Posted in Family, Travel

Just When We Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into La Piscine (Swimming Pool)…

French style swimming costume for men
Un slip de bain, 1925 style – not modelled by my husband (photo: public domain)

(A post about our Easter 2013 trip by camper van to Luxembourg)

Two summers ago, when touring France in our camper van, my husband discovered for himself (because he wouldn’t listen to my advice) that, for some reason we couldn’t fathom, swimming trunks are not permitted in French swimming pools. “Les shorts sont interdit“. Instead, for men, a slip de bain – the tight-fitting, lycra style of swimwear – is compulsory. (The full story of that episode is in my earlier blog post, Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip.)

This year, he felt it would be safe to return to la piscine without fear of such ritual humiliation. Naturally, he’d forgotten to pack his French slip de bain, so in the pleasing Belgian town of Mons we hit C&A to acquire a new swimming costume for him. Thus armed, we advance on the municipal swimming pool of a small town we’re passing en route to Luxembourg. Swimming is not just a sport on our camper van trips – it’s a welcome supplement to the limited washing facilities available in our small motorhome.

Taking The Plunge, Belgian Style

By chance, we arrive a few minutes before the pool is due to open for its only public swimming session of the day. We approach the receptionist and ask confidently for our tickets.

“Deux adultes et un enfant, s’il vous plait.”

The woman behind the desk looks distrustful.

Vous avez un slip de bain?” she asks my husband warily. “Pas de shorts! Pas de shorts!

She wags her finger in admonition. She’s clearly encountered British customers before.

My husband and I exchange knowing looks. Really, how could she doubt us?

“Encore vingt minutes!” 

She points at the clock, speaking loudly to make sure we understand. It’s not just we British who do this with foreigners.

“Mais oui, madame! Ca va!”

British Olympic champion runner Mo Farah executes the Mobot
The Mobot (photo: Daily Telegraph)

Clearly still not satisfied, she asks another question. This time we do not understand. She responds to our blank looks with a mime. She raises both arms upwards and outwards, as if showing off her upper arm muscles, like a bodybuilder. We are perplexed. Is the inviting us to while away the time till the pool opens by joining a weightlifting class? We shake our heads blankly. She repeats the action, raising her arms higher till her hands nearly meet above her head. Is this meant to be a tribute to the 2012 London Olympics, via the renowned Mobot pose of champion runner Mo Farah?

Suddenly her words crystallise into sense for me.

“Avez vous des bonnets? Les bonnets sont obligatoire.”

Our new French swimming caps
“Les bonnets sont obligatoire, Madame”

Bonnets are compulsory, it seems. Bonnets? Really? Is she having a laugh? She points to the vending machine behind us. Bonnet, I realise, is French for swimming cap. We can get them from the vending machine for 3.50 Euros apiece – more than it’s just cost us to buy our swimming tickets. Foiled again!

We while away the rest of the 20 minutes before the pool opens by deciphering the instructions on the front of the machine, sorting out our small change and acquiring trois bonnets.

Like So Many Smurfs

“Why do we have to wear bonnets, Mummy?” my daughter quizzes me as I wrestle her long, thick plaits into the embrace of blue polyester.

“Probably to stop hair clogging the pool filter,” I improvise.

Entering the pool, we find an unnerving array of polyester-headed people already in the water, their bonnets all in discreet, dark colours, except an eye-catching scarlet and white striped  one of a man who, I am sure, is entirely bald. He ploughs his way up and down the pool, beaming, clearly enjoying this opportunity to feel he numbers among the hirsute.

There is something disconcerting about so many swimming-capped people in one place. It is depersonalising. It takes us a while to spot my husband who is already in the water. The only bare  heads in the hall are those of the lifeguard and a male aquaerobics instructor who is prancing up and down on the poolside leading eight semi-submerged, serious, polyester-hatted ladies through their exercise routine. If you saw his movements out of context, you’d swear he was just pretending to dance like a girl.

Once our swim is over, it comes as a tremendous relief to discard my blue bonnet and wash my hair in the poolside shower. I feel like I’m shampooing my personality back in. I haven’t worn a swimming cap since primary school and I hate it with a passion. But at least I don’t have to wear a slip de bain.

