{Paris Practique} : French Swimming Pools

The more I say things like “so I was talking to this guy in the shower at the pool,” the more I realize that going to the French swimming pool is a cultural experience I take for granted. The response to this sentence is always, “What!?! The showers are co-ed?” To which I then respond, “Yes, always, and in some cases there are not private showers, and unfortunately you witness some people washing their privates, and even some showers face the swimming pool.” Since my first piece on la piscine (swimming pools) was such a hit in my {Un}Glamorous Paris series, I figured today would be a good excuse to get practical, answer some FAQ, and de-mystify the mystique that is the French swimming pool.

WHAT TO WEAR
Like going anywhere in France, the question remains for the swimming pool, what to wear? Crazily enough, the pool has a stricter dress code than anywhere I’ve been in Paris. Ironically, this is the one place in the city where people are more likely to venture into wearing color or pattern (for better or for worse). But unfortunately, I’ve witnessed the most fashion faux pas at the pool as well. Don’t worry, if you haven’t gone swimming in 20 years and your swim suit is terribly worn, faded and stretch, you’ll fit right in. The good news is, if you want to feel a bit more up to date, every pool has it’s own vending machine with swimsuits (maillot de bain) for men, women and children, along with goggles (les lunettes), caps (les bonnets), among other pool-centric accessories, such as noseclips and ear plugs.

Do I have to wear a 1-piece swimsuit?
Women are not required to wear 1-piece bathing suits. Most woman do prefer the 1-piece over the 2-piece, as it tends to look better when accessorized with the swim cap. Men, however are required to wear close hugging speedos, and no “bermudas” are allowed.

Do I have to wear a cap?
Yes. In fact, some lifeguards will yell at you for not wearing a cap if you are bald or have a shaved head. Furthermore, you are more likely to be yelled at by a lifeguard for not wearing a cap – or not showering – than for running, jumping on someone or taking up the entire lane. The French take swim caps very seriously.

Do I have to wear googles?
No. Goggles are completely voluntary. Many swimmers will opt to wear “scuba” style goggles. This will be a clear indicator that they are indeed French and not a foreigner. I must make note that the time I got my black eye (un oeil du beurre noir = eye of black butter) was made worse due to the fact that the swimmer’s violent stroke managed to hit me right in the googles. But hey, at least I can claim that I got a black eye at the swimming pool in France! Makes for a good story.

TICKETS PLEASE
Like most things in France, the French swimming pool adds extra unnecessary and often useless steps to the pool experience. As most pools in Paris have highly limited hours (7-8:30am and 11:30-1:30pm), it means there is often a line to get in right when it opens (note too it closes 15 minutes before it says it does). I opted to purchase a 3-month unlimited pass (37 Euros), which I can use at over 30 pools around the city. Some places I scan it to get in, other places I show it to the person behind the kiosk desk. This is where it stops making sense. I show my pass, so I can get a paper ticket, the same paper ticket that they give to anyone who pays for their own entry (only ~3Euros/swim). Seems like a terrible waste of paper if you ask me, especially seeing as when I get to the vestiaire, I give the ticket back to another person, who I’m pretty sure they then throw it away.

Most pool visits start with stopping at the kiosk. I bought my pass for several reasons, and to bypass this step, but as I said, it often is a moot point. While you buy your ticket you’ll likely see a few guys bumming around in blue and red jump suits. I think they’re there to help tidy up (or take tickets), but if you’re looking for a job in France, it seems like a sweet job to have with very little stress.

SHOE REMOVAL
9 times out of 10 you will have a zones de déchaussage where you remove your shoes. Wearing shoes on the clean floor is a big no no. A man in a jumpsuit will for sure reprimand you.

Flipflops are a good idea.

CHANGING AREA
The way the pool operates outside helps indicate how it functions once inside. Here are a few scenarios.

