*This post originally appeared on the blog that I have taken on for work, here: http://www.splendidparis.com/the-early-bird-catches-the-snail/ on 28/06/13. But it’s about a baked product, so it belongs here*
I got up at 6:30 am today. Why, I hear you ask? Do I have a tyrannical boss who makes me get up and man the phone line from 7am? Do I live so far from the office that it takes me three hours to get there in the morning? Is there such a horrendously long queue to use the bathroom in my apartment that I’ve had to resort to this kind of extreme measure? No, none of these. I got up to go swimming in search of snails.
Paris has 38 municipal swimming pools, of, it must be said, varying quality, and each with its little quirks. The closest one to where I live, the Piscine Saint-Merri in the 4ème arrondissement, has the key advantages of a) having a rectangular basin, 25 metres long, approximately 2 metres deep at one end and about 60 centimetres deep at the other, and b) that basin being full of water. Oh, and its location, round the back of the Pompidou Centre, so without the big square and arty posters, but with a view of the exterior pipes etc, otherwise known as ‘edgy modern architecture’. All right, I am slightly exaggerating, since the staff there are generally friendly, it’s pretty clean, there are showers, toilets, hair dryers… There’s also the rather odd quirk that since the majority of the lockers are broken, there’s a limit of 25 people allowed in at once (regulated quite strictly on a one-in, one-out basis), but it turns out that this means 6 people per lane, which is about right to avoid being kicked in the head or getting mouthfuls of water every time you try to breathe. You just have to be sure to arrive when it opens to get a space: forget queuing for Louis Vuitton, Colette or Givenchy, this is the hottest place to be in Paris!
In addition to the individual ‘points of interest’ of this particular pool, I’ve also had to deal with the complicated cultural exchange that is going swimming as a foreigner in France. Do not be surprised if asked at the reception area, before being allowed to pay to enter, if you have the correct attire (and indeed, to be required to produce said attire as proof). Swimming hats are compulsory here (fortunately I had one that I’d bought in England. Unfortunately, it has a picture of an otter and a crab, both wearing goggles and armbands, printed on the side, but that’s another story), as are ‘proper’ swimming costumes for the ladies (no bikinis allowed) and trunks for the men (sorry, no beach shorts either). Having proved the suitability of your attire, you will be allowed to enter the changing rooms. Your footwear, however, will not. The first time I went to a Parisian pool, I asked the man seated by the door if it was him that I paid to enter. He said no, (it turned out that the person with the keys to the till hadn’t turned up, so they were just letting people in for free. Perhaps this is one of the problems with the French economy?), just take your shoes off. All Parisian pools enforce a strict separation of barefoot and shoe areas, so you will be expected to change into shiny-clean flip flops or pad about in your socks before being allowed to enter the changing areas. And beady-eyed pool attendants will tell you off if you try to put them back on too soon! I advise bringing a small towel to wipe your feet a final time before you re-sock and re-shoe on exiting the building, unless you want to spend the day walking around with damp feet!
But I know what you’re wondering: if there are 38 pools, why not go to a different one? After all, that’s quite a generous provision for those of us who like counting how many times we’ve travelled up and down an artificially-shaped, chemically-controlled pit full of water in a particularly inefficient way (let’s be honest here: when I get out and walk over to the showers I’m moving an awful lot faster than the massively muscular guys exerting huge amounts of effort on their front crawl). Well, believe me, I have been tempted by the promise of wider lanes, natural daylight, more showers, deeper ‘shallow ends’ and less chlorinated water. I have thought of other pools. However, whilst there may be 38 pools in Paris, finding one that’s open when you want isn’t always easy. The websitewww.piscines.equipement.paris.fr promises ‘Tous les horaires, en un coup d’oeil’. Good luck ‘glancing’ at this comprehensive table, which lists the opening hours for every pool for the coming week, bearing in mind that many open for early morning, lunchtime and evening sessions, with different times every day of the week! So the Piscine Pontoise in the 5ème is open from 4:30pm until 8pm on a Monday, but closes at 7pm on a Tuesday and 7:15 on a Thursday, whilst on a Tuesday it runs right through from 11:30am until 7:30pm! Most pools that close one day a week appear to have chosen Monday, apart from the Piscine Château-Landon in the 10ème, which is shut on a Friday. As the sign in the window of my beloved Piscine Saint-Merri says “We advise that you telephone before moving there”. Indeed.
