I relish social decorum. I love dutifully carrying on polite conversation and watching Wimbledon officials admonish players for colored shoe soles. There is something enchanting about the arbitrary banality of these cultural dos and taboos. Order for the sake of order! A valiant attempt to combat chaos! But over my past month in France, I’ve learned that francophone decorum is perhaps the fiercest, and, to illustrate, I bring you “The Gang Visits a French Pool” by Gabe Gunnink:
It was a lethargic summer afternoon during one of those heat waves when the government nags you via radio to check on your elderly neighbors, and my French family decided to skip checking on our elderly neighbors and check out the pool instead. Having spent the majority of my childhood summers at a local American pool, I imagined myself bursting from the oven-car, sprinting past the “don’t run, dummy” and “you really should shower” signs, and crashing into the cool chlorine.
In contrast, the process of entering a French pool is unnervingly similar to enduring airport security: it takes way longer than it should, the workers are disgruntled at best, you’re guaranteed to feel somewhat violated, and specified items must be neatly stowed in a 7.5×8 inch package. In this situation, though, the items aren’t your liquids and gels but your genitals, and the 7.5×8 inch package isn’t a Ziploc bag but a swatch of fabric I can only assume is fashioned from otherwise unusable scraps at the trampoline factory.
I always knew Speedos were a fine European tradition, like being gouged to death by bulls or evading divorce by guillotine. However, it seems that in France Speedos aren’t only traditional, but mandatory. The rationale, apparently, is to ensure that no one walks in off the street and contaminates the pool with his dirty street-shorts. In other words, you are quite literally required to wear something so indecent the staff knows you wouldn’t dare wear it in public. This is difficult in France, as I’ve seen a man enter the train without a shirt on, and leaves Speedos as essentially the only option.
Fortunately, I had packed my Speedo from home in the event I found a pool to swim laps in. I wasn’t really expecting to, but the suit is so negligible in mass that I added it to my bag with almost the same thought process I’d use in adding it to my oatmeal:
Gabe: “Should we throw it in? Maybe it’ll add some fiber.”
Gabe: “Meh. Probably not, but it’s too tiny to be a choking hazard, so why not!”
There was, however, mingled comfort and horror in knowing that if I hadn’t packed it, a Speedo vending machine was available in the lobby.
After paying five euros and withstanding a withering look from the like-so-over-it employee, I hip-thrust through one of those rotating subway gates and followed my French family into the locker room. And I mean the locker room. Singular. Men, women, and children all funneled through together.
Upon entering the locker room, we arrived at a staging area where signs instructed us to remove our shoes and wade through a shallow pool of water to cleanse our dirty street-feet. Safely across, we pattered into a kaleidoscopic room popping with pastel changing booths and lockers. At this point, we were expected to disrobe to public indecency and lock up our dirty street-clothes lest we later succumb to an ungodly urge to fling a sock into the shallow end and compromise the entire system.
Finally, to prove we had no dignity left to lose, we had to pass through an archway drizzling snakes of water eager to, at long last, sterilize our entire dirty street-bodies. And as I approached this final obstacle, I felt unsettlingly spliced into a TV-14 Dora the Explorer episode: into the crushing Speedo, through the rainbow locker room, under the drizzly arch, swimming pool! (Let it be noted I was also wearing a trusty backpack.)
But after reaching my destination, I, like Dora, also wanted to leap into song, because this pool was awesome. It featured at least three tiers of swimming areas, a mini lazy river, and six awesome waterslides outside and lap swimming, diving boards, and a looping, theme park-style slide inside. The arduous process to reach this point was instantaneously justified. In fact, if I’d been instructed to dress up as an Oompa Loompa and do the can-can before entering, I would’ve. With gusto. Dignity’s cool and all, but it doesn’t usually grant you access to seven awesome water slides.
So, after hours of swimming, sliding, and sunburning, I processed back through the intricate locker catacombs gladly, savoring every last drop of French pool decorum until we walked past the Speedo vending machine and back out into the enormous heat.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.