Between the lines

I am a Sydney-born swimmer who has swum in the many cities I have lived: Melbourne, London, Paris and San Francisco. Some people judge a nation by the way it treats its zoo animals; I head straight to the pool because you can tell a lot about a city by the way it swims. It's the most accurate social barometer for a place and its people I've found.

I left the comfort of my suburban Sydney backyard pool for Melbourne in 1988. My pool of choice became the macabre-named Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre. When I first dipped my toes in, I was stunned by the politeness of its patrons. Not a word of disagreement about lane sharing, just a brisk nod with your fellow goggle wearers, but no hellos. It was emblematic of my year there; nice-enough people – they just weren't too friendly (to a Sydneysider, at least.) Perhaps they were all too polite to pose the most glaringly obvious question: isn't it poor taste to name a swimming pool after a prime minister who drowned?

By the early 1990s, I was doing the backpacker thing, living with six in a two-bedroom London flat. The most striking thing about London indoor swimming complexes was how warm they were: heated to a balmy 30 degrees. My locals were the Archway swim centre and the Highbury Pool, both of which felt like swimming in thick pea soup.

It was here I first met with the rigidity of northern hemisphere rules: you must have a shower before you dive in, and swimming caps were strongly advised. I do recall, too, the Poms were quite prudish in the change rooms and the water was on the unclean side. (stray old Band-Aids are my least-favourite swimming companions.) There were also many complaining patrons.

"Guvna, could you turn the heat up?" they would ask the long- suffering attendant when the temperature dropped below 28 degrees. "Hey guvna, could you ask that swim class to move?" Does that make London swimmers a bunch of prudish, unhygienic whingers? Sometimes you see social stereotypes more clearly when people are stripped down to bare skin and budgie smugglers.

In Paris, where I moved in 1992, I had to shop around to find my pool of preference. I first tried the Les Halles underground swim centre. Here, lunchtime laps were a nightmare; we were often six to a single lane and again the mandatory swim cap rule. So then I tried the art deco Pontoise pool in the Latin Quarter. I recognised it immediately as the pool where Juliette Binoche tried to swim away her grief in Blue, the first of the Kristof Kieslowski Three Colours trilogy. However famous the pool, it was far too austere, like a character in an impressionist painting; it was a pretty pool but with no personality.

Then I discovered Piscine Deligny, the swimming pool that was a floating barge in the Seine. When I rang to tell my parents I was swimming in the Seine, my father responded with standard Aussie-swimmer-in-France-joke No. 1: "Are you insane?"

To which I would reply with standard Aussie-swimmer-in-France-joke No. 2: "It's funny how the French word for swimming pool – piscine – is what Australian kids do in them." I quite liked the Deligny pool; crowds were friendly and not too numerous. So I was devastated to learn (from a telephone call from my father) that it was swept away and sunk in a storm in July 1993. It made the news in Australia, even.

By this stage, I was living near the Canal St-Martin, and discovered my local, Piscine George Hermant, was everything I could want for in a swim spot. For a start, it was an Olympic-size 50 metres (so many in Europe are not) and in summer the roof came off. It was a mecca for all shapes and sizes and a multicultural melting pot, with many immigrant communities meeting there to lounge and picnic between swims (bien sur, this is Paris – of course we bring food to the pool.) And they were very relaxed about being naked in the change-rooms, unlike the Brits.

We shared lanes not only with old and young lap swimmers, but also the local scuba class in the deep end – and the "enfants" swimming class down the shallow end. It was packed but we all seemed to swim well together in happy coexistence. I came about the closest I've come to communism in practice in this Parisian pool (which is Paris to a T – even pools can be politicised.)

But nothing could prepare me for the shock of US swimmers when I moved to California in 1999. Here's a tip for swimming in San Francisco: don't. It's too cold. Instead, head across the Golden Gate Bridge where the North Bay temperatures on land and in pool are a good 10 degrees warmer.

In public pools, all must be negotiated with your fellow patrons before you dive in: do we swim in a circular fashion on the right of the lane like driving on the right side of the road? Or do we split the lane – you on the left and me on the right?

You get the impression that if you slip out of line, you'll be hearing from their lawyers.

My pool of preference in California was the Finley Park Aquatic Centre, right next to my workplace in the Sonoma wine country. It was a grassy outdoor Olympic pool that was like a trip down memory lane to the Sydney swimming carnivals of my childhood. Even the pool manager was Australian.

Once I dived in with abandon, swam furiously to the end of the pool, then suddenly a tap came on my shoulder.

"Excuse me," my fellow swimmer said in her unmistakable New York twang. "I don't quite know how to tell you this ..." Had I dropped my bikini top?

"But you're just not fast enough for the fast lane."

Now, I'm no Dawn Fraser, but I'm no slouch in the chlorine, either: I'm a graduate of the Forbes Carlisle swim school and have the odd school carnival victory up my speedoed sleeve. I've kept up with the lane Nazis of North Sydney and the squad trainers at Leichhardt. But you can be sure you would have never seen me swim so fast on that day ; I was down and back the length of the pool in a New York minute.

I've seen nothing like the lane rage in California; it's the gene pool in action and the ultimate in Darwin's survival of the fittest. It truly is a sink-or-swim nation.

I'm back in Sydney and a regular at the Coogee Ladies Baths. When I ply the lengths of this saltwater oasis, I often reflect on the pools of my past, and how glad I am to be no longer living life in the fast lane.

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