I decided that I needed to exercise more and had read somewhere that water aerobics was good for you. It sounded perfect. I didn’t really know what was involved, but I imagined myself lolling around in the water, perhaps splashing a bit here and there to increase the health benefits only to emerge glistening from the pool invigorated, the picture of cardio-vascular wellness. Or perhaps it was like floating with other swimmers on top of the water in a geometric pattern as Esther Williams dives into the center.
The greater Paris area is dotted with over 39 public pools, some of them quite beautiful. The one in suburban Pantoise is especially attractive, but Piscine Keller in the 15tharrondissement is a 10 minute walk from our apartment. I thought I would start there. Sure enough, they offered something called “aquagym.” The word “gym” set off alarm bells. It seemed to suggest that there was more to this than lounging on an inner tube, the way Michael Phelps might do as he puffed on a joint.
It turns out that Piscine Keller offers not one but six different classes of Aquagym.
- Aquagym Douceur
- Aquagym +
- Aquagym Vita
The classes were listed in ascending order of difficulty. I immediately disregarded the last two because they sounded too much like exercise, wet or not. Aquagym Douceur had the right ring to it. However, because I thought I was in pretty good shape, I figured that the Aquagym+ would be more my speed.
On the other hand, I hadn’t been exercising regularly for quite some time. I never work up a sweat walking our dog Elliot around the neighborhood several times a day because of his stop and sniff agenda, so I wouldn’t consider that a workout. After mulling it over, I decided to be prudent and begin slowly with Aquagym Douceur to get the hang of it and then move up to the Aquagym+ where I really belonged.
When I asked the desk attendant for more information, I got my first surprise. He reminded me that for swimming pools, the French require men to wear close-hugging speedos. (My British friend calls them “budgie smugglers”.) “Bermudas” are prohibited..
Now, I have always tried to live my life by one simple rule: after age 25, wearing lycra is a privilege not a right. But the French are not as principled as I, and so at the beach and pool, you see men walking around who are asking far too much of this stretchy fabric. No one seems to mind. Nevertheless, if speedos could help improve my cardio-vascular health, so be it. I imagined a cardiologist writing out a prescription for “One small, tight, embarrassing bathing costume”. Perhaps I could submit the bill to Sécurité Sociale for reimbursement.
But the desk attendant wasn’t finished. One is also required to wear a swim cap, humiliatingly referred to as “un bonnet.” “Why would I need one?” I protested. “Since I am already bald, it is as if I wear ‘un bonnet de bain’ all the time. Ha, ha,” I said winningly. Apparently, I am not as delightful in my halting French as I think I am. He directed me to the vending machine that dispensed un bonnet in a plastic egg for 7.50 euros.
How disappointing. I thought this might be the one time in my life where being bald would be an advantage. “Mais, non!” Bald or not, wearing a bonnet was obligatory. Now this touched a sensitive spot for me.
As a young man I never had much hair. To my great sorrow in the 60’s when long hair was on the way in, mine was on the way out. Jim Morrison could toss his wavy locks to sexy effect, but I could only look on sadly knowing that there would be no tossing for me. It was especially distressing because my three sisters and brother all had thick, luxuriant hair, as much as they wanted.
In those days, I patronized an Italian barber in Greenwich Village. His shop was decorated with framed glamour pictures of men with fashionable hair stylings: page boy dos like Davy Jones of the Monkeys, insouciant Mick Jagger flips, and bowl-on-the-head Beatles cuts. I just knew that if the barber put his mind to it, he could work some tonsorial magic that would change my thinning hair into something groovy. As he snipped around my ears one afternoon, I discussed the problem with him. “You know, you could get one of those crew cuts,” he said, “but most of your crew has jumped ship.” He thought he was hilarious.
I tried to think of other solutions. I would let my hair grow long, get it tightly curled like the ribbon on a Christmas gift, fluff it around and freeze it in place with hair spray. Maybe an Afro wig would do the trick. Who would ever guess? I even considered a 60’s version of the Rand Paul look with a family of dust bunnies taped to my scalp. But, sadly, there was no hiding the fact that it was taking longer and longer to wash my face.
I picked up an aquagym flier from the rack at the front desk. Walking home with it in my back pocket, I felt positively vigorous.
At the beginning of April, I presented myself at the Piscine Keller with my snug fit speedos and un bonnet for my first session of Aquagym Douceur. There are two pools at Keller. One is a large Olympic size covered with a retractable roof. The other is smaller, a little over a meter deep and heated to a comforting 85 degrees. This was where the aquagym would take place.
I arrived early so that I could scope everything out. I wanted no more surprises. After a shower, I wiggled into my snug fits, put on my bonnet and walked self-consciously out to the smaller pool. I slipped into the warm water.
Not knowing exactly what the protocol was, I decided I should warm up. Olympic swimmers do that. I bounced up and down a bit. I worked my arms like I was doing the breast stroke except I moved forward by walking along the bottom of the pool.
I imagined that anyone watching me would see a fit looking middle-aged man– who didn’t really need a bonnet–swimming like a real pro. In my peripheral vision I could see other people slipping into the pool, but I wasn’t going to be distracted. As all athletes know, the warm up is important. This wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.
