In France, a Swimming Pool With a Story

In Rennes, one writer discovers the Piscine Saint-Georges—and in turn, more about herself.

 Ille et Vilaine, Rennes, Saint Georges swimming pool, with row of small blue numbered cabins lining one edge

Architect Emmanuel Le Ray designed the art deco swimming pool.

Courtesy of Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

I moved to Rennes, France, with two large, black suitcases—one so huge, it barely fit through the metro turnstiles in Paris—years of classroom French, and a confusing mix of excitement and terror. I was an older-than-average college junior at the University of Washington, studying journalism and French. And though I didn’t really know it at the time, I was also beginning to question my sexuality. I did know that I wanted to live in France for as long as I possibly could and that I wanted to immerse myself in all things French, including the language. So I chose a program that placed me with a local family for nearly a year.

That family lived in a historic four-bedroom apartment with tall, shuttered windows that looked out on the Place de la Mairie, Rennes’ s main square. Agnes, my host mom, was well-dressed, polite, but initially a little distant—the embodiment of an intimidating French woman. Her husband, Patrick, was jovial and goofy. He told me that he’d once been part of a group that wanted Normandy to secede from France, and I could see that revolutionary energy in him, subdued now with age. And their 20-something son, Antoine—who lived with them because of a disability—was charming and sweet.

They were welcoming, but even so: I was culturally shocked. My classes were in French, my home life was in French, I was navigating new friendships. Everything was different, and in those first few months, I felt lonely and overwhelmed. To quiet my mind, I turned to exercise. I started with running—through the cobbled streets of Rennes and the elegant parks, lined with historic buildings.

One day, I was running through the central plaza and needed to stop and stretch. I paused before a particularly ornate building that had caught my eye a few times before, yet inspired only idle curiosity—I’d assumed it was one of the city’s many opaque government edifices. That day, breathing heavily from my run, I looked more closely and realized that the structure was actually something much more accessible: a public swimming pool. It was like unexpectedly seeing an old friend in an unfamiliar place; I had to embrace it. The moment I stepped through the lobby, the comforting smell of chlorine enveloped me. Homesickness, vanquished.

It’s an art deco masterpiece, the Piscine Saint-Georges. Bathers enter through blue, arch-top metal doors with swirls of design, accented by a rainbow of mosaic tiles, and above them—yet almost hidden from view—are rectangular glass panels haloed with the words “PISCINE MUNICIPAL.” And the interior is even more incredible. Built in the early 1920s, the main room is rectangular and lofty, surrounded on the long sides by 30 changing rooms with painted blue doors. There’s a second floor with a balcony, and blue ceiling tiles that look like waves, if Picasso had designed them.

Then there’s the pool: 36 yards long and 15 yards wide, every inch covered in a mosaic of tiny square tiles in blues of all shades. And lining the perimeter of the pool is a frieze of wavelets in blue and green, accented by yellow and brown tiles, which shimmer as human-made waves lap at the edges.

Brothers Isidore and Vincent Odorico, who descended from a long line of mosaic masters, are to thank for this tiled wonder. The brothers emigrated to France from Friuli, Italy—home to one of Italy’s best mosaic schools—in the late 1800s, and went on to decorate much of France’s Brittany region with their work. Architect Emmanuel Le Ray contracted the brothers after designing the pool, patterned after two others: the rectangular Butte-aux-Cailles pool with its high, arched ceiling in Paris and a round, sun-streaked pool at the thermal complex in Nancy, a city in northwestern France. Both still exist today.

However, while the Odoricos’ work is most definitely art, the all-tile commission was more than just a pretty face for the public. On the heels of the 1918 flu epidemic, there was increased understanding of the ways that infectious disease spread, with tile now heralded as one of the most hygienic options around. So Le Ray brought the brothers in to, essentially, make public health beautiful. All the showers, the changing rooms—everything is tiled.

