Apart from swimming, and swimming pools, one of my favourite things in this life is Paris. And if, by dent of income-earning necessity, I can't be in Paris, I like to read about Paris, in anticipation of one day, again, being in Paris.
For various reasons I have never swum in Paris, although last time I was there, I should have been more brave and ventured into the world of the Paris public pool.
Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, lived in Paris for five years and wrote a regular column called 'Paris Journals'. His book Paris To The Moon: a family In France, chronicles those years, from moving there with his wife, Martha and son Luke, to experiencing the birth of their daughter Olivia. It's one of my favourite "Paris books" , amongst a very crowded long-long list of the "how I lived in Paris" genre. Mind you, I love 'em all, from Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, through Janet Flanner to Sarah Turnbull. Gopnik seems to have the "young ex-pat family" niche covered.
Early in the book, Gopnik recounts his experiences in trying to join an American style gym / fitness club, in the face of Parisian incomprehension:
"An American gym?" Parisians asked when I said that I was looking for someplace to work out, and at first I didn't know what to say. What would aFrench gym be like? Someone suggested that my wife and I join the Health Club at The Ritz; that was about as French as a gym could get. This sounded like a nice, glamorous thing to do, so we went for a trial visit. I ran out of the locker room and dived into the pool. White legs were dangling all around me - crowded to the edges , as thpough their owners were clinging to the sides of the pool in fear - and only after I rose to the surface did I see that the owners were all hanging from the edge of the pool, eating tea sandwiches off silver platters." (Paris To The Moon, London: Vintage, 2001, p 62)
One hot August day, when Martha is nine months' pregnant, the Gopniks return to the Ritz. Read on:
"Angels Dining At the Ritz
When Martha was still pregnant, we decided to join the pool at the Ritz hotel on the Place Vendôme for eight weeks. We had, as I’ve said, thought about it once before, during our adventures at the Régiment Rouge, but had gotten scared off by all those tea sandwiches on silver platters. For four years we had been swimming at the public pool of the Sixth Arrondissement near the old Saint-Germain market, a nice place, with families splashing in one part and solitary fierce-looking swimmers doing laps in the other – though, like every French public institution, terribly overcharged with functionaries, in this case officious, functionary lifeguards. But then the same friend who had invited us there that first time invited us to the Ritz pool again, to spend a Sunday away from the August heat. With Martha pregnant and more or less immobile, we weren’t able to go away anyway, even though everyone in Paris goes away in August. (The five-week mandatory vacation is part of the inheritance of the old Popular Front of the thirties, one of the laws put over by the saintly Socialist leader Léon Blum.) Anyway, we couldn’t go anywhere, not with Martha that big, and we were cool and comfortable there at the pool. Paris is hot in August – really, suddenly hot – and not many places are air-conditioned. Even the ones that claim to be climatisé are not really air-conditioned as public places are in New York. Instead a trickle of chilly air floats someplace around the baseboards.
The pool at the Ritz hotel in Paris – they actually call the place the Ritz Health Club, in English, although I think this is designed less as a concession to Americans than as a lingering sign of old-fashioned Parisian Anglomania, like calling the Jockey Club in Paris the Jockey Club – is intended to look “Pompeian” in a way that I suppose makes a strong case for Mount Vesuvius and molten lava. There is a high domed skylight, held up by painted Ionic columns with rosettes along their pillars and bordered by a bas-relief frieze of classical figures standing around in a line, as though waiting to check out of the hotel. There is a trompe l’oeil painting of old Roman bathers looking down at contemporary French swimmers, with more colored architectural drawings of Roan temple fronts decorating the locker rooms and the showers, and, on either side of the pool, two enormous murals of Romans in togas standing around on terraces, all painted in a style someplace between Victorian Academic and New York Pizzeria.
My favourite detail at the Ritz pool is a pair of mosaics on the bottom of the pool, right where the shallow end starts to incline and deepen a little, of two comely and topless mermaids, with long blond hair – tresses, really – floating off to one side. With one hand they reach down modestly; with the other each holds up one half of the great sea of the Ritz. (Where most mermaids have fishtails that begin at their waists, these mermaids have fishtails that begin only at their shins.) These are real mosaics, by the way, assembled shiny shard by shiny shard, and they probably would be a treasure if they had actually been made by a Roman artisan and dug up by an archaeologist. The line between art and kitsch is largely measured in ruin.
Martha felt cool there, and the cool matters a lot to a nin-month pregnant woman. We sat by the edge of the pool in white terry-cloth robes, surrounded by thin rich women with very high hair, who were listlessly turning the pages of magazines and occasionally going into the pool to swim. They swam like nervous poodles, with their heads held high, high high – up out the water on their long necks, protecting their perfect helmets of hair from the least drop of moisture.
We ate lunch up on the curved terrace overlooking the pool and thought, only with a little guilt, Well, this is nice. So we inquired and found that we could get an eight-week nonpeak hours, never-on-Sunday family membership for a lot less than it cost us to rent a cottage in Cape Cod every summer for two weeks – and in Cape Cod, we work all day and night, sweeping the sand out of the house and bringing up the laundry and stoking up the grill and then cleaning up the kitchen. So with a slightly nervous sense of extravagance, we decided to subscribe to the Ritz pool for the minimum off-hours “family” membership, a little joke, we assured ourselves, laid at the altar of the old Hemingway-Flanner Paris. I felt a little guilty about it, I guess – I felt a lot guilty about it, really – but I also though that Léon Blum, all things considered, wouldn’t get too mad at me. I gave it a vaguely Socialist feeling; it was our five weeks. " (p 312-314)