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Swimming Through Paris

Public pools provide a respite - and a cultural window - for resourceful tourists in Europe

IN the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, so close you have to crane your neck to see the top, lies a Paris treat that most visitors don't know a thing about. There is another one across the street from the Pompidou Center, practically touching the trademark multicolored ducts. There's another in Les Halles, the underground shopping center, and still others scattered about the city.These establishments could be meccas for footweary tourists, and places of refuge from sweltering summer days - if only people knew. They are public swimming pools; and if you think that public pools are tawdry affairs with broken lockers and vandals afoot, then you haven't been to "Les Piscines a Paris." The city may be showing signs of wear. The subways may even make New Yorkers think fondly of the IRT. But les piscines are spacious, clean, and a bargain to boot. Paris is not alone in this. On a recent trip through Scotland and London, I found inviting public pools at almost every stop. Even tiny Thurso, on the northern tip of Scotland, has a pool of which most American cities would be proud. America may win more Olympic medals, but in the realm of public recreation, the Europeans seem to be pulling further and further ahead. For me at least, the best recreation on the road is running. You can do it anytime, anywhere, and language is no problem. It is an ideal way to scan a new city. But the weather doesn't always cooperate, and spouses don't always appreciate sweaty T-shirts draped around hotel rooms. Swimming has definite advantages, especially after a hot day of trekking. And public pools provide something more: a point of contact with local life and culture. I've picked up bits of neighborhood history from old-timers at a pool in Greenwich Village, and insights on Canadian politics at a spacious swimming complex in Calgary, Alberta. The European pools offer an especially good window into local life and mores. At the Oasis Sports Center in the St. Giles section of London, for example, order prevails. Patrons queue up politely before the 7:30 a.m. opening; and, once inside, they observe the pool lanes with the diligence of Buckingham Palace guards. At La Piscine Saint-Merri near the Pompidou Center in Paris, by contrast, patrons mill about before the opening. The pool is a free-for-all, with lap swimmers dodging one another in a kind of earnest aquatic comedy. (To be fair, the scene was somewhat more orderly at another French pool.) An acquaintance tells me that German pools feature prominent lists of instructions, most of which begin with "Don't." The locker rooms at French pools, moreover, reveal a surprising bit of prudery, or so it seems at first. Men change in private changing stalls, instead of in an open room as in Britain and the United States - this, in a city where men and women use the same restrooms in restaurants, and where women sunbathe by the Seine in a way that minimizes tan lines. It turns out, however, that the apparent modesty isn't what it seems. Female attendants check clothes in male locker rooms, and vice versa. The private stalls are merely a concession to this typical French disregard of rigid gender groupings.

London gets in the swim To be sure, public pools aren't places most travelers think of visiting. For one thing, information about them is generally scarce. But let's be honest: The very mention of a public pool can conjure up images of rowdy people of a different social class or race. Relax. Even in cities such as New York and Washington, most public pools are surprisingly civil. The pools I'm discussing here could easily be private clubs if they weren't so inexpensive. The only danger is ideological: Visitors of a conservative political bent may be sorely tempted by the thought that socialized swimming might not be the road to recreational serfdom after all.Ten years ago, London was decidedly behind on the fitness curve. But today, government officials can be seen jogging in Green Pa rk at lunchtime, much like their American counterparts on the Washington Mall. And at dawn, young men and women in business suits tote their duffle bags through the London mist and fog. At least some of them are headed for the aptly named Oasis. On the outside, it is a nondescript gray building at the edge of the Shaftsbury Avenue theater district. Inside it is a swimmer's dream, with a large heated pool in an inner courtyard, from which steam issues forth on chilly mornings. For the less hearty, there is another pool inside. The pools are open from 7:30 a.m. to at least 6:45 p.m. on weekdays, and sometimes later. (Hours vary on weekends.) It costs about $3.50 for a swim, and lockers ar e provided for a refundable 20 cents. Public sports complexes like the Oasis are scattered throughout London, including one near Victoria Station. There is a modern YMCA as well, near the University of London; it's open late, but admission for visitors is fairly steep. Those of Victorian tastes will find a somewhat creaky old athletic center on Marshall Street, with a turn-of-the-century tile pool that is lacking only Thomas Eakins at his easel. If you want to swim outside, try Hyde Park, which has a bathing "Lido" on the Serpentine pond complete with locker rooms and deck chairs. One June morning, I was the only person there.

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Where are Paris's runners? Fitness is not exactly a preoccupation in France. A visitor gets the impression that the national sport is smoking (even ticket-sellers at the pools smoke); and the boulevards of Paris, though a runner's paradise, have fewer joggers than in any city I've seen besides Warsaw. Flashy running gear serves mainly to affect what a friend calls the "No-Sweat Sweat Look." But such sedentary habits may be the tourist's open swimming lane. This is no small bonus. What the Louvre is to art, the city is to public pools - or so it seems to an American. There are 33 pools in all, and some of them are nothing short of splendid. The French don't always make things easy for non-Francophones, but swimmers can slip past the language barrier with a minimum of hassle. A complete guide to the pools - a glossy, full-color brochure - is available at local city halls; your hotel clerk or host can tell you the nearest one. Just walk in and ask the person at the information desk: "Avez-vous le guide des piscines?" That's all you have to say. The guide gives the hours and nearest Metro stops for all the pools. You can decipher it easily with a French-English dictionary. The pools themselves are equally unthreatening. "Un billet pour la piscine, s'il vous plat," will get you a ticket. (Prices range from roughly $2 to $4.) Then just do what others are doing, and you can keep your mouth shut. Basically, you give your ticket to the locker room attendant, who gives you a red plastic hanging device for your clothes. Check your clothes when you go to the pool. That's about it. One word of caution: The ticket-sellers at the municipal pools (some pools are operated as private concessions) tend to be ladies of a certain age who go strictly by the book. I arrived about 15 seconds late (cutoff is 30 minutes before closing) at the Piscine Emile-Anthoine near the Eiffel Tower. The ticket-seller took great satisfaction in invoking the rule against this American who could only sputter haplessly in protest.

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