This increased awareness of health and disease transmission also coincided with what’s now known as the “Golden Age of Swimming.” While pools had begun to appear around the world in the late 19th century, they were used primarily for bathing. Wealthy people typically had access to their own baths through the miracle of indoor plumbing, but those in the lower classes bathed in public pools built for this purpose. It was less about swimming laps and more about soaking away the day’s grime.

In the early 20th century, swimming evolved from pure recreation to sport, soon after swimming was added to the Olympics. Pools began to spring up in Western nations, including Europe and the United States, catering to people who wanted to swim for health. This was a notable time for women, too. They’d been admitted to the Olympics, though only for freestyle swimming, and bathing suits were becoming increasingly revealing, much to the chagrin of more conservative minds.

And in the middle of this revolution, the Piscine Saint-Georges opened.

The moment I stepped through the lobby, the comforting smell of chlorine enveloped me. Homesickness, vanquished.

My study abroad program had an unexpected benefit. Part of the fee I paid to the program covered my lodging and food, so my only responsibilities were to study, clean my room, and take care of myself. Agnes and Patrick and Antoine led busy, full lives and didn’t really need anything from me.

It had taken a lot of work just to get to here: Becoming serious about my community college classes, deciding I wanted to tell stories for a living, transferring to the University of Washington, and then figuring out how to get to France—all the applications, the visas, the money, the flights. I’d been on my own for all those years, barely making ends meet, striving.

Even before that, I’d felt a large emotional responsibility toward my family. As a single parent, my mother hadn’t always had an easy time. She always did her best, and she loved me and my sister unconditionally. But she was still striving in her own life, trying to get a degree, trying to sort through the ghosts of her own past, and I often felt like it was my job to make sure she was OK.

All that to say: There wasn’t a lot of space to dig deep emotionally, especially around something as complicated as sexual orientation. I’d dabbled in dating boys, yet there was always something missing for me, something that didn’t click. It felt like what I was supposed to do, and I didn’t want to think about what it would mean to look deeper, even though there was a tiny, tiny, tiny voice inside of me saying This isn’t working for you.

So in Rennes, psychically, it felt like it was the first time all I had to do was take care of myself. The people around me were fine. Money was fine. Life was fine. It was like the walls fell away and that voice inside of me that had been trying to speak up for years grew louder. Or, maybe, I grew more capable of hearing it.

And much of this happened while I was in the pool.

We’re swimmers, my family. My grandmother had always been athletic—skiing, hiking, swimming—but in the 1960s she found herself at home with five young children and one shower. Ingenious woman that she was, she signed the family up for a membership at Aqua Dive, a deep, chlorinated pool just a few blocks from their home. Every day, the family would troop to the pool, she would swim laps and get her fitness fill, and the kids would splash around in the pool. Everyone returned home, clean and happy, shower crisis averted. The tradition continued for years: Even after the kids moved out, my grandparents swam daily laps at Aqua Dive.

I grew up there, too. My mom has photos of me at six months old in that pool (in a rainbow bathing suit, no less). As my skills advanced and my sister, Aleia, entered the picture, we continued to visit Aqua Dive, playing mermaids and having tea parties on the pool floor. My mother worked a lot, so Aleia and I spent half our time with our grandparents, and that often involved a morning visit to the pool. But our love of water extended beyond the club: We spent summers paddling in the lakes of Idaho and venturing into the frigid Pacific along the Oregon coast. Swimming was just a part of who we were.

It’s no secret that swimming is good for the human body. There are the physical benefits, of course: It’s a low-impact, full-body workout that releases endorphins, improving mood and decreasing stress and anxiety—essentially our brain’s way of producing natural painkillers. But swimming can have even deeper effects on us.

“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water,” writes marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols in his book, Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. “And that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken.”

