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Piscine vs Plage

Because of course the French have specific rules about where you swim

One of my earliest French-learning memories is associated with the word piscine, which translates to “swimming pool” in English. I was fourteen years old, in the basement of my local high school (where all foreign language classes were shunned to), and furiously taking notes while Madame Kapo, my beloved French teacher spoke. It was French 2, as in second-year French, and I was one of the few freshmen in the room. Most students were juniors and seniors who had signed up to fulfill their foreign-language requirements last minute. We were talking about le sport, and while I was trying to figure out even how you say faire de la voile in English, a group of seventeen-year-old boys erupted in laughter around me.

“PISCINE!” they were shouting.

Madame K, delighted that her worst students might actually retain some information today, ran over and encouraged them.

“That’s right! The easiest way to remember it is this: No piscine in the pool!

Let’s go ahead and agree that the word they were mocking - pissing - is one of English’s worst. It’s the dumbest and ugliest of mild curse words. Madame K knew this, too, I have to believe that’s true. But she would use any tactics necessary to get her students excited about French, including laughing at dirty double entendres (class favorites included, achète, douche and phoque).

Little did anyone in that room know how hilarious an actual French piscine truly is.

First of all, the French really like to swim. The French love to swim like Midwestern grandparents love to walk laps at the mall. They just consider it the perfect exercise. And this love of swimming translates into great and easily accessible public pools all over the place. These mostly closed-roof pools are open to the public at a very low price (most often, entry tickets are sold on a sliding scale, meaning you qualify for discounts depending on your income, if you’re a student, a senior, or have a family with three or more children).

When I moved to Paris in 2007, French people weren’t super into gyms just yet (although that craze had taken hold by the time I left ten years later). But there were pools in nearly every neighborhood. And with every pool, there were rules.

Let’s zoom out for a bit and look at nature’s original piscine, the ocean. French people love hanging out there, too. French beaches are notorious to Americans for one reason: topless women. Little do we realize that almost all beaches in Europe allow women to go topless (why wouldn’t they? All the men are topless… ) And quite a few Americans take the generalization even further and associate French beaches with going au naturel (even though I’ve been to more nude beaches in California than in France, but whatever). The truth of the matter is, there are very few rules on a French beach. Women are topless, children are naked most of the time, and men are wearing swimming trunks…

Oh yeah, wearing swimming trunks is breaking the rules. Because - and pay attention here if you identify as male and plan on swimming in a French public pool one day - swimming trunks are considered unhygienic in France. At the beach, it’s one thing. But à la piscine ? C’est interdit.

A dear friend of mine discovered this too late while spending an afternoon at a pool in Orléans. He had purchased his entrance ticket and planned on swimming some leisurely laps to unwind. Being American, he never imagined in a million years that his roomy swim trunks would cause a scandal. But as he walked out of the locker room and made his way to the diving board, he was called out by a lifeguard who told him to go back and change. Apparently, his nether parts flopping around in a pair of shorts was considered a risk to public health. He would have to go and purchase a speedo from the vending machine (YES!) in the lobby. And a swimming cap as well, as no one was allowed to have their head uncovered in the pool.

He left.

Other friends have laughed at other French pool rules with me. One in particular had a hard time not being clobbered by kids every time she went. French children - when they’re not traveling the world with their teachers - are taught to swim as part of their school curriculum (anyone want to be a French child yet?). This is great - for the kids. But it means that you’ve got some pretty wonky hours to stick to should you not want to get kicked in the face by fourth graders in your lane. I’d encourage you to change lanes should that happen, but the French seem to stick to certain lanes in the pool like you would when traveling down the highway. If you can’t swim at an Olympic athlete’s pace, you better stay the hell away from the middle lanes lest you get run over.

And all that toplessness that French women enjoy at the beaches? No way is that acceptable in a public pool. Men’s hairy chests are allowed to go uncovered (even though everything else has to stay wrapped up). But a woman’s breast? Not indoors.

The thing is, I get why there are rules. It’s probably smart to make everyone wear a swimming cap, otherwise the drains would constantly be clogged with hair. And I’ve been told that the main reason men must wear speedos is because there’s concern that they would otherwise wear their swimming trunks on the bus, metro, or wherever else on their way to the pool, and not change into something clean before getting into the water.

But I must laugh at piscine. Not because of the double entendre, but because, with all these rules, I can’t help but think that French public pools are just so, well, French.


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