Scenario 1: You give your ticket to the vestiaire (coat check), and pick up a plastic red coat hanger with a basket at the bottom. You go into a cabine and load your shoes, coat and bag onto the hanger. Then give it back to the vestiaire, but don’t forget to put the rubber bracelet/anklet with the corresponding number on it around your wrist or ankle.
Sample pools: Saint Germaine, Paul Valyre

Scenario 2: Give your ticket/go through the turnstyle and enter changing area. Here you will find cabines for changing (optional) and individual lockers. Before you put your stuff in a locker, check first that it works. Do this by closing it and see if it will close (if so hit the X button on the keypad to cancel, if not try again). You will likely need help the first time, but it is an easy system because you create your own 4 digit pin. Just don’t forget your locker number. In other situations you need a 1 or 2 Euro coin as a deposit for your locker which you will get back when you leave.
Sample pools: Chatelet les Halles, Georges Drigny, Chateau Landon (coin)

Scenario 3: Similar to above but instead all your stuff gets locked in the cabine you change in. Yes, there are tons of cabines facing the pool, and you shut the door when you’re on your way to the pool, and when you’re done with your swim you call the attendant over to your door (remember the number) to unlock it.
Sample pool: Pointoise

I should add that most of the pools are co-ed in Paris, meaning not just the pool, but the changing area (and hence the shower comment earlier). The thing that makes me chuckle the most is one pool I frequent has two sides, but it’s not divided for men/women, but rather it’s whatever side the man in the jumpsuit tells you to go to. It makes no sense. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because in either scenario the showers are completely open and face the pool (at least it’s one of the few pools with a couple private showers).

Tip: When in doubt just observe the swimmers around you and follow their lead.

THE POOL AREA
I’ve adopted the French way of bringing a plastic sac (my preference is one from the Apple store) to carry my shower stuff, goggles, towel (love my quick dry light to pack one from a sports store). Leave the bag off to the side on a bench. Just look what others are doing.

But before you do this, you’ll need to take a shower. I have yet to see a pool in France with a thermostat for the shower, so what you get is what you get (and it’s not always warm). However, there is always a douche froid, if you’re interested in an arctic shower… And then your feet get their own bath as you walk through a pool of standing water.

Now you’re ready to swim! However, first I like to “accessorize” by picking up a kickboard and pull-buoy. These are free to borrow, but be warned swimmers in your lane may just decide to “borrow” them from you without asking. Hence, I try to mark mine by stacking my water bottle on them (as the foreigner, I am typically the only one who swims with a water bottle . . . only furthering my theory that the French don’t drink water).

LANE ETIQUETTE
Quite frankly there is none. It’s a free for all, every man for him/herself. It’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen, and a bit like performance art at times. The fast lane – if there is one – isn’t particularly fast, and those that aren’t very fast, or flailing don’t really get it. If I’m able to swim 50 minutes it’s a miracle; no more timed sets in France. I feel a bit like gumby, worming my way around people. Remember the game “Operation”? Yeah, it’s like trying to pass people without hitting anyone in the process (see black eye reference above).

Two of my favorite techniques are “U-turning” randomly in the lane to avoid actually passing someone (just be aware of the speed of the person behind you). I’ve also been know to “flip turn” in the middle of the lane. The benefit to this is you build strength because there is no wall to push off so you have to work to get moving again.

MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR SWIM
I long ago made peace with the fact that going to the pool in Paris is more of a cultural experience than an actual workout. However, any workout is better than no workout, and for me it’s a way for me to clear my head, unplug and get a good laugh. The best perk too is that I always get compliments on my hair after I swim; I swear it’s just the chlorine!

Here are a few tips and tricks of the pool:
Paris.fr has a great list + map of all the pools of Paris.
– Try to go to the pool during “off hours” (nearly impossible when it’s open 7:30-9am and 11:30-1:30pm). Vacances scholar is my favorite time(s) of the year – not only are there far fewer swimmers (they’re all on vacation) and the pool is open all day.
– In the water, don’t crowd up next to the wall, but rather try to keep the counter-clockwise flow of the lane. When taking a break at the wall, please leave room for other swimmers to pass. (Sounds like common sense, right? Well, it’s not!)
– Don’t randomly stop and start walking in the middle of the lane for no reason.
– Don’t swim in the middle of the lane, unless you’re passing. Instead, try to “hug” the lane rope to let others pass.
– Don’t push off the wall right before you see a faster swimmer coming. It’s just nice.
Conclusion: USE COMMON SENSE!

Happy Swimming!!!