Nichols’s research focused on the way the human body reacts to stress. He asserts that most of us live in a “red mind” state of constant anxiety and stress, and that this exacerbates or causes many of the health issues and diseases we face today. By recording stress hormones, EEGs, oxygen flow, and heart rate, Nichols discovered that stress and anxiety levels decreased when humans were exposed to water—any water at all, from oceans and lakes to a simple bath at home.

I also like the more anthropological and meditative approach that writer Bonnie Tsui and Afar contributor took in her 2020 book, Why We Swim, an exploration of why water seduces us time and time again, despite its dangers. She quotes the late naturalist Roger Deakin, who “described swimming as having a transformative Alice in Wonderland quality,” she says.

“When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens,” Deakin wrote. “Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world. You see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different than any other. Your sense of the present is overwhelming.”

That weekend, I signed up for a membership at the Piscine Saint-Georges, a monthly punch card that allowed me up to three swims a week. I was surprisingly nervous on my first visit. It took me a long time to change into my suit, tuck my things into a locker, and shower. I stalled a bit, too, by attempting to read all the pool rules, the funniest of which was a pictographic sign aimed at men that seemed to ban swim trunks and encourage tiny Speedos. (I later discovered that this is true throughout France.)

Some aspects felt intensely familiar: the smell of the pool air, the pleasant constriction of my polyester-and-spandex tank suit, the chill of the water on my calves as I entered the water. But as I stood in the shallow end, tugging on my new swim cap and goggles, I felt like a fish out of water, in water. I looked around, trying to absorb the etiquette.

Unlike the lap pools I’d grown up with, the Piscine Saint-Georges was divided into four sections. There was one large section that seemed meant for people with fins and/or kickboards. And then there were three lap lanes divided by nylons ropes studded with blue and white plastic floats, yet the lanes were much wider than I was used to and, at times, swimmers used the center part of each lane as a passing stretch, like you would on the highway. I stood in the pool, watching, delaying until finally the chill made me desperate enough to dive in.

As I dunked below the surface, the world quieted. I began to move my arms and legs in the familiar side-stroke motion, suited swimmers streaking by in other lanes. I reached the opposite side of the pool and did a clumsy flip turn, my feet hitting the tiled wall and giving a little push. I swam maybe 10 laps like that, still a little timid, straining to listen for the lifeguard and watching for people who wanted to pass. It wasn’t easy: After so many years as a landlubber, the water felt like a force I had to carve through. Despite my fatigue, I grinned beneath the water on the last lap, surrounded by thousands of shimmering blue tiles.

I left the Piscine Saint-Georges, buoyant, almost buzzing, my mind calmer than it had been in weeks. I returned just a few days later and swam another 10 laps; same thing the next week. Within a month, I was working my way up to 15 laps, to 20, and beyond. Each time I waded into the cool waters of the pool, it felt almost baptismal. As I’d start to swim, my mind would settle and whatever challenge I was facing that day would diminish. Swimming became my meditation.

The difficulty of the early days of those laps mirrored the difficulty of settling into the program, the cultural dissonance, the fatigue of living 24/7 in an entirely new language. But as time passed, as I built up my strength, those difficulties eased. I fell in love with the pool, with Rennes, with my room overlooking the Place de la Mairie, with my program.

As that happened, I had even more emotional space, and my meditative swims began to encompass something else: my sexual orientation. I’d had an inkling that something was different since I was 16. I was sitting on the carpet in our living room, watching K.D. Lang perform on TV. I knew her music but had never seen her live and I was mesmerized. It feels like such a lesbian cliché, but it—she—awakened something in me. I hadn’t dated, hadn’t even kissed anyone at that point and I was starting to feel very weird about that. The problem was, I didn’t really want to kiss anyone, and I didn’t know how to make sense of that.

At that time—the late ’90s, pre-widespread-internet, before The L Word—I genuinely, and naively, believed that to be gay meant I also had to want to look like K.D. To present as more male, or at least as less female. I felt very female, and I liked that. I wanted to wear dresses and makeup and have long hair. Looking back, I think I didn’t want to feel too different from the people around me. No one at my fairly conservative school was (outwardly) gay, and many of my friends were involved in Christian youth groups that weren’t inclusive of the gay community. So I drifted along into my 20s, ignoring that spark, that tiny voice.

