This summer, for the first time in 50 years, swimming in the Bassin de la Villette has been actively encouraged by the city on occasion, including last Sunday, as part of Paris’s bid for the summer 2024 Olympics and a larger environmental plan.
Flashback: Near the end of the last century, then-president Jacques Chirac, erstwhile Mayor of Paris, promised to swim in the Seine before the end of his mandate. A consortium of townships along the tributaries, including the canal system, formed to reduce pollution. Years passed without news as the dream receded into an indefinite future. Researching the neighborhood, I found out our local waterway was commissioned by Napoleon to provide fresh drinking water for parched Parisians, but was then defiled by sewage and manufacturing due to the Industrial revolution. For the past 5 decades, swimming was discouraged by fines. People still partook but rarely and at their own risk. A few months ago, the city announced its Olympic ambitions, including events in the canal and the Seine, starting summer 2017. The water quality has been monitored over recent years and was now supporting fish and wildlife.
Next thing I knew a preliminary swim was organized on the canal one cold June day, with a pontoon access, wetsuits on loan, showers, supervision and everything you’d expect from a modern metropolis.
Excitement started to mount and when I got back from summer vacation, news items began to appear in print and online about a long-distance race followed by open swimming scheduled for August 28th. Fanciful posters decorated billboards. The event was dubbed “La Fluctuat” from the city motto “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” (Tempest-tossed but unsinkable):
Co-sponsored by the city and a scientific-sounding “Laboratoire des baignades urbaines expérimentales,” it was irresistible. So thousands of people, including my family and neighbors, trooped over there on Sunday and waited for the race to end and show our support by taking a dip. My peeps plopped down with lawn chairs and a cooler on the sunny side. The crowd was 4-deep along a cobbled walkway, euphoric in bathing suits and beach towels, jumping in and paddling around with floats provided by volunteers on the sidelines.
My own nautical motivation started to wane when I saw a 3-foot distance between water and embankment, with no pontoon or ladders in sight on our side. Chinning and pull-ups are not my strongest attribute. Could my friends pull me out of the water soaking wet? My son is a strong swimmer, so I cheered when he jumped in, but kept an eye on him and hoped my water safety training wouldn’t be needed. It wasn’t. We basked in the late afternoon sunshine, surrounded by disrobed revellers. Perfect way to segue from vacation back to business after an intense year. “I can’t believe this is really happening!” “Pinch me, I must be dreaming!” With my feet dangling in the cool water, I resolved to set up camp on the opposite side next time so I could climb in and out at will.
Then I noticed that all the lifeguards posted on surfboards during the race had disappeared. There were 2 men in wetsuits going up and down the Bassin in a zodiac, but no other safety measures. Something fishy was going on.
Sure enough, when we got home, reports in the media proclaimed that we had all braved the ban on public swimming. The “Laboratory of Experimental Urban Swims” turned out to be an association of activists whose permit application was denied by the city the day before? A huge publicity campaign had been launched without official support from the Mairie? Looks like we were a flashmob and didn’t know it…
In any case, no regrets. Hot showers and soap took care of whatever may have been in the water. We all survived to tell the tale and make history, sharing a vision of rivers and canals coming back to life even in huge metropolitan areas.
:-)))) xxxxx Aliss