Anne Ditmeyer

design + communication

139

22

Paris Piscine

I've had this piece in my head for over a year now. The trouble is when you write while you swim, it's hard to actually write it down! I have so much to say on the subject but felt overwhelmed. Thankfully after a swim today things became clearer again. I realized I have been trying to say too much in one article, when I'd be better off writing a series of smaller pieces (inspired in part by Olivier Magny's blog turned book, Stuff Parisians Like [the French edition is way cooler], and part by the constraints put on this assignment). In a dream world, it'd become a regular published series, or a book with illustrations by French illustrator Jean Jullien. (People have enjoyed my pool pieces on my blog, here & here).

While the assignment for this class is to write about a mysterious person, my "person" is the Paris swimming pool. Trust me, they have LOTS of personality. I'm treating this piece as an introduction to the first in a series.

Step 1: Subject 

I'm a natural born pisces who has been a swimmer my entire life. My summers were spent as a pool rat, lifeguard and swim coach. While swimming is an internationally celebrated sport, it wasn't until I moved to France that I learned what a true cultural experience la piscine [the pool] can be.

Step 2: Angle 

Paris pools may as well be a symbol of French bureaucracy (with the exception of not needing to bring your 4" binder of paperwork with you). Hours are typically limited to 7-8-:30am and 11:30-1:30pm – except when the hours are different, or the pool is on strike. Note, there is an invisble asterisk embedded in French DNA that says the pool closes 15-30 minutes before the time listed. There is a process for everything, including taking off one's shoes before entering the locker room (typically co-ed, FYI) to washing one's feet in the pediluve [foot bath, and yes there is a French word for it!], after taking a shower but before getting into the pool. The "fast" lane moves more like the pace of an escargot, and trying to pass someone is about as successful as trying to get around someone on a crowded, narrow sidewalk typical of Paris streets. An encounter with "Paris Piscine" can be one of the most infuriating, or entertaining experiences, one can have in Paris.

Step 3: Profile 

When meeting Paris Piscine for the first time there are a few things you should know. First, set your expectations low, then lower them – things can only go up from there! Second, there will be crowds. Third, follow the rules – men that means speedos! And caps for all! Fourth, be prepared to be yelled at for non-sensical resons: not wearing a cap, not showering before entering the pool, or unintentionally splashing the lifeguard while swimming laps. (Running and nearly jumping on someone's head are typically are typically ignored, so there are some liberties). Fifth, bring a snack. While there likely will be at least a dozen (or 19!) swimmers in your 25m lane, so working up your appetite is not a guarantee, be warned that the only things sold in pool vending machines are swimsuits, caps, goggles, nose and earplugs. Now, the irony of all this advice, is that it's the exact thing I'd tell you when you're headed to La Préfecture de Police to renew your French paperwork.

The pools of Paris have given me a twisted view at times, making me feel more like an Olympian than your average swimmer. On the rare times lifeguards engage with me I receive reverse compliments such as "drugs are not allowed." However, I should be happy to receive any compliment as my friends who have worked in French offices only know they're doing an acceptable job when the replacement intern arrives and they say, "have Sarah teach you, she's good at that."Sometimes I wonder if I'd have better chances of being able to stay in France as an Olympic swimmer (at 33, and good but not THAT good) than through the traditional route of endless paper.


France is a society of rules dictated by bureaucratic measures, but enforcement is a different issue. The things people actually care about - caps, no speedos, and pre-swim showers - really have nothing to do with making the system run. In fact the while shower thing lends itself to major backlogs, and there's no one to help get efficiency back on track. In fact, I'd imagine the French word for efficiency - efficace - is more used in the context of something being pas efficace. Even when I'm third in line for a renewal at La Préfecture I can expect to waste away a solid 2 years of my life, and a loss of a bit of sanity in the process.


The beauty of Paris can be blinding, and the same goes for Paris pools. But it's what's behind the façade which is most telling. Despite being a French word, entrepreneur is not as omnipresent as one would think. (There is more of a copy + paste model of business rather than adaptation to local markets. See: Kickstarter as played by Kiss Kiss Bank Bank, or Jimmy Fairly is uncomfortably similar to Warby Parker). In Paris, true innovation happens in the Paris pools. It is always a challenge to not choke while swimming while observing a new invented stroke under water as if it was part of a National Geographic documentary. This of course is taking place in the "fast" lane, where when one swimmer asks a much slower swimmer to leave the lane, her response is "but there is no medium speed lane!" Now that's tenacity to succeed.


In all fairness the French are innovative beyond creative swim techniques, but namely in the area of social projects. New York may claim the High Line as their own, but much of the inspiration came from Paris's Promenade Plantée which was built as a park on an old railway viaduct back in 1989. Vélib, the city-wide bicycle share program which has been adopted and adapted by numerous cities around the world. Many of the city's pools are historic, and they are impressive sights that aren't easily recreated today. During the regular draining of the pool, one organization took over Piscine Edouard Paillerion for an all night "Underwater Party."


Paris pools tend to be closed during the day in order to let school groups in. One would think this would raise the quality of swimmers during other hours, but essentially it has only instilled a fear of wearing speedos that continues to haunt men as adults. Despite only having ~6 lanes during public pool hours, one can expect that at least one will be closed for a lesson, pushing the density of "swimmers" in your lane to uncomfortable - and sometimes dangerous, depending on force of flailing limbs- levels.


One theory in the often questionable swimming abilities in Paris pools is the fact that the preferred teaching style of lifeguards is by metal pole they extend from the dry comforts of the deck. The style is more hands off, and like the process of any administrative measure in Paris, the likelihood of anyone volunteering information you may need is quite rare. If you want to stay afloat is up to you to be proactive and ask questions rather than dangling from a cold metal pole.


In short, if you're considering moving to France as a foreigner you may want to give it a rest run at the pool first.

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