Monday, 9 November 2009

My first swim in Canada

I'm a keen swimmer. But that doesn't mean the same thing in North America as it does in the UK, or even to everyone back home, so I better explain - I love to go to the swimming pool, cruise up and down at my own pace and let my mind wander. If I'm feeling particularly indulgant I might even relax in the jacuzzi (spa/hottub) or steam room afterwards. I'm not a competitive swimmer and have no interest in lap times or personal bests. For me, it's a pleasant thing to do that has the happy side effect of giving me some regular exercise.

Which is why it's really sad that I haven't been swimming in Montréal since I moved here 9 months ago. The thing is, in Canada, it's not so easy to just "go swimming". In the UK, the normal way to go swimming is to turn up at a public pool, at pretty much any time you like (save for a few swimming classes or women only sessions when it is not available), pay a few pounds admission, and go swimming.
"Public" pools that aren't publicly accessible

In Canada, it doesn't work like that. Almost every pool (including the numerous "public" pools provided by the city), require memberships fees - usually around $50 (£30) a month, plus a similar joining fee, after which you can have general access at most hours. If you want to keep yourself "unaligned" to any particular pool, then you can come during the pool's "public" hours.. Typically 1-3 hours each day are assigned as open to all (all Montréal residents that is). And during that time it's free to swim. The catch? These "free" hours are not particularly convenient. At the downtown YMCA where we went today, the free hours are 2.30pm-4pm and 8.30pm-10pm. ie no use at all if you want to swim (a) before work, (b) at lunchtime or (c) after work. Canada, your swimming system sucks!

But, unperturbed, Mrs Alex and I turned up for our swim at 8.30pm this evening at the Downtown YMCA (after an interesting lecture at the Goethe Institut commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall). I should add that in North America, YMCAs are not just youth hostels but also community centres and sports facilities, and you can even take adult education classes there.

Compulsory headgear
Our swim was a very different experience from swimming in the UK. First of all, you have to wear a swimcap. Which I've never worn before (well, except for the one I glued a wig to for my Rocky Horror costume a couple of weeks back!). Mrs Alex found us some cheap ones but they were very painful and kept pulling my hair. Not fun. And we had to buy padlocks, you can't just stick a coin in the locker. Which meant remember 7 different numbers - 3 numbers for the lock combination, 3 numbers for the entrance to the changing room, plus my locker number. Great. Just what I need when I'm trying to relax. On the bright side (for the other swimmers) French Canada hasn't adopted the French rule of "Speedo's only" (no swimming shorts).

A disappointing experience

I don't know if the YMCA pools are typical of Canadian public pools but I was definitely underwhelmed by the experience. The changing room had no benches or hooks for getting changed. When we got into the pool area it was rather clinical. The pool was surrounded by breezeblock walls painted in a spartan hospital white. Still, the water was the right temperature (cool but not cold), and was clear and clean. While we swam, three college-age lifeguards in red shirts were playing hoopla with some life-saving poles and rubber doughnuts. Not terribly professional, but harmless enough. After we'd done our lengths we tried the jacuzzi, which was nice enough but a little odd, being open on one side to a medium-sized warmish rectangular pool rather than being self-contained. Heading back out, I noticed more changing room deficiencies as well as the lack of hooks - there were only three showers - unsurprisingly all full due to the constrained opening hours. When I got into the shower the curtain and wooden bench were mouldy. I also noticed that the area by the lockers had carpet! Not useful when you have wet swimming shorts and nowhere to put them.

Overall, it was great to get back in the water. But I'm sad I can't easily establish a routine like I had in the UK where I went for a swim before or after work 2 or 3 times a week. I found it a great way to start the day and I do some of my best creative thinking while swimming. I don't want to pay to join a specific pool (or if I do, I want a significantly higher standard than this!). I had a look for other options on my local borough's site - but nothing quite seems to fit the bill.

My quest for a local, affordable, well-equipped pool continues. I hope it's not another 9 months before I find one.

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