But in my French life, at the Piscine Saint-Georges, I started to reflect on that K.D. moment and on the years that followed—to ask myself what it all might mean. I didn’t go to therapy, I didn’t even talk about this with my friends in the program or at home. I just went to the pool, where the water sluiced away years of denial. It was just me and my fellow swim-capped seekers, kicking and splashing toward something like transcendence.

It’s hard to parse now, the moment when I knew, because it’s all blurred together a bit with time, like objects rippled and distorted beneath the surface of the water. But I do remember the first time I consciously said to myself, “I think I’m gay.” It felt so true and so simple, though not easy. It was terrifying and disorienting, but also fiercely freeing. So many things began to fall into place: my late-bloomer status when it came to dating, my fleeting attempts at relationships with boys, a friendship with a woman that felt more like a relationship than any I’d ever had with the opposite sex.

I think the foreignness of my new life also paved the way for this awakening: Because everything was unfamiliar, my perspective on the world and my place within it shifted. I was different in France, which meant that—just maybe—I could be different at home. Could I have found this part of myself if I’d moved to, say, New York, instead of France? Perhaps. But I think it often takes a total shake-up of our life to shake truths out of ourselves—and travel can often be a vehicle for that transformation.

I didn’t act on this awakening in France. I didn’t go to gay clubs or go on dates with French women. That was much too scary back then. It felt enough to just hold on to the truth. Like I needed time to build myself up, physically and mentally, and the pool was my chrysalis, preparing me to return home, metamorphosis complete.

I think the foreignness of my new life also paved the way for this awakening: Because everything was unfamiliar, my perspective on the world and my place within it shifted.

Once home, it took time to peel back the layers. I survived the sometimes awkward, often sweet, process of coming out to my family and friends. Eventually, I moved to the Bay Area. And I kept swimming. In fact, it was swimming that led me to my now-wife, Jeannie. In 2014, my friend Simone texted to say that she and a friend, Jeannie, were entering a relay triathlon and they needed a swimmer. Jeannie loves to tell people that I immediately texted back with an enthusiastic “yes” and a bunch of swim emoji, and that she was impressed because she thinks the swim is the hardest part.

We would often run or swim together as we trained for our triathlon, building a friendship around afternoons in the pool or beneath Oakland’s redwoods. I remember so clearly standing in the shallow end of a pool one sunny day, talking with Simone and Jeannie, goggles pushed up on our heads, knowing that something magnificent was building, but savoring it, this future I’d waited so long to find.

Jeannie and I married in September 2016 at Goleta State Park, near Santa Barbara, California, on a strip of sand fringed by the Pacific Ocean. Behind us, dolphins arced out of the water as we said our vows.

Nine months later, the moon landed at the Piscine Saint-Georges. Or rather, a 23-foot-in-diameter inflated sphere, printed with NASA-acquired imagery—a perfect replica of the moon in terrestrial form. It’s a traveling installation called Museum of the Moon from artist Luke Jerram, who partners with locations around the world to install the moon for a few weeks at a time, hosting events accompanied by the music of composer Dan Jones. I remember being so captivated by the imagery. This glowing, celestial body seemed so right in the Rennes pool, like it was the missing piece of the puzzle.

The moon hung over the Piscine Saint-George for three weeks, day and night. In that first year of our marriage, so far from where I’d started in France, I sometimes liked to imagine myself back in that pool at night, bathed in the faux-celestial light of an inflatable moon. In my vision, I’d swim hard, peering down at the blue-tiled depth, exhausting myself. Then, I’d flip onto my back and look up, buoyed by the clear waters, admiring a force beyond me, moonlight leading me home.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at Afar, where she produces the Unpacked by Afar podcast and hosts Afar’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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