Owing to several shared linguistic roots, it’s not uncommon for some French words to sound like their English equivalents.
For example: ‘Boeuf’ for ‘beef’, ‘week end’ for ‘weekend’, etc.
The French word for swimming pool is slightly different in that it smells like the English equivalent. ‘Piscine’, for, well you get it…
Anyone in Paris who’s sought to cool off on the rare stifling day, will know the desperate feeling of looking for a public watering hole with a higher level of hygiene than a Ganges tributary.
The upper reaches of the Canal St Martin comes the closest; even so almost no people swim there, and those that do, would never submerge their head.
So within the ever-tightening belt of Paris’s peripherique, you’re pretty much left with kicking your feet in the gutter they hose twice daily as a passive form of cleaning, or failing that, a public swimming pool.
And so, this July day, the swimming pool it was. By 1pm our spies at the better known pools let us know that the more appealing of the low-cost options were refusing more people until mid-afternoon: their usual human soup level of crowding having reached the level ‘minestrone’.
There was once the Molitor – where Tarzan once was a lifeguard – but since they re-added water to it (having been a derelict site for illicit raves for years), it had become quite expensive, aka 180 euros a session.
The closest option was now the best: and by best, we meant only.
The Piscine Pailleron in the 19th, near Buttes Chaumont park, is not only a pool, but also an ice rink and solarium, (and possibly not-so-secret testing ground for microbial warfare). And it can be hard to know whether you’re sitting in a very hot ice rink, or rather cool solarium.
We parked our bikes outside and headed towards the quaint red-brick façade.
The first sign of something amiss was the crowd, or lack thereof: that would be a reassuring sign on any day but a hot one like today.
The second sign was more obvious: a man with wet hair and flip-flops, swimming bag over his shoulder who rode past with the manic craze of escaping a zombie apocalypse and yelled to us: “That pool is really shit”. He disappeared into the bitumen haze, wobbling over the road as he went.
But it was hot, and we would not be deterred.
Up until a few years ago, when they famously blitzed the pool in the London Olympics, the French were not known for swimming. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the experience of going to the local pool: which is designed to be as complicated, embarrassing and unpleasant as possible.
It starts with the dress-code. Lycra underpants – known as a ‘moule-bite’ (stick to dick) – in the vernacular. Or worse, lycra swim shorts. And no exceptions.
Perhaps this is part of France’s famous commitment to solidarity, whereby if you can’t afford trendy swimming shorts in bright colours and a private beach where to wear them, then no-one need feel left-out. In any case, the pool’s chlorine levels would quickly bleach even the most garish attire to the colour of Australia’s Barrier Reef.
Secondly, swimming caps as well? France continues to live in awe of Bay Watch – Alerte Malibu – or how else would you explain this.
And if you don’t have one? Well, as long as you’ve got 4 euros you can buy one from the vending machine; next to the vending machine selling…freshly squeezed orange juice, because, why not? That machine was out of order, and probably best left so.
Now we had the attire, it was time to navigate the change rooms. The cattle muster arrangement of the reception area now gave way to the abattoir style layout of the changing rooms.
With every step through corridors of unisex cubicles, you remain no clearer where the pool is; yet your sense of doom grows with every unlocked door you push. I’m not saying the things I walked in on were comparable to an Indonesian Halal slaughterhouse, but some things cannot be unseen.
We make it to the pool. It’s only for kids. And adults who swim like kids. We head directly outside to the ‘solarium’. This turns out to be a patch of lawn in the shade, patrolled by a man wearing plastic bags over his shoes. At least someone was thinking of hygiene (or his shoes).
Even so we still last 1.5 hours. All told, it’s more pleasant than you expect sharing lawn in your speedos with 60 other randoms from all walks of life.
But eventually hunger gets the better of us. The food onsite was predictably unappealing,but there was a local bar by the Canal St Martin not too far away, and if we were lucky, we might find a nice fresh steak, or perhaps even a minestrone.