{Un}Glamorous Paris: La Piscine

If you want to see the French at their most unglamorous, all one needs to do is take a trip to the local piscine (swimming pool). Speedos and swim caps required – need I say more?

The pool quickly becomes the most untraditional (and most affordable) fashion show in Paris showcasing unflattering speedos, some with tiger or plaid patterns, and other baggy ones that flow in the water like the plastic shopping bag in American Beauty. Even many women seem to struggle with the concept that swim suits are not designed to last 10+ years, and at a certain point they become see-though, and white is pretty much guaranteed to be see-through no matter how new it is. But who knows, maybe that’s a “look” that my American habits still haven’t adopted. For men “bermudas” are not allowed, and “forgetting” is not an option because each pool has a vending machine as you enter the building packed with itty bitty speedos, women’s suits, goggles, and bonnet (swim caps) – all for 10 Euros or less! [note: for men, I've always found these "square leg" style suits quite sexy]. Swim caps always give me a good chuckle, because they are able to make even the most attractive people a bit more normal. I once saw a woman who was quite elegant with a gorgeous suit worthy of Saint Tropez, but the way she wore her swim cap made her look more like she belonged with the coneheads.

But even those on land give me a good chuckle. The lifeguards tend to be middle aged men, balding or with ponytail, who on more than a few occasions I’ve seen sipping tea poolside. There are no spritely young highschool or college aged peppy girls leading water aerobics. Yep, it’s these same lifeguards, making it even more fun to watch an already highly awkward “sport.” Sadly there’s no pop or Top 40s soundtrack to accompany classes in France.

My relationship with the lifeguards is love/hate. Like any at institution in France, a Bonjour is a crucial step as I pick up my kickboard and pull buoy. At first I was neutral to lifeguards here, until one day when I was doing butterfly kick with my board, and the lifeguard tells me to stop splashing so much. Excusez-moi, but is this not a pool we’re at?? It was one of those moments where I wish someone was hiding under the grates of the drainage system to whisper me a great comeback line, like in Amelie. Then I got to know a lifeguard on a first name basis, and he’d always try to save the “lesson” lane for me (you’ll understand the importance soon – read on). The next time I was yelled at was for using my hand/pull paddles. Pourquoi? – Trop dangereux! I had issue with that too because the flailing limbs in my lane seem far more dangerous than my controlled swimming with hand paddles (in his defense, mine happen to be shaped more like shark fins than round paddles). But then another lifeguard redeemed his colleagues just a few days ago when from the sidelines he tells me: Les drogues sont interdits. My water clogged ears took a few times to register. Ah, drugs aren’t allowed in the pool. Ha! I assured the lifeguard that my speed is all natural.

Perhaps my greatest lessons of French society have come from my time spent underwater. Of the 38 pools in Paris, only a few are lucky enough to be divided to have a designated ligne rapide, or fast lane. For months I’ve observed how not fast the people in the fast lane are, and have yet to encounter someone faster than me. And then one day it hit me – “rapide” [fast] in French does not mean the same thing as it does in English. The French must have a completely distorted view of what it means to be fast, and no wonder everything in this country takes 10x longer than it does. Heck, even McDonald’s (better known as McDo) and Quick (a British chain) have very different – aka much slower – definitions of “fast” food.

The more I swim in France, the more American I feel. I’m reminded daily of how athletics is not a focus in their upbringing. Gym in [high] school is hardly exercise, and there are no school sports teams or after school activities, and swimming at the local public pool makes this lack of athleticism quite clear. On certain days I get cocky and start thinking I have a better chance of making the French Olympic Team than getting the actual papers I need to stay here long term. In fact, I have no clue how they breed any Olympic caliber athletes, but I’m guessing most don’t come from Paris. The first time I swam 3,000m non-stop in France, I felt like I deserved an award. Lanes are regularly shared by 5, but more likely 15 people at a time. That day was a bit calmer than usual, but I still felt like I was on an episode of American Gladiators and had just survived the gantlet of flailing arms and legs for 50 minutes straight, and was thankful I came out of it unscathed.

As a final word of “warning” regarding swimming pools, you should realize that most spaces at la piscine are co-ed. Yes, even the locker rooms and showers. Makes it good for families, but let’s just say it’s a different culture than in the US. The way pools work is that you go to the “ticket booth” to pay for your entry (or show your pass), you then walk a few steps and give this ticket to someone wearing a uniform of sorts. In most pools you’re required to take off shoes before entering the locker room (a pain, but smart for keeping things clean), so flip-flops are a good idea. There are then a few styles of locker rooms. Some you give your ticket and take a hanging rack for your clothes, you change, and then bring all your stuff back to the attendant. You’ll have a “bracelet” with your number to wear on your wrist or ankle while you swim. Other places have your own locker where you set your code, or at Pontoise [pictured above] you get the entire locker room – layered above the pool – to yourself. You just remember your number and have the attendant unlock it for you. Once you’re all suited up, pre-swim showers are required, and before entering the pool you have to walk through a mini “pool” of water to make sure those feet are clean! Et voila – Happy Swimming!

