When I was a little girl in grade school in Paris, we had to go once a week to a pool for swimming lessons. My school, like most in the city, did not have a pool, and barely a proper gymnasium, this was Paris after all, not the most athletic place in the world.
Even if you could already swim, like me, we had to start at the very beginning and paddle in the cold water of the shallow end of the pool, and do the frog thing. Girls had a red bathing suit, one piece of course, with criss-cross backs, and the boys had tiny blue Speedo-type stealthy ones, the kind French people call moule-boules, don't ask, and DO NOT Google it! My schools did not have a day uniform, but we had an exercise outfit, and mandatory swimsuits.
I hated this bathing suit, why did it have to be red? We were such pale children in a city where it rains nine months a year! That color was horrific to me; I wanted to have a navy blue, or a black suit. We also had to wear ugly head caps made of smelly rubber, allegedly to keep our hair dry, but that never really worked.
The concept of sports and exercise was somewhat advanced at my public school, compare to others in the city. We had daily 15-minute workouts on the outside patio, rain or shine, where we mostly did jumping-jack hops in our day wear, plus a full class of gymnastics each week, in the auditorium/concert hall, wearing navy shorts and white tank tops. That regimen would include some ball game and rock climbing, not to mention the dreaded rope climbing. My favorite of all our exercise programs was the yearly ski trip, always in February. At no cost to families - this is a socialist country after all.
We got to spend a week away from home, take a train for hours to descend to a ski resort, usually in the Alps, stay in dormitory bunk beds, and take a few lessons on the snow before hitting the slopes. This was fun. I forgot the terribly horribly disgusting soups we had to swallow, and only remembers the lovely hot chocolates served on the wooden terrace.
My school district pool was the Piscine Molitor, ring a bell? If you have read the magical book Life of Pi by Canadian author Yann Martel, or seen the film of the same name by Ang Lee, you know well that the protagonist in the story is named Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi for short. Born in Pondichéry, the French enclave in the south of India, Piscine Molitor decided to shorten his name after his schoolmates started to call him Pissin (g). He adopted the moniker of Pi, the Greek letter representing the mathematical ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. But you knew that.
The piscine of my childhood closed its doors in 1989 at the advanced age, for a pool, of 60. The classic Art Deco building then became a heaven for taggers and graffiti artists, and was transformed into a wild cement canvas of multiple layers and inventive fantasy for years and years. The sight was somewhat sad. Doors started to unhinge and window panes broke, the forbidden and closed off property had become a derelict eyesore, in an otherwise rather posh part of Paris.
In 2008, the City of Paris offered a 54-year lease to a company that planned to renovate and operate the pool. After years of work, this May the majestic structure finally re-opened and the renovation is quite spectacular. Mosaics, stain-glass windows, the famous blue doors of the poolside cabins, the railings - everything that could not be rescued was recreated with extreme details and efficient exactitude.
The two basins are back in order, just the way they were in 1929. The winter pool is under a greenhouse-like structure, and the summer one is open-air with sunning deck. After a nearly $100-million cost of renovation and the creation of 220 jobs, the nostalgic landmark in the shape of an ocean-liner now offers a five-star hotel on site, a restaurant, a spa, a club, and a rooftop green terrace. Despite its luxurious new settings, the pool complex raises controversy for its pricing policy. While free for the hotel guests, the annual membership for others is priced at 3,300 Euros, or about $4,450. The daily cost is 180 Euros per day, just about $245. No longer a public pool, the property has become a resort destination, with a very high price tag.
The company announced that there is a possibility for the covered pool section to be open again to schools, with no access to the other parts of the hotel - no word yet on the entrance fee for this project. The name Molitor was altered to reflect a more club-ish ambiance and now reads MLTR. I bet the real Parisians will still refer to it as la Piscine Molitor.
I never missed the swimming lessons in freezing waters with ugly suits, but I remember the magnificent building fondly, the funny shaped portholes, the cabins and the blue doors, but at that price, I doubt I'll ever swim there again.