  • If you enjoyed this post, you might like the full story of our initial slip de bain incident here: Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip(It’s a good thing my husband doesn’t read my blog.)
  • In case you missed it, the post about the first stop on our 2013 Luxembourg tour is here: A Holiday from Books.
Posted in Family, Writing

The Sixpence That Changed Into a Swimming Pool

King George VI sixpennny piece, seen from either side
Just an ordinary sixpence – or is it? (Photo: Wikipedia)

This post has been written in response to’s “Pocket Some Extra Cash” challenge, inviting the country’s top bloggers to describe how they’d spend a £20 windfall to put a smile on someone’s face. To oil the wheels of our imagination, they’ve kindly given us £20 each. This is my story…

When I was about 10, my grandmother bought me a wonderful book called The Sixpence That Changed Into A Swimming Pool. It was part of the Judy Picture Story Library, a series of slim shilling novels published as a spin-off from the popular girls’ comic of that name.

On first glance, I thought it was going to be the tale of a girl with a magic coin that she could transform at will into her own private leisure centre. But it turned out to be a much more interesting and satisfying tale.

Inspirational Investment

Cover of the Judy annual, 1967
Comic annuals – such a treat

The heroine, a schoolgirl of around my own age, (let’s call her Sally, as I’ve forgotten her name), has a sister confined to a wheelchair, suffering from a disability for which the only hope of a cure was to have unlimited access to her own swimming pool. Like all Judy‘s heroines, Sally is a resourceful type, keen to help her sibling, but has only sixpence to her name. Determined to save the day by somehow acquiring a swimming pool, she invests her sixpence wisely to turn it into a shilling. I forget exactly how – probably by buying six things each costing a penny and selling them on for tuppence each. She then acquires a shilling’s worth of something to trade for half a crown or so.

And so the tale continues, providing a handy introduction to the concept of compound interest along the way. It’s not only her money that snowballs, but also her goodwill. Other people inspired by her tenacity muck in to help her run jumble sales and other fundraising events. Satisfyingly, on the final page, Sally unveils the new pool to her sister, to the pride and admiration of her family and her sister’s eternal gratitude.

It was a salutary lesson for any child whose first instinct on finding sixpence would be to spend it all on sweets. (My grandfather claims my early mastery of mental arithmetic sprung from his habit of taking me to the sweetshop every Saturday with sixpence to spend.)

Rising Prices, Raising Smiles

Now I’ve been set a similar challenge, but the sum in question is not sixpence but £20. Well, that’s 40+ years of inflation for you.

The challenge has been set by, whose research revealed that even a small windfall like this can put a smile on the face of the recipient. I’m allowed to spend it however I like – or indeed to save it – to make the most of the opportunity.

On reading the brief, the story of the sixpence and the swimming pool immediately sprung to mind. A little while ago, I befriended online, via Mumsnet, a lovely lady with six children, one of whom has been severely disabled from birth, confined to a wheelchair and often in unbearable pain. Sadly her condition wouldn’t be cured by the acquisition of a swimming pool, even if I had the time and stamina to grow the £20 into one. But I do know that her mother longs for driving lessons which would give her and her daughter more independence and mobility and greatly improve their quality of life.

I’d therefore like to forward the £20 to her, to start off her driving lesson fund. I hope I could also count on the snowballing of goodwill here, as in Sally’s story. For example, a friendly local driving instructor might decide to join in by offering a specially discounted rate for her lessons. A bigger driving school might donate as many free lessons as she needs to pass her test. And is it too much to hope that some kindly motor manufacturer might chip in with a wheelchair-adapted car?

Well, it’s the sort of thing that might happen in Judy‘s world. But even if it doesn’t, I’m sure just the gift of the £20 will put a smile on my friend’s face. And she does have a very lovely smile. I think Judy would approve.

backyard swimming pool
Oh look, a swimming pool! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post script: Shortly after this post was published, a kind reader offered to donate an additional £20 as her “first random act of kindness of the month”! If anyone else would like to do this, please send a cheque payable to “D Young” to me c/o my work address (I’m slightly nervous of putting my home address up here!):

Debbie Young, c/o Read for Good, 26 Avening Road, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BS

If you prefer to pay by BACS, please contact me and I’ll send you my bank details.

I’ll bank them myself and transfer the total to Jo by BACS, to avoid creating any extra work for her, and I’ll post the total up here in a few weeks.

STOP PRESS! (Thursday 14th March)

I’m delighted to announce that this evening I was notified that this blog post has been chosen as the competition winner! My prize is £200. Needless to say, that’s going into the driving lesson fund. The swimming pool is filling up…

Posted in Family, Personal life

Mermaids, Magic and Medals

(This new post is about how the Olympics has transformed my dawdling daughter into a clock-watching competitor in the swimming pool.)

