the last dog days of summer in Paris: 90-degree heat, second-stage
smog alerts, petri dish air so thick you could cut it with a knife. For those of us
living in the city's densest district, the only relief is a tiny
square of blue called the Georges-Hermant Bassin d'Enfants. As the waning inferno burns holes in the Tarmac, hundreds of people
in various states of sweaty exhaustion make their way to this dilapidated
kiddie pool. One recent scorching Sunday, I walked like a pack mule with 13 kilos of baby -- my French-American 1-year-old, Max -- in one arm and 13 kilos of swimming gear in the other, methodically picking my way across a field of slippery tile and half-naked bodies.
The only official rule here is prominently posted in the front
vestibule: No Swimming Trunks. This fashion dictate, which comes not from
the pool management but all the way from the city council itself, is in
effect in public pools all over France, presumably to prevent people from
swimming in pants and dress shoes and for obscure reasons of hygiene. Only
Speedo-type bikinis are permitted for men, which means that your average
American guy has to shed a lot more than his baggies to chill out in this
Beyond this one rule, it's liberté, égalité and fraternité at
Georges-Hermant. The locker and shower rooms are coed. (The display of
public promiscuity here would make any faint-hearted puritan run for the
hills.) There are also no wall plaques listing the Ten Pool Commandments
and no lane dividers for lap swimming, which makes the pool look like the
Arc de Triomphe during a rush-hour pile-up. When I asked the lone lifeguard
on duty about the latter point, he probably didn't realize that his reply
could pretty well sum up the national French ethos. "But Madame," he said,
looking rather shocked, "lane dividers would be an infringement on the
individual rights of people to swim as they like."
As I stood at the edge of this pool party, it dawned on me that
France is a sort of inverse daguerreotype of America: In France, the rules that are abided by are not the ones posted in public spaces to enforce law and orderly social conduct. Rather, they're the unspoken ones that are learned by living in a culture where conventions are upheld by history and tradition. The relative
lack of tradition gives Americans the freedom to reinvent themselves in ways that are inconceivable to the French (the simple idea of, say,
a midlife career change is almost unthinkable here), but in American
public spaces, rules and regulations abound. And we obey them. We stand in
lines. We signal when we change lanes. We play by the book. When we don't,
we draw a Colt .45 to your head or sue you for everything you're worth. Americans are black or white, while the French are inscrutably gray.
Getting into the kiddie pool itself is a little like walking into a
Hieronymus Bosch painting in your underwear. Hundreds of flailing children
are packed into a pool the size of a carport, with no supervision in sight.
I can see the lifeguard surveying the traffic in the adult
pool below -- he's on a seat hoisted above a concrete wall
that separates the two pools. But unless he has a mysterious third eye in
the back of his head, it's unlikely he'll be much help to any children. There are toy fights
in the water, food fights on the pool rim and children upside-down in
half-deflated capsized rubber duckies, floating against the pool wall like
unmanned vehicles in an airport tow-away zone. So where are all the
From the look of things, many of them seem to be having a good time
at their own in poolside smoking salons. The rest of them have overrun
the small patch of drought-baked lawn, ostensibly a place for kids to run,
now apparently an annex for sun worshipers who can't find space in
the crammed adult pool area. They cover the grass in a tapestry of
partially nude formations; total nudity is reserved for skinny-dipping
toddlers -- delectably delicious when you're potty trained but somewhat
problematic when you're not.
Oddly, in this refuge of unregulated public intercourse I'm
surprised to note that there is, in fact, one authority figure, and when he
arrives on the scene a sudden silence overcomes the crowd and brings activity to a halt. To the transfixed and slightly
culpable stares of a hundred poolside toddlers, the man takes a long-necked
aquatic pooper-scooper, casts an implicating glance at onlookers, then
scoops out a small, wayward turd as if it were an expired goldfish. Then he
goes away, engulfed in the throng, and the party resumes in all its bedlam.
I happened to be here with an American swim mate who was so
concerned about her child having "a spill" she obliged her to wear a
diaper under her swimsuit. After an hour, it got so waterlogged it finally ruptured along its seams, and a gelatinous porridge of saturated
silicon beads flowed out of its sides onto the pool steps. The ultimate
consumer test. Later, while we roasted like pork rinds -- my son Max
hollering incomprehensibly at birds and her daughter violently attached to
her plastic Elmo -- my swim mate made a list of the litigious opportunities
that could rein in big bucks were we in the States.
"Well," she began, "for starters, there are a hundred safety risks and
violations," and she went on to describe things I didn't see -- jagged, broken
tiles that had become small tide pools of debris, an unprotected ledge with
a six-foot drop. "And oh my God, there's that kid over there peeing on
the embankment where people sit." She shook her head in disgust. "Microbes.
Another public health risk." Then she took another good hard look around
the pool. "And there's indecent exposure," she added quietly, referring to
nearly one-third of the women who were topless.
The day burned on. Despite the medieval fun fest and its study in
multifarious forms of cultural life, we thanked God that this small oasis
existed. Where else could our little love bunnies cool off in this hot
town? It will continue for just a little while longer. But soon, the
unyielding curtain of continental weather will fall, and bring this unruly
show to its most certain close.