There are 38 pools around Paris in all arrondisements. Entrance fee is typically 3 Euros. If you’re a regular swimmer, or if you need an excuse to go regularly, I highly recommend the 3-month unlimited pass for 37 Euros (cheaper for youth and students). This pass will get you into most, but not all, pools in Paris (Les Halles and Pointoise and like a few others are not in the municipal system, in part made clear by the fact that they have better hours). Most pools have limited hours (hence the crowding), and typically are open daily from 7-8:30 and 11:30-1:30 (with many closed Mon or Tues), open most of the day Wednesday (when there is no school), and open 7/8am-6pm weekends. Also note that pools close 15 minutes before the listed times (there is no asterisk in France to make this clear). Vacanes scholar [school holidays] are the best time to go because pools are not crowded and open all day. Click here for all the info you need on Paris pools.

UPDATE: The latest post on Paris pools, a practical guide!

{Un}Glamorous Paris is a regular column exploring the less-than-perfect sides of Paris with a sense of humor, and helpful information. More in the series:
- Chest X-Rays
- Paperwork
- Finding an Apartment
- Working in France

24 comments

  • This is so funny, such a great depiction! I am ashamed to admit I STILL haven’t gone to a public pool in the 4 years I’ve lived here .I think it’s too much spectacle and half-naked bodies for me!

  • LOL, this was hilarious! Although I have to say that the French relay team gave the U.S. a run for the money during the Beijing Olympics, nearly rendering Michael Phelps eight medal record into nothing but a dream.

  • Fantastic post! You sound like a serious swimmer. This is something one wouldn’t ordinarily think to do while on vacation, but it sounds like a great place to go, with a grain of salt, of course.

  • Great piece!

    I was a competitive swimmer from about age 10 to 16 and before that I took classes at our local YMCA from age 6 or so.

    After I stopped swimming, I got fat. And while other forms of exercise are great, there is nothing as superb as a swim (I’ve learned). So last year I joined a USMS (masters) swim club a few blocks from my house.

    Getting up to workout before work at 5:30am kinda sucks, but the post-workout glow and effects are well worth it.

    Are there similar “masters” swim teams or clubs in Paris, to your knowledge? That would be something I’d look to join if/when I ever made the move to Paris.

    http://www.usms.org/

  • Have you ever seen ‘Falling Down’ with Michael Douglas where he walks into McDonalds a minute after the breakfast has finished and slays them all. This almost happenend to me (wanted to slay swimming pool staff) at Les Cours de Lions.. So stressful trying to get some exercise I quit. Before I killed someone. carla

  • “In fact, I have no clue how they breed any Olympic caliber athletes, but I’m guessing most don’t come from Paris.”

    This totally cracks me up. I tried to swim at a few different pools in Paris, and eventually just gave up because I could not wrap my head around how bizarre the experience was for so many different reasons. Sharing lanes was impossible because people were not very good at NOT taking up the whole lane. But you had to share because it was so crowded. I never found myself in a lane with people even close to the same speed and I was. I was also incredibly grossed out by the cesspool of stagnant water you had to walk through before walking on deck for “sanitation” reasons. And the reason dudes can’t wear trunks is also for sanitation, which didn’t make since to me.

    Ahh I am having horrible flashbacks thinking about it!!! Now that I’m back in America, I appreciate so much more my gym pool where I have never had to share a lane and can swim however I please without getting kicked.

  • Anne, you are really bringing it with this post.
    When I lived in Paris I only swam at outdoor pools, I find them cleaner and a heckuvalot’ more sanitary. I like the pool at Parc de Sceaux. You hit the nail on the head about the icky swimsuit situation. I. just.can’t. They are just one step away from swimming naked and with all that hair, it will not be pretty.

  • Brilliant description! I can’t believe there aren’t separate locker rooms, that’s a bit of a culture shock.
    And I’m with you, I think the square speedos are quite sexy (thank you Daniel Craig).

  • wonderful post!
    I love Paris piscines – St Germain marche is my fav-quite glamorous compared to anything home based. I don’t mind a bit the coed bits-at least everyone showers (obligatory). True the French have an odd sense of direction in the water, maybe similar to on the road.
    SWI – swimming while under the influence?

  • I once swam at Les Halled when they had separate lockers for male and female but the attendants were all females !! I hear that since the renovation, it’s gone coed !

    Is there a pool in Paris where they have separate lockers though ?

  • I feel like a babe in the woods (water) here.
    I am so in love/in awe of Paris pools.
    My homage here, one of many.

    New York City has zip, zero, nada in the way of CLEAN cheap pools for people so I could not be more appreciative. True I mostly do water exercises these days (sciattica) and limited laps.
    True I’ve noticed the French loose all sense of direction in the pool it seems…
    but I love the system, the price, the vending machines selling everything you need to swim but towels and very cheap at that.
    Swimming is a great exercise if not one of the best and the French look after their own.
    the city pool in Bordeaux(5 in 1) is astonishing.
    These pools are so big and airy with skylights compared to the dingy tired place I belong to in NYC.
    Well I’m waxing poetic here but I’m a big fan :)
    It’s rare to see posts on Paris pools so thanks!
    maybe someday when I move to France…
    cheers carolg

    • I know they exist, but have never been to one myself (there was a lot of paperwork for the 2 “teams” at my pool – which is closed for technical reasons). I think it’s called Masters in French and “Nager” is to swim or “la natation.” Let me know if you find anything…. It’s almost vacances scholaire, which means that pool hours are much more bearable.

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