Smuggling budgies

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.


If you like my blog, please do me a good turn and share this post with one person you know.

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.

My Expat Family


26 thoughts on “Smuggling budgies

  1. These are wonderful accounts; perceptive, witty and affectionate. I always look forward to the next one!
    Elaine Elliot

  2. Thanks for the great read and my commiserations – I don’t go near swimming pools here when the weather’s hot, there’s more urine than H2O 😀 🙂 I’ve come round to the weird rules at the pool – we’re even policed to check we’ve had our shower here before getting in the pool here. The thing that gets me about rule enforcement in France is that too many people with confidence issues are given power to wield over Mr Average. There’s a check-out woman who’s been jettisoned to VIP status at our local supermarket, and she now terrorises the population that uses her Kingdom- the self-checkout machines. I’ve already had a show-down with her once, the kids were very uncomfortable. I told her that Perfidious Albion wasn’t going down without a fight, and got a blank stare in return. MM wins.

    1. Your checkout lady sounds like a scream. I’d like to meet her… But what rules can there possibly be to do with self checkout?!?! Thank you for dropping by again.

      1. The checkout lady (fondly referred to by MM and her family as “The Pit Bull”) hovers and tutts at anyone who can’t line up the barcode correctly, and proves that she can count by examining people’s baskets and loudly expropriating anyone who has over 20 articles. She’s be more at home working in the local prison. She leapt on us and humiliated us publicly because we had brought our three heavy packs of Perrier in a trolley. And of course the rules say NO TROLLIES in the self-checkout zone. She was so puffed up with self importance I was almost expecting her to explode and produce a rule book confetti shower 😀

  3. This rings all kind of bells with me. Ah, the chaos of the French swimming pool! Like so much of life there, with its many (idiotic) rules that are so often ignored! Never once have I seen a lifeguard in a French pool actually perform their job with a modicum of what English sensibilities would consider professionalism. And the stupid rule about street clothes – pfff! Like your husband, I am extremely sun shy and must wear a hat at all times. And the noodle bender, as we affectionately call the Speedo, has gone the way of the dinosaur in fashion terms. Yet every year the same faux débat resurfaces (pun intended). Nice post!

  4. Ha Ha Ha! Very funny post Emily! I am a bit scared now… heading to France on Wednesday…will make sure I avoid public pools and the wearing of hats!! 😉 Reminds me a bit of the hot springs we went to recently in China here. My husband was in great long boardies while the other men were in skimpy speedo type attire!! I was in a bikini while the other women had bike pant type swimmers on! Needless to say we felt very conspicuous!! 😉

  5. Hilarious! I very entertaining read. Thank you for sharing – it sounds brilliant fun and utterly terrible at the same time. But then I’m very British about my personal space!

  6. Oh my god I loved this!! So many things I’ve learned here haha!! The public pools in France definitely sound like they are to be avoided!! I had no idea that board shorts couldn’t be worn that is crazy, I love that a fight broke out about it….so rebellious haha!
    Thanks so much for sharing this with #myexpatfamily hope to see you again next time 🙂

  7. I think I may have been there today lol, along with my 3 kids and the need to purchase our 2euro ‘bonnet’ from the vending machine and even the 13euro budgie smugglers for the husband. Again 36 degrees and full of scantily clad women who seem to spend their ‘grand vacance’ sunbathing topless outside the pool going a spectacular shade of dark brown! Or maybe this just resonates with every local pool 😛

    Having only been in Lyon a week, I’d love to pick your brains on choosing an area to live. I think we’ve decided but I worry I’ll be bored. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    With thanks

    1. Hi Emma – I’d be delighted to help you with your love to Lyon. What is the best way to contact you? Thanks for dropping by. And good luck with your blog too!

  8. Emily, reading your blog reminds me of my first years in France. Everything seems ‘normal’ now, so it’s refreshing to read your take on things and to be able to identify with pretty much everything you write about! Thanks for the laugh. (Oh, and the budgie smugglers regularly catch people out at Le Grand Bornand, but La Clusaz allow boardies in – just to confuse les vacanciers even further.

    1. Thank you for reading, Wendy. I have been wondering how long my new arrival perspective will last but so far it shows no signs of disappearing… I bet that the pool at La Clusaz will not thank you as millions of Anglo-Saxon boardie-wearers now throng for admission…

      1. Haha! Probably not! It took me years to get to that stage where most things seem normal. Odd things still pop up, but not as frequently. There’s never a dull moment in France!

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