Transforming Swimming

I’ve never been much for physical activity of any kind, but whenever my frail corporeal shell reminds me that it needs exercise, lest it become even more frail, I swim. This month, coming off two weeks of bed-rest and many hours of sitting in cafés, I could feel the gripes and snarls starting in my legs and my back – the body’s cues that I could put it off no longer. It was time to visit la piscine.

I arrived in France forewarned about their swimming pools. Todd Babiak, another Edmonton writer who spent a sabbatical year in France, wrote a memoir-essay about them. I’d obtained a copy of all his French bon mots – an entire book’s worth – but the fact was, Todd’s situation was so similar to mine that I had to stop reading for awhile, as I feared that his observations and writing would have too great an influence upon my own. (I’ve since gone back to them, and found them wonderfully trenchant and touching; he’s a terrific writer.) But I had gotten as far as the swimming pool chapter, so I knew what to do first.

My second week in Lille, I bought the tiniest bathing suit I could fit into, along with an even briefer brief for X. Banana hammocks are mandatory here, at least in public pools. I also bought two bathing caps, as they are likewise de rigeur, even for barely-haired men like myself. Both rules address pool hygiene, I suppose; if you show up in boardshorts, the staff assume you’ve been wearing them all day, amassing germs so durable that no pre-swim shower can wash them off.

Babiak’s account involves getting chastised for wearing long trunks, so I made sure to invest in a plum smuggler in advance – well in advance, it turned out, since my illness meant the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny suits would languish in my closet for a month. But last week, I noticed billboards advertising La Nuit des Piscines – a fête involving free admission to all the city’s pools. I judged myself adequately healthy and convinced X to join me.

X enjoys swimming too, which makes it one of the only multi-generational Sharplin pastimes. When I got into swimming as a young adult, it was partly for fitness, but mostly as an activity I could do with my own dad. I don’t golf, and he’s not going to take up role-playing, but we can do lengths side by side, and occasionally even enjoy friendly races. Three months after X was born, I started taking him to the YMCA pool in Sydney, hoping he would take to it. We haven’t kept up our Y membership, but I did buy access to a nearby hotel’s pool and fitness centre; there, I can swim lengths every few days and coax X down the waterslide once a week. The hotel also has one of Sydney’s only hot tubs, which X and I agree is the best feature.

Piscine Marx Dormoy does not have a hot tub, but it has pretty much everything else – an Olympic sized pool alongside a kids’ pool, complete with one toboggan (slide). On the fête night, they’d stocked both pools with float pads, noodles, floating goalposts for watersports, and even some kayaks. It reminded me of the family rec centres in Western Canada, except all the shrieking was in French – but in an echoey pool, it all sounds pretty much the same.

As always, it’s the cultural touches that differentiate experiences here. The change rooms aren’t rigorously gendered. There’s a continuous, mazelike area with lockers, showers, and changing booths, but the “hommes” and “femmes” divisions are an afterthought, with demarcations far less clearly posted than, say, the “no outdoor footwear” threshold. I even found a female lifeguard in the men’s shower, chatting with patrons.

Meanwhile, my choice of trunks passed muster, but I got a few strange looks, and even some comments, about my spandex slip-on pool shoes. I couldn’t tell if they were frowned upon or just unusual; I had to reassure one guy that they were just for walking, not for swimming in. It seemed contradictory, in a venue so concerned with hygiene, to see everyone plodding around barefoot. I guess they place their faith in that square 3-inch-deep basin of water you need to step through before entering the pool area.

The foray with X didn’t give me much change to swim lengths, so I returned alone the following week. The large pool area resembles countless Canadian pools constructed in the 60s or 70s: a sharply sloped roof, natural lighting provided by skylights and rows of oddly shaped windows, and a few rusting metal sculptures whose loops and whorls might be intended to evoke water, I guess?

At 9am, the main pool was busy, both with teen swim classes and lane swimmers. I chose a lane with only one occupant and slipped into the cool water. I love to swim because it feels nurturing yet freeing – weightless yet swaddled by the water, in motion yet somehow suspended in place. I also love its isolation, which is why my favoured pool in Cape Breton is the (usually empty) hotel pool. I tend to swim slowly, preferring the breaststroke. So I was dismayed when a third, faster swimmer joined our lane, followed by a fourth.

I quickly learned that fast French swimmers are too polite to pass slower ones. That made it harder for me to enter the zone I sought, since I knew that I was holding up a queue each time I stroked my way across the massive pool. But these things sort themselves out. The others eventually either migrated to other lanes, or else we found a rhythm that allowed me to usher them ahead while I paused at one end or the other.

After 20 minutes, my muscles reminded me that this was the first time I’d done this in over a month, so I quit and hit the showers. But the speedy French swimmers in their svelte Speedos will have to put up with my meditative breaststroke again soon, and often, I hope. In the water, we’re all a bit closer to home.


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