20 comments

  • oh oh, you need to go to the pool in Maisons-Alfort (metro line 8, Maisons-Alfort Stade Station) so you can enjoy the NON-coed showers and changing rooms :)
    This posts just makes me laugh (in a good way). I just like culture shock posts as it makes me think about my own (French) culture. Though I could write the same about my many experiences when I was in the US (many, many strange things from a French point of view…) I am currently an expat in Eastern Africa but I am back in France in July and I will have fun trying to settle back in my own culture! I know it will be fun, … and frustratng (the delaing with the adminsitration part).
    Karine

  • I have laughed out loud at least five times while reading this. I kept copy/pasting sections to IM to my husband, who was also laughing! LOVED this. Love your writing style and your incredible sense of humor. This was just great!

  • As a frequent overseas lap swimmer I laughed so hard at this. Its amazing how each country has its own swimming etiquette. In Scandinavia they have the most fantastic pools but everyone swims only breaststroke!

  • I brought my stuff in a clear plastic bag from Pierre Herme.
    I’ll never forget the pool attendent remarking on what good pastry that is.
    Last time I took a plastic bag to Pontoise I left it there with all my goodies(cap, hand gloves, goggles).
    Gone in an instant too.

  • The changing area at Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles is similar to Scenario 1, but the lockers are accessed by coin. The showers aren’t co-ed, but no one seems to take a nude shower. One early morning they were late in unlocking the doors, and when one of the swimmers rang the bell, the reaction from some of the others was “Uh-oh, don’t make ‘em mad.”

    The changing area at Piscine Aspirant Dunand is like Scenario 2, and even though the showers aren’t co-ed, they’re open to (and perpendicular to) the pool, the men’s on the first floor, the women’s on the second. This means there’s a little more privacy for women. (Interestingly Julnia and Nageurbordeaux at http://www.nageurs.com have remarked on that douche situation.)

    Sometimes various staff members (ticket sellers, ticket takers, lifeguards) at Aspirant Dunand fail to show up. That means sometimes you can’t get in at all, but sometimes you get in for free.

  • April 14, 2013 at 10:31 am // Reply

    Pools that may be used by many people or by the general public are called public, while pools used exclusively by a few people or in a home are called private. Many health clubs, fitness centers and private clubs have public pools used mostly for exercise. Many hotels have pools available for their guests. Hot tubs and spas are pools with hot water, used for relaxation or therapy, and are common in homes, hotels, clubs and massage parlors. Swimming pools are also used for diving and other water sports, as well as for the training of lifeguards and astronauts.”

    Our favorite web site
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  • AARRRGGGGHGHHH. It’s true! It’s ALL true. They DO just randomly get up and start walking. There is absolutely no lane etiquette. There is no swim direction. There is no fast lane. There is zero chance of getting any exercise. I just got back from my first Parisian swimming pool experience and I am nearly crying – it’s not just the chlorine. However, with my Pollyanna hat on, at my darkest hour: just as I was about to brain some guy doing ‘speed laps’ so slow he was basically going backwards – I DID appreciate the obscure cultural experience I was at that moment party to, and I DID chuckle to myself (briefly). Then I got dressed and went outside to furiously smoke cigarettes and mutter to myself using words like ‘ridiculous’ and ‘insane’ and ‘so bloody French’.

  • Do you know if there are any swimming pools in Paris that offer lessons to learn swimming in English?
    Because we (me and my sister) went to one but the told us that it was not possible for beginners to learn.

    • I do not, but I’m sure there’s a pool somewhere with English speakers. Check with American Church or American Library goers maybe.

  • Well, it can be an ego boost. I’m a mediocre swimmer at best in Santa Barbara, where I am in the “medium” lane at Los Banos where there are world-class triathletes zooming back and forth in fast lanes.
    But here, man I feel like Phelps! But that feeling passes in about 5 minutes, and it quickly becomes frustrating, no doubt.
    Good pools to try:
    Keller in the 15th (rue engenieure keller) – 50 meters long, and top that opens in spring/summer/good weather
    Blomet, also in the 15th, also 50 meters.
    The 50m helps when you have to ‘turn early’ to pass people and avoid the hell at the wall at the end of the lane…

  • When the locker rooms are mixed or visible from the pool, is it considered acceptable to change out in the open and to use the showers naked, or are you expected to confine nudity to the cabines? I know in some parts of Europe, everyone gets undressed together regardless of gender, but I’m not sure about France. I’ll be there later this year and would rather not commit a faux pas.

    • Every pool is a little bit different. In general, I’d recommend using one the cabines if it is a co-ed lockeroom (vestiare).

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