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OPINION

Doubts dog a Paris-prompted vision for swimming in Boston

Pool reporting gets dirty in the City of Light.

The floating pools in Paris's Bassin de la Villette waterway have provided an in-lake swimming spot, but some locals are reluctant to take the plunge.Scot Lehigh/Globe staff/Scot Lehigh/Globe Staff

PARIS — When I likened myself to Alexis de Tocqueville a few weeks ago, the better to add sociological gravity to my grousing about various driving habits that had vexed me during a trip to Gettysburg, some humorless sorts were not amused.

That’s a ridiculous comparison, they said.

And right they were. After a trip to Paris, I’ve decided Charles de Gaulle is a more apt analogue. He, after all, long imagined his own greatness and eventually found a way to make it so — and I’m no piker at the first part of that equation.

De Gaulle knew not to let petty doubts sink your determined vision. Which brings me to a Paris-related idea to bring almost-in-river swimming to the Charles River Basin.

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This story started when I read that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had said the Seine, Paris’s storied but still polluted river, would be swimmable in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Hmm. Where had I heard a pledge like that before? From, it turns out, Jacques Chirac, who promised to make the Seine swimmable during his Tom Menino-esque stay — 1977 to 1995 — in City Hall, or Hôtel de Ville.

It didn’t happen during Chirac’s time as mayor. Or as president of France, from 1995 to 2007.

But Hidalgo has made some progress toward that goal: She has installed a series of pools in the Bassin de la Villette, a man-made lake connected by canal to the Seine. And so, during a recent trip to Paris, with nothing but my Gaullist determination (and my wife’s digitally delivered walking instructions) to guide us, we set out to see those pools, with this question in mind: Are they something that might work in the Charles River Basin?

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Obstacles quickly began to present themselves. Not only were the pools not open for plunging, they were not yet fully assembled for this year’s swimming season.

“Arrêtez!” yelled the much-tattooed (and many-muscled) monsieur in command of the site as I walked toward the pools’ edge. Fortunately, too-rusty-to-be-trusty French won me a brief look-around, if not a completely comprehensible explanation of the facility.

A park by the Bassin de la Villette in Paris, August 2021. Adrienne Surprenant/Associated Press

It is assembled with rows of modular polyethylene cubes. Topped with decking, those cubes float the pools in the artificial lake while allowing lake water to flow through. The total cost was reportedly less than $1.5 million.

The floating complex includes a wading area for kids that’s about 16 inches deep, a somewhat deeper splashing-and-swimming spot, and two bigger pools, the largest of which is long enough for laps. The underwater surfaces seemed a little green and gooey, but as I’ve noted, the pools weren’t yet open. Set against the treed bank of an urban park, the floating pool complex was easy to imagine as an appealing urban oasis.

Press accounts have hailed the floating pools as a major success. So all I needed was an interview with a happy summer swimmer or two, and voila: An entire weekend’s worth of pastries could be transferred to my expense account!

“I know of no one who uses it,” said Martyna, a photographer who lives nearby and was reading in the park. “I think we have the idea that it is not so clean.”

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“I have never used the pool,” reported Marcus, a personal trainer who resides in the neighborhood. Why not? ”Cleanliness.”

“I like to swim, but not here,” said Sakina, a data-entry clerk. “It is too dirty.”

Nor was Sybil, a college student playing Ping-Pong with a friend at a park table, a pool user.

“It is always closed,” she said. “Also, it is so dirty that nobody wants to swim there.”

So how to put this diplomatically? Based on my findings, Mayor Hidalgo may be at risk of losing control of the vital H2O-as-clean-as-a-mountain-stream narrative. Second, there’s a tension between the pools’ flow-through feature and perceptions of cleanliness. Third, some of those extended periods when the pools are closed might well be devoted to spiffing things up.

Still, when it comes to my Parisian-prompted inspiration for Boston, I’m taking my vision-durability cues from de Gaulle. He, after all, knew that French folk were notoriously hard to please.

“How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” he pointedly asked.

And he refused to let himself be nettled by naysayers.

“I have heard your views. They do not harmonize with mine,” he once declared, before proceeding upon his chosen course.

I still like the idea of these floating pools offering in-river swimming in parts of the Charles, perhaps even as part of the Charles River Conservancy’s hopes for a basin swim park.

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But cleanliness must be next to Esplanadeliness. If something is built, we must take our cue from Florence Nightingale and keep it clean.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.