- ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?
Fill in your credentials below.
As I mentioned in my article “The Swimming Pool” I have the honor to be one of the “regulars” at the “Piscine HÃ©bert, the municipal swimming pool in my neighborhood in Paris. I now go there twice a week, usually the first thing in the morning; it’s part of my weekly routine. This is how the routine goes.
The first thing you have to deal with is the “caisse,” where you pay. Usually there’s someone there, but sometimes not. When not, you just go on up and swim. When there is an attendant, it’s either a guy or a woman, and I’m here to tell you the difference. If there’s a guy at the “caisse,” it’s a piece of cake. You pay your money, and you go in. If there’s a woman, be prepared to wait as she examines every document for all the special rates the people ahead of you are asking for, and then studiously eyes their ID which she had studiously examined three days before. So be prepared to wait just a bit before entering.
That done, up the stairs you go for the most important operation of the pre-swim period. Behind a counter at the top of the stairs is a cast of characters I call “the guys.” Their first job is to take your ticket and give you a basket.
My out and out favorite is LÃ©on, who comes from the R.D.C. (“RÃ©publique DÃ©mocratique du Congo”). I have nicknamed him the “King in Exile.” Handsome, tall, elegant and above all dignified, LÃ©on can usually be seen bantering back and forth with the swimmers or expounding intelligently about some current event. I really have a hard time imagining him in such a dull and dreary job when it’s obvious that he’s bright and well educated.
Then there’s Momo, who is Jordanian and sometimes plays classical music instead of techno on the CD player that sits on the counter. Or “Le Rappeur,” who is tall and good-looking, with dreadlocks down to his shoulders, and you’re lucky to get a “mmmfh” when you say “bonjour” to him. This is in contrast to Daniel, “L’Homme au Casquette” (The man with a cap). Daniel, who does indeed always wear a cap, is an extrovert, outgoing and friendly to all. Occasionally there’s a woman, but they don’t seem to last. It’s a 99.999% guy’s world.
With basket in hand, your first operation is to remove your shoes in the reception area. There used to be signs to this effect, but they all somehow got removed, lost, torn down. You’re “supposed to know” that for cleanliness’s sake, no shoes are allowed in the changing area. So, I dutifully remove my shoes and put them in the basket, reach into my carryall, pull out and put on my thongs. Then I go around the corner to the changing rooms, lined up, one after the other, along a balcony overlooking the pool. After a quick change, I carry my basket back to the “guys,” who give me a numbered bracelet in exchange and then hang my basket in the “basket” room.
Finally, it’s time to swim. Thanks to Daniel, I have discovered cloth swim caps. One day I had forgotten to bring my rubber cap (dementia approaches), and it looked like I wouldn’t be able to swim. Since I’m a “regular,” Daniel offered to lend me a cap, which turned out to be cloth. Bingo! It was so good that afterwards I bought two cloth caps. This incident conveniently occurred at that time of year when my swimming suit wears out and starts to droop from my naked breast during the crawl–a definite signal that it’s time to replace the suit. I now have fidelity cards at the two main sporting good chains in Paris: Decathlon and Go Sport. If they don’t have what I need in one, they’ll have it in the other.
Properly goggled and swimsuited, I make my way down the stairs to the now “mixed” men and women showers. Total drag, but what can you do. (You can tell I’ve been living in France for over ten years). But at least the showers are hot and strong. Although they’re on a timer where you have to keep pushing the button for the water to run, they last a good 45 seconds before the timer goes off. (This is in direct contrast to my backup pool, where cold to tepid showers last about 5 seconds.) After rinsing off, onward to the pool.
This is where the cultural differences come into play. I challenge you to find a French person who swims in a straight line. It has been my intercultural observation over the years that French space is curved and the national shape is a circle. This means, look out for the woman in the two-piece orange bathing suit swimming a powerful backstroke in a crowded pool, curving” right into “your” lane. As I am an Anglo-American, my space is linear and my “cultural shape” is a square. Despite this handicap in France, I’m very proud to report that, to compensate, I have developed a new intercultural skill. I calmly, yet firmly, push the two-piece-swim-suited woman’s head out of my path when she buts into me. So far, it’s worked every time. No problem, a quick “pardon”, etc. This is in contrast to the time in Hungary when a very fat Hungarian man almost killed me. You see, he kept walking in front of me while I was trying to swim laps, so I gave him just a wee bit of a nip (a really, really small kick). He then pulled me over and started yelling at me in Hungarian. I somehow managed to escape being murdered in the Hotel Gellert swimming pool in Budapest, thereby avoiding an international incident.
I’m also very adept now at swimming around the person who is trying to take over “my” lane, then regaining “my” lane and taking it over again myself. This usually works except with large, aggressive fast-swimming males. I’m also very adept at swimming through really narrow spaces between two people coming at me from the opposite direction. Just boogie on through, what matters a petite bump or two.
Usually, the municipal pools are closed on national holidays. Naturally, for the last national holiday, they decided to open without informing anyone. Since I’m a regular and therefore have a “pipeline” (“tuyau”) to the pool, in fact, I suspected that they would be open on this particular national holiday since they had been open on several other national holidays before without formal notice. If this sounds complicated, it is. Isn’t life more interesting when it’s complicated? Anyway, I took my chance, the pool was open, and hardly anyone was there since normally it would have been closed.
So, having learned to swim in curves, as the French do (and as they walk and drive), I successfully navigate my 30 minutes of non-stop lap swimming in a clean, well-maintained pool. Then, it’s back through the shower, where I recently met Marcelle. We were commiserating about the stupidity of the mixed showers when she asked me about my “petit accent.” I told her that I was American, and she responded in perfect English! It seems that just during and after World War II she lived Kentucky, and her sister still lives there. I would never have guessed that Marcelle is 70 years old–she looks at least 20 years younger. She’s another “regular,” along with Anne, the really nice, totally friendly Chinese lady, and her husband (otherwise known as “les Chinois”). They have a shoe repair shop on a pedestrian street near my place where I take all my shoes to be repaired, of course. Apparently he was a computer technician in China (this is the scoop from LÃ©on who knows just about all the regulars at the pool).
After the mixed shower, it’s back on up the stairs to get my basket with my clothes from the “guys,” then on to the changing room. I always try for a double. Most of the changing rooms are pigeon holes, except for two which are double-sized. My “old” American self would have prevented me from using up so much space when it could be used by, say, a family. My “new” French self says, “It’s free, take it. So nice to have so much space. The others will just have to wait or use a smaller space–’tant pis’ (tough tiddly winks). Voilà.”
In the changing room I get to use the great shampoos and skin creams that I have found over the years in parapharmacies and a great shop called Plantaderm. Then it’s time to turn in the empty basket and say goodbye to the “guys” behind the counter. After that, it’s hair dry time. Here you get to choose between two hot-air hand dryers mounted on the wall. Fortunately they now both work, although there was a period of about six months (at least) when one was out of order. Ok, so now they both work. But one of them was mounted for French giants to dry their hair. I kid you not: It must be at least seven feet off the ground (OK, maybe six and a half). Luckily, the other one is normal, and I feel lucky when it’s free since I’m neither French nor a giant.
And then, I leave my beloved Piscine HÃ©bert, refreshed, renewed and ready to start another day in Paris.
Jeanne Feldman, author of Best Buys and Bargains in Paris, now leads private “Best Buy” shopping tours. She has lived in France since 1991 and specializes in intercultural communication between the U.S. and France. Jeanne’s website is: http://www.jeanne-feldman.com/shoppingtours.htm.