Mermen. Russian lubok.
Russian mermaid and merman. Crikey, they must be cold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wading into the warm, quiet waters of Monmouth  public swimming pool on Sunday, I am mentally prepared to drift about for an hour playing whichever lazy games take the fancy of my nine-year-old daughter Laura. We’ve been taking her swimming since she was tiny and she has developed into a real water baby.

With the encouragement of my husband, who is a much more enthusiastic swimmer than me, (I think he may have been a merman in a previous life), Laura quickly graduated from a floating baby seat to inflatable armbands to being a free swimmer. However, we’ve never signed her up for swimming lessons, unlike many of her friends, who are called up regularly in Friday celebration assembly to collect swimming certificates for ever-greater distances. She’s never wanted lessons either, preferring to mess about and play games, in between short bursts of very competent swimming, much of it completely underwater. Our only concern about her performance in the pool is that we sometimes wonder whether she’s ever going to come up for air. The child has the lungs of a seal.

Laura’s games in the pool have of course changed over the years, from having me drift about the pool with her in my arms singing songs about water babies, to having to impersonate tug boats when she was about 4 and obsessed with a video called Tugs (a sort of floating Thomas the Tank Engine), to pretending we’re various sea creatures.

I’ve had the occasional twinge of guilt at not making her take swimming lessons, but at the same time we’ve not wanted to spoil the sheer pleasure she has in being in the water. When she was about two, we spent hours on a beach in Greece watching her repeatedly climb on to a small rock and jump off into the water, with as much concentration as if she were trying to mentally calculate the volume of the water she was displacing, like Archimedes in his bath.

Image from the hit teen TV series, H2O, about mermaids
Laura wonders how they ever manage to go to the toilet if they turn into mermaids every time they’re in contact with water.

Not surprisingly, her current favourite television viewing is an Australian teenage  series called H20: Just Add Water. This is all about three mermaids -0r rather, teenage girls who, after a trip to an enchanted island, discover they turn into mermaids every time they come into contact with water. So in Monmouth I’m fully expecting that we’ll have to play H20. I’m just wondering how to persuade my husband to be one of the mermaids when she takes me completely by surprise.

“Come on, let’s have a race!” she cries, and immediately starts to swim with great concentration towards the deep end.

I follow, feeling slightly put out. Usually I’m begging for time off from her watery games to do some actual swimming, but I hadn’t anticipated being made to race. She beats me easily to the far end of the pool.

Then she spots the clock above the pool with its big red second hand ticking round.

“Time me, Mummy!”

And she’s off again.

This happens several times before we revert to our usual improvised games with woggles (you know, those great long bendy sponge sticks), and it’s not long before every child in the pool is trying to do the same as her. She is very inventive with them. I’m left wondering what has brought on her sudden need for speed.  Previously, I’d have said Laura doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body. While many children can easily be chivvied into doing things faster – dressing, eating meals, bathing – by turning the activity into a race, Laura has always resisted. In fact, trying to make her race usually only slows her down, as she resists any attempt to hurry her, no matter how subtle.

British stamp of London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds
Did they put silver medallists on second class stamps, I wonder?

I can only blame – or rather, thank – the London 2012 Olympics. We spent a long time glued to the aquatic events this summer, especially those involving the wonderful Ellie Simmonds, whom Laura really admires. Perhaps it is this that has transformed Laura’s take on clock-watching from something irritating that Mummy does in the mornings to something really valuable that wins gold medals for her heroes. I am delighted. Either that, it might be the superpower that the H20 mermaids have – they can swim as fast as speedboats when they’re in a hurry. Either way it’s – dare I say it? – a sea-change in Laura’s attitude. Their magic is catching.

It’s not just in the swimming pool that Laura’s got her eye on the clock. Voluntarily, she’s dug out her watch, which I suspect had been strategically hidden some time ago, and she has started wearing it every day, even in her sleep. She’s timing herself on other activities too. I dare not intervene for fear of breaking the spell. I guess it’s another milestone in her growing up, taking responsibility for her own time management, and I am truly grateful.

All the same, I hope our days of playing mermaids will not be over any time soon.

If you enjoyed this post, here are some others you might enjoy:

Unlike Laura, I was not a sporty child. This post compares our experiences of school sport: Keeping Up With My Sporty Daughter.

But I do like to run. Here’s a post about the magic of running: Running in Wonderland  – You Can Call Me Al(ice)