The Plunge

The Plunge

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 @



Hello, Stranger

Hello, Stranger

Lock the doors, cellphone turned on and at the ready at all times, perfection a steely gaze while walking through the city and avoid all human contact. We’ve been raised to believe in our vulnerability and the vicious, cruel intentions of anything and anyone outside of our circle. Minds poisoned with television dramas and police thrillers, reeling with all the ways we could possibly be hurt. So we bury ourselves away in protective layers – perpetual distraction with the swipe of a finger, closed to the world passing by.

The first time I ever toyed with the idea of hitchhiking was as a lanky preteen joking around with my best friends on the side of a quiet road in rural North Carolina. There was something thrilling  at the thought of a perfect stranger stopping at the sign of a thumb, not to mention the deliciously satisfying element of the forbidden. Amid giggles and friendly shoving, we stuck our thumbs out and waited. But at the sound of a car rounding the bend in the road, we’d lose our nerve and pull our thumbs away at the last minute, erupting into fits of laughter and high-pitched squeals as drivers cast confused and disapproving looks upon our little group. Egging one another on, our thumbs stayed up longer, the winner to walk away with the glory of being the bravest. I can no longer remember who won the dare but I do remember our failed experiment ending when our church pastor at the time recognized us and pulled over to see what on earth was going on. First lesson of hitchhiking: don’t do it in your small hometown.

Then my friend Bri and I began planning our trip to Ireland. She brought up the idea after reading an informative article written by seasoned traveler and solo hitchhiker Ana Bakran, who addresses many of the myths and concerns of hitchhiking as a woman today. Her confidence and sage advice made us excited to try it for ourselves as we drew up an itinerary for our 10-day trip around Ireland. Not only was it sure to be an adventure but we’d be saving lots of money on bus tickets, a bonus for travelers on a budget.

So after a weekend in Dublin, we headed out beyond the western city limits in the direction of Galway. Although Ireland generally looks favorably upon hitchhiking, it is illegal to hitchhike on the highway. Therefore, we made sure to place ourselves as far out of town as possible right before the highway junction. Shivering with excitement and nervousness despite the sunny blue sky, we stationed ourselves near an intersection, feeling a bit self-conscious as drivers swiftly rushed past. Thumbs out, a handmade sign made of cardboard with our destination in bold letters, and high spirits were all we needed. The initial timidity quickly fell away as we committed to the task and drivers began signaling with their hands, indicating they were turning in the other direction or simply offering up a little wave. Whether they stopped or not, suddenly these strangers all seemed less removed and fear of the unknown began to retract.

We stood there for about 30 minutes, doing our best to look cheery and confident, before an older gentleman in a worn driver’s cap and white whiskers getting off at the bus stop nearby came over and kindly informed us that we’d have much better luck if we moved further down the road a bit. Tip number two: listen to unsolicited advice from locals. In nearly every location, strangers walking by or driving would pull over and offer us this type of advice and it always served us well. After standing in our new spot for a little while longer, another man with whom we’d spoken earlier as he put up campaign signs drove up beside us and offered to take us even further so that we’d really only be getting traffic headed out West. A 10-minute drive up the road and a 15-minute wait later and we soon had hitched ourselves a direct ride to Galway!

Our luck in finding rides from friendly, respectful drivers continued as we wound our way down the Atlantic coast. In Galway, a shared meal with a young man staying at our hostel led to an invitation to join him down South to the Cliffs of Moher. In his rented car, we rode through the rolling countryside of the Burren on narrow back roads, ancient pilings of stone walls winding beside us. Routes that would be impossible for bulky buses to weave through, this unexpected opportunity to experience Ireland’s backwaters left us breathless and hungry for more, so restorative was all the lush green after months of Paris’ stiff grey. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from shouting “Stop!” every five minutes in order to pull over to take pictures and breathe in the crisp fresh air. One mustn’t abuse one’s host’s generosity, after all.

Ireland 2016 215
Cliffs of Moher at sunset, February 2016.