A whistle blew and I looked up to see a tan young man standing on the side of the pool. He clearly was entitled to wear his blue snug fits. He called the swimmers to order and asked us to spread out in the pool. I chose a spot in the middle. From my disco days, I had learned that if you stood in the middle of a crowded dance floor, you could simulate dancing by just jerking your head and shoulders to the music, looking rapturous, and mouthing snatches of lyrics now and then: “ ‘Cause we’re gonna boogie oogie oogie, ‘Till you just can’t boogie no mo—o-o-o-o-o-ore…” The crowd of good dancers would block out any view of your pathetic boogying skills and no one would be the wiser.
Another sound of the whistle, and the snug fitted instructor began to demonstrate the first exercise. It was now, for the first time, that I took a good look around at my classmates. To my horror, I discovered that I was the only man in the class. I was surrounded by little old ladies in flowered swim caps.
My self-consciousness gave way to philosophical thoughts, my go-to defense when I make bad decisions. After years of therapy and self-improvement, surely I could find a way to hike up my snug fits and live my truth in a geriatric ladies aquagym. I needed to see this as an opportunity to be my best self and demonstrate how athletic I could be. After all, the lady aqua-gymers were much older than I was.
In French, Mr. Skimpy Speedos was loudly telling us to march slowly in place, lifting our knees as high as possible. “En Marche! En Marche! Comme des soldats! En Marche!” Apparently, the little old ladies in front of me had done this routine before. Heads up, backs straight as ramrods, they marched rhythmically in the water like wet Rockettes. And I marched right with them.
Lycra Man picked up the pace. He had us swing our arms as we marched and move our heads left and right as if we were passing in review in front of General De Gaulle. “En Marche! En Marche!” The little old ladies marched more briskly, swinging their arms.
Ok. So here’s the thing I quickly learned about an aquagym. It turns out that the crucial word is aqua and not gym. The aqua creates a great deal of resistance to movement of any kind. Even fish must know this.
Ten minutes into the hour-long session, Mr. Demi-drawers had us chin deep in the water, walking like ducks that were flapping their wings. “C’est ça! Comme un canard!” I was getting a little winded, but the lady ducks were unfazed. I renewed my determination. In deference to the age of the other swimmers, surely our leader would soon tell us to take a break, sit on the side of the pool gasping for air, and review our bucket lists.
But there was no let up. “Et pliez, et pliez.” Mr. Blue Butt surveyed the crowd and shouted insincere encouragement. “Super! Génial!” His voice was really starting to grate. I didn’t like his attitude either. The little old ladies maintained their pace, squatting and standing in the water, moving without apparent effort like ballet dancers at the bar. Worse yet: they seemed to be having fun.
Fifteen minutes gone and I thought I was going to die. My lungs burned and my legs wobbled under the water. Thank god for natural buoyancy. I began to look for a way out, but I was hemmed in by flower hatted mermaids and my ego. My disco strategy meant that I couldn’t escape quietly or unseen, even if I pulled my bonnet down over my face like a bank robber. And I just knew that Mr. Smug Shorts would taunt me in French for making a premature exit. If I slithered out of the pool now, I would disgrace myself, my family, my country and all of mankind, at least the senior portion of it.
“Et sauter, et sauter.” Please god, make him stop. When he bends down to demonstrate a fiendish exercise, may his stretched blue briefs snap off, sail through the air and hit someone in the eye. I could escape in the confusion.
As I splashed about, a horrible realization was slowly dawning. I prefer to think of myself as middle-aged, but that is only true if I live to be 150. Looking around the pool, I could see that I was, in fact, about the same age as my water companions. The truth, when it hit me, was rude: I am a little old man surrounded by little old ladies who are in better condition than I am.
I decided to tough it out, or “disco” it out as was the case. Keeping my shoulders at water level, I did a lot of hand, facial and eyebrow aerobics. So what if below the surface my body quivered like an under baked soufflé? Above the water I was going to look impressively animated, a real aqua gymnast.
After an excruciating hour, Mr. Scanty Shorts blew his whistle and led the unnaturally strong and obnoxiously invigorated little old pool ladies in a round of applause. I could barely clap my hands together. A burble of pleased chatter flowed through the group. Without making eye contact, I dog paddled to the end of the pool that had steps. (I feared I couldn’t negotiate the ladder.) I tried to keep a look on my face that said: “Now that was energetic. I feel so revitalized.”
Clinging to the chrome hand rail, I climbed the five steps out of the pool, stood up as straight as possible, sucked in my gut, and made a desperate attempt to control my heaving breath. I gathered together as much dignity as one can muster in over taxed speedos and a bonnet and walked to the shower, jauntily mouthing the words for anyone watching: “Get down, boogie oogie oogie…Get down, boogie oogie oogie…”
When Anders got home from work that evening, he asked me how my first aquagym class had gone. “It was quite an experience,” I offered vaguely and changed the subject.
The next day, I put away my snug fits and bonnet and took Elliot for a walk, the way the good lord intended.