There’s a place I go in the mornings, to wind down after the first hours of work and gain momentum for the rest, letting the mind churn out excess thoughts and reset. It’s commonly known as a swimming pool but in Paris, this name is too benign, conjuring up images of your friendly, local YMCA pool where the water is a place where community thrives as much as where exercise takes place. In Paris, this scene takes on a more aggressive atmosphere, as strenuously competitive and cramped as other aspects of life here.
I am generally greeted with a long line waiting for the doors to open. There is no profile for the Parisian swimmer; from the moment the doors open, it’s a mad dash for the changing rooms, businessmen and grandmothers alike stripping down with astonishing speed, and charging into the showers. Be it a lunchbreak on a weekday, early morning on the weekends, or late at night, lanes fill, water flies, and the ants fall into line, one behind the other, in an endless circuit of dizzying movement for this myope. Like playground days long gone of timing your leap into the spinning jumprope’s vortex, entrance into this cog requires careful timing and an assertive push off the wall.
One, two, three, four, breathe. Head bowed, I follow the fizzy wake of the swimmer ahead, making the necessary adjustments in pace. The water offers respite from the incessant noise of the world outside, all sound dissolving into the vacuum, pools of refracted light shimmering at the bottom. Despite my predisposition to excessively worry about other people’s judgments, I try to ignore the looming presence behind me and the pressure of not lagging behind, focusing on my own shadow gliding along the bottom of the pool. We’re all in this together. Traffic becomes heavy at the end of each lane as swimmers readjust googles and caps, catching their breath and putting some distance between themselves and those ahead before getting back on the race track. Through my half-blinded state, I assess the landscape, counting the blurred arms flying and heads bobbing on the surface. At peak hours, which seems to be always, there can be as many as 16 limbs coming towards you. It seems one can never escape the density of life in the city, always compacted tightly together.
Though unspoken, a certain code of conduct reigns over the splashing madness of the swimming pool and as the lanes fill up, a miniature model of the population emerges, a collection of bodies of varying proportions and personalities. The most fit, serious swimmers set the pace, their movements strong and sure, unwavering in their confident circuit up and down the pool. They are the leaders, wired to push forward and attract others to follow. These followers include those who are able to keep up with the general rhythm but are also attune to the needs of the group as a whole, willing to adjust their own behaviors to benefit the overall group. I most certainly fall into this category, preferring to adapt than to force my way through the tangle of limbs. We make the accommodations necessary for creating a peaceful environment conducive to everyone’s needs. Meanwhile, the leisurely and slower swimmers go at their own pace, and though at least one lane is usually reserved for them, limited space and high demand lead to a mingling of skill levels. There’s also always that one person doing water gymnastics, somersaulting all the way down the length of the pool at the speed of a porpoise, carefree and oblivious to any interruption they may be causing. But we adapt, the swifter swimmers respectfully passing only when feasible and the rest of us courteously hugging the lane’s shoulder and pausing at the end to let them go before us. Under the auspices of these rules, fluid movement is maintained and this micro-system functions nicely.
Perhaps inevitably, however, this harmony quickly breaks down. Whether from lack of oxygen or sheer arrogance, a group of impatient individuals systematically disregards everyone else’s right to an enjoyable experience. These are the swimmers who breathe down your neck as they pass down the narrow median with oncoming traffic directly ahead, volleying for a prime position in the line-up. Such “road rage” forces everyone else to yield, shield their faces, break their breathing pattern and roll on their side in order to avoid catching an elbow to the face, groin, or stomach. As these dissenters muscle their way through, all cohesion disintegrates and resentment begins to build. Once courteous swimmers become as tyrannically insenistive as these rude rule-breakers, succumbing to the temptation to resist this callousness with equally bad behavior. A few elbow jabs and tidal waves sending me scrapping against the ropes and I feel all the meditative qualities I love most about my swim leaving me as my irritation rises. What began as a mentally-stimulating, invigorating work out becomes a race to see how long I can stay in the game before my patience maxes out.
With few exceptions, these people who feel entitled to disregard everyone else’s space and feelings have been men. From the bulkiest, balding tanks to the sleek young businessmen with ripped swimmer’s bodies, the message has been clear: “my time in the swimming pool is more important than yours and if you don’t move over, I don’t care if I hurt you in the process.” They go back and forth in this way, violently churning up the water and pushing people aside as they go. At best, their behavior is disruptive and disrespectful, but it is also unsafe. Worst of all, it goes unchecked, with lifeguards and other swimmers turning a blind eye until a confrontation occurs. They stand smugly at the end of each lane as if daring anyone to say something. I have even witnessed a few shouting matches between offended swimmers and these aggressors, the most dramatic involving a man trying to block a woman from swimming in the middle of the lane with a paddle board, refusing to let her pass on either side and resulting in blows from said object. Interestingly, this woman was one of the few who herself was swimming aggressively. How convenient that a man swimming in a way that endangers others around him is left unchecked or approached with great deference but a woman behaving with similar aggression merits to be attacked with a paddle board.
These confrontations have left me with the feeling that though so much progress has been made for women in our society, a large proportion of men continue to move through this world with rampant indifference towards the consequences of their behavior. It is disheartening to see so many generations of entitlement within the confines of 12 feet of water play out and wonder if it will ever be different. Our world is in crisis in so many ways and yet we are still incapable of thinking of others and functioning with a modicum of respect for one another. No, instead it appears we are fated to continue pummeling one another, pushing the weak aside and forgetting that we are all humans deserving of love and respect. Even in a chlorinated basin of water.
Image courtesy of Jay Mantri @ http://jaymantri.com/