rather than battle them, I’m learning from the sensualists.

I’ve slowed down enough to absorb the architectural and botanical beauty around me. Rather than chopping through the water, I’ve started to feel its silky threads weave through my fingers. I’ve worked to notice the light bending through the water. It now feels less like a harried game of Frogger and more like swimming through an impressionist painting.

There are a few less-beautiful pools in the city, Guilluy says – underground, no garden, no art deco features. They tend to be less busy.

I could try one of them to get in a true workout, I suppose.

But given the choice between beauty and exercise, I’ll take beauty. In that way, I’m becoming a Parisian.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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