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Swim against the tide of tourists

The Piscine Joséphine Baker is a city pool on a barge permanently tied to a Paris riverbank.

A relaxing dip in community pools abroad can give one a window into a world travellers rarely get to see

I picked up a Vélib bike from the nearest station to our vacation apartment near République and headed out for the mission I have in every city, whether it's a world capital or some dumpy town in the American Midwest.

I cycled through the Marais until I came to the Seine and then headed east along the river, past the Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis, past the Jardin des Plantes on the opposite bank, past the bridge leading to the Austerlitz station, then over the Pont de Bercy and back down to the river, this time on the Left Bank.

It took less than half an hour on this pleasant June afternoon.

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And there, just in front of me, my goal: a community swimming pool.

Only here, in Paris, it was a unique one. La Piscine Joséphine Baker is a city pool – all ultramodern and walled with glass – but on a barge permanently tied up to the riverbank.

It was a lovely swim, with the blue sky above, the stark modern glass and chrome towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale at the edge of my view field as I turned to breathe one way, the green of the Parc de Bercy the other.

And, of course, I had my typical idiosyncratic pool experience; in this case one that expressed the essential Paris love of rules and order and making people wait for service.

An aerial picture taken aboard an helicopter on July 20, 2010 shows the Josephine Baker swimming pool along the Seine River in Bercy in Paris.

I had to wait in a long, inefficient line to pay to get in. I was not allowed into the pool unless I had a bathing cap, which I didn't have, so I had to buy one. And I was not allowed into the change room unless I waded through a large foot bath. I tried to go around it and was scolded sharply by the ever-present cranky municipal cleaning employee. Bien sûr. How could it be otherwise?

And, really, that's part of why I search out local swimming pools wherever I go. It's always wonderful to have a watery workout in the middle of the usual tourist tasks of eating, walking, staring at things on walls and shopping.

But, I also get a glimpse into the everyday character of whatever place I'm in.

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City or community pools are portals to the non-tourist world. Tourists may occasionally manage to locate them, but not in overwhelming numbers.

Even in the most glamorous cities, they're filled with local parents and rambunctious children, gaggles of girlfriends shrieking and apparently uninterested in any actual water, dive-bombing boys, young triathletes and seniors doing their laps doggedly.

Well, almost. The huge Centro Deportivo Municipal Casa de Campo in the suburbs of Madrid, also called the Piscina de Lago (i.e., lake pool) was remarkable for how no one actually swam during the time I was there. Okay, it was extremely hot that July, perhaps too hot to move, and many people had clearly taken the metro to the handy nearby Lago stop more to get away from the insanity of the Gay Pride celebrations – far more bacchanalian and less corporate than here – than to get in a workout. But, still, I was the only person trying to do laps in a pool lined with people dangling their feet in the water or, if ambitious, floating aimlessly.

But that was an exception, something I hadn't seen anywhere else in my travels, which have ranged from a huge suburban community facility in London to the ancient bathhouse-like pool on the Plateau in Montreal to pools up and down the West Coast.

At the Centre Nautique Tony Bertrand in Lyon, part of the French city's unsuccessful bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics, a stunning creation built right on the Rhône River, it was especially businesslike.

When we arrived at the desk of the obligatory officious ticket-issuer, two bulked-up security guards insisted my husband had to show them his proposed swim outfit. When they saw the American-style baggy shorts, there was much head-shaking. Non, pas permis. We had to go to a vending machine and purchase a suitable French bathing suit, something that looked like supertight underwear.

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Swimmers at the Josephine Baker swimming pool on July 6, 2006 on the Seine in Paris, France.

Once in the huge facility, which has two pools and is lined with what look like Jetsonesque airport towers – oh, the modernist sixties, how we love you – the swimmers were doing their duty as though they were training for triathlons. Inspiring for me, as I logged in my single kilometre in the pool's long laps, looking out at the historic buildings on the far bank.

There was some of the same kind of determination at the community pool in the Mission District of San Francisco. It wasn't open many hours – surprising, when it was clearly so needed in this inner-city area – and people would line up, waiting to get into the small outdoor oasis amid the area's mix of old Mexican working-class neighbourhoods and new techies moving in. Once in, under the surveillance of the Latina drill sergeant who appeared to be in charge, people rushed to max out their lap time in the short period available.

Swimming in two neighbourhoods in the same city can be a revelation.

In Los Angeles, where we like to divide any stays between the east side, close to downtown, and the beach side, I swam first at the Echo Park Deep Pool – a utilitarian indoor facility. There, the process involved handing over my clothes to a woman behind a wire-mesh cage for safekeeping. Apparently the theft problem was that bad.

Later in the week, at the gorgeous Santa Monica Swim Center off Pico Boulevard – an outdoor pool lined with a glass-block fence and amply supplied with loungers – I asked the lifeguard whether my stuff would be okay if I left it on a chair or whether I should lock it up. "Oh, don't worry," he said. "It'll be fine here. Everyone just leaves their stuff on a chair."

But often the smaller pools offer more than just a chance for a stress-busting swim.

The aquafit classes and change rooms can become the sites of Alice Munro-esque vignettes. People talk openly, loudly, in pools and change rooms in a way they wouldn't dream of elsewhere.

At the little outdoor community pool in Port Aransas, Tex., the cluster of seventysomething women, down from Indiana and North Dakota and Nebraska in their RVs with their husbands, talked about past and current life in a steady stream as they bobbed unambitiously in the aquafit class.

"Oh, remember what is was like when we used to wear hats?" And there was a delighted chorus of descriptions of beautiful hats from decades ago. Later, they talked about how one of their number was doing, how her husband had died and now, as a single, she just didn't really fit in with the social scene any more.

At another pool, the nondescript single community facility in a small town south of San Francisco, a place on the ocean with brown hills all around, I listened to a woman tell her friend – as both towelled off and changed into street clothes after their swim – a long, compelling story about her father, who had been the local doctor but an alcoholic, which everyone knew. And, yet, as she said, people had loved him and valued his work. She still heard that all the time, now that he was dead. It meant so much to her.

Her story, her emotion, the image of her father driving along the roads of those brown hills, played over and over in my head as I slid through the water that day.

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