What not to do in Paris
Or: The most traumatic experience of my life
Everyone knows that Paris is a huge city with an almost endless number of things to do. The internet is full of sites with lists telling you all of the things that tourists MUST do. These are all very helpful and all but how does an unsuspecting traveller know what they should avoid when visiting Paris? Well, hopefully I can help out there.
For anybody planning on using a swimming pool in France, my advice to you is simple: DON’T! Like almost everything in France, going to a swimming pool is a stressful and humiliating experience not worth the risk.
Young people – especially travellers – are renowned for being adrenaline junkies and for doing stupid things. Some people get their kicks by jumping out of aeroplanes or by swimming with sharks, but I get mine by unintentionally annoying French people (an extremely dangerous hobby). In the summer of 2010, my (now) wife Flick and I travelled to Europe, as is compulsory for all good middle class Westerners. Over this period, Europe was going through what was considered to be a heatwave, with temperatures in the high thirties. As an Australian I would consider this amount of extreme weather to be simply “summer” but I am told that this weather was abnormal for Europe.
After a few days of walking around a sweltering and busy Paris, Flick and I decided to cool off and have a swim. We had noticed a swimming pool that was near our hostel so we stopped to get our bathers and then went to cool off at la piscine. On the way there I entertained Flick with interesting and humorous anecdotes: “Did you know the call it la piscine because so many people piss in there? Are you going to piss-in la piscine? HAHAHA”.
Upon entering la piscine we were greeted with that famous French hospitality, the staff busily read their newspapers or continued whatever it was they were doing, concentrating hard on not making eye contact with anyone. The French are famous for many things, but making foreigners feel welcome is not one of them. If you have never witnessed the French warmth then you really should, it is something to behold. No wonder the Germans abandoned France so readily after the D-Day invasions.
Eventually Flick and I walked up to one desk and I asked the person there, in my very best schoolboy French, if we could both have a swim. He gave me that look that all Parisians seem to have. The only way to describe it accurately is to imagine yourself walking barefoot and stepping into a dog turd. Imagine the poo getting stuck between your toes and you have to grab a stick and try to scrape it away. You’re not impressed are you? Now think of the look that you have on your face: that’s the look that every Frenchman will give you when you ask them to do anything.
Although my grasp of the language is basic at best, the response to my query was abundantly clear: we were at the wrong desk. This was communicated by an outstretched hand pointing towards another desk. I was impressed that this person could respond to our query so effectively without breaking their concentration or removing their eyes from the newspaper.
After following those instructions, Flick and I eventually found ourselves at the correct desk. I told the man that we would like to swim and asked him how much. He told us the price and a small transaction took place. He handed us a receipt which seemed somewhat unnecessary. As we walked away from the counter firmly grasping our pool tickets, the man at the desk shouted something at us. We turned around to see him repeating ad nauseum the phrase “la bonnet, la bonnet”. This word wasn’t in my vocabulary, but since the guy was pointing violently at his head I assumed that he was asking whether we had swimming caps. I told him that we didn’t and we were informed that they were “obligatoire”. After some more money had changed hands we were given two of the most unflattering swimming caps in existence.
Our desire to swim was gradually decreasing but we were committed, so dorky swimming caps in hand, we walked towards the changing room when our friend behind the counter shouted and pointed at us again. “Les chausseurs” he said this time. Although the man was clearly above uttering complete sentences to stupid foreigners I did understand that he wanted us to take off our shoes before entering the change room. This seemed a little strange to me since the only thing protecting my feet from the orgy of foreign fungi and bacteria on the ground was my shoes. But since I was a guest in this country I complied, risking gangrene and who knows what else, by taking off my shoes and instructing Flick to do the same.
By this time we had absolutely no desire to swim, our shame was too great, and the only that prevented us from walking out was the determination to not let Paris get the better of us. Barefoot, we made it into the changing room without our friend behind the counter grunting any more commands at us. Success! Or so we thought. The changing rooms – or should I say room – was unisex. Old men and women walked around completely starkers showing no attempt to hide their shame. The few who did carry towels slung them over their shoulder in such a way that it concealed barely anything. Stunned, I averted my gaze and found a locker to put my clothes in and get changed myself.
When we had changed into our bathers we locked up our lockers, inserting a euro coin into the mechanism. My locker however decided that one euro wasn’t enough and promptly ate the coin and absolutely refused to lock until I inserted another one. This was starting to become a rather expensive exercise, but we soldiered on towards the pool since we were so close!
Between the changing room and the pool was a tiled room with shower heads embedded into the walls. Surrounding the room were signs that said threateningly “Douche obligatoire!”. For those who don’t know, “douche” is the (hilarious) French word for “shower”. The word “obligatoire” should be obvious. Not wanting to break any more rules, Flick and I yielded and had our obligatory showers before continuing our Kafkaesque journey to la piscine.
The next room brought us one step closer to our destination and like the shower room, this room had threatening signs pasted all over the walls. This time the signs read “Bain obliagoire!” which like the signs in the other room, told us that we must now have a bath to wash our feet. As the signs promised, there was a shallow basin filled with tepid water and most likely human genetic material. The puddle was far too large to jump so, going against every instinct that I had, I did what the sign said and I walked through the disgusting bath exposing my feet to every bacteria known to man.
When we walked through the final hallway we were greeted with a beautiful sight: an actual swimming pool. At this point Flick and I knew what the Jews must have felt like seeing the Promised Land after walking through the desert for forty years. Almost in disbelief, we edged slowly toward the water. Pinching myself to find out whether or not I was dreaming I dipped my toe into the water and, to my relief, it was real. I looked at Flick with a big smile on my face and she looked back at me. We had been through so much but finally it had come to an end…
…or so we thought. We were interrupted yet again by an angry lifeguard who shouted at us in what sounded like complete gibberish. We stared at him blankly in confusion until he asked us “do you speak English?”. We nodded a silent approval before he repeated in English the gibberish he yelled at us earlier: “Your shorts are too long. You cannot swim here in those shorts”.
And here ends my story. After all of that, I never even got to swim because MY SHORTS WERE TOO LONG!
This is Flick at the actual place where these events occurred. I was too traumatised to have my photo taken.