After several failed attempts to try other pools (closed for maintenance, till broken (and not letting people in this time, despite all of the staff being there: the other problem with the French economy?), not enough lifeguards, arriving too late (because yes, if it says open until 8:30, you’d better be there well before 8, or they’ll decide it’s not worth letting you in, because they want you out by 8:20!), failure of pump…), I have reluctantly settled for my good old pool at the back of the Pompidou Centre. With one exception.
You see, whilst idly Googling one day, I discovered various foodies writing about a must-tryboulangerie in the 10ème. Now you can Google just about any Parisian boulangerie and find someone somewhere saying that they sell the best baguettes, croissants or viennoiserie in the city, and I tend to take this kind of article with a pinch of salt: if I’m passing, I might pop in, but I wouldn’t usually make a special trip across the city. Yet something about this one caught my eye, and I did quite fancy trying one of their rather tasty-looking pastries. But really, trekking all the way over to the 10ème for a pastry isn’t really very logical. And then it hit me. Back to my favourite website (that would bewww.piscines.equipement.paris.fr, in case you’ve forgotten), and this time to the ‘search by proximity to’ function. There it was: the Piscine Catherine Lagatu (ex Parmentier), 507 metres from 34, rue Yves Toudic, the location of Du pain et des idées. I had a plan.
And so, when my alarm clock went off at 6:30 this morning, and I wanted to go back to sleep, I propelled myself out of the bed with the thought of my breakfast to come. Grabbing a Vélib, I pedalled across the city, still dark, still quiet, the streets blocked with delivery vans and rubbish-collection trucks rather than the usual taxis and scooters. The pool was a little more modern than Saint-Merri, with an automatic turnstile to get in (rather than the usual person waiting to take your ticket), a viewing gallery and a labyrinthine layout of showers, changing rooms, lockers, footbaths… In short, it was a swimming pool. After all, that wasn’t really why I’d come. So I swam my lengths, got out, showered, discovered that I’d forgotten my hairbrush, did the ‘damp feet into socks’ thing (because yes, I’d forgotten my spare towel too: do as I say, not as I do!) and walked my 507 metres, crossing the canal and heading down a rather unpromising-looking street. To my horror, number 34 appeared to be covered in scaffolding. Would it be closed? It couldn’t be closed, could it? Thankfully, it wasn’t closed.
There were two people in front of me in the queue, giving me ample time to debate the relative merits of the pain au chocolat with slices of fresh banana inside, the praline whirl and the chausson à la pomme. But no, what I really wanted, what had brought me across Paris, was the ‘escargot chocolat-pistache’. A pastry whirl (or as the French call it, a snail), filled with crème-patissière with fresh pistachio nuts and drops of dark chocolate. Needless to say, it was bright green. Trembling, I handed over my carefully counted coins, almost holding my breath as it was wrapped up (maybe I’d spent too much time in the pool and forgotten my normal respiratory pattern?). The temptation to eat it straight from the bag as I walked down the street was almost too much to bear, but with amazing self-restraint I carefully placed it in my handbag, made sure it was nowhere near my damp swimming kit (just because it was green didn’t mean I wanted it to taste of chlorine) and cycled home, avoiding all potholes, grids and speed bumps that might endanger my precious purchase. And so, back in my apartment, coffee brewing, I placed it reverently on a plate… and bit into it.
And the verdict? Pastry crisp and flaky, but not too dry. The crème-pâtissière was… well, creamy, with a pleasantly… nutty flavour from the nuts. The drops of chocolate were definitely real chocolate (as opposed to some weirdly chemical concoction vaguely related to chocolate that you sometimes find in cheap pastries) and there was just the right amount of them: enough for the flavour without being overly rich. In short, it was a pretty yummy pastry. I think I might go back next week.
If this post has given you the urge to go swimming in Paris, I do encourage you to give the municipal pools a try. Go to the website (you remember, www.piscines.equipement.paris.fr ), search by location, opening hours, length of pool or whatever you fancy, and then GET THE PHONE NUMBER AND PHONE TO SEE IF THEY’RE OPEN! Especially if you’re planning on making a special trip. But it is worth the effort, honest!
If, on the other hand, you fancy trying the amazing pastries of Du pain et des idées, and find yourself in the 10ème, head for 34, rue Yves Toudic. They’re open Monday-Friday, 7am – 8pm. http://dupainetdesidees.com/