Listening to BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz (always my preferred source of news), I make a mental note of Jeremy Hardy’s comment that in French swimming pools, men are not allowed to wear loose-fitting swimming trunks. I advise my husband well in advance of our first venture into a piscine that his usual Bermuda shorts will not do.
He looks sceptical and stuffs them defiantly into his swimming bag. A little later, we park by the small municipal pool in Montdidier, a sleepy town on the way from Montreuil to Paris. It’s a hot, sunny day, and we’re all looking forward to a dip.
Manning the admissions booth are not the usual athletic student types that find weekend work in British sports centres, but a brace of elderly ladies in black dresses. They would both look at home knitting in front of the guillotine. Gordon offers up to them his red swimming shorts.
“Mesdames, je peut?”
They laugh and shake their heads in unison.
“Slip de bain! Slip de bain!” they cry together.
Gordon looks crestfallen. He hates it when I’m right.
“Est-ce qu’on peut les acheter ici?” I enquire.
“Can he buy some?” I translate for Gordon’s sake.
They shake their heads.
“Non, madame, mais on peut les emporter.”
“They’ve got some you can borrow,” I tell him.
They open a cupboard and wheel out a large plastic crate, clearly prepared for such eventualities.
In the cart is a large selection of men’s swimming costumes, all of the diminutive kind that conform to the picture on the wall. The old ladies rummage around and pull out a red pair that would just about fit a three year old.
“Mais non!” they shriek, falling about laughing.
Another rummage and they triumphantly hold aloft a vast blue pair that would go twice round Gordon.
“Ah, non!” they giggle, exchanging conspiratorial glances.
Finally, just before their mirth can rob them of the strength to help us, they fish out a discreet black costume that looks exactly right. Gordon looks mightily relieved.
“Merci beaucoup, mesdames!” he says gratefully and scurries off to the safety of the vestiare des hommes.
During the course of our French holiday, we swim every two or three days, either in municipal pools – always outdoors, once we’re south of Paris – or in rivers. At every pool, we seek out an explanation of exactly why a British men’s swimsuit is not allowed.
“C’est plus hygienique?” is the best suggestion that the helpful lady in Senlis can come up with. But we’re none of us exactly sure why.
But interdit it certainly is, and Gordon has to invest in a suitable maillot.
When I was 11, I had no idea how glad I’d be one day that a chapter of my school French book was entirely dedicated to the swimming pool. Though I still have to find an outlet for the knowledge I acquired about Nikki le singe making an omelette, my schoolgirl French continues to rise miraculously to the top of my mind on this holiday.
I mourn the fact that learning a foreign language is no longer compulsory in English schools. It may not always have been well taught, and it may sometimes have been predictable. (My friend Gary sailed through his French O level purely by dint of memorising, letter by letter, an essay on a day at “La Plage”, confident that it would be one of the essay questions. It did and he passed.) But at least I know enough to avert an international swimming pool fashion crisis.