Wherever I fly to, I like to swim at. Not just because it’s a great way to slough off the cramped confines and arid air of a long haul but also because it gives me a chance to see a little more of a society. A dip is also an immersion into the way a culture operates.
Swimming baths, and particularly spas, are little watery microcosms. Their rules and customs give an immediate insight that could take weeks to glean without diving right in. Pools can be portals into areas of life that are off-limits to outsiders.
For that reason, I have visited public baths on every continent; I have sweated it out in the mosaic-clad Hammam Nureddin in Damascus, Syria; I’ve sat among the chattering classes in the hectic Filowha hot springs of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; I’ve wallowed in Israel’s salty Dead Sea; I’ve bubbled in Hungary’s hot-tubs and I’ve sat in one of Berlin’s hip 24-hour saunas.
Most recently I took a trip to Iceland. There, during a long and thankless transfer to the Arctic, I frequented several local swimming haunts.
To spa in Iceland is to see the true fabric of the place. It is clear Reykjavik keeps its residents happy in the face of howling Arctic winds and the even-more-biting fiscal chill that has swept over the North Atlantic island since 2008. There’s even been a surge in outdoor sea swimming at Nauthólsvík thermal beach where hardy locals congregate twice a week.
In Iceland the water is by default, piping hot, and the city thrives on it. The capital is heated by geothermal power and the people wallow in it endlessly. I swam in an Olympic-sized 1960s pool surrounded by pine trees looking at the stars. In the changing rooms there is a feeling of solidarity – its warm, clean, well organised and conscientious.
I believe spa and pool etiquette is a reflection of a deeper collective attitude. In Tokyo earlier this week I took a taxi out to the suburbs to visit a traditional bathing house. There, as I bubbled in a hot tub under a drawing of Mount Fuji I felt a sense I knew the city. The lacquer floors and decorous attendant where all indicative of a culture I didn’t know. But for a spilt second in the steam I felt like a local.