The British holiday-maker takes a metaphorical privet hedge with them to the swimming pool. Whether they have beaten the Germans to the sun-loungers, or are merely doing a dignified breast stroke, the area around their immediate person is their kingdom, and they expect it to be as inviolate as a fortress. By contrast, just as many French properties have no boundary fence or wall, the French sense of personal space in swimming pools is virtually non-existent.
Well aware of this cultural difference, I make a point of avoiding recreational French waters whenever possible. Last Saturday, however, it was 38˚ in the shade and, dripping as we all were with sweat, the entire family felt that we had no option but to retreat to the municipal swimming pool, which has a clever retractable roof for the hot weather. Unfortunately we were not the only people to have this bright idea. So it was that I found myself standing bolt upright, waist-deep in chlorinated water, my arms pressed to my sides in a futile attempt to shrink away from those around me who were engaged in various modes of trespass, such as swimming between my legs when I was not paying attention; dive-bombing within 10cm of my right elbow; and barrelling into me in reverse as they attempted to flirt with some scantily-clad teenage girls.
To my English eyes the overcrowded pool was alarmingly lawless, if not downright dangerous. Obviously one of the female lifeguards agreed with me because she was striding up and down, seeking out tiny infractions of a set of invisible rules that would enable her to blow her whistle loudly and practice her sternest look. I watched as, with admirable energy, she tackled the Sisyphean task of clearing a short thin stretch of wall between two sections, sitting on which is, for some reason, interdit, consequently giving it an even greater allure for the general French public. After a while I was shocked to realise that, with her latest whistle, she was pointing directly at my husband, who was nowhere near the forbidden wall. What, I asked myself, could he, British and law-abiding as he was, possibly have done to attract such a public reprimand?
One of the only stated rules in French pools (the French aren’t bothered by heavy petting) is that nobody should wear anything even slightly akin to ordinary clothing. Apparently items resembling clothing might very well have been worn outside the pool, and might consequently bring unwanted dirt into the clean water. For British males, who have whole-heartedly adopted the antipodean love affair with “boardies”, this means abandoning modesty and sporting a pair of good old-fashioned budgie-smugglers. Shocking as this was at first, my husband is now well-versed in French codes of undress, and consequently was, on this occasion, sporting nothing except a very skimpy pair of trunks and a great deal of sun cream. Oh, and a hat, which, it transpires, constituted outdoor clothing as far as the lifeguard was concerned.
Any requirement to go hatless is deeply problematic for balding Anglo-Saxons under the full glare of the sun, and so, fearing for his extended forehead, my husband bravely took on this terrifying whistle-blower. There were, he pointed out, quite a number of other people in the pool wearing hats, apparently with impunity. Aha, came the response, but those were enfants. Might not a child’s hat be dirtier than an adult’s hat given a child’s propensity to grub about? Shrug. Given the canicule, was it not reasonable to assume that much of the swimwear on display might have been worn on several previous days? Submerged as these items now were, surely they posed more of a threat to the hygiene of the water than Eadred’s unsubmerged hat? Exasperated by a further shrug, he pressed on to enquire about the cleanliness of the suncream, currently circling in oily slicks around the bathers. He was met with more shrugging. Could she not just take pity on his pale British skin? A finger was pointed once more at his headgear. A rule, monsieur, is a rule. He took the hat off.
It is one of the contradictions of the French that, for a people who so merrily contravene a hundred rules in one outing to the shops (even I now practice the odd bit of “French parking” when no space is available near the boulangerie), they seem to have more rules than any other nation. There are rules on every aspect of French life, from handwriting (specified to within a millimetre), through lawnmowing (never, ever, on a Sunday) and the issuing of blue house numbers (strictly controlled by the mairie), to the more sinister requirement to carry your papers on you at all times, everywhere. Yet, ask someone why a particular rule exists, and you are frequently met with bafflement or just a gallic shrug. C’est comme ça. Point. The lost logic of regulations is perhaps in itself the reason why those charged with imposing them are so unsmiling and inflexible in their application. If you preside over a set of rules that have lost all connection with their original purpose, like exasperated parents the world over there is no explanation you can reasonably give, except possibly “because I say so”.
Frequently, of course, authority figures meet with a more determined contravention of the rules than Eadred the Bald dared to provide. Just last week, a fight broke out at the vast outdoor pool in the centre of Lyon when a group of boardie-wearing youths dared to question the requirement to wear speedos. This dispute over the skimpiness of one’s swimming trunks took on such epic proportions that the entire facility had to be closed down as a result (or maybe its staff went on strike: sometimes it’s hard to tell). Rule-abiding though we are, it is nonetheless tempting to test the more absurd rules by stretching them to their logical extreme. To date, though, I have not persuaded any male relative of mine to attend a public swimming pool sporting a thong.
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If you find it hard to believe that a fight broke out about swimming trunks, read this short summary in our local paper about it.
Similarly, if you think I jest about thongs, see this article in the Guardian about the alleged impact of mankinis in Newquay.