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Swimming in Paris

It’s Thursday. And it’s hot. Really, really hot. And I’m from Arizona, so I like to think I know a thing or two about the subject. And alright, I admit that 32°C/90°F is not even close to the 50°C/123°F temperatures I had to endure as a child in Scottsdale, but like they say, “It’s a dry heat”. No chance of that in Paris! 

Up on the top floor of my building, with no a/c of course, my apartment starts to fry under the zinc roof as soon as the sun rises. By mid afternoon it’s unbearable, even with the curtains blocking the sunlight and the fan on high speed. It’s the humidity. It doesn’t affect my hair (I’m one of the lucky ones), but it makes me drowsy and unproductive.

I was planning on a double-feature this afternoon, but then I saw that this weekend it will be back down into “spring-like” temperatures and possibly raining. So…why not the pool? There are quite a few of them in Paris, two in my neighborhood alone. And I admit I’ve never actually *gone* to the pool in Paris. Maybe it’s because in Arizona it’s weird not to have a pool, so I never considered it a luxury. And if you’re used to having a whole pool to yourself for splashing around or just for floating peacefully in an inflated mattress, a public pool can seem rather…crowded.

But did I mention it was hot?

So I decide to go to the new Josephine Baker pool, the floating one moored at the foot of the Bibliothèque Nationale in the 13th, across from Bercy Park. It’s more expensive than most public pools (€5 instead of €3) and you’re limited to two hours (an extra hour costs €5 more). But I figure it will be all spic and span, and I like the idea of being rocked by the wake of other boats going by. So I pack my bathing suit, sun block, sun glasses, flip flops, and a book, and hop on the metro line 6 to Quai de la Gare, only three stops from my station. As I walk up to the pool, I see a huuuuuuuuuge line. It’s almost 3pm. I wait, in the full sun, for about 30 seconds. I take a photo and then walk back to the metro.

Back up to Place d’Italie, I go to the pool at the Butte aux Cailles, which is cool because it’s a historic monument and has two outdoor pools (the indoor one, naturally heated by an underground spring, was closed). There’s no line, I pay my €3 and eyeball the “swimcap required” sign (and another for the boys requiring fitted bathing suits, no bermudas or shorts-style bathing trunks).

But no worries, a vending machine inside sells everything you could need, from swim caps (€1.50) to goggles to actual bathing suits (as if they’re going to fit well). I get my latex hot pink cap, which looks and feel like a huge condom (and just as easy to put on), and walk into the multi-level locker room. It’s for men and women, with little private individual changing cabins and lockers that work with a €1 or €2 coin. And I admit it has that slightly nasty feel of a school gym locker, smelly, old tiles, worn down plastic signs telling you not to wear shoes outside, etc. But it’s functional and I have no trouble finding a locker. I then shower and head outside in my bikini, swim cap, and my whiter-than-white skin.

It’s crowded, noisy, full of little kids and adults of all ages. Everyone has spread out their towels on every available surface (and there are only a half dozen lounge chairs). I put my sunglasses on to lessen the glare of the sun, hang my towel on a railing, and hop into one of the lanes where people are doing laps. Doing the crawl at a leisurely pace (so I don’t get chlorine water in my contact lenses), I can take in the scene around me.

The whole “swim cap and speedo” rule is a great equalizer. We all look silly, and no one seems to care. Among the pretty, young, tanned and toned (and often tattoo’d) bodies are the fat, pale, burnt, old, wrinkled, and generally goofy looking. The lifeguards look more like the matrons of a school cafeteria than anything you’d see on Baywatch, and I wouldn’t have even known they were lifeguards at all (no bathing suits), since I only heard the whistle once when a super-soaker fight broke out.

Surprisingly, even though it was boiling hot, about half the people there were not in the water, simply hanging out at the edge with their legs in, or leaning over the railing at the mezzanine, watching. I stayed in the water for about an hour, only getting out to put more sunblock on my face, occasionally getting splashed by the random swimmer demonstrating his butterfly stroke, or by a kid cannon balling into the pool. I accidentally swallow a mouthful of water and, for once, wished it tasted more strongly of chlorine. Beurk.

At about 5pm I rinse off in the showers, get dressed, skip the wall-mounted hair dryers and head back out into the afternoon heat. My hair is dry within ten minutes. But by 10pm it is already cooling off in Paris. Today (Saturday) as I write this, it’s cloudy and cool, with rain forecast for tomorrow. That may have been my one and only chance to go to the pool all “summer”. Glad I took it!

 

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  • If you want to see goofy, try the pool at Paris Plages. Free aquagym classes 3 times a day – 8 am, noon, and 7 pm. Wear your suit under your clothes to be one of the first to the pool: you’ll have 5 – 10 minutes to glide about in relative solitude before 40-odd minutes of mass goofiness ensues. The instructor barks out moves that nobody can keep up to, while 3 other apparently superfluous lifeguards loll about the deck looking bored. Sarah