As you hitchhike, you learn pretty quickly what you’re comfortable with and about its exigencies. We quickly devised a system to ensure that we both felt comfortable in accepting lifts from the drivers who pulled over. By the end of the trip, I had accumulated a collection of photos of Irish license plates on my phone, as I always discretely snapped a quick picture of each driver’s plate as we loaded our bags into the car; just a precaution should a driver need incentive to drop us off when and where we asked. No such problems arose, however. It also became quickly apparent that there is no downtime when hitchhiking; most drivers want to chat and learn more about you and your travels, and it’s best to stay aware of your surroundings as well. Though this may have impeded us from catching up on any lost sleep from early mornings and noisy hostels, the conversations we shared in with our drivers were rich and informative, from the wine vendor who gave us tons of festival recommendations to the man from Belfast who gave us a tour of a seaside town. We arrived in each of our destinations well-informed of their history and best spots to see, eat , and drink, and other insider tips we never would have learned otherwise. Not to mention the long list of places and events to discover next time go to Ireland that our Irish hosts eagerly shared with us.

As with every trip, of course, there was a moment of discouragement, when we would have given anything to just be back in our warm beds at home. The infamous Irish weather that we’d somehow managed to evade all week descended upon us on the last leg of our trip from Cork back to Dublin, making for quite a soggy evening. Trying to take advantage of our short amount of time in such a cool, quirky city, we dawdled in the lanes of English Market, odors of fresh bread, cheese, and sausages wafting through the bright, enclosed space. While we sipped our cappuccinos in the hip little café of the Triskel Arts Centre, a converted cathedral that now serves as a concert and film screening venue and equipped with a record store, clouds gathered in the sky and unleashed their vengeance: a drenching cold rain that didn’t let up for hours. By the time we returned to our hostel to fetch our bags and head out of town, it was too late to correct our mistake. Though only 4:30pm, darkness had rolled in with the weather front and with it, our chances of catching a direct ride all the way back to Dublin were looking pretty bad.

Nonetheless, we wrapped our backpacks in garbage bags and reiterated our belief to one another that someone, just one person, would pull over and give us a lift. A ten-minute walk up the road towards the edge of town through sheets of rain and our faith began to quiver. The temperature had dropped by a couple degrees and our extremities were already beginning to numb when we stuck our thumbs out at a spot with plenty of Friday rush-hour traffic going in a northeastern direction, though in truth, the weather had made us complacent and we probably should have moved further out of town. The rain was falling so hard and windshield wipers moving so fast that all hopes of making crucial eye contact were lost. Still, we waited, trying to will a lift into existence and singing out our pleas in silly rhymes to lift our mood, huddling together and jumping up and down to stay warm, until the cold rain soaked through our layers and we had to admit defeat. No free ride to Dublin was worth catching pneumonia. A Guinness, a warm fire to dry off in front of, and some friendly chatter in a pub and we were on the bus to Dublin. My shoes will probably never be the same but it was one of those nights to look back on with a smile that distance affords.

Growing up in a small town where the closest thing to stranger driving by was my church pastor, I don’t think my 13-year-old self would ever have thought it possible for such generosity to exist. The world seemed so much larger and distant, separate from our little bubble. As I’ve entered adulthood as a woman living in a big city, that view of our global society has come into greater focus but my sense of vulnerability often remains. We are made to think, especially as women, that we must form thick walls around us at all times as we move through our daily lives. Perhaps this is why not one woman stopped to offer us a ride or give us directions. Times have changed, people say, they’re too dangerous for hitchhiking. But after Ireland, I disagree. Of course, there are bad people in this world. Of course, you have to be careful, follow your instinct, don’t take unnecessary risks. But I don’t see how this day and age is more dangerous than the previous decades when my own parents followed their hearts and instincts across miles and miles of foreign territory, with only their thumb to guide them. The only difference I see is a closing off of people, of our willingness to really see others and form real connections. Five strangers and 436.5 miles. Call it beginner’s luck … or maybe people are just a little kinder than we are led to believe.

Ireland 2016 227